There is something exotic, dangerous and glamorous about the ambience and setting of the film Casablanca— thrilling may be the word—that is of the essence of the wartime Forties experience—and that has remained attractive to audiences (and readers) since then, albeit from a nostalgic (and at times camp) perspective.
Terence Tiller’s poems, often explorations of love and desire set in Egypt during World War II, are almost the poetic equivalent of the Bogart-Bergman film. Tiller, who is more or less a forgotten figure now (his work is out of print and there are no major critical studies of his writing), published three volumes with the New Hogarth Library in the Forties. Poems was the first of these, from 1941; his second was The Inward Animal, from 1943. His Third, Unarm, Eros, from 1947, completes a trilogy of wartime poetry arguably unequalled for its extravagant lyric modernism.
One of the few contemporary critics to write on Tiller is Andrew Duncan, who emphasises the sensitivity and sensuousness of mid-century poetry, especially Tiller’s. Tiller ‘seems to have devoted much time to writing poetry which was sexy and romantic’.1 Duncan also notes his importance for future poetry: ‘surely he points ahead to a whole strand of 1960s poetry which was reflexive and self-critical and preferred the fine to the gross’. Tiller also anticipates ‘the concern with light’ that ‘appears in poets like David Chaloner and Denise Riley’.2
Speaking of sexy: Tiller, like Keith Douglas, insofar as he brought the twin tensions of mortal combat and Eros together—though with a far less murderous precision—might be said to be an influence on Thom Gunn, whose early Cambridge poetry also explored, fruitfully, images of men at arms and love. This is a Renaissance trope, originally—one thinks of Fulke Greville’s poems, such as ‘Sonnet 78’, with its Machiavellian and martial imagery. As we saw with F.T. Prince, a key resource for one strain of the Forties Style was the Renaissance, with its heightened manner.
This is Tiller, but could be Gunn: ‘All night they have been wounded on each other, / the waves that fall like armour from their poise’—not least because the tropes are ones we think of as quintessentially Gunn’s—armour, wounds and ‘poise’.3 Even the ending of ‘The Child’ has a characteristically dark, even nihilistic attitude recalling Gunn’s early collections: ‘The world in which we made you is not kind.’4
If Gunn was influenced even slightly by Tiller, and the many echoes are striking, this is yet another instance of a Forties connection to a Fifties Movement poet. However, rather more even than Gunn, it seems that Geoffrey Hill had been reading his Tiller by the time he came to write his first major published poem, the prize-winning ‘Genesis’ of 1952. The opening poem in Unarm, Eros, ‘With the Gift of this Book’, ends with a couplet whose diction (‘no myth will’, ‘blood’) clearly echoes Hill’s poem: ‘No myth will ever come to any good: / but biting the wasp’s apple; being blood.’ The next poem in the collection opens with an image, ‘the world / rolls’ that again Hill seems to have borrowed for ‘Genesis’.5
The point is not to score points here at the expense of Hill, a highly allusive poet, but to observe several things at once about Tiller’s writing. It was very much a part of its moment, and embedded itself with many allusions to the key moderns—and aspects of this high modern lyric style, at its ripest fruition in Tiller, were borrowed and continued by poets as different as Gunn, Ashbery and Hill; and therefore it is plausible to suggest that the style has never, indeed, been retired.
‘Spring Letter’, for instance, the second poem in the collection we have been discussing, is studded with echoes of other poets, some a little too near the surface to be completely absorbed.6 I suspect Tiller did not think in those terms himself, and that, indeed, following the way that Eliot managed allusion in many of his poems, was aiming for a more intertextual effect. Some examples in this poem are ‘the washed and choirboy afternoon’ with its Dylan Thomas feel; stanza four includes the words ‘body’ and ‘image’, which were popular with Yeats, especially in his Byzantium and Apocalyptic poems. The same poem gives us the very Yeatsian ‘awful beauty’; and a ‘tigerish whirlwind’ that feels like Eliot to me.
All Tiller’s early collections are just a little marred by this fledgling tone whose imitative qualities are often very near the surface, where influence bleeds into homage or pastiche; but this can be read too as a poetic device. Gusts of Yeats (‘sensual imaginings’) and Eliot move in and across the poems, like sand across the Sahara. At the time, this likely made them at one within the modern lyric tradition and, perhaps to some readers, unoriginal-sounding apprentice work. However, after more than sixty-five years, a clutch of the best of Tiller’s poems exemplifies the ripe end times of the modernist lyric.
Terence Tiller’s work of the Forties was written during a time of personal and career crisis, when the young writer, wishing to have an academic and literary career in England, instead found himself (for a time literally) trapped in Egypt. There, he formed associations with the Personal Landscape poets (associated with the expat magazine of the same name), including Bernard Spencer and Lawrence Durrell. Tiller was a teacher, not a soldier. Indeed, before his time in Egypt, he had been Research Scholar, Director of Studies, and University Lecturer in Medieval History at Cambridge.7 Like F.T. Prince then, he had to ‘work twice as hard’ as poet and scholar. He was to find the fruits of his labours disappointing. When his funding fell through, he was unable to travel to Florence to study the research materials for his PhD thesis on late-medieval Pisa (again, the link to Prince’s Italianate interests is noteworthy).8
Cambridge could only find him a position at Cairo, after his scholarship failed to be renewed. Like Larkin, Tiller was not a public school boy. As such, he always felt somewhat socially alienated from those Personal Landscape poets like Durrell, who were so educated. This idea of alienation runs throughout critical readings of his work; indeed, his Egyptian poetry collections are quite Freudian in their sense of being unheimlich.
The two key studies of this period and place’s poetry, Many Histories Deep: The Personal Landscape Poets in Egypt, 1940–45 by Roger Bowen, and Personal Landscape: British Poetry in Egypt During the Second World War by Jonathan Bolton, reflect the way in which Tiller and his poetry have tended to be considered posthumously.
Bowen’s chapter on Tiller, ‘Terrence Tiller and the “Customary Self’’’, tends to the negative. Tiller (like many of the poets discussed here) is held critically accountable for a lack of maturity, or even any later development. According to Bowen, Tiller, who lived in Egypt from September 1939 to September 1946, ‘betrays little or no sense of change or adjustment’. Further, his poetry remains ‘frozen, in an antechamber of experience’.9 Perhaps even worse, Bowen regards him as the classic British snob, ‘unimpressed by the cultural possibilities of Egypt’s capital’—especially its bookshops—who never learned to read or write classical or colloquial Arabic though he spoke street Arabic fairly well.10 As someone without a great gift for other tongues, I rather read Tiller’s acquisition of demotic Arabic to a competent degree as a sign of positive local engagement, rather than a turning away from local culture.
As Jonathan Bolton argues in Personal Landscapes: British Poets in Egypt During the Second World War, which reads the Personal Landscape poets from the perspective of Edward Said’s Orientalism, it was not Tiller especially, but the British poets in general who tended to ‘orientalise’ the Arabs they met. Bolton notes how Keith Douglas found them to be ‘unsavoury people’ and observes that the Other, for Tiller, was not the native population of Egypt, but his own buried self, which his poetry explores the painful birth or rebirth of.11 In this way, Tiller can be located within the personalism of the Apocalyptic movement, with its interest in private and mythic states and identities.
My own reading of Tiller does not dwell on his ‘orientalist reaction’ to Egypt as alienating, to his ‘colonial disdain’ or how he ‘dispenses with locality’. I would like to note that, if Tiller is to be read as a lyrical modernist, and a precursor to abstract lyricism, then his tendency to base his poetry on a ‘level of abstraction’ is not entirely surprising, or uninteresting.12
While Bowen may be right to observe that Terence Tiller was not a totally sympathetic visitor to Egypt, such an interpretation seems slightly over-determined; in expecting a direct empirical response from Tiller, relating his poems to the ‘exterior’ factuality of Arabic/Islamic culture, Bowen is de facto asking for a style that was not the poet’s own. Tiller was not a Thirties poet (in the sense of being journalistic or openly political).
Tiller, a young and sensitive scholar confronting financial struggles as the world battered itself to death, unable to leave a strange and remote city, might be excused for being a little overwhelmed. It would be nice to think that such a young man would have arrived in Cairo with the sensibilities of thirty or forty years later, but he did not—and his relative aloofness could be blamed on rather more private reasons than an ideology of cultural superiority; in fact, we know that Tiller felt socially insecure among his Western peers.
Bowen notes that one of his colleagues, Robin Fedden, considered Tiller the most formally astute of the poets writing for Personal Landscape, the one with the most metaphysical bent, the poet most dedicated to strict prosody and with a ‘curious tensity of style’.13 It is a style that, in many ways, exemplifies an ideal of ‘stylishness’, a ‘hybrid, joining Auden with Eliot’ (as Bowen calls it), and that is what I will explore below, by reading a few key poems from his three Egyptian books.
Tolley is another critic of Tiller’s that has little good to say about his style, which he feels is borrowed from Empson: ‘Tiller often proceeds as Empson did with a series of sententious phrases.'14 Tolley feels Tiller emphasises the image too much, so that ‘the imagery often takes over the poem’. It is hard to see how a poem can be both too sententious and image-based at once (they are different forms of poetic argument).15 Tolley has problems with Tiller’s syntax, too, and his general tone: ‘The weakness of Tiller’s less good poetry is its excessive obliqueness. There is an overelaboration of sensitive observation and the appearance of subtlety of distinction that is not sustained by further acquaintance. This goes along with a syntactical elusiveness.’16
I am not sure what Tolley means precisely by ‘further acquaintance’. How long does one have to live with a Tiller poem to discover that its ‘subtlety of distinction’ is only a sham, I wonder? The ‘overelaboration of sensitive observation’ is another way of saying, as Duncan did, that Tiller is very sensitive and sensuous in his attention to his own self and to the world around him; it is exactly this passionate intensity that distinguishes the Forties Style, and that I welcome.
As for syntactical elusiveness, this is another aspect of Tiller’s style that is attractive—his lines are able to weave their arguments through rather complex contortions—as in ‘Egyptian Dancer’, as we shall see, to superb performative effect. Tiller’s style—much like Ashbery’s—employs and enjoys the artifice of poetic rhetoric and expression to explore and display the meanderings of a sensitive, even dandyish elegance of intellection.
Tolley also quotes Alan Ross as observing in a review that Tiller is ‘charming, full of grace’ and like Donne. It is hard to imagine a poet so damned for his gifts. Tolley himself also notes the ‘brilliance and coldness’ of Tiller’s work, and that it is ‘impressively memorable’.17
Tolley ultimately concludes that Tiller is a sort of figurehead for all that goes wrong at the end stages of full-blown high modernism, confirming my own sense that his poetry is, in fact, poetic modernism at its ripest apex: ‘We seem to encounter one of the elements of modernism carried to the point of self-defeat: the life of the surface is over-developed, with the consequence that feeling is less effectively brought into focus.’ Still, there is ‘a parade of sensitivity’.18
John Press, poet and critic, in his Rule and Energy, also has ambiguously positive problems with Tiller. His poems are ‘bafflingly difficult, because of their elaborate texture, the subtlety of Tiller’s emotional perceptions, the darting, elusive quality of his thought, and the wealth of scholarship with which he loads his verse’.19 This almost sounds like Eliot.
His best poems are those ‘uncluttered by ornate trills, the argument not smothered beneath a profusion of glittering images’. Again, we see that the problem with Tiller is in his excessively ornate gifts. He is ‘most successful when he keeps his eye on the object, and restrains his fancy from adventuring into recondite fields of speculation or into labyrinths of brilliant imagery’.20 When he rules his energies, then.
Though unable ‘to enjoy or even grasp the drift of much that Tiller has written’, Press does concede that the poet has ‘a formidable talent’. It may be that Tiller is not fully English: ‘the poetic learning and the rhythmical complexity derive from the Italian and French elements in our culture and in our language’—making him sound, intriguingly, a lot like F.T. Prince, with his own ‘Italian element’.21
It is hard to think all this could be down to one man—brilliant and cold, a parade of sensitivity, sententious, image-rich, scholarly, darting, baffling, glittering, ornate, charming, full of grace—and one begins to wonder if what we have here is a failure of criticism itself at the period—a moment Tolley, Ross, and others could not conceive of a different style, another modern way, which was both emotive and aesthetic, engaged with depth and surface. In short, that this Forties Style of daring, glaring opposites, essentially fused in Tiller’s work, rather than being praised for its originality and extension of previous modern modes simply blows all critical fuses does not compute.
For me, Tiller’s 1940s collections almost form one continuous and developing work, and, far from being frozen, develop across the books, while maintaining an unusual consistency of theme and concern. As is perhaps the most remarked upon aspect of his work, Tiller was interested in the ‘inner animal’ growing within the body of the common, smiling public man—in many ways, a personalized, Freudian myth borrowed from the rough beast slouching to Bethlehem to be born; in Tiller, it will be born in Cairo, close by, and the birth pangs are in tune with the world at war; in short, the neurotic conflicts in the personality of the poet result in the breaking through of a less ordered chaotic sense of self, or sensuousness. In the third collection, this spiritual/erotic rebirthing is paralleled by the birth of a daughter, a striking emergence of an apparently biographical detail that also manages to imitate Yeats’s daughter poetry.
Tiller is much taken with images of gestation and nascence—and his sense of the fertility within (and the struggle it engenders) is markedly influenced, not only by Yeats, or Eliot’s reflections on sterility, but Dylan Thomas, whose ‘narcissistic’ reflections on womb and tomb so bothered Holbrook. Tiller is peculiarly taken with this subject, and his best-known poems tend to feature mirrors and doubled selves reminiscent of their expressionist (and symbolic) use in the 1940s films of Orson Welles (notably, Citizen Kane and The Lady from Shanghai). That Tiller saw films, and enjoyed film noir, seems evident from the final poem in his three Forties books, ‘Detective Story’, starring a heroine who looks like Veronica Lake.
I list here the thirty or so poems of Tiller’s I feel are particularly of note, and would need to form the basis of any selected collections of poems that might one day bring his work back into print: ‘For Doreen’; ‘XX’; ‘XXVIII’; ‘XXX’; ‘XXXII’; ‘Egypt 1940’ (Poems); ‘IV’ [The silence that I break was more profound]; ‘V’ [The lines that mathematics draw]; ‘Examination Room’; ‘Egyptian Restaurant’; ‘Egyptian Dancer’; ‘Sphinx’; ‘XXVI’ [Since I have written strange and arrogant words]; ‘Folk Song’; ‘The Birth of Christ’ (The Inward Animal); ‘Substitutes’; ‘Spring Letter’; ‘Perfumes’; ‘Hands’; ‘Face’; ‘Roman Portraits’; ‘Camels’; ‘Flare’; ‘Lecturing to Troops’; ‘Armistice’; ‘Double Weather’; ‘Balcony’; ‘The Phoenix Hour’; ‘The Child’; ‘Detective Story’ (Unarm, Eros). It is not possible here to closely read all of Tiller’s work, but I would like to consider a few of the poems in more depth.
Poems, published in 1941, is the most arch-lyrical of the three collections that form his Forties trilogy. A brief consideration of opening lines shows the diction and register: ‘In the unloosed fantastic summer weather’; ‘the instant splendor, the swung bells that speak’; ‘they rode ahead of death on the strong turning’; ‘Salt waters was the oval fish, and flash’; ‘Crouched in the womb I learned this fear’; ‘Running to you, as the sad beast runs home’; ‘Lovers have wept and been afraid’; ‘All were lovely and with vivid souls’; ‘Consider, metaphysical my heart’; ‘The Grecian tulip and the gothic rose’; and, in the collection’s final poem, ‘Now the night finds us; the bright worlds advance.’22
It is not hard to detect the Yeatsian diction (beast, vivid); or the tropes of Eliot and Thomas (‘wept and been afraid’; ‘in the womb’). Tiller is very much under the sway, here, of the modern poets of the 1920s and 1930s, as a young poet of the time would have been. What marks him out is, of course, that he is actually in the desert that Yeats had only imagined the rough beast slouching in, and his fear, though arguably metaphysical, has a historical cast to it—he was surrounded in a war-torn part of North Africa.
Even given his rhetorical precursors, his own rhetoric is always inflected with both belatedness and urgency that end up making his final collection of the Forties particularly impressive. Also of note is that Tiller’s poems are— in rather contemporary fashion—not capitalised at the start of each line, but only every new sentence (unlike, for instance, the work of Nicholas Moore). This allows for the elegant fluidity of the work to be displayed more effectively, and in this way he was ahead of his time, stylistically. Of the 1941 poems, one stands out, ‘XX’:
Lovers have wept and been afraid
because they found all beauty come
down to the biting of the spade
and the falling back of the loam.
But the wild blue-eyed unicorn
rages upon the heraldic air;
the brooding eyes within us mourn
there. You are burnt with beauty there.
The legend or the virgin dies;
the trembling beast beside her stands
watching the sun between her thighs
and the white garland of her hands.
Painted or dreamt her life and his,
her death and his, steady-starred:
they have two immortalities,
the chevron of a sudden bird.23
The argument of this poem seems to be the following—lovers, confronted with the burial of a beautiful love object (death) have cried and been afraid; in the ‘heraldic air’ paradoxically the fictional beast the unicorn ‘rages’ very much immortal, as on the Grecian urn of Keats; beauty singes us in this ceremonial and artificial realm seemingly untouched by mortality.
Following the familiar myth of the unicorn, and as all poets of courtly love knew (and many weavers of tapestries), only a virgin maiden could gentle the fabulous beast and allow it to be captured, even slain. And so, either the virgin dies in pursuit of the tamed beautiful ideal (is deflowered) or the legend dies (chaste, ideal love); in the final stanza, we have the Yeatsian sense of the interpenetration of forces and things—the dancer and the dance are intermingled—and so too are the unicorn and the hunter-virgin—both are immortal—are, like the chevron of a ‘sudden bird’, a kind of phoenix event, perhaps (the unicorn was a symbol of the Incarnation). Chevrons were a key part of heraldic design; and used by the Spartans, those most warlike of ancient Greeks.
Tiller is fascinated by the tension between the actual, the body with its sexual force, its rage, its blood and desire, and the cultivated achievements of art and religious poise—or war and peace; or war, and states of truce, or amnesty. His Cairo was one such false oasis of Edenic calm, just before the rim of total war; and so too, was his outsider’s Englishness a veil that drew him apart from the Egyptians he saw and met. His life, in study, work and poetry, as well as personal passion, was such a balanced tension between passion’s sorrows and the consolations of aesthetic display; one thinks here of the Freudian apercu that all art is born of suppressed libido.
The two immortalities are those of being painted (art) and dreamt (desired, imagined)—so that, again, this erotic, mythological relationship exists in several temporal dimensions beyond the daily. Art and dreams are not one, but two. We see, in reading this poem, the intricacy of Tiller’s craft, and the thought behind the poems— where lyricism is put to complex and ambiguous work, employing expert knowledge of various fields. This is poetry at home with the heart and the mind, the passions and the intellect.
Tiller’s second collection, published two years later in 1943, is a further elaboration on these themes, and more. It opens with a brief foreword:
The first and the last of these poems present (in a social and a religious mode respectively) the pattern of a personal experience that must now have been shared by many. The rest of the book is my own mode of this experience. Now that the war has taken millions from their familiar environment and associates, its impact and the impact of strangeness must have shaken, and perhaps destroyed, many a customary self. There will have been a shocked and defensive rebellion; reconciliation must follow; the birth of some mutual thing in which the old and the new, the self and the alien, are combined after war. This childbirth is not easy; the pain is sure to be there.
For myself, and for many in the same or a worse position, I have tried to express the three parts of this pattern: the first distress; rebellion against place and circumstance; slow mutual absorption ending in the birth of something at once myself and a new self and Egypt. The ‘inward animal’ is this child, so unwillingly conceived and carried, so hardly brought forth.24
This is a useful passage; it reminds us of aspects of the Forties that are in some ways strange to us now: the idea of a displacement of millions, so that a ‘social mode’ can address a personal yet universal experience of uprootedness; the religious mode; and the need to justify the recourse to ‘personal experience’ through contextualising it, historically.
The personal mode is still with us, and though it may be somewhat hackneyed now to use a trope of gestation to explore self-discovery, personal growth, and even more radical challenges to the inner self, the method and aims are clear. Taken in the context of postcolonial criticism of Tiller, this statement seems to excuse his apparent discomfort in Egypt. He admits to feelings of ‘distress’, then ‘rebellion against place and circumstance’ and finally ‘slow mutual absorption’.
Tiller did not choose to be stranded in Egypt, strange to him and new, and it clearly, coinciding as it did with the war, overwhelmed him with its various sights and sounds. What seems admirable, at least to me, is how he sought to take these experiences and locate some order, some aesthetic synthesis, in them—not least because they were ‘shared by many’.
At the heart of the collection lies a sequence of poems, ‘XIV’ to ‘XVIII’. These five poems, given the stated aims of the book, explore dualities of image, reflection and self in terms expressly erotic and Egyptian (restaurants, belly-dancers) and also religious (Coptic Church) They form the midway of Tiller’s Forties trilogy and warrant further exploration. One of the best known of his poems is ‘Egyptian Restaurant’:25
Now I have dropped a stone in the reflection,
broken the room into a thousand rooms:
a thousand edges of acute refraction
blaze in the mirrors, in whose toss of beams
we sit as under a spray of images,
real where all is fleeting, plural, like
the circling crowd of jeweled ghostly Us.
Here is a stir, a glare, to crush the weak!
—rustle and babble and clang, fearful illusion
of lights and odours, doubling and gone and again,
where the soft-footed waiters tread precision
to terror’s edge, and yet are voiced like men.
Crossing and re-crossing, the dark faces,
earth under flower pots, wetly gape and gleam;
are lost in brightness, fall in tiny pieces,
move in and out of an appalling womb
as food is built and broken. Among these
one, who can clutch with bitterness the last
infirmity, the knowledge that he is:he droops his shoulders like the fading rest,
stares down the room where it is always raining
—lost in a mist of mirrors as in tears,
Cloth over arm, silver and glassware shining
—a mournful waiter among the chandeliers.
Restaurant El Hati, Cairo26
This poem opens up a rather surprising dichotomy, or union of disunified subjects—for the poem begins in the image-conscious, visually fragmented and multiple mind of the poetic speaker, but turns its grounding to find ‘one’ who has the ‘knowledge that he is’ unlike the ‘we’ dining party the ‘I’ is part of. Both the I and the One are ‘lost in a mist of mirrors as in tears’—but only the one knows the way out; the I is ‘fleeting, plural’—lost in a ‘crowd of jeweled ghostly Us’. Or maybe they—the we, I, us and one—are all equally lost in the trope of endless infinite mirrors.
This seems to me the best poem on multiplicity of self in relation to ideas of indeterminacy and observation (ideas brought forth by Freud, modern physics and Picasso, among others) that we have from the period – and it reminds me of the epistemological poem about the ‘variousness of things’ that we get in Louis MacNeice’s ‘Snow’ with its ‘drunkenness of things being various’. I also think, of course, of cinema, and especially Welles, who made divided selves and mirrors something of a specialty, though it may be Shakespeare in discussion with Banquo’s Ghost that offers the textual basis for such thought.
This is not just a slice of life poem—a poem occasioned by a trip to a restaurant—and the diction veers between the precise and the precious, wonderfully: ‘edges of acute refraction’ sounds scientific; ‘toss of beams’ is more lascivious and gay. There is a desire, as we have seen, in some critics of Forties poetry, to always locate the moment the poet becomes ever more lucid and empiricist; this poem by Tiller is certainly concerned with observational data, but is not anecdotally simplistic.
It is followed by ‘Street Scene’—the poetic speaker has escaped the seemingly infinite confines of the mirrored dining world of El Hati, and is now on ‘Rue Soliman Pasha, Cairo’.27 Tiller does want the reader to appreciate the specificity of location, here—these poems are extended in space as well as time. The opening lines again show the concern with seeing and self: ‘Down glittering rows the windows run / displaying you in shoes or books’—the ‘you’ being a woman whose ‘silk and linen’ is draped on ‘a thousand simpering yous in wax’.
There is something disturbingly fragmented and reified about the female you that the poetic speaker sees, on this shopping street—for she is identified with parts of commodities—shoes and books, silk and linen. And she is cut up and divided into the suitably melodramatic ‘thousand’ pieces. At least, we might reflect, this you is at least partly made of books, a nice counterpoint to the potentially sexist ‘shoes’.
In the last stanza, the poet becomes ‘a maker-image too’ as ‘the passing images of you / along my busy street’ affect him. In this sense, Tiller brings to bear the idea, in physics, that the observer alters the experiment. By observing the female love object, Tiller has himself reflected back in the myriad windowpanes, himself become an image-maker, making images of himself. And also, textually, his poem is a repeated image of the poem before, only now the we is an I, and they have escaped the interior mirrors, and found themselves lost without each other’s real presences.
In the next poem, ‘Elegy II’, subtitled ‘Shop Window’ [Tiller’s italics], the theme is explored further. ‘In the confused magnificence of love / is no community, but unsharing crowds / of shuttered faces where no secrets move.’28 Though set in Cairo, the poem also mentions the great London shopping street, Regent Street, and ends on a balcony above the bustle of the city described: ‘[…] For he loves you still / who leans and weeps upon the window-sill.’ We are a long way from Eliot’s bored men leaning out of their windows. Tiller’s emotionality is cinematic in its setting and its expressiveness.
The poem is odd for breaking into a rant halfway through – ‘Never believe us; poets tell you lies: / the burglar breaks the window, and the door / blows inwards, and pictures tatter loose.’ The argument here is a bit unclear, but it seems as if the poet is somehow being compared to the burglar, whose robbery has unexpected consequences even after having gone, leaving a windy house behind, that damages the art inside (art not worth stealing). It is trite to say that poets lie, and one wonders what it means in a poem that ostensibly ends with a poet weeping over a lost love.
This returns us to the muddled magnificence of the opening. Awkward syntax tells us that there is no community in the confused magnificence of love—only unsharing crowds. This is a paradoxical claim, and one worth trying to tease out. Love is not a public good, but selfish and crowded—it is, in short, neither exclusive nor caring. We are in the midst of a love triangle. But also one thinks of the shuttered faces (of Muslim women?) on the Cairo streets.
In the second stanza, Tiller writes: ‘Behind the dreaming shutters of our faces / the spider fingers thoughts, and we dissect / with sharp artistic hands our gains and losses.’ One detects here echoes of Eliot’s ‘automatic hand’ that puts on the gramophone. The faces, then, are the faces of the houses on the street, windows shuttered, but also those who walk those streets, as if closed to visitors or strangers. In this sense, the exterior and the interior again change places, mirroring each other in imagery, as Tiller is wont to do.
In the final stanza Tiller notes—and not without drama or complaint—that ‘our delight will never be alone’. In this he is observing what Sartre said of hell—it is other people. Love, too, requires more than one person; but in such crowded places expect a mad bustle, not disciplined order; ardour is confused, but also magnificent. Or so the lying poet has found, weeping out over the public air.
In ‘Coptic Church’ that follows, ‘magnificence’ again is found, but now the duplicity is with the priests, not the poets, as Tiller discerns how ‘the blazoned myth of Horus lies / within these faded images / where glowed Mithraic pigment in / the Thracian monks’ symbolic line’—a splendid four lines. The image reveals images below, doubled up across time—religion is a series of identities interleaved, a palimpsest—‘the dust of worship in the wall, / the worship of ourselves in God’. Again, Tiller notes how the exterior—the wall—is within also (in God, ourselves)—or rather, how exteriorized forces and aspects (art, poetic words, performance)—reveal the inner depths they both seek to contain but ineluctably release.29
Release of the inner through outer performance culminates in Tiller’s crowd-pleaser: ‘Egyptian Dancer’. This topic was something of a shared pleasure among Tiller’s crowd, as Bernard Spencer has a similar poem with the same title. Tiller’s poem has not aged well, at least on the surface—a straightforward male gaze appreciating the exotic, erotic charms—the body in motion and display—of a foreign woman, being paid, as a quasi-sex worker, to entertain men—is arguably a little sexist:
Slowly, with intention to tempt, she sidles out
(a smile and a shake of bells)
in silver, tight as a fish’s, and a web
of thin-flame veils, and her brown buttery flesh
(but she is a mermaid with twelve metal tails)
glimpsed or guessed by seconds.
Slowly the insidious unison sucks her in,
and the rhythm of the drums,
the mournful feline quavering whose pulse
runs through her limbs; shivering like a bride
she lifts her arms into a lyre; there comes
a sense of nakedness
As the red gauze floats off; and of release.
She is all silver-finned:
It hangs from wrist and ankle, she is silver-
feather-crowned, tight silver across the breasts;
skirt of bright strips; and where in the fat forced up
her navel winks like a wound.
The dance begins; she ripples like a curtain;
her arms are snakes
—she is all serpent, she coils on her own loins
and shakes the bells; her very breasts are alive
and writhing, and around the emphatic sex
her thighs are gimlets of oil.
All the half-naked body, as if tortured
or loving with a ghost,
labours; the arms are lifted to set free
atrocious lust or anguish, and the worms
that are fingers crack as croupe or bust
or belly rolls to the drums.
Wilder: the drift of the sand-spout the wavering
curve of the legs grow a blaze
and a storm while the obsession of music hammers and wails
to her dim eyes to her shrieking desire of the flesh
that is dumb with ecstasy of movement and plays
fiercely the squirming act
and sweat breaks out she is bright as metal while the skirt
spins like a flower at her hips
into the last unbearable glorious agony
between the lips and suddenly, it is over:
a last groan of the drum, panting she drops
into the darkness of past love.30
One wants to subtitle this poem ‘Girls! Girls! Girls!’ It is astonishingly explicit and erotic, for its time; one searches in any of Larkin (who presumably enjoyed such things) for any sensuous description of female sexual performance (or pleasure) as visceral; this is empiricism with gusto, well ahead of the Movement in some ways. Formally, too, it breaks refreshingly with more orthodox modes of syntax, dropping commas in rushed lines like ‘and sweat breaks out she is bright as metal while the skirt’. Of course, we cannot help but think of Frank Kermode’s work on the image of the dancer in this context.31
The dancer is, also, the poet, and the poet’s poem. We have been warned that the poet lies. The poet also performs. The opening line slowly, with intention to tempt, sidles out, just as the line says the subject does. The drum-rhythm is the rhythm of poetry, and the ecstatic pulse that sees the dancer end in the darkness of ‘past love’, orgasmically drained, is also the text. Subject and text are one. But, as we know, it is also a poem of watching, and of lust, and of frank appreciation, so there is an onanistic, narcissistic sense of self-regard in the text—the text is turning itself on with its jouissance.
There are a number of striking phrases and images in the poem, disarmingly erotic: ‘silver across the breasts’; ‘coils on her own loins’; ‘breasts are alive / and writhing’; ‘the emphatic sex’. Her navel that ‘winks like a wound’ manages to combine a rather violent allusion to a vagina, and an eye—apt, since again, this is a poem about exterior and interior birth, the birth, in this case, of desire enacted, and desire fulfilled.
The second half of the poem gives us the ‘half-naked body’—for indeed, the poem is half over. In the penultimate stanza, the opening word is ‘Wilder’ and then the colon indicates that that is also an order the poem is bound to obey.
I now turn to a few key poems from his final book of the Forties trilogy, Unarm, Eros. This collection of thirty poems is introduced on the title page with a quote from the Yeats poem, ‘Sailing to Byzantium’: ‘The unpurged images of day recede; The Emperor’s drunken soldiery are abed; Night resonance recedes …’32
Tiller’s typographical use of ellipsis here is a way of emphasising how both day and night recede after the evening revelry—how images of day, and night resonances, terminate. But not for Tiller, whose book, in titular fashion concerned with a martial figuration of erotic love—the love of soldiers, the battle of love—seeks to express and explore both the images and the resonances of days and nights in Egypt during wartime. As such, the poems occupy temporal occasions of blazing sunlight, or shade and darkness.
This preoccupation with the dual meaning, and implications, of the image—both as ocular, empirically-observed thing, and as romantic symbol (pace Yeats)—drives Tiller. In ‘Substitutes’ the ‘private sadness’ is squeezed ‘until words / pearl; round it, and all images become / the private sadness and the life; and a name / blood’.33 The self’s identity in language, the name, is made flesh and blood in a creative act that is half Mass, and half cleansing of a wound; the image of the words pearled around the squeezed sadness is almost physically gross in its implications, but also reminds us how the oyster dies when cut open to retrieve the pearl. The main point for Tiller is how the private myth, the self-story, generates, now, the poem—as it also did for Yeats, if not as explicitly. Tiller advocates ‘going in and not around’—‘sucking the earth as wheat; become a field’. There is no substitute for being in the thing one writes of, for being that thing (much as Berkeley felt God put the heat into fire, the cold into ice)—the poet transcends myth by entering the mythic world, as an actuality: ‘being blood’.
This idea is more flamboyantly expressed in ‘Spring Letter’,34 which makes clear the division between the poetic speaker (‘me’) and ‘the world’; the world is not the ‘more inward thing’ of ‘calm acres’ and ‘Mozartean air’, or ‘spring’—just as ‘a wet garment on the body shows / the curl of limb and muscle, this day / droops in the shape of secret images’. The epistemology of this poem is a little unclear, but I think that the argument is as follows—the world presses like wet clothing on to a deeper (and stronger thing)—paradoxically, a muscular body, an ironic trope for an inner self, especially as that inner self is compared to air and spring—elemental aspects of calm; calm the world and its wartime violence (‘the cold / indecency of outward violence’) threatens.
In the poem’s fifth stanza, Tiller explores this paradox of outer and inner connexion, these tissues of violence and order, of world and self, in terms of love:
Love, and the lovely clothing of its play,
its thinking film upon the flesh; the stride
and ache of afterthought to our long woe
our tenderness, the hangman of the blood:
here in your flowered scarf of Egypt, deep
as seasons under water, blooms our good.
This poem is Shakespearian in style—iambic, rhetorical and verbally playful—and, again, one sees here the Elizabethan impact often thought to emanate from Gunn by way of Yvor Winters. Perhaps, though, we are closest to Herrick’s ‘Upon Julia’s Clothes’. Tiller sets up a series of binary oppositions that align with his earlier list of what is of the world, and what of the self, or soul—a properly theological catalogue to be made in the desert: love/lovely clothing of its play; flesh/thinking film—so that the body corresponds to the Platonic ideal (love), with its flesh contrasted with the artifice above—the clothing, the thinking film, that plays like spume upon the surface. It is this artifice, this tenderness that hangs the blood—that holds the body at bay with its desires, another paradox. The rainy seasons, deep under water, bloom—the surface is sand.
Tiller’s complex metaphysical conceits develop in ‘Hands’, which continues his use of tropes of love and vision, of language and what lies beneath. In it, we can begin to discern his poetics of sensuous rhetoric—that is, his equivocation of rhetorical forms, in speech and poetry, with shapes of desire in the world, and the inner self. ‘Hands’ needs to be presented in full:
Eyes are the spoken word, but dark
will make them silent, where
the lovely shapes of rhetoric
have no-one left to hear.
A body built into an arm,
and the blood shouting, still
though passionate as heat, is dumb
like a kind animal.
Of seven kisses that have speech
in characters or times,
none is a messenger of much:
they only tell their names.
Hands are like letters to be read
in braille or fire; they light
the body that becomes their road,
the mind they re-create.
Subtle in mood or motion, they
are thoughts of silent men;
and able messengers, to be
not-thoughtless for their own.
They that carry everything,
learning and thinking, look
past one another to the tongue
within, that will not speak.
The body in its amorous belt,
or eyes and lips that meet,
know nothing that they have not felt,
say nothing they forget.
And darkness the girl-eater has
no power upon them: give
to lust the subtlest of his ways
—only the hands can love.35
Readers of Tiller will be familiar with his counter-intuitive statements (‘only the hands can love’) that play with metaphysical wit. Here the argument seems to be, again, an inversion of the physical and interior planes of experience that borders on a Gnostic heresy—the transcendent world, the True, as it were, can only be located in the fallen world. In this instance, the claim is that, during erotic courtship, ‘foreplay’ and love-making, darkness shuts off the power of the eyes, and ‘the lovely shapes of rhetoric’, the visible signs of persuasive passion, the eyes, ‘speak’. In short, the seductive powers of looking, and even kissing—emphasised for their verbal tropes of rhetoric and tongues—are failed orators, or courtiers, once the night comes and lovers are abed. Only the hands can locate and express ‘love’—despite darkness being ‘a girl-eater’ that devours the sexual object—and pull desire from the abyss of pure carnality, into the firelight of ‘learning and thinking’—for hands ‘carry everything’—even bearing the girl up out of the darkness of sex, to somewhere altogether calmer (not ‘the shouting of blood’). I am not sure this is a convincing argument, but it is certainly an ornate and clever one.
It introduces the secret image of these poems—a high lyricism turning—like a twisting, convulsed lover—on the bed of its own metaphysical making, fluently enjoying the paradoxes unleashed when poetry is both modern and romantic, as much Forties poetry sought to be—that is, personal, and mythic, in the Yeatsian sense, but also in a sense closer to an ideal of private myth. These are poems about rhetoric, using rhetoric to question and, indeed, enact the limits of rhetoric. They are performative. They perform their problematic poetics. One cannot accuse these poems of merely being stylish, even sentimentally so—for they are supremely stylish. They bracket style and seek to bleed it of meaning; the blood being ink.
This reaches its crescendo in a strange poem near the end of Unarm, Eros, ‘The Phoenix Hour’:
Do not expect again a phoenix hour…
Grasp without hands, tell without lips, possess
utterly, without ceremonies of sex:
wedded like rays beneath a burning-glass,
clever and bodiless.
But love be many in surfeiting and lacks,
the brittle fury of the act, and in
all flowerings of your wild swans’ marvelous necks:
until the heart learns locks.
Not love be amnesty (Love be alone
in Thebaid hours) nor man’s magnificence:
oh inaccessible bird whistling to stone
death to this dirty town.
For love and Love are not alike in tense.
Twinning of blood by certainty is true.
Society is disobedience,
present but nowhere hence.
I have made this charity for two
—hysterica caritas mounting towards the voice
—seeing the lonelier way out for you,
but nothing else to do.36
The Thebaid hours are those of desert monks in fifth-century Egypt in the Thebaid region—but also, in a brilliant ambiguity, the epic work of Statius (Seven Against Thebes), which was significant during the Middle Ages (Chaucer, Dante, Spenser and others borrowed from it). Statius’ Virgil-inspired style was also, along with its martial themes of war, rhetorically sophisticated.
Here, Tiller fuses monastic austere devotion (Love with a capital L) with the rhetoric of epic poetry, and courtly love—in such cases, the rhetorical is the spiritual, artificial and devoted, neo-Platonic—the possession utterly, without ‘ceremonies of sex’. There is a passionate verbal art, then, that poetry allows access to, which has the ceremonial grandeur of noble war and religious devotion, yet is unblooded by physical touch—‘wedded like rays’ that are ‘clever and bodiless’.
Tiller is on a search for a sun-cleansed ontology for love—one beyond a ‘brittle fury’ (one recalls in this the second stanza of ‘The Wild Swans at Coole’, and also the ‘uncontrollable mystery on the bestial floor’ from ‘The Magi’37). Love might be like the phoenix. The phoenix, an Egyptian mythological creature, was based in Heliopolis, home of the Sun-God, Ra. The burning away after centuries, of this beautiful firebird, to release a new version of its exquisite song, promises a resurrection.38
In the First Letter of the Corinthians, Paul writes of Caritas (charity) as being one of the three greatest gifts, after faith and hope.39 Caritas is a pure love, generous and without guile. ‘Hysterica caritas mounting towards the voice’—an extraordinary line—seems to be an oxymoron much like ‘terrible beauty’—in this case, an excessively emotional, panic-stricken love (belying Paul’s claims for its serenity), about to emit as a scream, or cry of orgasmic exultation. The problem for readers of this poem is in identifying the addressee—is the poetic speaker on the verge of hysterical charity addressing a phoenix, a Yeats, a lover, himself as poet, or indeed, the poetic act or text itself? All seem likely, or equally unlikely. There is a sense of futility here—and I feel the argument underlying the poem (personal and mythic) fails to fully establish an ‘objective correlative’, as if the ‘nothing else to do’—the dying fall of the poem—is both post-coital and post-scriptum. The poet cannot go on; the voice can do no more.
This is the paradoxical failure of Tiller’s Forties Style—its ‘marvelous’ ‘magnificence’ is often clever and bodiless—a lyric abstraction whose brilliance is one step away from the dandyish irony of The New York School, in its excessively opaque diction. Yet Tiller is no poster-boy for apocalypse. Indeed, when critics or anthologists have tended to favour his work they have hit upon his lucid Egyptian poems, of which there are several. Perhaps ‘Camels’ and ‘Lecturing to Troops’ are the best examples of a ‘Movement style’ born in the desert in the 1940s, far away from its ostensible origins in post-war 1950s Britain. As I seek to do throughout this dissertation, I want to problematise styles and stylistic periods, because the poets themselves did this—were various in the Forties, with their ‘anthology style’. For, no less than Prince, Tiller enjoyed a multitude of rhetorical styles and approaches (as many young poets do). Let us start with ‘Camels’:
I see them swaying their strange heads like geese,
nineteen camels in a string like geese in flight;
as if approaching a problem, or in quest
but baffled a little, a little unsure of their right.
But I am glad their supercilious look
sees as I see the powdery town, the tall
activity of streets, the buttoned-up faces,
the cars like secret agents, the want of it all.
Gentle and sure as pianists’ hands, their feet
deliberating on the stones press out
in rhythms that have nothing to do with us
the coins of their aloofness in scorn or doubt.
The motion of the blind or the very proud:
they could be blind: but where their masked eyes fall
they have the sailor’s distant and innocent gaze
for where this ends, for the limit and want of it all.
This poem, in diction and syntax, anticipates Larkin’s style (‘baffled a little, a little unsure’), but also contains Tiller’s blend of tropes (bodily parts, faces, masks) and slightly ornate diction (‘strange’, ‘supercilious’, ‘deliberating’). It is the acceptable face of Forties verse, perhaps—but again, not much like the war poetry of Keith Douglas.
One notes immediately the rhetorical repetition in both the first and last stanzas in lines one and two—geese twice, blind twice. There is no doubt a clever reference to blinds used to spot birds in this, but also the fact that the opening stanza opens with unlimited sky vision ‘I see’ and the last ends with a blind, or limited gaze. What this poem chiefly is, though, is a clear ‘empirical poem’ of the 1950s variety, using a regular stanza, rhyme and metre (more or less) to describe a subject, camels, with witty simile and metaphor, drawing a conclusion at the end. It doesn’t get ‘more mainstream’ than this, and, with a few edits in a twenty-first-century workshop, this would still be considered a viable poem in today’s marketplace of little magazines. It is in the English line.
I think a few moments are especially Larkinesque—the list: ‘the powdery town, the tall / activity of streets / the buttoned-up faces, / the cars like secret agents’—or ‘rhythms that have nothing to do with us’. The last stanza, too, moves into that transcendent Larkin space—‘for where this ends’. This is Tiller writing the presumed 1950s style five years too soon, a premature Movement poet.
‘Lecturing to Troops’ is one of Tiller’s common anthology pieces, and is even more in the Movement ambit, with the troops ‘wanting girls and beer’—and Tiller as a poetic speaker (he lectured to troops) feeling ‘neat and shy’. One thinks of Larkin’s awkward Church-goer here. The poetic speaker decides it is ‘useless to be friendly and precise’. Further on, we get that reference to smut we know from Larkin: ‘The strangeness holds them: a new planet’s uniform, / grasped like the frilly pin-ups in their tent’. Then, in the last stanza, Tiller references ‘Prufrock’, perhaps too obviously (or, as I have argued, purposely performing his belated modernist status, not-yet-postmodern)—‘But that is not what I meant’.
I wish to end my discussion of Tiller by noting his last poem of this trilogy of the Forties—his final poem in Unarm, Eros, ‘Detective Story’.41 It is a strange, complex, mid-length poem in three sections; each section divided into two stanzas of twenty lines—so, a poem of a hundred and twenty lines. It seems too good to be true, but here is the quintessential Forties poem, in blocks of forties, times three, echoing his trilogy of Forties books.
This is not entirely fanciful—the poem ends ‘All this I read’. And the text itself is a cornucopia (no other word will do) of images, tropes, references, and merged and confused identities and confessions, as killers and victims each speak, taking on each other’s voices. Indebted to the multivocal The Waste Land, but far more chockablock with references to mass or popular culture than Eliot ever was (except perhaps in ‘Macavity the Mystery Cat’)—‘Detective Story’ is more Audenesque. It is the ur-Tiller poem.
I also say it is the quintessential Forties poem, if a critic wanted to locate one, because it effortlessly blends high and low diction, flamboyant themes and registers, is melodramatic, but also witty, romantically personal but also classical in form, and utterly forgotten now. I find it hard to imagine such a delightful, rich and clever poem—especially one about that most English of subjects, detective fiction—so overlooked now. There is no poem of the 1950s (save perhaps by Larkin) written in English that is any better, or more fun. There is a line in this poem, ‘the final wonder of my disappearing’ that we must surely be able to apply to Tiller himself. His own disappearance as a figure of poetic interest is a mystery, indeed.
What remains, for a contemporary reader, though, is Tiller’s exemplary fusion of emotionality and erudition, of personal expression, and a fearless interest in the ornate artifice of poetry, with a love of glittering image, the thrills and dangers of surface pleasures, and alertness to textual and psychic depths. Linguistically and intellectually daring, yet, indeed, sexy and romantic, Tiller is the sort of poet more poets might want to consider emulating, as they search for their own high styles at a time of political and personal challenge in the twenty-first century.
1 Duncan, Origins of the Underground, p. 17.
2 Duncan, p. 21.
3 Terence Tiller, Unarm, Eros (London: Hogarth Press, 1947), p. 48.
4 Tiller, p. 48.
5 ‘Genesis’ is collected in Geoffrey Hill, For the Unfallen: Poems 1952–1958 (London: Andre Deutsch, 1959) but had appeared as early as 1952 in a Fantasy Press anthology from Oxford.
6 Tiller, Unarm, Eros, pp. 11–13.
7 Roger Bowen, Many Histories Deep: The Personal Landscape Poets in Egypt, 1940-45 (Cranbury, NJ: Associated University Presses, 1995), p. 95.
8 Bowen, p. 96.
9 Bowen, p. 95.
10 Bowen, p. 97.
11 Jonathan Bolton, Personal Landscapes: British Poets in Egypt During the Second World War (New York: Saint Martin’s Press, 1997), pp. 53–58.
12 Bowen, p. 102.
13 Bowen, p. 113.
14 Tolley, Poetry of the Forties, p. 50.
15 Tolley, p. 50.
16 Tolley, p. 50.
17 Tolley, p. 51.
18 Tolley, p. 52.
19 John Press, Rule and Energy: Trends in British Poetry Since the Second World War (London: Oxford University Press, 1963), p. 216.
20 Press, p. 217.
21 Press, p. 220.
22 Terence Tiller, Poems (London: Hogarth Press, 1941), p. 40.
23 Tiller, Poems, p. 40.
24 Terence Tiller, The Inward Animal (London: Hogarth Press, 1943), p. 8.
25 Bernard Spencer has a poem of the same title; and one also titled ‘Egyptian Dancer’ – suggesting mutual influence and discussion among the Personal Landscape group.
26 Tiller, The Inward Animal, p. 27.
27 Tiller, The Inward Animal, p. 28.
28 Tiller, The Inward Animal, pp. 29–30.
29 Tiller, The Inward Animal, pp. 30–31.
30 Tiller, The Inward Animal, pp. 31–32.
31 See Frank Kermode, The Romantic Image.
32 Yeats, Collected Poems, p. 267.
33 Terence Tiller, Unarm, Eros, p. 10.
34 Tiller, p.11.
35 Tiller, Unarm, Eros, pp. 15–16.
36 Tiller, Unarm, Eros, p. 42.
37 Yeats, p. 181.
38 Wilhelm Max Müller, Egyptian Mythology (Whitefish: Kessinger Publishing, 2004), p. 31.
39 I Corinthians 13.
40 Tiller, Unarm, Eros, p. 26.
41 Tiller, pp. 51-55.
TODD SWIFT is Lecturer in English Literature and Creative Writing, at Kingston University, London. He is Director and Editor of new small press Eyewear Publishing. The author of eight collections of poetry, Swift is editor or co-editor of a dozen anthologies, most recently Lung Jazz: Young British Poets for Oxfam, with a preamble from David Lehman. His poems have appeared in numerous international publications, such as Poetry (Chicago), Poetry Review (London), and The Globe and Mail (Toronto). Swift has been Oxfam's poet-in-residence, based in Marylebone, since 2004. His widely-read blog, Eyewear, has been archived by The British Library. His PhD is from the University of East Anglia, and is concerned with poetic style and the British poets of the 1940s.