The Guardian’s gimmick of the week is an excellent one. It is giving away booklets of poems by major poets of the twentieth century. Today’s poet is T.S.Eliot, and the selection of poems and extracts is good enough to whet the appetite of anyone who didn’t know them before. And these days, alas, a lot of people don’t know them. A couple of years ago I met a graduate from an English course somewhere who told me: “We never did T.S.Eliot. Our tutors said he was too difficult.” Oh dear.
There’s an jolly introduction by Craig Raine, including a well-aimed kick at the deliberate obscurity of J.H.Prynne (Raine points out that it’s “not difficult to be difficult, actually”). What interested me most, though, apart from the poems themselves, which are always worth a refresher course, were the pair of contemporary reviews from the Observer added at the end. Robert Nichols in 1920 appreciates Ara Vos Prec, but feels it necessary to warn Eliot that “Irony is a good servant but a bad master.” The anonymous reviewer of Poems 1909-1925 complains of “some dreadfully false stuff” and thoroughly dislikes The Waste Land “with its parade of easy learning, its trick of impasted quotation and its echoes of modern prose writers.” The critic considers Eliot’s satires “never so nimble or so neatly placed as Mrs Susan Miles’s essays in malice and free verse.”
Mrs Susan Miles?
A check in the Bodleian catalogue revealed that this is the pseudonym of Ursula Roberts, who wrote The Cenotaph, one of the best poems in the anthology Scars Upon My Heart. It begins:
The man in the Trilby hat has furtively shifted it;
The man with the clay pipe has pushed his fists deeper into his pockets;
Beparcelled women are straining their necks
Through the spattered windows of the omnibus
Dumb beneath the rain,
Marshalled by careful policemen,
Four behind four,
The relatives of dead heroes,
Clutching damp wreaths.
Within the omnibus there is silence
But for a sniff.
Then a plump woman speaks,
“I wouldn’t,” she says,
“I wouldn’t stand in a queue to have my feelings harrowed,
Not myself, I wouldn’t.”
The omnibus swerves to the pavement,
And the plump woman
prepares for equable departure.
“But there,” she adds unbitterly,
“I often think it wouldn’t do
For us all to be alike.
There’s some as can’t,
But then, again,
There’s some, you see,
The poem continues to say how much the poet likes that fat woman. So do I.
But what I should have remembered when I saw the name Susan Miles was Lettice Delmer, her verse novel, republished in 2002 by wonderful Persephone Books. I read and enjoyed this a while back, but the author’s name had slipped through the increasingly large holes in my memory. This was first published in 1958, but may have been written earlier. the Persephone foreword has a hunch that it may have been partly written in the twenties, and I have the same feeling.
The story begins in wartime, with Lettice’s mother, Mrs Delmer doing her Christian duty by visiting the poor in hospital, although she finds it an uncomfortable experience. She helps a pauper mother trace her little boy, and then takes the young woman into her home as a servant, together with the child. Young Derrick is a disturbing presence in the house, shy, frightened, and occasionally violent. He steals and bites, and the novel brilliantly evokes the awkwardness of the relationship between the givers and receivers of charity.
Lettice, the daughter, starts as a very well-intentioned young girl, eager to do right, but her relationship with Derrick causes the first complications in her emotions. The book is about the problems faced by innocence in a world of nastiness and difficulty. Some of the plot-twists are melodramatic, but all the characters ring true as complicated human beings. I wouldn’t go so far as the Observer critic in preferring Susan Miles to T.S.Eliot, but she doesn’t deserve to be forgotten.