Poems, Laurence Whistler
Selected with an Afterword by David Stoker
The Greville Press, 2020 £7.50
Laurence Whistler is better known for his glass-engraving than for his poetry, despite his substantial poetic output. He won the first Royal Gold Medal for Poetry, in 1935. His Collected Poems (1949) contained work from six volumes; further titles followed until his death in 2000. He thought of himself first as a poet; yet it’s the glass we remember.
David Stoker’s ‘Afterword’ quotes from Whistler’s distinction between drawing (and, by analogy, writing) and glass-engraving —
Those who draw with pen and pencil make black or dark outlines, the glass engraver makes white ones. They define shape by shadow, he defines it by light.
Light and dark, life and death: Stoker has made this selection with an eye to Whistler’s verbal light and happiness, and how both are made more visible by a surrounding darkness.
Whistler’s first wife, Jill Furse, died in 1944. Stoker doesn’t give publication dates for the contents, however, and so the reader is freed to concentrate on the poems per se, not the background biography. In ‘For Instance’ the light is summer:
Waking in the summered light,
Taking summer all at once
From an open window’s mere
The next two stanzas use the same structure for their opening lines (‘Waking where the summered sea’ and ‘Waking with a summered mind’) until the final stanza (quoted in full):
Waking with the sense of time
Aching, O perceive how time
Can no more of summer show
Than it shows — how summer is,
How it absolutely is,
Now, this morning, and for you.
Darkness is invisible, even while its existence is acknowledged. The intensity of summer light is heightened by those two lines ending ‘is’, echoed in the emphatic ‘this’ in the final line; and then this close focus on the moment is lengthened, stretched out by the long vowel in ‘you’ that seems to reach beyond the full-stop that closes the poem.
How can a poet like Whistler disappear? Half a shelf of twentieth-century anthologies and no sign of him. He was knighted shortly before his death and Stoker tells us the citation was ‘for services to Literature’. Perhaps this pamphlet is the first step in reminding readers his poetry is well worth seeking out.
D. A. Prince
Available from The Greville Press at 6 Mellors Court, The Butts, Warwick CV34 4ST