Causley’s Wild Faith
Causley’s Wild Faith
“If form is a cage, there had better be something wild inside.”
—A. E. Stallings
Though admired in his lifetime by more famous poets, including Ted Hughes and Philip Larkin, and though his poems had a popular following, Charles Causley has often been thought a marginal curiosity rather than a writer of significant importance. Among the very few American critics to notice Causley’s poetry and write about it at length, Dana Gioia called him “The Most Unfashionable Poet Alive,” ascribing this in part to his parochialism, his formalism and his religious faith.i While it is true that anyone encountering Causley in an anthology of ballads might be excused for finding him quaint, almost Hobbit-like in his devotion to the English past and the ballad form, a broader acquaintance with the poems uncovers an imagination able to take in wildness, the irrational element, a sharpened sense of life’s instability. These darker energies so often associated with the modern are, however, as ancient as poetry itself. Causley was working out of emotional traditions as well as a formal one. He was one of those moderns who understood that we have not really advanced upon the past, that ancient and medieval writers are in many ways our contemporaries, steeped in the same anxieties and desires that shape our present lives. The continuity of poetry is a continuity of human energies as well as literary shapes.
This is an essay into Causley’s vision and technique, particularly as it pertains to his evocations of character and narrative, but not an attempt to make him seem more modern. Rather, I would demonstrate those qualities of imagination that liberate his poetry from simplistic modes of understanding and place it squarely in the vital line of poetry itself, an art of making language freshly accurate and perceptually intense.
Gioia’s landmark essay is particularly good at identifying a kind of strangeness, or wildness, in Causley’s style:
It will hardly help to say that his style explores the illuminating contrasts between the familiar and the unexpected. That contrast, after all, is a general principle of most art (and certainly all formal poetry). It is, however, useful to note that few poets have pushed that principal to such an extreme—or at least have successfully negotiated that extreme. For him, contrast and disjunction have become not only a stylistic device but an organizing principal and thematic obsession.ii
Gioia rightly notices Causley’s affinity for the lyric poems of Blake with their perceptual and imagistic leaps within the framework of traditional measures—the quality we call visionary because it takes us out of bounds, toward spiritual apprehension as well as alertness to what we cannot fully apprehend. Blake’s embrace of the irrational—the “Tygers of wrath” versus “the horses of instruction” or his belief that “Without contraries is no progression”—seems a plausible key to the deliberate estrangements in Causley’s lyric style.
With regard to Causley’s narratives, though, the influence is older than Blake’s poetry. It is in the very nature of storytelling and the ballad tradition. Stories may appear to be stable forms, especially once they are written down, but even the most traditional story forms invite anarchy in their openness to interpretation. Detective stories, for example, appear to follow rational formulae yet nearly always deal with the irrational actions of human beings. Poe’s Inspector Dupin solves crimes through logical means, yet often betrays an illogical motive for doing so. In the case of “The Purloined Letter” that motive is revenge. The form closes satisfactorily, yet something remains unclosed, uncaught, there to disturb the placid surface of our lives.
Stories in verse, too, are lyric containments of the irrational. The extremity of Odysseus’ revenge against the suitors cannot satisfactorily be explained. It is a dark, savage emotion, yet just as surely a recognizably human one, enacted with cold calculation, bloody in effect. The suitors have families too, and when those relatives counterattack it looks as though mankind is trapped in an eternal cycle of violence. Without the intervention of Athena in the Odyssey’s final lines, the trail of killing and revenge would never end. As a Christian, Causley saw a way out of the traps humanity sets for itself, and some of his narratives, particularly those for children, appease our desire for resolution. But he was also a storyteller fascinated by the irrational in human action and human understanding. His strongest character studies and narrative poems have the power to disturb. They are wild things pacing in the cage of form.
To illustrate my point, let me examine one of Causley’s later ballads, “Lord Lovelace,” which is absolutely traditional in its form, but, like many a folk ballad one can find, uncanny in its containment of wild energies. The poem begins with a knight returning from battle:
Lord Lovelace rode home from the wars,
His wounds were black as ice,
While overhead the winter sun
Hung out its pale device.
The lance was tattered in his hand,
Sundered his axe and blade,
And in a bloody coat of war
Lord Lovelace was arrayed.
And he was sick and he was sore
But never sad was he,
And whistled bright as any bird
Upon an April tree.iii
The economy of storytelling here is typical of ballad culture, as is the mixture of tones. I think of the gruesome pleasure of an old poem like “The Twa Corbies” with its Scottish fatalism. This soldier is happy to be coming home, but bloodied, tattered. The wounds “black as ice” are positively spooky. They don’t seem to be healed so much as frozen, and even the northern landscape of the poem feels ominous—the sun a “pale device.” Every word carries weight here. If the sun is a device, an emblem, what does it represent? What is the nature of the universe in which this story moves? It is cold. It is ill-defined. Lord Lovelace’s spirit is warmed by expectation, yet there remains something icy in him and in the world he rides through. We have seen such disturbing views of chivalry before: Keats’ “La Belle Dame Sans Merci,” Tennyson’s Idylls of the King with its quest through the wasteland, and even more bizarrely in Browning’s “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came.” But Causley has a more particular twist to offer.
When Lovelace speaks, he reveals not only a desire to be home with his beloved Ellen, who “Will make my sharp wounds sweet,” but also a regal certainty that his servant, Jehan, will still be there to wait upon him and his bride. A poem that seems tamely conventional in its manner has briefly conveyed the nature of conventions—how social class and contracts like marriage give us the illusion of an orderly world, a safe place to which we might return after the eruptions of war. All of this the ballad form neatly abets: the scene setting, the terse ambiguity of images, the effortless introduction of dialogue. Ballads are lyric stories. The movement from one stanza to the next is a matter not only of verse technique but also of efficient storytelling, and the tone of this story turns, as it were, on a dime:
The total destruction of the knight’s home, conveyed in only eight lines, is followed by two quite remarkable revelations in the final three stanzas of the poem. The first of these relates the manner in which the poem’s protagonist responds:
Long in his stirrups Lovelace stood
Before his broken door,
And slowly rode he down the hill
Back to the bitter war.
Nor mercy showed he from that day,
Nor tear fell from his eye,
And rich and poor both fearful were
When Black Lovelace rode by.
It is as if the black ice of his wounds had filled his entire body. He is all wound, loveless, and as we know from too-common history, the movement from woundedness to revenge comes easily to our species.
The final stanza turns the knife of realization yet again by revealing who has told us the tale:
This tale is true that now I tell
To woman and to man,
As Fair Ellen is my wife’s name
And mine is young Jehan.v
Conventional expectation of the sort Lovelace himself entertained has been flipped on end. The servant has acquired the wife, the young have unseated the old, and the story is told by a victor who grimly understands the actions of the defeated. The ballad works by withholding explanations of human behavior, leaving us with the wrenching knowledge of our own relation to the irrational. The poem’s medieval trappings, the fact that it could very well have appeared in a collection of folk ballads from the eighteenth century, does not prevent it from speaking eerily to modern readers.
And the fact that “Lord Lovelace” is the work of a Christian poet, who in other poems such as the vivid “St. Martha and the Dragon” appears to put nightmares of violence to rest, demonstrates that Causley ought not to be so easily domesticated by his critics. I am tempted to psychoanalyze, reminding readers of Causley’s unstable childhood, how he saw his father dying horribly from the after-effects of poison gas in World War I, how his mother worked menial jobs to support them. The young poet would have desired stability, perhaps, remembering with gratitude the gifts he had received, but would nonetheless have known well how brutally disappointing life can be. While Causley never became a poet of complaint, his poetry is not devoid of sensitivity to pain. His early work in a dead-end office job, followed by six years of wartime service in the Navy, some of it on a destroyer, a ship that taught everyone who served on it lessons in sea-sickness, surely added to his profound appreciation for home. But this is speculation: the quiet domesticity of the bachelor teacher disguising a febrile imagination. He might just as well have been following Flaubert’s advice to be regular and orderly in life so the writing can be “violent and original.”
Stories in verse were attractive to Causley, it would seem, precisely because of this tension between resolution and wildness. The ballad tradition in particular arises from a society acquainted with violence, skeptical of social hierarchies and steeped in irony, able to take grim pleasure in the disasters of life (“Sir Patrick Spens” is a famous case in point). Causley used the conventions of ballad, which Matthew Hodgart (in The Faber Book of Ballads, 1965) identified as storytelling in “sharp flashes,” an economy of narrative, scene and dialogue leaving gaps for the reader or auditor’s imagination to fill, in order to convey much more than a settled sensibility. I think of an early anti-war poem like “Recruiting Drive” with its irony out of Hardy and Owen:
My mother weeps as I leave her
But I tell her it won’t be long,
The murderers wail in Wandsworth Gaol
But I shoot a more popular song.
Down in the enemy country
Under the enemy tree
There lies a lad whose heart has gone bad
Waiting for me, for me.
He says I have no culture
And that when I’ve stormed the pass
I shall fall on the farm with a smoking arm
And ravish his bonny lass.
Under the willow the willow
Death spreads her dripping wings
And caught in the snare of the bleeding air
The butcher-bird sings, sings, sings.vi
The trappings of the poem are as modern as Wandsworth Gaol, built in 1851 on what was at the time a modern plan, and as old as any folksong; the experience conveyed is universal and not limited to our time alone.
It has always seemed to me that stories are forms in themselves, and that adding the lyricism of verse to the shape of the story creates a particularly dynamic mode of expression, an experience not entirely available in prose. Causley seems to have felt this in his bones. While he wrote some wonderful personal lyrics such as “Eden Rock,” he also understood the otherness of stories, the way they explore subjects beyond the personal, seeming to speak from a deeper well of humanity. Even a pastiche of folk narrative like his “Cowboy Song” can feel delightfully original, a renewal of genre:
The bread of my twentieth birthday
I buttered with the sun,
Though I sharpen my eyes with lovers’ lies
I’ll never see twenty-one.
Light is my shirt with lilies,
And lined with lead my hood,
On my face as I pass is a plate of brass
And my suit is made of wood.vii
As Gioia has noted, Causley was influenced by Auden as much as Blake and traditional ballads. Song measures were for Auden vehicles of originality (just as they were for a great writer like Robert Burns). Choosing to write a folksong, Auden came up with “As I Walked Out One Evening,” one of the most delightful, subversive and haunting lyrics in the language. His ballads, “Miss Gee,” “Victor” and “James Honeyman,” were archly psychological and inventive tales. And his libretto for Benjamin Britten’s Paul Bunyan (1941) contains lyrics that take pleasure in conventional verse forms. A wedding song from the operetta begins,
Carry her over the water,
Set her down under the tree,
Where the culvers white all day and all night,
And the winds from every quarter,
Sing agreeably, agreeably, agreeably of love.viii
I wonder if Causley could have had this in mind when he wrote a more ironic song, his “Ballad of the Faithless Wife”:
Carry her down to the river
Carry her down to the sea
Let the bully-boys stare at her braided hair
But never a glance from me.
The images that follow this opening build on precise juxtapositions of noun and modifier that seem characteristic of both Auden and Causley:
Down by the writhing water
Down by the innocent sand
They laid my bride by the toiling tide
A stone in her rifled hand.
Under the dainty eagle
Under the ravening dove
Under the high and healthy sky
I waited for my love.ix
How might that dead hand be “rifled”? Is it cut with grooves? Is it plundered or stolen? In what world are the eagle “dainty” and the dove” ravening”? It is a world of contraries, Blakean in the way it pushes us toward insight and Audenesque in its psychological acuity.
So far we have seen Causley’s wildness both in the shapes of his stories and the pressure of his diction contained within traditional forms. But he was as much a portraitist as a storyteller. He was interested in character, in other peoples’ lives, and his oeuvre is variously populated. In this sense he resembles Hardy, Housman and Robinson, all poets for whom lyric and narrative verse were related. “Timothy Winters,” for example, is a schoolteacher’s affectionate, unsentimental portrait of an impoverished student:
Timothy Winters comes to school
With eyes as wide as a football pool,
Ears like bombs and teeth like splinters:
A blitz of a boy is Timothy Winters.
His belly is white, his neck is dark,
And his hair is an exclamation mark.
His clothes are enough to scare a crow
And through his britches the blue winds blow.x
This near disaster of a boy, who seems untouched by the Welfare State, is nevertheless alive, growing up, and grateful to be in school. Causley relishes his particularity, and in an odd way the poem is subversive, putting actual existence above expected social pieties. We are supposed to pity such children, but he doesn’t need our pity.
My point about wildness in Causley has tended so far to dwell on violence, but this poetry is also full of a drive to life, recognizing the importance of individuals. One can see this not only in portraits like “Timothy Winters,” but also in a comic masterpiece like “I Saw a Jolly Hunter” with its indictment of human idiocy:
I saw a jolly hunter
With a jolly gun
Walking in the country
In the jolly sun.
In the jolly meadow
Sat a jolly hare.
Saw the jolly hunter.
Took jolly care.
Hunter jolly eager—
Sight of jolly prey.
Forgot gun pointing
Wrong jolly way.
Jolly hunter jolly head
Over heels gone.
Jolly old safety catch
Not jolly on.
Bang went the jolly gun.
Hunter jolly dead.
Jolly hare got clean away.
Jolly good, I said.xi
I wouldn’t want to spoil the fun with a moral, but even this delightful poem seems true to a vision. Clearly Causley’s sympathies were not with the powerful, but with the blessed meek, the peacemakers, the merciful, the pure in heart. This does not mean he had a rosy view of life, just that he valued life and responded with sensitivity to others, as in his remarkable poem “Healing a Lunatic Boy.” Here Causley resembles Blake in his sympathy for the mad, his suspicion of what the world calls sanity.
Now river is river
And tree is tree,
My house stands still
As the northern sea.
On my hundred of parables
I heard him pray,
Seize my smashed world,
Wrap it away.xii
The poem finds a degree of grief in the taming of imagination, traditionally associated with lunacy of one sort or another.
If there is joyful anarchy in “I Saw a Jolly Hunter” and anger in “Healing a Lunatic Boy,” there is something close to honor in one of his more uncharacteristic ballads, “Death of an Aircraft.” This is a simple retelling of a war story from an unusual source, The Cretan Runner (1955), by George Psychoundakis. The author, who has recently died, was an untutored peasant at the time of the German occupation of Crete, a “runner” for the resistance. When the great British writer, Patrick Leigh Fermor, returned to Crete after the war, he discovered that Psychoundakis had not only taught himself to write, but had composed a memoir of their exploits on that embattled island. Fermor translated the book into English, and Causley made use of one chapter about three boys who managed to set fire to a downed German plane. In punishment, one of the boys was sentenced to hard labor, the other two to execution by firing squad. What seems to have lured Causley to the subject is the matter of choice these two boys made at the appointed time. One of them tricked the Germans and ran away, dodging their bullets and living to tell the tale. The other, knowing there would be terrible reprisals for any act of daring on his part, chose to stand his ground and was shot to ribbons by German machine guns. Which boy, Causley seems to ask, was the more heroic? The one who died hoping to spare his kin from German revenge? Or the one who lived “And, armed like an archangel, returned” to fight another day? The point is that both faced impossible odds and a palpable evil, and both gestures had a measure of heroism. As a veteran, Causley could acknowledge the heroic without being in the least bit jingoistic or sentimental.
Causley should be numbered among the best poets of World Wars I and II (arguably two stages of the same war) not because he witnessed or wrote about combat, but because he understood the results of war visible in civilian life. One of his best character poems, to my mind, is “Silent Jack,” about a relative reduced to hard-bitten, minimal strategies for post-war survival:
My Uncle Johnnie, known as Silent Jack,
Suffered, despite his name, no special lack
Of words; just kept them growling in his skull,
Jerking their tails, or lying half-awake
Till, without warning, like some staring back-
Yard greyhound one would scud out for the kill
—Frayed flesh, torn fur—or else to chase a joke
Around the bar until it burst, and bled
Under Jack’s marble eye. Then dropped down dead.xiii
Jack seems tortured by his memories, distrustful of language, having learned much in his “Retreat from Mons.” Yet in old age he showed some sympathy for a boy, perhaps Causley himself, who mistook geese for ducks.
Jack let that pass;
A healing smile. ‘It’s each man to his trade.’
Six and a half worn words from Silent Jack:
Where all around his drystone speeches stand
Printed across the strong page of the land.xiv
Jack was an agricultural man, not a killer, and the mark he left was in his drystone walls, a mark on the land itself—a maker’s mark. His humanity had survived the war, despite his sometimes frightening behavior.
Charles Causley was not a poet of innocence but a poet of faith, and not religious faith only, but faith that something human glimmered against the dark of annihilation. That “something” lives in stories that take us through both comic and devastating experience, not really to resolution but to insight. His poetry was traditional in one sense, but often subversive of expectation, quietly revolutionary without ever calling more attention to the poet than to the subjects of his poems.
Telling stories in verse, one might say, is an act of wild faith, open to all the mixed emotions stories can engender, open as well to the surprising leaps of language and perception available to us in poetry. In some poems Causley seems as much of his time as Larkin, who was his junior by only five years. In other poems he seems to speak out of the source of poetry and story itself, unconcerned about the critics, sure those who need his poems will do the sorting out.
i Dana Gioia, “The Most Unfashionable Poet Alive”, in Barrier of a Common Language (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2003), pp. 37-58.