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[…] poets scorn

The boundaried love of country, being free

Of winds, and alien lands, and distances

Vagabonds of the compass, wayfarers

Pilgrims of thought, the tongues of Pentecost

Their privilege, and in their peddler’s pack

The curious treasures of their stock-in-trade

Bossy and singular, the heritage

Of poetry and science, polished bright

Thin with the rubbing of too many hands

Last Monday Stephanie and I travelled out to Kiama to take in the sights. It was a beautiful day, the sun was causing little birds to queue up for shallow bird baths and the town itself has a lovely series of shops that stock tasty condiments, dessert sweets and some unusual jewellery. There was of course also a second-hand book shop, which I made a bee-line for.

There I picked out this book, as I have always wanted to learn more about Vita Sackville-West. All I really knew about her was that she inspired the Virginia Woolf’s novel Orlando. Indeed she is most famous these days as Woolf’s lover, a great woman reduced to a footnote. I flipped through the book, with its water-damaged cover and dedication dated 1939 – and found on the back page a poem written by the book’s original owner.

So here’s what I am doing folks. I am going to quote the poem in full, here, so that it lives on and survives this decaying book. Just a little gesture on my part to this book lover who was inspired by Sackville-West to write his own poem –

Plus and Minus

What is a tree before the Spring?

A skeleton, a scaffolding

And yet the inner spirit grieves

At the officiousness of leaves

 

When does it most delight the age?

In January or July?

And in the sum of loveliness

How much is figure, how much dress?

George Keogh

Anyway, back to the business of reviewing.

Sackville-West long-form poem is split between the four seasons, beginning with Winter. Each seperate season is allocated it’s own canto and within each of these the perspective of an assortment of labourers, farmers and country-folk is described. The relationship between man and the land he tills is described as an alternating master/slave dialectic:

There is a bond between the men who go

From youth about the business of the earth,

And the earth they serve, their cradle and their grave

This same passage leads to what I think is the most devastatingly beautiful line in the collection:

Life’s little lantern between dark and dark

Her purpose is not to condescend to the ‘yeoman’, and ‘shepherds’ cited within their verses, but to celebrate them, frame their labour as an expression of the purpose of humanity itself. Sackville-West takes the pastoral Romantic vision of, say Wordsworth, and  injects it with the individualistic thrust of Walt Whitman. The Land is also passionately nationalistic:

An English cornfield in full harvesting

Is English as the Bible

The English weather is cited as a temperate ideal envied by ‘exiles’, in other parts of the world.

The purpose of the poet is to celebrate and promote such ideals of individuality and nationhood, but also the essential role played by ‘ordinary workers’, in sustaining humanity’s foothold on the earth. In a sense, Sackville-West is attempting to collapse the rarefied divide between upper-class literary society and the working class. High learning may be of no practical use, but the farmer, the bee-keeper and the gardener has a deeper understanding of the world than insensate Romantics:

I have not understood humanity.

But those plain things, that gospel of each year,

Made me the scholar of simplicity

The passing of the seasons is shown not just to require different activities in relation to harvesting and husbandry, but in turn causes the men who work the land to change. The fields that have been ploughed and tilled should not be mistaken for a beaten opponent. Those who work the land should respect it as an ally, a companion. Somewhere in between the free-flowing verse of pastorals and the dry concerns of farming, a middle-ground is sought, where true understanding can be found that outstrips empty talk of Nature(!).

To a contemporary reader perhaps Sackville-West‘s language seems too old-fashioned, but consider the audience she was pitching this work to. The Land received the Hawthornden Prize in 1926, so I imagine her message was heard. Of course the idealism and forward-looking culture that rose up following the ‘Great War‘, would soon be lost..

A socially conscious corrective to Romanticism, beautifully captured.

 

I think my mother’s talents deserve a little acknowledgement. I said so to her, as a matter of fact, and she replied in these memorable words: ‘My dear child, you can give it a long name if you like, but I’m an old fashioned woman and I call it mother-wit, and it’s so rare for a man to have it that if he does you write a book about him and call him Sherlock Holmes.’

What a delightful surprise this book was. I first heard of Dorothy Sayers some seven years ago while I was living in Edinburgh. A friend mentioned her to me, as he was reading her translation of Dante’s Inferno. A singular woman, one of the earliest female graduates of Oxford, she was a scholar who wrote murder mysteries. To give you an idea of what to expect, the main character of this book is called Lord Peter Wimsey and whimsical this tale most certainly is. His second named is ‘Death’. He solves murder mysteries as a ‘hobby’.

While enjoying a welcome rest on the island of Corsica, he receives the unwelcome news that his brother, the Duke of Denver, has been accused of murder. The victim was a man named Denis Cathcart, whose body was found with the Duke standing over it by Mary Wimsey, who was also engaged to the dead man. Her testimony at the Coroner’s Court lands the Duke in jail awaiting his hearing. By the time Lord Peter has returned with his trusty man-servant Bunter in tow his sister has taken to her bed in hysterics, his brother the Duke is refusing to speak with his defense counsel and the whole thing has become one dreadful black mark on the Wimsey family name.

Joining forces with police detective Mr Charles Parker, whose feelings for Mary go beyond professional courtesy, Lord Peter strives to uncover evidence that proves his brother’s innocence. No matter what the cost. Perhaps the Duke’s silence is due to the Court having accused the wrong Wimsey and as a man of honour he is defending his sister’s reputation? The victim Denis Cathcart’s past is a murky one, with secrets that may have exposed the family to blackmail. Lord Peter’s powers of observation also identify the presence of a third man in the conservatory gardens on the night of the murder, whom he comes to refer to as Number 10 due to his shoe size. Of course there is always ample opportunity for a fine cigar and a glass of brandy, even when there is a murder mystery to solve.

There is a Wodeshousian tone to the proceedings that lift it up from the more dour detective novels. A wicked sense of humour is present throughout, as well as a rich intelligence and breadth of reference. Wimsey enjoys humming Bach to himself, or quoting Wordsworth randomly while searching for clues. He is a dilettante detective, whose genius was buffeted by his experiences during the Great War and a doomed love affair, leading to him exploiting his flair for investigation while he spends his fortune hosting parties in London.

The foppish Columbo acts the fool in order to provoke suspects into revealing something, with his status as an aristocrat allowing him to bounce from Paris to New York chasing down leads the police cannot afford to follow. When the Duke’s trial is held in the presence of Parliament, Sayers depicts the noble gentry as being to a man much like Wimsey, treating a murder inquiry as an opportunity for a bit of entertainment, chortling away at the witticisms of the defending counsel. With the world-weary Bunter as an alternative take on Jeeves assisting the amateur detective, Sayers enjoys poking fun at the conventions and morals of the British upper class.

She even introduces the occasional element of bawdy humour into the proceedings. Submitted without comment:

‘That thing’, was a tall erection in pink granite, neatly tooled to represent a craggy rock, and guarded by two petrified infantry-men in trench helmets. A thin stream of water gushed from a bronze knob half way up….

Ok stop right there!

So if you are looking for a ‘spiffing good time’, with bounders, poachers, blackguards and socialists, I would recommend checking out the adventures of one Lord Peter Wimsey, dandy detective.

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