Aidan Coleman Reviews New and Selected Poems of Anna Wickham

By | 8 April 2019

On religious matters Wickham is heterodox. She would not be alone in her criticism of religious hypocrisy and mere shows of piety – a major theme for many of her more orthodox contemporaries – but she also rejects much doctrine. It would be difficult to construct a consistent theology from the poems. Wickham’s God is mostly immanent, perhaps, closest to Blake’s deity – and it is, therefore, surprising how seldom Christ appears in her work compared to God. In one of the previously unpublished poems, ‘Prayer in Hampstead’, she declares ‘the perfected peasant I’LL choose for my King’ by which she means, not Christ, but something closer to the literal – the capitals tellingly emphasising the individual and the will. In places, Wickham is a mystic seeking out a transcendent and unknowable God. Sometimes God is simply a short-hand for things that are good or an ultimate perfection, a subject which Wickham constantly revisits. Many poems invoke God in a casual sense, others in prayer. ‘Envoi’, a work of balance and poise, reads in its entirety:

God, thou great symmetry 
Who put a biting lust in me 
From whence my sorrows spring, 
For all the frittered days
That I have spent in shapeless ways 
Give me one perfect thing.

As would be expected, the hitherto unpublished works are not as strong as the previously published. The sequence ‘Sonnets of the Ravished Silence’ is among the best of the 150 new poems. The title may remind of John Donne – and Wickham is not averse to mixing God and Eros – but these sonnets, Elizabethan in form, owe a greater debt to Shakespeare and Barrett Browning. The sequence, by turns, dense and chatty, is often funny and always compelling. The fourth sonnet begins:

Here’s my excuse, though at my primal word, 
I flout him. Win wages of a shrew.
Miscall a man, and choose a silly bird
To set my subject, when my tale is new.

‘Sonnets of the Ravished Silence’ is attractively self-reflexive in its construction – its lexicon includes ‘iambs’, ‘rhymes’ and ‘rhythms’. ‘O, Nightingale, Aid thou a Sonneteer’, the speaker requests in the third sonnet. Sonnet 2, echoes and subverts Hamlet:

Words, words and words: weapon of a shrew, 
What perfect note has any hen-bird sung?

The constriction of the Elizabethan Sonnet seems to suit Wickham’s aims better than the looser forms but the iambs are not slavishly adhered to, and the results are impressive. The seventh sonnet is the mid-point of the sequence:

Should all the rhythms of my love be free, 
No more constricted than the ranging wind? 
That liberal constant vastness of the sea,
Is ruled in waves, and by the shore confined. 

I doubt if verse or love be less sincere, 
For due attention to its form and style. 
Beauty adorned, I say, is doubly dear, 
I wear more raiment than my honest smile.

Old Truth’s a melancholy Hadrian, 
Coquettish, harsh, exacting, past her prime. 
No crafty poet, and no honest man, 
Would have her with his love or in his rhyme. 
But to keep faith with insincerity, 
Is to deck Beauty, in Truth’s livery. 

The frame of reference is impressive, and a Shakespearean vocabulary – ‘constant’, ‘vastness’, ‘raiment’, ‘doubly dear’, ‘honest smile’, ‘deck’, ‘livery’ – is put to particularly productive use. The meaning of ‘coquettish’ – a word with a compelling music of its own – is clear enough but how is Truth a ‘melancholy Hadrian’? I don’t know but I’m intrigued by the word’s resonance. Is it a reference to the fortification of boundaries? – after all for Britons, at least, the Emperor is most famous for his wall. Whatever the meaning, and however it relates to the elegant truth-beauty couplet, the inclusion of such a sonnet could justify the book’s new content alone.

Some of the uncollected works, however, seem too prosaic to justify inclusion and the worst of them read like paraphrases or rough outlines. The free verse monologue ‘The Letter’, while not wholly bad, ends:

I lie there superbly vain,
Supremely conscious of my beauty. 
I think I am shaped like the symbol of completion. 
My heart aches because you are gone. 
I rest my hand upon my breast.

‘The Urge’, one of the few poems in the book that refers to Australia, sounds, in its bombast, not unlike something you might hear in a slam poetry heat:

And I must be prophet of a new morality, 
And shout out loud all truth that is in me,
And still be popular. Let that be clear!
Till all Australia see my portrait in the Sphere.

The weaknesses are not peculiar to the formerly uncollected work but run throughout. The lexicon is limited and certain words return with a gruelling regularity. ‘Desire’ and its variants occur just about on every second page; ‘beauty’ and ‘perfect’ follow close behind. There are clichés in the work too. In ‘Song’ the speaker is ‘silent as a mouse’ which, regrettably, is rhymed with ‘house’. ‘A house in Hampstead’, begins seemingly without irony, ‘My house is damp as damp can be’ which is later answered by the rhymes: ‘me’, ‘see’ and ‘tree’. The imagery can be unimaginative: the trope of fire is over-used, ‘Heaven’ and ‘Hell’, ‘darkness’ and ‘light’, are used in uninteresting or predictable ways. Many poems – and this is a Georgian affliction – are too heavy laden with adjectives. Yet for all these faults, a reader is struck by a sensitivity of feeling that is often complemented by technical adroitness, and an irrepressible energy is evident on every page. Readers of this volume cannot fail to notice the rhetorical power of Wickham’s work and the book significantly expands the choice of poems for anthologists. With only a few exceptions, even the weakest poems are interesting, and the most uneven of them are good in places, justifying the editor’s generous selection.

Is Wickham Australian? Given her pseudonym she must have identified with Australia to some extent and, while her work contains few antipodean references, she spent her formative years here. The introduction begins by proclaiming: ‘Anna Wickham was one of the most important female poets writing in English during the first half of the twentieth century’. O’Reilly is not alone in this claim, a verdict borne out by Wickham’s inclusion in many anthologies. Neither is the claim as radical as it sounds because, after Gertrude Stein and Marianne Moore, with whom she could hardly compete for inventiveness, her other rivals – HD, Amy Lowell, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Edith Sitwell – are more minor. Is she in their company? The presence of this New and Selected, certainly makes her case stronger.

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