Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1554
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:
. . . perhaps we shall, beforeAnything really happens, be safely dead.
In “Obituary to R. Fuller,” actually quoted at his memorial service forty-two years later, his self-deprecation is comic. “The Divided Life Released” talks of the reality of wartime life and the unrealities of postwar suburban life, a dichotomy parallel to that of the poet and the lawyer, which Fuller managed to come to terms with creatively.
Counterparts and Brutus’s Orchard followed, both containing powerful poems that break through the typical understatement, self-deprecating irony, and avoidance of emotion typical of the Movement style. “Rhetoric of a Journey” continues the theme of the uprooted, divided poet, but anchors it far more autobiographically in a moving statement. “Ten Memorial Poems,” on Fuller’s mother’s death, is a confessional series, in places reminiscent of Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s In Memoriam (1850). The feeling is that of the poet coming to full maturity in his control, depth, and focus.
“Images of Autumn” expresses Fuller’s feeling of cultural helplessness. Poetry is no longer a public art form; the public no longer can hear the poet, who is now unheard and invisible. What is particularly difficult is that the poet is not writing just out of personal need but because he desires revelation of some “social truths.” “Poet and Reader” closes with:
All art foresees a future,Save art which fails to weighThe sadness of the creature,The limit of its day,Its losing war with nature.
Such rejection forces him into self-regarding stances: “Poem out of Character” is typical. It finishes by deconstructing his own poetry as gesture in the face of universal truth.
In “Elementary Philosophy,” the despair of a godless philosophy is heard in tones that echo Thomas Hardy. Another of Hardy’s themes, and also of William Butler Yeats, is the growing dichotomy of body and mind. From the middle of Brutus’s Orchard, Fuller becomes much more aware of his own sexuality as he feels his body aging. “The Perturbation of Dreams” and “Mythological Sonnets” are powerful expressions of midlife angst.
“Faustian Sketches,” the final section of Fuller’s Collected Poems, 1936-1961, continues this awareness. In “On the Mountain,” his own failing physical powers are symbolized by the decline and fall of the Roman Empire. The ironic surface tones of the earlier poems give way to deeper and more tragic ironies, with the poet’s full range of emotions being engaged. The sonnet sequence Meredithian Sonnets, which closes the Collected Poems, well illustrates this.
Buff contains Fuller’s third sonnet sequence, The Historian, which contains thirty-five sonnets, ranging over the ironies of history. “All history is the history of pain,” he wrote elsewhere. “To X” is another sequence, of roundels this time, a difficult traditional form.
The decade began for Fuller with a recognition of his pivotal place in modern British poetry, with his Collected Poems; it closed with his New Poems, published shortly before his retirement from his business duties. Many of the poems in this volume are concerned with art and the artist. “Those of Pure Origin” is a striking, long philosophical poem, inspired by a quotation from the German poet Friedrich Hölderlin. Its clear, relaxed voice and well-controlled stanzaic free verse seem a model for philosophic discussion in verse.
Fuller’s retirement merely released him into a prolific old age, although not adding unduly to his reputation. The same self-deprecating tone is heard in “To an Unknown Reader” in Tiny Tears: “a whole lifetime’s remorseful exposure/ Of a talent falling short of its vision?” He continues to experiment in verse form; “At T. S. Eliot’s Memorial Service” is written in couplets first used by Tennyson in “Locksley Hall.”
From the Joke Shop probably illustrates best how prolific Fuller continued to be. It contains sixty-three poems written between late summer and early spring. Every poem is composed of three-line iambic stanzas, but the run-on lines and verses annul any sense of a mechanical form. The collection contains many poems reminiscent of “In Memoriam” and shows Fuller as a man of culture, not breaking any new territory in terms of what he has to say, but very stimulating in the flexibility of his poetic voice. “The Joke Shop” is his poetic imagination, with its need to “amuse” an audience.
If poems are jokes, they are also sparrows. Fuller sees himself as a minor poet in The Reign of Sparrows. What is striking here is the technical brilliance he has achieved, from cinquains to elegiac pindarics, as well as the ability to find significance in the most trivial everyday event. Subsequent to Summer (1985) continues the formal brilliance in this sequence of forty-nine quasi sonnets, each poem consisting of seven unrhymed couplets. It is effortless verse, philosophical poetry at its best. This fascination with the sonnet is akin to Robert Lowell’s. In Available for Dreams, there is a tremendous variety of sonnet forms, becoming almost free verse, just as in Lowell’s diary-like Life Studies (1959).
After Fuller’s death, his son John discovered a large number of unpublished poems, which he edited as Last Poems. The American poet Wallace Stevens features prominently: Fuller’s autumnal flowering has often been compared to that of Stevens, as to Yeats and Hardy. The final section, Later Sonnets from the Portuguese (echoingElizabeth Barrett Browning’s sequence), consists of some forty-four sonnets.
Fuller is praised for sustaining the quality of British poetry during the relatively lean period of 1950-1960. He went on to outwrite all the other Movement poets, using his intelligence, wit, and formal skills to make significant comments on the cultural and everyday life of the later part of the twentieth century. He may not take the reader out of that life, but he does fully engage with it in significant detail.
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