Said William Plomer to his barber: “A little more off the back, please.”1 “That’s right, sir,” came the reply. “It wouldn’t do to have you looking like a poet.” Apocryphal? Possibly. Yet such drollery has the ring of prophecy. In a letter to John Lehmann in 1931, Plomer confessed, waggishly, that he had “never pretended to be a poet,” not even to himself. Ted Walker (who did look like a poet) observed that Plomer’s demeanor suggested not so much a writer as a magnanimous doctor. Walker was late to the party. As Plomer recalled it: “I have actually been congratulated [by a stranger] on my successful treatment of a difficult case of hydrocele” (the accumulation of serous fluid in the testes). Farce followed him like a guided missile.

“Plomer . . . is emphatically of the minority, i.e. of the section of writers, the real intelligentsia, the unconventional, critical-minded literary artists whom the British public in general don’t like, and therefore only buy in restricted quantities.” That was Edward Garnett in 1935. In 1972 several newspapers had tipped Plomer, like a horse, as the next Poet Laureate, a role Cecil Day-Lewis famously compared to being “put out to grass.” To Plomer’s relief, the post went to John Betjeman, who hated the job so much he considered resigning. The timing, in any event, was off: Plomer died in 1973, just three days before the publication of The Butterfly Ball and the Grasshopper’s Feast, a cheerful, Whitbread-winning exercise in whimsy which cruelly outstripped sales of his Collected Poems (also published in 1973)—the book upon which his poetic reputation mostly rests. At the time, Plomer looked ripe for canonization. His friends were the right ones: Leonard and Virginia Woolf, T. S. Eliot, E. M. Forster, W. H. Auden, Christopher Isherwood, J. R. Ackerley, Day-Lewis, Stephen Spender, Edmund Blunden, the Sitwells. Today he is largely forgotten.

Plomer's poems are scrupulously crafted, delimited, self-effacing.

A shame. His poems are a thing apart, or rather, a continent apart: Plomer shares—should share—with his once friend and collaborator Roy Campbell the plaudit “best South African poet.” Campbell, by all accounts, is more fun to remember (Plomer never suspended his wife from a balcony, not least because he never married), but his fire-in-the-belly pentameters look ill at ease against Plomer’s natural and shifting rhythms, his awkward, cool repose. Plomer “had the singular gift,” said Laurens van der Post, “of being angry in a classical sense . . . a vision that does not blur, but makes the vision clearer.” Angry? Maybe. Classical? Yes—the poems are scrupulously crafted, delimited, self-effacing. In “They” he writes: 

It’s plain that by deviating in your own way
you’ve made what you have. You’ve made it
clear, durable, pointed as a cluster of crystals.

Durability, visual accuracy, rigorous economy of language—such were Plomer’s main-line faculties.

A consummate all-rounder, Plomer, in a career spanning five decades, produced ten books of poetry, five novels (several popular successes), five volumes of short stories, two biographies (Cecil Rhodes and Ali Pasha), four librettos (for Benjamin Britten), scores of essays, articles, and reviews (for The Spectator, The Nation, The Criterion, and others), and three edited diaries (Kilvert’s Diary is the best known). He was co-editor, with Campbell, of Voorslag, a literary review founded to counteract the chilling effects of proto-apartheid legislation in South Africa, featuring writing in both English and Afrikaans. In later life he was a publisher’s reader and literary advisor for Jonathan Cape, where he was an early and ebullient proponent of Ted Hughes, Arthur Koestler, Stevie Smith, John Betjeman, John Fowles, Vladimir Nabokov, Alan Paton, and Ian Fleming. (No Plomer, no Bond.) From 1937–51 he broadcast intermittently with the bbc a number of lit-programs, including The Critics,on which he discussed new books with the novelist Rose Macaulay. He was awarded the Queen’s Medal for Poetry in 1963 and a cbe in 1965.

Looking over this litany of achievements, one can’t help but wonder if he spread himself too thin. Was he a poet who was also a novelist, or a novelist who was also a poet? Take your pick. Either way, Plomer’s knack for working across familiar boundaries has made him difficult to place. Such divided loyalties find their correlative in his near-frenetic preoccupation with his own situatedness: England, South Africa—he identified with both but belonged to neither: “Since nobody,” he wrote in his autobiography, “if a cat happens to have kittens in an oven, regards them as biscuits, I should be no more justified in pretending to be a South African than declaring myself a Bantu.” By the age of twenty-eight, Plomer had been variously “a trader in Zululand, an apprentice farmer in the (rugged) mountains on the Basutoland border, unemployed in Japan, a tourist in Russia and an alleged [Lord] in Greece.” The poems, not by chance, are correspondingly peripatetic: Africa, Japan, Greece, England, they are of—in—such places. (“Read Plomer,” goes the caption attached to his caricature in Punch, “if you’d like a tip on/ Africa, London, or the land of Nippon.”) Looking back, he felt he had something in common with the aloof, nomadic Axel Heyst, from Conrad’s Victory. He learned much, too, from Eliot:

My need

As a poet (not every poet’s) is this–

To be immersed in a neutral solution, which

Alone provides an interim, until through the grey

Expectant film invisible writing comes clean.

No identity can be a desirable thing:

To have a face with features noticed less

Than one’s range of expression, so that photographed

It never looks twice the same, and people say

“But that’s not you!”

“Inert, neutral, unchanged,” Plomer might have been the platinum in Eliot’s chemical analogy, though his escape from personality was an actual success (most “impersonal” poets usually turn out to be as candid as everyone else). The poems are not, as are, say, Robert Lowell’s, an arena for “working out” his jumble of dualities; if he assumes a mask, it is to hide his face. The lyric “I,” when present, is voided of its interiority. He won’t let us know him. He is not sure he knows himself.

In his life of Forster, P. N. Furbank attested to the split in Plomer between irony and feeling: one part sentiment, one part “foxy aplomb.” That’s one way of saying he had a funny side. As a light verse writer, Martin Seymour-Smith wrote, “there is no one like him in the world.” Plomer’s peculiar brand of puckish wit, his obstinate penchant for detective-story macabre, found its natural outlet in balladry. Not included in this selection, the ballads nonetheless deserve a mention—they are, alas, “his most celebrated poems,” as Philip Larkin noted. Compared to his more serious work (though light verse can, of course, be serious), the ballads, it seems to me, have dated. Still, his gallery of nasties is hard to resist: the woman who happily agrees to her own murder; the former Dean of Westminster who inadvertently swallows the fossilized heart of Louis Quatorze at a dinner party; the couple whose open-house is cut short by the discovery in a cupboard of “the severed thigh of a plump brunette”; the housekeeper who goes missing picking mushrooms and subsequently dies—the more heartless, that last one, as it arises from a true story. Such performance-ready silliness would crack a smile on even the stoniest of faces, though censure replaced the smile for some: “I have once or twice been reproached for cruelty and a choice of sordid themes,” wrote Plomer, adding, “no defence seems necessary.” The poems’ unpleasantness was merely reflective of an age “for which unpleasant would be a very mild term.”

Plomer's first offerings were exiguous and wanting, bumptious and sentimental, all gloss.

William Charles Franklyn Plomer—the surname rhymes with “bloomer”—was born on December 10, 1903, in Pietersburg (now Polokwane), South Africa, of English parents. His father was an itinerant magistrate. In 1905 the family moved to Louis Trichardt, Limpopo. Times were tough. The township was largely abandoned and malaria rife—“romantic,” Plomer wrote, “in a Rider Haggardish way” (Haggard would have enjoyed that “ish”). His younger brother contracted malaria and died, after which Plomer was sent to England, a country he recognized, he wrote, “as a mirror recognises a face.” He was educated at Beechmont, Kent, which he loathed, and later at Rugby. He cut his teeth on Chaucer, Eliot, Dostoevsky, and D. H. Lawrence.

Fearing that Oxford might make him “more of a pedant and a prig than I am,” Plomer returned to South Africa and took work as an apprentice sheep farmer in Molteno, Cape Province (“A Basuto Coming of Age”) where he composed his first poems. These first offerings were exiguous and wanting, bumptious and sentimental, all gloss (“O aqueous evening skies/ pavilioning the world with silken light,/ you rest”). He sent the lot to Harold Monro at the Poetry Bookshop in London, with an accompanying letter that no doubt made Monro smile: “I am familiar with all the ‘moderns,’ except John Drinkwater, A. E. Housman, and a good many very minor people. Is it necessary for me to read J. D., A. E. H., and the v. minor people?” Monro replied benevolently. A better poem followed:

I came upon the poplars as the sun goes down.

Staccato, as the sun departs,

The sharp dark trees

Pierce the stark earth like darts.

In 1922 Plomer opened a trading post with his father in Entumeni, Zululand, where he cultivated an interest in the Zulus and their language. He was attracted first to their bodies: “the young bucks, descendants of Chaka’s braves”—reminiscent of Melville’s comparison of the Marquesans with the peoples of New York—aroused him. Eros gave way to agape. The racialized complex of South African society, virulent and epidemic, prevented any but furtive intimacies. “It occurred to me quite early in life,” Plomer recalls, “that the terms ‘black’ and ‘white’ were too arbitrary. One thing was rigidly clear—that the presumed line between so-called white and so-called black must never be crossed—at least openly.”

His first novel, Turbott Wolfe, was published by Leonard and Virginia Woolf at the Hogarth Press in 1926, followed by Notes for Poems, his first book of poetry, in 1927. The novel, which featured as its eponymous hero an English negrophile who encourages miscegenation, sparked outrage. A review in The Natal Advertiser carried the title “A Nasty Book on a Nasty Subject,” expressing lament at the passing of the great days of “Fitzpatrick’s ‘Jock of the Bushveld,’ or Rider Haggard’s vivid and inspiring romances in which white men were white and the kafir was black, but a gentleman.” Astringent, unsparing in its assault on white South Africa’s “insular complacency,” Plomer called it “a violent ejaculation, a protest, a nightmare, a phantasmagoria.” Richard Church called it a work of genius; South African Nation called it pornography. Aged twenty-three and already courting opprobrium, Roy Campbell wrote of him in The Wayzgoose:

Plomer, ’twas you who, though a boy in age,

Awoke a sleepy continent to rage,

Who dared alone to thrash a craven race

And hold a mirror to its dirty face.

Plomer is “interested in technique in the right way,” F. R. Leavis noted, “For he is interested primarily in the world he lives in, and technique for him is the problem of getting the ‘feel’ of living into verse.” But what is that “feel”? It is a poetry of place, of places. It is topographical—geophysical. Plomer shares Auden’s fondness for geology—for petrology, in particular. If Auden found in limestone an honesty (limestone is, as Auden said of his own face, fault-ridden), Plomer’s quarry yields tougher things:

In the wild fig trees,

Whose sinews are moulded

To the curves of the stone,

And whose roots are thrust

In a crevice of dust,

Clinging tightly within

To the veins of the quartz,

And fed on the secret

And tasting of stone.

Plomer is not difficult. He has in common with The Movement (the exponents of which he predates) an impatience for opacity. In the best poems, form and content are blended, their interdependence discernible to the most general of general readers. In their directness of address—though not, it bears mentioning, in their stylistic import—the poems lean closer to the linguistic compressions of Hardy, Thomas, and the Georgians than to the oblique bookishness of the high moderns. A self-described “lone prospector,” his “gain”—sometimes rubble, sometimes “a handful of semi-precious stones”—was, though inconsistent, sui generis.

If Plomer lacks the “overmastering” vision of an Eliot or Yeats, as one critic put it, this is because, as he explained to Spender: “My own predilections in poetry are for the sensory, pictorial and plastic rather than for the philosophical, metaphysical or political.”

Plomer’s “African phase”—really an Anglophone modernist phase played out in African contexts—is a love letter to stuff: animal stuff, vegetable stuff, mineral stuff. Matter abounds: dry stalks, small roots, loxias, spacious upland kraals. Throw in a handful of Africanisms—jackals, cicadas, giraffes, zebus, antelopes—and you’ve got the measure of “Namaqualand After Rain,” “Ula Masondo’s Dream,” to name just two. In “The Ruined Farm” and others, the tendency is towards a kind of imagism:

A peaceful, archangelic sun

Sank low, grew larger to the sight,

And drew across each huge ravine

The huger curtains of the night;

Silence within the roofless house

Undid her hair and shook it free,

The footpad jackal passed her there,

And bats flew round the cactus tree.

A pleasant, nursery rhyme-ish scene that might have tickled T. E. Hulme. The effect is glacial, non-committed, immediate, set in the terrain of the perpetual present. Silence, personified, seems benign enough. Something changes:

Each quiet afternoon was bitter,

Was overcharged with warning,

And Silence waited where the snake lay coiled

And mocked at each mild, bright morning.

He arrived in London to the open arms of Bloomsbury and its reigning monarchs.

Plomer’s landscapes (“filled/ With heaped-up silence rift and rut”) are fraught, brimming with just-around-the-corner crises. In the best poems, imagism is sacrificed on the altar of last minute symbolic abstraction. In “The Scorpion,” the best of these best, the flooded Limpopo and Tugela wash up, among other detritus (“Melons, maize, domestic thatch”), the body of a black woman “bruised/ By rocks, and rolling on the shore.” Discrete particulars (“lolling breasts,” “bleeding eyes,” “beads and bells”) are in the final stanza transfigured:

That was the Africa we knew,

Where, wandering alone,

We saw, heraldic in the heat,

A scorpion on a stone.

Once a life, now flotsam. Plomer’s “natives” are part and parcel of the cruel land they inhabit—itself an extended metaphor for the cruel indifference with which they are treated by the metropole. That concern for people, for any life but his own, was a constant. The reflection in a Tugela pool of a young Zulu “Who on a concertina improvised/ A slow recurrent tune, subdued/ By want of hope” gains its poignancy in the later fact of his death, “while . . . new cars/ Hissed past like rockets/ Loaded with white men hurrying like mad.” The pathos is palpable.

When Voorslag went south in 1926, Plomer went east, to Japan, where he lived for three years (he had only planned to stay a fortnight). The morning after his arrival, the headlines read: “descendant of shakespeare arrives in japan!” En route, Plomer had let slip that the name of his maternal great-grandmother was Mary Arden, doubtless laying the Shakespeare connection on thick, and the Japanese got the wrong end of the stick. He secured a teaching post, with the help of Edmund Blunden—then visiting professor of English at the Imperial University, Tokyo—read widely, entered into a relationship with a Japanese man, and gradually “Japanezed” himself. His verse, too, took on something of the still-life, syllabic tautness that is unique to Japanese poetry, probing the delicate balance between morae (syllables) and ku (phrases), without quite yielding to the period or post-period verse forms (haiku, waka, etc.) that are peculiarly Japanese as such. The poems are knowingly artificial, slight, stilted, colorful but curiously plastic, ranging from the alliterative, Stevensian fun of “Hotel Magnificent” to the ersatz imagism of “The Gingko Tree.” The latter’s pentasyllabic prettiness is wittingly false, like paper flowers left by a roadside accident:

Chrome-yellow in the blue,

Tremolando tree,

Flute-like aquarelle,

Pure fragility.

The growing threat of Japanese nationalism, culminating in 1928 with the establishment of the poorly named Peace Preservation Department, unnerved him. He had, in any case, outstayed his welcome. In March 1929 he traveled “home” by way of the Trans-Siberian Railway, which took him through a country in which “he had often lived and suffered vicariously” via Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Turgenev, Gorki, Gogol, and Burkin. He arrived in London to the open arms of Bloomsbury—then on the wane—and its reigning monarchs, Leonard and Virginia Woolf. Woolf (Virginia), perspicacious to the letter, described Plomer as a “compressed inarticulate young man, thickly coated with a universal manner . . . tells a nice dry prim story; but has the wild eyes which I once noted in Tom [Eliot], & take to be the true index of what goes on within.” His “mask” was beginning to slip.

In May 1930 Plomer set off with his friend—the painter Anthony Butts—to Athens. “I can’t tell you how much I like this country,” he wrote Spender in July 1930, “The sun always shines. There are more men than women.” A rush of sensuous experience followed. He fell in love, somewhat predictably, with a sailor, the subject of “Three Pinks”: a Cavafy-esque, erotically charged love lyric. “Lotus-eating”—swimming off the bays of Glyphada or Vouliagmeni, dining late out of doors at Psychiko, mornings alone at the Zappeion Gardens—did not keep him from his work. He read voraciously, corresponded with Cavafy, to whom he had been introduced by Forster, and composed some of his finest poems. “Corfu” is one:

Across the old fortezza fall

The crystal rulings of the rain,

The moon above Albania burns

Fitful as a brigand’s fire,

And no boat passes out to sea.

This poem, “Still Life,” and “The Ruins” impressed Eliot, who published all three in The Criterion between 1930 and 1931. Quietly sensuous, tranquil, near-symbolic, and vivid, these “Philhellenisms,” as Plomer grouped them, are moments of aesthetic arrival. But they are also, at kernel, tourist poems—the product, much like the rest of his work to this point, of what Plomer described as “a series of disjointed contacts with different worlds, like scenes from different plays made to succeed one another but not composing a single play.”

It was not until he returned to England that Plomer began to reap the rewards of a fixed environment. He moved first to Lingen, Herefordshire, and completed his first batch of memoirs, Double Lives (published later in 1943). Then to London, publishing his second book of poetry, The Fivefold Screen (1932), and two novels, Sado (1931) and The Case Is Altered (1932), a bestseller. He left Hogarth, amicably, in 1933. He took work as a publisher’s reader for Cape in 1937. At first blush, the “English” poems are little about England, but we are simply in familiar territory; the threat, by then the reality, of war, underpins “September Evening,” “A Walk in Würzburg,” and “A Charm Against Trouble” (Plomer’s “profoundest utterance,” according to Forster). Before long his attention turned, once again, to South Africa. In “The Shortest Day,” a profoundly moving, rhythmically narcotic elegy (and to my mind one of his best poems), the speaker, enjoying “fine food and room-warmed wine,” turns his gaze outward to the “white, quiet, boatless, motorless,/ Shortest-day sea” and thinks of the slave ships and the lost souls off the Cape of Good Hope:

For some there is no sedation, not in a high warm room

Above the December sea; in company, they are apart,

And homeless at home; and love, of which they hear much,

Is a distant light. Facing the sea now, he

Dreams of the drowned.

In the 1940s and 1950s Plomer’s poetic output grew fallow. A crop of ballads, The Dorking Thigh and Other Satires, appeared in 1945, and another, A Shot in the Park (published in the United States as Borderline Ballads), in 1955, followed five years later by the first edition of his Collected Poems. Between 1951 and 1968 he collaborated with Benjamin Britten on four operas: Gloriana (1953), Curlew River (1964), The Burning Fiery Furnace (1966), and The Prodigal Son (1968). In 1966 he published Taste and Remember, his seventh book of verse, with Cape, to wide acclaim. “Your hand, ear and eye are now so sure and exact,” Rupert Hart-Davis wrote to him. It was followed, in 1972, by Celebrations, his final work. The late poems are, in batches, about poetry—or rather, about Plomer’s poetry. Self-conscious though curiously reconciled, they betray a formal and thematic confidence lacking in his earlier work. Some are explanatory—
vindicatory, even—of his early offerings. In “They” (“they” being Plomer’s critics), the prevailing, bitter message is “take it or leave it”:

Oddly supposing some judgment needed from them

yet always flummoxed by the imaginative,

or prophetic, or creatively marginal,

they compare it to what they fall for—

the trivial, the trendy, the ephemeral.

In “Now,” a deeply sad, deeply humane poem, a widow is forced to sell her house and its accompanying knick-knacks (“rare and hand-made undiscovered things are waiting/ finely made to last, things handed down”). Sadder still, the woman is Plomer, her knick-knacks his poems; there comes near the middle an apologia for his refusal to join the modernist phalanx:

Prodding and peeping in this acre of jungle,

once a garden, a modernizer

may break his leg, snared

by a rusty croquet-hoop

or the lead rim of a half buried

ornamental cistern.

There’s no gardener now.

At the poem’s close, Plomer ends with the hope

that these few pretty things

inherited or acquired, outlasting me

may be cherished for what they are more than for what they’d fetch:

Who, you may ask, is to inherit them?

Leaving the world, I leave them to the world.

He died in Lewes, East Sussex, in 1973.

Whither Plomer then? Of his twenty-eight books, just three are in print (Turbott Wolfe, Kilvert’s Diary, and The Butterfly Ball and the Grasshopper’s Feast). A selected poems appeared in 1985, homing in on the African poems, and a biography, by Peter F. Alexander, in 1990. Back then, Alexander forecast that Plomer would “shake off obscurity rapidly,” patently jumping the gun. (At this distance of time, we can, perhaps, let go of our hats.) In a review of that book, John Bayley noted that the “academic perpetuity” accorded Yeats and Eliot, who go marching on whatever the weather, does not extend to the writers who give the period “its actual and particular flavour”: Cyril Connolly, Arthur Koestler, Stephen Spender, Alun Lewis, Peter Quennell, Dylan Thomas, William Plomer. Of these, Plomer—with the possible exception of Quennell—has fallen furthest.

There are reasons. In 1943, Denyls Val Baker in a survey of Geoffrey Grigson’s New Verse, a magazine which, Grigson acknowledged, “came into existence because of Auden,” wrote of the review’s capacity as a nursery ground for new talent, “including in addition to Auden, Day Lewis and Spender such new writers as Christoper Isherwood, Kenneth Allott . . . and William Plomer.” That Plomer—or for that matter Isherwood—never appeared in New Verse seems to have eluded his grasp. Indeed, Plomer mulishly refused to join a literary school or movement, having no particular aesthetic or political ax to grind. A hanger-on of Bloomsbury, though never quite a “Bloomsberry,” he joked about forming a “Maida Vale Group”—a term first coined, I believe, by Virginia Woolf—with Joe Ackerley, Stephen Spender, and Air Commodore L. E. O. Charlton, a circle “too deficient in team spirit, even to want, let alone attempt, to form anything like a group.” Spender, who had joined the Communist Party, admonished Plomer’s failure to “move beyond liberalism.” Plomer’s ballad “Father and Son: 1939” hit Spender where it hurt:

With a firm grasp of half-truths, with political short-sight

With a belief we could disarm but at the same time fight,

And that only the Left Wing could ever be right

And that Moscow, of all places, was the sole source of light:

Just like a young hopeful

Between the wars.

No fan of the patchwork historical method, he could find sublimity anywhere.

“Literature has its battery hens,” Plomer wrote. “I was a wilder fowl.” Therein lies the rub. “An outsider from South Africa,” as Bayley puts it, Plomer was, by definition, peripheral. His muddled ethnic identity, and to a lesser extent his sexual orientation, confounds matters. Race, sex, identity—contemporary poetry subsists on a diet of such shibboleths—Plomer should have more fans than he does (after all, he ticks all the “representational” boxes). But there’s a catch, and a gratifying one. Plomer does not write to tell us about himself. He knew, like all good poets, that “selves,” by and large, are radically boring, no matter how beleaguered by crises of racial identity, sexuality, or whatever else. His commitment was to the life of the poem, to the discrete organization of lines and stanzas, to character, to place: “I’m incapable/ Of starting the very least personality cult/ I have freed myself at last from being me.” “Austere, direct, free from emotional slither”—thus Ezra Pound set out his hopes for the poetry of the twentieth century. In the preface to the 1973 edition of his Collected Poems, Plomer decried the “general tendency . . . for the distorted personality of the artist to be valued more than the work of art itself,” throwing in his lot with Pound in the “move against poppycock.” In this regard he no doubt succeeded, but Plomer is nothing like Pound. No fan of the patchwork historical method, he could find sublimity anywhere (as Pound did once in a metro station). He had the remarkable ability to “coax the delicate wings from the commonplace husk”—the quotidian was his bread and butter:

The commonplace needs no defence,

Dullness is in the critic’s eyes,

Without a license life evolves

From some dim phase its own surprise . . .

On March 15, 1973, Plomer sent Lady Cholmondeley a short poem titled “Painted on Darkness,” collected here for the first time. Likely the last poem he ever wrote, it bears witness to his correctness, his clarity, his lyrical clout:

Each rose transmuted, sweeter than itself,

In pure vermilion stands out strange and new

Against the haunted glass intensified,

Painted on darkness, as a poem is.

1 This piece is adapted from William Plomer: Selected Poems, edited by Neilson MacKay, published by Little Island Press in October 2016.

This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 35 Number 3, on page 22
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