Townsend Warner died thirty years ago at the age of eighty-five. Four years
after her death, Claire Harman edited a Collected Poems for Carcanet, followed by
a Selected Poems in 1985 and an edition of the poet's Diaries in 1994. She also produced
a prize-winning biography in 1990. Here, a quarter of a century after
Collected Poems, Harman has edited a New Collected Poems containing over ninety
previously uncollected and unpublished pieces, expanded notes, a chronology,
and what the back cover describes as 'an authoritative new introduction'.
Some readers may have seen an edited version of this introduction in the
section of the Saturday Guardian for 29th February this year.
Though it does not contain all of the poems from the controversial 1933
volume, Whether a Dove or a Seagull, the pages of which she shared with her lover,
Valentine Ackland , New Collected Poems is about as definitive as
we are likely to get. Admirers of Sylvia Townsend Warner will certainly
welcome it, and the hope is it will further widen her readership, bringing
proper attention to a poet of great technical accomplishment and of much more
substance than she has so far been credited with.
Sylvia Townsend Warner, if known at all, is rated primarily as a novelist and
short-story writer. Her poetry has received very little of the attention it
deserves. As John Lucas says in an essay for the Sylvia Townsend Warner
Society Journal, 'Townsend Warner is a true poet. Yet to my knowledge her
poetry rates barely a mention in studies of twentieth-century poetry. This
may be connected to the fact that whereas her major novels are in print or
easy to come by, her Collected Poems...has long been unobtainable.' Though this is no
longer demonstrably the case, it is still a fact that critical attention has
a lot of catching up to do. Harman's Further Reading list is evidence...though
it misses out the above-mentioned essay of Lucas, which in turn refers to
helpful writings on Townsend Warner by Peter Scupham and Arnold Rattenbury:
the former describing her 'unillusioned way of seeing, feeling, and
thinking', the latter reminding us of the context of radicalism with which
she was associated. (She and Valentine Ackland joined the Communist Party of
Great Britain, like other poets of the time took part in the Spanish Civil
War, and actively supported The Left Book Club. Lucas also reminds us of her
musical training, her rootedness in folksong and Elizabethan lyrics that
offered an alternative version of Pound's 'Make it new!' and makes her
soul-mate of composers like Howells, Finzi, Ivor Gurney, Vaughan Williams
with whom she studied composition).
Ostensibly the New Collected Poems throws down the challenge again. Is it
possible to make Townsend Warner less a 'ghostly figure in twentieth-century
letters'? To place her not too unfairly alongside, say, Virginia Woolf?
Harman, for all her advocacy, seems unduly pessimistic. She rightly states
that Warner 'had been a child of the times for more than sixty years, but out
of them too'; she then goes on to declare 'I wonder whether or not it is
for Warner to be inserted into the canon, regardless of how many admirers she
has now or in the future. The record is, to some extent, sealed, and she is
on the outside. If her work is kept in print, her genius will always find an
audience, but I doubt if she will appear in 'literary histories' for many
years to come, except perhaps as a case-study in the history of literary
fashions.' Nothing, it should be pointed out, can ever be sealed to an
Are we really to consign Townsend Warner to history? I admit that some poems
are more consciously 'literary' than we are now used to and some readers may
be put off by archaisms, a superabundance of rhyme, the occasional inversion,
her familiarity with abstractions, even by her sheer virtuosity. Lucas is
right to tell us that her style is often 'deliberately mannered, knowingly
out of kilter with its subject matter, maintaining an on-guard, even at times
an ironic distance which can easily modulate into social or historical
distance.' Certainly placing her in the context of her times is important but
let's not seal her into it. The tradition she writes in is a living tradition
and the majority of the poems are too forcefully alive for us to do so. There
is a sense of being at home among them. I once had occasion to talk with Les
Murray, telling him of the Australian poets I'd had the pleasure of meeting
down-under. His laconic response was 'Y' keep bad company'. Townsend Warner
keeps good company: reading her you get an intimate sense of the - dare I say
- ghostly figures of a great number of English poets, and a couple of
Americans too (Whitman, Frost) sharing her house with her. They are not
merely influences but friends. In this sense the poems are companionable.
This is not a book to read from cover to cover as one might a novel but one
to keep dipping into and savouring. It has its fair share of humour, it has
the kinds of soliloquisings we find in U.A. Fanthorpe and Carol Ann Duffy
(the poem Gloriana Dying is a masterpiece); there are narrative poems (particularly the
impressive 1400-line-long Opus7 which Lucas characterises as 'quite deliberately, pastiche
Georgianism'). She can write movingly about war, both Second and First World
wars; her descriptive and love poems and poems about loss and ageing deserve
high regard. Her contribution to lesbian literature is huge. New Collected
not merely a textbook enabling aspects of the 'history of literary fashions'
to go on show; it is a living human experience.
Matt Simpson 2008
 Harman tells us that 'the whole text is being included
in Valentine Ackland's Journey from Winter' which
Carcanet is also publishing this year. As part of an attempt to interest her
publisher in Ackland's verse, Warner came up with idea of a co-authored
collection in which, in the first instance, the names of the poets were withheld.
 Published in his Starting to Explain - Essays on Twentieth
Century British and Irish Poetry, Trent Books, 2003.