Poetry by George Orwell
Finlay, Publisher For The Orwell Society
I remember reading Nineteen Eighty-Four and wondering whether things would turn out as George Orwell imagined when we reached that distant date. Having passed the 1980s by several decades, the title no longer suggests a future time. Perhaps we read the book to see if it fits our own times. Certainly the omnipresence of surveillance is something that has taken on a disturbing familiarity. Disturbing, not because we are bothered by the great eye of our own version of Big Brother, but because we are not. If the government, or any one else, wants to read your mail, or film you in your home, who cares? is the familiar refrain.
Those who have read Nineteen Eighty-Four may remember The Ministry of Truth, the plebes and the protagonist Winston's struggle to write a forbidden diary that would tell the story of an obsidian state continuously erasing or modifying its past, that its own future be preserved. As the Party proclaims: “Who controls the past controls the future: who controls the present controls the past.”
Orwell's Ministry of Truth is a big operation in a huge pyramidal building. Every time the Party makes a statement that somehow contradicts a previous one, the mistake has to be remedied. The past must be corrected. One knows that this is taking place and yet one persists in the furtherance of the deceit. Thus emerges the concept of doublethink:
“To know and not to know, to be conscious of complete truthfulness while telling carefully constructed lies, to hold simultaneously two opinions which cancelled out, knowing them to be contradictory and believing in both of them... consciously to induce unconsciousness...”
Sound familiar? Perhaps it should. Throughout Nineteen Eighty-Four you find seeds that have ripened into sinister fruits in our times. True, there was no internet and that is something. But doesn't the following ring a bell somewhere:
“The enemy of the moment always represented absolute evil...” Change the quotation to the present tense and see what happens.
And the threefold motto of the Party, might it be today's subliminal suggestion, sotto voce?
WAR IS PEACE
FREEDOM IS SLAVERY
IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH
Ah, the virtues of total comfort where no decisions have to be made because they are made for you. Why bother with the news, it is so complicated and there are so many terrible things happening? Isn't it better to simply ignore what is taking place, to let others make those difficult decisions? Sigh.
Orwell's masterpiece, and it is that, should be read again and again. It is replete with annoying suggestions of the present day, though it was published in 1949.
It turns out that Orwell also wrote poems, or let us say, verse. Are they moving? Do they have music? Do they sing? Alas, they do not. To say that Orwell was a bad poet is not helpful. Let us say that he was more a chronicler than poet.
In any case, The Orwell Society has produced all of his poems in a small green book of 63 pages. This is something new. Prior to the publication of this volume the assiduous fan had to wade through the Complete Works, many books as it turns out. Now we get all of his poems and poetic endeavors, from juvenalia and on. Dione Venables makes no attempt to sound the bells for a neglected poet. She has produced a finely balanced book of good judgment.
“Some of the blame for the neglect of Orwell's poetry, of course, falls upon the man himself” she writes, “because it has to be acknowledged that there is some indifferent material between these covers.” In his introduction, Peter Davison, a prominent Orwell scholar, reminds us that “to the very end of his life he [Orwell] was attempting to write poetry.” Quite. Attempting is the key word.
The poems are buttressed with biographical material, when such material is to be had. Sometimes a poem more or less floats there, but more often Ms. Venables is able to give a poem an embracing context.
Moments of humor do inform some of the poems. Listen to this poem from his Burmese days (shortly after leaving Eton, 1922-1927), entitled perhaps humorously, Romance:
When did I come, the woman cried,
So seldom to her beds of ease?
When I was not, her spirit died,
And would I give her ten rupees”.
The contrived rhyming of rupees and ease, contributes, perhaps unconsciously, to the humor of the poem. A bit like an Uncle reading his doggerel to the assembled guests at his birthday party or his daughter's marriage.
One cannot always share others enthusiasm for a poem. But so what? Peter Davison likes the poem Memories of the Blitz (1944), having himself experienced the Luftwaffe's bombing of British cities between 1940-1941. To him, the poem “encapsulates perfectly the weariness the war aroused as we entered the fifth year. It has also... a delightful sense of humor – the study of the female snore.” Humor is a cultural thing often enough. I have stared at an outlandish cartoon for several minutes, trying to discover what the cartoonist thought was funny.
Here are two excerpts from the the poem about the Blitz:
Not the pursuit of knowledge
Only the chances of war,
Led me to study the music
Of the male and female snore.
And Oh! the drone of the planes
And the answering boom of the gun,
And the cups of tea in the dawn
When the flames outdid the sun!
Exclamation points notwithstanding... yes guns do often boom (a bit too often) but did the flames really outdo the sun?
Reading through the poems of George Orwell, one might have the feeling that it is not so much a lack of talent one is confronted with, but more, that the poems are not sufficiently “worked”. Such labor might have brought forth a deeper poem. But as they stand the poems seem often derivative and, dare I say, superficial.
No single poem actually moved me. And the poems that were bearable were often jarred by something booming a bit too much.
Given that we are reading poems easily given, the biographical material surrounding the poems saves the book. They are interesting and well-informed. If you are a devotee of Orwell, the purchase of this small book might please you. It will save you the labor of searching through the twenty volumes of the Complete Works for an apt quotation. And it will enrich your understanding of a writer who wrote with great diversity. For there were other books, Burmese Days and Down and Out in Paris and London for example, that will provide a good read. Not only his great book, Nineteen Eighty-Four, which does however seem to tower above them all.
Copyright © Gordon Walmsley.