Laurie Lee 1914–
English memoirist, poet, nonfiction and travel writer, essayist, and dramatist.
The following entry provides an overview of Lee's career through 1994.
Lee is highly regarded for autobiographical works depicting his childhood in the English countryside, his travels in Spain, and his involvement in the Spanish Civil War. Having garnered critical acclaim for his vibrant portraits of village life in the English Midlands and his descriptive characterizations of the chaotic and destabilizing environment of war, he is considered among England's foremost writers of the post-World War II era.
Born into a large, rural English working-class family in Stroud, Gloucestershire, Lee was a small child when his father abandoned the family. Financially strapped, Lee's mother raised him and his siblings with little economic means, and she has been described in his writings as a resourceful, fun-loving—if at times impractical—woman and a major influence on his life. At the age of nineteen, Lee left the English countryside on foot for London, where, to support himself, he worked a variety of jobs and played the fiddle. He eventually traveled throughout continental Europe, spending much of his time in Spain. In the late 1930s, Lee joined the International Brigade and fought in the Spanish Civil War on the side of the Republicans, or Loyalists, in their struggle to overthrow the fascist regime of Francisco Franco. During World War II he worked in a variety of government ministries in England, eventually undertaking scriptwriting duties with a number of their film units. After publishing several volumes of poetry and a well-received narrative of his leisurely travels in Andalusia, A Rose for Winter (1955), Lee turned to autobiographical writing and has since continued primarily in this genre.
Lee's best-known work details his childhood and his experiences in Spain. Set in a village in the Cotswolds, Cider with Rosie (1959) celebrates nature, boyhood, and rural traditions. Recounting the passing of a pastoral way of life in unsentimental terms, the collection provides an affectionate account of Lee's childhood, family, and friends. As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning (1969) begins with Lee's departure from his childhood home in the 1930s, chronicles his peripatetic wanderings throughout Europe, and ends with Lee—having been evacuated from Spain by a British ship—returning to Europe, crossing the Pyrenees, and joining the Republican forces of the Spanish Civil War. In A Moment of War (1991), Lee examines the effects of the war on a personal level, discussing his own horrors and follies. For example, he details his initial fascination with aerial bombings as well as how, on several different occasions, he was captured and sentenced to death only to be miraculously rescued at the last moment. Although not as well known as Cider with Rosie, As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning, and A Moment of War, Lee's A Rose for Winter, a memoir recounting his travels through the Iberian peninsula, provides a sensuous picture of the land, its inhabitants, and their customs. His other major works include several volumes of poetry—including The Sun My Monument (1944), The Bloom of Candles (1947), and My Many-Coated Man (1955)—and the essay collection, I Can't Stay Long (1975).
Many critics have praised Lee's skilled use of figurative language and the sharpness of his descriptions. Cider with Rosie, perhaps Lee's best known work, was warmly received by both critics and popular audiences. When it was published in the United States as The Edge of Day, T. S. Matthews noted that "once in a blue moon, a book appears that deserves its success. This time the moon is blue, and The Edge of Day is the book." Likewise, As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning and A Moment of War have both received accolades from many reviewers. Writing about the former, Charles Causley found its romantic style to be "as juicily ripe as an autumn pear" and possessing a "charm in the writing that genuinely makes it difficult to put the book down." In discussing more serious aspects of Lee's work, Albert Hoxie recommended A Moment of War "[for] anyone who wants to understand what war is actually like, when it is not being dramatized, hyped, heroized or propagandized." Overall, critics have found Lee's stories both accessible and expressive. As one commentator noted in The New Yorker, "Mr. Lee's writing—almost precious, almost naive—has a tone and intensity that are truly entirely his own, and are inimitably pleasing."
The Sun My Monument (poetry) 1944
Land at War (prose) 1945
The Bloom of Candles: Verse from a Poet's Year (poetry) 1947
The Voyage of Magellan: A Dramatic Chronicle for Radio (drama) 1948
My Many-Coated Man (poetry) 1955
A Rose for Winter: Travels in Andalusia (travel essay) 1955
Cider with Rosie (memoir) 1959; also published as The Edge of Day: A Boyhood in the West of England, 1960
As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning (memoir) 1969
I Can't Stay Long (essays) 1975
Two Women: A Book of Words and Photographs (reminiscences) 1983
∗A Moment of War (memoir) 1991
†Red Sky at Sunrise (memoirs) 1992
∗This work has also been published as A Moment of War: A Memoir of the Spanish Civil War.
†This work contains Cider with Rosie, As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning, and A Moment of War.
(The entire section is 128 words.)
SOURCE: "Washed in Happy Air," in The Saturday Review of Literature, Vol. XXX, No. 36, September 6, 1947, pp. 23, 30.
[In the following review, Meyer notes Lee's focus on pastoral life and love in The Sun My Monument, as well as the volume's focus on metaphysical concerns.]
The war years saw in Britain (as they did in some of the Dominions, notably Australia) the rise of a number of "little magazines," among which Cyril Connolly's Horizon and John Lehmann's Penguin New Writing are best known on this side of the Atlantic. Laurie Lee has published poems in both these periodicals, as well as in the BBC magazine, The Listener, and in at least two anthologies of the newer verse; but The Sun My Monument is his first book publication. Mr. Lee is to be congratulated on the ready acceptance of his first book on these shores; and the American public for poetry now has another measure by which to appraise the new post-Auden generation of English poets.
Is there a greater freshness in the English air than here? At least, Mr. Lee dares to produce poetry that, by one of the standards now revered in local poetic circles, should be clearly "old hat." For example, he boldly packs his work with country, rather than urban, images. Is it that "England's green and pleasant land" provides greater justification for pastoral poetry than the less embraceable American...
(The entire section is 942 words.)
SOURCE: "Palsied Apples Fall," in The New York Times Book Review, December 21, 1947, p. 8.
[In the mixed review of The Sun My Monument below, MacLiesh faults the uneven lyrical quality of the collection.]
Poe refused to publish somebody's poem on the ground that the disparity between the good lines and the bad was so incredible that the good must have been stolen. By that criterion a fair amount of his own poetry would have been suspect. If Mr. Lee is certainly not open to the charge, nevertheless the mixture of the excellent and of the perfectly terrible in his verse is equally baffling; so thoroughly are they mingled that there is scarcely a poem in [The Sun My Monument] which can be dismissed altogether and scarcely one which succeeds as a whole or represents any kind of sustained achievement.
Both virtues and faults have their source in his employment of images. In this connection, readers should at least applaud his willingness to gamble for an idiom which is original, rich and strange, even at the risk of falling over into the absurd and his refusal to play it safe by harboring up in a safe pedestrianism to which even the most preciously acidulous critics cannot take particular exception. It is unfortunate, however, that he seems as yet unable to perform a simple labor of excision on lines and whole stanzas and so raise to a fairly impressive standard the poems they...
(The entire section is 593 words.)
SOURCE: "Is the Travel-Book Dead?" in The Spectator, Vol. 194, No. 6625, June 17, 1955, pp. 774-75.
[Amis was an English educator, short story writer, critic, and essayist. In the following negative review, he characterizes A Rose for Winter as "vulgar and sensational."]
The vogue for the highbrow travel-book shows no immediate signs of abating…. The usual characteristics of such books are, first, a leaning towards the more elaborate and unfashionable graces of prose—rightly unfashionable they seem to me, if I may show my hand thus early—and, secondly, a desire to get away from the exhausted sterilities of Western civilisation so feelingly alluded to from time to time by Mr. Priestley. In themselves, these two things may be all very well, though I judge it unlikely; in practice, however, the stylistic graces degenerate briskly into an empty and indecent poeticism, apparently based on a desire to get into the next edition of The Oxford Book of English Prose, while the escape-motive is only with difficulty to be distinguished from the feeling that the other fellow's grass is greener, that the really good time, or good life, is going on somewhere else. The two tendencies, in these degraded forms, find remarkably unalloyed expression in Mr. Laurie Lee's volume [A Rose for Winter].
The experienced reader will know what to do with a book whose blurb announces, as if...
(The entire section is 854 words.)
SOURCE: "South for Sensation," in The New Statesman & Nation, Vol. XLIX, No. 1267, June 18, 1955, pp. 852-53.
[An English educator, editor, journalist, and translator, Brereton frequently writes about French literature. In the following, he provides a laudatory assessment of A Rose for Winter.]
As the toad under the stone, beneath the adjectives of the blurb, lurks the potential reader, though the shrewdest publisher's estimate is occasionally wrong. So, ignoring for the moment the mysterious and exotic, the colourful and romantic, the vivid and intimate, one is fatally lured by the bait of Mr. Laurie Lee's publisher,...
(The entire section is 815 words.)
SOURCE: "A Winter in Andalusia," in The Times Literary Supplement, No. 2783, July 1, 1955, p. 366.
[In the following commendable review, the critic characterizes A Rose for Winter as "poetic" and unlike other travel books.]
Although its sub-title is "Travels in Andalusia," [A Rose for Winter] is no ordinary travel book. It is an account of a return visit to southernmost Spain, in mid-winter, after a break of fifteen years or more. The story begins and ends at Algeciras—"a handsome and lordly city," as Miss Rose Macaulay has described it. From here the author and his wife make visits to Seville, to Granada, where they spend Christmas, to Ecija, at other seasons accounted the hottest place in Spain, and to an unnamed fishing village east of Malaga where Mr. Lee was living at the outbreak of the Civil War. Thence back to Algeciras—"after three months among the great white cities of Andalusia we had returned to our starting point … to us the darling of them all."
Another traveller has recently said of the port of Algeciras, "noisy, smells vilely of fish and harbour mud, and has little to offer," and retreat is recommended to a luxurious hotel outside the town. Not so Mr. Lee:
The evening harbour smelt sweetly of remembered shell-fish, sherry and smuggled tobacco. Porters, touts, boot-blacks and contrabandistas, addressing us by...
(The entire section is 808 words.)
SOURCE: "In Spain It's Like That," in The New York Times Book Review, April 8, 1956, p. 6.
[The former president of PEN International, Pritchett is an English journalist, educator, critic, nonfiction writer, short story writer, novelist, and scriptwriter. Also known for his work as a memoirist, biographer, autobiographer, journalist, and editor, he additionally wrote a book review column for New Statesman. In the favorable review of A Rose for Winter below, Pritchett considers Lee's book to be idiosyncratic, "delicate and strong."]
Laurie Lee is a lyrical poet and he has written [A Rose for Winter,] a poet's book about Andalusia. He is also a droll and a wit. His impression is a fantastic one but it bites more deeply than impression usually does and catches exactly the Andalusian flavor, something "acid, sugary, intoxicating, sickening" and pungent. He uses none of the romantic clichés which are dished out regularly by the tourist booklets or the conventional travelers. He sets down all that our senses remember of Spain and his light pages have more of the South than many a more solemn and explanatory volume.
(The entire section is 1351 words.)
SOURCE: "Five Young English Poets," in Poetry, Vol. LXXXIX, No. 3, December, 1956, pp. 193-200.
[Morse is an American educator, poet, critic, and author of children's books. In the excerpt below, he offers praise for My Many-Coated Man.]
[Laurie Lee's] My Many-coated Man, published in 1955, was a choice of the Poetry Book Society and won the William Foyle Poetry Prize. An extremely slim book indeed, it contains fifteen poems Selected from those "written since the war." The austerity of Lee's selection works ultimately to the great advantage of the poems, each of which has a page to itself, without the competition of print on the verso of the preceding leaf.
Read through at a single sitting, which is temptingly easy, My Many-coated Man reveals a deceptively narrow range. Metaphors and images recur with unusual frequency; the poems give an immediate impression of being versions of the same poem. A second reading reveals a subtle variety of inflection that amounts to style. The words take on the colors of their context very naturally, and enrich the separate occasions at which they occur. Any poet has to achieve his style within limits: his vocabulary, after all, is simply part of his equipment as poet, like his rhythms and his subject-matter; and it is on his exploitation of the chosen materia poetica that his character as a poet largely depends. Lee has achieved his...
(The entire section is 562 words.)
SOURCE: "A Gloucestershire Lad," in New Statesman, Vol. LVIII, No. 1495, November 7, 1959, pp. 634-35.
[In the following review, Ramsbotham offers a highly laudatory account of Cider with Rosie.]
A few years before the first World War a grocer's assistant in Stroud inserted the following advertisement in a local paper: 'Widower (4 children) Seeks Housekeeper'. It was seen by Annie Light, a romantic countrywoman of thirty, who had spent her youth either toiling for her father and five brothers or slaving below-stairs in the manors of the gentry. She took the post, fell in love with her employer, married him, and gave him four more children—one girl (who died) and three boys. Laurie Lee was the youngest child but one.
The father of these two families, a handsome and prudent go-getter ('a natural fixer,' says his son), had always dreamed of a tidy life in the Civil Service, and when the war started he saw his chance and set off for Greenwich ('in a bullet-proof vest') to join the Army Pay Corps. Eventually demobilised with a pension ('for nervous rash, I believe'), he realised his youthful ambition, settled permanently in London, and remitted home a thin supply of money. His wife, meanwhile, had moved with his seven children to a damp old house in a secluded village some miles from Stroud, where she devoted herself, in her muddled and heroic way, to bringing them up; she never stopped...
(The entire section is 600 words.)
SOURCE: "An Acceptance of Life That Is Also an Embrace," in The New York Times Book Review, March 27, 1960, p. 4.
[Matthews is an American-born editor, essayist, poet, autobiographer, and biographer. In the following review, he praises Cider with Rosie, also published as The Edge of Day, as "funny, unsentimental and beautiful."]
Suicide, said Camus, is the one really serious philosophical problem. The only simple answer to the questionable human condition is the act that ends all problems. Any other answer ignores the question or shelves the problem. And yet there is another sort of response, oblique as morning sunlight, irrational as joy, absurd as a human being—an acceptance of life that is also a welcoming and an embrace. Perhaps this response is less rare than we suppose, but only a poet can put it into words.
Laurie Lee has done it. Blessed be his name. These recollections of his country boyhood in the West of England are a testament to the wonder, joy, and painful absurdity of being alive, a letter of thanks whose address is plain to be seen: to life, with love. The Edge of Day is funny, unsentimental and beautiful. Huck Finn would have given it his complete approval.
The book begins with Lee's earliest memories: of the day when his large fatherless family (his father was an absentee) moved into a cottage in a Gloucestershire valley....
(The entire section is 1226 words.)
SOURCE: "The Gift of Unabashed Recall," in The Commonweal, Vol. LXXII, No. 1, April 1, 1960, pp. 22-3.
[In the following review, Cosman praises the subject matter and stylistic aspects of The Edge of Day.]
Discussing a book by a lady of whom it might be said she walked with genius throughout her life, the editor of The Golden Horizon tells us that though he retains a very clear impression of the complicated characters who were her familiars, to wit, Mahler, Werfel and Kokoschka, he still remains baffled by the author herself. One thing, however, he does claim to understand: her ability to get over everything.
If, by this, Cyril Connolly means a containment of experience as much a forgetting as a remembering, then the animadversion does not apply to Laurie Lee, for the present book proves that he is one who has gotten over nothing in his past.
The Edge of Day, originally called Cider with Rosie, is an evocative and vibrant reproduction of that period in his life which extended from the age of three, when he was put down before his home in a Cotswold valley, to the point when his identity as a human being discovered he began "to make up poems from intense abstraction, hour after unmarked hour, imagination scarcely faltering once, rhythm hardly skipping a beat…." Of a period, then, to take it out of the realm of ecstasy and place it in history, that...
(The entire section is 694 words.)
SOURCE: "Bright as a Windblown Lark," in The New Yorker, Vol. XXXVI, No. 9, April 16, 1960, pp. 172, 174, 177-78.
[In the review below, Maxwell lauds Lee's portrait of family, neighbors, and village life in The Edge of Day.]
The common reader will put up with absolutely anything, but how like getting a stock split or finding a four-leaf clover it is to read a book by a writer who has managed to separate the material that is his from everybody else's, whose style is an approximation of his own manner of speaking, and who with some courage lays his cards on the table. The Edge of Day, by Laurie Lee, meets all three of these requirements, and is beautiful besides, as one would expect the autobiography of a poet to be—beautiful, rich, full of stories, full of the humor that fountains from unsuppressed human beings, full of intelligence and point, full of damn near everything.
I have a fondness for first sentences, and the first sentences of this book are "I was set down from the carrier's cart at the age of three; and there with a sense of bewilderment and terror my life in the village began. The June grass, amongst which I stood, was taller than I was, and I wept. I had never been so close to grass before."
He was rescued by his three big sisters, who came scrambling and calling up the steep, rough bank and, parting the long grass, found him. "There, there, it's...
(The entire section is 2492 words.)
SOURCE: A review of The Edge of Day, in The Saturday Review, New York, Vol. XLIII, No. 17, April 23, 1960, pp. 45-6.
[In the following review, Green characterizes The Edge of Day as a "memorable and heartwarming autobiography," briefly noting the volume's focus on village life and similarities to the work of Dylan Thomas.]
Laurie Lee's The Edge of Day is a creamy Double Gloucester of an autobiography, "tasting of Flora and the country green," flavored with wit and poetry and Cotswold nostalgia. The author, who has played guitars in Andalusia in his time, here turns Pied Piper and leads us an enchanting dance up something that strongly resembles Dylan Thomas's Fern Hill. There's a lot of Thomas's verbal magic here, too, the same pristine delight in springtime passions and colorful rural eccentricity. Other parallels that at once spring to mind are Gerald Durrell's My Family and Other Animals (Mrs. Lee and her brood are even more idiosyncratic, if you can imagine such a thing) and John Moore's immortal trilogy about the same area, of which Portrait of Elmbury most resembles Mr. Lee's autobiography.
The Edge of Day is set in a village near Stroud, during and after the First World War. Somehow the steamroller of industrial development had spared the place long enough for young Laurie to catch an authentic whiff of the fast-dying past: "It was...
(The entire section is 583 words.)
SOURCE: A review of As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning, in The Atlantic Monthly, Vol. 224, No. 3, September, 1969, pp. 117-18.
[Weeks is an American editor, memoirist, and nonfiction writer long associated with The Atlantic Monthly. In the following mixed review, he relates the events recorded in As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning.]
Laurie Lee was nineteen when on a June morning in 1935 after a hearty breakfast and a pat on the back from his mother, he walked away from his country home in the Cotswolds. He was propelled by the traditional forces that have sent so many younger sons out into the world, and the Depression had doubtless strengthened his resistance to the local girls, whispering "Marry and settle down." For his journey he carried a small rolled-up tent, a violin wrapped in a blanket, a change of clothes, a tin of treacle biscuits, and a hazel stick in hand. He planned to walk to London by way of Southampton so as to have his first look at the sea, and for sustenance he would fiddle his way through any hospitable town, his hat at his feet, with a couple of coppers in it pour encourager les autres. After London he would take ship for Spain, drawn there by boyhood fancies of Seville. He had already published some of his early pastoral poems and hoped to compose and sell others along the way. But the violin was to be his mainstay, and a bystander warned him not to play...
(The entire section is 837 words.)
SOURCE: "On the Fiddle," in New Statesman, Vol. 78, No. 2011, September 26, 1969, pp. 428-29.
[An English educator, poet, translator, editor, dramatist, short story writer, and author of children's books, Causley has served as the vice-president of the Poetry Society of Great Britain. In the review below, he offers a mixed assessment of As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning.]
One evening at his house in the high sierras of Kensington, Roy Campbell told me of an encounter he and his wife once had with a street-musician in Toledo. The fiddler turned out to be not a German, as they'd supposed, but a young man from Gloucestershire walking across Spain with a knapsack and a violin wrapped in a blanket. The Campbells asked him how he was getting on. Fine, he replied with surprising alacrity. Except for the wild dogs that occasionally woke him, sniffing and howling round at night. 'He thought they were dogs!' roared Campbell, delightedly. Then, pianissimo: 'They were wolves, man.'
Whether they were or not is irrelevant. In any case, Laurie Lee in his As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning doesn't mention the wolves in connection with Campbell, but merely says 'they may have been'. To Campbell, always extravagantly and imaginatively generous, they had to be: for the same reason that he proudly introduced young Lee to his Toledan friends as: 'A champion, this boy. Walked all the way...
(The entire section is 1140 words.)
SOURCE: "Fiddler's Eye View," in The Times Literary Supplement, No. 3528, October, 9, 1969, p. 1155.
[In the following review, the critic favorably assesses As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning.]
Laurie Lee writes with such apparent ease that [As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning, this] autobiographical sequel to Cider with Rosie may be discounted, by readers who think only those books good which are tough going, as merely a charming picaresque trifle. But it is a work of art the finer for appearing artless.
The nineteen-year-old Laurie Lee leaves his home in Stroud, Gloucestershire, to walk to London: a folk-hero like Dick Whittington, except that instead of a cat he has his fiddle, and he does not want to make his fortune, merely his mark as a poet. And on his journey a straight line is not the shortest distance between his point of departure and his goal. The journey is more important than the landfall. He takes weeks to wander to London, going first to Southampton to see the sea and try out his theory that a young man with a fiddle can play his way wheresoever he will.
That fact established, he knows that, provided he remains fancy free, he can see the world even in the mid-1930s when millions are unemployed and most of the footloose characters on the road with him are men who are desperately seeking work or resigned to never finding it. Gifted with...
(The entire section is 1048 words.)
SOURCE: "To Spain with a Violin and a Tin of Treacle Biscuits," in The New York Times Book Review, October 12, 1969, pp. 4-5.
[Mitchell is an English novelist. In the following review, he expresses ambivalence for As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning.]
Readers of The Edge of Day, Laurie Lee's enchanting memoir of an English west-country childhood, may remember that it ends with the adolescent Laurie sitting on his bed, making up poems. Just about a generation later, an adolescent myself, I thought he was one of the great poets of our time. Lines like:
Blown bubble-film of blue, the sky wraps round
Weeds of warm light whose every root and rod
Splutters with soapy green, and all the world
Sweats with the bead of summer in its bud
made me dizzy with delight. The physical world seemed dew-bright on the page. Growing up only a village or two away from Lee, along the valley I liked to think inspired the poem, I could identify "Weeds of warm light" with real weeds in the real river Frome.
Brightness, alas, falls from the page, and though I still feel dizzy when I read "April Rise," age has made me suspicious of dizziness, and I've even had doubts about my admiration for The Edge of Day—surely I'm biased by the pleasure...
(The entire section is 1002 words.)
SOURCE: "All the Best Countrymen," in The Listener, Vol. 94, November 20, 1975, p. 680.
[Blythe is an English novelist, short story writer, and editor. In the following excerpt, he discusses I Can't Stay Long.]
When Laurie Lee was 17, he strolled out of his Cotswold village and tramped to Spain. The village for him was first base, a privately marked spot he could return to without feelings of betrayal. I Can't Stay Long is a group of essays, some about the marked spot but most about his restless forays from it.
On the whole, he takes wide-eyed journeys to touristy places, yet manages to avoid the results of their easy accessibility. 'Tourism is just creating a third world, one that is neither at home nor abroad.' For a natural wanderer like Mr Lee, this middle road is purgatory, and much of his best writing in this unusual collection is inspired by his determination to bring back the old sense of foreigness and distance to such goals as Beirut, Cannes, Dublin, the Caribbean, Warsaw and the remote Spain of his teens.
Laurie Lee reveals an acceptance of the underlying, built-in solitude which accompanies him on these trips. He is friendly, but not involved, and is just looking around. Having the feeling that it hasn't happened if it hasn't been recorded, he notes all he can, writing the average traveloguer under the table in the process. He has a sharp country ear...
(The entire section is 475 words.)
SOURCE: "Writing Autobiography," in I Can't Stay Long, Atheneum, 1976, pp. 49-53.
[In the essay below, originally written in 1975, Lee discusses the writing process particularly as it applies to autobiography.]
Autobiography can be the laying to rest of ghosts as well as an ordering of the mind. But for me it is also a celebration of living and an attempt to hoard its sensations.
In common with other writers I have written little that was not for the most part autobiographical. The spur for me is the fear of evaporation—erosion, amnesia, if you like—the fear that a whole decade may drift gently away and leave nothing but a salt-caked mud-flat.
A wasting memory is not only a destroyer; it can deny one's very existence. A day unremembered is like a soul unborn, worse than if it had never been. What indeed was that summer if it is not recalled? That journey? That act of love? To whom did it happen if it has left you with nothing? Certainly not to you. So any bits of warm life preserved by the pen are trophies snatched from the dark, are branches of leaves fished out of the flood, are tiny arrests of mortality.
The urge to write may also be the fear of death—particularly with autobiography—the need to leave messages for those who come after, saying, 'I was here; I saw it too'. Then there are the other uses of autobiography, some less poignant than...
(The entire section is 1630 words.)
SOURCE: "Newer Signatures," in his The Poetry of the Thirties, St. Martin's Press, 1975, pp. 356-73.
[Tolley is an English educator, editor, and critic. In the following essay, he briefly assesses Lee's poetry.]
Not every poet of the thirties had a book published during that decade or even appeared extensively in periodicals. Laurie Lee seems to have been writing poems for ten years before the publication of his first book, The Sun My Monument, in 1944. He was one of the poets—among them Dylan Thomas, David Gascoyne and Ruthven Todd—who appeared in the Sunday Referee poetry column around 1934. He spent some time in Spain before the Civil War, wandering from place to place and supporting himself by playing his violin.
While in Spain, he got to know the poetry of Lorca, whose influence seems to have been a congenial and enduring one in Lee's poetry. It shows in the use of traditional images that are simple and clear, almost to the point of quaintness:
Now I am still and spent
and lie in a whited sepulchre
but there will be
no lifting of the damp swathes
no return of blood
no rolling away the stone
till the cocks carve...
(The entire section is 421 words.)
SOURCE: An interview in Caliban XIII, n.s., Vol. XII, No. 1, January, 1976, pp. 149-60.
[In the excerpted interview below, Lee discusses various topics, including life in the Cotswolds, his childhood, modern life, and the concept of literary style.]
[Nicole and Françoise Cavalerie]: The Cotswolds.
[Lee]: My Mother's family have lived in the Cotswolds for six or seven hundred years. They were farmers and lived by the river Severn. Then they moved up into the hills. Some of my uncles were foresters, others horse-dealers, some coachmen. My Grandfather is my only authentic, physical link with the past (all the other stories I have heard derive from rumour or custom). He was a coachman at Berkeley Castle but at the end of his life was running a public house in Sheepscombe called "The Plough" which still stands there. He was a great man of the old tradition, with huge moustaches; all his sons were masters in their relationship to the countryside—and particularly to horses.
My forebears on my father's side came from a very small area of Dorset—the Thomas Hardy country. They were seamen and farmers, so my family had a double tradition of farming, but both sides came from counties in the West. If I could have chosen an environment to be born in or to spring from it would have been one of these two counties. But I am a mixture of these two incomparable areas:...
(The entire section is 4000 words.)
SOURCE: "Writer on the Move," in The Times Literary Supplement, No. 3855, January 30, 1976, p. 102.
[In the following review, Secker offers a mixed appraisal of I Can't Stay Long.]
Laurie Lee describes I Can't Stay Long as "on the whole a scrapbook of first loves and obsessions". He also records that some of the essays were written as long ago as twenty or thirty years. This no doubt accounts for the unevenness of the whole. In the [piece] called "Love", for instance one has a curious sense of déja vu. This is written in what seems in places a modernized version of the style of Rom Landau, who used the same high-flown language, and who was much admired in the 1930s by one's maiden aunts. Here is Mr Lee: "Love approves, allows and liberates, and is not a course of moral correction, nor a penitential brainwash or a psychiatrist's couch, but a warm-blooded acceptance of what one is." There is, too, a slickness which sets the teeth on edge. In the same essay he writes of the "drugfix of pop music (with its electronically erected virility)". Turning to the publisher's note at this point I read that some of these pieces have not appeared before except in the United States, which goes a long way to explaining the above but does not excuse it.
Yet when Lee drops his purple mantle he can write with a vivid, spare imagery that makes one realize how closely allied are the eyes of...
(The entire section is 514 words.)
SOURCE: "Laurie Lee's Poetry: English, Clean and—Well—Nice," in The Christian Science Monitor, April 6, 1976, p. 27.
[Nye is a poet, critic, and essayist who lives in Scotland. In the review of I Can't Stay Long below, he notes that the most effective pieces in the collection revisit Lee's childhood and travels.]
Laurie Lee is an underestimated English poet. He is underestimated because he has never gone out of his way to advertise himself or his work. Norman Cameron—another neglected poet—used to say of Mr. Lee that even when he wasn't very good, he was always clean. Mr. Lee's work, in verse and prose, speaks of a certain purity preserved or achieved at some cost in both eye and heart. He is also a generous and a good-humored writer.
Put all these qualities together, of course, and you have Cider With Rosie (1959), his masterpiece, that evocation of an English childhood now gone for ever, where a rare skill finds images to match a spirit of innocence and its evanescence.
I Can't Stay Long consists of all the occasional writings that he cares to preserve. He has put it together, he tells us, "partly as a means of clearing the barnacled chaos of my room but also as a way of revisting dimly remembered experiences and exercises." The volume contains pieces written over a period of 30 years. The author informs us that what they have in common...
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SOURCE: A review of Selected Poems, in Books and Bookmen, No. 335, August, 1983, p. 28.
[A fellow of England's Royal Society of Literature, Stanford is an English educator, poet, and critic who has frequently written about Muriel Spark, Christopher Fry, and Emily and Anne Brontë. In the review below, he offers praise for Lee's Selected Poems, noting the volume's nostalgic tone and subject matter.]
Some of the purest poetry of sensuous perception that has been written this century comes from the pen of Laurie Lee whose Selected Poems are a pot-pourri of intense, yet almost antiquated, sweetness.
It is more detailed, less fantasticated, than the world of childhood which Dylan Thomas created in 'Fern Hill'. Thomas' was a retrospective vision (with all the nostalgia [of] time's passing occasions). Mr Lee, at his happiest, creates a sort of perennial immediacy—though it is one of myth fed by the present rather than realism, raw, refined or simple. Thus, he writes of the 'Village of Winter Carols':
Village of winter carols
and gaudy spinning tops,
of green-handed walnuts
and games in the moon.
Nostalgia is stated in a Foreword in which the poet tells us that these verses were "written by someone I once was and...
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SOURCE: "Childhood," in his The Inner I: British Literary Autobiography of the Twentieth Century, Oxford University Press, 1985, pp. 117-37.
[In the following excerpt, Finney discusses Cider with Rosie from a Jungian perspective, suggesting that Lee is "attempting to describe the evolution of his individual psyche by relating it to … archetypal images."]
[Like Herbert Read, author of the autobiographical The Innocent Eye, Laurie] Lee sees his childhood as an idyll of the past to which he returns in memory for refreshment and renewal. Although longer, Cider With Rosie (1959) has the same air of simplicity verging on naivety which mirrors the child's vision of life. Yet [in his essay 'Writing Autobiography' from I Can't Stay Long] he has subsequently written of its technical complexity. The book occupied him for two years and was written three times. For a start there was the whole problem of compression which brought him face to face with the question of autobiographical veracity. He found that in writing a childhood autobiography 'the only truth is what you remember'. Armed with the conviction that 'there is no pure truth', he found the confidence to distil his sisters' conversations over a period of twelve years to a few dozen phrases, five thousand hours at the village school into fifteen minutes' reading time, and a thousand days into 'a day that never happened' in 'The...
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SOURCE: A review of A Moment of War, in Books, London, Vol. 5, No. 5, September-October, 1991, p. 26.
[Glover is an English nonfiction writer who frequently focuses on historical events and themes. In the review of A Moment of War below, he finds Lee's autobiographical account of the Spanish Civil War "an affecting, engaging document."]
Laurie Lee is one of the most popular and least prolific of our contemporary novelists: the sequence of autobiographical novels that began with the publication of Cider with Rosie in 1959—which has sold almost two million copies in paperback alone—will be continued this autumn with the appearance of A Moment of War, a fictional memoir of Lee's experiences as a volunteer in the Spanish Civil War in 1937.
The enduringly popular Cider with Rosie was rich—almost too rich, some might argue—with the sensuous, timeless details of a Gloucestershire childhood; by comparison, A Moment of War is a spare, often stark evocation of 'the stupefying numbness of war'—and a timely reminder of the fact that the heroism of war is seldom shared by its bewildered combatants.
Lee crossed over the Pyrenees from France into Spain with only a few books, a diary and a violin. He came as a volunteer, burning with idealism (like so many other recruits to the International Brigade), hopelessly optimistic, desperate...
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SOURCE: "On the Road to Teruel," in The Times Literary Supplement, No. 4620, October 18, 1991, pp. 11-12.
[In the review of A Moment of War below, Cunningham describes Lee's autobiographical portrait as "momentous, extraordinary, [and] compelling."]
Laurie Lee's account of what he did in the Spanish Civil War—momentous, extraordinary, compelling—reads like a confession. But it is a very belated one. As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning, the second volume in what we are now to regard as the Cider With Rosie trilogy, ends with our author slipping through a gap in some frontier rocks and entering a Republican farmhouse with the greeting "I've come to join you." "I was back in Spain", he wrote, "with a winter of war before me." That was in 1969, thirty years after the Spanish War had ended. A Moment of War opens with just that event, those very words. But now we are in 1991. What, you can't help wondering, has kept Laurie Lee so long? After only a few pages, it's not difficult to guess that the terrible nature of what he has to relate is responsible for the conspicuously late showing.
This traveller still has innocences to shed. For a second time, he enters Spain as the naif, the idiot, a kind of baby holy fool. He had, of course, literally lost his virginity long since. In As I walked Out, he, and we, met the motherly but sexy Concha in Madrid. There...
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SOURCE: "My Enemy's Enemy Is Not My Friend," in The Spectator, Vol. 267, No. 8520, October 26, 1991, pp. 38-9.
[Corke is an English educator, poet, editor, and translator. In the following review, Corke calls A Moment of War a "remarkable story."]
In December 1937 Spain was tearing itself apart and Laurie Lee could no longer bear to remain outside the country that had given his mind its second birth. He was 'betraying the people of Spain'. Failing to convince the regular recruiters, he made himself into a one-man International Brigade and hiked over the Pyrenees. The closing page of As I Walked Out has him walking with his violin between the two rocks that marked the frontier and knocking at the first door. 'Pase usted.'
That was published in 1969. Now, at last, 22 years later [in A Moment of War], we find out what happened next: which was that his apparently genial host couldn't believe that anyone could possibly be so romantic and impractical as to do what Lee said he had done. A violin! This Englishman was self-evidently a spy. So no sooner had he arrived there than the people of Spain popped him into, literally, an oubliette; where he remained for a fortnight in earshot of the firing-squads, until eventually suddenly released in apparently as inconsequential a manner as that in which he had been incarcerated.
For many of us that would...
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SOURCE: "A Wide-Eyed Witness to War," in Los Angeles Times Book Review, May 2, 1993, pp. 3, 10.
[Hoxie is an educator who specializes in history. In the review of A Moment of War below, he considers Lee's book to be essential for "anyone who wants to understand what war is actually like, when it is not being dramatized, hyped, heroized or propagandized."]
Laurie Lee's memoirs are little known in the United States, though in English schools his first two volumes occupy about the same place that J.D. Salinger's Catcher in the Rye has filled here. A Moment of War, the third volume of Lee's story, had a substantial run on the British bestseller list last year—five decades after the first volume appeared.
Lee's prose has much the same kind of spare elegance and direct, heart-wrenching clarity of Lincoln's Gettysburg Address; and both Lincoln and Lee are dealing with that most painful of all types conflict: civil war. This book is Lee's account of his efforts to join the International Brigade in Spain in December of 1937.
Lee was born in 1914 in a village in Somerset. He has recounted the story of his adolescence in Cider With Rosie, a memoir of gentle humor and great charm. At 19, he walked out of Somerset with little money and a fiddle to confront the world, going first to London, where he managed to earn enough money to get himself to Vigo,...
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SOURCE: "One Poet's War," in The New York Times Book Review, July 25, 1993, p. 7.
[Klinkenborg is an American editor and nonfiction writer. In the review of A Moment of War below, he discusses the contemporary relevance of Lee's autobiographical account of the Spanish Civil War.]
For some artists and writers—I think of Goya or Michael Herr—war is a kind of fugue state, from which they return with a lingering vision in which you feel an expressive haste, a hysteria under flushed skin. These are the artists and writers for whom war retains a kind of esthetic sublimity, immoral to be sure and always undercut by the blatant ironies of combat, but with the mix of fear and beauty that Wordsworth could find in a mountain landscape unmolested by shellfire or that Byron could find in incest. The emotion with which such works are charged is a commentary on war and a gauge of authenticity. But there is another school of artists and writers for whom war obviates all commentary, for whom war, austerely depicted, is itself a commentary on human civilization. That is the school to which the English poet and memoirist Laurie Lee belongs.
Mr. Lee's new book, A Moment of War: A Memoir of the Spanish Civil War, is a bleak monument to a conflict that is remembered now mainly as an augury of World War II. But A Moment of War is also a reminder that irony, so debased in the ordinary...
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SOURCE: "Poets of the Spanish Tragedy," in The New York Review of Books, Vol. XLI, No. 21, December 22, 1994, pp. 18, 20-2.
[In the excerpt below, Knox examines Lee's account of the Spanish Civil War as presented in A Moment of War.]
[Lee came to Spain] in the winter of 1937. He was twenty-three years old, and not yet widely known as a poet, though when in Spain he met Fred Copeman the commander of the British Battalion, who had been his strike leader when Lee worked as a builder's laborer in London, he was greeted with the words: "The poet from the buildings. Never thought you'd make it."
This was not his first visit to Spain. In the spring of 1936 he had sailed, with little more baggage than his fiddle, to Vigo on the northwest coast of Spain and made his way on foot, supporting himself by playing his fiddle to earn a few pesetas, across a country that Louis MacNeice, also a tourist in Spain that spring, though on a higher economic level, described [in his 1967 Collected Poems of Louis MacNeice] as "ripe as an egg for revolt and ruin." When the fighting broke out in July, Lee left for home, under the mistaken impression that the military coup had succeeded, but returned in the next year, to join the International Brigade. In 1969 he published a famous account of his summer journey, As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning. And now, at the age of eighty, he has written an...
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Berryman, John. "Waiting for the End, Boys." Partisan Review 15, No. 2 (February 1948): 254-67.
Comparative review of several poetry collections. Offering a mixed assessment of The Sun My Monument, Berryman faults Lee's use of rhyme, but acknowledges that he is most effective when he focuses on love or the natural world.
Review of I Can't Stay Long, by Laurie Lee. The New Yorker LII, No. 1 (23 February 1976): 116.
Favorable assessment of I Can't Stay Long.
Thwaite, Anthony. "Names and Images." The Spectator, No. 6944 (28 July 1961): 149.
Comparative review of John Wain's Weep before God, Frederick Grubb's Title Deeds, Charles Olson's The Distances, and Lee's The Sun My Monument. Thwaite finds Lee's poems unimpressive and "slight."
Tomlinson, Charles. "Two Englands." Poetry 99, No. 1 (October 1961): 54-6.
Discusses Lee's The Edge of Day and H. D.'s Bid Me to Live, noting each author's focus on England.
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