The Orwell Society is proud to feature an exclusive book review by the highly esteemed British novelist and writer D. J. Taylor, the author of two renowned biographies, Thackerary (1999), and Orwell: The Life (2003), which won the Whitbread Biography Prize in 2003. D. J. Taylor has published eleven novels, the most recent being The Windsor Faction (2013), and is joint winner of the Sidewise Award for Alternate History. He is also well known for his reviews and cultural critiques as well as his journalism, which has been published in the Independent and the Independent on Sunday, the Guardian, the Tablet, the Spectator, the Wall Street Journal and, anonymously, in Private Eye.
George Orwell: The Complete Poetry (edited by Dione Venables, Finlay Publishers)
It is no disrespect to the legion of PhD students currently at work in British and American universities on such topics as the language of totalitarianism and the post-imperial hegemony to say that most of the best work on Orwell has come from beyond academe. Certainly Professor Peter Davison, editor of the immortal George Orwell: The Complete Works, and Sir Bernard Crick, who published the first trail-blazing biography 35 years ago, were career academics, but Orwell, when they began to write about him, lay some way distant from their specialist fields, and, for all its exactitude, their approach to his work owed as much to personal enthusiasm as professional zeal. To say that Dione Venables’s edition of Orwell’s poetry is essentially an amateur production is, consequently, one of the highest compliments you can pay it.
In some ways the context in which Orwell produced the 46 individual pieces – some of them no more than fragments – that make up this notably slim oeuvre is quite as beguiling as the poems themselves. The early twentieth century was a time in which, as Penelope Fitzgerald once put it, the English people ‘still liked poetry’, when the Collected Poems of the Laureate John Masefield could sell 80,000 copies and the ongoing war between modernism and Georgian-style traditional verse was fought out from one newspaper arts section to the next. To the twenty-something who wanted to ‘be a writer’ in the age of Ramsay Macdonald and Stanley Baldwin, poetry seemed quite as seductive as the novel, and the number of celebrated inter-war novelists who began as poets takes in everyone from Graham Greene (Babbling April, 1924) to Patrick Hamilton.
In most cases this virus burnt itself out at a comparatively early stage. Evelyn Waugh’s elder brother Alec, for example, published a single volume of poetry (Resentment, 1918) at the age of 20 and then seems to have given up the medium altogether. One of the fascinations of Orwell’s ambitions as a poet, on the other hand, is how long they survived. The urge that led him as a small child to compose a Blakean pastiche about a tiger with ‘chair-like teeth’ was still going strong in the early 1930s when, entombed in one of his school-teaching jobs, he wrote to his agent Leonard Moore with news of a long poem describing a day out in London – undoubtedly the source of London Pleasures, the 2,000 line epic in rhyme royal on which Gordon Comstock desultorily labours in Keep the Aspidistra Flying (1936). In one of the few articles he ever wrote that touch on sport, Orwell describes himself as having once conducted a ‘hopeless love affair with cricket’, but the same could be said of his attitude to verse.
Not that ‘hopeless’ is quite the right adjective for a relationship that lasted nearly three and a half decades, from the patriotic fervour of ‘Awake! Young Men of England’, published in the Henley & South Oxfordshire Standard on 2 October 1914, when its author had just passed his eleventh birthday, to the rough draft of ‘Joseph Higgs, late of this parish’ scribbled out in a hospital bed which appears in volume XX of the Complete Works. In fact, the reader who comes fresh to Orwell’s poems will very soon divine quite how much the form meant to him, and how considerable are the kind of effects he was able to bring off when his emotions were truly stirred. It is significant, for example, that the encounter with the Italian militia man (‘The Italian Soldier shook my hand’) should be written up as a poem rather than set down in prose, for the implication is that Orwell thought poetry a better vehicle for conveying this mixture of personal reaction and universal truth.
The fact that Mrs Venables’s compendium extends even as far as 63 pages may surprise some readers, but its dimensions are a testimony to her diligence. Not only does she include the poems written ‘as poems’, but there is also space for the scraps of verse that appear in the novels, such as the schoolyard insult composed by ‘a critic who now wrote rather good articles in the Nation’ ‘New-tick Flory does look rum/Got a face like a monkey’s bum’ from Burmese Days and Animal Farm’s ‘Beasts of England’ and ‘Comrade Napoleon’. Read chronologically, the material falls into several clearly demarcated groups – patriotic juvenilia, Etonian squibs, the love poems to Jacintha Buddicom, a series of verses written during his time in Burma, some exercises in Thirties miserabilism – see in particular ‘Sometimes in the Middle Autumn Days’ – and a handful of later vers d’occasion such as ‘Memories of the Blitz’ (1945) with its evocative lines about ‘The blimp has a patch on its nose/The railings have gone to the smelter/Only the ghost and the cat/Sleep in the Anderson shelter.’
It would be wrong to claim that very much of this is worth preserving as poetry, or that any critic who came upon it without knowing the author’s identity would immediately set about culling it for anthologies. At the same time the biographical significance of a poem like ‘Romance’ to anyone interested in the question of whether Orwell slept with Burmese prostitutes cannot be overstressed, and even ‘Sometimes in the Middle Autumn Days’ sheds a penetrating light on, among things, its author’s debt to Eliot. The handful of really good pieces are either straightforward reportage (‘A dressed man and a naked man/Stood by the kip-house fire’) or poems in which observations of scene are the prelude to some absorbing internal dilemma, as in ‘St Andrew’s Day 1935’, or the wonderful ‘A Happy Vicar I Might Have Been’, with its ringing sign-off ‘I wasn’t born for an age like this/Was Smith? Was Jones? Were you?’
And then there are the Byronic stanzas traded with ‘Obadiah Hornbrooke’ (Alex Comfort) in Tribune in 1943 which, at the very least, show a highly-developed facility for pastiche. If Mrs Venables keeps her textual notes to a minimum (I always wonder who the ‘Duggie’ is in ‘A Happy Vicar’ who ‘always pays’ – Major C.H. Douglas of the Social Credit movement perhaps?) then her incidental commentary is always to the point. George Orwell: The Complete Poetry is a triumph – a labour of love and, for Orwell-fanciers, a highly necessary task elegantly and succinctly brought home to harbour.
By D. J. Taylor
• The launch of George Orwell: The Complete Poetry, edited by Dione Venables, will be on Saturday, 17 October. Copies of the book will be available to purchase for £8.99 via Scarthin Books.com. The book can be ordered from Waterstones, Amazon or any other wholesalers.