Intense Silence: The Poetry of James Reeves

Although best known today as an editor, anthologist and award-winning writer of children’s verse, James Reeves (1909-1978) was also a prolific writer of adult poetry and was hailed by among others Robert Graves, Laura Riding, and Robert Nye as being one of the finest poets alive. In a stunning new selection  of his work published by Greenich Exchange – the first since his death, and edited by John Howlett – Reeves’ poetry can be reappraised as being amongst the most consistent and varied bodies of work of the twentieth century. It masterfully combines straightforward readability with a profound and deeply philosophical way of viewing the world. At its heart lies a poet whose work encompassed satire, elegy, humour, and doubt, yet was always underscored by a profound humanity.

The editor of The High Window is grateful to Michael Irwin on behalf of the James Reeves Estate for permission to publish poems  included in James Reeves, Selected Poems. copies of which can be purchased by following this link to Greenwich ExchangeHe would also like to express his thanks to  John Howlett, Gareth Reeves and Greenwich Exchange for their help  in making this feature possible.

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james reeves selected

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James Reeves (1909-1978) was an English writer known mainly for his poetry, critical works, teaching guides, and as a collector of folk songs. He was also a well-known anthologist, broadcaster and editor, including important revelatory editions of John Donne, Gerard Manley Hopkins and John Clare. After an education at Stowe School and Cambridge where he first started writing, Reeves taught for twenty years in a number of schools, retiring early to become a full-time writer. Amongst his many literary acquaintances was Robert Graves, who Reeves visited in Deya, and with whom he forged a life-long friendship.

Over the course of his writing career, Reeves produced eight volumes of verse and over 250 poems, some of which became staples of school anthologies. Although he refused to conform to prevailing poetic trends, Reeves’ work nevertheless was expertly constructed and his poems moved between various moods and forms including satire, elegy, as well as wider social comment. Underpinned by a philosophy he called ‘sub-song’ his verses challenge us to see the ordinary world in a different way.

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James Reeves: Eight Poems

james reeves wiki pic

THOUGHTS AND MEMORIES

Do others waking in the morning hear
Dog bark or cuckoo call
And suddenly not know for certain whether
Dog or bird was there at all?
Perhaps a poacher or a country boy
Is never taken unawares
But active with his snares
Is not so caught up in the past as I.

Do you too wonder if the finest thing
A promising flower can do
Is but to imitate with all its art
All other flowers that ever grew?
You looking from your window see the spring
Each year perform its leisurely
Long act of memory,
All nature gone into remembering.

Do you too lying sleepless think of things
That you have said or done,
Communicate with ghosts and fantasies
As if you feared to be alone?
You start to fall asleep, and one by one
Thoughts and memories go their ways;
You sleep and no ghost stays—
And oh, the horror if you waken them!

WINTER SPECULATION

We have travelled to a new country,
A region of hills
Where the sky is a frosted glass
Splintered with branches.
Winter piles up against the window ledges;
In our hearts the drifts deepen.
We are in a new country
And estranged.

Were you to die here,
Being delicate—
Were you to die after a season
And winter to surrender the hilltops finally,
Would not the whiteness melt from our hearts
And the river break
And I be left
Alone in the sunlight in a new country?

Here they tell me
Winter is long
Almost to forgetting spring.

FOR YEARS WE TRACED

For years we traced the river back,
A month of swamps for two of scree.
The beasts all died, the boys turned back.
For years we had not said
‘Above the next fall the promised view
The green, rewarding view.’
What we had seen no one said.

One struck the sun-cursed rock,
Recited fearing for his mind
Time and again the shepherd’s dirge,
Less for the death he had in mind
Than for the Shakespeare phrase.

One kept, he says, before his eyes
A picture by a Spanish master,
A peasant’s brooding eyes
And tilted lustrous wine.
I saw the columned temple in the haze
As its designer saw it first
Immaculate, finished in the sunset haze.

Bound in our spirit’s isolation
These we felt we could appraise.
Bound by the thwarted enterprise
We thought we knew the worth of praise.
These, not the legendary land,
The impossible land towards the source,
Were what our vision played on,
And had been for years.

LEAVING TOWN

It was impossible to leave the town.
Bumping across a maze of obsolete rails
Three times we reached the gasworks and reversed.
We could not get away from the canal;
Dead cats, dead hopes, in those grey deeps immersed,
Over our efforts breathed a spectral prayer.
The cattle-market and the gospel-hall
Returned like fictions of our own despair,
And like Hesperides the suburbs seemed,
Shining far off towards the guiltless fields.
We finished in a little cul-de-sac
Where on the pavement sat a ragged girl
Mourning beside a jug-and-bottle entrance.
Once more we turned the car and started back.

IMPORTANT INSECTS

Important insects clamber to the top
Of stalks; look round with uninquiring eyes
And find the world incomprehensible;
Then totter back to earth and circumscribe
Irregular territories pointlessly.
Some insects narcissistically assume
Patterns of spots or stripes or burnished sheen
For purposes of sex or camouflage,
Some tweet or rasp, though most are without speech
Except a low, subliminal, mindless chatter.
Take heart: those scientists are wrong who find
Elements of the human in their systems,
Despite their busy, devious trafficking
Important insects simply do not matter.

DISCHARGED FROM HOSPITAL

He stands upon the steps and fronts the morning.
The porter has called a taxi, and behind him
The infirmary doors have swung and come to rest.
Physician, surgeon, and anaesthetist
Have exercised their skill and he is cured.
The rabelaisian sister with the bedpan,
The vigorous masseuse, the sensual nurse
Who washes him modestly beneath a blanket,
The dawn chorus of cleaners, the almoner,
The visiting clergyman—all proceed without him.
He is alone beyond all need of them,
And the saved man goes home, to die of health.

THIS MOOD OF MURDER

Say who brought murder to the quiet street,
To read his guilt in their white eyes
And in the acceleration of their feet:
Say who brought murder to the quiet street
And I will say my name.
xxxxxxxxxxYou should look pale
To hear the bells’ resentful beat
Tolling, tolling his retreat.
You should look pale to understand his tale
In their white eyes and ticking feet.
Say who brought murder to the quiet street
And I will say my name.
xxxxxxxxxxBut should you pale
To meet his accomplice in your looking-glass,
Then go to bed alone with none who spread
This mood of murder in a quiet street.

THIS IS YOUR ELEGY

This is your elegy, the grey sea grieving –
This and the gulls’ disconsolate reply.
Beyond your hearing is their derelict cry.

Now every wave reminds me of your leaving.
There is no houseless bird more lost than I.
This is your elegy, the grey sea grieving –
This and the gulls’ disconsolate reply.

To end your absence and your unbelieving
With yet one more ‘I love you’, I would try
To call my sea-bird back from the cold sky.
This is your elegy, the grey sea grieving –
This and the gulls’ disconsolate reply.
Beyond your hearing is their derelict cry.

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4 thoughts on “Intense Silence: The Poetry of James Reeves

  1. So pleased to read these – I remember his well from my childhood! Will have buy his new book! Sarianne Durie

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  2. Cannot reach Greenwich Exchange – any ideas, please?   SD

    From: The High Window Reply-To: The High Window Date: Thursday, 28 October 2021 at 08:40 To: Subject: [New post] Intense Silence: The Poetry of James Reeves

    The High Window Review posted: “Although best known today as an editor, anthologist and award-winning writer of children’s verse, James Reeves (1909-1978) was also a prolific writer of adult poetry and was hailed by among others Robert Graves, Laura Riding, and Robert Nye as being one o”

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