Books: The White Rabbit Turns into Edward Thomas the Breakage by Glyn Maxwell Faber Pounds 7.99

By scammell, william | The Independent (London, England), September 2, 1998 | Go to article overview
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Books: The White Rabbit Turns into Edward Thomas the Breakage by Glyn Maxwell Faber Pounds 7.99


scammell, william, The Independent (London, England)


Glyn Maxwell's lines seem to sprint faster across the page than those of other poets, as though he were the White Rabbit and late for an important date. They dart round corners, in and out of buildings and buses, lollop across the shires, duck into churches and football matches and poetry readings, nibble at various salads of folk wisdom, then bolt for home and the angelus of the closing rhyme. These busy manoeuvres leave the reader either breathless and gratified or breathless and puzzled, as though he'd been led through a maze simply to arrive at a bus stop, or some vaguely Parnassian version of "well I never!"

That was the old Maxwell, still visible in The Breakage but slowing now into a graver, more contemplative manner. The title-poem is an allegory of loss, about the "He ... or she or it" who "broke our beautiful / All coloured window", and the blood that "comes / Like luck to the blue fingers/ Of children thinking they can help". Cut fingers are lucky fingers, apparently; innocence quickly acquiring experience. The window itself is heavily symbolic, like Larkin's, and not very precisely located. Its function is to provide an occasion for piety and rue ("We kneel and start"), an oblique meditation on our atheistical times.

The matter of England rears its head more explicitly in the next poem, "An August Monday", set in the smug middle-class heartland of a family picnic on the eve of the First World War. It's recounted in Alexandrine couplets and prepares us (together with various other pointers and poems) for a central sequence of "Letters to Edward Thomas". Like Hughes and Mill before him - though they grew up entre deux guerres, between ancient patriotism and modern scepticism - Maxwell uses that watershed, the summer of 1914, to evoke timeless English pleasures in nature, and the imminent catastrophe - "all our hearts at journey's end, in some / Vale of picnic- cloth". The narrator is as innocent as she is ignorant that the "great / Unknowable", Thomas himself, has deserted his idyll and enlisted in the war, while she and her friends holiday in his cottage, expecting him home any minute.

In some ways the sequence is an exercise in ventriloquy, which captures very beautifully the pathos of its historical moment, poised as it is between bucolics and the shambles that awaits its culpable innocence. In the final poem Maxwell writes in his own person, risking a certain bathos and conceit - "Frost died. I was born" - and telling us that what and who he writes for is "You", the poet-soldier who was obsessed by death. This enrols him in a large club of contemporary poet-admirers and will perhaps surprise those who thought of him as an ardent vestal at the shrine of St Wystan.

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