Martin Robertson

Now and Then

Introduction to A Hot Bath at Bedtime

Peter Levi

Everyone who writes a poem knows somehow what poem means.  It has a wide range and spectrum of meanings, but some word for poem exists in every recorded human language, and poets think they know what they mean by such a word.  The forms of poems vary from one language to another; metrical forms do travel, but they often need a long process of adaptation in the new language.  It took the Romans hundreds of years to master Greek metres in Latin, and the iambic pentameter had a struggle in the sixteenth century to re-establish itself in English.  The content of poetry is notoriously even more variable than the form; indeed the content of a poem, its subject-matter, ought to be the first element of any formal description of that poem.  Another wildly variable element in poems is their social role.  This is not quite the same as their purpose or their formal purpose or their meaning, but these aspects of intention and effect must all be considered to overlap.  A poem, like a crime, has moral circumstances.  The social role of a poem is determined by its form, its subject-matter, its historical tradition, and above all by how it is made available, on a gravestone or a Christmas card or a poster, in a limited edition with decadent drawings, in a school anthology with the marginalia of earlier generations of children, in a commented university edition, in the Bible, or in a small ordinary volume labelled Poems.

The poet knows roughly what poem means, but he limits and defines the meaning by what he writes.  He may modify the meaning of the word poem in the language.  Objectively and communally, every generation of poets inevitably does what no slight fashion in criticism and no little shoal of poets twinkling like small fish in shallow water can.  But the sense of what a poem is does alter; in the 1820s ordinary users of the English language still expected the eighteenth century to continue.  Indeed, if eighteenth century taste did continue in the Victorian period, it was only in the most conservative of the arts, in the setting of gems and in certain ecclesiastical ornaments, and in a few poems.  But it must surely be commonly admitted that the inner sense of the word poetry, though not of individual poems, which are always fresh and which very often modify that generalised inner sense, is equivalent to the expectation the word poem arouses in a given time and place, chiefly because of the existing poems that everyone knows, including the writer of every new poem.

When the Greeks were used to Homer, Aeschylus must have come as a surprise.  When they were used to Aeschylus, Euripides must have been a shocking surprise.  The springs of old poetry are always drying up, and nothing new is ever an exact equivalent of an old expectation and need perfectly fulfilled.  Thank heaven there need be no complete disaster in that lack of equivalence, at least since the invention of printing.  But in the processes of history and the development of industrial and urban society we have sometimes undergone a cultural crisis which reflects the somewhat headlong and unconscious nature of social change.  The expectation poetry can arouse and may satisfy has never been so closely identical with personal and social need as it was in the case of Homeric poetry and of many other epic traditions, and perhaps to a lesser extent in the case of the theatre of 1600 in London and the fifth century in Athens, but at the crisis of the nineties and perhaps also today there is a crippling disproportion between social and personal need and any expectation aroused by the word poetry.

No doubt much of what poetry used to do is now being done more clearly and effectively in other ways.  The technique of the novel and the technique of filming are justly rewarded with prizes reserved for the arts.  Reality is somehow expressed, and we must assume on many grounds that the most forceful motive of art, both of the artist and of his audience, is close to a blind and natural human desire for the expression of reality.  To express reality in words is in some degree to make sense of it, and to express it in poetry is to court and to satisfy the expectation that not only reality but our experience shall be rationalised and expressed and given an emotional, a moral, and even a rational momentum.  What the art of poetry has lost to other arts and other ways of reasoning may or may not be justly recoverable.  The film and the novel have certainly had an influence on poetry, for better and for worse, both by concentrating its means on areas of experience poetry has not abandoned, and by stimulating an imitation of what other arts have achieved.  We may well feel that poetry is too serious and too admirable for its range to be left to poets or critics or to an indifferent sociologist.  Every human experience is capable of becoming poetry.  The transformation must be individual and fresh and intelligent, and technically it must be able to go to the end of its means.

Martin Robertson’s poetry is deeply rooted in the individual experience of life.  He is a rare human being in some ways.  As a historian of Greek visual art his distinction is illustrious, and he has passed a working lifetime in the long and balanced consideration of the greatest monuments of antiquity.  His studies have been notable not only for precision and learning, in the literature and art of many centuries as well as in the remnants and the progression of the Greeks, but for an intense and lively humanity.  That quality did not necessarily attach to the study of Greek art in the neoclassic period.  He is more like Ruskin than he is like Winckelmann.  But generations bring as many changes to scholarship as they do to poetry.  Behind him stand the generations of Burckhardt and of Berenson, and most closely the dramatic personal influence of Sir John Beazley, the humane attractiveness of whose style, the sympathetic intelligence of whose understanding, and the vast range of whose learning Martin Robertson perhaps alone among Beazley’s pupils has been able to equal.  Scholars are always wrestling with ghosts, as Herakles did with Antaios, but it is better for you if you love and profoundly understand the ghost.

In his poems he deals directly with life.  This is a more dangerous game; one can fall in one wrong move, and lose every shred of dignity in two lines.  The faults of bad poetry are moral I suppose.  A poet is more naked and more vulnerable than a scholar.  Martin Robertson has written poetry all his life, and occasionally published pamphlets of it more or less privately.  He was writing excellent poems before 1939, and it is no surprise to discover the springs of poetry that have somehow nourished his life and scholarly work.  If we say that someone writes or sees things like a poet, and if we intend that judgement seriously, we mean more than a little; it has often been said of Martin Robertson, by those who had never read his poems.  That if nothing else would be sufficient excuse for the curiosity of his friends, who have persuaded him to collect and publish this volume.  But the true reason for publication is the intelligence, the attraction, and the excellence of these poems.  They are all effective, fascinating in themselves and as a collection, and at their best, which is not infrequent, amazing and moving and powerful.

My personal view, if I may intrude it, is that good wine needs no bush, and these poems need no introduction.  But no harm will be done, since we must no doubt assume that the ears of the world will be ill-attuned to this subtle music, in some external ways traditional, but inwardly of a remarkable originality and a perpetual freshness.  They have that quality which Lorca calls duende; their relation to reality, and to love and death, is headlong, however controlled their tone may seem to be, and however fine and old-fashioned the fingering of the stringed instrument.  Their special quality has something to do with personal intelligence and a passionate experience of life.  They are not like anyone else’s poems, and in these days that in itself is remarkable.  I am not able to define what I mean by integrity, but it seems the appropriate word.

In a long poem called The Black-Out:  London, Autumn 1939, Martin Robertson was already using, before the publication of Eliot’s fourth Quartet, the device of a night conversation in the London streets, with an atmosphere of Dante, in a terza rima form of the sonnet; no doubt Eliot’s learning of the same lesson from Dante was more authoritative, but it is something after all to have been a little earlier than Eliot in a technique which was the basis of one of that great master’s most daring and effective experiments.  In the thirties Martin Robertson’s voice had already taken on that sour and truthful tone we have learnt from a later generation who were then schoolboys, as the characteristic tone of poetry in the fifties.  He was a world away from what is usually thought of as thirties poetry; he was more intelligent, for better or worse, more grown up.  In a memorable poem called Poetry he recalls his own progress in the art.  It started with the Schooner Hesperus, continued with Macaulay and Kipling, and by the age of eleven it had reached Meredith.  (In my own case it was the narrative poetry of Scott followed by Kipling and Hardy.) The full tide of early adolescence is harder to describe, but at that time for both of us

Lycidas draws ahead of L’Allegro
as the Ancient Mariner of Kubla Khan.

Martin Robertson’s progression was multiform and his taste or need for what was genuine very certain at a remarkably early age.  His reading was wide and by no means school-oriented or academic; by 1939 it seems to have included medieval English, ancient and modern Greek, Latin, Italian, French (Villon, Baudelaire and Du Bellay) and German.  Such omnivorous and omnidigestive reading in boyhood are often the sign of a poet, but even if we let alone the foreign languages I marvel at the sureness of taste and the genuineness of hunger which led this boy to recognise, so many years earlier than I ever did, what was best in English poetry.  At an age when he was reading Campion and Wyatt I was still hooked on Oscar Wilde, and the experience of teaching since then has not demonstrated that this was a backward taste.  And how interesting that he calls poetry ‘impurest of the arts’, and gives that reason for preferring it to any other.

Although Greek archaeology has not been the subject-matter of his poems, Greek subjects do play some part in them, about equivalent to the part that modern art and poetry play in his scholarly writing.  His individual experience of life is not easy to divide; it is not possible to subtract elements.  That is true of every human being, and the backwash and dead water of the modern movement in poetry, where we are now living as readers and as writers, has at least liberated in the readers of poetry, of whom private and public poets constitute perhaps a more populous constituency than has been suspected, a free-ranging appetite for whatever is genuine and individual.  In the present confusion of manners this criterion has taken on its true importance; nothing has authority but what is genuine, and in spite of critical fashions we are becoming happy to recognise what is genuine wherever we can find it.

It is hard to be genuine today without some degree of worldliness and some intellectual sophistication.  Who could write genuinely about a modern party?  Martin Robertson has done so with a dry intelligence and yet no lack of human warmth.  ‘The light falls equally on all’, but the poem, since it has a beginning and an end, has a moral momentum.  It drops deeper and deeper into its subject, through

the slow, the shy, the dull, the worse than dull,
whose laughter like a leper’s bell
falls in its own silence.

It is criminal to disturb the rhythmic and syntactic progression of this poem, which seems to move inevitably downwards, in order to snatch at a few passing lines, but that is a necessary crime of criticism, and the whole poem (The Party) is available to readers.  The first part of the poem ends with the most ominous group,

and others in whose silence sounds the roar
of a remote, fanatic fire.

The second part is analytic and meditative, with the same downward movement; it considers not the party itself on which the light falls, that having become a still life, but the state of these people:

the chatterers have their sound, the beautiful
their coloured-shining, lacquered shell.

The end of the poem, after some despairing images which are hard to forget, is gnomic, the most ordinary wisdom.  Outside the poem such a couplet would be useless, a cliché almost, though not quite.  At the end of this poem it has a disturbing resonance, and the poem could not have come to any less decent or wise or limited conclusion without breaking itself to pieces in the process.  That of course would mean fireworks and lurid sparks, in this poem or the next he wrote, but this is a restrained poem.  What is restrained is fire, but the fire is present.  An explosion might be more exciting, spectacular and fashionable, but only a decadent moral taste could prefer it.  And what a pleasure it is to follow through the movements of the poem, its darkness and its moral and intellectual skill.  While there are poems of this kind there is some hope for our world.

Only the driest consolations and the sourest drinks give hope for the future.  Flamboyant optimism has too often been false in the poetry of the last hundred years: the imperial optimism of Tennyson, the political and moral optimism of Kipling, the revolutionary optimism of Mayakovsky, the lyric enthusiasm of Dylan Thomas, the religious exaltation of Claudel and the cosmic mania of Milosz, to name only some examples that spring to mind; so that no such music can now decently be heard.  This is of course a moral matter, and there is no need to spell out the public reasons for it, since they are quite objective and universally known.  The darkness is as exciting as the light, but it has not been so rationally explored, only passionately exploited.  Such poets as Roethke and Berryman in their last periods, and Robert Lowell, are exceptional and in a way prophetic, but even they have not given to darkness the dignity light has in the poetry of Pope and of Blake.  Martin Robertson’s consolation is dry, his drink sour, his wisdom apparently everyday.  There is no lack of darkness, but there is a certain checkering of lights and shadows.

Poetry of this kind must always be in some degree epigrammatic, there must be no waste of words.  Waste of words, if I may speak loosely of great poets, was the sin of Auden, and the faults of Eliot, if he had any, were committed on the borders of that sin.  Yeats suffers rather from waste of passions and sentiments than of words.  The poetry of wisdom must be sharp and clear.  One of its great examples is sun-struck Hölderlin.  Its imagery must be bold and simple.  Its humanity and its complication are a matter of rhythms, of the momentum of sentences, of the many tones of the voice.  Its movement is towards an image or a limited conclusion, however terrible the one may seem or however constricting the other.  It could be said of modern metaphysical lyrics as Eliot said of English free verse in relation to the iambic pentameter, that a poet may start from images and depart from them, or start away from them and move towards them, but there is no third possibility.  At this point readers should look at the ambitious and masterly short poem Lady into Fox.  It is sufficiently powerful to carry several critical arguments at once.

Poetry is inevitably about the inter-relation of things because it consists of an inter-relation of words.  A word alters in its force and its resonance with the context of language in which that word is used.  That context can either liberate or restrain the resonance, it can direct the force unexpectedly, and the latent force of words in the language is often unrevealed and surprising, even though it can hardly alter the force of words or of things.  A poem is a controlled context, in which one phrase modifies another, and the rhythm of the poem, which must be continuous and coherent to the senses, sets them up for the kill.  But words echo in the memory, we read clauses or sentences, not words, and therefore a poem by force of controlled context and the expectations of rhythm can modify words and phrases in retrospect, in the context of the whole sentence and the whole poem.  That is why so many poems need to be read twice or three times.  In each re-reading the power of a known context and of rhythms intuitively understood, whose message has been read, can increase greatly until the poem has set up a world of its own and occupied the whole of one’s imagination, so that it becomes very hard to escape from that world.  If one knows the poem by heart the same disease recurs when least expected, but we are all the willing prisoners of the miniature worlds of certain poems.  They give a curious and oblique meaning to much of life.

Poetry can be important if it covers only one corner of its own, like the poetry of Housman or of Anakreon, or perhaps of Pindar.  But there is a solid quality of importance, of centrality, which we also value, and which was greatly valued by Victorian critics, though few of the Victorian poets seem to us by hindsight to have possessed it.  Clough is more important to us than his degree of greatness warrants, just because he broke himself and his poetry up in the attempt on that quality.  This question has been confused by the innumerable attempts of poets to write the great twentieth-century poem, a marsh fire like the great American novel, which has been both productive and destructive.  The origin of those attempts was surely in the late Victorian culture that poets as diverse as Eliot, Yeats, Pound and Carlos Williams inherited willy-nilly.  I am not sure what poetry has been centrally important in its criticism of life in this century, but it would be hard not to include Eliot and Pasternak and Seferis.

Martin Robertson has not that range and span, but it would be a folly to consider him against another background.  There is something central and sane in his poetry, there is a quality of importance in some of these poems.  If they lack anything in the light of the mighty comparisons I may seem to have provoked, it is like the abnormal physical force which underlies the career of Nijinsky or of some Olympic athlete.  His life has not been dedicated to the art of poetry, and seeing the contribution he has made to human happiness and understanding in another way it would be hard to wish he had given himself wholly to poetry.  He is unlike Housman, whose technique was at once so limited and so perfect that he never altered it in a lifetime, and whose subject-matter was so curiously unchanging and pure a distillation.  Martin Robertson’s range is wide and modern and intelligent.  He is an elder brother of the generation of Larkin.  He is the kind of modern poet I most like reading.  If that seems a small matter, then imagine what Pasternak would have been like without 1917 and without Stalin, fruitfully engaged for a lifetime in the satisfying study of the visual arts.  One sees from certain poems that Martin Robertson knows enough for one lifetime about the dark, but he has no air of being doomed or predestined.  The world he lives in is our world.

old, old, infinitely old and long ago.
The wind blows in my face and shouts ‘Love’.

(Wind) In the last few days of considering this introduction, before writing it, I have been reading poems by a dozen younger poets, most of whom I somehow knew and much admired already, in order to see, as one does every so many years, in which direction the wind is sitting.  In case it is worth recording the result of the enquiry, the wind is sitting in the same direction as before.  Returning to re-read Martin Robertson’s poems, I found in them all the same skills, the sensitive and elegant intelligence and the hungry reading of life that make young men’s reputations, but an incomparably fresher sense, a more living and more inventive rhythm, and a principle of coherence that only experience and thoughts thought through can set free in a poet.  I can recall something of the same sensation when Richard Hughes, after years of literary silence, suddenly published The Fox in the Attic.  How embarrassing, said his friends, if after all these years it should turn out not to be a masterpiece.  The word masterpiece carries with it the virtuoso draperies of concert-hall and salon fame, and I have no idea in the end how such a word ought to be used.  But that novel was masterly and alive, and so are these poems.

There is a greenness of life that attaches to the writing of poetry at any age, and something of the sap of nature does circulate in the veins of good poems.  In this collection I sense it abundantly.  I like lines like ‘the gorse on the brown moor is out of bloom’ (Another Spring), and without green nature and the seasons the pessimistic and judging poems that occur here and there in this collection would not be so levelly balanced or so terrible.  It is worth noting perhaps that Martin Robertson’s Two Poems in Memory of Anne Frank are the least hysterical and the most damning poems on so awful a subject as the horrors of war that I have ever read.  In all these poems there are seasons of the year, there is a world, there is as nearly as I have ever understood it the truth about life, there is a possibility.  It is hardly what one might have expected to emerge in 1977 from the classical department of a museum.  Apart from one goodish Georgian poet in the Prints and Drawings department at London, I can think of no predecessor as a poet of Martin Robertson, supposing the word museum meant the same in English as in Greek, since Kallimachos.  His first readers will probably be found in the world in which he has lived, but there is more to him than they may realise.

Every important poet gives a new sense to the word important, as he does to the word poem.  Anything is important which we need, and we need poetry of this kind and quality as never before.  Some of the poems are occasional, but most of our life is occasional, and it must have its Tiresias.  Anything is important which we need and can rarely have, and the source we must go to for it is precious and important to us.  In that sense this is an important collection of poems.  I doubt whether any more gilded wreath would add essentially to the admiration, the respect and the gratitude implicit in this admission.

The Elegy for the Dead at Sharpeville is a poem in which the rhythms of moral passion, and of private meditation, become public, in a statement of unbreakable strength, with no waste of words, through their exact identification with the rhythms of poetry, intuitively working.  There is an absolute, there is no question of discussion or disagreement, but we are not in the world of Yeats and Eluard, and their compulsive rhythms, we are swayed by words in the best and perfect sense liberal.  It takes hundreds of years to write such a poem, to see the possibility and to speak clearly and eloquently, without intoxication or hysteria.  If this country and this century had to appear before the court of other centuries, it would do well to have this poem in its portfolio.  It is a truly liberal poem without the faults of liberalism; it has an individual integrity, and the voice is personal.

Martin Robertson has a feeling for barren and remote landscapes,

where the harsh landlord may distrain on all,
the holding dissipate like sea-spray to thin air.

(The West of Ireland) It is a sense of what is minimal but enough.  One of the most interesting and illuminating ways in which modern poetry reflects modern sensibility is by its insistence on stripping away every needless prop, whether of metaphysics or of emotions or of words and ornaments, to leave the bare bone of what is enough.  It is surprising how much of the heavy furniture of our minds and our traditions we can happily do without.  The process of stripping away has something in common with the way in which poetry is written.  All literature, but poetry in particular, is strong in proportion to what it can leave out.  That is why Homer is morally stronger than Virgil and his poetry deeper and stronger, and why Isaac Babel is so great a writer.  It is somehow not decent to have or to say more than is enough.  Poetry is a social gesture after all, and a human communication; it falls under the unwritten laws that govern all other forms of social and human behaviour.  But if there is something minimal in the sensibility of Martin Robertson’s poems, they are also like bare trees flowering; they persuade by their branches but also by their scanty ornaments.

There is some analogy in Dutch still-life painting.  Between the rich crispness and stiffness of the early flower-paintings and the overspilling luxury of the later ones, there are some paintings of just two roses, and one peeled lemon.  In this period there is the same spirited delight in craftsmanship and in the textures of flower-petals and fruit-skins, but there is something minimal about the virtuosity, as there is about the subject-matter.  There is a certain strangeness about these paintings as there is about the poems.  It is not the wonderful awkwardness and heavy strangeness of so great a poet as Drummond of Hawthornden, like Shakespeare’s ‘heavy and strange music’.  The mystery here is on a smaller scale and must be related I believe to the isolation in words and rhythms of what is enough, just as the lemon and its peel and the two heavy roses are isolated in the painting.  It will be seen that we are speaking of an art that has its decency and its dignity, but which almost deliberately refuses greatness.  Works of art of this kind, whether in poetry or in painting, are always quite conscious and very intelligent; it is the naive arts that flutter their rags of eloquence automatically and attempt to be great on principle.  It is in the closing phrases of many of Martin Robertson’s poems that the quality I have tried to describe is most obvious; he writes with a wisdom that knows its limits.

His epigrams are admirable in their strength and severe in their honesty, but all his poetry is honest.  He takes dandelions and hedge-roses as seriously as they merit, neither more nor less, and his choice of great and of small themes has the same disconcerting honesty.  It is usually ridiculous to use the word honest of a poem, and the intuition of honesty is a blunt and coarse critical tool at the best, but in Martin Robertson’s poetry honesty is a dominant virtue; there are a number of his poems where a reader may find himself saying not ‘How beautiful’, or ‘How true’, but ‘How honest’.  Honesty after all is a formidable and an old-fashioned means of persuasion, and it will be hard to remain unpersuaded of the central truths of this unusual and discursive mind.

All this is apparent in both the happy and the unhappy poems of love.  These poems offer a rather uniquely reasoning wisdom and an experience of life both simple and multiple.  They are less passionate than Robert Graves, great master of the modern love poem, and less ironic, but as honest, and, like so many other things in this book, somehow good.  I have always felt some sympathy with the young philosopher from Oxford who went to lecture in Cambridge in front of Wittgenstein, and was complimented afterwards on his human goodness, but I see also that philosophy, like everything else, must have a basis in good manners and in goodness.  These then are the decent poems of a good man, and that is what I believe to be the basis of poetry.  Talent is very common, many people have it and we could do without most of them.  We need something else, something different in kind from talent.  That is perhaps what makes Shakespeare seem different in kind even from the most talented of all other English poets.

So far as talent is concerned, Martin Robertson can reuse the material of Tennyson’s Mort d’Arthur and survive, he can encompass political crisis, private self-doubt, love or the failure of love, he can render a modern Greek ballad, the lives of Byron and Eugénie de Guérin, and a full-scale treatment of a Greek myth; this is not an unambitious poet.  Of writers in this century whom in some aspect he resembles one perhaps is Maurice Baring, but here is a writer who has lived in a less artificial world, and both inherited and forged for himself a less artificial literary tradition.  His speech is more urgent, his wisdom more laconic.  On the other hand I should admit that I have a particular liking for the lines of a gentle and short poem like Relax, which are so lyrical and so simple they seem to be made of the experience of early summer when one was twelve.  No doubt if we knew the truth that is what many poems and many poets are really made of.  In the case of Martin Robertson it seems that every time and every aspect of life has struck off sparks.

There are many short poems and epigrams in this volume, some poems of lower and some of higher pressure, some elaborate and some plain.  The poems work on one another as the lines and rhythms do inside an individual poem.  It is as if the whole work were a dark tree tufted with snow at the moment when a bright sun melts the snow into a constant shower under the tree like small rain, yet without appearing to diminish the snow on the branches; the sun makes the dark tree glitter and the snow glisten and the rainfall of melted snow sparkle in the shadows of the tree.  There are many kinds of poetry and many stages of thoughts, but the sun is the same and the natural tree is one tree in all its branches with or without the snowfalls and the small rain of drops.  I am trying to describe a relation not only between the poems but between the poems and their author.

I am more pleased than I can express to be able to record that many of the best and many of the happiest poems are among the latest.  What he has written has always had the authority of what is genuine, and both as a poet and as a sage he is most interesting; the integrity of his poetry is the flowering crown of a serviceable lifetime.

Copyright © 1977 Peter Levi