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This item is taken from PN Review 118, Volume 24 Number 2, November - December 1997.

It is 100 years since the birth of Elizabeth Daryush, twenty since her death. Her neglect is almost complete. A couple of poems - always the same ones - appear in anthologies. Those interested in the work of Yvor Winters come across her name and are briefly puzzled. It's doubtful that she will ever find her way into the canon. She isn't 'interesting' as a life, the way that Charlotte Mew has proven to be in a prurient age. Among feminists she is regarded with the same unaccountable coldness as Marianne Moore (she and Marianne Moore 'invented' syllabics, unknown to one another, in the same year). It may be worth remembering and recommending her. A lonely figure, she stands as an eccentric emblem of what the practice of the art of poetry was, and for a few writers still is. And perhaps - for writers of certain temperaments - what it should be in terms of technical engagement, experimentation and study.

Winters refers to her as 'one of the few distinguished poets of our century and a poet who can take her place without apology in the company of Campion and Herrick'. Roy Fuller - who 'discovered' her during his time as Professor of Poetry at Oxford, called her 'a pioneer technical innovator, whose work demands study by poets and readers on this account alone. Further... she is a poet of the highest dedication and seriousness.' All those off-putting words: technical innovator, study, dedication, seriousness! No wonder that people run away from her (assuming they have found her in the first place).

Yet Fuller's account is precise and for him the terms are inspiriting. He - like Winters, like Donald Davie - recommends Daryush not to a general public but to poets interested in the resources of their art. None of her advocates dwells on her life except to tell us that she was Robert Bridges's daughter, that she and her father discussed and debated issues of prosody (especially Milton's), that she married a Persian and lived for a time in Iran, then returned to Boars Hill where she spent the rest of her long life in a house her father built for her.

A first impression of Daryush's poetry is that her diction is conventional, even archaising in the early poems. Her forms are tight, usually rhymed, and always correct. We're struck by her pessimism, reminiscent of Housman's rather than Hardy's both in its tone and scale. If we persist, the poems challenge us to reconsider the force of different prosodies skilfully deployed. The work is assembled with formal rigour unequalled by any of her contemporaries. All of her collections, apart from three early volumes which she suppressed, were written after her return from Persia, mainly after she settled at Stockwell, Boar's Hill, in 1929. Through her seven mature volumes there is no 'development' - rather, a perfecting of technique. In her Selected Poems, Verses I-VI (1972), most have been revised, adjusted, improved. Nothing is abandoned, nothing is ever quite finished.

She wrote on three different models: accentual-syllabic, syllabic, and accentual - in effect 'sprung rhythm' in the manner of Hopkins, whose 'The Wreck of the Deutschland' she imitates in her one long poem, 'Air and Variations', written over many years. The rhapsodic form of the poem is uncharacteristic, yet it does not trip her into rhapsody: there is the phrased pace of her tautest lyrics. 'Air and Variations' is constructed on a mathematical and logical progression. One stanza can illustrate the technique, especially in the dramatic line endings which in movement underpin image content and argument:

                                     I said: I have seen
                      The wall of a mountainous wave
Foam into spheres, then sink through green
                      Of fields to a human grave;
      I have followed a sky-filled river, whose flickering
      Leapt from its actual nodes, to a moon-tide gave
Its might...nor forward urged nor backward formed that
                                     Each was the older twin...

The logic of indentation is simple. In accentual poems, lines with most accents are ranged left; in syllabic poems, those with most syllables are ranged left. Shorter lines are indented correspondingly.

In 1934 she published a classic definition of syllabic writing: 'Metres governed only by the number of syllables to the line, and in which the number of syllables to the line, and in which the number and position of stresses may be varied at will'. She should have said 'must be varied', since for her syllabics were a prophylactic against pentameter. In syllabic verse Daryush insisted that the number should be odd - otherwise there was a drift towards iambics. Her syllabic verse is printed without capital letters at the beginnings of lines 'as a reminder to the reader to follow strictly the natural speech-rhythms, and not to look for stresses where none are intended'. She adds. 'I have long thought that on some such system as this for a base, it should be possible to build up subtler and more freely-followed accentual patterns than can be obtained either by stress-verse proper, or by the traditional so-called syllabic metres. The bulk of English "syllabic" verse is, of course, not really syllabic in the strict sense, but more truly accentual.' In a note to the Collected Poems (1985) she adds that syllable count is 'merely the lifeless shell' of 'more vital requirements'. In accentual verse, the constant is 'time' or stress, the variable is 'number' or syllable count. In syllabics this is reversed - number is constant, stress variable. A dramatic variety of rhythm can be achieved, but a far closer artistry must be observed.

A syllabic poem which approaches speech rhythm and avoids the easier tension of metrical verse without forfeiting the discipline of rhyme is an unusual 'war poem':

Plant no poppy (he said)
no frail lily sublime,
for in war's famine time
thou'lt need but corn for bread.

Hoard no jewel (he said)
no dazzling laboured gem:
thou'lt be forced to sell them
for steel, so now decide.

Set no flower in thy word
(he besought, but none heard)
cut no flash to thy wit,
if thou must disown it
when see'st thou sorrow's sword.

She achieves a pared-down intensity. One accentual-syllabic poem progresses in a single sentence through the seasons, line-endings perfectly measured, not calculated:

I will hold out my arms
             To Spring who clothes me
                        (Says the beech),
To kind summer who warms
             My room and soothes me;
                        I will reach
For rich Autumn's robe, red
             With pride and grieving;
                        I will hold
Out my worn dress for dread
             Winter's unweaving
                        In the cold.

As in an imagist poem, the woman and the tree are merged into a single thing; yet these triplets are quite different in feel from the looser, colloquial triplets of William Carlos Williams, and from the watercolour intensities of H.D. The bitterness and tenderness of her vision, and the tautness of her language, are revealed in 'Old Hunter for Youth's Head'. If, as many of the poems suggest, only the unfulfilled dream does not end, that unfulfilment too can have tragic consequences. The virtual neglect of poetry of this rigour tells us something about the priorities of our age, in which we generally read poetry for reasons other than the poetry.

Old hunter for youth's head,
            These are your old decoys -
A matron diamonded,
            A man with golden toys;

And these, too, long ago
            Were children that you charmed -
This lad that failed to grow,
            This girl still empty-armed.

This item is taken from PN Review 118, Volume 24 Number 2, November - December 1997.

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