October 14, 2011KR OnlineNonfictionSpecial Collections

Veronica Forrest-Thomson’s Acts of Articulation

This discussion is an attempt to explore something I have called, because she did, Veronica Forrest-Thomson’s acts of articulation: though acts of ventriloquism might in fact be a better name for what happens when the sentences, lines, half-lines, words, cadences, fragments and phrases borrowed or stolen from other writers are made to sound in the new setting of her verse. The term comes from the note appended to Language-Games:

Most of these poems are obviously about the experience of being engaged in a certain activity, in a certain place, at a certain time: the activity, research in English literature, the place, Cambridge, the time, 1968-69. The attempt has been to deal with these elements as part of a “historical present” in which past language-forms, whether borrowed from poetry, letters, speech or the dictionary, are made into a framework for a present act of articulation.[1]

This is an unadventurous topic in some ways, because so obvious: not only does she herself point it out, here and elsewhere—and point out furthermore that it is “obvious”—but her compulsive allusiveness has some claim to being the most distinctive characteristic of Forrest-Thomson’s work. Certainly this is true of the last two collections; the inner ear of the reader is continually tugged at by something half-assimilated and half-remembered, or entirely remembered and not assimilated at all. Any reading must negotiate these moments, must decide with what degree of intellectual assiduity to approach them; trained (as most of her readers are) in certain ways of confronting their poetry, a footnote, the acknowledgement of a source, a suggestion for further reading all prompt a scholarly looking-up impulse. Is there, if one is to give in, a faint and uncomfortable sensation of having been mocked?

This, though, is to leap ahead. The first question that must be addressed is “what precisely is allusion?,” or at least “what will I here take it to mean?”: because it is fairly clear that not all of the ways of pointing outside a poem, even the ones that have been mentioned so far, come strictly speaking into this category. Taxonomies of this sort are usually not very interesting, and almost always doomed to failure—particularly ones that speak strictly—but I am going to try to outline a couple of parameters. First, an attempt at a negative definition: the things that don’t seem to qualify as straightforward allusion. There are, for example, the quotations, signalled with decorous inverted commas and properly ascribed. In “Idols of the (Super)Market,” Yeats proposes again: “‘Perfection of the life or of the work,’” and Auden, again, retorts, “‘Perfection is possible in neither.’”[2] There are quotations from, references to, Wittgenstein’s work, in a poem which calls itself after its source (Zettel), that source itself a collection of fragments.[3] Can something still count as an allusion if it is, as here, neatly footnoted? And what about poor Pater, quoted less carefully as the Whatsisname who “said something about “‘burning with a hard, gemlike flame’”?[4] Does it help to recall his name, his writing, his career; to remember how the phrase actually goes, to furnish its conclusion? “To burn always with this hard, gemlike flame, to maintain this ecstacy, is success in life”; the ironies in the utterances of Forrest-Thomson’s Prufrockian cheese-phobic, this anti-epicurean, are perfectly evident without such mental diligence, but they are not damaged by it, either. In some ways, these instances don’t pose much of a problem. This sort of situation offers one set of decisions, and a relatively familiar one, for all its quality of indeterminacy in Forrest-Thomson’s work; writers gesture outside their texts to other, earlier, texts all the time. Whether these moments are to be thought of as allusion, or transformed by their scholarly apparatus and careful punctuation into quotations, we recognise that there may be rewards in identifying a source. A different kind of problem, though, is posed by another strategy Forrest-Thomson favours: allusions which can have no hope of recuperation, those fragments snatched from conversations, had or overheard, long since vanished. Though we might sense or suspect a transient context, we can have no access to it; this kind of allusion, then (something like being given the key to a house that has fallen down), must work differently on a reader. Is it therefore simply not an allusion, or at least no longer an allusion?

It is self-evidently unsatisfactory to say that something attributed is not an allusion but a quotation, when it might perform a very similar sort of function; it might be, that is, both a quotation (or a mis-quotation) and an allusion. Equally, something unattributed might not be an allusion: it might be a source, or a parallel, or an echo, or an accident. Attempts to define how allusion works, and there haven’t been that many, tend to agree on a few principles: firstly, allusions militate against a sense of literary loneliness; they proceed from a sociable impulse to put one’s writing, and therefore oneself, into conversation with the dead. (This of course takes its terms from Eliot, who will haunt this paper as he haunts Forrest-Thomson’s writing; I will consider his place in all this more explicitly below.) Allusions are references that depend for their full and correct interpretation on something more than simply the substitution of a referent; they bring into play the associations that referent conjures, and make them part of the meaning of the poem, as well as of its making. Allusions must be intended (and a nice scruple in William Irwin’s account allows that this intention may be a subconscious one), and they must in principle be recoverable, which seems to dispose of Forrest-Thomson’s stolen speech.[5] But if your readers are too ignorant to recognise Keats in the beaded bubbles winking at the brim of your glass of alka seltzer, that is their lookout, not yours: they can still understand the image, but if they fail to appreciate the contrast with the altogether less frenetic winking that has previously gone on in a beaker of the warm south, and which has presumably necessitated this fizzing cure, part of the point of the poem is lost.[6] But part of the point of the allusion is not: for allusions can also depend on being in some way exclusive and oblique, precisely not understood by all who see them. A writer who alludes selects and rewards an ideal reader, one whose mind is similarly silted up with the residue of a similar history, a similar education. I will return to the frustrations of failing to be Veronica Forrest-Thomson’s ideal reader later on.

Most of the time, allusion requires tact, which makes it an odd mode of choice for such a supremely tactless writer. An ignorant reader ought not to be made to feel, too keenly, her ignorance, whereas a knowledgeable one might expect a moment of self-congratualtion on the successful detection of a hidden sense, an element of the puzzle worked out. These things are very rarely allowed to happen. Take a relatively straightforward example, from “Sonnet”: “Never so separate trying to be two / And the busy old fool is right. / To try and finger myself from you / Distinguishes day from night.”[7] It’s Donne’s poem that’s being invoked, here, the one that starts “Busie old foole, unruly sunne,” and laments the officious dawn that parts the lovers too early.[8] To recover this context is pleasing, because it points up the poem’s thematic concerns as it measures its distance from the rhetoric it is gesturing at: Donne’s extravagant bombast is curtly punctured, his claims for the lovers’ constancy and centrality overwritten by an assertion of their isolation. “Sonnet” ’s self-defeating bewilderment is intensified by the force of this knowing contrast: in some ways, a conventional literary allusion. But there are two problems with this, as far as I can see. The first is that it doesn’t make much sense if one doesn’t happen to know the Donne poem. Various scenarios involving interfering elders can be imagined, but each seems to want to carry the thought over the second line into the third, to suggest that it is the busy old fool (which we, the informed, know is the sunne, and know furthermore which sunne, and that he says no such thing) who offers this gnomic pronouncement. Not only that, but the line feels, to my hypothetical ignorant reader, as if there is something she ought to know about it: it looks like an allusion. The second problem is that the allusion is not precise, or rather it carries an enormous amount of freight, maybe too much. It is not just “The Sunne Rising” that is coming in for a smack, here, but an entire ouevre (or half of one, at least): Donne’s metaphysics of love, his individuals reflected in and reciprocated by one another, his intermingling and his compassing round, breathing another’s breath, weeping another’s tears, is all rejected by a sardonic vote for the unruly sunne, in a sort of a metonymy of allusion.

The point of this is to suggest that even at her most conventionally allusive, Forrest-Thomson isn’t quite playing by the rules. Not knowing the poem is a clear disadvantage; but knowing it, and even knowing all of Donne’s poems, does not “solve” the difficulties of reading “Sonnet.” Such calculated obscurity is not, of course, unexpected: her preoccupation, both critical and creative, with the transformation and assimilation of old languages into new might prepare us for an attempt to impede, frustrate and complicate the processes of transmission. “Literary allusions,” she writes in Poetic Artifice, “can be naturalised or discursive imagery: we make sense of them by thinking of the mind moving among literary monuments.”[9] If this is true, then Forrest-Thomson is something of an iconoclast. She is considering, here, T. S. Eliot’s practice in the passage of The Waste Land that begins “Unreal city, / Under the brown fog of a winter dawn,” and she finds that his allusions, too, fail to behave themselves. One of the generally accepted conditions of allusion that I have described is that it should import a resonance, a set of relevant or provocatively irrelevant associations, from its source: to which one ought diligently to turn, in memory or in fact, seeking elucidation, measuring closeness and distance. But as Forrest-Thomson notices, a proliferation of such allusions interferes with the transfer of intellectual or affective content. Baudelaire starts fighting with Dante, and the two of them get lost in Southwark. “Both these literary allusions on their own,” she points out, “might have taken us to the originals, were it not for the fact that they are caught up in a fictionalised contemporary London context.”[10] Eliot’s allusions, in other words, are semi-detached; fragments of statuary that for her recall their originals quite bloodlessly. Or to put it another way, lines or images that themselves encode all of the source that is necessary to their effect; tips without the expected icebergs.

What Forrest-Thomson reads in Eliot’s allusions is in fact, as I hope to show, much closer to what she does, and is hardly consisent with his own ideas of best practice in this respect; “You cannot effectively ‘borrow’ an image,” he believes,

unless you borrow also, or have spontaneously, something like the feeling which prompted the original image. An “image,” in itself, is like dream symbolism, is only vigorous in relation to the feelings out of which it issues, in the relation of word to flesh.[11]

Forrest-Thomson is interested in incarnation, and much of her most complicatedly allusive work responds to this towering figure in the literary mausoleum. One trick is to steal something already stolen, to reach back through the allusive accretions, through borrowed feeling to feeling, and so risk conjuring nothing but indeterminacy. Her best joke works like this—and “allusion” of course comes from the Latin for “to play,” and has the same root as the word “ludic.” It is in “Cordelia”: “March,” she writes, “is the cruellest station.”[12] This needs no explanation for those who have taken a degree in literature and are familiar with English provincial railway lines. Others may need some help. Forrest-Thomson alludes to Eliot (“April is the cruellest month”), who is alluding to Chaucer (“Whan that Aprille with his shoures soote . . . ”). March, here, is a stop about three-quarters of the way home on the interminable cross-country rail service from London to Cambridge, via Chelmsford, Ipswich, Marks Tey, Newmarket, Dullingham and anywhere else the driver can think of. Literary history repeats itself first as tragedy, and then as farce. A good joke, if an in-joke. But what of this similar manoeuvre in “Canzon” (subtitled, incidentally, “for British Rail Services”)? Here are its first lines: “Thou hast committed / fornication.”[13] Is Forrest-Thomson quoting Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta or Eliot’s “Portrait of a Lady,” with its own title stolen from Henry James? Both, clearly; but what of the atmosphere of each, Eliot’s “flesh,” attaches to these words in her poem? The difficulty is exacerbated if one decides one must first work out what the epigraph is doing in Eliot, why Forrest-Thomson allows the accusation but breaks off before its mordant answer (“that was in another country: and besides, the wench is dead”); exacerbated again by the fact that the poem, as it continues, seems as much, if not more, to be holding a conversation with the second section of The Waste Land, “A Game of Chess” (itself a reference to the play by Middleton). The dropped allusion ripples outwards in growing disconnection; as with Donne’s appearance in “Sonnet,” any neatly gratifying resolution through research is withheld.

There is another technique at work here, a kind of deliberate misdirection. Forrest-Thomson quite likes naming poems for authors or their works and then channelling the wrong voices, as if she is a harrassed medium presiding over an unruly menagerie of the literary dead. Ezra Pound is almost elbowed out of his own obituary poem by Wallace Stevens, Shakespeare, Shelley—and of course Eliot; “The Lady of Shalott” quotes Coleridge, not Tennyson (but Tennyson manages to reassert himself in some sort by ousting W. S. Gilbert from the poem in his memory).[14] “The Lady of Shalott” is rather an important case, because of Forrest-Thomson’s mischeviously inadequate comments on it in Poetic Artifice. She calls it disconnected, which is right; she claims that it employs “extremely traditional regular iambic rhymed verse” and “extremely conventional symbolism,” which is not. “He,” by which she means herself, “combines this with a traditional use of literary allusion,” she goes on, “which is made into the allusiveness charactersitic of twentieth-century poetry by the support of specifically twentieth-century conventions.”[15] Note the repeated insistence on tradition, convention. The allusion, apart from that to the Tennyson poem of the title, is to the “Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” Here’s Coleridge:

Her lips were red, her looks were free,
Her locks were yellow as gold:
Her skin was as white as leprosy,
The Night-mare Life-in-Death was she,
Who thicks man’s blood with cold.[16]

And now Forrest-Thomson:

Her lips are red, her looks are free,
Her locks are yellow as gold.
Whether she’s very young or old,
The nightmare life-in-death is she
Who thicks men’s blood with cold.[17]

No line is precisely the same, and the differences, slight and less slight, are suggestive. Life-in-death is hauled into the present tense, “man’s” becomes “men’s,” because it sounds like it ought to have been that to begin with. The greatest departure is the third line, where Coleridge’s atmospheric description is overwritten with careful clumsiness. The ballad metre is given a rude shove, the rhyme is wrong, and the whole line flaunts its bathetic inconsequentiality; it is filled-in, made-up, half-remembered. To return again to Tennyson, it’s like nothing so much as Molesworth’s rendition of “The Charge of the Light Brigade”: “Har fleag, har fleag, har fleag onward / Into the er rode the 100.”

The Lady of Shalott, according to Forrest-Thomson, “inhabits the world of unrealism,” is “a creature of fiction” and an “organising formal principle.”[18] She can therefore be quite conveniently substituted by another literary figure with similar attributes, like the nightmare life-in-death, just as Tennyson’s Shakespeare’s Mariana can drift interchangeably through “The Garden of Proserpine.” Swinburne’s heroine is weary too and the word introduces her, a relationship registered, a connection rootled out and dusted off. “I am weary of days and hours,” the real Proserpine says; but it’s Mariana’s line she gets in Forrest-Thomson’s poem: “I am aweary, aweary, / I would that I were dead.”[19] The point is that these allusions, again, work by being expansive, imprecise: inward acts of a memory quick with association, what Forrest-Thomson calls elsewhere “the intellectual jukebox,” usually with several records playing at the same time.[20] The poem borrows snatches of Shakespeare and Donne, as well as Swinburne, Tennyson and others, though its own accents are distinctive, unmistakeable even. When the other voices are silenced, the comfort of their company forsaken, what emerges is a painfully accomplished lyric lament. It alludes to proper ballad form but its grief strains out of those familiar measures:

I loved you and you loved me
And then we made a mess.
We still loved each other but
We loved each other less.

[ . . . ]

My dignity dictated
A restrained farewell
But I love you so much
Dignity can go to hell.[21]

It is not just dignity that goes to hell at the impossible admission of that stanza’s third line, but prosody. The extravagant allusiveness with which the poem opens becomes a joke of sardonic misdirection, a joke about our ways of reading, ways of remembering. All of these that need to be done have already been done by the poet, and they haven’t helped. She is, nonetheless, impudently confident of our recognition and acquiesence.

I want to glance, finally, at the poem that is in some ways the most extreme example of such an act of articulation: “Cordelia: Or, ‘A Poem Should Not Mean, But Be.’” One of Forrest-Thomson’s last statements about poetry before her death in April 1975 makes the following assertion:

I believe that at the present time poetry must progress by deliberately trying to defeat the expectations of its readers or hearers, especially the expectation that they will be able to extract meaning from a poem. A poem must work to transform the area of linguistic meaning into a technical device like rhythm and metre.[22]

A poem should not not mean, notice, but it should mean in a particular way: its meaning should work on the same level as a technical device. I suggested at the start of this discussion that there might be an inherent difficulty with aspiring to be Forrest-Thomson’s ideal reader, and this, really, is it: one must be prepared for one’s expectations to be defeated but dutifully to have those expectations nonetheless; to recognise, to understand, but not to give into the temptation to interpret; to be content with the word and to leave the flesh alone. This presents particular challenges in “Cordelia,” a poem thronged with the ghosts of other poems’ meanings, though they’re slapped off the page before they’re allowed to settle. It would take a heroic act of willed amnesia to ignore this fractured ventriloquism; I am not sure what such a reading would look like, and it seems, anyway, to be discouraged by the taunts of the text. “And as for this line,” she writes as one of the few lines she didn’t, “I stole it from T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound and A. C. Swinburne.”[23] This is not Eliot’s mode of allusion, though she argues through him and with him; Forrest-Thomson plays with what she has stolen until she breaks it, but the games are verbal and all her cross-words are dead ends. Following her lines back to their originals, in Shakespeare, Donne, Milton, or in James Joyce, Lewis Carroll, Sellars & Yeatman, produces always the same effect: an appreciation of a witty incongruity, and a faint sense of effort wasted. That wit lives properly in the lines that have become her lines, because the spiralling potential of these allusions—the unknown associations, thoughts, emotions they might prompt—is short-circuited by their crowding density. In “Cordelia,” a familiar compound ghost of a poem, Forrest-Thomson comes near to achieving the ideal of disconnected meaning that much of her work inclines towards, the pleasurable recognition of a series of semantic sounds, and she does it through this trick of cauterized allusion. These are distinctive acts of articulation. They are not, however hard she protests, traditional or conventional: a return to their source often simply demonstrates how awkwardly independent they are despite the superficial promise of rich layers of meaning, how resistant to the kind of decorous recuperation that other texts expect and invite.

Veronica Forrest-Thomson plunders the Western Canon, an ear in the past and an eye on the reader; she uses what she finds to create in her poetry an aesthetic of deliberate dislocation, though she chooses to call it “an assertion of affinity with the past of English poetry.”[24] And watching her at work in the pantheon offers us another way of reading a related technique, one whose difficulty I touched on at the start of this discussion. In the preface to Language-Games (the extract with which I started), Forrest-Thomson allows little distinction in the kinds of material a poem might recycle, the words to which its words might allude; “past language-forms,” she writes, can be borrowed from “poetry, letters, speech or the dictionary.”[25] While the first and last of these are in principle recoverable, the other two present some problems for the detective-minded. Personal letters, it is true, may be read by others, though their circulation is unlikely to be wide; speech, however, stays in the moment it is spoken, and the brittle fragments pressed in her pages can never be restored to living utterance. Just as her literary allusions are made ultimately to disown their sources, though, so these private allusions come to exist fully in their new setting, with part of their point the imagined but unimaginable conversations ghosting the emptily allusive words. “My love, if I write a song for you / To that extent you are gone.”[26] In the end, this is another face of the paradox on which Forrest-Thomson’s most successful poetry is founded: that literature must destroy or negate what it seeks most intimately to represent by subsuming it in a separate reality.

[1]Preface to Language-Games (1971). Reprinted in Veronica Forrest-Thomson, Collected Poems, ed. Anthony Barnett (London: Shearsman & Allardyce, 2008) 165-66.
[2]Collected Poems 81-82 (81).
[3]Collected Poems 77-79.
[4]“Epicurus,” Collected Poems 45-46 (45).
[5]William Irwin, “What is an Allusion?,” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, 59 (2001) 287-97.
[6]“Alka Seltzer Poem” (Collected Poems 89) begins “With beaded bubbles winking at the brim,” a line from Keats’ “Ode to a Nightingale” (Complete Poems, ed. Miriam Allott (London: Longman, 1970) 526). Though this may seem a fairly uncontroversial example, the question of whether such a straightforward steal is allusion or quotation (or indeed something else entirely) is thrown into relief by Forrest-Thomson’s earlier invocation of the same poem, in “Provence” (Collected Poems 24). There, the “camp of survivors who linger / sipping the south” makes more conventional allusive use of Keats’ imagery (“O for a beaker full of the warm South”), because once the allusion is taken the red-wine drinkers resolve themselves quite simply. Even with Keats on one’s side, the opening of “Alka Seltzer Poem” takes some further interpretative work.
[7]Collected Poems 141.
[8]Donne, The Complete English Poems, ed. A. J. Smith (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1971) 80.
[9]Poetic Artifice: A Theory of Twentieth-Century Poetry (Manchester: Manchester UP, 1978) 42.
[10]Poetic Artifice 41.
[11]Address on “The Bible as Scripture and Literature,” Boston 1932. Quoted in Christopher Ricks, Allusion to the Poets (Oxford: Oxford UP, 2002) 4.
[12]Collected Poems 152-57 (154).
[13]Collected Poems 150-51 (150).
[14]“In Memoriam Ezra Pound,” “The Lady of Shalott: Ode,” “In Memoriam: for W. S. Gilbert”; Collected Poems, 132-33, 136-37, 149.
[15]Poetic Artifice 124.
[16]Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Major Works, ed. H. J. Jackson (Oxford: Oxford UP, 1985) 55.
[17]Collected Poems 136.
[18]Poetic Artifice 123.
[19]“The Garden of Proserpine,” in Swinburne, Major Poems and Selected Prose, ed. Jerome McGann (New Haven: Yale UP, 2004) 131; Collected Poems 138-40 (138).
[20]“Fêtes Nationales & Zazie in the London Underground,” Collected Poems, 61-62 (61).
[21]Collected Poems 140.
[22]Collected Poems 169.
[23]Collected Poems 152-57 (153).
[24]Preface to On the Periphery (Collected Poems 167).
[25]Collected Poems 165.
[26]“Sonnet,” Collected Poems 141.

Sophie Read is lecturer in English and Fellow of Christ’s College, University of Cambridge.