Jean Earle – a naïve talent?

First published in the on-line magazine
New Horizon

Jean Earle was born in 1909 in Bristol but brought up in the Rhondda Valley in South Wales where her father was an architect on the Crawshay Estate. She began writing poetry in her youth but gave it up as a serious pursuit after getting married until her children had grown up. Even so, it was not until 1980 that Carcanet published her first collection A Trial of Strength. I was lucky enough to be passed this volume, from a then unknown poet, for review. I was impressed but not uncritical. Shortly after the review appeared I attended a meeting of the Welsh Union of Writers in Carmarthen following which she approached me rather shyly to thank me. This was the only time I met her in person, although I was subsequently able to publish some of her work in The Anglo-Welsh Review when I took over from Gillian Clarke as editor of that journal. At the time Jean Earle was working as a secretary at the palace of the Bishop of St Davids (now a museum) at Abergwili near Carmarthen. This palace is the setting for some of the poems that appeared in her second and third collections The Intent Look (1984) and Visiting Light (1987). ‘Walking Home’ records a particularly intense experience:

 Years of walking home
Through the great garden have enriched,
Saved – perhaps from losing ‘strangeness’?

‘Saved’ here begins a subtle conceit that develops though the poem to balance the Christian background of her work on “diocesan matters” against the possibilities of a religion of nature:

A thousand blackbirds roost
In the drive bushes. Garden and churchyard
Are one great round, steeped in ceremonial
Long before Christ. Often I feel the rites
Quilling like blackbirds ….

This is an old and holy place,
Waging perpetual wars. I side with them –
But am unsure under what rising powers
I walk home.

Those trailing dots after “blackbirds” are characteristic. They are often used to leave a thought hanging in the air. Or sometimes there will be a sudden change of direction with a phrase inserted to stand out obliquely from the main flow of the narrative. It is a style that can be characterised as deliberate naïvety in accordance with her comments on the “naïve” painter Jean-Baptist Guiraud in ‘The Picture of the Tiger Hunt’ in her first collection. She notes that the tiger’s paws are like hands, that the painter is called “naïve”: “and we look for truth”. Humanizing the tiger as he is about to be killed is a strategy the painter uses to focus on the reality of its death. Knowingly embracing the painter’s sentiment here, the poet endorses it:

So do all creatures, peaceful or tiger, lift hands
Not paws,
At the flash of death.

The poem’s final lines:

Towards light is the last appeal
And should evoke tears.

reinforces the naïve statement which, on the part of the poet, is both deliberate and at the same time wholly without irony.

My point here is that Jean Earle is capable of simultaneous naivety and sophistication. The poem ‘Honesty’ provides further illustration of this point. Here the poet records being given the seed of an honesty flower which someone had brought her as a gift from the garden of Dove Cottage:

Had she any idea
How much it pleased me? Only a tourist
At Dove Cottage had she ever heard
Of William and Dorothy

It is Dorothy Wordsworth rather than William that the seed evokes, the rest of the poem being replete with images from Dorothy’s Journal, recalling her “sowing the scarlet beans”. Those who care to pursue the reference would find that the sowing, growing and subsequent condition of these beans are woven into Dorothy’s anxieties about her relationship with her brother in the period leading up to his marriage to Mary Hutchinson. The poem records that William had

taken joy
Of their life together into his stern hold
And gone for Mary

In growing the seed, Jean Earle is able metonymically to reach back through time to Dorothy. The flower that emerges is a sharp magenta:

How eloquent to me – yes, as a friend’s dress
Seen against time and light
Its colour is.

The idea that the flower itself provides a direct connection back to the Wordsworths, that they may as she puts it, “have trodden the soil / This seed sprang from…”, as if the garden had been in continuous cultivation since the early nineteenth century, is on the face of it naïve. But the name of the flower, and the title of the poem, provides a more subtle irony in this respect, as does the fact that the person who collected the seed “stole” it. ‘Honesty’, however, permeates the deeper attitude of the poet here beneath the surface dishonesties which a superficial reading of her lines might suggest. To anyone who knows Dorothy’s Journal the poem reveals a sophisticated talent mediating the image of light (here and thematically in many of her poems) which she employs apparently artlessly but in fact with a focused purpose.

What sort of ‘honesty’ is attempted by the poet in finding the magenta flowers “eloquent”? Exploring the poem’s truth reveals different layers to a possible answer. We might say that the flower is some sort of symbol of an attempt at honest seeing, looking back at the “intense and ardent” lives of the Wordsworths and the modern poet’s sense of personal affiliation to Dorothy in particular. Further below the surface the organic image of the seed-flower-seed cycle expressed by the honesty plant can be seen as carrying in embryo from its Dove Cottage parent the colour of Dorothy’s dress through time to the present. To honour, or speak honestly of, such an experience is not an easy thing to do. Honesty as veracity to established facts is not the point here, but remains a subtext to the recording of the experience. For the poet, Dorothy’s light shining through time is a simple truth that must be acknowledged, as must the part played by the flower and its history and her own readings of Wordsworthian lives. If such a wish to be naïvely faithful to perceived truth is problematic, it is only so in the sense that William Wordsworth’s wish to honour his sister in poems such as ‘The Glow-Worm’, where he addresses her as ‘Lucy’, lacks such veracity. Jean Earle feels genuinely and honestly close to Dorothy and the flower functions metonymically to bring that close connection into being. But this is not just a constructed relationship in figurative language although its construction here enables its expression as such in a poem that witnesses an attempt at honest expression of a more fundamental kind.

‘The Woollen Mill’ tells of a visit to a working mill powered by a water wheel. It is a good example of what the poet has called in an interview “seeing things as if they’re under a spell, in a special light.”(*)  Watching the wet wools hanging up to dry, the poet discovers “a true pattern / To do with light…”. Everywhere she looks light assaults her, even sparkling from the half-closed eyes of a sleeping dog. Suddenly, she is overwhelmed:

Down the mill walls, light translated water,
The roaring silver
Over the wheel, that ground out light – and light –
Danced out of ancient cogs
From when they were young wood.
Such bright looking hurt ….
When someone passed
I turned my head for relief of his shadow.

The poem continues with further glittering imagery. Two fish on a windowsill draw light “into their stillness”. A man is “all afire / With fused intent”. Beads of moisture in the grass displaced by the webbed feet of toads, Marsh Buttercups shining, unbearably bright colours of wet wool; all of these crowd together in a culminating series of impressions of light as the poet records the intensity of the experience. The spell that things are under here is a powerful one. At the same time the poem’s simple narrative is of the warping of the loom and its moment of the eternal present, the point at which

When the cross is taken in the warp
And the weave is certain

‘Taking the cross’ is a technical term for a stage in the process of weaving and is referred to once more further on in the poem and then again right at the end:

I suppose every turn of the earth
Is loom to someone’s light?
A skein untangles
Out of wind and sun,
Lies in the ordered warp, patterning
Scarlet, blue ….

The cross taken.

In one sense, then, the poem is simply a series of impressions, naïvely recorded, of a visit to a working woollen mill. The intensity of the impressions and the spontaneous nature of their randomness run as a bright and wayward thread through the poem. But there is also an ordering process in the narrative of the preparation of the loom focused on the particular stage of taking the cross. Are we to see a metaphor in the use of the technical term here, linked as it is with the idea of “a true pattern / To do with light”?  We might choose to regard it as a Christian symbol. Or not. It is worth remembering the use of “saved” in the poem ‘Walking Home’ and the ambiguous  nature of spiritual nourishment gained in that poem. I would suggest the cross here is a contingent rather than a necessary statement of specific religious significance.

In the interview already referred to, Jean Earle described herself as “religious in her own way” but added that, according to her daughter, she shouldn’t describe herself as a Christian. She was, rather, “a bit pantheistic”.(*) If, nevertheless, the reader is invited, as in the ‘Tiger Hunt’ poem, to look for truth here too and to find in the apparently ingenuous use of the word ‘cross’ the possibility of further significance, the primary truth is in the unadulterated experience of light in the things of this world. One implication of light is that there will be shadows. The poem ‘Shadowland’ opens with the line “Obsessed by shadows ….”. Here she plays with the idea of shadowless figures being vampires until they go “out into glorious day / And its relevant shadows”. In ‘Devil’s Blackberries’ shadows adopt a life of their own in the striking imagery of

Late pickers – cut off from the sunset
In a ditch of brambles –
From earthed heels let fly
Their lengthening shadows

That shoot up the hill behind,
To a view of the sea.

They watch “the passionate tide blooding the coast” as the Sun sets while the pickers remain in the ditch with the Sun out of sight. The poem alludes to the folk legend that blackberries picked after a certain date belong to the Devil. As the pickers go home their shadows “go before them, / Berries. And worms.”

As well as the necessary contrast between light and darkness, some of the poems hint at a darkness underlying light. In ‘Jugged Hare’ the poet remembers her mother preparing the dish for her father:

 … Her rings sparked in and out
Of newspaper wipes. Blood in a bowl
Sacrificial gravy.

The poem builds through images of the skinning, gutting and preparation of the hare. Then

After the feast, my father was a lover
Deeply enhanced.
I heard them go to bed,
Kissing – still inside her picture.
Later, I heard her sob
And guessed it was the hare
Troubled her. My father slept,
Stunned by tribute. She lay now
Outside her frame, in the hare’s dark

The deftness of the apparently artless build-up to the conclusion that she “could flense a hare / because she wooed a man” carries the narrative to a glib conclusion. But the sense of her lying “in the hare’s dark” deepens this to a more subtle shadow cast by the light of a successful marriage.

A selection from the three volumes mentioned above, with the addition of some new poems, was published in 1990 by Seren Books.  Jean Earle published two further volumes, The Sun in the West (1993) and The Bed of Memory (2001) before her death in 2002. As the titles of both suggest, these were her declining years and some of the poems revisit old themes and look back at a long life. But there is also a new mischievousness apparent in some of them. In another poem on her work in the Bishop’s Palace she tells how she appropriated some black satin from robes that were being thrown out and made herself a petticoat: “No-one ever knew / What I wore sometimes beneath my skirt / When I took dictation.”  Although there is a more resigned and reflective tone in many of these poems, the intensity and the brightness of her looking at the world is undimmed.  She often reflects on the ability of the imagination to transform the world and continues to offer accounts of such transformations in her poems. Indeed she asserts that this ability “comes best / When one is old” and that “If you have loved the world enough, / You can make escapes / Into anything” (‘Exits’). She audaciously adopts personas: “I was once Sir Bedivere’s squire” (‘Sir Bedivere’s Horse’), or imagines herself asking Peter Pears at Aldburgh “How he could probe so deep into my world” (‘Grave at Aldburgh’) making an incident from the distant past vividly present. She remembers “a giant’s comb” (in fact an old loom) on an April evening above “a raging cove / Shocked with high tide”, but

The voice explaining the loom
Is dead – and I,
Stung by the spray,
Watch a hawk which scarcely quivers
In the dusking sky.
(‘Porth y Rhaw’)

Such constructions are always conscious but the way she can slip back in time as if not quite in control of her faculties is another aspect of the deliberate cultivation of a ‘naïve’ style of presentation.

In ‘Hannah Learning to Walk’ she compares herself and the child to two stars “She in the rising arc / We hope for her – I, in erratic course / Through a deepening dark ….”. But in spite of this occasional elegiac tone she is, even in her last volume, capable of new departures. The sustained and moving narrative of ‘The Catalyst’, for example surprises the reader who thinks (s)he has the measure of the poet’s style. The Bed of Memory , her last collection, contains a number of poems on the death of her husband expressing the need to continue life without him. The final lines of this collection are particularly powerful. Thinking of the time that has passed since his death, she resolves to “Breathe up and out, / Away from your death …. // Not away from you, not you … /But from pain I cannot take any more.” (‘Breathing Exercises’) This may, or may not, be the last poem she wrote, but it provides a touching finality to her published work.

*  Interview with Katie Gramich New Welsh Review 33 Summer 1996  pp. 42-44
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