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This item is taken from PN Review 143, Volume 28 Number 3, January - February 2002.

Editorial
In late September 2001 I visited the poet Anne Ridler, who was already gravely ill with cancer. I asked if I might dedicate the Tyndale Lecture I was giving on 11 October to her. I wanted to pay tribute to a writer whose contribution to poetry and in a very particular way to education was too little recognised. She was a great Anglican, a fine critic of the Metaphysicals, and of the hymn tradition, and a wonderful writer of poems and libretti. She died in October at the age of 89.

She was a friend to generations of Oxford students, my own among them, and a sustainer of other poets. Interviewed four years ago, the late E.J. Scovell reflected on how Anne, then 85, regularly cycled across Oxford to visit her in her protected housing. It was Anne who, when friends and I were trying to hatch a new literary movement in South Hinksey, urged us not to call ourselves 'the vividists', a piece of advice we took.

In one poem she speaks of 'the Third Eye, which sees where sense is dark'. There is something almost Masonic in the specificity of phrasing, in the combination of abstract and concrete elements, the bridging between literal and figurative worlds. Empirical evidence is contained in the literal world where the senses live, but it is in the figurative world that meanings become clear, with the kind of clarity which cannot be translated or paraphrased but is contained in the form the language itself takes. It is a question not of process or product but of form.

There is something complete about the forms of things which the Third Eye sees, an inviolability, a permanent truth, which we associate with certain kinds of poem: the made poem, the deliberated poem, the Metaphysical poem speaking from stable faith, the pre-Restoration poem. Modern prejudice favours a poetry of process, and the unparaphrasability we tend to relish is not what the Third Eye sees as fixed and true, but derives from the instability or discontinuity of the speaking self.

In poems of the Anglican tradition to which Ridler belongs, generally a person speaks, a coherent person who relates to others, past and present, in a stable way through a relationship founded in the divine. In his Christmas Sermon of 1614 Lancelot Andrewes makes this consoling point out of the Latin: 'I shall not need to tell you that in nobiscum there is mecum; in nobiscum for us all a mecum for every one of us.' It is this objectively validated person using a commonly valued vulgar tongue with more or less agreed meanings for each word that all but vanishes in the constructs of the Restoration and the eighteenth century.

Anne Ridler's work is unusual, though poems by Elizabeth Daryush, Geoffrey Hill and some by C.H. Sisson, Donald Davie and a few others may occupy a similar lonely and, as it were, anachronistic space. The difficulty of occupying that space may have something to do with the opacity of the poetry itself, the abbreviated quality of its diction, its specific purpose, its instrumentality, even its use.

Anne Ridler wrote an introduction to the first book by a poet fifteen years her junior, Christian too, but of the Roman persuasion. Elizabeth Jennings died suddenly at the end of October. She spent much of her last year meditating on the life and work of Gerard Manley Hopkins and writing an unfinished essay and a sequence of poems about him. Hopkins was a life-long spiritual companion. Latterly, she was fascinated by his chastity, by the moral and spiritual differences between male and female chastity, and their effect on the spirit and the imagination.

She was the most unconditionally loved writer of the Movement generation. Her popularity, like Ridler's legitimacy, derives from the timelessness of her themes, the authority to which she dedicates her Muse. Jennings differs in tone from her contemporaries because she is straightforward and never a stylistic ironist. She speaks usually in strict form but with an open and vulnerable voice. Hers is a romantic temperament but faith, vexed and sustaining, chastens and graces it.

She insists on continuities in the language of poetry. 'Poets work upon and through each other,' she says. The inevitable interdependence between poets and poems is 'the real meaning of tradition and influence'. Transcendence is not an aesthetic but a spiritual verity. The connection between Herbert, Traherne and Vaughan is more than literary: it entails affinities not only of temperament but also of spirit.

She compared making poems to the practice of prayer, which reconciles an individual with the world outside. Self is subsumed in a larger stability. 'Each brings an island in his heart to square | With what he finds, and all is something strange | And most expected.' Prayer and poetry also risk the terrifying world of shadows. In a poem on Rembrandt's late self-portraits she implicates herself: 'To paint's to breathe | And all the darknesses are dared.'

Neither Anne Ridler's nor Elizabeth Jennings's selfeffacement can conceal the anachronistic nature of their quest, the presumption that in either 1941 or 2001 their concerns retain direct meaning for poet and reader. Theory denies that language possesses the nominal properties to ground a religious poet's faith. Their vocation may seem theoretically redundant. Jennings speaks of 'bold humility and a disinterested intelligence'. No intelligence is disinterested; that much can be conceded to post-modernism. But the quality of their interest is different in kind from that which emanates from seminar rooms and from the secular city. Their belief is not a matter of opinion; their best poems are something more than merely literature.

This item is taken from PN Review 143, Volume 28 Number 3, January - February 2002.



Readers are asked to send a note of any misprints or mistakes that they spot in this item to editor@pnreview.co.uk
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