Michael Tolkien

Journey from Winter   (Selected Poems)

(Fyfield Books) (Carcanet)

(Publ in Ambit 194, Autumn 2008)


Valentine Ackland collaborated with her lover and close associate, Sylvia Townsend Warner, in the substantial anonymous verse venture, Whether a Dove or Seagull (1934). To be able to read the entire text of this lively, many-sided collection is not just of historical interest. Its negative reception disillusioned Ackland and made her worry that ‘her own separate and very different work would always be compared- to its detriment- to Sylvia’s.’ This comment by Frances Bingham, the Selected’s editor, guides us, as she does consistently, towards a perspective on both poets. The preface and detailed sectional introductions provide an empathetic assessment of Ackland’s work and themes in relation to her life and times, and suggest with specific detail how her work took many new directions after that first heady, if publicly renounced, release of creative energy, combining what were for her the inseparable forces of passionate love and writing.
 The editor’s persuasive critical comments and picture of the mutual inspiration and tenderness of the new-found relationship must be balanced with close reading. Many of Ackland’s poems in the 1934 collection, for all their formal dexterity and magnetic personal honesty, feel too randomly descriptive of domestic interiors and circumstances, meandering memories and fantasies. The natural world nourished her imagination and poetic life; but in this early work she over-dramatises the motivations of animate and inanimate forces and objects. Failure to find the necessary balance between sheer love of detail, delight in form and the subtler implications that underlie the colour and music sometimes extends poems beyond their ‘true’ life span.

 ‘As he grows old he leans closer to the earth’ describes with disturbing ambiguity what might be man or beast as death draws near, but the ponderous style detracts from the intended sense of life’s frailty: ‘Cosseting the ground, preparing it/ And testing it with prods and stamps and so forth,/ Before, being still living, he’ll lower his bulk and sit.’ Of the earth’s lessons it says: ‘…He knows now that these concern him,/ That these, of all he has bothered to retrieve,/Alone at the last will remain and will not spurn him ./’

A potentially dramatic and symbolic poem about the firing of a rocket, commended in advance as ‘elegant and lyrical’, loses itself in a verbal and imagistic maze: ‘ Not stoop, the sky, will never stoop down to meet/ Brief twine of flame, this must fall to ground and die,/ As we- But no, so much more fierce and fleet, /Yet fallen, and fallen as we,/To darkness and earth and silence….’

More direct and pared-down verse emerges from the impact and backlash of her affair with the New Englander, Elizabeth Wade White. One of several poems with layered implications and skilfully handled form is Dark entry, Cornwall, Connecticut. A forbidding landscape suggests the contradictions and physical deceptiveness of a relationship: ‘Why did I think to see a large owl flying/Right up the tunnel path? Relying/On what talk, guest or guide-book, did I still/ Look for darkness when we had topped the hill?’

Ackland’s response to the 39-45 War also brewed a mixture of satirical and personal angles which inspired highly-charged poems. In From October 1940 I admire the interplay between air-raid shelter, literal burial and black loss of perspectives, and how the ‘feminine’ rhymes add scorn to the protest: ‘Teeming and steaming hordes who helter-skelter/ Stampede the city streets, to hear together/Angry and scared, in dark, wintry weather-/Above ground still? Fear not, there’s one deep shelter/ Open alike in Free and Fascist State,/Vast, private, silent and inviolate.’ Teaching to Shoot is ostensibly about her and Sylvia’s work in the Home Guard, but with bitter irony the long limping lines recall earlier passionate writing only to reflect on the intrusion of war and other unforeseen disruptions into their once happy union, and their hope of creativity. ‘The thing you hold as you once held my hand is ready to kill./ We intend to finish those who would finish us-we who are not ill,/Are not old, are not mad; we who have been young and who still/Have reason to live, knowing that all is not told…’ There are also disarmingly offbeat poems, given only date titles, that each bring home in just two four line stanzas the horrors of the Holocaust and Hiroshima.

I would like to do more than glance at the sections selected from 1940-55: their work is more than equal to the editor’s upbeat view of it; but not even Frances Bingham’s moving, well-documented account of the assertive but tragic last years persuaded me to find the poems up to 1969 more than fragmentary or pointers to unrealised potential.




Valentine Ackland