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Proud Artificer!

A review of Anthony Burgess's Collected Poems.

Roger Lewis is the author of Anthony Burgess: A Biography. He writes regularly for the Times and other British newspapers.

Collected Poems

Anthony Burgess
(edited by Jonathan Mann)
Carcanet Classics, Manchester,
pp. 503, £25

The other day in Hastings, the town where I live on the English south coast (and where at the local hospital, six decades ago, Anthony Burgess’s first wife was treated for cirrhosis-induced portal hypertensive bleeding), I found in a charity shop, for five pounds, Selections from Robert Browning: two volumes; gold-tooled binding and marbled boards; Smith, Elder & Co., Waterloo Place, London, 1884. Though, in a preface, the poet claimed always to have “done my utmost in the art to which my life is a devotion,” I had to wonder: is devotion, like will-power, ever quite enough? The cruel fact of the matter is it’s no guarantee of actual fineness or longevity. There are famous lines, of course (“All’s over, then: does truth sound bitter / As one at first believes ?”), and Browning’s restless dramatic monologues will always have a place on an English syllabus. But there are yards and yards of sheer verbiage, which few will want to look at again: “Mr. Sludge, ‘The Medium’,” “St. Martin’s Summer,” “Through the Metidja to Abd-El-Kadr.”

So very much is dead, and deadening, and I was put in mind of the works of Anthony Burgess. I confess I was quite taken in by his apparent verve and flair when young. The literary tricks and effects, the broad canvas, the unapologetic showing off; nothing seemed outside his capabilities—the novels, critical studies of James Joyce, Lawrence, and Hemingway, historical fiction, science fiction, film scripts, translations, operettas, journalism. He re-wrote Orwell’s Nineteen-Eighty-Four as 1985. His adaptation of Cyrano de Bergerac was a success on Broadway for Christopher Plummer and at the Royal Shakespeare Company for Derek Jacobi. He tried to pull rank over Gore Vidal by saying, “Actually, what I really am is a musician.” Burgess was very colorful, very industrious—we are told in the introduction to this new book that there was even “an unfinished opera about Freud.” Of course, there would have been. Burgess died in 1993, but we are forewarned of his “sometimes overwhelming posthumous productivity.”

Later, when my taste veered more in the direction of Kingsley Amis, Beryl Bainbridge, and Anita Brookner, I decided it was all a kind of ingenious camouflage, concealing the ways Burgess, at bottom, had no heart. His work is hardened, rigid, aggressive; in place of humor there is sarcasm and hostility. Nothing he ever wrote was moving. We feel nothing for the characters in his novels, who themselves are incapable of warmth, for the simple reason that they are mechanistic, all done with wires and pulleys, laborious; an “agglomeration of words,” and nothing more, to borrow a phrase of Philip Larkin’s.

It was Larkin who said of his own limpid, sympathetic poetry: “You’ve seen this sight, felt this feeling, had this vision, and have got to find a combination of words that will preserve it by setting it off in other people.” Though an obviously intelligent man, with a vast amount of reading inside or behind him, Burgess couldn’t have followed this precept for a moment. What distinguishes his writing, especially his poetry, as gathered in this volume, is an avoidance of the personal, in favour of a drive to be epic, mythical; he wanted to go after big themes, to build cosmic structures, as if he were an anachronistic nineteenth-century author rather than a jobbing scribbler in the middle of the twentieth. What drew him were the crisis of conscience, armies clashing by night, wind and fire. Larkin’s own subject-matter—“the small hushed waves’ repeated fresh collapse”; “the shadows, the meadows, the lanes, / The guild halls, the carved choirs”—would have been completely invisible to Burgess, beneath his notice.

Hence, his fondness for monumental achievers: Shakespeare, Jesus, Oedipus, Napoleon, and Moses. Collected Poems includes the hundreds of pages of blank verse Burgess churned out to accompany the six-hour Burt Lancaster mini-series, Moses the Lawgiver, an I.T.C.-R.A.I. co-production, shot in Italy and Morocco in 1974. It is nothing less than a version of the Old Testament, encompassing the slavery of the twelve tribes, Nile mud, and the plagues: “We may expect after flies, locusts, / A murrain on the cattle.” Later, miracles occur in the desert: “Sand-caked, sweat-blind, inexpressively weary, / Through the scorching wilderness, Aaron panted.” Not only does he pant; like Moses and everyone else, Pharaoh, soldiers, and dancing girls are seen to be “grinning,” “sneering,” “squinting,” “sniggering,” and “vomiting.”

Especially the latter. If, on the one hand, Burgess’s people, even those derived from biblical sources, are there to spout his dogmatic opinions—about the corruption of the soul; about how free will meddles with a divine plan—they always have weak stomachs and bad teeth. It’s almost a running joke, the way “a benignant ache / lit up a tooth.” And if the characters have no interior life, they are instead a product of illness, headaches, hemorrhoids, and intestinal grumbling and blockages. Everything is external, or non-psychological—coughing, hawking, and spitting. Luxury is always designated as decadent surfeit: “ostrich bowels stuffed with saffron, / Minced pikeflesh and pounded larksbrain.” Who’d not throw up?

In his equivalent of the New Testament, the translations made from the sonnets of Giuseppe Gioachino Belli, and which first appeared (with variants) in the novella about Keats’s last days in Rome, Abba Abba, Burgess reduces everything to the indignities of the body, to indigestion, tuberculosis, and the “spending” of “seed.” It is very laborious, the Belli/Burgess blasphemies being obscene without any saving irony or wit (“Here are some names, my son, we call the cock,” etc.). It’s as if he were exerting himself to be shocking, as in the violence of Alex and his “droogs” in A Clockwork Orange (where would Burgess, and his reputation, be without Stanley Kubrick?) or the Egyptians in Moses murdering babies: “It became a game, / On Nile bank, to see who could throw the furthest … / They’re things, man, no more, go on, throw. They threw. / It was a long business.” Really? Was it?

Burgess was incapable of creating characters. His are puppets who voice abstract ideas, fatally flat, with nothing unique or real about them in human terms. There is an illusion of liveliness and exuberance, but it is only noise, conveyed by a tortuous vocabulary: lunonautic, micturition, quintessentialized, onomastic bastion, nugacities, hebetude, allophone, orchidaceous, sensorium, thaumaturgical conjuration.

What one finds throughout Burgess’s work is the bullying pedantry of the provincial schoolmaster, which is what he was in real life. The name on his passport was John Wilson. In the fifties, Wilson was a teacher at Banbury Grammar School, in the soggy English Midlands, before he moved overseas to lecture at colonial colleges in Malaya and Borneo, which supplied the backdrop for his Graham Greene-like novels Beds in the East, Time for a Tiger, The Enemy in the Blanket, and Devil of a State. Banbury gave rise to The Worm and the Ring, incidentally, “a long comic epic in heroic couplets on the town and its denizens”; the school secretary Gwen Bustin (long dead) decided to recognize herself in the book (which is not in heroic couplets) and it was withdrawn. During the war, Wilson was a sergeant in the Army Educational Corps, stationed in Gibraltar. This book gathers verse from all these periods, even student stuff from Manchester University magazines and local newspaper competitions. Frankly, it is doggerel (“Her hair harvested / Sheaves shed by summer”—she was bald?). There are learned allusions here, plenty of information is provided (about the author’s knowledge of James Joyce or Gerard Manley Hopkins), but it is awkward and ungainly. Early and late, fatally, the poetry of Burgess has no beauty, no authentic creative impetus. Something is always lacking.

He knew all this, of course. “That this work is not poetry there can be no doubt,” he said in a startling preface printed here. “I am not a poet. This work is too cliché-ridden, simplistic and didactic to be classified as anything other than a piece of sub-literature.” How cynically false was this modesty? As when he produced A Shorter Finnegans Wake on the implicit understanding that he was the only person capable of understanding Joyce’s original, it looks suspiciously like the schoolmaster again, daring the sixth form to answer him back. A lot of boshiest material here originally appeared in the four Enderby novels, published between 1963 and 1984, parcelled out in the tales to the title character’s enemies and rivals, men and women who are intended to be seen as pretentious idiots and fakes. It is unfair, a misrepresentation, for such efforts (“rather sloppy and fungoid” Burgess amusingly calls them) to be prised from their contexts and published here as serious poems. Enderby, after all, composes his own (dire) works when installed in the lavatory, Burgess’s comic homage to Leopold Bloom, who in Ulysses made his way to the smallest room, the first character in English literature given leave to do so. 

As an edition, this book is generally hopeless. The notes and page references do not marry up. Commentary is perfunctory and ignorant. Chronology is all over the place. Jonathan Mann is unaware that Dawson Wignall, in Earthly Powers, is a brilliant parody of Betjeman (“But then I saw your tongue protrude / To catch a wisp of angel food”). There are also pastiches in the style of A. E. Housman, Auden, Eliot, and Yeats. It is here, I think, that Burgess’s actual genius is located. Try to make him, as the professors do, the heir to Joyce, a major European author, and matters become preposterous. As John Bayley said of Napoleon Symphony, it is “boneless stuff, no skeleton of point beneath it,” except the chance it gives Burgess to blow his own trumpet about how ingenious he can be by getting prose to mimic the speed and shape of Beethoven’s Eroica. But it is an erudite charade, at best.

Like Stephen Dedalus, Burgess was certainly a “proud artificer.” If threadbare, the sheer factory-like quantity of his output distracts us from paying attention to its qualities. In one poem he calls himself “middle-aged, claudicant, ignominiously propped / On a sheathed sword.” If we picture such a tatterdemalion figure in an old-fashioned music hall or on a vaudeville stage, standing there in the ruddy footlights’ glow, we see Burgess in his element, where he can finally entertain us. He was always exclamatory. Which is why in a sense literary parallels—my own Browning one, for instance—aren’t helpful. Burgess was more of a showman, and the actor he puts me in mind of is Anthony Quinn: over-ebullient, shouty, bombastic. Despite a false nose in Lawrence of Arabia or a swarthy moustache in Zorba the Greek, it was impossible to disguise him or to suppress his throaty laugh. He was always Anthony Quinn, a stranger to subtlety, insisting on being the center of attention. Anthony Burgess, likewise, was always Anthony Burgess.