Geoffrey Grigson Critical Essays

Grigson, Geoffrey

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Grigson, Geoffrey 1905–

Grigson is a British poet, a naturalist, an authority on art, and an important critic and editor. His avant-garde magazine of the 1930s, New Verse, published Auden, MacNeice, and Dylan Thomas. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 25-28.)

One of the earliest collections of Geoffrey Grigson's poems had the title Several Observations, and there is a way in which almost all his best published poetry fits under this heading. But the modesty of the title may be deceiving unless we have a very exact understanding of what he means by "observations". The lack of such an understanding has already led to the foolishness of dismissing Grigson as a "miniaturist"; and, perhaps worse, to fairly long articles reappraising Grigson's work, which, even after the publishing of Collected Poems in 1963, have paid very little real attention to his poetry. "Observation"—in Grigson's special sense of the word—takes on a new clarity and importance after one reads the essays collected together in Poems & Poets. So does the observer. (p. 46)

It would be impossible to forget the editor, the critic, the naturalist, and, I suppose, the controversialist. New Verse, which Geoffrey Grigson edited from January, 1933, to the Autumn of 1938, seems a more astonishing achievement with every passing year. Grigson as editor now appears far more generous and catholic in his taste than he pretended at the time. Few other editors, I suspect, have kept their pages open to poets whom they felt to be talented, but whom they accused so vigorously of abusing their talents in the editorial and review pages. The poet's work and the accusation often appear in the same issue. Few editors, I also suspect, have produced a magazine of such obvious importance that contributors were willing to suffer this treatment….

His voice was not altogether ignored, but, reading the last essay in Poems & Poets, A Man of the Thirties, I began to wonder, not for the first time, what would have happened to English poetry in the 1950's if Grigson, rather than Empson, had been taken as a model by the many poets in England then struggling back to sense. Grigson's obsession with precision—precise observation matched with the precise language to describe it—might have saved a number of them from either affected obscurity or plain tameness. (p. 47)

[In A Skull in Salop and Other Poems], some of his most successful poems … like some of his best prose…, show Grigson observing himself very much as a naturalist observes wildlife….

There are a number of poems in A Skull in Salop that are as fine as Yes and No. Does that mean there has been no progress, no extension of Grigson's talent in more than thirty years? I don't know. And I suspect the question may be irrelevant. Time passes, of course; the observed objects may change, many must change, but the trained observer, having once achieved the kind of observation Geoffrey Grigson is talking about, can only be distracted from it at a loss. (p. 50)

Michael Mott, in Poetry (© 1970 by The Modern Poetry Association; reprinted by permission of the Editor of Poetry), April, 1970.

[Though the] epigrams, together with snarls and brief fits of petulance against 'smart reviewers', 'Journalist-dons, hair-oiled ad-men', and the inanities of television culture, are characteristic of one side of Grigson's personality in his poetry, they are not dominant. Most of his recent poems have been sensuous notations of places, people and very closely observed scenes, celebrations of the oddity and variety of natural life. It is the passionate naturalist, archaeologist, topographer and traveller that watches from the centre of Grigson's poems, restlessly particularizing and recording. (p. 27)

Anthony Thwaite, in his Poetry Today 1960–1973 (© Anthony Thwaite; Longman Group Ltd., for the British Council), British Council, 1973.

The virtues which come across in [Geoffrey Grigson's] latest book Angles and Circles are classical front-of-the-mind ones and have more to do with commenting on life than with rendering it in actual rhythms and images. An idea will set him off:

            Let's think of June, which corresponds
            To twenty-eight in women.
            Petals of clumped peonies, it's true
            Have started falling.

He can be crisply satirical, as when

         Our new Edwardian interrupts his slumber
         And stacks upon the flats of Humber
         Photocopies of ridiculous lumber.

When Grigson deals with more concrete and personal experience he is less often convincing, but what may seem to be poetic failures are nearly always redeemed by a tenderness of feeling which is perhaps his deepest response to people and the natural world…. Grigson has never probed far into any technical terra incognita but what he writes has always been—and continues to be—agreeably readable and even reassuring in its assumption that there are standards of intelligence and comprehensibility, as well as of humanity, that need to be kept up. (p. 71)

Colin Falck, in The New Review (© The New Review Ltd.; 11 Greek Street, London WIV 5 LE), February, 1975.

[Grigson's] whole collection [Angles and Circles] can be seen as a deliberate act of celebration, a hymning, according to Auden's prescription, of 'the small but journal wonders of Nature and of households', undertaken in full awareness of the reasons against celebrating anything. Grigson is particularly good at catching moments of subjective illumination and relating them to precise backgrounds, so that they form a kind of critique and history of present times. Like Roy Fuller, but working within a social rather than a solitary context, he is concerned to examine the morality of being, as it appears at this particular point of civilization. The result is a poetry of positive humanism, a redoubt of humane sensibility…. (p. 108)

The other part of Auden's prescription was that 'a stunning display of concinnity and elegance is the least we can do', and Grigson does come a considerable way towards this, with an assured handling of cadence and an unusual echoing effect achieved by the use of internal rhyme. If this sometimes creates a slight preciousness of form, as in 'Monsieur Colin's Paint-Box Garden' or 'Aet Beran Byrg', reminiscent of the late nineteenth-century dabbling in triolets, etc., it more often creates a music that seems essential to the meaning, the tolling of sound values, for instance, throughout 'In the Crypt at Bourges', or the pinpointed unease of 'Items of a Night', whose final stanza flexes on a single rhyme and a half-rhyme. Equally marked is the use of inverted word order, a device so constant that it could be called a mannerism, but always skilfully turned. There seem to be two contrasting movements here: in one rhythm pushes logic, in a Hopkins-like exclamatory fashion, in the other logic displaces rhythm for analytical ends, giving the verse, Grigson may be distressed to know, an oddly Cummings-like inflection…. (pp. 108-09)

Angles and Circles is an exemplar of what occasional poetry should be like: minor in scale, but with a hint of the major in its concerns. (p. 109)

Roger Garfitt, in London Magazine (© London Magazine 1975), February/March, 1975.

A keen eye for the interest of unlikely objects, a ratty impatience with his dislikes, flights of distinctly vulnerable emotion, a muted yet persistent optimism—the mixture couldn't be anyone else's but Geoffrey Grigson's. Angles and Circles gets off to a wholly characteristic start with a poem which lists so many hateful things about France that we are badly prepared for the turnabout in the last line…. [Clumsily,] gauchely, ambiguously (I still don't know whether the geniality or the Fascism has won), he arrives at a final positive; as he does here in many poems of love, place and observation of the seasons. But it's an awkward affirmation, as it is also when he wants to round off a tribute to Auden, or to the power of love against violence, or to the mystery and beauty of light, with an enormous Yes. Grigson is best, as perhaps he would want to be, when letting things speak for themselves, and celebrating small moments of 'livingness': watching a 'Storm Coming in Wales', catching a moment of eerie peace in Green Park, finding himself looking at a woman drenched by rain. Expect to be irritated, even shocked, by the queer juxtaposition of tetchiness and tenderness in Angles and Circles, but don't miss it: Grigson in his seventieth year is, if anything, a more alert, lively and entertaining poet than ever before. (p. 346)

Alan Brownjohn, in New Statesman (© 1975 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), March 14, 1975.

Over a long career Geoffrey Grigson has behaved according to strict principles in criticism and scrupulousness in the art of writing poems. Technically, his poems can only be described within the orders and manners of a wholly individual handling of rhythms and subjects. In his angular lyrics his rhythms, if odd at first to the ear, are also precise with that unexpected accuracy found only in the work of poets for whom an organically rhythmic writing is primary among their technical concerns, and in which regulation is invented, or discovered, or, if identifiable metres are used, overcome….

His best thoughts are confirmations of a resolute will to live. He insists on a sensuous acceptance of nature, the countryside, and love. His typical regret … is at refusals to seize the wholeness of life and "natural best being." Unlike so many poets whose assumptions are directed towards "liberation" and happiness, Grigson's life-philosophy is coherent. It is only in his literary satires that he loses his characteristic tenderness. These satires are undoubtedly immediate in relation to his view of life. Yet when he writes of the thwarted happiness of a French craftsman in "Quel Histoire," it is with such a moving wholeness of sympathy and regret that I can hardly draw any other conclusion than that literary satire is too closely involved with the savagery of its traditions to be capable of any conclusions other than distorted ones. (p. 75)

Douglas Dunn, in Encounter (© 1975 by Encounter Ltd.), May, 1975.