Robert Conquest’s considerable reputation rests largely on his works of political history, and in particular on his comprehensive anatomization of the magnitude of the Stalinist purges in his book The Great Terror (1968). But more than a decade before this spectacular act of political unmasking appeared, he had been known, in Britain at least, as a quite different kind of writer: as a poet, an anthologist, and a proselytizer for the poetry of “The Movement.” As Conquest himself observed, what united the Movement poets was more what they didn’t like about much recent and contemporary poetry (inflated rhetoric, surrealist effects, vatic pronouncements, verbal flailing, and sprawl) than what they wished to promote. In one of his last books of verse (Penultimata, published in 2009), Conquest wrote of the perhaps archetypal Movement poet, Philip Larkin, that he had “a mind immune/ To cant,” but if this was their shared ideal it was also clear that they had as many differing aims and concerns as they had principles in common. Two of the most prominent of the group were Kingsley Amis and Conquest himself; in 1951 Amis famously wrote that “nobody wants any more poems about philosophers or paintings or novelists or art galleries or mythologies or foreign cities or other poems. At least I hope nobody wants them.” But Conquest clearly wanted them, since he wrote poems on all these subjects; drawing on his experiences in and after World War II in particular, he wrote a great many poems in the Movement’s heyday (the mid-1950s) about foreign cities and foreign landscapes. Almost as many were about poetry, what it is and how it does what it does, and one is even called, perhaps as a conscious riposte to Amis’s remark, “poem about a poem about a poem.” That poem, among others, has now been published in a collected edition.
The Movement poets’ preference for an even tone, meticulous description, and a consciousness that is suspicious of its own emotional excesses whether positive or negative meant that a particularly venerable, and until then surely central, kind of poetry became something of no-go area for them. Most of the Movement poets wrote remarkably few love poems, and when love does appear in their poetry it is usually shadowed by irony. There are certainly poems about lust, flippantly cynical, as in Amis’s “Sight Unseen,” or brutally disillusioned as in Larkin’s “Deceptions,” but the revelation of a particular person as life’s be-all and end-all, the coup de foudre that makes the poet literally or at least metaphorically want to fall to his knees . . . not so much. Being disabused of illusion is a central Movement virtue, and its wary watchfulness would surely discount as silly such extravagant notions almost as soon as they became conscious. Here again Conquest tended to part company with his poetic confrères; he could write short, flip, catty poems about lust (particularly when writing as his late persona “Fred”) with the best of them, but there is a much more benign and fructifying erotic presence in many of his more substantial poems, a sense that erotic feeling is less a trap for the unwary than a welcome source of joy and mutual pleasure, one not to be questioned, at least in the moment that it is experienced.
At a lower level of intensity, it is notable, for example, how many of his early descriptions of foreign landscapes tend to have a young woman in them. There is almost a formula to such poems: a landscape is observed at a moment of tranquility in which the disasters of the public world (war and its desolate consequences, what he calls “the world of politics and rifles,” perhaps echoing E. M. Forster’s “outer life of telegrams and anger”) seem for a moment in abeyance, and this momentary sense of benign peace is concentrated on “a girl” who is with him, or glimpsed in the distance, or even merely imagined. Eros is present, as an undertow, a possibility, but certainly as a benign presence, an intimation of transformative consolation, if not quite of her overwhelming supervening of everything else. It is only one element in a complex scene, but it is the element around which hope and the possibilities of redemption from “the world of politics and rifles” are concentrated. For example, in a poem on being in Copenhagen with a lover, he writes that her presence with him
gives the landscape form,
And is the immanence of every art . . .
A philosophy deriving from the calm
As you move into the center of my heart.
And in “A Girl in the Snow,” the woman is
Close to my heart, beyond all fear and error,
A clear-cut warmth in this vague waste of cold:
A road of meaning through this shapeless time.
Most poignantly, the poem “On the Danube”—a meditation on the tentative awakening of the Balkans at the end of World War II, and on the way that “A cold complexity of violence still/ Lies heavy on this broken continent”—ends
Yet here I am alone and far
From the brilliance of the fighting ideologies,
And I think of a girl in a small provincial town
Looking through a spring rain and imagining love.
The brutality of the “fighting ideologies” was the subject that much of his better known historical writing was to be concerned with, and it is also almost always present as the context, whether alluded to or left unspoken, of his most personal lyrical verse, whose energy so often seems to be focused on the attempt to find or construct some kind of private haven of escape from, exactly, “the fighting ideologies.” It is no coincidence that the dedication of his first book is to a victim of the “fighting ideologies”; it reads, “In memory of Maurice Langlois, poet, died in the hands of the secret police of the occupying power.”
The reality that underlies “On the Danube” is the fact that once the war ended, the Danube, as the river that ran from West Germany through Austria and into the countries beyond the Iron Curtain, became a kind of ever-flowing emblem of “the fighting ideologies,” and of “the occupying power.” England experienced no wartime occupation by a foreign power, and the impact of “the fighting ideologies” there was muted and all but silenced by the country’s turn to a socialist post-war government (Conquest called it “a shaky and incomplete and non-authoritarian socialism: liberty and law survived”) and that government’s subsequent establishment of the welfare state. For post-war England, occupying powers and fighting ideologies were the concerns of continental Europe: foreign and exotic preoccupations that had virtually no impact on day-to-day British life. Perhaps the quality that most distinguished Conquest from the poets with whom he made common cause in the 1950s was the way that such preoccupations remained real and pressing to him in a way that they clearly were not to most of his poet contemporaries. The taint of Little England-ism (a rather scruffy, demotic descendant of nineteenth-century imperial contempt for the non-English world) that hovers around the work of a few of the Movement poets (most notably Larkin and Amis) is wholly missing from Conquest’s poetry. His father was American and his mother English, and he was evidently entirely at home in both countries, perhaps even more so than his fellow Movement poet Thom Gunn, who was also able to respond positively and empathetically to many aspects of both American and British culture. Conquest was slightly older than most of the other Movement poets, almost none of whom saw active service in World War II (the exceptions were Roy Fuller and Donald Davie, both of whom served at sea and saw at first hand neither combat nor the uprooted peoples and devastated cities and landscapes that were among its results ); this gave Conquest both a stronger awareness of European cultures and a much more realistic sense of the possibilities of political brutality than the majority of his fellow Movement poets possessed, or in some cases were even interested in possessing. To put it bluntly, his background and experiences gave him wider intellectual, political, and emotional sympathies than were available to his younger contemporaries, and these sympathies became evident in his poetry in ways that were almost completely absent from theirs.
The taint of Little England-ism that hovers around the work of a few of the Movement poets is wholly missing from Conquest’s poetry.
A preoccupation that shadows the apparently irreconcilable split we see in his poems between “the world of politics and rifles” and the private cherishing of intimations of beauty and Eros is the split between the quotidian and often harsh facts of the world as he was experiencing it as a young man and the desired perfections of art, in particular of poetry. It’s clear from the way that his poems keep coming back to this subject that poetry for him represented a kind of Platonic ideal of how the world could be, of how one would wish it to be, and he continually contrasts this with how it incontrovertibly so frequently is—random, ruthless, and cruelly careless of human life. Poetry in his work allies itself with the privacies of Eros, and both seem representative of a vision of life repeatedly glimpsed and desired but only intermittently attained and experienced. Many of his more lyrical poems read almost as thank-you notes for moments when things had come aesthetically and/or erotically “right.” This gratitude for what seem like moments of almost mystical epiphany that lie somewhere outside the normal run of mundane experience is a major theme of his poetry, and it’s all the more remarkable because it seems to fly in the face of his resolute pragmatism, his insistence on telling things as they are, on not gilding the lily, on sticking, as he says in a poem in honor of George Orwell, to “the real person, real event, or thing.” This quasi-Platonic notion of an ideal is restricted in Conquest’s writings to a more or less private world of subjective sensibility, to the recognition of beauty, Eros, and art, and it is not at all applied to how the world actually is. When it came to understanding and interpreting the facts of politics and history, he was resolutely pragmatic and empirical (or, as one of his poems puts it, “Hurrah for Hume and Locke and Hobbes”), and he harbored a deep suspicion, not to say contempt, for attempts to explain history and its disasters in ideological and theoretical terms; he approvingly quoted Tom Stoppard when he had Herzen say of the English in his play The Coast of Utopia, “They invented personal liberty . . . and they did it without any theories about it.” It doesn’t seem too much of a leap to say that this insistence on what has actually happened, rather than what any political ideology might claim had “really” been happening in some larger theoretical narrative, was influenced by what he saw of Europe in the aftermath of World War II, and of the disappearance of Eastern Europe behind the Iron Curtain.
But I realize I may be making Conquest’s poems seem a much grimmer and more angst-ridden affair than many of them actually are. He spent much of the last half of his life in the United States, and while living there he continued the habit he had developed early in his career of writing poems centered on particular landscapes, but the tone changed quite radically. An extraordinary lyricism pervades his poems on American landscapes; they are filled with a kind of grateful acknowledgment of the fact that anything outside of the strictly personal could give such deep, continuous, unalloyed pleasure. They evoke what the critic Tony Tanner called “the reign of wonder” as he found it embodied in a great deal of nineteenth-century American literature. In a long poem like “Coming Across,” which records (with the by-now-requisite “woman beside him”) in a deceptively direct and factual way a car trip “journeying westward/ on interstate 10,” or “The Peninsula,” much of which simply and delightedly records the names of California towns, that sense which pervades his earlier poems of the strangeness and fleetingness of the epiphanies a landscape can give has been replaced by an implication that the epiphany is always there if one will but recognize it and attend to it. This newfound relationship with landscape is perhaps most obviously present in what is arguably one of Conquest’s most profound and beautiful poems, “The Idea of Virginia,” in which many of his more benign preoccupations come together. The poem traces the Commonwealth of Virginia’s history and landscapes in loving detail, almost as if it were an answer to his earlier poems on war-torn European landscapes; a reasonable and pragmatic England is there, too, as a political background to be celebrated (and it is significant for the poem that Virginia began as a colony that consciously retained its connections with the English state, rather than seeing them, as the Puritan settlers of Plymouth did, mainly as encumbrances to escape from, so that we can say that Virginia almost stands in for Conquest’s own mixed English-American heritage, neither part of which, on the evidence of his poems, he would wish to renounce).
And so great spaces, feelings, fruitfulness poured
Their warm potentials over a fallow landscape.
Its other affluent brimmed in a far-off island:
Liberties, laws, the strong constitutional state.
As the poem proceeds, Virginia becomes a place that embodies what Conquest sees as the best of an English political and artistic tradition, one that he implies England itself was in the process of losing:
Haydn, prose, elections, deism, architecture,
Bred the leaders of battle, governance, law.
Washington, Marshall, Madison, Jefferson, Henry
Defended a heightened England from an England lapsed.
And as the poem draws to its close, the names, details, and references gradually come together in a wonderful celebratory paean of both history and the land itself that preceded history:
But Lee in his college office in Lexington,
The man beyond criticism, spoke reconciliation.
Slavery at least was gone. Over yet one more century
As the wounds heal up, the flaws start slowly to fade.
The dogwood blooms, the cardinals perch, the lean hounds hunt
Where Pocahontas danced, where John Smith scouted, where Spottiswood rode,
Where Washington marched to victory, Jackson to death,
By the slow rivers, the cool woods, the mountains, the marshes,
The Idea, never fulfilled, was never abandoned:
The free order only approaches its goal.
The land lived on imperfect in city and forest,
Its form half remembered: as it lay in the minds of poets.
The Platonic ideal, which haunted Conquest’s early poems as something that poetry could achieve, as it were, in spite of the world, is here seen as an embodiment of the world’s civic potential, and the poet’s mind is given its place not as something that irreconcilably reaches for perfection but as the site where an unrealized but always present ideal of social humanity lives on.
I have deliberately left till last a side of Conquest’s poetry that many readers may be familiar with, without realizing who it was who had written the poems in question. Conquest published a number of political commentaries in verse that were parodies of famous poems (or perhaps it’s better to say of once-famous poems) under the name Ted Pauker. The best known is probably his parody of the eighteenth-century poem “The Vicar of Bray,” which was about a real cleric who “was first a Papist, then a Protestant, then a Papist, then a Protestant again” so that, no matter which religion had the current monarch’s blessing, he kept his post as vicar of the village of Bray. In Conquest’s version, the “vicar” is a member of the Soviet politburo who manages to keep his post despite all the purges and rewritings of the party line. Conquest’s brilliant version (both as a parody of the original, and as a history of the seamy opportunism of Soviet, and other, politicians) has nine stanzas. Here is the first:
In good old Stalin’s early days
When terror little harm meant
A zealous commissar I was
And so I got preferment.
I grabbed each peasant as I said
“Can there be something you lack?”
And if he dared to answer “bread”
I shot him for a kulak.
And each stanza is followed by the refrain:
For on this rule I will insist
Because I have the knack, Sir:
Whichever way its line may twist
I’ll be a Party hack, Sir!
Conquest also published numerous limericks under the same name; many are political, many are literary, and many have the traditional subject of the limerick: sex. The best-known political one is certainly:
There was a great Marxist called Lenin,
Who did two or three million men in;
That’s a lot to have done in
But where he did one in
The grand Marxist Stalin did ten in.
The best known literary, and slightly scabrous, one is probably:
Charlotte Brontë said, “Wow, sister! What a man!
He laid me face down on the ottoman.
Now don’t you and Emily
Go telling the family—
But he smacked me upon my bare bottom, Anne!”
Some rise to the level of snide but fairly accurate literary criticism:
Said Pound, “If one’s writing a Canto
It should be a sort of portmanteau
Full of any old crap
That occurs to a chap
With patches of pig esperanto.”
Whatever else his parodies and limericks demonstrate, they show that he had a marvelous ear for the comic possibilities of meter, and was a dab hand at finding very clever and funny feminine rhymes. The same qualities are demonstrated in the late, mostly very short, poems he wrote using the persona “Fred.” These are mostly about sex, and, it must be said, they wouldn’t win him many, if any, friends in the #MeToo movement. Still, for anyone who came of age before the mid-1960s, they can raise a perhaps somewhat guilty smile or two. Humor is an eminently social virtue, and Conquest’s funny poems, whether satirical or scabrous or both, are one more facet of his multiple probing at human society—what it is, how ideology can make it go disastrously wrong, what it ideally should be, and what, if we keep our eyes resolutely open and are very lucky, it might be.
1Collected Poems, by Robert Conquest, edited by Elizabeth Conquest; Waywiser Press, 448 pages, $32.99.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 38 Number 9, on page 13
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