Roy Fuller was respected as an accomplished poet and man of letters, who sought not only to raise the technical standards of poetry in his day but also to reinstate its moral voice and significance in a culture that he saw as constantly betraying itself. As a poet he fought against cultural sloppiness, using a voice typical of the great British ironists such as Alexander Pope and Lord Byron, but perhaps with more self-deprecation and sensitivity than most ironists.
The war poet
Fuller’s first volume of verse, titled merely Poems, attracted little notice. Two poems in it, however, are worthy of note: “To M. S. Killed in Spain” and “To My Brother.” Both reflect the growing sense of war in the Europe of the late 1930’s, his friend killed in the Spanish Civil War, and his brother touring Nazi Germany. The latter poem’s central image is an edition of Alexander Pope’s poems his brother had given him, Pope becoming symbolic of the ordered world Fuller feels is now shattering. Its influence is that of W. H. Auden, a poet he continued to admire for his intelligence, discipline, and formal skills.
It is in his war poetry that Fuller first found his true voice, ironically, as World War II produced very few British poets of note. In contrast to World War I, World War II was not shocking. Fuller’s depiction of it reflects personal boredom, the squalid world of military quarters and docks, and good-byes. The experience that really opened him was his being drafted to East Africa. The impact of a foreign culture and landscape forced his poetry to assume a new directness, as did the experience of living in close quarters with very ordinary young men, with the need to communicate in terms of their concrete realities.
“The Green Hills of Africa” depicts both a native village in striking detail and the debilitating effect of modern civilization. A similar pessimism informs “The Plains.” Again, a masterful ability to depict a scene with a few vivid images is followed by a train of thought on the tawdriness of the cycle of killing and being killed. In the wake of the lion come the jackals and vultures. His concern for the animals is paralleled by his concern for the Africans. The narrative “Teba” shows the contradictions of a rapidly evolving society. Fuller’s anti-idealism is again reflected in “The Petty Officers’ Mess,” possibly the most accomplished poem in the two volumes of war poetry. Fuller proceeds with an image of caged monkeys, through sailors’ arguments to wider political questions, then ironically reduces these back again to the level of the monkeys’ own scrapes and fights.
Returning to civilian life, Fuller wrote his next volume, Epitaphs and Occasions. His “Dedicatory Epistle” shows a new, easy ironic tone and verse form using iambic tetrameter couplets influenced by Pope and Auden. For all its lightness of tone, however, there is a note of purpose:
The poet now must put verse backTime and again upon the trackThat first was cut by Wordsworth whenHe said that verse was meant for men.
This mixture of tautness, technical brilliance, ironic tone, and yet artistic seriousness was shared by a number of younger poets in the 1950’s, particularly Donald Davie and Philip Larkin. The group came to be known as the Movement, representing a reaction to the florid Romanticism and gesturing of Dylan Thomas and other poets of the 1930’s and 1940’s.
Similar poems are “Meditation,” often anthologized with its throwaway ending:
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