Rereading Francis Webb

Francis Webb, Collected Poems (Angus & Robertson 1969)
Toby Davidson (ed.), Collected Poems: Francis Webb (UWA Publications 2011)

I reach for Francis Webb’s poetry fairly regularly – mainly the same handful of late poems. After listening to pieces about him on the Book Show and Poetica (parts One and Two), both on the ABC, having wept at the superb readings on the latter and been stung by Geoff Page’s describing the poetry as defective on the former, I decided to re-read the whole book. I started out on my 1969 edition, with its copious pencilled annotations by twenty-something me, but about a third of the way in I bought a copy of the new edition and switched to that. One learned person, according to my faint pencil notes, wrote that ‘reading Francis Webb is like wrestling with an angel’. No one would disagree that wrestling is involved: just decoding the syntax can be a challenge in many of these poems, then there are compacted metaphors, elusive rhyme schemes, buried religious references, and an expectation that the reader will be as alarmingly erudite as the poet. Just have a look, say, at the first lines of ‘Stendhal’:

Italy, and a nom de plume – better than in the van
Of France defeated: his clean scarlet brain
Must work in a pure detachment over man
Who was nothing without his D.R.O.s again.
Love, hate, ambition mustered at his bugle,
Sorties of good and evil were in vain.
With watchful eye and towerings of the eagle
He must disarm the priests, immobilize pain.

To which I admit I don’t have much more to say than ‘Huh?’

The angel part is harder to describe – the exciting part, that makes you feel you’ve been through the wringer, but that the world is somehow clearer, richer and more harshly beautiful because of it. He writes about sunsets, fog and wind as if they contain all the deepest struggles of the cosmos.

If you haven’t read any of Webb’s work, I recommend you start with the relatively straightforward ‘Five Days Old’. My mother, no lover of difficult language, wrote to me in a 1972 letter: ‘”Five Days Old” is sweet. I have to concentrate to read poetry so I haven’t read the others yet.’ More ambitiously, you might try the two sequences, Eyre All Alone and Ward Two. (If you’ve got plenty of time, I recommend reading Edward John Eyre’s Journals of Exploration as interesting in itself, but also, as my pencilled notes remind me, because it sheds interesting light on Webb’s poem, which at some points comes close to paraphrasing passages from it.) I’d skip the radio plays about Hitler (Birthday, this one was broadcast on the BBC in 1955), the Holy Grail (The Chalice), the anthropogenic end of the world (The Ghost of the Cock) and the man who invented electroconvulsive therapy (Electric).

One of the things that I loved about Webb’s poetry from the start is that it’s work. You can feel the labour of getting the words down, squeezing meaning onto the page, into the shape of the poem. Even at his most difficult, he is working at communication, never being difficult for its own sake.

Forty years ago I went searching for the first publication of his early poems, and found one or two that hadn’t been collected, and others that had been substantially edited on the way to being collected. The former and one or two of the latter are in the new collection, but my favourite example of revision isn’t. Here are the first three stanzas of ‘The Day of the Statue’, in which fishermen catch an ancient statue in their nets, as they appear in both Collected Poems:

You look for prodigies leaning on the sill of storm,
Or loose in the yellow gap at a candle’s end,
But here was patience: fishermen out on the bay,
Work and silence inching with the minute-hand.

Moored in a lulled spinny of sun and shadow,
With an impotent tremor in the sails, the ketch nosed down
To the long lunge of the swell, rose dripping, gasping
As if with eagerness to suck in air again.

And the men, snug in this casual pediment of time,
Their gestures grouped and restricted and interlocking,
Felt the haul stubborn to their hands, an eye-tooth wrenched
From the iron gums of the sea-bed, shuddering and aching.

Compare the first five stanzas of the version published in the Bulletin on 8 October 1947, when Webb was 22 years old:

You look for prodigies leaning on the 
sill of a storm
Or loitering about the wake of a snuffed-out light;
But such things are apt, as you know, on these days of full sunshine
To be quietly pocketed or else shoved clean out of sight.

Certainly, three fishermen out on the bay
And the shaping of a miracle are rarely aligned,
History bells hours only, clock on the walls of speeches:
Work and silence tick unnoticed with the second-hand.

Moored to drifting banks of sun and shadow,
With an impotent tremor in the sails, the ketch nosed down,
plunged to the bowsprit in the swell, rose dripping, gasping
As if with eagerness to suck in air again.

And the men grouped snugly in this leeward pediment of time,
With their slow gestures of toil, felt a curious lagging in the strands
Of their sunken net, as if parallel action under the water
Passed on a sort of nerveless shock to the hands.

Your touch on a net-load of fish short-circuits life:
The cargo is arteries stabbed in their element and shaking,
But this haul yielded stubbornly like an eye-tooth wrenched
From the iron jaws of the sea-bed, shuddering and aching.

I love the way he pared those stanzas down, even at the risk of making his meaning harder to grasp. And the revisions towards the end of the poem are even more telling. The last stanza changed from

Beauty comes baleful as a skull, comes riven from the sea:
Well to consider the mortal, the native token
Before you polish, incise – before you replace
What that bronze arm once clutched that time has broken.

to

There were some to roll back the heavy stone of the sea;
There was none to ponder the mortal, the living token.
But later, men polished, incised, established at last
What that raised hand once clutched and years had broken.

With great economy, the resurrection of Christ is invoked, and the contrast between the practicalities of dragging up the statue and understanding it is conveyed as a further piece of narrative rather than in a slightly priggish address from the author.

Ramona Koval said she’d never heard of Francis Webb. That’s a great shame. The Sydney Writers’ Festival has a session on ‘The Lost Poetry of Francis Webb’. I’m assuming that phrase refers to his whole body of work rather than to the handful of previously uncollected poems that begin and end Toby Davidson’s collection. I plan to be there.

4 responses to “Rereading Francis Webb

  1. Good comments on Webb, and big thanks to Toby Davidson for getting this edition out.

  2. Jonathan, may I say that I particularly admire the open-mindedness & humility of your appreciation of Webb’s poetry, as well as your very sensitive but level-headed evaluation of his poetic strengths & some possible weaknesses. As for your perceptive remarks about the poems as ‘work’ at an elemental level, outcomes of a profoundly sincere toiling to grasp & encapsulate immensities, I consider them to represent an extraordinary piece of insight, for which I am most grateful to you. As a lifelong classicist, I have to say that those penetrating comments of yours bring irresistibly to mind several memorable tropes of the old Roman poets – Horace’s felicitous phrase in the Ars Poetica (291) “limae labor et mora” [freely : ‘the time-consuming toil of the file’], or Catullus’s line : “arido modo pumice expolitum”(Poem 1) [‘with dry pumice lately polished’], or again of Martial’s “carmina rasa lima recenti”(10.2.3) [‘songs abraded by fresh & vigorous use of the file’]. It seems to me that those marvellous metaphors might have been conceived with reference to Webb’s painstaking compositions, in all of their hard-forged artistic integrity. I can only state that for me the results of all these birth-pangs of the poet can ascend to a level of beauty & miraculous vision which is heart-stopping in its intensity & immediacy. Needless to say, of course, I believe Sir Herbert Read’s verdict on Webb’s literary stature was right on the button!

    (Regarding “Stendhal”, a quibble : a gremlin seems to have discombobulated the last words of line 6 : should read “in vain” there, I think. However, like yourself, I freely confess that for me too, the meaning of this rather delphic poem continues to sail “straight through to the keeper”, so to speak. So far, anyway – but I will keep an open mind. In any case, as with so much of Webb’s textual density, the effort involved in striving to comprehend more deeply can be not only richly rewarding, but positively exhilarating, I find!).
    And fortunately, of course, there are also many other poems, (such as “A Death at Winson Green”, or “Hospital Night”, or “Harry”, or “Cap & Bells”, or “Wild Honey”, or “Nessun Dorma”) which one finds capable of wielding a power which can set the soul on fire, and penetrate the innermost recesses of the heart. In Webb’s work, one senses the dynamic presence of a mind & spirit which has transcended the trammels of its own pathology, and is at the point of articulating what one can only call ineffable mysteries of human existence. For me, this is poetic language in its highest register, illumined and suffused by numinous mystery ; words which aspire to and attain the condition of the greatest sacred music. Poetry as a redemptive act of prayer, in fact. Webb in my view is the poet of transcendence, par excellence. If memory serves me right, I think Simone Weil remarks somewhere that sometimes affliction may be followed by the ineffable descent of divine grace. I believe something like this occurred in Francis Webb’s case.

    Finally, Jonathan, I must thank you also for bringing to light that fascinating “Urtext” of “The Day of the Statue” (for me one of his finest poems) – most illuminating (not to mention extremely moving) to see the poet’s mind at work!
    P.S. Have you ever come across the Melbourne poet Patricia Excell’s brilliant close study of the “Eyre All Alone” sequence : “Dancings of the Sound” (ADFA, Canberra, 1989) ? If not, I commend it to you, and to anybody else interested in exploring in depth the wondrous poetry of Francis Webb.

  3. Clive: I’m flattered – both by your flattery and by your leaving such a thoughtful (and erudite) comment. I’ve removed the gremlin traces from ‘Stendahl’, and have been confirmed in my intention to read Patricia Excell’s article.

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