As a child, Patricia Beer was strongly influenced by the Plymouth Brethren Church, a loosely structured, fundamentalist sect that flourished amid the working and lower-middle classes. Its principal theology was a strict moral code and a dependence on literal interpretation of the Bible. Beer recalled vividly the extemporaneous hellfire sermons and the hymns offering salvation, and these bits of childhood found their way into her poetry. In a larger context, the pervasive sense of death that she experienced regularly at the church services may well have afforded the main impetus for her poetry. In much of her work, she was preoccupied with death, and she frequently commented that she wrote poems against death. The relationship between her religious upbringing and her craft was a complex one, but there is little doubt that Beer’s fundamentalist training helped form her as a poet.
Beer’s childhood in Devon and her experiences in the Plymouth Brethren Church afforded her abundant material for poetry and a unique point of view. Just as her semirural Devonian background accounts for the rustic quality of much of her work, her childhood among the Plymouth Brethren, as well as the death of her mother when Beer was fourteen, helps to explain her ambivalent attitude toward death, a mixture of fascination and fear. It is this subtle but fundamental tension that underlies some of her most successful poems.
Although Beer explored feminist themes in her work, her tone was without rancor and she was rarely polemical. Rather, she typically presented her poems in a calm and understated voice. She was also not a single-issue poet and so did not feel bound to champion a feminist cause in every line of every poem, thereby avoiding the trap into which politically minded poets have frequently fallen. Beer commented that she wanted equality, not superiority, and that such a position precludes any kind of attack on the male establishment.
It would be a mistake, however, to view Beer only in the role of feminist poet; she transcended any such narrow category in both her aspirations and her accomplishments. Her voice was as distinct and genuine as that of Hughes or Larkin, and her carefully crafted poems are an important contribution to contemporary British poetry. At her best, she invited comparison with Elizabeth Bishop, for she has the same perceptive eye, the same gift for the exact image. A poem such as “Spanish Balcony,” with its moon suspended “uselessly, in the smooth sky/ White and rumpled like a vaccination mark,” is as precise and evocative as Bishop’s celebrated description of the rainbow trout in “The Fish.” The controlling mind behind the poem is sure and accurate.
The publication of Selected Poems in 1979 marked an important milestone in Beer’s career. In addition to winning for her the kind of recognition she had long deserved, it provided her with the opportunity to assess her own development and to select from twenty years of writing the poetry that she most wanted to preserve. Significantly, she included only eight poems from her first two books, Loss of the Magyar, and Other Poems and The Survivors. Although she was in her thirties when those books were published, she later regarded them as juvenilia. In Beer’s assessment, those early books lack conviction and an authentic voice. Beer’s major development as a writer involved a movement toward the more personal and autobiographical. Along the way, she abandoned her reliance on mythology and consciously tried to pare down her style, seeking simplicity and directness.
Ironically, Beer grew distrustful of the spareness that characterized her writing and turned to a language that she regarded as more heightened. She did not, however, regard this as a return to her earlier style but rather as a progression into a kind of language that would have a more immediate impact on the reader. It seems that, during the middle part of her career, Beer was trying to find some point of balance between her initial work and her subsequent reaction to it. She later began to seek a marriage of technique and inspiration, and the fifteen “New Poems” that constitute the final section of Selected Poems suggest that she found it.
It has often been remarked that the two most common themes in poetry are the possibility of love and the inevitability of death, so it is perhaps unremarkable to find a poet dealing with either of these matters. Even so, Beer’s preoccupation with death was noteworthy because she succeeded in capturing so much of the ambivalence that most people have toward it—the attraction and repulsion of the unknown. This viewpoint is effectively communicated in a short poem titled “Dilemma,” in which Beer projected two possible role models for herself. The first is a Buddhist monk who screams so loudly when seven brigands approach to murder him that businessmen in Peking can hear him twenty miles away. The second is “the Queen in corny historical plays,” who fixes her hair, forgives everybody, and moves to the executioner’s block “With only a sidelong glance/ At the man with the axe.” The monk and the queen represent two attitudes toward death—resistance and acquiescence—and Beer is free to choose the one she wishes to adopt. Thus, the poem’s final line is a question: “Which ought I to be?” On the surface, this poem appears to be very simple, but it compresses a great deal of thought and attempts to bridge a gap as wide as the one between William Cullen Bryant’s advice in “Thanatopsis” to embrace death gently like a sleeper and Dylan Thomas’s exhortation to his father not to go “gentle into that good night.”
A variation on this theme is found in “The Clock,” an excellent example of Beer’s mastery of syllabics and her skillful employment of sounds, particularly assonance. She was most adept at using and then defusing the irresistible iambic trimeter in her six-syllable lines, as in the following pair: “Where once a pendulum/ Thudded like a cart-horse.” The regularity of meter is effectively broken by an abundance of stresses, as though the thudding horse himself had broken in, and the entire poem is carried forward by the subtle suggestion of rhyme as exemplified by the four end-words in the fourth stanza: “this,” “is,” “death,” “stairs.” It is no accident that “death” stands out so starkly among the off-rhymes, because that is where Beer wished to put the stress, on obtrusive death itself. In this fashion, she made form and content work together in a most remarkable way. The focus of the poem is an old clock that stops every few days when its weights catch on the case. The old saying that “A stopped clock foretells death” leads Beer to speculate about the symbolic meaning of the event and she finds a lesson of her own in such folklore: “Obviously/ Death cannot come each time/ The clock stops. It may be/ Good practice to think so.” The malfunctioning clock, then, becomes an important element in a rehearsal for death. As in “Dilemma,” where Beer tried to decide how she will face death when it finally arrives, she is preparing herself for the inevitable, for the moment when time will truly stop for her. In a very real sense, Beer’s poetry in general is a kind of rehearsal for death. She herself acknowledged that the impetus behind her decision to write poetry was her fear of dying.
“The Eyes of the World”
Initially, Beer’s horror of death was somewhat mitigated by a fantasy of becoming famous and having thousands of people mourn her passing. The vehicle for her fame, decided on when she was only eight years old, was to be poetry. She “Turned poet for a lying-in-state/ As though comfort came from cut flowers,” a decision that she examined at length in “The Eyes of the World.” Somehow, to her child’s mind, having the world take note of her death would make the event less terrifying: “Something like this I felt might make it/ Tolerable: if everyone would stare/ At my last breaths and speak about them.” She envied the fame of kings, of men on the moon, of Leda and Mary and the martyrs Latimer and Ridley, all seared into the consciousness of millions and thus given a kind of immortality.
The fantasy passed, however, when she matured and began to view the world more cynically, suspecting that the watchers were more likely to notice flaws and weaknesses than accomplishments. Further, she suspected that “The audience shut their eyes before we/ Shut ours,” insensitive to another person’s death or unable to see the...
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