The Near Is Crossed with Distance: A Note on the Verse of E. J. Scovell

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The Near Is Crossed with Distance: A Note on the Verse of E. J. Scovell



I suspect that to many readers of this essay neither the name nor the verse of E. J. Scovell will be at all familiar.  Edith Joy Scovell was born in 1907, the daughter of a clergyman, in the English city of Sheffield.  She was educated first by governesses and then at Casterton School in Kirby Lonsdale in what was, at the time, the county of Westmorland.  (The Brontë sisters had been pupils there in the 1820s.)  In 1926 she went up to Somerville College, Oxford, and, after graduating in 1930, worked for several years as a secretary in London.  In 1937 she married the distinguished Oxford ecologist Charles Elton, with whom she later made several trips overseas.  They lived for most of their life in Oxford.  Elton died in 1991.  She died in 1999.

Joy Scovell’s interest in poetry began in childhood.  As an undergraduate she published in various university journals and anthologies.  She continued to write throughout the 1930s and 1940s, but her first collection, Shadows of Chrysanthemums, did not appear till 1944.  This was followed in 1946 by The Midsummer Meadow.  In 1956 came The River Steamer.  Then followed a long silence, broken in 1982 by The Space Between. A pamphlet, Listening to Collared Doves, appeared in 1986.  In 1988 Michael Schmidt’s invaluable Carcanet Press (Manchester, UK) published her Collected Poems.  Despite its title, this is in fact an extensive selection from her previous five volumes, together with a generous gathering of late, uncollected poems and her translations of poems by Giovanni Pascoli (first published the same year in Schmidt’s magazine, PN Review).  Selected Poems, also from Carcanet, came out in 1991; it contained a further seven previously uncollected poems.

It is a remarkable feature of her writing life that she continued to produce fine poems well into her eighth decade.  Indeed, many of her strongest poems are from this late period.  During the 1980s her work began to command more concerted attention.  The poet John Mole, who with fellow-poet Peter Scupham had published Listening to Collared Doves, was responsible for a BBC Radio 3 feature.  In 1989 she received a Cholmondley Award from the Society of Authors.  Her Selected Poems was a Poetry Book Society Recommendation. 

Nonetheless, it is the case that for most of her life, her work suffered from a degree of critical neglect.  This lack of attention no doubt reflected the male-dominated literary culture of her generation.  (She was an exact contemporary of Auden and MacNeice.)  Moreover, her characteristic manner and matter – meditative and small-scale – have perhaps not endeared her to the arbiters of taste.  Social or historical topics figure only obliquely in her verse, if at all.  For instance, though World War II provides the context for a few poems from the 1940s, it is not an important focus.  Nor does she write about extreme psychological states or personal breakdown.  Rather, her poems are grounded in her life as a married woman, a mother and a grandmother, a life passed entirely within an educated upper-middle-class English milieu.

Scovell addressed some of these issues herself in an interview conducted a few years before her death.  Asked about her experience as a woman poet nearing the end of her career she remarked: "...there does seem to be some pressure on poets nowadays to be explicitly feminist as there is to be political in other ways. There was a similar pressure in the Thirties for poetry to show political consciousness – perhaps another thing that made publication difficult then.”

Her literary affinities are unclear.  Occasionally one catches, in her subjects and the run of her verse, flattened echoes of Edward Thomas, or, as here, of Emily Dickinson: “In this green room the flowers stand | As though upon their earth. | Their look is like intelligence, | The light-receiving moon” (from “The Hospital Room”).  Occasionally  the Metaphysicals can be heard, too, particularly in the earlier poems.  More unexpected perhaps – though perhaps more significant as well – are odd echoes of Gerard Manley Hopkins – for instance, in the heaping up of adjectives, such as here: “the bold | against the sky night-faring scaffolders” (from “Workers in Metal”).  (Since I shall have more to say about Hopkins, it is perhaps worth tracing the appearance of his work in relation to Scovell’s emergence into literary adulthood.  His poems were first published in book form in 1918, twenty-nine years after his death, in a volume edited by Robert Bridges.  In 1930, the year the twenty-three-year-old Scovell graduated, Oxford University Press put out an enlarged collection, edited by Charles Williams.  Hopkins was the earliest poet included in Michael Roberts’s influential 1936 anthology, The Faber Book of Modern Verse.)

In 1949, introducing her work in his anthology Poetry of the Present, Geoffrey Grigson had described her as “the purest of women poets of our time”, an accolade Carcanet still employs as a blurb on the cover of her Collected Poems.  It is in many regards an unfortunate and self-undermining accolade, one which assigns Scovell to her appropriate small province in the kingdom of poetry, among the other “women poets of our time” (a doubly reductive phrase) and which, in “purest”, implies an airy refinement of sensibility standing at a chaste distance from the urgencies of lived reality.  While it is true that a large number of her poems are occasioned by quiet, day-to-day events or by observation of the natural world (as her titles often declare: “Leaves of Elm”, “The Vine at Hampton Court”, “Power Cut”, “The Geese on the Park Water”, “A Picnic Place”, “Three Poems in Memory of a Child”, for example), to read them simply in terms of their occasions is to misread them.  It is to misunderstand their nature as poems.  In particular, it is to overlook the peculiarly inwrought and self-correcting texture of her best work.  In what follows, therefore, I want to consider her handling of four frequently occurring rhetorical devices and to offer some brief remarks about her verse-technique.


One of Scovell’s favourite figures is chiasmus, though in her handling it often swerves inventively away from simple symmetry.  The title poem of her first collection, “Shadows of Chrysanthemums”, begins “Where the flowers lean to their shadows on the wall | The shadow flowers outshine them all”, from which the next two lines spring off in a related but wider curve: “Answering their wild lightness with a deeper tone | And clearer pattern than their own”, where the “deeper tone” and “clearer pattern” of the shadow-chrysanthemums are the inner pair of a kind of ghost-chiasmus, the outer pair being the “wild lightness” of the actual flowers and, in “their own”, their implied tone and particular shape.  Moreover, a complex pun plays backwards and forwards across the figure, “lightness”, on the one hand, indicating not just the grace and delicacy of the chrysanthemums but also a certain inconsequentiality, a sense to which “wild” contributes (though these are not wild flowers but the sophisticated products of the gardener’s art) and, on the other hand, “deeper” which indicates not just the absence of illumination but also seriousness and moral import.  The inverted but imprecise response that characterizes chiasmus fittingly embodies the poem’s exploration of the mutuality of light and dark.  The third and final stanza echoes verbal details from the first as if rounding out at a distance the poem’s opening figure:

    The dying wild chrysanthemums, the white,
    Yellow and pink are levelled in light;
    But here in their shadows, tones remain, where deep
    Is set on deep, and pallors keep
    Their far-off stations, and the florets more
    Subtly crisp their bright profiles, or are lost in the flower.

This stanza illustrates a second habit of Scovell’s style, her predilection for drawing distinctions or correcting or modifying earlier statements. Indeed, “yet”, “but” and “or” are three of her trademark words.  One of the finest of her later poems, “The Cross-Country Journey”, provides several complex instances of this.  Scovell presents herself as an observer travelling through the landscape of her life, conscious of and discriminating among shifting degrees of distance in space (and in time).  Here is the first of its three stanzas:

    Seen by the passenger, the further the range
    The slowlier it will change (yet it will change)
    But what is near beyond the window-ledges,
    Half seen, is gone: the cattle by the hedges,
    The section of canal, the beaten lanes,
    The children in their faithful love of trains
    Waving from fences, hanging over bridges.

The patterning of the first clause (“further...slowlier | what is near...gone”) and the parenthetical assertion, both sharpened by rhyme and internal rhyme, are mirrored, but with a pleasing inexactness, in the second, where “half-seen” distinguishes itself from the introductory “Seen”, and the rhythmic snappiness of the closing four words contrasts with the slower, delaying syntax of the first two lines.  Ironically, the list of things “half seen” and now “gone” has both a glimpsed immediacy that defies their fleeting nature and the fixed and generic feel of things recalled from a now distant past.  In particular, with the detail of the children “in their faithful love of trains” the point of view momentarily shifts, as if among their number “Waving from fences, hanging over bridges” is the young Joy Scovell.  Exploring such shifts of viewpoint or gaze is one of Scovell’s favourite imaginative procedures.

The second stanza draws out the key metaphor:

    So we in our slow lives – for they seem slow,
    Though what can we compare with all we know? –
    Journeying cross-country watch the loved and near
    Run by, till dazzled we rest eyes on the far,
    On the abstract hills, on the unresponding
    Beauty of earth, or the sun let down to a landing,
    Or entering rooms where the drifts of memory are.

The structure here plays expressive variations on the structure of the first stanza.  Where in that stanza the gaze fell first of all on the distant hills and only then took in what was “near beyond the window ledges”, here it falls first on what is close at hand –  “the loved and near” – and afterwards turns away to what lies further off, either in the landscape or in memory.  This inverted symmetry – in effect an extended instance of chiasmus – is underpinned by the allocation of verse lines: three lines and a part-line referring to the journey (a unit in each case interrupted by a parenthesis), followed by a part-line and a further three lines concluding the stanza.

The pathos of this is complex.  “Run by” implies that we are stationary and that what is “loved and near” is slipping away from us, whereas the central metaphor of the poem indicates that it is we, as aging observers, who are in motion.  While “dazzled” conveys our inability to see what is close at hand, it conveys as well our sense that its blinding elusiveness is a mark of how precious it is.  So when we turn away and settle our eyes “on the far, | On the abstract hills, on the unresponding | Beauty of earth”, relief is touched by loss.  Scovell’s syntax and lineation compound things further.  Is “far” a noun, or an adjective qualifying “hills”?  This uncertainty, taken with the particular connotations of “abstract” (withdrawn, existing only in the mind, the opposite of concrete) and of “unresponding” (making no answer, not returning our gaze), seems about to move the poem towards an unsettling transcendence, but the last line and half of the stanza turn aside to more specific, though still enigmatic, memories. 

The poem ends thus:

    The foreground flashes on – there by the willows
    They are bathing now, as we were in the shallows
    Of middle age lately or long ago –
    While still the hills maintain the journey slow,
    Accompanying us as after dark the moon might,
    As now the sun. . . yet the slant itself of the sunlight
    Assents to change, with all the world we know.

This stanza subtly revises the structures evident in the previous two stanzas.  We begin with what is near (“The foreground flashes on”), a present scene immediately filled out in the parenthesis  (“there by the willows | They are bathing now”).  This is at once qualified by an image that beautifully fuses the poem’s two operative dimensions, space and time: “as we were in the shallows | Of middle age”.  At the same time, the turn of the line from “shallows” to “Of middle age” pushes the fondly remembered scene uncomfortably into the past.  In its turn, this image is subjected, in “lately or long ago”, to yet another qualification, one that thrusts it even further back.  At this point the parenthesis ends, and we return to the main sentence, the gaze now moving out into the distance once more, but the conjunction (“while”) which heads the new clause insists on the simultaneity of the distant past and the actual present.  This line, the central line of the seven-line stanza, has a fitting evenness and gravity of movement (an effect enhanced by the archaic inversion at its close) and a syntactical wholeness that distinguish it from the broken movement of the surrounding lines.  And so the poem runs out, the hills presented as elemental and enduring, like the moon and sun with which they are now linked.  In a final set of qualifications, the slant of the sun, in the previous stanza associated with remembered things, marks the passage of time on this particular day (as indeed on every day) and, with yet another finely managed line-break, becomes a projection of the poet’s acceptance of change, a change which, in the poem’s closing phrase, encompasses “all the world we know”.

“The Cross-Country Journey” provides a good illustration of my third rhetorical feature, Scovell’s often elaborate syntax, a syntax compounded of delays and turnings-aside.  A further instance is “Bright Margins”, another late poem:

    I thought of decoration, such as once was done
    To frame a manuscript – how the finished work is one,
    Cornflowers and gold are one with the marmoreal
    Script, with the firm and sounding Latin words as well
    And the meaning of the words – no meaning but a bell

    Whose overtones dissolve its note that would be clear;
    And thought again – in the wide borders of the year
    Walking by blue and golden flowers and like the moon
    Self-shadowed white, short-lived in garden beds
    That are bright margins too – how they seem the silk of thread,
    Not woven in the cloth, embroideries, not the words
    Nor the meaning of the words; and still the work is one.

The intricacy of this, its interlacing of phrase and image, its patterns of multiple parenthesis, extension and qualification, enact the topic it addresses.  I say it enacts its own topic, but Scovell is careful not to pin the poem to its apparent occasion.   From the start, there is a calculated vagueness – for what are the bright margins of the title? – and the poem addresses first of all the entirely general idea of decoration, which is then illustrated by the reciprocity in mediaeval manuscripts between hand-written text and hand-painted illumination.  But such manuscripts are no more than one instance of what is intended.  The reader, so it is implied, is at liberty to propose others, as the title’s openness of reference allows; and indeed the closing two lines of the first section extend the argument to include not just the physical marks inscribed on the vellum but “the firm and sounding Latin words”, and, in a shift away from the physical, “the meaning of the words”, too.  In a characteristic move, Scovell at once qualifies and corrects herself.  The meaning of words is “no meaning but a bell”, but the startling confidence of this assertion – meaning, Scovell says, rings out with absolute clarity from the word – is undermined by the coincidence of line-break and section-break and then redefined in what follows: for the overtones (of bell, of word) make absolute purity (of sound, of meaning) impossible, though not the less yearned for (“that would be clear”).

At this point the syntax regenerates (“And thought again”), and we learn at last the poem’s ostensible occasion, a stroll among flower beds in a garden, though even as Scovell reveals this, she compounds the image with further metaphysical possibilities.  For what exactly are “the wide borders of the year”?  (The overlaying of space and time is again typical.)  And surely, given the poem’s indeterminate range of reference, the ephemeral flowers, “short-lived in garden beds”, have a wider resonance. But now the poem expands into further analogies.  The flowers are like silk embroidery, threads stitched on to a ground.  They are not images in a tapestry, however, for their patterns are “Not woven in the cloth”; and this “Not” generates two further distinctions that revise what was said in the first stanza: “not the words | Nor the meaning of the words”.  The poem reaches out towards the ineffable,  and yet “still the work is one”.

“Bright Margins” is an exploration of one of Scovell’s favourite motifs, concerned with borders, with boundaries, with liminal states.  A particularly strong and poignant late poem (it appears in the section of “New Poems” in her 1991 Selected Poems and so was almost certainly written when she was in her late eighties) supplies a fine illustration of this motif, and of several of the features of her style discussed so far.  It is called “Old People”:

    They dwell in sorrow.  If a time may come
    When they recall as happiness this time
    Yet now they know that Sorrow is its name,

    Their country of domicile; and that it is,
    Like other countries, not without its flowers
    (Although as insect-small as arabis,
    Minutest crucifer in stones and grass) –

    As when in nights strange and unsolved with sleep
    And waking, she goes down to bring him up
    Chocolate in a cup or sweetened tea,
    Emblem of better comfort than can be;
    And thinks of midnight feasts that children scheme:
    Closeness, adventure, waking dream.

The domestic action related here occupies, simultaneously, several in-between spaces: the limbo of extreme old age, the small hours of the night, a wakefulness in the midst of sleep, a now long-distant childhood briefly recalled in the present.  The controlled fluency of the poem’s second sentence, running from first line to last, is striking, as are the bleak implications of the double distinction between a possible time to come and “this time” and between what old people “know” in the present and what they may afterwards “recall”.  In a characteristic turn, the litotes of “not without its flowers” is qualified and diminished in the parenthesis (where the technical botanical term, “crucifer”, has, as well, the relevant sense of one who bears a cross).  In the last six lines the manner becomes more direct and the tone more intimate, the pronouns changing from the generalized third person plural to the third person singular, and we are given the brief action which embodies what the poem has so far presented in conceptual terms.  This way of organizing the material is significant, for it is possible to imagine the poem being structured in the reverse order, starting with the moment of action and drawing from it the conceptual account – in Christopher Middleton’s biting phrase, “hanging an edict from an anecdote” (“Reflections on  Viking Prow” in Selected Writings: A Reader, Manchester: Carcanet, 1989).  This trajectory would have run the risk of making self-pity and perhaps a certain preachiness the dominant notes.  As it is, the poem is grounded in the immediacy of its concluding six lines where the resolutely realistic cup can still serve, with a stern but loving honesty, as “Emblem of better comfort than can be”.

Finally I want to glance at Scovell’s use of questions – both direct and indirect, and of various kinds – as a technique by which she generates and structures her verse.  One of her most frequently anthologized (though not perhaps entirely successful) early poems is “The Swan’s Feet”. 

    Who is this whose feet
    Close on the water,
    Like muscled leaves darker than ivy
    Blown back and curved by unwearying wind?

In a simple sense, the answer to this opening question is obvious, indeed is given by the title, but the elaborating simile turns the swan’s feet, for a moment, into passive subjects, moved only by the wind (by the water).  Though the next two lines – “They, that thrust back the water, | Softly crumple now and close, stream in his wake” – mitigate this effect, they do not entirely expunge it. 

The second section, as if answering the implied question “Can these strange things really belong to the swan?”,  continues thus: “These dank weeds are also | Part and plumage of the magnolia-flowering swan,  | He puts forth these too.”  The next two lines, however, reaffirm the image of the feet as “Leaves of ridged and bitter ivy” and describe them as “Sooted in towns, coal-bright with rain”, associations which (perhaps a little perfunctorily) increase our sense of their ugliness.  (It is typical of Scovell’s way of viewing the world that the divide between the emblematic beauty of the swan and its conventionally ugly feet is marked by the boundary between air and water.)

In its final section, the poem turns outwards to the reader (though the phrasing implies self-address as well):

    He is not moved by winds in the air
    Like the vain boats on the lake.
    Lest you think him too a flower of parchment,
    Scentless magnolia,
    See his living feet under the water fanning.

Here “living” is intended to convey the idea that the feet are as much an extension of the bird’s being as the more readily visible parts of his body; and “fanning” is no doubt to be thought of not just as reversing the action indicated earlier by “crumple” but as suggesting conscious control.  This is clearly the implication of the last two lines: “In the leaves' self blows the efficient wind | That opens and bends closed those leaves.”  Scovell’s interest is divided between asserting what she calls in a much later poem  “The creature’s will (unwilled) to be and thrive on earth” ( from “The Fish in the Evenlode”: the Evenlode is a tributary of the Thames in Oxfordshire) and challenging traditional ideas about what is deemed beautiful.  The swan exists both as the focus of cultural stereotypes and as an actual bird on a park lake.  It is in this way that the poem answers its opening question: “Who is this...?”

A striking instance of Scovell’s use of questions in building a poem is “African Violets”, from her 1982 collection.  Five of its seven sentences are questions, one of which begins the poem: “What is it that draws eyes so in these flowers’ | Intensity of colour?”  This question is at once answered by another, which is of course no answer, merely an elaboration of the problem:

    Is it the blackness
    Implicit there? As violet sleeps in the darkness
    Of darkest human skin, so black in these.

Already in this first stanza the outward sweep that marks so many of Scovell’s poems has begun.  There is an inverted double symmetry here: deep down, the flowers’ violet hue is black just as, deep down, the black skin-colour of certain races is violet.  It is in fact a disguised chiasmus.  Scovell doubles the doubling, too: “blackness” ... “there” (i.e in the violet blooms) |”violet” ... “darkness” || “black” ... “these” (i.e. the violet blooms).

    The outward sweep continues in the second stanza, which takes up the topic of skin-colour:

    Who mixed this pigment surely had in mind
    Crowns for dark vivid children playing on mountains
    Or wooded shores where Afric’s sunny fountains
    (Once we sang rapt) roll down their golden sand.

The quotation from Heber’s well-known hymn, “From Greenland's Icy Mountains”, has complex effects.  Scovell qualifies the beautiful image of “Crowns for dark vivid children” with the nostalgic recollection of singing the hymn in her own childhood, which distances and “places” the racial stereotype of the hymn.  Yet the beauty and the tenderness of the image remain.

In the third stanza, the questioning mode returns, and the poem widens further still:

    But what is it draws eyes as if to doors
    Swung wide on night?  What is it that releases
    Imagination so to calms and spaces
    Through such small doors as the dark that sleeps in the flowers?

The repetition of the opening words of the first line (“But what is it draws eyes”) looks at first as if that question, having not yet been satisfactorily answered, is to be put again, but this is not so.  The second part of the sentence moves the poem into an altogether larger and more mysterious circuit.  Nonetheless, just as in the first stanza, this question, too, is answered by a question, a question in which small things (the plant’s small petals and the darkness sleeping peaceably within them, the small doors to which they are likened)  inexplicably connect with large things (night, the “calms and spaces” into which the imagination is released).  And rather as in “Bright Margins”, Scovell allows the poem’s range of reference to expand towards a kind of transcendence.  In this, it is not just the obvious content-words that do the work: “as if” and “such” play their part, too.

In the final stanza, the question changes from ”what?” and “who?” to “why?”:

    And why should it speak of anything but itself,
    This little plant merely present, signally present
    As beauty is, under the fluorescent
    Light or in daylight on a basement shelf?

This new question, however, does not deny the possibility that the violets do speak of something beyond themselves, even if it is not possible to say what that is.  The African violet may be only a “little plant merely present” but, as the characteristic correction “signally present” tells us, its presence is indeed significant: the plant is a sign.  With the turn of the sentence at the line-end, the poem pushes outward once more: the plant, in its function as sign, is a tiny exemplar of a wider class of such signs whose name is “beauty”.  Finally, the poem falls back to the plant’s humble domestic location, though even there, perhaps especially there, it continues to point beyond itself.  Stanza 2, with its religious imagery, had alluded to a childhood belief in a creating deity.  The concluding stanza is more ambiguous, but, though it is cast as a question, its effect is as of someone venturing a qualified assertion.  In an earlier poem, “Agnostic”, Scovell, referring to the natural world as unable “to speak a word” and yet as being a “life and world apart from me | To whom betrothed at birth I came”,  had written of “The look of utterance on the silent flower”.  That poem ends thus:

    You with religious faith, to whom
    Life speaks in words you understand –
    Believe, I also with my dumb
    Stranger have made a marriage bond
    As strong and deep and torturing and fond.



Although every one of Scovell’s over three-hundred poems is written in metre, and all but a small handful employ rhyme or half-rhyme, either throughout or in part, what is remarkable about her handling is its expressive freedom.  The occasional stylistic echoes of Hopkins noted above are perhaps part of a more profound debt, for often her lines are best thought of as accentual verse, as measured by how many metrical beats they contain regardless of the number of what Hopkins called “weak or slack” syllables.   There is a gradient from traditionally metred verse (where, in iambic metres, for instance, the normative presumption is that the line will have in equal numbers syllables that bear a metrical beat and syllables that do not) towards a line containing increasingly greater numbers of slack syllables until a point is reached where, as a result of the operation of basic phonetic laws, some of those slack syllables will be heard as carrying a beat and the metrical structure of the line will be felt to have changed.  The shift implied by this gradient depends to a considerable degree on the pacing of the line.  Is Hopkins’s poem “Spring and Fall” written in four-beat, three-beat or two-beat lines – or a mixture?  It seems likely that Hopkins himself thought of it as written in four-beat lines, to judge by the way he marked up some of its lines for Bridges.  But taken at a less than stately pace – an inappropriate pace, to be sure, given the poem’s subject-matter –  it is possible to hear some lines as having only three beats, some indeed as having only two.  In Hopkins’s most powerful poems, his tortuous syntax requires the reader simultaneously to hold in mind several possibly conflicting syntactical patterns as the reading progresses, and this enforces a slowness of pace in which every significant syllable must be given due expressive weight.

Metrically, of course, Scovell is never as adventurous as Hopkins at his most idiosyncratic; nor does she take such liberties with her syntax.  Nonetheless, in her own practice, what I referred to above as the inwrought and self-correcting texture of some of her best poems has a similar effect, slowing her lines and requiring them to be read, as it were, andante.  In several cases, this tendency is increased by her use of six- or even seven-beat lines.  But though their block appearance on the page may seem to suggest heaviness and slowness, lines of this kind have a tendency to break down into their component parts and so to speed up.  Here, however, as in other metres, Scovell resists this tendency to accelerate by varying the placement of the syntactical units within the line and by allowing lines to run over strongly.

Her handling of rhyme is also noteworthy.  From the outset she makes much use of feminine rhyme and, increasingly, of various kinds of half-rhyme, often freely combining masculine rhyme, feminine rhyme and half-rhyme.  Several example of this can be seen in passages quoted for other purposes above.  Here is a late instance of such things, “Deaths of Flowers”, another poem from among the “New Poems” in her 1991 Selected Poems:

    I would if I could choose
    Age and die outwards as a tulip does;
    Not as this iris drawing in, in-coiling
    Its complex strange taut inflorescence, willing
    Itself a bud again – though all achieved is
    No more than a clenched sadness,

    The tears of gum not flowing.
    I would choose the tulip’s reckless way of going;
    Whose petals answer light, altering by fractions
    From closed to wide, from one through many perfections,
    Till wrecked, flamboyant, strayed beyond recall,
    Like flakes of fire they piecemeal fall.

Superficially, the form of this is straightforward, but it is Scovell’s handling that makes the result so aesthetically satisfying.  The open, forward movement of the first two lines, every word but two being a monosyllable, contrasts with the tense, recursive patterning of the next two – the quasi-chiastic “drawing in, in-coiling”, the heaping-up of adjectives, the four-syllable Latinate noun – while the iris’s effortful contraction is underlined by the line-break between “willing” and “Itself”.  Notable, too, is the increased ratio of consonants to vowels in lines 3 and 4 by contrast to lines 1 and 2 and the way this thickens the texture of the verse.  From the point of view of orthodox metrics, the ending of line 5 is faulty, “is” belonging as an unaccented syllable at the start of the next line; but the effect of Scovell’s arrangement is to encourage the voice to linger on the word in a way that draws attention to the organization of the last two lines into three units marked by an emphatic two-beat falling rhythm: “áll achíeved is | Nó móre than a | clénched sádness”.  But the sentence does not end there, completed only in the first line of the second stanza, a coda whose contrasting smoothness belies the meaning of the line. 

Metrically, the first stanza consists of a single three-beat line, four five-beat lines and a four-beat line.   The second stanza begins as the first had, with a three-beat line, but then Scovell introduces a variation. Lines 2, 3 and 4 have twelve syllables each (their equivalents in the first had ten, eleven and eleven), and lines 2 and 3 have six beats.  The repetition of “I would” does not replicate the rhythm it had in the opening line.  There the accents fell thus: “I wóuld if Í could chóose”, where the emphasis is on Scovell’s desire to choose her death when she knows she will in fact have no such power.  On its second appearance the rhythm is thus: “Í would chóose the túlip’s réckless wáy of góing”, where the implication is that while others may have chosen (who in reality could no more have chosen than she can herself) the iris’s regressive, inward-shrinking death, her choice is for an expansive and self-transcending experience.  To the expression of this choice, the longer lines make a metrical contribution.

The movement of this, the poem’s second and final sentence, though interrupted by subordinate clauses, by anaphora in line 10, by a second heaping-up of adjectives in the penultimate line and by inversions in line 12, has a forward momentum which gives the greatest possible weight to the poem’s final word.   As often in Scovell, larger structures quietly have their effect: the two lists of adjectives move in opposite directions, one inwards, one outwards.  In the final line, both metre and alliteration contribute to the sense of elegiac courage and acceptance.


It is these devices and procedures (among others) – chiasmus, figures that qualify or make distinctions, an extended and delaying syntax, and questions, together with her expressive handling of metre and rhyme – that give rise to the distinctive timbre of her poetic voice.  It is the voice of someone reflecting, with unshowy intelligence, on her own experience.  By these technical means, Scovell controls the pace of her verse, obliging the reader to hold in balance and carry forward unresolved patterns of thought and feeling and, as she does herself, to suspend judgement.  Her characteristic mode is a patient and sometimes half-concealed oscillation between an outward movement in the direction of transcendence and  a return to the actual and local.  As she puts it in “View from a Bus Stop”, “The near is crossed with distance”, something which is true in poem after poem.  And indeed patience, a quality of loving attention towards the things of the world and towards those who populate her poems – husband, children, grandchildren and of course Scovell herself – is a virtue adumbrated on every page. 

As I noted at the outset, Scovell has never been a fashionable poet, a member of any group or school.  Her best and most characteristic work was written late in her own life in the hey-day of British poets fifteen or more years younger than herself, most of them men – Larkin, Hughes, Hill, Harrison, Heaney – and others younger still.  While my ostensible purpose has been to describe something of the attractive subtlety of her verse, its technical inventiveness and essential humanity, I have done so in the hope that I might encourage others to discover and appreciate the work of this fine and unjustly neglected poet.