Thursday, 18 May 2017

POET OF THE MONTH #39: George Orwell

(aka ERIC BLAIR), 1943


Sometimes in the middle autumn days,
The windless days when the swallows have flown,
And the sere elms brood in the mist,
Each tree a being, rapt, alone,

I know, not as in barren thought,
But wordlessly, as the bones know,
What quenching of my brain, what numbness,
Wait in the dark grave where I go.

And I see the people thronging the street,
The death-marked people, they and I
Goalless, rootless, like leaves drifting,
Blind to the earth and to the sky;

Nothing believing, nothing loving,
Not in joy nor in pain, not heeding the stream
Of precious life that flows within us,
But fighting, toiling as in a dream.

O you who pass, halt and remember
What tyrant holds your life in bond,
Remember the fixed, reprieveless hour,
The crushing stroke, the dark beyond.

And let us now, as men condemned,
In peace and thrift of time stand still
To learn our world while yet we may,
And shape our souls, however ill;

And we will live, hand, eye and brain,
Piously, outwardly, ever-aware,
Till all our hours burn clear and brave
Like candle flames in windless air;

So shall we in the rout of life
Some thought, some faith, some meaning save,
And speak it once before we go
In silence to the silent grave.

Published in The Adelphi, March 1933

The Poet:  It can be easy to forget that 'George Orwell' was, in fact, two different writers –– the creator of the dystopian masterpieces Animal Farm (1945) and Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) and, under his real name Eric Blair, a composer of verse which, in the early to mid 1930s, appeared occasionally in The Adelphi, one of London's most widely circulated and respected literary journals.  The committed Socialist was also something of a closet Romantic whose adolescent years had been spent, as he once explained, 'writing bad and usually unfinished "nature poems" in the Georgian style.'

Many of Blair's poems contain themes –– the beauty and purity of nature, nostalgia for what was largely a romanticized vision of the Edwardian England of his childhood, the need to exhibit some overriding form of personal responsibility in our dealings with others –– that he would later go on to explore at greater length in his journalism, essays and novels.  Each of his nine published books contains at least one passage in which the idea of contentment is directly equated with experiencing the joys of the 'unspoiled' English countryside.  One of the best examples of this appears in Nineteen Eighty-Four when its protagonist, the downtrodden and secretly rebellious Winston Smith, remembers what he calls 'the Golden Country' of his pre-Big Brother childhood ' an old, rabbit bitten pasture, with a foot track wandering across it and a mole hill here and there.  In the ragged hedge on the opposite side of the field the boughs of the elm trees were swaying very faintly in the breeze, their leaves just stirring in dense masses like women's hair.  Somewhere near at hand, though out of sight, there was a clear, slow-moving stream where dace were swimming in the pools under the willow trees.'  

This is a remarkably poetic passage (note the use of the arresting simile in the line '… stirring in dense masses like women's hair') for what is a brilliant but generally prosaic work of fiction intended to expose totalitarianism and its ruthless crushing of the human spirit.  Although Eric Blair abandoned poetry altogether after 1936, its influence lived on in the work of his alter-ego George Orwell, whose poetic sensibilities were, it seems, of a subtler but no less affecting variety.     

Click HERE to read more poems by GEORGE ORWELL at the website of THE ORWELL PRIZE, an annual UK award created 'to encourage writing in good English –– while giving equal value to style and content, politics or public policy, whether political, economic, social or cultural –– of a kind aimed at or accessible to the reading public, not to specialist or academic audiences.’  You can also click HERE to read more about the life and work of ERIC ARTHUR BLAIR, better known to the world as GEORGE ORWELL.

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