George Barker Essay - Critical Essays

Barker, George

Barker, George 1913–

Baker is an English poet, novelist, essayist, and playwright. Although his best poetry is among the finest written in the English language, much of his work is uneven in quality. The antithesis of the detached academic poet, Barker in his writing has been described as Dionysiac, verbally extravagant, esoteric, and self-indulgent. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-12, rev. ed.)

Throughout Barker's poetry, the fulfillment of a need for union with a divine and a human presence is threatened by his alienation from both, by his compulsion to struggle against the beloved woman or brother of God, even as he seeks their nurture. In depicting the perennial contest, Barker often combines the role of prophet inspired by a vision of potential salvation and his adversary, ever tempted by self-love, the will to destruction, and death itself….

Barker uses classical myth in his poetry to suggest that the infection of love by violence and death, the hell implicit in the promise of eternity, and the conflict ever present in the world around him spring ultimately from the same warring powers in the universe. These exist within God himself, who is described as part of the poet's own nature, or as a beneficent yet threatening figure with whom he merges….

Lillian Feder, in her Ancient Myth in Modern Poetry (copyright © 1971 by Princeton University Press; reprinted by permission of Princeton University Press), Princeton University Press, 1971, pp. 378-79.

Literature is not a competition. Yet poets will invariably be compared with their contemporaries and with their predecessors. Barker's verse is not so perfect as Dylan Thomas's, nor is his vision so intense. Yet his range is wider; his feeling not deeper but more general. For this reason his achievement may not be so obvious, it may not be so completely attained. But if the daisies and the buttercups are plentiful and perfect, a rose is not the less a rose for having a thorn where the petals should be. What really makes a man a real poet except the size of his soul, it is very difficult to say. But it is as equally difficult to fail to realize it, when a writer turns out to be one. George Barker is…. (pp. 12-13)

Unlike any other poet of his generation whose work is at all mentionable in the same sentence as his, George Barker's prose is not of any great stature. It is only fair however not only to Barker, but to any readers this may have, to point out that Edwin Muir's opinion of his prose is quite the opposite. But for one of his readers at least he must stand by his verse alone. The quantity of this is considerable. He wrote what is perhaps the worst book ever to have been written by a real artist, in which it is stated throughout that sex is filthy and she whom you do it with dirty. The name of the book, The Dead Seagull. One can never forgive Barker for writing that sort of nonsense, but one can forgive oneself for not being able to forgive him….

Barker is a Byron who hasn't got a Greece. He is a knight errant without a sword, or to be fairer, the sword is there all right but his hand is paralysed by the trouble in his heart. By this it must not be understood that he is unaware of what has taken place during the years which have contained the first half of his writing life. (p. 14)

Barker, who has a considerable talent for humanity, has been left somewhat in the air, not ignoring [causes], but not being able either to cope with them or to assimilate them into his work. He was too much of an artist to offer us easy slogans. Because his feelings were deeper, because simply he was more of a poet, he didn't jump on to political platforms during the thirties like those poets of the literary generation that immediately preceded his. (pp. 14-15)

Barker is almost as completely unpolitical as it is possible for a contemporary to be. Yet, like Byron, he goes far beyond the conventional poetic subjects for his material…. The things that worry a politically-concerned person often trouble him. Yet the trouble does not lead to revolt, much less to a desire for power. He wants to understand, sometimes to escape, never to win. He identifies himself with such varied forerunners of St John the Divine and François Villon. He is capable of spoiling a good poem by a noisy line, but never of trying to make one out of any emotion that is not an integral part of his own deep feeling. (p. 17)

The world of George Barker is a place for sinners. It is not a street of barricades, nor is it a house where one prays. Yet the nature of the poetry in him is the plentifulness of forgiveness. He is original without being unique. He is very much of this world, in so far as it is a vale of tears, without being seduced by worldliness. His technique is in advance of his maturity. He is married to poetry, he is not just having an affair with words. But he is still waiting for the cock to crow whereas, according to the calendar of his achievements, he should be getting ready for the gift of tongues…. Whatever verse, however, his muse may have in reserve for him, and he for the steadily increasing number of his readers, that poetry which he has already written, punctuating as it does his unplanned and wandering journey, proves beyond mere praise that he has embarrassed this language and these years with 'The tremendous gentleness of a poet's kiss'. (p. 18)

Paul Potts, "Many Happy Returns," in Homage to George Barker on His Sixtieth Birthday, edited by John Heath-Stubbs and Martin Green (© Martin Brian & O'Keefe Ltd. 1973), Martin Brian & O'Keefe, 1973, pp. 11-20.

'J'ai cultivé mon hysterie avec jouissance et terreur.' This remark by Baudelaire might well have come from Barker. It relates closely to his view of the character of the poet, which is mantic, Sybilline, Dionysian, in fact mad—in character lunatic, but distinguished from the merely insane by a quality of moral dedication: 'one could, with some truth, call a lunatic a poet without intentions, and a poet a lunatic with intentions.'

In the poet lives, in schizoid unease, on the one hand the natural man (lunatic), and on the other the moral maniac with a vision of innocence, but the poet himself is not simply one or other of these. Nevertheless, it is the moral element that transforms the otherwise merely mad into the responsible. (p. 59)

The play In the Shade of the Old Apple Tree places him so close to the orthodox Catholic view of good and evil, that he may as well be called a 'Catholic' poet. (p. 60)

Barker's view of the Evil one, 'the downward demon pull', suffers a gradual refinement of definition over the twenty-five years covered by the collected poems.

There is not however any clear vision of the nature of beatitude and no notion of redemption, that one could seriously believe in, emerges.

What becomes clearer and more constantly present, explicitly and in underlying feeling, is the vision of

                 That desert of human loves
                 Individual loneliness

In this play there is the inevitability of sin and betrayal, and the dreadful consciousness of this inevitability.

The question of Original Sin is clearly at the heart of Barker's vision. And we are not far away from the world of Charles Baudelaire here. The world of Les Fleurs du Mal, and perhaps more of the diaries and the criticism. There is the same view of sin, and this is related to a view of the sexes as divided by their ethical position; man living in relation to an absolute, cursed by a sense of the ideal, woman living entirely in a world of relationships.

The position of pride and of ego, the 'satanic I am', the recognition that prayer occupies a higher category than the poem, the view of poetry as what Jacques Rivière has called a 'raid on the absolute and its results a revelation,' all are common to Barker and Baudelaire.

There is also Baudelaire's famous concern with correspondences and his view of the character of true intelligence in this respect. For Barker the correspondences constitute the key to poetic profundity, that is, the poem is profound in terms of what it conceals, for the multiplicity of faces behind the mask which it apparently consists of.

The image is for him the discovered fact of the imagination.

What Michelangelo saw hidden in a piece of dirt … what Jehovah forbids made of himself because when the image has been given to a thing or an idea then the thing or idea has been subjugated. The image is made up of words, words are made up of the alphabet, and the alphabet is the twenty-six stations of the cross to the Logos.

The poem is what happens to the image.

In experiencing 'the multiplicities or correspondences that the image conceals' he discovers that 'the poetry is the correspondent'. Thus the poem is the special agent whose function is to 'arrogate the unknowable'. It is the instrument of the imagination which seeks to honour and acknowledge the absolute. The poem will always conceal more than it discloses. To rule out the numinous would be totally to degrade the role of the poem and of the poet. (pp. 61-2)

[There] is [an] overriding character of all poetry, that it affirms, glorifies, praises.

It is in the light of this fact that the morality of Barker's poetry must be viewed, for few poets have shown a clearer and more constant awareness of this central aspect of the activity than he has. (p. 62)

One is involved in obscure matters when one raises the position of human uncertainty, human despair even, in the scale of great moral certainties that constitute the poem. But this very concern has been conspicuously Barker's. (p. 63)

Two things run through the work of Barker which demonstrate his relationship to Baudelaire: his vision of evil and his sense of the Void.

These things are analagous but not identical. Baudelaire's Le Gouffre is a profound and universal fact of all our psychology, and Barker's gibbering void is another manifestation of it. But with the characteristic difference that he has discarded the devious satanic approach. Their common ground may well be simply Augustinian Christianity. (p. 64)

It will not be surprising if reflection on the work of a poet who believes that … 'the image exercises its profundity in proportion to the number of strata or masks it wears to conceal, and at the same time to characterize, the profundities in which it exists' … reveals that the Mask plays a role of some importance both in his imagery and in his attitudes.

By the Mask I do not mean merely that which hides its essential character or origins in an appearance that is somehow contrary to its true nature. I do not mean merely perversity. There is that too, but also there is the ritual, the personal rite. And there is this as an instrument for excavation in territory too terrifying for direct vision, for direct statement. (p. 67)

Thus the mask is what allows a man to penetrate in deep regions of the mind and soul and yet survive, not to disappear forever.

If it were possible to penetrate into the ultimate regions where the poem has its most profound existence then he who so penetrated would do precisely this, disappear. This is how I interpret Barker's introductory lines to his collected poems:

       'And what, said the Emperor, does this poem describe?'
         'It describes,' said the Poet, 'the Cave of the Never-Never.
       Would you like to see what's inside?' He offered his arm.
         They stepped into the poem and disappeared forever.

These verses should have forwarned those reviewers of Barker's poems who approached the task armed with the principles of the anti-romanticism of the early part of this century. We are still overshadowed by the prodigious task performed by Pound and Eliot, the strictures and prejudices arising from it have been invoked in derogation of Barker. For such criticisms his work presents an easy enough target. Nevertheless, it is best to leave these objections behind when we enter the world of Barker's consciousness. For here in a region of religious pressure, where the wounded eros cries out for liberation from the mesh of a guilt-ridden subconscious, a region of old eschatological thought and even older instincts towards immolation, these objections lose much of their usefulness. For the rhetoric is not the vague dressing up of unimportant doubtful attitudes to look like poetic experience, it is the result of attempting to speak of the unspeakable. (pp. 67-8)

The use of the terms 'Poet' and 'Emperor' and the 'Cave of the Never-Never' and the gentle air of allegory and fable introduces us to one aspect of the mask the Barkerian vision wears. There is the characteristic lightness of touch, which although abandoned on necessary occasions is never wholly beyond his command, but which does not disguise the serious fact that Barker writes always as Poet, dedicated and possessed, trapped certainly in the biological cage, but speaking from that far world of ultimate mysteries.

Here then is one Mask. Unexpectedly that of THE POET. The poem then becomes a formal rite, and in keeping with this we find a severe and at times maniacal attention to form. A love of the riddle, the pun, the inversion. I do not feel that this requires demonstration…. A superficial reading of the verse leaves us still at the level of this Mask and not yet hearing the strange undertones of the anguished human. (pp. 68-9)

The Mask hides the personal suffering.

The raw material of the poems, the occasions of moral distress, the minutiae of defeat and humiliation are not made known. These have been apotheosised into the poem and are contained in it. To such an extent that certain poems of Barker's, that wear the mask of simple poetic invocations, can be read as biographic detail, given the key. The key is not given, we discover it occasionally and by accident, but the poetry in its innate character bears no relation to the confession. (p. 69)

I doubt if it is possible to discuss Barker's work at all seriously without penetrating to some extent into the world of religious belief. He himself asserts the supreme importance of religion. For him poetry cannot usurp the responsibilities of religion. The poet cannot operate without the sanction of the religious man, whereas the religious man can pray without reference to the poet. The category of prayer being of a higher order than that of the poem. (p. 71)

Viewed in the light of the Mask many of the difficulties presented by Barker's rhetoric disappear.

What appears to be verbalism has meaning. Provided we remember the relationship to reality postulated by Barker's concept of THE POET.

In the first place the heightened language represents the real or actual world of event and fact as it is apotheosised into the poem. It is at the same time a description of event and a transposition of event onto a higher moral plane. In this way the religious man in Barker is satisfied by the poet in him, and the suffering human is also expressed. The mask of the poet contains the reality of the human and the reality of the religious man. Its meaning proceeds in deepening layers, the key to which lies in the moral needs of the reader. Just as its origin lies in the moral needs of the poet.

Barker's poems, although they wear a formal, ritual, and rhetorical dress for the most part, are in fact as full of things as an old lumber room. (pp. 73-4)

His poems do not contain lies in that they are true to the conditions of their own existence. This existence is not conditioned by the idea of communication, or instruction, or social usefulness. For Barker, the only possible vehicle of communication is love, not words, and 'if a little love gets through/Then we are luckier than most'. But in fact he offers no anodyne to the truth that we are each one irrevocably doomed to aloneness; and art for him is, as Samuel Beckett has it, the apotheosis of solitude. (p. 74)

In the work of Barker I see a deeply religious nature break silence in anguish. And the anguish has its roots in the internecine embrace of eros and the spiritual man in the person of the poet. (p. 75)

Pat Swift, "Prolegomenon to George Barker," in Homage to George Barker on His Sixtieth Birthday, edited by John Heath-Stubbs and Martin Green (© Martin Brian & O'Keefe Ltd. 1973), Martin Brian & O'Keefe, 1973, pp. 57-75.

Barker is an emotional spendthrift over-ready to risk the slip-shod and second-rate in the cause of pulling off an impressive effect. At its worst this emerges as a sort of aimless emotional lunging, a flowing, rhapsodic imprecision which betrays abstraction in the act of enforcing intensity…. (p. 72)

There's some radical lack of mediation throughout [In Memory of David Archer] between the discursive and the visionary, so that the first slackens into looseness and the second softens into mere vagueness. Even so, the authenticity of the emotional impulse is impressive, even when the verbal textures are laid on too thickly; Barker is willing to reveal himself …, and while the unstaunched flow of that confessionalism leaves a good many ragged edges, it also conveys the sense of an individual voice rather than of an anonymous ('timeless') Nature-poet. (p. 73)

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

[Both George Barker and Ted Hughes], in Barker's phrase, are 'victims of crashed astrology', discovering that 'God is dead, but his death can wrestle.' Calamiterror begins at an impasse,

           None till his spirit like the thermometer climbs
           Out of his own abdominal abysms …

and ends by having to accept the terms of that impasse: 'No secret move/Disturbing blood but to god transfuses.' It is the first convolution of what becomes, throughout Barker's poetry, 'the serpent continually swallowing itself'. He seeks an escape, in the final section of Calamiterror, into political commitment, but for Barker this is very much a temporary expedient…. (p. 83)

Poetry has only two subjects, Barker argues, Sex and Death, and through most of his work they are intricately at war. Sex, that brings him repeatedly to the little death, is the life urge. From this Manichean double armlock he is never able, and ultimately refuses, to escape: 'Siamese monster of Christ and the Devil/I coil my sins in ecstasy around me'. There is a contrast here with C. H. Sisson, another poet whose sexuality and Christianity are in conflict. In Sisson the self-hatred thus engendered comes close to forming a life-hatred. In Barker this never happens, or almost never. It is the difference between an Anglican and a Roman Catholic sensibility. Whereas the Puritan strain has made Anglican piety an astringent, individual tradition, the Catholic Church is so overwhelming an institution, its hold so ineluctable, that Barker can, virtually has to, both celebrate and rebel. He can inveigh against God the Heavy Father in his 'Sacred Elegies' and still appeal to 'The Five Faces of Pity'. Barker's quality as a religious poet is that he is an impenitent, as most of us are. The poems hold in tension the conflicts basic to any relationship, spiritual or personal: the recognition of need, for instance, and the reaction of defiance that immediately follows. (p. 84)

The 'Four Cycles of Love Poems' … mark the pivotal point of Barker's Collected Poems 1930–1965. The First Cycle is an extraordinary achievement, a sequence of homosexual love poems as elaborate as they are passionate. Nemesis follows in the Second Cycle, the estrangement of wife and child. The Third and Fourth Cycles struggle with the loss, attempting to shape comfortable words out of what seems a cry wrung from the heart of self-knowledge:

        The ache at the break of the heart
          Is nothing: a pearl knows this.
        What remains eternally intolerable is always
          The justice, the justice.

Sadly, it is as much a turning point for the work as for the life. It means that since his early 'thirties Barker's poetry has had to deal almost entirely in the material of recollection and regret…. Barker's talent needs to be combative, to be struggling with that coil of good and evil: now the coil has snapped. Once the Faustian debt is paid (and paid handsomely) in the latter half of Collected Poems, there is nothing left to him but shadow-boxing. Theories of poetry now rise from their proper, subliminal station to become the material of the verse itself. As the abstraction increases, so the rhetoric inflates: 'O pinnacles where the elected princes die/With their dogstar boots on and a truth in hand'. Marooned at these heights, Barker floats over the late 'fifties like a left-over barrage balloon.

Edwin Muir greeted Calamiterror as the work of a major poet, 'still at the unformed stage'. Twenty years later, in the Penguin Book of Contemporary Verse, Kenneth Allott felt bound to point out that Barker was still at the unformed stage. The problem is that Barker's style reflects the circularity of his themes. Not only does he fall victim … to the monotomy of high intensity, but his own credo, that poetry is the acceptance, not the criticism, of life, tends to preclude any development. The impulses of celebrant and rebel are so balanced that they cancel each other out, from the upward/downward antithesis of Calamiterror to the tables turned turtle of 'Goodman Jacksin and the Angel'. This circularity dizzies poet as well as reader, with the result that critics have generally turned for the paradigm of Barker's style to his shorter works. (pp. 84-5)

I cannot help feeling, though, that to concentrate on the shorter poems, as though Barker were merely a stylist manqué, is to miss the point. It is not just that the energy of the long poems subsumes individual blunders. It is that their genetic process, by which images fuse and divide and fuse again, to propagate like cells, bodies forth Barker's real theme, which is the making and marring of his own soul. The unease of recent critics with Barker's work springs partly, one suspects, from an unease with this sort of undertaking. The Collected Poems begin as a modern Divine Comedy, with the circles of Heaven, Purgatory and Hell tangled together like the bands of a harem ring. They end with the spiralling descent, as Barker says, of a proud mind into its self-made abyss. In this sense … the Collected Poems form a Faustian testament. A partial, flawed testament, certainly. But at least a testament of some kind.

Thus the Collected Poems 1930–1965 stand on their own, a single volume: one hopes that future printings will allow this to remain so. It is a pity that The True Confession of George Barker,… which should have formed the comic counter-mask, is so infected with the weaknesses of Barker's middle period…. The collections of Barker's middle period are so much shadow-play because intensity has been replaced by wearied obsession. Old tricks and familiar images are repeated time and again, not because they have come freshly to mind, but because they are all the poet seems to know.

The recovery does not come until Barker finds in the short-line patterns of Poems of Places & People … a way of breaking up his old verse habits. Even here appearances can be deceptive: often the old verse movement is merely chopped up differently. At its best, though, the new style seems to reawaken Barker's interest in shaping the verse, in achieving suggestion rather than statement. More significantly still, the old Siamese monster reawakes, that ambivalence of Sex v Death out of which Barker writes best. In 'Venusberg' this gives him his first truly sustained sequence since the Collected Poems. (pp. 85-6)

Dialogues etc may well mark another phase of his work, in that it suggests a new kind of energy, a more detached, free-ranging vitality. The ironies are tighter, at once more incisive and more human. The wit of 'On the Beach at Forte Dei Marmi' or 'Miranda' is a subtle, forgiving wit, a far remove from the gusto of Barker's earlier comic style…. God and Magog, who conduct the eight Dialogues, are each given a touch of character, so that the Dialogues work as something of a double-act. They are well-timed, too, in another sense, being spaced through the book to chime with other themes. All in all, it is an adroit collection. The key quality, perhaps, is the restraint in handling pathos, which produces the plangency of 'Even Venus Turns Over' or 'Dialogue III'. Barker has always been a haunted poet. Here, for the first time, he shows a lightness of touch that is itself haunting…. (p. 86)

Roger Garfitt, "Ballooning," in London Magazine (© London Magazine 1976), August-September, 1976, pp. 83-6.