Radiant transparency – the style of Longley’s Angel Hill

You can only feel wonder at the quietly but profoundly startling first lines of Angel Hill:

…….for Fleur Adcock at 80


You gave me a gilded magnifying glass
For scrutinizing the hearts of wild flowers
(Which I did, kneeling in water meadows).

Their movement is  grave, measured and relaxed, like the tread of a sure-footed walker over a tussocky field. To say there’s not a hint of dramatic emphasis in the poem’s voice wouldn’t be putting the matter strongly enough though. There’s a positive avoidance of emphasis when it threatens to arise, as it might have done after line two, if the sentence had ended there rather than continuing with the almost pedantically matter of fact parenthesis of line three. [1] In this poem, and a number of others in Angel Hill, I think Longley has perfected a style that combines transparency with suggestiveness and imaginative radiance in a truly remarkable way. I think he’s done so by fine-tuning qualities that were always present in his approach to writing and perhaps in his character but where writing in his previous books could seem to swing between evenness and a transparency of a plain and colourless kind, on the one hand, and more jaggedly emphatic writing on  the other, in this book the medium of expression has become so sensitive that the lightest of touches will suffuse the transparency with a kind of opalescent shimmering of suggestions. The avoidance of emphatic tones is vital to maintaining this interplay of different suggestions and perspectives.

I haven’t said what I find so startling about the lines I’ve quoted. It is of course particularly that leap into Ovidian fantasy in the second line. Line one already seems to me to have a kind of magical vibrancy, somehow arising from the sharp, delicate and precise play of sounds, from a hint of breathlessness about the run of short syllables, and from the brief voluptuous relish with which alliteration encourages us to hover over the word “gilded”[2]. However, following the cue of the subtitle the world the line suggests is a studious, bookish one of short-sighted poring over print. The suggestion of slow deliberation is crystallized in “scrutinizing” and then exploded in “the hearts of wild flowers”, which not only sweeps us out of doors but sweeps us out of study of any kind, literary or botanical, into an Ovidian world of living energies, of human or divine flowers with their stories of passionate desire. The lightness with which this is done can be brought out by quotation from a poem in The Ghost Orchid:


Now that my body grows woman-like I look at men
As two or three women have looked at me, then hide
Among Ovid’s lovely casualties – all that blood
Colouring the grass and changing into flowers, purple,
Lily-shaped, wild hyacinth upon whose petals
We doodled our lugubrious initials …

That’s magnificent too, with its surging energies and violent imaginative swerves, but you feel the effort in it and when you put it next to the later poem it seems deliberately cranked up by comparison with the spontaneity and naturalness with which the later one seems to ride currents of association. And yet, of course, the airy, piercing swiftness of the moment in “The Magnifying Glass” depends on the depth with which Longley has absorbed the Ovidian influence in his earlier work.

From paganism in line two to Christianity in line three. Admittedly, “kneeling in water meadows” is just what one must do to examine wild flowers when one reaches an age at which squatting becomes awkward but the poem’s tone of ceremonious reverence and the stress the metre places on “kneel”[3] quietly flood the act of kneeling with symbolic suggestions. In “Sandstone Keepsake”, in Station Island, Heaney famously describes himself as “one of the venerators”[4], inspected and passed over by “trained binoculars” as he wades a stream near the Magilligan internment camp during the Troubles. I’ve always found this an uncomfortable moment, not only because of the uneasiness Heaney perhaps feels about his status as non-combatant but also because the claim to being a venerator has struck me as overweaning. That may be unfair. Be that as it may. Certainly I don’t feel that either Heaney or Longley at that stage could embody reverence for life without the need to declare it in the way Longley does in Angel Hill. No doubt this is partly a matter of a changing attitude to life brought by time and age but I think it also, and perhaps above all, depends on the refinement of the means of expression brought to such a pitch of subtlety in the best poems in Angel Hill.

Where the writing is so transmissive, it can’t fail to register as a grace that the addressee of the poem is called Fleur. This sets off ripples of humorous suggestion that I’m sure Adcock and Longley both enjoyed.

As so often in later Longley, the phrase “to see a world in a grain of sand” from Blake’s “Auguries of Innocence” comes to mind. However, Marvell is the poet I’m most reminded of by the subtle interplay of tones and the combination of lyricism with constantly flickering humour in the style of this volume.

Admittedly the imaginative pressure in some of the poems is much lower than in “The Magnifying Glass” or the equally fine “Inglenook”. A very few seem mere doodles (“Menu” comes to mind) and some, while good and engaging in themselves, seem to try for a higher flight than they have the power to achieve. “Nativity” seems to me to do this. Its last line describes a bowl used by a child in a nativity play to wash the baby Jesus in as “Large enough to hold the whole world”. This appears to aspire after an effect something like Donne’s “Immensity cloistered in thy dear womb” (in a sonnet to the Virgin), not as an expression of the poet’s own faith, as in Donne, but – I imagine – to suggest the child’s or the children’s awe at the performance / rite they’ve been engaged in. For me it just didn’t come off, though perhaps it does for more imaginatively receptive readers.

[1] The fact that this parenthesis is set between lunulae rather than dashes is crucial. Dashes would suggest an impulsive afterthought; brackets make clear that the bracketed thought was foreseen and is part of the orderly construction of the whole sentence and so require what precedes them to be spoken in an even tone that allows the voice to include them seamlessly. If Longley had wanted a dramatic delivery with an emphatic pause after the startling idea of scrutinizing the hearts of wild flowers, he’d have put a stop after flowers and added the next statement as a minor sentence. I dare say some readers aloud would read it as if he had done that, but they’d be going against the author’s intentions in the same way as a director overriding a stage direction.

[2] All these suggestions are extremely light. That they nevertheless register so clearly is a testimony to that sensitivity of the language that I’ve talked about. Reading this poetry, you’re like a spider feeling the minutest vibrations in a web.

[3] In the hands of a master, nudges so tiny that it seems almost trivial to comment on them take on serious expressive power. Here, there’s a disruption of the metrical pattern set up by the first three syllables. The sequence of stress, unstress, stress leads one to expect that the fourth syllable will be unstressed. Instead, we have another stressed syllable followed by two unstressed ones. The change of stride forces an extra heavy emphasis on the first syllable of “kneeling”, and also a fractional pause between “did” and “kneel”. The result is extra emphasis on the word “kneeling”, and a fuller discharge of its weight of meanings and associations.

[4] “Anyhow, there I was with the wet red stone / in my hand, staring across at the watch-towers / from my free state of image and allusion, / swooped on then dropped by trained binoculars: // a silhouette not worth bothering about, / out for the evening in scarf and waders / and not about to set times wrong or right, / stooping along, one of the venerators.”

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