George Granville Barker was born February 26, 1913, at Loughton, Essex, of an Irish mother and an English father. He attended Marlborough Public School and L.C.C. School, Chelsea, London, dropping out at fourteen to work at “an incredible miscellany of jobs.” Barker early became a Faber poet, with grants from his publishers and from the King’s Bounty. Both his first book, Alanna Autumnal, written when he was eighteen, and Thirty Preliminary Poems were published in 1933; after that, he lived almost entirely by writing. In 1936, William Butler Yeats included a selection of Barker’s work in the Oxford Book of Modern Verse. Barker had the distinction of being the youngest poet in the volume. He was only twenty-six when, three years later, he visited Japan as a professor of English Literature at the Imperial Tohoku University, from 1939 to 1940.
Barker was a restless figure. He married three times and lived abroad much of his life. From 1940 to 1959, he lived in the United States and made only short trips home. Then he went to Italy, where he remained until 1965, returning to the United States to be visiting professor at State University of New York, Buffalo, for a year. He had other visiting professorships in 1966, 1971, and 1974. He moved to Greece in 1975 and lived there until 1981. He then returned to England, living first in Surrey and then in Norfolk. Barker received a number of accolades during his lifetime, among them the Guinness Prize in 1962, the Levinson Prize in 1965, and the Cholmondeley Award in 1980. He died in 1991 at the age of seventy-eight.
If the most important structural unit of Romantic poetry is the image, Barker can be considered a poet in the main line of the Romantic tradition. His surrealist logic of images, his violent juxtaposition of abstract and concrete, of seriousness and levity, link him with David Gascoyne and Dylan Thomas in England, and with E. E. Cummings in the United States. Yet Barker wrote no manifestos and joined no schools. As a young man in the 1930’s, he remained aloof from the social emphasis then in vogue in poetry; he maintained his distance from literary fashion throughout his life.
Barker’s unconventional novel, The Dead Seagull, and the long autobiographical poem in stanzas entitled The True Confession of George Barker are expressions of this independent sensibility, but Collected Poems, 1930-1965 is the best single text for an understanding of his achievement. Selections from Calamiterror, Eros in Dogma, News of the World, A Vision of Beasts and Gods, and The View from a Blind I are included here in chronological order, a sequence that seems to prove that Barker was not a poet who developed greatly over his career. The poems published in the mid-1930’s are very like those published by The New Yorker and Poetry in the mid-1950’s. There is little change in the technique of clustering images, and the same obsessions with swans, wombs, kisses, and the violence of sexual intercourse and war return again and again with little advance in control. The short-line quatrain, the long cycle of poems, and the frequent use of the odd invocation “O” are all habits which persisted throughout Barker’s career as he reencountered and explored again personal themes of grief, violence, extremity, and the saving power of a unified sensibility.
Barker was at his best when he possessed a leading subject to control the Elizabethan splendor of his imagery : where he was writing descriptively, as in “On a...
(The entire section is 845 words.)