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Mistress of Unease – Scottish Review of Books
Muriel Spark in Rome: ‘She is to me above all a rich source of images.’
by Stewart Conn

Mistress of Unease

February 10, 2018 | by Stewart Conn

Muriel Spark merits scrutiny both for her poetry and for her concern with poetry as a craft – not least given the number of admirers and commentators on her work apparently unaware of her poetic output, far less her continued commitment to it.

Her 1999 broadcast talk ‘The Art of Verse’ opens:

‘Verse is often considered an inferior form of poetry. Not so. It is a literary form by itself, a craft verging on art. At its best the practice of verse emerges as poetry … Poets who practise ‘free verse’ are seldom aware of what they are freed from. The study of verse is a sadly forgotten one. In my view, poets cannot work freely unless they are fully experienced in the makings of verse … and I am convinced any poet, or indeed anyone who writes prose, would bene- fit from a knowledge of what verse is.’

Stressing how she had ‘practised and studied all verse forms’ – triolets, sonnets, rondeaux, chants royal, you name it – she concludes:

‘I believe I owe to this… a sense of how to manipulate language and organize sentences and paragraphs (the stanzas of prose) to procure an effect. I have always claimed that I write as a poet, that my novels come under the cate- gory of poetics rather than fiction. If this is even partly so, I owe it to [that] early apprenticeship.’

I know of no-one more insistent on being a poet to their marrow: certainly no prose writer. Scott forsook poetry for the historical novel and Thomas Hardy, who saw it as his true vocation, published none in book form until he could afford to give up writing fiction. Whereas introducing her 2004 All the Poems, Spark writes: ‘Although most of my life has been devoted to fiction, I have always thought of myself as a poet.’ Reiterating that for creative writing of any sort ‘that early apprenticeship is a wonderful stimulant and start’.

She began early. Aged eleven, at James Gillespie’s School, she discovered ‘the delights of poetry and art through that wonderful teacher Christina Kay. There was a small writing-desk in my grandmother’s room for me to use while I was minding her … While my grandmother dozed, I did my homework, wrote my poems [and] read the books that I had brought home from the public library.’ She professed herself ‘deeply interested in rhythms and curious… what one could make them mean’. The spirited dactyls of ‘The Gallop’, appearing in the school magazine, reflected every school-girl’s dream:

Horses wild horses!
Alive as they gallop
In fury along!
As they gallop and gallop
and gallop along! …
Living and spirited
Beautiful horses!
Spirited, beautiful horses!

When she was twelve the magazine printed five more poems. Two years later she won a prize marking the centenary of Scott’s death, and was to her embarrassment crowned in a public ceremony. Helping to formulate her taste were Wordsworth, Tennyson, Browning, Swinburne and Blunden. She passionately admired John Masefield whom Miss Kay took her to hear read ‘like a true bard’, in a large hall in Edinburgh. Her last piece in the magazine echoed Yeats’s ‘The Scholars’. By this time, too, she was mesmerized by the Border ballads, memorizing many without noticing it: ‘their steel and bite, so remorseless and yet so lyrical, entered my literary bloodstream, never to depart’.

In 1937, aged 19, she sailed to join her prospective husband in Bulawayo, where she ‘never stopped writing poetry’; twice winning the Rhodesian poetry competition. In 1944, her unhappy marriage over – though neither it, nor the ferment of later relationships, infiltrated her work – she returned briefly to Edinburgh, then headed for London. After a spell at the Foreign Office she became embroiled with the Poetry Society, in whose Poetry Review she won a Love Lyric prize. Of her sonnet, the judge said: ‘It has an air about it. It is a lovely poem.’ Spark came clean: ‘Re-reading the poem I am sure it has an air about it, but certainly it was merely an old-fashioned exercise in what I thought would win that poetry prize.’

Nineteen fifty-two saw the publication of Dylan Thomas’s Collected Poems. Impending were A Vision of Beasts and Gods by George Barker, and WS Graham’s The Nightfishing. All three contain nominal ballads, but none with Spark’s tautness and hotline to their Border fastness. And she was out of kilter with much that was fashionable: metaphysical yes, but never a wild-eyed White Horsewoman of the Apocalypse, though the term appears in the title of one of her early stories.

The same year her zest for modernism, and passion for the Ballads, bore fruit in The Fanfarlo and Other Verse. The central characters of ‘The Ballad of the Fanfarlo’ are from Baudelaire’s fictionalised version of his affair with the singer-and-dancer Jeanne Duval. Spark saw it as her ‘central statement in verse, so far’. It is also by far the longest and I suspect most wilfully obscure. Its ‘tremorous metropolis’ mapping her state of mind, it subverts the basic ballad ingredients – numerals, emblematic colours, key words repeated like charms – and abounds in what could be pastiche, as in this dual nod to T.S. Eliot and Sir Patrick Spens:

Samuel Cramer lay on his loose bones Stared out of the window where there was The new moon like a pair of surgical foreceps
With the old moon in her jaws …


‘I see three ghosts’ cried Samuel Cramer,
‘And they have come too slow.
The one is Manuela de Monteverde,
The next is the Fanfarlo.
The third is a fiend that hovers behind, And he is no man that I know.’

The Ballad occupies 20 of the 125 pages in the misleadingly titled All the Poems. But the pamphlet, Spark’s biographer Martin Stannard records, ‘sank almost unnoticed and sales were negligible, the title poem [falling] on stony ground’. Though she noted amusedly, in her autobiography Curriculum Vitae, that ‘the publisher actually made a profit out of it, much later, when I had a name’. The poem’s complexity, and glorification of God, have been attributed partly to her teetering, at the time, on the brink of religious conversion. Either way, like Stannard, I find it ‘singularly difficult to interpret’.

I am also bemused by Spark’s declared mystification over the thrice-repeated – and concluding – phrase, ‘Heart of Midlothian, never mine’, in ‘Edinburgh Villanelle’, from the same period. ‘I have no idea what I meant by the words in the poem, never mine,’ she insists, introducing All the Poems, ‘and yet I meant them at the time. And I have let them rest as they are, among other unfathomable lines.’

Yet she was well aware of Edinburgh where she grew up having bred in her ‘the condition of exiledom’; and of her severance, all the more after her father’s death, from her working-class origins (identifiable with that heart-shape in the granite setts of the High Street?). On later visits she felt ‘an exile in heart and mind’; the city ‘hostile’ to her artistic vision … ‘a place where I could not hope to be understood’. Surely that ‘Heart of Midlothian, never mine’ reflects a sense of rejection of or by the city, or both, to which she is in denial – doubly painful given her lingering love for it. Unless she was simply a clandestine Hibs supporter. A companion-piece, ‘Edinburgh Villanelle’ empathizes with that other poète maudit Paul Verlaine, his ‘de la musique avant toute chose’ reflecting her ‘Whether in prose or verse, all creative writing is mysteriously connected with music’. It ends:

Therefore I see the sky and spend
An hour of lyrical reproof,
Like poor Verlaine, whom God defend, And write my book till summer’s end.

London, not Edinburgh, the place for creativity. But the poems which most appeal to me are those which reveal her a mistress of unease. These are often on the writing process, as when ‘Authors’ Ghosts’ creep uncannily back to ‘haunt the sleeping shelves…’; the poem’s closing reference to pages ‘added, re-written, revised’ tremulously relaying the frailty of memory:

Oh yes, it has been tampered with.
No doubt about it.
The author’s very touch is here, there and there,
Where it wasn’t before, and
What’s more, something’s missing – I could have sworn . . .

* * *

IN December 1950 Muriel Spark first visited John Masefield in Berkshire, to propose a book on him, despite his clear injunction: ‘Print not my life and letters, put them by. / When I am dead, let memory of me die.’ The then 72-year-old Poet Laureate appeared to her ‘a lovely-looking old man. Rosy cheeks, white skin, pure-white hair and moustache and blue, blue eyes. A charming voice which carefully enunciates all vowels and speaks boldly.’ She recalled that while ‘his house [was] rather cold – we each had a small paraffin stove by our chair at lunch – and there was no alcoholic drink, it was one of the happiest days of my life’.

Her study of him came out in 1953. Though admiring and in the main positive she didn’t pull her punches at what she felt sentimental or banal: a section of one work was ‘irredeemably bad, if not nauseating’; another ‘positively bad verse, really unconsciously comical’. Yet dissociating him from the Georgians, and applauding the vigorous sweep of his language, she saw his role of story-teller as similar to her own. ‘Although I now write nov- els, and only occasional poems’ she says in the (revised) 1991 edition, ‘I still think of myself as a narrative poet’. Again in her autobiography, the mantra: ‘My novels are not verse, they are not poetic in the flowery sense. But I claim a poetic perception, a poet’s way of looking at the world, a synoptic vision.’

* * *

ON my first visit to Rome, in the early 70s, I stayed in the suburb of Monte Mario. My host, Ettore, collected paintings. In his studio was a Bassano landscape he was restoring. By my bed hung a portrait once ascribed to Leonardo, purportedly of the girl who modelled for the Virgin of the Rocks. The front door had an array of locks, bolts and burglar alarms such as I’d never seen. In 2000, with Spark and Penelope Jardine away, San Giovanni, their home in Tuscany, was burgled. Spark’s poem ‘The Empty Space’ touchingly mourns one particularly hurtful loss: that of a painting by Jardine:

A square space on the wall marks the memory of that picture painted at night, stolen at night, worked on at night, in Rome, from the artist’s window …

and ends with the bleak summing-up: ‘The thieves came by night’.

The menacing dark cocooning Castel St. Angelo I find reminiscent of scenes and moments in her prose … not least that conjured up in the radio version of one of my favourites among her novels: ‘The lion howls, and the devil prowls, in the streets of Peckham Rye.’ Elsewhere her sleight-of-ear can be jaunty yet wistful, with traces of Auden, and of Stevie Smith whose Not Waving but Drowning she reviewed approvingly. In ‘Hats’, Spark has her bag stolen from the table, in a square in Venice. where she had been sitting having coffee, and drafting a poem. The ending makes no bones about her priorities:

What was in the bag? said
the policeman.
Some money, a passport
and a poem.

How did it go, that poem?

I wish I could remember.

‘Created and Abandoned’ compares the fictional creations of the writer whose drama is completed with those of a dreamer awakening … their lives similarly, and summarily, cut off. Again confirming how spot-on was her sobriquet ‘Spooky Spark’. In one of her best-known poems, ‘Going up to Sotheby’s’, the fictive author is himself defunct. After a fierce fight to get into print he puts his original typescript away, in a trunk. In due course he makes his reputation. The years pass. He and his wife are dead.

And now the grandchildren are selling the manuscript.
Bound and proud, documented and glossed
by scholars of the land, smoothed out and precious, these leaves of paper are going up to Sotheby’s. The wine-stained, stew-stained and mould-smelly papers are
going up to Sotheby’s. They occupy the front seat
of the Renault, beside the driver.
They are a national event. They are going up
to make their fortune at last,
which once were so humble, tattered, and so truly working class.

* * *

SPARK’S use of the term ‘form’ as previously quoted has applied to the arrangement of the poem – formal or informal – on the page, the regularity or irregularity of its verse-patterns, its line-lengths and rhyme-schemes: all technical matters. Beyond that Spark believes it is through experimenting with such methods and devices that the poet determines the appropriate ‘form’ for his or her theme … and that it is how this poetic as against verse form develops which makes one poet distinguishable from any other.

Calling on the Ballads, ‘for all their length and repetitiveness, models of narrative economy … with no dissipation of imagery … no digression’, she further contrasts Masefield’s episodic style with hers, ‘entirely involuntary and unforeseen’. Beyond that and while Masefield may manifest the linear development dear to editors and reviewers I’d find it hard, beyond an easing of rhyme schemes and possibly an increase in clarity, to detect in what order her poems were written, or trace in them any maturing ‘voice’.

There are no Yeatsian transitions, defining phases, or linguistic realignments as in some of her Scottish contemporaries. A poetic perception and precision decreeing the cadences of her prose, the poetry determinedly pursues its own course. As AL Kennedy crisply put it in a radio feature The Bright Spark: ‘Poetry was the door she walked through, into writ- ing, into that universe of possibility – and the paying job.’ Hand in hand with this went a residual undercurrent of vulnerability countered by voracity – about which she makes no bones in her short poem ‘The Goose’:

Do you want to know why I am alive today?
I will tell you.
Early on, during the food shortage, Some of us were miraculously presented Each with a goose that laid a golden egg. Myself, I killed the cackling thing and ate it.
Alas, many and many of the other recipients
Died of gold-dust poisoning.

Self-preservation … and survival. Spark’s poems flit from sombre to mischievous; grave to angelic; some smacking of anecdotes, nursery-rhymes, even conundrums … often conversational but never casual. Most telling, when not clashing symbols. And diminished if laid out other than precisely as she has them.

That insistence on preciseness – technical, typographical or as in her essay on Robert Frost, descriptive – was an enduring preoccupation as against any apparent concern with the sources of inspiration, or what function – or cost – poetry might have. Consistent with this goes a dispassionate (even icy) fixedness of gaze. Philip Larkin saw writing poems as a knife and fork partnership: the fork spears the emotion, lands it on the plate; the knife, more analytic, sorts it out, gives the poem its cutting edge. With her I’m more conscious of the knife. Not any old knife but from one of those fish-services, blades delicately engraved. In her hands, razor-sharp.

On that stay in Rome, I was taken to visit an artist-cum-jeweller, Zev, his apartment crammed with objets-d’art. Under glass, a set of slender silver and shell goblets. On the walls, oils so rich in pigment they seemed gem-encrusted. Zev was one-eighth Blackfoot Indian, his half-moon signature their tribal emblem. I understood he’d been commissioned to make a jewel-box for his friend Muriel Spark, then on holiday abroad. But I was later chided on this: jewellery, yes … but no jewel-box.

I’d like, recalling Zev’s studio as an Aladdin’s cave, to make amends by positing another, metaphorically housing Spark’s voluminous prose output … with in one corner, a small coffer containing not just the pile of necklacesopals and moonstones from her ‘’Rue du Cherche Midi’, but all her poems, intricately cut and polished, facets glinting in the light.

She is to me above all a rich source of images; often, in herself and in her work, self-distancing: the grande dame bestriding the literary scene … or as evoked by the words ‘Muriel Spark / Poeta’, inscribed on her tombstone. But superimposed on these, and imprinted indelibly in my mind, lingers that of the very lively ghost of a young girl, hunched at her grandmother’s writing desk … from which wild horses couldn’t tear her.


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