William Plomer Plomer, William (Vol. 4) - Essay

Plomer, William (Vol. 4)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Plomer, William 1903–1973

Plomer was born in South Africa and lived in Japan and Greece before finally settling in England. Plomer wrote novels, short stories, poems, criticism, librettos, biography, and autobiography. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 21-22.)

William Plomer's first novel, Turbott Wolfe, was published in 1926, when he was a very young man. A distinguished poet and autobiographer, he has, one feels, obstinately refused to be a professional novelist. In fiction his best work has lain in the short story, and there his achievement, especially in volumes like I Speak of Africa and A Child of Queen Victoria, has been remarkable. All the same, his novels cannot be ignored and, taken with the short stories, their influence has been seminal….

Plomer's … Museum Pieces appeared in 1952, eighteen years after The Invaders, It seems to me by far his best, and it springs out of affection, not indignation or hatred. The satirist of the early books has become a humorist.

Walter Allen, in his The Modern Novel: In Britain and the United States (copyright © 1964 by Walter Allen; reprinted by permission of the publishers, E. P. Dutton & Co., Inc.), Dutton, 1964, pp. 197-99 (in the paperbound edition).

William Plomer was the first South African writer to create a fictional hero (Ula Masondo) out of a migrant native laborer in the gold mines. His novel Turbott Wolfe was the first work of fiction to treat miscegenation and race relations from the point of view of political and social protest rather than as a moral shame—the quality with which earlier South African writers had invested them. (p. 208)

The theme of his novel has become an obsession with later South African writers, and Turbǫtt Wolfe may be said to be the prototype of the modern liberal protest in fiction against apartheid. Here, Plomer deals with two examples of miscegenation: one the unfulfilled passion of Wolfe and the native girl he idealizes; the other the affair between the South African white girl and black radical. One affair ends in consummation; the other achieves nothing more solid than a sigh. It is significant that the white South African girl who marries her black lover is called "Eurafrica" and that she survives in Africa, while Wolfe feels bound to leave it. (p. 209)

Miscegenation in Turbott Wolfe is not only condoned—it is encouraged and demanded as a condition of health. "Eurafrica," the union of the two races, is the novel's pervasive image. Today, it is easy enough to understand why Turbott Wolfe stimulated much controversy on its first publication. And, because the novel calls for the abolition of the color bar in a violently sexual manner, the book has remained controversial….

Plomer is a novelist of violence because he views the South African scene as an environment of tension and repressed hostility which cannot be altered by quiet good will. It is action, and not sentiment, which affects South Africa in his fiction. I have called him a novelist on the "left" because his fiction represents an attack on the existing social and moral codes of his time. (pp. 210-11)

Martin Tucker, in his Africa in Modern Literature: A Survey of Contemporary Writing in English, Ungar, 1967.

Among many trad modernists, Mr. Plomer is one of those poets who see the golden age of art and society very evidently not in the future. His latest book entitled Celebrations finds some of its best subjects in the past: the first London performance of Cherry Orchard, a pre-1914 afternoon with the Bloomsbury set in Bedford Square, a Victorian photographic album, an out-moded old lady in a house on a by-pass.

Mr. Plomer's verse exhibits a rare power of historical evocation, not a little of the wisdom of experience, and a bland and versatile sense of diction.

Derek Stanford, in Books and Bookmen, June, 1972, p. 87.

William Plomer seemed to be made of some absolutely clear, crystalline substance. All his qualities were windblown, sun-saturated, sparkling, and in his writing the language shines and curls like waves animated by a strong breeze on a clear day. In a self-protecting way he was mysterious, guarding the secrets of his singularity against infringement by intimacy no less than by publicity. Yet at the same time he was open, candid, friendly, and a hilarious raconteur. He kept the world of causes and salesmanship at a distance by viewing them all with the same detached irony. He was insulated (no telephone, the barest of small houses in the least inviting of suburbs) and yet to several people—some of whom did not know of the others' existence—he was a life-long friend with an amazing constancy of tolerant affection.

His last poems have all the virtues of his insight and meticulous observation. Some of them are assertions of faith, and without being subjective they are often self-revealing….

Plomer had an impersonal way of stating intense personal affirmation. He can be detached and committed in the same poem, simply by ordering his impressions in a hierarchy of those about which he is more ironic, less ironic, and not ironic at all….

I think that half a dozen poems in [Celebrations] are among the best English poems written in the present century. If I am right, it may seem odd that Plomer, while having fans and being generally respected, or patronised, has not been recognised as the maker of unique verbal objects which are peculiarly hard, clear and well-formed. It would not have seemed odd to him. He casts a very cold eye on 'the mad new Establishment/of loud disrespect'.

Stephen Spender, "A Singular Man," in New Statesman, November 9, 1973, p. 690.

It is a … sophisticated pleasure to read William Plomer from beginning to end, but saddening that it is now the end. The love of rhyme (and a rare talent for it), the insight into character and the offhand, sardonic tone: these are in evidence even in the early poems from South Africa and Japan, and by the time of the 'London Ballads' are habitual enough to allow him a grateful relapse into open heartlessness. I like the Hardy parody, and pieces like 'The Heart of a King', so close to comic opera. The historical poems are flexible and ingenious, and he has a fresh and alert way with landscape. But how can it be that one tolerates Plomer's bland comedy of cruelty, the Dorking Thigh and the Flying Bum?

In so many places, the rentier-intellectual's bachelor scorn of petit-bourgeois married comforts strikes an insistently false note. Christ may yet be born in a bungalow, but Plomer is very half-hearted about the notion. Better is a poem like 'Palmyra', where the feeling becomes wistful, the ghost of unfulfilled desire. One laughs at such aperçus as the female Swiss ('waxwork stuffed with cheese'), but deplores his view of female sexuality as something inevitably comic, risking nemesis. This is a precarious and misogynist poetry, with more nervous energy than Betjeman, more flair, more colour, and a fine imagination moving deftly between irritation and amusement.

John Fuller, in The Listener, March 7, 1974, p. 311.

With engaging briskness and efficiency, the air of a man doing a good job, Plomer was nevertheless misled by the ease with which verse can become "light."… Plomer was interested in people. Characters are the heart of his matter, though his quite obvious sensationalism is of the macabre sort ("The Flying Bum", "The Dorking Thigh", "Mews Flat Mona" etc.). His last two books moved away from that to a more tender characterisation, just as his earlier poems about his native South Africa must have indicated to his first readers that he might have become a lyrical and descriptive poet on fairly orthodox lines, not a poet of sensational disgruntlement….

In "Tugela River", he allowed his descriptive writing free verse, pressurised by an historical forecast of revolution in South Africa. Even so, "Tugela River", powerful as it is, lacks the density and mysteriousness of a 20th-century classic. Courting clarity with such dedication, Plomer emerges as a poet like Andrew Young in his emphasis on traditional craftsmanship….

[In] Plomer's intensely personal poem "The Umbrella",… the verse, its purposiveness, and the obligations it forces on the writer trivialise the urgency of the feeling. Outcomes and decisions are specified too clearly; he tells a moralised tale to himself, too consciously ordered as a story. Above all, verse can appear outmoded by the psychology of a poem. It can force categorisation on fluid states of mind, simplifying experience. Plomer's kind of verse manoeuvres back to a verse-world, a story-world, which is not unlike the secret country of [a] bucolic imagination, and certainly not unconnected to a faithfully English view of life, that queerly middle-class English outlook, "commonsensical" but not rational, crafty, with its relish of eccentricity and the grotesque, cruelly dismissive of those who are beyond the pale, despite frequent professions of a liberal humanity.

It may be a mistake to see something so programmatic in Plomer's poems, but the level of life he appears to have opted for is represented by those who inhabit "The Bungalows." The secret country has its counterpart in the secret suburb. These "semi-isolationists", the cabbage their emblem, are seen by Plomer as thankfully unambitious, thankfully contented with all that is ever likely to be granted them. Their attitudes to those who do not live in "unassuming bungalows" is not mentioned, which is characteristic of a political poem which does not realise it is a political poem…. Plomer … was able, especially in his later poems, to write in freer forms; and it is in such examples of Plomer's sort of care and attention to language that English habits can be found—contemporary and traditional at the same time—which one hopes will be perpetuated in poetry.

Douglas Dunn, in Encounter, September, 1974, pp. 84-5.