The Poetry of Irish Murdoch
Heptonstall, Geoffrey, Contemporary Review
Unusually, Iris Murdoch came late to poetry. Whatever attempts she made before, she published no poetry until the mid-seventies. There have been a sheaf of poems, barely a volume's worth, and a book of brief verses to accompany some illustrations. There is not much to consider, and any consideration can be only a footnote to the corpus of her fiction, drama and philosophy. There is little poetry, and it is late. The poetry, therefore, suggests a moving towards a summation. We may expect a reflective commentary on the main corpus. Certainly we are likely to read it because it is written by Iris Murdoch.
I should like to ask whether the poetry does exist in its own right. The auguries before we begin reading are poor. With exceptions, poetry tends to be youthful art. Added to which there is the difficulty that few writers have achieved significant work across the range of fiction, theatre and verse. There is a conflict of forms which very few writers have resolved. Can Iris Murdoch be an exception to some degree? Do her footnotes take a life of their own?
Appreciation of worth is in part a subjective experience. In the present context this is a particular danger. We may find ourselves indulging a special plea which says more about the main corpus than about the addenda. We may think usefully perhaps of the fiction of Iris Murdoch as poetic, though certainly not in a pejorative sense. Of course the novels vary in mood and purpose, but there is a core of moral concern, and a particular use of symbols on which the narrative action is centred.
The symbols recur from novel to novel as devices of the Murdochian moral outlook. At a critical moment in the narrative there is likely to be the drowning scene. The Jewish refugee-scholar and the runaway woman move from novel to novel, changing name but not character. A Murdoch novel is noted for its comedy, but the enduring images are tragic. They speak of some buried personal stress, of experiences (perhaps as witness) which shape the author's moral responses. The narrative of the novel must undergo its rite of passage. It must prove its ability to encounter a moral problem to be resolved in credible fictive terms. Murdoch fiction has its air of mystery (and of being a mystery in the lower, detective-story sense) and even of magic. Yet there is no deus ex machina. A problem must provide its own answer.
A reader who knew nothing of the author might surmise that Iris Murdoch is also a moral philosopher in the formal sense. Her philosophic concerns have remained active and at counterpoint to the writing of fiction. She bad about a decade of critical/philosophic writing before the publication of her first novel, Under the Net (1954), which was a rare and distinguished attempt to practice what she proposed in the development of fiction.
With a gesture towards Wittgenstein (whose metaphor provides the title of the novel), Under the Net is conscious homage to Raymond Queneau the linguistic experimenter whose own fiction is a breaking of form so that metaphor becomes the dynamic of the narrative. Exercises de Style is a series of variants in form, each part re-telling the same anecdote. It is as close to poetry as narrative fiction may be while remaining prose.
The 'poetry' of Iris Murdoch is in the fictive use of symbols, and in the philosophic mood of her fictive intentions. These points would seem to advise against turning her attention toward formal verse in the lyric mode, having marshalled her resources elsewhere. Her experiments with fiction are experiments of language, but also of narrative. Her use of symbols works by what is left unsaid of their impulse. Lyric poetry is a personal voice. In modern practice it tends to the confessional. We assume that the 'I' of a poem is the 'I' of the author. We feel cheated by the use of the first person as a narrative guise. That is for fiction. And therefore poetry and fiction do not 'mix', the contrast of purpose and expectation is too great. …