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This review is taken from PN Review 75, Volume 17 Number 1, September - October 1990.

CAUTIONARY TALES Arnold Rattenbury, editor, Geoffrey Matthews: War Poems (Whiteknights Press)

Geoffrey Matthews (1920-1984) produced no book of poems in his lifetime, although his published work in magazines earned the praise of, among others, Grigson, Rickword and Empson - a discriminating trio. His friend and fellow poet Arnold Rattenbury now introduces a selection of Matthews's poems written between 1939 and 1946. But this is no sentimental memorial volume: here is a poet who puts an earned and tested romanticism to work in tension with a world that seeks to write it off, one for whom the language constitutes inherited capital to be re-invested and increased; he conserves his strength and emotion, rather than dispersing them through simplistic self-expression. As Rattenbury comments, for him 'a personally plaintive poetry devoid of intellectual context or social direction, however lauded in recent years, must be despicable'. A salutary judgement.

Certainly these poems are tough, rigorous in their strict forms and compressed energy, and are often beautiful. The earlier ones belong to a familiar tradition, but the vigilant working of word with word is very much Matthews's own.


On foot in silence tonight over the spare fells
Easily I can obey the strict convention of death
That rhymes the horizon and the earth, and
   pads the waterfalls
With a mute syllable, and buries the stone
   sheep beneath
Their towering hill - a grey Gulliver bound
   down by walls.


'Spare', 'convention', 'pads' - such ambiguities enlarge the metaphorical 'rhyme', ...


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