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This report is taken from PN Review 246, Volume 45 Number 4, March - April 2019.

on Sally Purcell
Sally Purcell’s Further Shore
John Clegg
At first glance it would be hard to imagine a poetry less responsive to biographical readings than Sally Purcell’s. ‘Her spiritual habitat was really somewhere between the thirteenth and sixteenth centuries’, writes Marina Warner, and her imaginative landscape holds fast to the same territory. A glance through her titles is enough to get the flavour: ‘Loquitur Arthurus’, ‘Verses for Tapestry’, ‘One of the Lost Grail-Knights Speaks’, ‘Guenever and the Looking-Glass’. Her corpus of two hundred and sixty­-four poems contains, I believe, only a single mention of an unambiguously twentieth-century object (a typewriter, in ‘Oxford, Early Michaelmas Term’). Peter Jay, writing her obituary in the Independent, summarises fairly: ‘Her poems… give few biographical clues. They are concentrated dramatic lyrics, their matter drawn from classical, Arthurian and medieval myth.’

And yet, every so often, another kind of concern makes itself visible. The poem beginning, ‘In a drizzle of tingling light’, shorn of its title, would not stand out as presenting a personal or contemporary situation; even with its title (‘Ted’s’) restored, we require Peter Jay’s note, that Ted’s was private slang for the Duke of Cambridge pub on Little Clarendon Street, before we are any the wiser, and even then the poem’s occasion is opaque; I don’t think it can be reconstructed. My point is that the poem’s classical and Christian motifs do not exist solely for their own sake, as they would have done for the poets Purcell loved best. Myth is, by necessity, public, but these are poems with a private life as well.


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