Andrew Young Essay - Critical Essays

Young, Andrew

Young, Andrew 1885–1971

Young, a Scottish-born British clergyman and an authority on wild flowers, received the Queen's Gold Medal for Poetry in 1952. A Scottish nature poet and an English metaphysician, he was untouched by fashion. He also wrote plays and literary criticism; and his nonfiction works, such as A Prospect of Flowers and A Retrospect of Flowers, have found a wider public than his poetry. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.)

Born while Tennyson, Arnold and Hopkins were alive, and still at work (on a prose book) a year after the publication of Ted Hughes's Crow, Andrew Young neither influenced nor—remarkably—was influenced by any of the passing trends in English poetry. His work takes little account of current events or the changeable climates of this century's thought. His concerns are with the eternal themes, his imagery drawn almost exclusively from what is permanent and immutable in nature; his poems only seem dated on those rare occasions when he introduces an aeroplane, a gramophone, a flying-boat. For all this quality of timelessness, Andrew Young's poetry belongs unchallengeably to the modern movement, admired and respected by nearly every one of his fellow-practitioners. But owing to its special elusiveness, the poetry is still often under-estimated. To dismiss or patronise a poet of Andrew Young's great gifts as a mere, minor nature poet is to misconstrue what his poems are essentially about.

His powerfully individual brand of modernity springs not from his subject-matter but from his attitudes and the clarity of style he adopts to express these attitudes. Fiercely intellectual and objective in approach, unrhetorical and terse in his use of language, he achieves a simplicity of expression both in the miraculously-wrought lyrics and in the long poems which, with their casual and everday speech-patterns, recreate the standard pentameter by a tightly-controlled process of demolishing and rebuilding it. Andrew Young is a master-craftsman—a poet's poet—but he's impossible to parody or to steal from.

He wears his scholarship lightly, and his vast knowledge of theology, natural history, topography, literature and philology is a vital ingredient of his vision, but seldom intrudes on the page. What it does do, in conjunction with his religious and mystical demeanour, is to create a metaphysical poetry full of wit and intellectual conceits; a poetry very far removed from the nature-notes of his Georgian contemporaries. Natural objects are used, with love, sometimes for their own sake; but usually they are no more than the starting-points from which the poet presents a world, a life, a way of seeing, which we might never have perceived for ourselves. His image-making, a blend of exact observation and fanciful allusion, makes us see both the similarities and the significant dissimilarities existing between incongruous objects or ideas. We enter a new dimension of awareness, astonished to re-examine the clichés of common experience; we recognise that rivers can be drowned in flood or frozen brooks be their own bridges, that an albino blackbird can be white as sin, that idleness can be shirked, that a spider's web really is like a Greek theatre. Vivifying as these images are, the best surprises are those which startle or terrify.

Ted Walker, "Ancient but Modern," in New Statesman (© 1974 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), February 22, 1974, p. 266.

Is it at all significant for poets to be parsons (rather than doctors, teachers or university librarians)? It's certainly easy to feel that in theological terms, and even in pastoral terms, they are likely to be mavericks. For Andrew Young,

             churches were my love and study,
        Not theology.

In this passage of 'Into Hades' he goes on to describe his favourite ecclesiastical buildings in a way that shows that, although he is claiming that they convert strange pagan lore into shining Christian truth, they nonetheless survive by being pagan or pantheistic, betraying the rich anthropomorphism of nature. And his short poems bear this out: nature is an arena in which life and death perform their quaint or disturbing parables as a substitute for religious doctrine….

Young … offers a discursive lyricism and fondness for conceits characteristic of the late-flowering Edwardian taste often labelled Georgian….

The cuckoo's double note, the lark small as a flint arrow, the kestrel pinned to air, the mole buried within the blue vault of the air: Young's anthology pieces find their level among hundreds of poems just as observant or as bizarrely logical. There is something of Marvell's loaded symbolism here and there, in the mole's life and death—

      For you to raise a mound
      Was as for us to make a hold—

or in cows plagued by a 'god of flies'—

      Strange that we both were held divine,
      In Egypt these, man once in Palestine.

To the nature-poet, who can do nothing about their itch, the cows are divine anyway, and presumably the parson in him believes in Christ. The strangeness lies only in the confrontation: one god unable to assist another because everything is a god. Many of Young's poems seem a little inconclusive, as though their conceits have nothing much to do with what they are trying to say about reality. (p. 311)

John Fuller, in The Listener (© British Broadcasting Corp. 1974; reprinted by permission of John Fuller), March 7, 1974.

What do entrepreneurs of intellectual or critical fashion do when faced with the peculiarities of Andrew Young…? It is an exclamatory question. The evident answer is they do nothing; or rather they do not allow themselves to be faced by a poet whose structures and substance—or apparent substance, quickly looked at and passed over—are not of the most intricate, and do not fit usefully into their scheme of relationships and their critical formulae. They leave him alone, outside argument, no doubt to be enjoyed along with Herrick on Tistietosties or Dorothy Wordsworth on foxgloves, or Kilvert on blue hills and dog roses, or Dufy painting a regatta, by the unserious. And others take him up, and he is reduced to a simplistic property, to a "nature poet", owned, managed, proclaimed and interpreted or characterized in their own image by simpletons.

This wont't do. But let us see how it has happened (not without some help from Andrew Young himself, it has to be confessed). Here was a clerical poet, from Scotland, on terms with nature. He liked flowers (a questing field-botanist or treasure-botanist of persistence and ability). So he was evidently rather Georgian and not disgustingly modern. He liked as well seeds, mushrooms, birds, quadrupeds, insects, slow-worms, crabs, snails, stars, feathers, leaves, seasons, snow, wind, mist, barrows, roads, signposts, quarries, hills, mountains, rocks, rivers. His poems had been full of them, delineated or indicated at once surprisingly, convincingly and evocatively, ever since they began to appear more than half a century ago, in pamphlets of the smallest circulation. Then in 1957, when Andrew Young was an old man of seventy-two and when he had nearly written himself out, a number of admirers united in a small book of tributes, entitled Andrew Young, Prospect of a Poet.

Setting the tone, the editor … told readers of this strong oddity of a poet that "it was as if the childlike, elfin hand of Blake had guided him on his explorations"….

One contributor, John Betjeman, did nothing but quote in Young's face, so to say, minor clerical poets, "gentle parsons"—as if tough and tortured Young was one of them….

Other contributors used Young to mock or knock what they considered modernism to be….

Only one of the fourteen tributaries, the poet Norman Nicholson, realized that their man was a writer of the twentieth century, in the curt activity and firm plasticity of his language and his conveyance of the subjective in objectivity. Only Norman Nicholson knew how much Young was admired by several poets in the wake of Eliot and Auden; and why. They realized that on the whole he rejected an easy, effete stylization. He rejected coy elves behind rose-cottages, they liked his use of concrete language both for the concrete and the elusive….

Words were fitted by him to words, and made into poems of mosaic or of tile, the effectiveness of which outweighed brusqueness or awkwardness.

Every now and then it is of course possible to catch a whiff of origins, or rather of slight influences which helped Young to his ultimate strictness of authenticity and freedom—a whiff of Hardy, Housman, Crabbe, Bishop King, George Herbert, Lovelace, Spenser, Drayton.

Best poems certainly came, in ones and twos, out of all periods of Young's reading and writing life, back to the earliest booklets; but the most assured collection of his brief poems was the last, The Green Man of 1947 … [and] the most disturbing.

Disturbance is his mark. It is everywhere. It can be detected in very early poems, in the Boaz and Ruth of 1920, for instance, where it already indicated a man with questions to ask, who was unlikely to be satisfied by answers. Some day biography may join the poems in supporting the likeliest account of this man's slow turmoil….

Was he both god-given and god-suspicious? The sensualist never quite reconciled with the discipline he imposed on the senses?…

Poem after poem (his "oldest fear" … was to be buried alive) has to do with death or the churchyard, or with meeting his own dead self—in The Green Man especially—until the disturbance culminates in those two long final poems, "Into Hades" and "A Traveller in Time", which bring Andrew Young, or in which he brings himself, in sharper earnest, from what he had called in one poem "playing at death", to the final affront of being dead, and being buried in his own churchyard in Sussex, from which he moves away as a ghost. (p. 393)

Why had he called that last book of his short poems The Green Man, unless he had been thinking of the spring sacrificial victim, the nature victim, carved in churches, frowning, agonized, and wreathed in the leaves of the oak or the may which grows out of his mouth? (He knew about such things, and one can imagine he would have read Lady Raglan's article on 'The Green Man in Church Architecture", which had appeared in Folklore in 1939.)

He was the victim. Eventually he wrote, or had to write, this lover of nature and the "amorous earth", this older edition of "that young lover, Who pitched his tent in heaven and read Plato", this poet who like Cowper, when he saw the leaves falling off the willows, wanted to live for ever and ever here and nowhere else…. Does he or doesn't he take the side of living, here and not elsewhere? Yes and no, as this searching man searches and does not find.

We must—even if we cannot as yet explain it entirely—acknowledge the pull, now stronger one way, now stronger the other, out of which Young's poems were made; while also realizing that what an Edinburgh Calvinist—or a Claude!—might call a great villainy of the sensual, can have a greater, unvillainous issue in the arts. Young wasn't a Victor Hugo, though he was haunted; he wasn't a Pasternak, a conscious guest of livingness more freely able to be glad and to urge his readers to an unrestricted ecstatic thankfulness. He was a little short or uncertain … in the rhetoric and sound of verse; but from an outer province of our time he was a genuine, rewarding poet all right. (p. 394)

"The Disturbances of Andrew Young," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd., 1974; reproduced by permission), April 12, 1974, pp. 393-94.

Andrew Young's work, almost from the first, is brief, spare, hard as flint….

He has been too easily called a nature poet. This is accurate enough as far as it goes, since he writes with grace and economy of the countryside and the plants and animals living there. But he uses nature for a more important purpose than merely to observe it even with his clear eye and the knowledge of a fine naturalist. He was a metaphysical poet, exploring the layers of meaning that exist within a single word, now playfully, now transforming a small lyric into an important and profound statement by a single stroke of the imagination. Words fascinated him, to an extent unusual even among poets. He read widely in his dictionaries, for the sheer delight of wandering among words. His clear, exact vocabulary, simple enough to allow his poems to be read and loved by young children, was chosen from a wealth of language. (p. 133)

Young's observation of the natural world owes nothing to anyone else. He sees the world as if it were being looked at for the first time…. The combination of exact observation and a language which is hard, sinewy and precise within changing contexts is what allows him to say that 'mist that gathered from nowhere/With a bright darkness filled the air', or to see the shot magpie fall 'with feathers heavier than lead'.

His lyrics occupy a world in which the poet is usually alone and aware of great stretches of time. Many of his poems celebrate his kinship with the men who are buried in the long barrows, 'the silent men of bones'. He mourns, too, the small creatures whose lives are short, the mole 'buried within the blue vault of the air', the bird so still 'I almost say/"You are not a dead bird"'; the rat, the dead crab, a host of others. He sees the nearness of life and death clearly. (pp. 133-34)

Young's verse-forms are unmistakeable. Apparently orthodox and traditional, he has a trick of unexpectedly shortening a line by a syllable or two without ever losing his firm rhythm, or he'll gently insist on an accent in an unlooked for place. The result is always highly personal….

The long poem, 'Into Hades', is where Young used his considerable learning and examined his beliefs. I think this work still under-rated. It has great strength, is eloquent and visionary, and reveals aspects of Young's poetry one would not suspect from reading the lyrics. After completing it he virtually gave up the writing of poetry. (p. 134)

Leslie Norris, "A Complex Clarity," in London Magazine (© London Magazine, 1974), June/July, 1974, pp. 132-35.

Reading Andrew Young's poems the impression that they are little more than residual excellences from an earlier, pastoral England is complicated by real admiration for the fact that they work and have effect. What literary upheavals there were in his time—and, born in 1885, he was the same age as Pound, three years older than Eliot, and seven years older than "Hugh MacDiarmid"—fall away as beside the point.

Whether it is right for a reader to submit to the luxurious abdication of his historical consciousness in this way is a different matter. The question is central to contemporary poetry in English….

Young's poems … are latched on to as proof of a secret English world, an incorruptible country in which an endearing countryside and its appropriate arts are like old soldiers and never die. No matter what happens in dark, satanic cities, or on foreign fields—the accepted phrases quickly remove them from the secret country—the fields, wild-flowers and landscapes are the same, and continue to elicit spiritual and personal dramas from the observer. It is both reassuring and appalling.

And yet hardly as English as all that. His poems are a version of England Their England, written by a man who thought it was his as well. Young was a Scotsman. But it is worth noting that when he writes about Scottish scenery, it occasionally releases his distaste for it, or a less placid melancholy. In the Cuillins, he says he is in Hell. I've never been there; but other poems by Scotsmen about these particular mountains led me to think they were in heaven. Young appears to have cultivated an English sensibility by preference, being suited to a miniature art of observation which Scottish temperaments seldom come to with ease.

As a clergyman, Young naturally paid attention to spiritual predicaments and celebrations. Far from being the strongest impulse in his work, Young's religious feeling is more effectively conveyed through his love of nature and his overall benevolence. The voice in his poems is generally one of personal loneliness, inevitably aroused or calmed by Nature. His perception of what Nature is and does was not one to admit of change. The secret country is permanent. Significantly, it is in a poem with a Scottish setting where Young says he fixes his concentration on the cries of seagulls, blotting the sounds of traffic from a nearby road out of his mind. His England seldom, if ever, allows so modern an intrusion. His visitors are ghosts from the past. The poet becomes like a ghost himself….

[Any] reader of poems must constantly be surprised by the loyalty of a temperament to itself, risking the insults that may come from appearing to be wilfully out of date. Even if the vision of his poetry may have a nostalgic appeal for some, to read it in that way is to accept that there was once a purity of nature and society, which Young's poetry somehow embodies, when in fact his vision is as much imaginative as a matter of recall. (p. 82)

Douglas Dunn, in Encounter (© 1974 by Encounter Ltd.), September, 1974.

One of the crucial distinctions between 'major' and 'minor' Nature poetry surely lies in the degree of complex interplay allowed between the natural object and its observer. Andrew Young … is clearly indebted to Thomas Hardy and Edward Thomas, but his work lacks the dialectical force and torsion of their work, the sense of a ceaselessly problematical relation between man and Nature enacting itself in the structural ironies, syntactical shiftings and ruffled rhythms of the poetry itself. Collected Poems … seems to me remarkable for a Georgian conventionality of feeling stiffened by an unGeorgian austerity of technique … Young was almost wholly by-passed by 'modernism' (he disliked the work of both Yeats and Eliot); and it's difficult to see how that bypassing was anything but a loss, even while one perversely admires the unmitigated consistency with which Young kept it up. (pp. 71-2)

Young lacks both the original imagery and idiosyncratic eye of Hardy and Thomas, and that lack reflects a failure of imaginative penetration which betrays itself in the over-finished quality of his work, in contrast with the ambiguous, ironic openendedness of the older poets. It also means that the relations between natural object and human subject in his work are considerably over-simplified: a typical poem either delineates a scene and then turns away in its final stanza to point a human analogy or response—… or, alternatively, sets up a natural landscape which is too palpably directed by the demands of subjective mood. Young has a problem about how to situate himself in terms of what he sees; and the upshot of this is that what personal meaning he derives from a landscape is either too often conventional closing gesture, or conversely what's actually observed is limited to what can be the bearer of a personal impulse….

[A] combination of not-too-specific natural detail and not-over-precise feeling seems to me to characterise much of his work. Impressively crafted and constructed as much of that work is, it can't avoid an emotional and thematic thinness which springs ultimately from its isolation from a wider, nourishing history….

Young hoards and clips his language in the interests of artistic austerity…. (p. 72)

Terry Eagleton, in Stand (copyright © by Stand), Vol. 15, No. 4, 1974.