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Mr. J. C. Squire

( Originally Published 1919 )

IT would not have been easy a few years ago to foresee the achievement of Mr. Squire as a poet. He laboured under the disadvantage of being also a wit. It used to be said of Ibsen that a Pegasus had once been shot under him, and one was alarmed lest the reverse of this was about to happen to Mr. Squire, and lest a writer who began in the gaiety of the comic spirit should end soberly astride Pegasus. When, in Tricks of the Trade, he announced that he was going to write no more parodies, one had a depressed feeling that he was about to give up to poetry what was meant for man-kind. Yet, on reading Mr. Squire's collected poems in Poems: First Series, it is difficult not to admit that it was to write serious verse even more than parody and political epigram that he was born.

He has arranged the poems in the book in the order of their composition, so that we can follow the develop-ment of his powers and see him, as it were, learning to fly. To read him is again and again to be reminded of Donne. Like Donne, he is largely self-occupied, examining the horrors of his own soul, overburdened at times with thought, an intellect at odds with the spirit. Like Donne, he will have none of the merely poetic, either in music or in imagery. He beats out a music of his own and he beats out an imagery of his own. In his early work, this sometimes resulted in his poems being unable to rise far from the ground. They seemed to be labouring on unaccustomed wings towards the ether. What other living poet has ever given a poem such a title as Antinomies on a Railway Station? What other has examined himself with the same X-rays sort of realism as Mr. Squire has done in The Mind of Man? The latter, like many of Mr. Squire's poems, is an expression of fastidious disgust with life. The early Mr. Squire was a master of disgust, and we see the same mood dominant even in the Ode: In a Restaurant, where the poet suddenly breaks out:

Soul ! This life is very strange,
And circumstances very foul
Attend the belly's stormy howl.

The ode, however, is not merely, or even primarily, an expression of disgust. Here, too, we see Mr. Squire's passion for romance and energy. Here, too, we see him as a fisherman of strange imagery, as when he describes the sounds of the restaurant band as they float in upon him from another room and die again:---

Like keen-drawn threads of ink dropped into a glass
Of water, which curl and relax and soften and pass.

The Ode: In a Restaurant is perhaps the summit of Mr. Squire's writing as a poet at odds with himself, a poet who floats above the obscene and dull realities of every day, " like a draggled seagull over dreary flats of mud." He has already escaped into bluer levels in the poem, On a Friend Recently Dead, written in the same or the following year. Here he ceases to be a poet floating and bumping against a ceiling. He is now ranging the heaven of the emancipated poets. Even when he writes of the common and prosaic things he now charges them with significance for the emotions. He is no longer a satirist and philosopher, but a lover. How well he conjures up the picture of the room in which his friend used to sit and talk

Capricious friend !
Here in this room, not long before the end,
Here in this very room six months ago
You poised your foot and joked and chuckleded so
Beyond the window shook the ash-tree bough,
You saw books, pictures, as I see them now,
The sofa then was blue, the telephone
Listened upon the desk and softly shone
Even as now the fire-irons in the grate,
And the little brass pendulum swung, a seal of fate
Stamping the minutes ; and the curtains on window and door
Just moved in the air ; and on the dark boards of the floor
These same discreetly-coloured rugs were lying . . .
And then you never had a thought of dying.

How much richer, too, by this time Mr. Squire's imagery has become 1 His observation is both exact and imaginative when he notes how--

the frail ash-tree hisses
With a soft sharpness like a fall of mounded grain.

Elsewhere in the same poem Mr. Squire has given us a fine new image of the brevity of man's life:--- And I, I see myself as one of a heap of stones,
Wetted a moment to life as the flying wave goes over.

It was not, however, till The Lily of Malud appeared that readers of poetry in general realized that Mr. Squire was a poet of the imagination even more than of the intellect. This is a flower that has blossomed out of the vast swamps of the anthropologists. It is the song of the ritual of initiation. Mr. Squire's power in the sphere both of the grotesque and of lovely imagery is revealed in the triumphant close of this poem : --

And the surly thick-lipped men, as they sit about their huts
Making drums out of guts, grunting gruffly now and then,
Carving sticks of ivory, stretching shields of wrinkled skin,
Smoothing sinister and thin squatting gods of ebony,
Chip and grunt and do not see.

But each mother, silently,
Longer than her wont stays shut in the dimness of her hut,
For she feels a brooding cloud of memory in the air,
A lingering thing there that makes her sit bowed
With hollow shining eyes, as the night-fire dies,
And stare softly at the ember, and try to remember
Something sorrowful and far, something sweet and vaguely seen
Like an early evening star when the sky is pale green :
A quiet silver tower that climbed in an hour,
Or a ghost like a flower; or a flower like a queen :
Something holy in the past that came and did not last,
But she knows not what it was.

It is easy to see in the last lines that Mr. Squire has escaped finally from the idealist's disgust to the idealist's exaltation. He has learned to express the beautiful mystery of life and he is no longer haunted in his nerves by the ugliness of circumstances. Not that he has shut himself up in an enchanted world : he still remains a poet of this agonizing earth. In The Stronghold he summons up. a vision of " easeful death," only to turn aside from it as Christian turned aside from the temptations on his way;---

But, O, if you find that castle,
Draw back your foot from the gateway,
Let not its peace invite you,
Let not its offerings tempt you,
For faded and decayed like a garment,
Love to a dust will have fallen,
And song and laughter will have gone with sorrow,
And hope will have gone with pain ;
And of all the throbbing heart's high courage
Nothing will remain.

And these later poems are not only nobler in passion than the early introspective work they are also more moving. Few of the " in memoriam " poems of the war touch the heart as does that poem, To a Bulldog, with its moving close : ---

And though you run expectant as you always do
To the uniforms we meet,
You will never find Willy among all the soldiers
Even in the longest street.

Nor in any crowd : yet, strange and bitter thought,
Even now were the old words said,
If I tried the old trick, and said " Where's Willy ?
You would quiver and lift your head.

And your brown eyes would look to ask if I was serious,
And wait for the word to spring.
Sleep undisturbed : I shan't say that again,
You innocent old thing.

I must sit, not speaking, on the sofa,
While you lie there asleep on the floor ;
For he's suffered a thing that dogs couldn't dream of,
And he won't be coming here any more.

Of the new poems in the book, one of the most beautiful is August Moon. The last verses provide an excellent example of Mr. Squire's gift both as a painter of things and a creator of atmosphere; --

A golden half-moon in the sky, and broken gold in the water.

In the water, tranquilly severing, joining, gold :
Three or four little plates of gold on the river :
A little motion of gold between the dark images
Of two tall posts that stand in the grey water.
A woman's laugh and children going home.
A whispering couple, leaning over the railings,
And somewhere, a little splash as a dog goes in.

I have always known all this, it has always been,
There is no change anywhere, nothing will ever change.

I heard a story, a crazy and tiresome myth.

Listen ! Behind the twilight a deep, low sound
Like the constant shutting of very distant doors,

Doors that are letting people over there
Out to some other place beyond the end of the sky.

The contrast between the beauty of the stillness of the moonlit world and the insane intrusion of the war into it has not, I think, been suggested so expressively in any other poem.

Now that these poems have been collected into a single volume it is possible to measure the author's stature. His book will, I believe, come as a revelation to the majority of readers. A poet of original music, of an original mind, of an original imagination, Mr.: Squire has now taken a secure place among the men of genius of to-day. Poems: First Series, is literary, treasure so novel and so abundant that I can no longer regret, as I once did, that Mr. Squire has said fare-well to the brilliant lighter-hearted moods of Steps to Parnassus and Tricks of the Trade. He has brought us gifts better even than those.

Old And New Masters:
Mr. Cunninghame Graham

Swinburne

The Work Of T. M. Kettle

Mr. J. C. Squire

Mr. Joseph Conrad

Mr. Rudyard Kipling

Mr. Thomas Hardy

Read More Articles About: Old And New Masters

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