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Roy (Broadbent) Fuller 1912–
English poet, novelist, essayist, and memoirist.
Although considered a novelist of distinction, Fuller has been best known as a poet since he first began to publish verse in the 1930s. In that decade, Fuller was active in left-wing literary and political movements and became influenced by the work of W. H. Auden and Stephen Spender. His work of this period is characteristic of much of the verse written in the 1930s in its political liberalism and concern for the effects of modern society on the individual. Although Fuller's later poetry grew increasingly personal, his work has always been shaped by a strong humanitarian conscience. Death, loss, aging, and the role of the artist in society are persistent themes.
Two of Fuller's early collections of verse, The Middle of the War (1942) and A Lost Season (1944), chronicle his perceptions of World War II and his time spent serving in the British Navy in East Africa. Described by critics as among the best collections of the "war" poetry of this era, these two books mark, in the words of George Woodcock, "the liberation of Fuller's poetic talent." In both books, Fuller writes powerfully and sensitively of his experiences. In such books as Counterparts (1954) and Brutus's Orchard (1957) he treats his subjects in a broader manner. Collected Poems (1962) and The Individual and His Times (1982) contain the bulk of Fuller's achievement as a poet. In these volumes, Fuller's shift from the emotionalism of the war years to a calmer, less formal poetry is strikingly contrasted. Critics regard Fuller's later examinations of disappointment, loss, and aging as compelling.
Fuller's concern with the relationship between the individual and society is evident in all of his novels. In such works as The Second Curtain (1953) and Image of a Society (1956), characters are portrayed as being in conflict with an organization or institution which challenges their integrity and freedom. These groups are symbolic of the society which surrounds them and the struggle of his characters against them represents the attempt of all persons to survive with dignity in a dehumanizing world. Fuller has also published two volumes of his Oxford poetry lectures and his recent work includes two volumes of memoirs, Souvenirs (1980) and Vamp Till Ready (1982).
(See also CLC, Vol. 4; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.; and Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 15, 20.)
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[In] contrast to most of his contemporaries, Mr. Fuller still believes in the unambiguous direct statement about immediate issues. [Many of the new poems collected in Epitaphs and Occasions], occasional and informal in the best sense, are concerned with the relation of the individual's integrity to the collective good; others with the positive meanings of art in a society doomed by the pressure of outside events…. [One] aspect of Mr. Fuller's recent development [is his] realization of the dichotomy between the role of art, making coherent and discernible the unformulated, and the enormous "death by nature, chanceless, credible." The word "art" appears almost obsessively in these poems, and Mr. Fuller uses it as a sort of final reference, Olympian but powerless, to suggest the kind of myths to which the sensitive individual holds after having discarded the cleft stick of religion and politics. Yet, although Mr. Fuller assumes defeat for the curious "dyspeptic, bookish, half-alive" figure he projects of himself, he still believes
Confused and wrong though things have gone There is a side we can be on: Distaste for lasting bread and peace May thus support a King in Greece And trust in General Chiang Kai-shek Will safely lead to freedom's wreck.
It is this essential rationalism, this urgent belief in the necessity of...
(This entire section contains 492 words.)
moral action, however trivially stated, that is most notable in Mr. Fuller's poems. He has ruthlessly simplified his verse-forms to enable his writing, without change of tone, to move easily through very different kinds of theme, while the meaning remains transparent. Mr. Fuller's latest manner is perhaps over-reminiscent in style of the early Auden, possibly also of the colloquial Byron. But that, and the latter especially, is the most healthy tradition for contemporary English verse, whose greatest need is for more clarity of thought and greater preciseness in technique. Moreover, Mr. Fuller is exact where Mr. Auden is only vaguely impressive; though he is not such a sparkling writer, the lines he chooses to "throw away" contain seriously considered antitheses where Mr. Auden's tended only to arrest. It is impossible here t o suggest every aspect of a book so closely packed as this.Epitaphs and Occasions, as its title hints, is not ambitiously creative writing at full stretch; but its best poems are minor verse at its most accomplished. There is no other contemporary poet who reduces so much thought, socially or politically crucial in the widest sense, to so small a space as Mr. Fuller has done in this book. The form of the poems may make them seem, at first glance, rather slight, but their content is highly condensed, varied, often both moving and witty. Beneath Mr. Fuller's rather fusty cloak of minor, saddened distemper a major poet is waiting to be revealed. Of his importance there is no question.
"Tenant of a Star," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1949; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 2500, December 30, 1949, p. 858.
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["Fantasy and Fugue"] is at least as exciting and as disturbing as [Roy Fuller's first crime novel] "The Second Curtain" and by that token one of the more considerable mysteries in this or any other season. Like its predecessor it has the haunting quality of those entertainments with which Graham Greene expressed his alertness to the Thirties. But like its predecessor too Mr. Fuller's novel has its own integrity and its own expressiveness in explicating an unsettled state of mind.
Its principal is a younger brother through whose multiple awareness we recall a murder and its precedents while he goes through London carrying a great bundle of incertitude which may just possibly be a corpse. It is all a most uncommon evocation which, while never losing hold of its first objective, manages half a hundred deft, often sardonic, comments on contemporary tastes and failings. Curious, meticulous and memorable.
James Sandoe, in a review of "Fantasy and Fugue," in New York Herald Tribune Book Review (© I.H.T. Corporation; reprinted by permission), August 19, 1956, p. 9.
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[Fantasy and Fugue is a] study of the origin and consequences of a guilty obsession (the hero is sure he has killed a man, but why and how are mysteries to him almost to the end) [which] takes the reader into some extremely strange backwaters of literary London. Fay Lavington is a dreadful girl, and, in their separate ways, Clarence Rimmer, Charles Legge, and Bob Midwinter are pretty repulsive specimens, too. They are not, however, without their conversational charms … and their behavior is also moderately bizarre. Mr. Fuller is known in London as a poet of some distinction, and his book is written with a style very rare in works of this kind. In spite of an almost unendurably lurid climax, it is a remarkably exciting story as well. (pp. 175-76)
A review of "Fantasy and Fugue," in The New Yorker (© 1956 by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.), Vol. XXXII, No. 31, September 22, 1956, pp. 175-76.
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Mr. Fuller's post-war poetry has generally been that of a quiet, contemplative family man who uses the trivial happenings of domestic existence as a starting-point for an analysis of the larger horrors of modern life. His viewpoint is suburban rather than metropolitan or rural, his tone is wry, ironic and dryly critical, his mood tends to be gloomy. The experiences out of which his poetry is created are rarely beyond the reach of the ordinary commuting man: his attitude to them is deprecating, rational, closely observant. His poetry could be said to put dullness under a microscope, to restate the familiar commonplaces of human life in terms that are sometimes amused, sometimes tragic, but always to the point. His style, as befitting his subjects, is sober, neat, unadorned: the wilder passions, the deeper fantasies, the more beguiling landscapes are outside not his range, not his experience, not his awareness but simply his habit. He has chosen to explore the everyday, rather than exploit the occasional. Yet—for all this deliberate limiting of standpoint, this unemotional assessment of prospects—the passion, the horror, the sharp appetite for the crucial, are clearly there. The ambiguity has deceived many: for some reason the surface calm has apparently failed to suggest the dark, crowded war within.
It is strange that this should be so, and that Mr. Fuller's reputation has, if anything, declined since the end of the war. Certainly, there is a thirtyish quality in some of his less original poems (the first two poems in [Brutus's Orchard], for example, are schematically Audenesque), he is scarcely ever exuberant or overtly lyrical, and there is an occasional flatness of rhythm, an obviousness of rhyme. But, accepting all this, his true seriousness as a writer, the clarity with which he examines moral problems, the often deeply touching quality of his concern for animal or human victims, the candid steadiness of the gaze he turns on himself, are beyond question. He is, sui generis, the moralist among contemporary poets, and if moralists do not always seem attractive, and if they tend to morbidity, they are none the less valuable. In fact, Mr. Fuller's touch is of the lightest, his idiom pleasantly conversational. He is as far removed from ponderousness as it is possible to be.
Brutus's Orchard has not the variety, or freshness of feeling of Mr. Fuller's war poems, which gained a lot both from their sense of separation and their African setting. But he has been developing as a prose writer in the last decade and his poems, though no less serious in intention, have been rather more occasional in theme….
The major achievement of this volume are the nineteen mythological sonnets that close it. Here the sustaining passions of men, as of gods—love, hate, lust, ambition, art, jealousy—are scrutinized and compared in a series of finely wrought images.
"The Poet As Moralist," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1958; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 2914, January 3, 1958, p. 9.
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A lot of [Brutus's Orchard] is taken up with occasional poems. Most short poems are occasional, I suppose, in that they take particular and possibly trivial situations as their starting points, but to be of any importance they should also expand on these situations, giving them some larger, yet definite, place in the writer's experience. Unfortunately, with a great many of Mr. Fuller's poems, we are left where we started, contemplating some either obvious or vaguely didactic comment on an ordinary occupation of no great significance.
The most surprising defect of his poetry may be connected with the nature of the didacticism—surprising in that Mr. Fuller is one of the most perceptive poetry reviewers in England. He has still not shaken off his dependence on an idiom borrowed from Auden, which he uses everywhere, from the bright slangy epithet ("the charming cyclists") to the whole conception of a poem (The Day). The attractive jargon partly conceals and partly accounts for the weakness of the many general statements. (pp. 378-79)
The faults of triviality, derivativeness, and facile pessimism, however, are shown up by some very real qualities: a power of accurate description, an accomplished urbanity of tone, and a sense of humor which is at its best in the Mythological Sonnets at the end. Too often the virtues are so mixed in with the vices that few of the poems are completely flawed or completely unflawed, but there are at least two poems which are real accomplishments: The Ides of March, with its fine control of irony; and (in spite of a slightly confused first stanza) Eclipse…. Roy Fuller at his best is a poet to be reckoned with, and there would be many more poems like these two if only he were to examine the general assumptions on which his despair is grounded—if he were to show us the general forces in action, instead of merely tagging on sententious comments about them. (pp. 379-80)
Thom Gunn, "The Calm Style" (© 1958 by The Modern Poetry Association; reprinted by permission of the Editor of Poetry and the author), in Poetry, Vol. XCII, No. 6, September, 1958, pp. 378-84.∗
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[In The Ruined Boys, published in the United States as That Distant Afternoon,] Mr. Roy Fuller has written a series of quiet vignettes of school life. We are subjected to no gradual gathering of momentum, to no resounding climax. The boy Bracher is taken through three terms of his life in a second-rate English boarding school, makes friends and enemies, rumbles the headmaster, and at the end learns that Mr. Percy, the master who has exercised most influence over him, will not be returning after the holidays. That is all. It does not seem much, perhaps, set against the bloodbaths and the perversions one so increasingly reads about. And yet the book, quietly ironic, unobtrusively accomplished, fully succeeds in what it purposes to do. The trickle of small incidents, each one scrupulously observed from the point of view of the boy, saps busily away at Bracher's unfledged confidence in, and respect for, an immutable ordered world. The absolute monarchy of the headmaster in the English public school system has rarely been sniped at with more murderous accuracy….
Mr. Fuller's writing is admirably lucid and controlled. His Virgilian fondness for extended simile gives an illuminating stateliness to his prose.
"Nonage and Verbiage," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1959; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 2977, March 20, 1959, p. 166.∗
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"That Distant Afternoon" is a subtle and uncannily penetrating novel, and by the time we have reached its final, fascinating page we have observed something momentous: a young and very human being has taken several long strides toward maturity….
[Although] Mr. Fuller is a wit and an ironist, he respects his characters; he knows (and irrefutably demonstrates) that a boy of fourteen or fifteen is at least as complex and as worthy of concentrated attention as any adult. He also commands a polished, supple, almost immaculate style; and part of its delight is a constant play of simile—often surprising, always original and strikingly apt—in which much of the wit and the illumination resides. "That Distant Afternoon" may be on a small scale, but it is first rate, an accomplished, impressive and continuously entertaining novel.
Dan Wickenden, "A Young, Very Human Being," in New York Herald Tribune Book Review (© I.H.T. Corporation; reprinted by permission), April 12, 1959, p. 4.
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The quality of Roy Fuller's Collected Poems must make any honest reviewer ask himself once more what truly relevant comment he can offer. To say what sort of poetry it is is not to convey its excellences….
[Fuller's] standing as a poet is one of the two or three highest of those now writing. Yet his reputation is mainly among poets and readers of poetry. The professional critics, busy with estimates of Pound, have scarcely looked at him. His name does not ring glamorously round the campuses—and this alone is enough for us to write off completely all fashionable American opinion about British verse.
This American neglect is even odder when one considers that Fuller is in effect doing what Wallace Stevens tried to do, failing because of a streak of frivolity and dilettantism, and perhaps for lack of an adequate rhythmic sense too. For Fuller's humanism arises not only from the generalities of society and the particulars of love and suffering, but also from the particulars of seeing and understanding, of man's grasp of the phenomenal world.
Fuller is (or anyhow was throughout most of the period covered by this book) a Marxist poet. It would be idle to deny that this has sometimes led him to descend from his broader vision to a ludicrous close-up: as when he maintains that support for the constitutional Greek government against the loathsome Zachariades can only have been motivated by dislike of bread and peace. To yield this facile assent to formula in a matter of political detail is objectionable poetically, regardless of the political philosophy. But such blemishes are rare….
[On] the whole his Marxism is one side of a powerful and positive virtue. He is doing what Pound pretended to do—seeing the human condition in a vast social and historical perspective. It is an insult to Fuller to compare them at all: but a crucial difference is that Pound affects to work up to the grandiose from a potty little economic fiddle, while Fuller starts with the wide vision. He sees … a various unity forming one long human drama. This gives him what is commonly lacking in modern poets, a properly rooted tragic sense.
For his verse is not social for social's sake, but for man's. His themes, particularly in his later poems, are from the whole human sphere: all those extremities which the philosophies and religions have failed to allay. Ageing, sex, dying, pity, nostalgia, melancholy: the lacrimae rerum, and some of the cachinnationes rerum too, played out on a grand stage. Even the comic servant in his Faust cycle, complaining of vulgar lusts which he can no longer satisfy, is essentially an adjunct and broadening of tragedy, and even tragic himself. Moreover Fuller is never really happy with anything resembling a social millennium. In the Justish City
full of bread and wine I shall dream of the discipline of insomnia And an art of symbols, starved and saturnine.
Similarly, from the Freudian type of thought he derives not a setpiece of mechanistic concepts, but the human being, caught yet conscious, in his Condition. In fact, the moods and ideas of the Thirties are strong upon Fuller: but he wears them with a difference. It would be hard to deny that the vigour and the inventiveness of Auden and MacNeice was accompanied by a certain slapdashness, a tenuousness and sometimes frivolity of matter. I am not wanting to imply that 'density' and 'tension' are the most important criteria of poetic merit: such a notion is one of the dullest-minded of recent critical generalities, and would involve one in asserting that Crashaw was a better poet than Marlowe or Dryden. Yet Fuller has, typically, managed to combine the best effects and strengths of both types of writing. He is the heir, not only of the lucidity and power of Auden, but also of the vividness and penetration of the best in symbolism.
Fuller's phrasing is individual and unmistakable to the point sometimes of caricature; though never of contrivance….
In his later poems there is often an uncertain calm….
[Fuller's] resources are all the usable ones of traditional, and of 'modern,' English poetry: a rare and remarkable fusion. Moreover, although this Collected Poems unaccountably omits a number of fine poems from his first book, and the newest 'Meredithian Sonnets' are not his best work, we can yet follow the development of increasing scope and mastery. Eccentricity and preconception drop off like boosters, leaving the second stage of a free personality shameless in its skill, sincerity, sanity and sensitivity.
No book by even the best of English poets is faultless, but Fuller's flaws are meagre and peripheral. Some adjectives ('enormous') are overdone. In spite of his view that 'poetry should be intelligible,' there are obscurities (what are the 'foliate five' acts?). Occasional mannerisms annoy—throwaway images justified only by rhyme; Auden or others echoing too closely; and so on. But in general his verse has that naturalness and rightness of tone, even when the language is least colloquial, which arises from an intrinsic and personal unity. It happily comprehends (as no unity prescribed by critical preconception can) lyric and rhetoric, statement and metaphor, concretion and abstraction.
Robert Conquest, "Saturnine Daylight," in The Spectator (© 1962 by The Spectator; reprinted by permission of The Spectator), Vol. 209, No. 7001, August 31, 1962, p. 307.
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The blurb to Mr. Fuller's Collected Poems—an unusually platitudinous one—implies that he is, above all, a continually developing poet. This is seriously misleading, for it neatly misses the point: he is, in the proper sense, an occasional poet—the most worthy of his time. What may have seemed like a consistent poetic development to the blurb-writer is in reality a record of the changing attitudes of a remarkably sensitive and good-hearted man. (Some modern exponents of verse would deny that good-heartedness has anything to do with poetry—they have to; but it does, and it is one of Mr. Fuller's strongest assets.) Genuinely readable and unpretentious though he is, Mr. Fuller's use of language has not undergone that change which alone can justify the word "developing": diction, texture, rhythm, tone—all these have remained more or less constant throughout his twenty-five years' work. He does many effective things to words; they seldom do anything to him. In fact, when he is "carried away" he is at his weakest.
He is a poet of public themes. Even when he is writing of himself—of his reactions to the seasons, war, sex, or metropolitan awfulness—he carefully represents himself as the civilised creature in its public, primitive, or natural environment. (p. 72)
Mr. Fuller's Collected Poems represents a real achievement. This is put into bold relief by the verse of those who imitate him or try to borrow his acrid, amiable tone of voice. One of the purely incidental values of this book is that it cruelly shows up the work of a new wave of poetasters: the authors of those "intelligible" verses, written in accordance with "rules," that make neat, small points. Such authors are using verse-making as a means to an end.
One values Mr. Fuller because his poems are so obviously prompted by different, less ambitious, less trivial needs. His readability does not arise from any easily acquired slickness, but from seriousness and true awareness.
Mr. Fuller expresses his position most clearly in the Horatian Translation…. Here Mr. Fuller is at his best: humorous, honest, and authoritative. It is the poetry of the civilised attitude rather than of passion; but its strength is derived from a decency, unsentimental concern, and intellectual self-effacement not to be found in the culture-marionettes who ape its urbane tone, but who lack the qualities of character that are required to achieve it.
Mr. Fuller retained his early Marxism until relatively late, and in the poems of his middle period this sometimes takes on a specious appearance…. But there are fewer signs of this in his latest poems, notably the Faustian Sketches and in the twenty-one fine Meredithian Sonnets that close the book. Here, one feels, Mr. Fuller is less certain of the full implications of his themes; and although his increasing and salutary awareness of the unknown has not yet got into his language, it has got into his themes, which are often complex—even recondite. One of the Sonnets (XVI) gives a clue…. The detail of this poem suffers from most of Mr. Fuller's linguistic weaknesses—over-use of "effect" adjectives to fill up a line, forced rhymes (such as "bare")—but here at last is a hint of a personal predicament, a private situation. It has been skilfully dramatised by the novelist-element in the poet, but this device only serves to communicate it more powerfully and disturbingly.
Mr. Fuller's well-deserved success as a novelist may have caused him to experience a new difficulty in writing poems; as this increases his poems may become fewer, but rewarding in an unexpected and perhaps even more valuable way. Meanwhile, this collection demands our respect and admiration. (pp. 73-5)
Martin Seymour-Smith, in a review of "Collected Poems," in Encounter (© 1963 by Encounter Ltd.), Vol. XX, No. 1, January, 1963, pp. 72-5.
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It is rare and difficult for any poet, young or old, to find a true voice; rarer and even more difficult to adopt a new one in the notoriously barren stretches of middle age. Yet this is what Roy Fuller has splendidly done in his New Poems. The voice is both true and new. It speaks from recognizably the same man as that of the Collected Poems … and Buff …, but with a directness of personal reference quite unexpected from Mr. Fuller, whose sequences of Mythological Sonnets, Meredithian Sonnets, To X and The Historian seemed to be leading him farther and farther from himself, perhaps as a necessary corrective to what he has called "the tyranny of the personal lyric" in recent poetry. These sequences were extremely well done, but they did seem to hold dangers of boxing the poet too constrictingly in elegant pre-ordained structures, and of confining inspiration in future to dyspeptic reflections drawn from books or of laboriously inventing a whole range of ad hoc personae.
Mr. Fuller has turned in on himself—a successful professional man in his mid-fifties, now pulled down by ill health and disappointed with what he has achieved. Yet it would be quite wrong to imagine that the result is anything like the "confessional" poetry we have come to recognize (and—some of us—distrust). The abandonment of strict forms and ingenious rhymes has not meant a blurring of focus. Such poems by Mr. Fuller as "In Memory of my cat Domino" and "Romance" are deceptively relaxed and low-keyed, but they do not lack art….
[One] must acknowledge the faults here too, of which Mr. Fuller is sometimes, though seldom, guilty: faults which are directly related to the virtues of his method. Self-revelation inevitably leads to self-dramatization, however scrupulous the admission of pose:
Is it possible that anyone so silly can Write anything good?
Again, one is disarmed, but this sort of remark (from "Last Sheet") nudges one into a sort of indulgence which is embarrassing. One finds it towards the end of "Chinoiserie", charming, self-deprecating, honest, but diminishing too. It is the price that has to be paid for choosing to "tell all", and the fidelity of such a mirror is not to be questioned…. These poems force one into asking severely moral questions, of art and of oneself. That they do so in such a disquieting way is, quite apart from their great skill, a sign of their importance.
"Turning In," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1968; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 3475, October 3, 1968, p. 1134.
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[Since the publication of his first volume of verse, Poems, in 1939,] Fuller has published, including his Collected Poems  (which contains items ungathered elsewhere) some eight volumes of verse, showing a continual process of development and change within clearly defined philosophic and poetic objectives. He influenced very strongly the "Movement" of the 1950's; but where those who followed him, like John Wain and Kingsley Amis, remained frozen in their attitudes, his verse developed and changed until by the end of the Sixties he had built up a body of work which gave an appropriateness as well as an inevitability to his election this year as Oxford Professor of Poetry; among the depleted ranks of contemporary English poets, he stood out in unchallenged prominence.
In some ways Fuller's career reminds one of that of Wallace Stevens. He quite deliberately avoided the pressures and perils that encompass a professional man of letters by continuing, until his recent retirement at the age of 57, the occupation as solicitor to a building society which he took up more than thirty years before. He has observed this situation with appropriate irony:
In the event his life was split And half was lost bewailing it; Part managerial, part poetic— Hard to decide the more pathetic. ("Obituary of R. Fuller")
Yet there seems a close relationship between the kind of life Fuller chose—and there were alternatives he rejected—and the kind of oeuvre he has produced. His poetry can be seen as the autobiography—intellectual growing into spiritual—of a man who seeks, as he has said, "always the human in reality." It is a poetry which, being produced mainly after the great disillusionment in which the Thirties ended, lacks the ebullient idealism of the early Spender, the truculent self-righteousness of the early Day Lewis. Stoicism, but not negation, compassion but not acceptance, define its tone. Fuller combines, perhaps uniquely, an intense sense of the tragedy that lurks in all human—and animal—lives, with a profound consciousness of the part which the social environment plays in this condition; his great achievement seems to lie in the fact that he has succeeded through this combination in preserving, as no other survivor from that time has done, the best elements of the political idealism of the Thirties. (pp. 24-5)
It has not been possible for the poet in the last thirty years to speak in the tones of fresh and glittering optimism one hears in poems like Spender's "After They Have Tired." For those who in the Sixties retain radical ideas and yet look realistically at the world, there remains only what Fuller expresses in his later poems; the feeling that the search for sublime societies is "not quite in vain," the attitude of the man who, recognising all the defeats and the betrayals, cannot reconcile himself to the thought that man's hopes will not finally—by however devious a process of history and in however humble a way—triumph.
Such a faith can destroy an indifferent poet by submerging his fragment of talent in hopeful abstractions. Unaccompanied by the development of a personal and independent vision, it can turn even a potentially good poet into an archaicist of the Left. But Fuller has been much more than a survivor from a lost decade. From his early poems down to the New Poems which appeared twenty-nine years afterwards in 1968, there is a steady subtilising of technique, a steady opening of perception, and it is a measure of Fuller's maturity as a poet that he has not allowed a frankly sustained didacticism to loosen his grip on the world of experience; everything is referred back to the point of living in these later poems. They are poems fired by opinion, fuelled by thought and objective observation, yet they project intense and highly personal feelings, expressed sensitively yet ironically, with gravity but not without wit. The personal images, figures of dream and myth, illuminate the general philosophic stance…. [The] tension between the private nature of the poet's world and the public preoccupations which history forces upon him has been a constant concern for Fuller. It is a tension linked closely with a personal aloofness that has never allowed him to become totally involved in a political movement, and which at the same time has kept him uneasily aware how far his class background, his professional occupation, his personal aesthetic, his need for privacy, have all helped force him apart from those who struggle for the social hopes he himself maintains. It is the dilemma Stendhal defined a century ago when he remarked: "I love the people and detest oppressors but every moment would be a torture to me if I had to live with the people." Even in relatively recent poems Fuller expresses it in terms of an agonizing division of will…. This constancy of Fuller's attitudes, of withdrawal into the private self straining against the external demands of political socialism and literary realism, clarifies his development as a poet by allowing one's attention to turn often away from the basic content, which always remains within the same broadly humanist field, and towards the character of the writing itself, the bare, controlled verse, tight with meaning, of a craftsman who has spent thirty years shedding influences and avoiding easy mannerisms so as to find the voice that would speak as clearly as possible what he wanted all along to say.
A look back at the 1939 volume of Poems suggests how long and patiently followed was the road to the clarity and personal language of the poems of the Sixties. On its first appearance thirty years ago, the verse in Poems seemed at least to have novelty, but in fact it was merely fashionable; now it appears obsolete and derivative…. The speech is stiff, the images are awkward and musty like period slang; there is almost no invitation to involvement. These are Fuller's shyest poems, for the writer seems to be reciting a series of hieratic phrases, of secular mantras, designed to conceal rather than express his meaning, and he has a slight air of embarrassment, as if he fears a real feeling may put its unauthorized and clowning face between the curtains.
I would like to dwell a little more closely on the relationship between Fuller and Auden which is suggested by these early poems. Auden's influence, first evident in imagery and language, seems in the long and positive run to have been more important in guiding Fuller's absorption of intellectual elements into his verse. From Auden's experiments Fuller learnt how to use both Marxist and Freudian concepts as part of the material of poetry, and—since Auden's muse has long departed to more celestial regions—one can perhaps regard him as the heir who has proved by performance his claim to these particular territories. Yet the differences between the two poets are greater than the obvious links at first suggest. Both are didactic in their intent, yet Fuller in his recent verse is much more deeply and emotionally involved in human predicaments—and a great deal less involved in games of wit—than Auden. He also differs from him in nurturing a simplism resembling that of the early Romantics. Where Auden made poetry an agent of intellectual complexity, a way of saying things too involved for prose with little regard for ease of access, Fuller has always worked with the thought in mind that "poetry must be intelligible," and his shedding of Thirties mannerisms was part of a progression towards maximum clarity. (pp. 25-8)
Fuller was perhaps fortunate in the way his development coincided with changes in his world and consequent changes in his life. He developed too late in the Thirties to have to make the choice whether "To be committed or to stand apart"; he could live in the world between, more or less indefinitely, and such tensions are productive of art. Then, before his life could become completely crystallized into the pattern of the lawyer's career, came the war. And the consequent change in tone and power evident in Fuller's second volume, The Middle of a War (1942), is remarkable. (p. 28)
It was the release of private emotions by the public event of war that began the liberation of Fuller's poetic talent. The agony of interrupted love, and the discovery of classless comradeship; the horror of destruction, and the hope rising like rosebay in the ruins of London; above all, the enjoyment of a life which peril made at once intense and fragile: all these aspects of a world suddenly illuminated became evident in his war poems.
But mostly it is the emotion of parting that gives The Middle of a War its peculiar sensitivity; I can think of no collection of that period which explores more poignantly this most insidious of war's mental wounds. Through this exploration Fuller came to manhood as a poet…. (pp. 28-9)
If parting gives its tone to The Middle of a War, it is strangeness that sets the atmosphere of A Lost Season (1944), whose contents are inspired largely by Fuller's experiences serving with the Navy in East Africa. The regret of The Middle of a War is still there, but it is counterpointed by the wonder of the African hills, of their bizarre animal and human world of unreason and violence. In this environment Fuller's awakening power of observing and of selecting the right images from observation had full play, and the result was a series of poems that conveyed with exceptional pungency the physical presence of Africa.
These war poems are crucial to Fuller's development; they not merely mark the release of his individuality but also tell us much about his character as a poet…. [They] reveal him as a passive writer, whose powers are not spontaneously inventive, but are set into motion when they are acted upon by the great external events that perturb his personal world. At this point he becomes impressionist rather than expressionist. (p. 29)
[Fuller] expresses best what he is directly involved in, and has little power of imaginative projection into a situation outside his own experience; there he becomes the observer rather than the interpreter. This explains why the little he wrote about Spain, where he went only long after the Civil War was over, was ineffectual, and why his anti-Fascist poetry, written about issues outside his direct experience, was never very convincing, while what he wrote about the war in which he did take part was good; at this point he had accepted his function as that of an autobiographical poet, taking his cues from what life gives.
Despite their bitterness against the fact of war, The Middle of a War and A Lost Season are the most romantic in tone of Fuller's books, in which emotions flower freely under the pain of parting and the fascination of strange lands. After the war, disillusionment sweeps in and the tone changes. Epitaphs and Occasions, which appeared in 1949 and contained poems from a period beginning in 1944, is permeated with the sour hangover feeling that came with the end of wartime uncertainty and of its enormous possibilities of Utopia or destruction. The great, grim holiday was over; one was back in one's class and one's groove, and the world did not seem to have moved forward. And in reaction, though some poems like "Knole" and "The Lake" show the emergence of a more calmly philosophic attitude, most of the pieces Fuller wrote in this period belong in a limited spectrum of tones that extends from the flippant to the sardonic. The dominant feeling of this phase is expressed in "The Divided Life Re-Lived," in which Fuller remarks bitterly:
How we innocently thought that we should be alone no more, Linked in death or revolution as in war. How completely we have slipped into the same old world of cod, Our companions Henry James or cats or God.
The thinness of an over-cerebral statement characterizes this, like other Fuller poems contemporary with it, and one wonders—as one wonders always with Swift who appears to have influenced Fuller greatly at this time—how far this kind of writing is poetry at all.
Such doubts receded with Fuller's two volumes of the Fifties, Counterparts  and Brutus's Orchard . In them the sardonic quality of Epitaphs and Occasions departs; it is replaced by an attempt to universalise the personal consciousness of loss that had dominated The Middle of a War. Fuller now considers the total tragedy of human existence, but a tragedy that, as it were, leaves a Horatio surviving. Inevitably he sees it through his own experience, and the pieces that comprise these volumes are often motivated by slight events of particular significance to the poet from which the original image is selected and related, through his reactions, to a final generalising statement. (pp. 31-2)
In these volumes of the Fifties, and in the two more recent collections, Buff (1964) and New Poems (1968), one becomes aware of the reinstatement of order after the awakening experience of war and war's losses, war's incalculable gains. Not only did Fuller return to the life of the solicitor while those of his friends who continued to write book up the profession of man-of-letters. Behind this deliberate ordering of his life in a curiously repetitive pattern lay the parallel urges to seek what kind of order might be apprehended in the apparent chaos of existence, and to give an order to the expression of that search. In the latter sense, Fuller has followed the trends of the Thirties. He has seen in the traditional forms of poetry the guarantees of an ordering of thought, of emotions, that seems to him a necessary part of the poet's function, and for this reason, while he has played on the minor irregularities, he has kept to the basic verse forms, writing sonnet sequences, Hudibrastic couplets, villanelles, unrhymed hexameters; perhaps the most interesting development has come in his most recent volume, New Poems, in which he has virtually abandoned rhyme, and has used a great deal of syllabic rather than metrical verse, but without jettisoning the general principle of an ordered structure, so that one both encounters unrhymed sonnets and quatrains in which a more or less regular metre preserves the structure, and other poems in which the syllabic system is used quite differently from its adaptation by the disciples of William Carlos Williams. Fuller in one of his Oxford lectures points to a poem of this kind: "Reading The Bostonians in Algeciras Bay." Metrical regularity vanishes, but structural regularity does not, for the poem consists of nine stanzas, each of nine lines, each of nine syllables. So, even in abandoning such technical devices as rhyme and metre, order is preserved; indeed, perhaps made more resilient and therefore more durable by being relaxed.
These most recent poems—and this might be said of all the volumes from Counterparts in 1954—do not strive after the obvious and shallow wit of so many pieces in Epitaphs and Occasions, and they lack the weight of nostalgia and the exotic colour that attracted one in the wartime poems. They are the works of a poet who has been lucky enough to work and develop steadily into late middle age, and they reflect the wiriness and gravity of a talent that has learnt to survive. They are no longer out to entice or to surprise, but to tell; colour, wit and high emotion they use for sparing effect. Yet from the very purposiveness of their telling has emerged some of the best poetry of our generation…. This is verse which preserves, curiously uncorrupted, the more lasting elements of the poetry of the Thirties in which Fuller began to write, and it suggests that the continuity between that decade and ours is perhaps not so tenuous, in terms of literary inspiration, as it has recently been fashionable to assert. Fuller himself certainly looks back to that formative period with obvious regret and respect.
But now, I feel, the thirties gone, The dim light's out that could have shone.
Yet perhaps his achievement is that, alone among the poets who emerged at the end of that decade, he has in fact kept its light alive, to show him the direction towards an individuality and a maturity that make him certainly the one philosophic poet of undoubted capability writing in England today. As all men bear until death the scars of childhood, so all poets bear, however they may change, the indelible mark of the time in which they first moved into consciousness of their peculiar talents. (pp. 32-4)
George Woodcock, "Private Images of Public Ills: The Poetry of Roy Fuller" (copyright, 1969 by Wascana Review; reprinted by permission of the publisher and the author), in Wascana Review, Vol. 4, No. 2, 1969, pp. 21-34.
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Roy Fuller, poet as well as novelist, has in a sense pooled his resources in [The Carnal Island] in order to probe the range of questions thrown up by an encounter between an old poet and a young one, and the result is a very perceptive, often amusing, and at times sad and touching, novel. The narrative framework is deliberately slight. The young poet, James, has an assignment to persuade the 80-year-old poet, Daniel House, to compile an anthology for a publisher, and visits him in his house overlooking an estuary. He meets the old man's wife, his illegitimate daughter and her illegitimate daughter, his local friends, his 15-year-old dog. Almost the only 'action' is a swim in the sea and a fatal ferry-crossing. But the light chain of events, all ordinary except for the climactic ferry, is carefully forged to set memory and speculation free, to allow the relationship between the two writers to develop quickly and naturally from curiosity to respect and love, and also to reinforce the point the book seems to want to make, that art's job is mainly, through feeling, to transform the commonplace. This point is emphasised in James's conviction that Daniel's poetry was released not through his socialist belief that the world must be changed but through his private flashpoints of love and involvement.
Yet the necessary mundaneness, symbolised on one page by a cheap glass dish of crisps brought in with beer on a tray, cannot be separated from myth and mystery when strong human feelings, or the even stronger urges towards art, begin to emerge. The title of the novel is also the title of a sequence of erotic poems published by Daniel in the Twenties, and the 'island' is in fact the land across the estuary, where his daughter still lives. The dead mother, the reality behind the passionate affair celebrated in the poems, had ridden a horse along the beach on a misty day and been drowned, but was it suicide, or an assignation with Daniel, or an assignation with another lover as the poetry suggested? The 'sea-nymph' theme returns when the granddaughter and her girlfriend go swimming with James, and again at the end when the foundered boat is called Sea Nymph and the aged poet is delivered to the dangerous element he loved. In a book which for its length may seem a shade over-baggaged with quotations, Mr Fuller forbears to quote the end of Eliot's 'Prufrock', but one feels that those sea-girls, and the human voices that 'wake us and we drown', must have been very much in the author's mind.
Charlie the ferryman reminds the narrator of Charon, the estuary becomes the Styx, Daniel's dog becomes Cerberus, and Daniel himself an Orpheus who bursts into poetic recital on board. All this is done fairly lightly, but it jars, even on the level of dramatic irony. On the other hand, there are some beautifully managed moments where restraint says everything.
Edwin Morgan, "Private Flashpoints" (© British Broadcasting Corp. 1970; reprinted by permission of Edwin Morgan), in The Listener, Vol. 84, No. 2165, September 24, 1970, p. 428.∗
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The themes which preoccupy Roy Fuller in his poetry are nakedly, indeed oppressively, active in [The Carnal Island]. Most of Fuller's verse has, in one way or another, been about the role of the poet in a society that is hostile or indifferent to him; how absurd and tragic the discrepancy between the poet's art-life and his real life, between his grand therapeutic dreams and his actual social and political impotence. Can Freud and Marx be married? That classic worry of the 1930s has continued to provide Fuller with his basic subject matter, preventing him from either retreating into the personal or from striding out into the public. If the persona of his most recent poems has been one of disappointment and exhaustion, it has also seemed rather heroic; he is, after all, the only one of those many bright young men of theory who has not either stopped writing altogether or lapsed into godliness or borrowed rusticism.
The central figure in The Carnal Island can offer similar credentials. A famous poet, now in his eighties, Daniel House is a veteran of the trenches as well as of the Spanish Civil War, but he is very much a 1930s figure….
The Carnal Island is narrated by a young poet/publisher, an admirer of House (one who "knows" him through his work). Visiting the old poet for a weekend in order to persuade him to edit an anthology, James Ross finds himself drawn into a study of the real-life background to the art-life of the poems. The connexions and the contradictions, the facts transmuted and suppressed, evaded and enhanced—contemplating these is to contemplate the mechanics of poetic truth. Knowing the man and knowing the man's work; in one sense, they are the same thing and in another they are utterly distinct.
It is a knotty and absorbing topic and Fuller does not duck any of its intellectual demands. Unfortunately the fictional embodiment is a good deal more knotty than absorbing. The characterization is thinly utilitarian, the dramas unsurprising and a good third of the book is devoted to bald literary theorizing—cast unconvincingly as conversation. And the narrator is afflicted with a style of such excruciating pomposity that everything he touches gets bogged down in verbiage…. It is suggested here and there throughout the novel that this style is "Housian", and that the narrator employs it in admiring imitation of the master. There are also hints that we are supposed to find it repellently mannered and pedantic (another measure of the distance between art and life). But we cannot help noting that it is a style which has much in common with Roy Fuller's own style when writing in his own persona; we therefore have to wonder just how repellent we are meant to find it.
"The Poet at Home," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1970; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 3578, September 25, 1970, p. 1075.
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Roy Fuller is a man of considerable distinction; he is not a genius. There is no need for me to disparage Mr Fuller, he does the job well enough himself: it is part of his persona as a writer. In his new book From the Joke Shop it produces a few moments of pathos, but nothing more.
This record of ageing, written mostly at night, when thoughts of mortality are supposed to be strong, is preoccupied with death. The prospect of dying comes to Mr Fuller as a shock, the grotesqueness of old age suddenly realised. He is only sixty-three and an operation plus retirement seem to have brought on these morbid thoughts.
But there is something embarrassing about these confessions of inadequacy; even the title disarms. The embarrassment is largely due to the fact that the poems are as awful as he leads us to expect they might be; and the constant note of "I've never been much good anyway, etc." is a receipt for flabbiness and a self-pity which ought to be surprising in a writer whose virtues have always been rightly named as reservation, courtesy and wryness, close observation and a dubious introspection. But the question is: can one write poetry out of such virtues? The answer given by this book is No.
His verse, once the pleasant and thoughtful Augustan companion of a wet afternoon, is now as tired as he says he is: civilised and dull. For unleavened sadness, wry or otherwise, is always dull. The fragments the poet uses to shore up his ruins—those lines from the Waste Land would make an apt epigraph—lose their native vitality in his verses. But Mr Fuller's fate, as he rightly diagnoses, is the product of timidity—not personal but artistic. Eliot was right about separating the man who suffers and the artist who creates, in the sense that the artist must recreate the man not merely represent him, as Roy Fuller does. We sympathise with his noble and generous spirit, and pity his pains; but we cannot praise his art. (pp. 314-15)
Peter Washington, "Doleful," in The Spectator (© 1975 by The Spectator; reprinted by permission of The Spectator), Vol. 235, No. 7860, September 6, 1975, pp. 314-15.∗
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If being a philosophic poet means finding, in all the changing conditions of one's life, the poetic correlative—the tone and language—appropriate to one's reflections on inner and outer experience, then Roy Fuller is perhaps the best philosophic poet writing in English today, the nearest to Matthew Arnold in his time, or Wordsworth in his. Indeed, perhaps the reference to Wordsworth is more apposite than an immediate glance through Fuller's poetry might suggest, for both have the unfulfilled ambition to promote the meeting of poetry and common speech, as Fuller admits in his new book, From the Joke Shop: "It seems I rarely found the common touch / Though my emotions common as they come." And both move from revolutionary youths (Godwinian for Wordsworth and Marxist for Fuller) to positions unexpected in the uncritical generosity of youth. (p. 858)
From the Joke Shop is a book of contemplative verse (if one strips away from contemplation its pietistic element) written by a man in his early sixties, conscious of having slipped over the elusive bound of middle age, and in some understated way also conscious of the liberations that come from being old.
One liberation is from the obligation to be experimental. In the extreme sense—that of Cummings or the Dadaists or their recent imitators—Fuller was never notably experimentalist; he has believed that poetry must be reasonable and comprehensible and he has avoided both the technical innovations and the deliberate irrationalities that interfered with clarity of meaning. He respected, for example, the sheer abounding vitality of Dylan Thomas' poetry, but he could never have written like him. Nevertheless, in his time he has tried out many forms, from the renewed use during the thirties (when he started publishing) of traditional models—the sonnet, the quatrain, the ballad, the sestina, etc.—through vers libre to, more recently, syllabic verse. Now he comes back to an uncompromisingly formal pattern: a mostly regular iambic pentameter, arranged in triplets each of which pushes the thought of the poems a clearly defined step forward, and for the most part without rhyme, though occasionally it is used with Byronic sharpness…. [The poems in The Joke Shop are] largely nocturnal, the kind of works that spring out of notes jotted down on sleepless nights, when one dozes into broken dreams, reads books in a desultory way, remembers inconsequential details and incidents from the past. Yet, for all this use of the fragmented mental process of the insomniac, The Joke Shop is strongly unified and restricted, and the very restriction becomes a kind of symbol of the process of aging which is one of its main themes.
Spatially, it centers on the poet's house and garden on the edge of Blackheath…. His only excursions, so far as the poems are concerned, are to the nearby suburban shopping streets, where he uses such mundane details as the high price of bread and sausages to comment on social change. Significantly, the Blackheath of his poems is inhabited by none of the people who are important in his present life—his wife, his son, his close friends; the only friends who do appear are dead poets like Kenneth Allot, Auden, and (I suspect in one case) Randall Swingler; the family with which he lives in thought is represented by his dead father and mother, by a dead Thespian uncle, by photographs of grandpaternal gatherings before the Great War.
Even apart from its memories, The Joke Shop is temporally united by taking us through an autumn and a winter whose oncoming corresponds with an illness that takes the poet into hospital and brings him out…. [The] poet reflects on the way in which, after all the political idealism of his youth, all the high hopes for humanity, he has come to immerse himself in compassion for other kinds of being. (pp. 858-60)
Fuller, who has always been concerned with the interplay of public views and private feelings, understands how at the most personal level even history takes its shape from the individual's condition (in his case the narrowing of interests with age). (pp. 860-61)
It is a very specifically English line of poetry that runs down from the best Augustans, through Wordsworth, Edward Thomas, and Hardy, and seeks to use a selection from the functioning (though not exclusively colloquial) language for the thoughtful exploration of man's moral relation to his inner self, his outer world, the beings that share it. Roy Fuller, more than any of his contemporaries, has during the past forty years made this line his own. Hardy's heir? He might not reject the title. (p. 861)
George Woodcock, "Common As They Come" (copyright, 1977, by George Woodcock; reprinted by permission of the author), in The Southern Review, Vol. XIII, No. 4, Autumn, 1977, pp. 858-61.
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Literary history will almost certainly record that Roy Fuller was one of the handful of Englishmen who sustained the quality of British poetry during the relatively lean period from 1950 to 1960. George MacBeth has suggested with both humor and astuteness that Fuller was somewhat unlucky in the timing of his career. In the thirties he was too young and had written too little poetry to really be counted among the full-fledged members of Auden's army; though he wrote more first-rate poetry during the war years than any other Englishman, the war did not kill him and hence sanctify this work with an aura of great loss; and though he performed with the virtues of the Movement poetry of the fifties, he was not a fresh face and hence did not stimulate the kind of excitement which greeted the pristine Larkin, Amis, and Gunn among others. This is not the kind of record to trouble Fuller. The early thirties coloration of his earlier work has been proven to be rather deceptive; though of his time, Fuller has marched to his essentially independent beat. While many of the poets who caused a greater stir in the fifties and sixties than did Fuller have either ceased writing verse or been unable to sustain their first promise, Fuller with undiminished productivity and quality has never broken pace.
It is easy enough to note what Fuller has not done. In his period he has not written the most original poetry, nor the most lyrical, nor the profoundest, nor the most humorous, nor the most vibrant—the list could be extended—for one must take into account Ted Hughes, the venerable Robert Graves, Philip Larkin, Sir John Betjeman, and Stevie Smith among others. If it is possible to generalize about poets as diverse as those named, then it can be said these artists succeed on the whole by working a narrow and particularized approach. This is by way of identifying Fuller as a normalized generalist. Fuller's high profile representativeness is both his strength (and value) and limitation as a poet. Fuller does not lift the reader out of his being and does not afford him unusual or striking ways of apprehending experience; he does enable the reader to comprehend more penetratingly and feelingly a reality approximating his own sense of it. If he does not take the reader out of himself he permits him to more fully possess himself. Fuller has a worldliness, a flexibility, a balance, a totality of being not found in Hughes or Graves or Smith. This may make, finally, for a less impressive kind of poetry in a literary sense, but produces nonetheless moving and meaningful work in a humane one. Is it a fair kind of analogy to suggest that one would be more excited to meet Hughes or Graves than Fuller, but one would choose Fuller for extended personal friendship?
Fuller has looked out at his times with astuteness and honesty, with generosity and perspective, and anyone who considers the longevity of his career is bound to be struck by his resilience. The thirties, the war years, the aftermath, the truculent sixties—for forty years he has sustained unflagging fascination with life, essentially the "little" life surrounding him as a suburban Londoner, essentially the out-of-sight life of responses to his life in time. Some may believe the times are best reflected in the tramps of Beckett and Pinter. I see the omniverously intellectual Fuller voicing the worries and concerns, the good sense and joy-in-life-despite-everything outlook of masses of thoughtful people. And he has sustained it without the least sense of trivialization or sentimentalism. (pp. 134-35)
Of the contemporaries I have named, Larkin is of course closest to Fuller in his affinity for the commonplace. Larkin handles this largely from the inside and with great specificity and consequently his verse has an emotive force that exceeds that found or intended in Fuller's work. Fuller is detached and exploratory and accordingly cooler and inevitably ironic. As has been noted, "In common with most of the intellectual Left. Roy Fuller suffered an imaginative estrangement from those to whom he was intellectually committed."… [In my view], Fuller is the preeminent British ruminative poet of his age. (pp. 135-36)
Fuller has been frequently generalized as a politically oriented writer and while this description is founded on solid evidence it is too facile and delimiting. Fuller has not been different at various junctures of his career so much as capable of interchanging his concerns and attitudes at any point. He has written notable occasional or public verse; but the present survey demonstrates a very high percentage of light verse. He has been a nature poet, a spokesman for what I have termed the anagogical states, he has been an endearing voyeur, and he has been preeminent as a poet who has made poetry out of illness and not the fact so much as the process of aging. Throughout his career he has been a craftsman of a high order who has neither eschewed established poetic forms nor hesitated to experiment with such challenges as those posed by syllabic versification. (p. 136)
Allan E. Austin, in his Roy Fuller (copyright © 1979 by Twayne Publishers; reprinted with the permission of Twayne Publishers, a Division of G. K. Hall & Co., Boston), Twayne, 1979, 146 p.
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Though [Souvenirs] is a prose memoir and [The Reign of Sparrows] a book of poems, they form two halves of the same sexagenarian drama. There are the same themes: tributes to dead friends and relatives, reflections on music and poetry, and above all preoccupation with age—its destruction of the body … and its surprising consolations…. The same voice informs both volumes—a voice with many different tones (in turns it is confessional and evasive, immodest and self-deprecating, dry-as-dust and wetly sentimental), but which remains at all times relaxed and chatty, no less so in the poems than the poetry.
Fuller has been called a poet who is 'safe', 'trim', 'tidy', 'conventional' (some underhand allusion to the fact that he made his living as a solicitor often lies at the back of such adjectives), but there's actually a great deal of risk-taking in his poetry's flatness, its eschewal of grand gestures and resonances…. [The] charmlessness is deliberate, part of Fuller's challenge. The low-key tone and awkwardness, the mass of odd titbits and facts, the endless caution and self-qualification—these are the price you have to pay for authenticity. Fuller has always been fond of, and is nowadays almost tediously insistent on, regular and disciplined verse-forms; yet it's when he's at his most formal that he comes nearest to speaking most openly.
As this might suggest, the relatively informal mode of the autobiography isn't one that particularly suits Fuller: as a 'memoir of childhood and youth', Souvenirs has not a great deal of range and is not very outspoken. True, the seemingly key events of his early years are present, principal among them his father's death….
Though there's plentiful detail in the account (food, clothes, musical tastes, reading habits) and extensive, indeed excessive attention to school friends and relations, much remains unsaid. For this Fuller blames a failing memory … but there's also a tendency to back away from the emotions surrounding family deaths like that of his father and brother. At key shy-making moments Fuller's 'I' takes refuge in the more impersonal 'one'…. And though in small ways self-deprecating throughout, Fuller doesn't in the end give the impression of searing honesty about painful memories or weaknesses. The faults he concedes often sound suspiciously like virtues, self-laceration like a sly pat on the back: at one point he accuses himself of being 'shy, intellectual, naive to the point of gormlessness (archetypally poetic, one might say)', and at another of 'too great a facility for seeing another's point of view, an almost morbid concern for another's feelings'.
Given that the book is concerned mainly with the early years of Fuller's life, and that he can't in any case take the matter very seriously, it would have been rash to expect from Souvenirs any very serious account of Fuller's political development…. [The] crucial passage on Fuller's politics runs as follows:
Why one should always want to ally oneself with the underdog is not altogether clear. One is tempted to discount utterly any virtue in the matter: I mean why should trying to see that a certain one-clawed pigeon gets more than its fair share of bread on the lawn … reflect creditably on the bread-scatterer?
Anyone who has read more than a handful of Fuller's poems will find the bird-feeding analogy entirely in character. His poetic persona is a great taker-in of birds: whether they've fallen out of nests or are lying half-dead in the road, feathered friends have always been able to rely on Fuller to appear and relieve them of their distress. Fuller implies here that his early socialism was motivated by the same impulse of pity for the underprivileged, but the passage more properly places him within a tradition of liberal humanism, a tradition in which enlightened youthful paternalism almost invariably gives way to the disillusioned conservatism of age. Benevolence in one's back garden is better than no benevolence at all, of course, and throughout both these books Fuller emerges as a decent, thoughtful man. But it seems a pity that the more ambitious, public voice of the early work proved no more than a fad of the time.
Blake Morrison, "Despondency & Sadness," in New Statesman (© 1980 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), Vol. 99, No. 2556, March 14, 1980, p. 397.
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A layer of glum senescence covers Roy Fuller's latest collection of poems [The Reign of Sparrows] like a fall of volcanic ash. There is plenty here about movement, growth and vitality, but the drift is distinctly that of an unburdened crawl towards death…. Almost the entire final section of the book is dedicated to the business of reckoning with the onset of old age. Being 65 is viewed, not, as in Auden's case, with quietly smirking triumph, but with a sense of tremulous astonishment at having got there at all and a distinct apprehensiveness as to going any further.
Finest of all the poems on this theme, and among the best things Fuller has ever done, is 'On His Sixty-Fifth Birthday', a free imitation of Arnold's 'Rugby Chapel', with a significant halfway nod in the direction of the original. More than simple skeins of curt pindarics create the Arnoldian allusion: there is the same sense here, as in the earlier poem, of hopelessness and spent energy, as the poet, collecting his pensioner's off-peak bus pass, sees in it the embodiment of something altogether more Stygian…. (p. 23)
Good as this, and companion poems like 'In His Sixty-Fifth Year' are, there is still, now and then, a vestigial aura of schoolmasterly beefiness left over from the days of 'Tiny Tears' and 'From the Joke Shop', when Fuller's muse was a rather saucier number. A mildly risible string of three-line stanzas describes buying a pair of trousers at the Plymouth branch of Debenham's, and there is a rueful, down-the-sleeve guffaw on the theme of the poet's dapper moustache. One doesn't, after all, ask him to eschew the jokey or the flip, but the balance here tilts heavily in favour of a moss-dampened, Hardyesque charnel gloom. Yet despite the denture-rattling authenticity of:
Bits of me keep falling off; bits don't work properly
the paradox (if we go the whole way with Fuller's vision of his own decay) is that he has probably never excelled himself in sheer cohesion, resourcefulness and versatility. (pp. 23-4)
Jonathan Keates, "Vault Echoes," in The Spectator (© 1980 by The Spectator; reprinted by permission of The Spectator), Vol. 244, No. 7922, May 10, 1980, pp. 23-4.∗
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The Reign of Sparrows is not quite as good as either [Brutus's Orchard or New Poems], but there is plenty in it to remind [Roy Fuller's] admirers just how varied, skilful and surprising he can be. Three opening poems in his lengthy, reflective manner (a bit Hardyesque these days in "Ghost Voice") remain rather arcane and uncomfortable after several readings; but "Sloth Moth" sees him away into a favourite later theme, the oddities and ironies of natural history; and "Musical Offering" takes him back again to the old preoccupation with creation and execution in the other art he most admires. I wonder when we are going to realise that Fuller in his sixties (and on the subject of his sixties) is one of the most varied, accomplished, alternately disturbing and entertaining poets we have—none the worse for the sprightly oddities his style has acquired in recent years?… [The] splendid centrepiece of this book [is] the set of poems written "In his Sixty-fifth Year." There is nothing small in these perceptions, which come in a kind of diary-sequence stretching from October 1976 to the summer of 1977—and offer a rueful, touching commentary on the concerns of the poet in his unsatisfied, un-Horatian old age. (p. 58)
Souvenirs, Roy Fuller's memoir of his childhood and youth, is in many respects a companion volume to The Reign of Sparrows, sharing the preoccupations of the verse. Fuller's later prose style owes much to the clipped, idiosyncratic cadences of many of the poems. It also owes more than a little to the prose style of Anthony Powell, especially the insertion of the deadpan authorial comment…. The book is a very funny, occasionally very moving, account of Fuller's respectable, yet reduced and itinerant lower middle-class childhood, in Lancashire (mainly Blackpool); a world of pier performers and Hallé concerts, private hotels and waning private schools, of Lawrence's Nettles taken into law lectures during his solicitor's training. It's a reticent book but not at all an unrevealing one: the quirks and peculiarities of distant relations, lost music-hall artistes and windswept, humble places, are cherished so delicately and recalled in such detail as to amount to a love for, and celebration of, an expansive world which the shy youth (and the man) feels guiltily he has never wholly managed to re-enter. (pp. 58-9)
Alan Brownjohn, "A Cold Wind Blows," in Encounter (© 1980 by Encounter Ltd.), Vol. LV, Nos. 2 & 3, August-September, 1980, pp. 56-63.∗
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['Vamp Till Ready'] takes us, roughly, from [Fuller's] time as a solicitor's articled clerk in London in the early Thirties (Fuller was 20 in 1932) up to, more or less, the present day. That is to say, through his conscripted days in the Royal Navy ('The Andrew'), postwar solicitorship with the Woolwich, Professorship of Poetry at Oxford, Governorship of the BBC, the novels and the poems….
But, as with 'Souvenirs,' although there is a ground bass of strict chronology, the variations in time and the various themes interweave throughout without much regard for strict tempo. My musical metaphor is no doubt faulty; but nevertheless the models here are Proust and Powell. While Dicky Umfraville doesn't occur anywhere in the background, it wouldn't come as much of a surprise if he did. A lot of this, with its Soho phoneys, eccentric colleagues and nicely remembered detail, is very funny. All of it is interesting. It's a picture of a period—or, if you like to think of it that way, of three periods: Pre-War, War and Post-War. I found it more satisfying than the first book….
Fuller, although a novelist of talent, is most prized for his poetry. 'The Individual And His Times' is a selection of his verse made by Victor Lee. The poems are divided into sections (The Passage of Time, The Poet and His Art, The Poet of Everyday Life, Nature, etc) and the lines are numbered. It carries an 'autobiographical' preface by Fuller, explaining the poems in each section, and there are notes 'compiled in consultation with' him at the end. In other words, this is a book for schools. It favours short poems and neglects some of Fuller's best work of the War ('The Photographs' would be too 'advanced' for schoolmasters), though there are also marvellous poems included.
Since it is now 20 years since Fuller's 'Collected Poems' appeared, when he was 50, it would certainly seem that another 'Collected' was overdue. It is, I think, a disgrace to British publishing that such a book hasn't been produced. In effect, one of our finest writers is being passed over in favour of tripe—the sentimental, the sensational, the blockbuster embryo film-epic, you name it. It's easier to name it than to think about it.
Gavin Ewart, "A Waiting Game," in The Observer (reprinted by permission of The Observer Limited), June 27, 1982, p. 31.
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Vamp Till Ready, which is the tale of a newly grown-up Fuller acquiring his Marxism, his legal career, his wife, his war and proof that he was indeed a poet, grows most naturally out of Souvenirs, which is the tale of his childhood. The tone continues to be one of laconic eloquence. The flavour of the Thirties, now so familiar to us because of its endless evocations, is given a stranger, more compelling taste because of the economical way in which he handles it. The signposts pointing from slump to call-up indicate the usual old road, but the sights and comments on the way provoke a fresh attention. Again, it has something to do with their descriptive frugality, their never going on and on. 'Poetry is, on the whole, a succinct art,' remarks Fuller, and so in his view is autobiography. The title refers to that extemporary rhythmic strumming, so popular at the time with pianists, which preceded the song.
The style is one of affectionate irony, reticence and bursts of wayward colour having to contend with an amused formality. Although Fuller reminds us that the 'I' of a poem is not necessarily the poet himself, here on every page it is made absolutely plain that the 'I' speaks for his 1930–42 self as exclusively as art and memory can persuade it to. Although the 'I' of Obituary of R. Fuller is decidedly that of the poet at his most self-candid … the 'I' of the autobiographer has been able to speak with more justice. In poetry, says Fuller, a writer can be free with the details of his personal life, can 'give himself away as a lesson, not a confession'. In prose, as we see here, it is quite another telling of the same story. True confessions, nothing less. He rakes them out of his past with wit and civility.
Certainly, it appears to have been a life minus the traditional conflicts. That fundamental one of whether he should become a full-time writer or a lawyer, or a poet and a lawyer, or a lawyer who writes poetry, for example. To be able to recognise 'almost from the start that I should never abandon a "job" in favour of "writing"' is a type of self-knowledge which puts paid to a whole mass of struggles, confusions and hurts from the word go. He treats it simply as a basic fact and then, of course, has to describe how two such apparently opposing strands, that involving the orthodoxies of a successful legal career, and that involving an equally committed role as a poet, began, right from the start, to work in tandem.
There is no apology; that is the essence of it. He has also had to deal with the characteristics which made him conventionally attractive and acceptable, these being obvious and unavoidable. In this volume we see their emergence. Modesty, mercifully, doesn't really come into it; something more obliquely unpretentious allows Fuller to take close stock of what was clearly in most respects a fortunate being with the minimum of self-regard.
The secret seems to be to reveal himself without dwelling on himself. Hence the concise and brief form of each revelation. (p. 20)
Ronald Blythe, "'He Remembers Things Like the Psychology of Cigarettes'" (© British Broadcasting Corp. 1982; reprinted by permission of Ronald Blythe), in The Listener, Vol. 108, No. 2773, August 12, 1982, pp. 20-1.
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Probably no living English poet has taken up more constantly than Roy Fuller the themes of the man in the street and the poet in his society. He feels himself to be an ordinary man, a member of a mass civilization, with a job (albeit a responsible one, as solicitor to a large building society) which ties him to quotidian matters: "Builders of realms, their tenants for an hour". But as a poet, as an alert and mordantly perceptive observer with an ironic overview of human affairs and a reverence for the "glamour of unapproachable geniuses", he is really rather a special version of the man on the Woolwich omnibus. Much of his verse is about the ambiguities generated when one of these figures takes on the role of the other, and for most of his writing life he seems to have seen himself wavering uneasily between the two. Yet this dilemma has never been a disabling one. Fuller's triumph is to have made from it a poetry which has looked outwards from the experiences (including the books and the music) mulled over in reflective solitude, and provided a continuous, highly individual commentary on the malaise of the time.
The characteristic Fuller preoccupations took shape in his poetry very gradually, and in ways which V. J. Lee's selection [in The Individual and His Times]—arranged under six thematic headings rather than chronologically, with no note of the separate books from which the poems come—does not easily reveal. Most of the poems in the very early volumes are graphically descriptive and immediate: in The Middle of a War (1942) things were moving with alarming speed, and there were distinctions to be made between "August 1940" and "October 1940" in poems with those titles. This, in its way, is "social reporting" and Louis MacNeice (who coined the phrase) might have approved the intention if he did not influence the style. Fuller's mood seems passively observant, not actively committed or indignant, and not nearly as "dogmatic" as he believes. The reflective note and muted romanticism suggest the influence of Stephen Spender at least as much as W. H. Auden—about whose influence Fuller is so candid as to state how lucky he feels himself to be in falling under it.
The kind of war poetry Fuller wrote was especially typical of the Second World War: that of the serviceman left waiting for something to happen, enduring tension and loneliness either in Britain or in foreign places which are seen all the more sharply for the alienation imposed by service routines. Not much of this is shown in the selection's sparse representation of the wartime Fuller; and there is no way of telling from it how he turned service experience to good account in some excellent poems about Africa in A Lost Season (1944). But what we do have are the early signs, from his first postwar book. Epitaphs and Occasions (1949) of the later and more familiar Fuller beginning to emerge.
The clues are to be found in the witty octosyllabic couplets of the "Dedicatory Epistle" and the "Obituary of R. Fuller". The views expressed are emphatic, and pointed topical references (including literary references) abound…. Creative pursuits come to seem difficult to reconcile with the demands of a more mundane—but also more menacing—world. And yet from this point onwards he steadily expands his technical resources and widens the range of his themes: the poet of limits becomes the poet of a rueful humanist vision for whom man's very inadequacies have their necessity.
Such a development has to be intuited, by the reader of The Individual and His Times, from Fuller's idiosyncratic and entertaining introductory essay, since it cannot be seen in the arrangement of the editor's choice of poems…. [The selection here fails] to show the growth of this poet's mind and technique as he accumulates slim volumes and reacts to events. And it gives no sense of how Fuller's work has alternated unexpectedly between a "high" style, in which he achieves genuine power and eloquence using traditional and challenging verse forms with impressive ease, and a "low" style employed to treat details of everyday living in an engagingly bizarre fashion. In fact, the individual volumes from the 1950s onwards are indispensable; and an updating of the Collected Poems of 1962 is certainly overdue.
Counterparts (1954) brought the first wholly successful poems in the "high" Fuller manner; not so much with the slow "Rhetoric of a Journey", or even the neat satire of "Translation", which are both included here, but with the graver cadences of "A Wet Sunday in Spring", which is omitted…. [The] poem, "Inaction", is a fine example of his "low" style: here he has become the laureate of the little symbolic disturbances which break the even tenor of living with reminders of something else: the spider in the bath, the lost fountain pen, the feel of a jelly baby ("in its rigid arms / Held close against its side. / And absolute identity with others. / Its pathos and fate reside. / That else it had not died.")
None of this, however, prepared Fuller's readers for either the sustained power of the finest poems in his 1957 volume, Brutus's Orchard, or the verse experiments of New Poems in 1968, arguably his two best books…. For Caesar's Rome … read the post-war world—or perhaps even post-Suez Britain, with its conviction of a noble past and its dismal sense of impending menace or chaos in the present. The handsome format of Brutus's Orchard … allowed the poems ample room; and they seemed truly to expand, in breadth of outlook and technical confidence, developing ingenious and moving variations within the unity of this theme….
New Poems is a distinguished and varied book, packed with absorbing argument concerning the role of art in human society and the status of the artist. Already there are hints of the autumnal note which prevails in Fuller's latest two volumes, From the Joke Shop (1975) and The Reign of Sparrows (1981); these are well-represented by about a quarter of the poems in this selection. It is valuable to have them; yet it tilts the balance of the choice towards the later work with an opening group, "The Passage of Time", where poems written in, and about, the poet's seventh decade predominate. This is not a tactic which is going to draw new, younger readers into Fuller's poetry; the spread might have been wider.
Nevertheless, these poems, combining self-deprecating humour and irony with meticulous recording of tiny moments …, convert Fuller's tendency to digress, complain, or make fastidious demands on life, into poignant—and entertaining—art.
Alan Brownjohn, "Observations of the Ordinary," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1982; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 4146, September 17, 1982, p. 998.