Thursday, May 23, 2013

The Poems of Milly Jourdain

Dawn Potter

As soon as I opened the flimsy paper cover of Unfulfilment, Joan Arden’s tiny volume of poems, out fell the publisher’s original review request: “Mr Basil Blackwell has pleasure in submitting the accompanying book for review. He will be glad to receive a copy when it appears.” Clearly this was a message from that past that I needed to take seriously, especially since, as far as I can tell, no one else has ever reviewed this book. In fact, hardly anyone seems to have read it. Published in 1924, the collection appeared in the “Adventurers All” series, which Blackwell advertised rather poignantly as “a series of young poets unknown to fame.” Several of these young poets did eventually become known to fame, including Dorothy L. Sayers, Aldous Huxley, and Sacheverell Sitwell. Joan Arden, however, did not.
The author’s published name was a pseudonym. Her real name was Melicent Jourdain, known to her family as Milly; and I first came across Milly’s poems as I was reading Hilary Spurling’s 1984 biography of Ivy Compton-Burnett, whose longtime companion, Margaret Jourdain, was Milly’s older sister. In addition to Margaret, an expert on furniture and the decorative arts, there were other fairly well known Jourdains in this large family: Philip, a mathematician and philosopher; Frank, a pioneering ornithologist; and Eleanor, who with a friend wrote a peculiar book in which they claimed to have seen the ghost of Marie Antoinette at Versailles.
            Milly was the baby of the family and, like Philip, suffered from a hereditary disease known as Friedrich’s ataxia, a rapidly advancing form of multiple sclerosis, characteristically revealing itself in childhood and killing its victims in their twenties. Both Milly and Philip managed to hang on longer than expected, but they were crippled for most of their lives. Philip was dead by age forty, while Milly lived slightly longer, dying at forty-four, which is, oddly enough, my own age as I write these words. To a degree, this coincidence accounts for my interest in her, but only as an afterthought. For as soon as I stumbled across the scraps of poems in Spurling’s biography, I recognized that Milly was a real poet. Here, for instance, is “Watching the Meet,” a poem that Spurling does not quote in her book but that struck me on first reading as a nearly perfect rendering of a fluid moment:
The air is still so new and fresh and cold,
It makes a warm excitement in our hearts
To drive beside the sad and lonely fields.
And now we see a wider space of road
Where groups of horsemen moving restlessly
Are waiting for the quiet-footed hounds.
The hounds come swiftly, covering the way
Like foaming water surging round our feet.
And then with cries and sound of cracking whips
All, all are gone: the distant beat of hoofs
Like trailing smoke of dreams, comes fitfully
To tell how near they were a moment past.
But we see only winter trees again,
And turning homewards meet a drifting rain.

Spurling had also recognized Milly’s stature. Unfulfilment, she writes, “records with singular terseness and clarity its author’s decline into paralysis and death.”
The height of delight in Milly’s poems is a single celandine or crocus in the grass, the feel of cold stream water, thin sunlight on glittering frost-covered hills. Perhaps she had learnt from Hardy or Wordsworth, perhaps simply from her own constricted life, the deceptive simplicity that matches an unobtrusive verse form with an equally unassuming truthfulness. . . .
            There is no way of dating Milly’s poems. Some clearly gather intensity from being written in retrospect, after the Jourdains left Dorset in 1919, but all of them have a musicality, a concentration of thought and feeling, a desolate clarity.

Spurling’s words are as close to a review of Milly’s work as I can find. The book has more or less vanished from human memory; and when I did an Internet search, only one copy seemed to be available anywhere for purchase. I bought it; and thus did Blackwell’s review request come into my hands, tucked inside a frail forest-green volume, the cover so thin it might be construction paper, with title, author’s name, and publisher’s information printed on cream-colored paper and pasted austerely onto the green. The cheap, sad, scrapbook effect of the cover became even more noticeable once I caught sight of the glossy bookplate pasted inside; for, yes, someone else once owned this book: “Arthur Melville Clark of Herriotshall and Oxton,” whose name reposes elegantly beneath a heraldic insignia topped with the fighting Scots motto “blaw for blaw.”
Clark, at least career-wise, turns out to be less aggressive than his bookplate would indicate. He wrote several scholarly tomes, including studies of Sir Walter Scott and the playwright Thomas Heywood. In 1922 Blackwell published his book The Realistic Revolt in Modern Poetry, and Clark is described on the title page as “M.A. (Edin.)” and “sometime lecturer in English at University College, Reading.” Perhaps Blackwell had entertained hopes that Clark would review Milly’s book, but he doesn’t appear to have done so. Nonetheless, someone, presumably Clark, read it, and his rare pencil marks in the margins can be illuminating, in a melancholy sort of way.
Style-wise at least, Clark’s book on modern poetry is the usual sort of clotted, scholarly bombast. “It is,” he declares, “perhaps, unfair to emphasise the activities of the extremists—Messrs. Sassoon, Osbert Sitwell, T. S. Eliot, Edgar Lee Masters—but their very extravagance is instructive, as displaying in a greater degree the tendency more happily, if less obviously, illustrated by others.” Whatever his statement might mean, it doesn’t have much relevance to Milly Jourdain’s poems, which are so distinctly unextravagant as to be nearly invisible to her book’s marginal commentator. He marks only two poems in the collection. One is “Watching the Meet,” where he pencils an unexplained X beside two lines. The other is “The Leap over the Wall”:
Now in my narrow room, my memory hears
The waves break on the shore:
I think of all the pleasant things behind
That soon will be no more.

I think of new-mown hay and summer days
And slowly fading light
And fields of white and shining snow that made
Me breathless with delight.

Of running water slipping through my hands
            And little pools most clear;
Yet all these things have only made me sad
            And brought me close to fear.

But could I rest at length on some great hill
            Watching the fading sky,
Then I might know that peace above the earth’s.
            And only wish to die.

This is by no means the strongest poem in the collection. Jourdain is at her worst when she incorporates rhyme, at which point the poems tend to slip into a singsong periodically jolted by uneven meter. Nonetheless, even these lesser poems reveal her pure diction, her clear eye, and her strange and straightforward communion with sorrow, an honest hopelessness that she balances so eloquently with her love for life. But what the pencil jotter says is “Morbid for no reason.”
On the whole, it seems we should be relieved that Clark never got around to reviewing Unfulfilment. Obscurity is a better fate than disdain, and Jourdain’s poems are, at least superficially, easy to docket as old-fashioned poetess pieces about flowers and sheep and fog and sadness. Yet they bear, in their simplicity and their unflinching gaze, a resemblance to some of John Haines’s tiny poems about the natural world. They are, as a friend said to me after reading a few excerpts, “a figure in three dimensions.” And when Jourdain allows herself to relinquish her stultifying rhyme schemes, her lines blossom, becoming, as in “The Floods Are Risen . . . ,” deft and idiosyncratic statements on the link between external awareness and the inner life:
The great white sea has flooded all the land,
And little waves are blown against the path
With tiny sounds like dry and restless throbs:
A white-sailed boat skims like a frightened moth
Into the dusk: the grey clouds grow darker
And dim the yellow light; we turn and leave
The cold wind blowing on the ruffled sea.

Occasionally she goes even further: “From a Road” layers unlineated stanzas of varying density to create a mélange in which the white space of the stanzas functions as the most delicate of line breaks:
Across the green valley the great hill raises its worn head through the pattern of fields which lie on its warm sides, brown in the summer sun.

Above the line of dark green hedges, beech copses straggle to the top: rooks fly over it and little white clouds.

The short grass is warm and the air is very clear.

For a moment I think I am walking on the hill, stooping and touching the ground with my hands.

But the trailing smell of honeysuckle from the hedge is blown to me, and I know that I cannot stir from the road.

Unfulfilment was published two years before Milly’s death in 1926. I don’t know how many copies Blackwell printed or how many were sold. I don’t know whether Milly paid for the printing herself. I don’t know whether seeing her poems in print made her feel better or worse about the worth of her life and her imminent death. But the poems themselves . . . ah, they have not died. Just barely, their spark flickers. Cup your hands round that guttering spark, and it burns. A good-enough fate, most poets might say.

[First published in The Reader, no. 48 (2013). I gleaned biographical information about Milly Jourdain and her family from Hilary Spurling’s Ivy: The Life of I. Compton-Burnett (New York: Knopf, 1984), passim.]

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