Lawrence Durrell Poetry: British Analysis

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2757

Lawrence Durrell’s poetry has many rare qualities. His multifaceted life gave him a breadth of vision and a balance of mind that, in combination with his natural gifts and hard work, enabled him to produce a body of poetry remarkable for its beauty, richness, and integrity. His poems afford a...

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Lawrence Durrell’s poetry has many rare qualities. His multifaceted life gave him a breadth of vision and a balance of mind that, in combination with his natural gifts and hard work, enabled him to produce a body of poetry remarkable for its beauty, richness, and integrity. His poems afford a glimpse into the changeless world of the Mediterranean, and into the ever-changing lives of the people who live there. However, the poems never become mere travelogues; part of Durrell’s integrity lies in his adherence to the central purpose of poetry: to illuminate the human experience. He remains faithful to that goal throughout “the wooing and seduction of form.”

Reading Durrell’s poetry for the first time, a discerning reader might be reminded of T. S. Eliot, echoed in Durrell’s sparse but effective rhymes, his facility in finding the mot juste, and some of his astonishing single lines, and think of “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” (1915) and The Waste Land (1922). Reflecting further, the first-time reader would perceive that both Durrell and Eliot are philosophical poets, and that their work shows their common preoccupation with the Western tradition and certain of its key philosophical issues.

Truly discerning readers, however, will conclude that the resemblance ends there. For all his superficial likeness to Eliot, Durrell has a distinctive voice as a poet. The hypothetical discerning reader might well end up thinking of Durrell as a curious mixture of the qualities of Eliot, D. H. Lawrence, and Gerard Manley Hopkins, but even that remarkable formulation would not cover all the facts. Durrell is unique; he is the Anglo-Indian poet of the Mediterranean, craftsperson, and thinker at once.

In an interview printed in the Autumn-Winter issue of Paris Review for 1959-1960, Durrell reveals his guiding principle as a poet: “Poetry is form, and the wooing and seduction of form is the whole game.” His poems seem rather traditional in their construction; a glance at the printed page reveals few typographical eccentricities. A careful reading, however, will turn up subtle variations in meter, line-length, and rhyme. Durrell worked hard and successfully at wooing and seducing form. He altered form almost imperceptibly, so that a sonnet by Durrell does not seem quite a sonnet. One re-counts lines and syllables and finally admits that the poem is a sonnet, but an odd one. Simply put, Durrell wrested the form away from tradition and made it his own. This victory makes possible—by no means inevitable—the success of the poem.

“A Soliloquy of Hamlet” and “Style”

An example of this phenomenon is the second of the fourteen poems in “A Soliloquy of Hamlet.” The poet has already indicated that the fourteen poems are to be regarded as sonnets. The student of the form, however, will demur because of the lack of rhyme and the arrangement into couplets. On intensive reading, he will be compelled to concede that there is a six/eight structure, the usual arrangement of a sonnet à rebours—in short, that his beloved sonnet form has been seduced.

Durrell offers an intriguing, if somewhat deceptive, insight into his art in a poem entitled “Style.” The poet strives for “Something like the sea;/ Unlabored momentum of water;/ But going somewhere. . . .” Subsequently, he wishes to write “the wind that slits/ Forests from end to end.” Finally, he rejects sea and wind for a third alternative:

But neither is yetFine enough for the line I hunt.The dry long blade of theSword-grass might suit meBetter: an assassin of polish.

The choice is never really made, of course: Durrell can write in all these manners and many more. The poem serves more to convey a sense of his unending struggle for perfection, in his verse and in his prose, than to issue any artistic manifesto.

In this struggle for perfection, Durrell differed from other writers only in his relative success. Other differences are easier to define and more important to the understanding of his poetry. Here it helps to refer to his prose work. Any reader of the novels and travel books knows Durrell’s powers of description, his subtlety in handling love relationships between his characters, and his flair for transforming the mundane into the magical. As a poet, he displays the same talents in a different medium.

The importance of place

As mentioned above, Durrell was the Anglo-Indian poet of the Mediterranean. The phrase is perhaps a trifle awkward, but to omit any element would be to misrepresent the poet. As an Anglo-Indian, he enjoyed at once the benefits of an English education and a childhood in the East. He also suffered, virtually from birth, the plight of the exile, the person without a country. England was alien; English was not. Durrell’s work depends on the English literary tradition, even though he could not bear the thought of living in Great Britain. He found a series of homes on the shores of the Mediterranean: Greece, Lebanon, Cyprus, Egypt, France. The Mediterranean is the sine qua non of his work; nowhere else could he have found such “cities, plains, and people.” Thus, every element in the description is vital, because Durrell’s birthplace, education, and later environment together help to account for the unique nature of his poetry.

“The Anecdotes”

The importance of place in Durrell’s poetry is nowhere more evident than in “The Anecdotes,” a series of brief lyrics with subtitles such as “In Cairo,” “At Rhodes,” and “In Patmos.” Durrell has an unsurpassed genius for evoking the peculiar atmosphere of locale, and he makes good use of the imagination-stirring names of Mediterranean cities. “The Anecdotes” concern people and emotions, but the geography helps the reader to understand both.

In the third poem, “At Rhodes,” Durrell suggests the languorous beauty of Rhodes by way of a few deft images. The memory of the boats in the harbor, the antics of two Greek children, and the town, “thrown as on a screen of watered silk,” becomes a compact poem: “twelve sad lines against the dark.” The lines express nostalgia for Rhodes through a few well-chosen emblems of the city, suggesting a lovely tranquillity that the poet now lacks. The personal association—Durrell missed Rhodes sorely during his tour of duty in Egypt—becomes a theme.

The sense of place in the poems generally does have an importance beyond mere exotic appeal. The countries, the cities, even the streets and cafés that Durrell mentions have associations with specific moods and memories. Sometimes the connection is obscure; more often, Durrell selects his images so skillfully that the reader shares the mood without quite knowing why. In the best examples, the poet achieves Eliot’s ideal, the “objective correlative.”

The fourteenth anecdote, “In Beirut,” has the reader sighing with the melancholy of “after twenty years another meeting,” though Durrell gives few details of the people involved or of their stories. Beirut takes on the withered nature of the old friends, “flesh murky as old horn,/ Hands dry now as seabiscuit.” Even without specific background, the contrast between “breathless harbours north of Tenedos” in April and “in Tunis, winter coming on” is evident. Durrell’s beloved Greece comes to represent life and youth; the cities of Asia and North Africa connote aging and death.

“Mareotis”

One of the best examples of Durrell’s artistry in this regard is “Mareotis.” The reader need not know beforehand that Mareotis is a salt marsh outside Alexandria; Durrell makes it clear enough, even as he draws the parallel between the atmosphere of the marsh and the climate of his soul. The wind of the place, “Not subtle, not confiding, touches once again,/ The melancholy elbow cheek and paper.” The odd blend of discontent and self-knowledge matches the nature of the salt marsh. It misses the changes of spring, remaining the same, just as the poet does. Durrell has performed a sleight of hand, first alluding to a place, then subtly sketching its nature, and ultimately using the finished image to make his poetic point.

“Cities, Plains, and People”

It must be noted that Durrell’s reliance on images of place sometimes renders his poetry difficult to understand. Most readers know next to nothing of the world the poet inhabits, beyond a few clichés. In the novels, he overcomes this problem masterfully by means of long descriptions. In the poems, lacking this resource, he depends on a few striking images. This may account in part for the greater popularity of the fiction. To Durrell’s credit, relatively few of his poems are seriously marred by his esoteric geography.

In “Cities, Plains, and People,” one of his major poems, Durrell approaches overwhelming questions in the course of a poetic autobiography. He begins under the shadow of the Himalayas, “in idleness,” an innocent tyke to whom “Sex was small,/ Death was small. . . .” Both have become very large for the poet as he has grown, but the early years in British India stand as the time before the Fall. There in the mountains, only “nine marches” from inscrutable Lhasa, the boy grows up. He does not, however, go to Tibet:

But he for whom steel and running waterWere roads, went westward onlyTo the prudish cliffs and the sad green homeOf Pudding Island o’er the Victorian foam

The growing artist finds himself repelled and attracted by Europe; though he knows that “London/ Could only be a promise-giving kingdom,” there are always “Dante and Homer/ To impress the lame and awkward newcomer.” Impressed in both senses of the word, the Anglo-Indian struggles against the insidious examples of Saint Bede, Saint Augustine, and Saint Jerome, those deniers of the flesh, and mourns the dismal reality, “The potential passion hidden, Wordsworth/ In the desiccated bodies of postmistresses.” The associations of place here serve to advance the story and to present the thought of the developing poet.

Durrell goes on to discover the escape hatch, the magic of Prospero’s island. Here the literal and the fictive landscapes merge. William Shakespeare and the earthly Mediterranean both have a part in the choice, an eclectic mixture of the best of the British literary tradition and the best of the poet’s several homes. The conflict is by no means resolved, but the two great forces have at least acknowledged each other. The Englishman born in India has found something worth having from Pudding Island.

The journey continues because the poet has found only a working arrangement, not an ultimate answer. He still has much to learn of those great matters that the child considered insignificant. He learns much of sex. It becomes “a lesser sort of speech, and the members doors.” It is versatile, serving as a means of salvation both spiritual—“man might botch his way/ To God via Valéry, Gide or Rabelais”—the physical: “savage Chatterleys of the new romance/ Get carried off in sex, the ambulance.” That Durrell can debunk in one stanza what he affirms so powerfully elsewhere implies not inconsistency but rather an appreciation of the complexity of the matter. The youth has lost his innocence and has also gone beyond a naïve faith in a simple solution. Sex may be an answer but not a simple answer.

Durrell goes on to probe beyond knowledge, “in the dark field of sensibility.” As in the novels, he comes to no rigid conclusion. At the end of The Alexandria Quartet, Darley sits down to write; “Cities, Plains, and People” ends with an analogous image:

For Prospero remains the evergreenCell by the margin of the sea and land,Who many cities, plains, and people sawYet by his open doorIn sunlight fell asleepOne summer with the Apple in his hand.

Between Durrell the poet and Durrell the novelist there lies only the difference in genre: The artist and the resolution are the same. Prospero remains, latent with magic—the magic to bring order and beauty to the chaotic world of cities, plains, and people. Darley on his island off the coast of Egypt and the poet somewhere in the Aegean represent Durrell/Prospero, perhaps the key image of his work.

“Proffer the Loaves of Pain”

Durrell’s repertoire is by no means limited to extended philosophical ruminations, nor his imagery to geographical references. He has estimable gifts as a lyric poet, which he demonstrates throughout his work. One particularly fine example, “Proffer the Loaves of Pain,” shows Durrell’s technical wizardry in the manipulation of rhyme. The four stanzas run the gamut of the seasons, echoing sadly: “they shall not meet.” The first three stanzas feature half-rhymes: “quantum/ autumn,” “saunter/winter,” and “roamer/summer.” This tantalizing soundplay gives the true rhyme of the conclusion, “ring/spring,” a finality not inherent in the words of the stanza. The poem dodges and ducks until the last inexorable rhyme destroys the last hope—in spring, ironically enough.

The poem distinguishes itself in other ways as well. The economy of language requires close attention on the part of the reader, for the clues are subtle. For example, the poet employs the word “this” to modify the seasons in the first two stanzas. Summer and spring, however, serve as objects of the preposition “in.” The specific negation of the first half of the poem becomes a chilling “nevermore” in the last two stanzas, by the simple device of a change in grammar.

“The Death of General Uncebunke”

Durrell’s melancholy wit and his fascination with the ever-lurking mystery of death come together in “The Death of General Uncebunke: A Biography in Little,” which he labels “Not satire but an exercise in ironic compassion.” The biography encompasses not only the general, a Victorian empire builder, but also the dowager Aunt Prudence. Despite the earlier gibes at “Pudding Island,” the poet holds true to his word: The poem expresses no contempt for Uncebunke, even if the reader cannot stifle a chuckle or two at the man who “wrote a will in hexameters.” Rather, Durrell transmutes the potentially absurd details of the old campaigner’s life into symbols of his death. He rides horses, fords rivers, and crosses into Tartary, and the poet invests these adventures with a new and final significance.

Durrell’s sentiment is noble and restrained, but his handling of language and form in the poem deserves even more attention. The fourteen “carols” begin in three fashions. Four start with the words “My uncle sleeps in the image of death”; five begin “My uncle has gone beyond astronomy”; the remainder open with references to Aunt Prudence. Thus, the poet achieves at once a compelling repetition and movement; the lines referring to the uncle maintain the elegiac tone, while the stanzas devoted to Prudence reinforce the sense of gradual decay.

A number of phonetic tricks bolster the ironic character of the poem and add to the reader’s grasp of the characters. Of the uncle, for example, Durrell says: “he like a faultless liner, finer never took air.” The sound play recalls Gerard Manley Hopkins, although the good Jesuit would probably not have indulged in the irony. Aunt Prudence prays earnestly and ridiculously: “Thy will be done in Baden Baden./ In Ouchy, Lord, and in Vichy.” By one of his own favorite ploys, here in a new guise, Durrell uses references of place to provoke a response.

Finally, Durrell tosses off one memorable line after another, each in itself worth an ode. Uncebunke in his dotage lives on a country estate, “devoted to the polo-pony, mesmerized by stamps.” Aunt Prudence putters about, “feeding the parrot, pensive over a croquet-hoop.” The horses in the stable “champ, stamp, yawn, paw in the straw.” One suspects that Hopkins—or any other modern poet, for that matter—would have taken pride in such verses.

“Ballad of the Oedipus Complex”

To all his other virtues as a poet, Durrell adds a lively and whimsical sense of humor. Though the prevailing literary prejudices of the twentieth century keep most readers from appraising humorous verse at its full worth, no one who has suffered the slings and arrows of outrageous Freudians will read the “Ballad of the Oedipus Complex” unmoved. Besides poking fun at overworked psychological truisms, Durrell shows a fine English sense of fair play, plunging his own face into a custard pie:

I tried to strangle it one dayWhile sitting in the LidoBut it got up and tickled meAnd now I’m all libido.

This ability to snicker at his own literary obsessions betokens a fine sensibility in Durrell, as well as a sense of humor so often lacking in his contemporaries.

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