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On Rachael Allen

Matthew Bevis, 5 March 2020

... When i saw​ Kingdomland (Faber, £10.99) up in lights on its yellow-orange cover, the word conjured up visions of a travelling fairground, dodgily yet enticingly going to seed. Even after I learned that the term is an old name for Rachael Allen’s home county of Cornwall, I didn’t feel my first impressions were wholly misplaced. Kingdomland is Allen’s first collection and its opening lines set the tone for a volume preoccupied with spectatorship: ‘Watch the forest burn/with granular heat ...

On Douglas Crase

Matthew Bevis, 5 December 2019

... The most interesting book of first poems in many years’, Richard Howard proclaimed in 1981. James Merrill, John Hollander and John Ashbery spoke in similarly emphatic terms, while Anthony Hecht saluted an ‘extraordinarily fine’ debut and Harold Bloom hailed the arrival of a great original. ‘I think I speak for many,’ David Kalstone wrote, ‘in saying it appeared with that sense of completeness of utterance and identity that must have come with the first books of Wallace Stevens (Harmonium) and Elizabeth Bishop (North and South ...

On Charles Wright

Matthew Bevis, 1 April 2021

... Charles​ Wright’s Oblivion Banjo – published in advance of his 85th birthday (Farrar, Straus, £20) – is somewhere between a Collected and Selected and begins with a homage to Ezra Pound:Today is one of those daysOne swears is a prophecy:The air explicit and moist,As though filled with unanswered prayersThis sounds like the day everything started for Wright ...

Metropolitan Miscreants

Matthew Bevis: Victorian Bloomsbury, 4 July 2013

Victorian Bloomsbury 
by Rosemary Ashton.
Yale, 380 pp., £25, July 2012, 978 0 300 15447 4
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Metropolitan Art and Literature, 1810-40: Cockney Adventures 
by Gregory Dart.
Cambridge, 297 pp., £55, July 2012, 978 1 107 02492 2
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... The test of poetry which professes to be modern’, Arthur Symons wrote in 1892, is ‘its capacity for dealing with London, with what one sees or might see there.’ And what the poets see is a transformation of the human face. In the country, ‘The face of every neighbour whom I met/Was as a volume to me,’ Wordsworth recalled in The Prelude, but neighbours were harder to read in London: ‘The comers and goers face to face,/Face after face ...

The lighthouse stares back

Matthew Bevis: Tóibín on Bishop, 7 January 2016

On Elizabeth Bishop 
by Colm Tóibín.
Princeton, 209 pp., £13.95, March 2015, 978 0 691 15411 4
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... Nobody knows​ … nobody knows.’ Elizabeth Bishop said her grandmother’s remark was the chorus of her childhood. ‘I often wondered what my grandmother knew that none of the rest of us knew and if she alone knew it, or if it was a total mystery that really nobody knew except perhaps God.’ She ventured to ask: ‘What do you know, Gammie, that we don’t know? Why don’t you tell us? Tell me!’ Gammie wouldn’t say whether she was keeping a secret or confessing bewilderment; she just laughed and replied: ‘Go on with you! Scat!’ This image of a person obscurely in the know, at once self-collected and reticent, is also an image of the person Bishop became – or the one many took her to be ...

Foiled by Pleasure

Matthew Bevis: Barrett Browning, 30 August 2018

Elizabeth Barrett Browning: Selected Writings 
edited by Josie Billington and Philip Davis.
Oxford, 592 pp., £14.99, February 2018, 978 0 19 879763 0
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... Having reached​ the grand age of 14, Elizabeth Barrett peered back into the distant past. She recorded in her journal that, when she was nine, ‘works of imagination only afforded me gratification and I trod the delightful fields of fancy without any of those conscientious scruples which now always attend me when wasting time in frivolous pleasure ...

Gravity’s Smoothest Dream

Matthew Bevis: A.R. Ammons, 7 March 2019

The Complete Poems 
by A.R. Ammons.
Norton, two vols, 2133 pp., £74, December 2017, 978 0 393 25489 1
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... Well,​ Mr Ammons, it looks as if you really have something here.’ On receiving this verdict from the poet Josephine Miles in 1951, the young Ammons was taken aback: he’d expected ‘bad news’. Yet whatever the something was that Mr Ammons had, it remained hidden from view for some time. He brought out his first volume, Ommateum, with a vanity press in 1955, and, as he drily observed, ‘it was forgotten about while I was on a four-day business trip to Nashville ...

Kids Gone Rotten

Matthew Bevis: ‘Treasure Island’, 25 October 2012

Treasure Island 
by Robert Louis Stevenson, edited by John Sutherland.
Broadview, 261 pp., £10.95, December 2011, 978 1 55111 409 5
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Silver: Return to Treasure Island 
by Andrew Motion.
Cape, 404 pp., £12.99, March 2012, 978 0 224 09119 0
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Treasure Island!!! 
by Sara Levine.
Tonga, 172 pp., £10.99, January 2012, 978 1 60945 061 8
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... John Singer Sargent’s ‘Robert Louis Stevenson and His Wife’ (1885). The first return to Treasure Island was made by Robert Louis Stevenson himself. Fourteen years after the novel was published, Longman’s Magazine published ‘The Persons of the Tale’, in which Captain Smollett and Long John Silver step out of the narrative after the 32nd chapter to have a chat ‘in an open place not far from the story ...


Matthew Bevis: William Hazlitt, 6 November 2008

New Writings of William Hazlitt: Volume I 
edited by Duncan Wu.
Oxford, 507 pp., £120, September 2007, 978 0 19 923573 5
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New Writings of William Hazlitt: Volume II 
edited by Duncan Wu.
Oxford, 553 pp., £120, September 2007, 978 0 19 923574 2
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William Hazlitt: The First Modern Man 
by Duncan Wu.
Oxford, 557 pp., £25, October 2008, 978 0 19 954958 0
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... There is a story that Hazlitt, having just been introduced to one of his idols, ventured an opinion on a mutual acquaintance: ‘This was the first observation I ever made to Coleridge, and he said it was a very just and striking one. I remember the leg of Welsh Mutton and the turnips on the table that day had the finest flavour imaginable.’ Hazlitt’s thoughts often turned to mutton ...

A Whack of Pies

Matthew Bevis: Dear to Mew, 16 December 2021

This Rare Spirit: A Life of Charlotte Mew 
by Julia Copus.
Faber, 464 pp., £25, April 2021, 978 0 571 31353 2
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Selected Poetry and Prose 
by Charlotte Mew, edited by Julia Copus.
Faber, 176 pp., £14.99, October 2019, 978 0 571 31618 2
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... The moonlight​ drips on the parlour floor;/I shall go mad if no one wipes it up.’ So began E.V. Knox’s parody in the August 1921 issue of Punch.And the moon dripped upon the floor like thisTwo years ago. The floor looked just the same.There is something very terrible about a floor.Who, if presented with this parody today, would be able to name the figure that inspired it? Sixty years after Punch ran the poem, Knox’s daughter, Penelope Fitzgerald, published Charlotte Mew and Her Friends, in which she observed that her subject would always be an outsider ...

I can bite anything I want

Matthew Bevis: Lewis Carroll, 16 July 2015

Lewis Carroll 
by Morton Cohen.
Macmillan, reissue, 577 pp., £30, April 2015, 978 1 4472 8613 4
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The Selected Letters of Lewis Carroll 
edited by Morton Cohen.
Palgrave, reissue, 302 pp., £16.99, March 2015, 978 1 137 50546 0
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Lewis Carroll: The Man and His Circle 
by Edward Wakeling.
Tauris, 400 pp., £35, November 2014, 978 1 78076 820 5
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... What​ do you suppose is the use of a child without any meaning?’ the Red Queen asks in Through the Looking-Glass. The child to whom this question was addressed was in little danger of becoming meaningless. ‘I’m very glad you like Alice,’ Charles Dodgson wrote to Margery Worthington in 1895, ‘but what wicked wicked sisters you have not to let you read it till they go to school! But perhaps the mistress had told them they had to learn a page of it by heart as a lesson?’ Dodgson is toasting the success of the books he wrote under the pen name Lewis Carroll, yet also hinting at a preference for those who read them outside the classroom, maybe while playing truant ...

Were you a tome?

Matthew Bevis: Edward Lear, 14 December 2017

Mr Lear: A Life of Art and Nonsense 
by Jenny Uglow.
Faber, 608 pp., £25, October 2017, 978 0 571 26954 9
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... When​ faced by admirers, Edward Lear was inclined to portray himself as a puzzle, or a trap: ‘How pleasant to know Mr Lear!’     Who has written such volumes of stuff! Some think him ill-tempered and queer,     But a few think him pleasant enough.The first observation was originally made by somebody who did not know Mr Lear. As a truth universally acknowledged is then whittled down to the opinion of a few, it’s hard to be sure whether this stanza is a protest against understanding or a plea for it ...

Cool Vertigo

Matthew Bevis: Auden Country, 2 March 2023

The Complete Works of W.H. Auden. Poems, Vol. I: 1927-39 
edited by Edward Mendelson.
Princeton, 848 pp., £48, August 2022, 978 0 691 21929 5
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The Complete Works of W.H. Auden. Poems, Vol. II: 1940-73 
edited by Edward Mendelson.
Princeton, 1120 pp., £48, August 2022, 978 0 691 21930 1
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... You really cannot tell fully about a thing until the man’s work is all there,’ Auden said in an interview a few months before he died. Thanks to the magnificent efforts of Edward Mendelson, it’s now all here: prose, plays, libretti and, finally, the poems, coming to just over 7500 pages all told. Sizing up these volumes, one might take courage from a line in ‘The Labyrinth’: ‘Assume this maze has got a plan ...

What most I love I bite

Matthew Bevis: Stevie Smith, 28 July 2016

The Collected Poems and Drawings of Stevie Smith 
edited by Will May.
Faber, 806 pp., £35, October 2015, 978 0 571 31130 9
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... Could​ anything be better than to start off with a fine picture of a sailing ship on the rough sea coming suddenly alive and sucking in the children?’ Stevie Smith asked, reviewing C.S. Lewis’s The Voyage of the Dawn Treader in 1952. She liked depictions of people who disappeared into the objects of their gaze; a couple of years earlier, her poem ‘Deeply Morbid’ told the story of Joan, an office girl who goes to the National Gallery during her lunchbreaks and studies Turner’s seascapes until ‘the spray reached out and sucked her in ...

It is still mañana

Matthew Bevis: Robert Frost’s Letters, 19 February 2015

The Letters of Robert Frost, Vol. 1: 1886-1920 
edited by Donald Sheehy, Mark Richardson and Robert Faggen.
Harvard, 811 pp., £33.95, March 2014, 978 0 674 05760 9
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... Anybody​ want to Hear R. Frost on Anything?’ the poet asked Louis Untermeyer in 1916. Frost was 42 years old and believed he had an impressive list of lectures ‘in stock’. One of them was the ‘True Story of My Life’. It would begin with early signs of temerity and talent – ‘Stealing pigs from the stockyards in San Francisco. Learn to whistle at five’ – before moving on to bigger things: ‘“North of Boston” ...

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