D. J. Enright is a well-known poet, essayist (The Alluring Problem: An Essay on Irony, 1986), and anthologist in England. His poems have appeared in periodicals such as The Applegarth Review, The Independent on Sunday, London Magazine, London Review of Books, PN. Review, and The Times Literary Supplement. Enright received the Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry in 1981, but not until 1987 was the first collection of Enright’s poems, Collected Poems 1987, published by the Oxford University Press. Since then, Enright has published several more books of poetry, including Selected Poems 1990(1990) and Under the Circumstances (1991), which have helped establish his as one of the leading lyrical voices in England.
The poems in Old Men and Comets are exuberant with the sagacious wisdom that comes with age and replete with somber reflections that result from a person’s having to face the inevitability of death. The title of the book is taken from the English satirist and clergyman Jonathan Swift: “Old men and comets have been reverenced for the same reason: their long beards, and pretences to foretell events.” The title seems to dictate that in Old Men and Comets Enright wants to use an approach that can be as self-abnegating as it will be marked by what British critic A. S. Byatt calls “the English qualities of understatement and irony.”
To appreciate both Swift and Enright is to understand the paradoxical relationship between youth and age, between memory and reality, and between the meaning of life and the inevitability of death, as “What We Never and Always Think Of’ admits:
“Paradox from the start was a peculiar part of us.” Since both old men and comets’ professed power to foretell the future, be it a sanctimonious pretension or a veracious flair, is paradoxically associated with their ability to identify with history, one might save considerable time and energy to read a book “backwards, last chapter first” and “beginning at the end,” as is suggested in “A Book at Bedtime.”
The approach Enright uses in Old Men and Comets is, indeed, as paradoxical as his belief in the dialectical relationship between the past and the future is strong. In the book, one’s propensity to live in memories and reminiscences is what provides one with the ability, in the case of poems such as “In the Street,” “Wheels,” “Memory,” “An Old Man Reminisces,” “Yusoff the Bold,” “Thinking of the Young Ladies of Tsuda College,” “Seasons,” “Forgetfulness in Fuzhou,” “Self- Criticism,” “A Half-Remembered Tale,” and “Dream Snatches,” to understand the present. In “Cliché’s,” “Coming True,” “Citizen’s Charter,” “Dream Snatches,” “The Great Man Can Be Quite Funny, Nicht Wahr?” and “What We Never and Always Think Of,” memory can help one to predict the future. “In the Street” tells a story about how the narrator’s mother first met his father. On a rainy day in England, a young woman shared an umbrella with a soldier who was on leave in England. The soldier was “looking lost” and “was getting wet,” but the umbrella “offered decent room for two.” Thus began a romantic relationship that led the soldier to the decision that he did not want to “rejoin the Dublin Fusiliers”: “Little work there, lots more rain] Better to stay and be a British husband.”
Enright’s exploration of the “make-love-not-war” theme in the poem is quite obvious. The time setting for the poem is 1919; the bloody battles of World War I were over, but England still faced the crisis of the British and Irish conflict. What is more interesting is the way the narrator questions the veracity of the “romantic story” about his mother and father at the end of the poem:
Did our mother really tell us this,
Or does remembrance misconstrue?
She was never given to romancing;
Either way it could be true.
To reconstruct history is to understand its relevance to the present. By challenging the accuracy of memory, the narrator is also inviting the reader to make history writing more representative and responsive to a progressive society. Indeed, if one umbrella was large enough for two strangers, there is no reason that people cannot coexist harmoniously on a capacious earth.
In the poem “Memory,” the narrator shares with...