“The White Hare” Lilian Bowes Lyon (Jonathan Cape) – poetry review

Lilian Bowes Lyon The White Hare front cover image

Lilian Bowes Lyon The White Hare spine image
















“The White Hare” was originally published in 1934 and brings together poems written in the period 1929 – 1934. The poet, Lilian Bowes Lyon, was born in Northumberland in 1895 and, unsurprisingly, draws extensively from her countryside upbringing, particularly in poems like the title poem,

“This charmer is alive:
Who cheated the loud pack,
Biting steel, poacher’s sack;
Among the steep rocks
Outwitted the fanged fox.

And now winter has come;
Winds have made dumb
Water’s crystal chime;
In a cloak of rime
Stands the stiff bracken;
Until the cold slacken
Beauty and terror kiss;
There is no armistice.
Low must the hare lie,
With great heart and round eye.

Wind-scoured and sky-burned
The fell was her feet spurned
In the flowery season
Of her swift unreason;
Gone is her March rover;
Now noon is soon over;
Now the dark falls…”

Lilian Bowes Lyon is not sentimental about nature, accepting the cycle of life and death, the relationships and eco-balance between prey and hunter and she records the grinding battle of trying to make a living from the land. Scenic as her countryside is, it is also buffeted by wind and snow. More of her poems are about winter than spring. In “Northumbrian Farm”, men “scatter to far fields, to the ten-acre stubble,/ To the hedge-sickle and plough;/ Heavily beats now…”

Whilst her rhyme-scheme and techniques are firmly of their time, at least in he early poems (not a negative observation in a first collection), her choice of language has stood the test of time and is easily understood for example in, “Spire”

“Spire of sorrow,
Slender and tense you have risen.
You have taken your flight easily
From this bitter ground;
Loosed by a desperate bowman
You have soared truthfully;
Dire grey arrow;
You have pinned sorrow to heaven,
Serene at a bound.”

Where the longer vowels and light rhythm of the final line provides relief from the tight, constricted sounds of the lines to that point and the metaphor is well-sustained. Her close observation is show in “At the Theatre” too where “Your cheekbone smooth as metal/ The stage, your halo of blurred gold,/ Was only a borrowed gleaming, a reflected mystery” as a theatre-goer tries to read her companion’s mood, perhaps looking for confirmation her own feelings are reciprocated. Similar observations inform “In Kensington Gardens” where children, “lovely and perishable,/ flashed in and out of violet and amber glooms/…/ An old man like a squirrel, and who lacked a larder,/ with a sharp stick prodded the leaf mould;/ after him came two high-brows playing a wordy ping-pong;/ April’s confederates,/ first-lovers, inarticulate with wooden rapture,/ in quiet nooks conceived a garden invisible…” In “The Hermitage” Lilian Bowes Lyon takes the life of a specific woman and broadens it to a universal one:

“She had kept herself to herself strictly, all her life,
Dressed quieter than a mouse;
And now The Hermitage was in the hands of her executors.

Both rich and poor came chattering; the butcher’s wife
Went all over the house,
Admired a gossamer tea-set and the bust of Palmerston.

The place heaved like an ant-heap, upstairs too;
Inquisitive hands a score
Turned over her Spartan bedding, fingered wan embroidery;

It seemed that immaculate old lady’s lonely Waterloo,
Who had set such a stores
By a decent reticence, till Death gave her publicity.”

It describes a woman who was careful and precise in life, guarding her privacy and decorum, who finds that death undoes her. It allows neighbours, whom she’d carefully kept at a remove, to invade her house and pick over her best china and bedding. Lilian Bowes Lyon allows the details to accumulate a picture of the poem’s subject’s life, the “gossamer tea-set”, “Spartan bedding” and “wan embroidery”. The language is not judgement either of the subject or the gossiping neighbours invading the house. The poet trusts her readers to draw their own conclusions. The poem’s scaffolding is provided by the rhyme scheme. The first lines of stanzas one and two rhyme as do the first lines of stanzas three and four. This scheme is continued with the middle lines similarly rhyming. The ultimate lines of stanzas one and two use part-rhyme on the “to” sound and the ultimate lines of stanzas three and four rhyme. The long vowel sounds of words such as “mouse”, “poor”, “house”, “gossamer”, “bust”, “score”, “wan” draw out the words, giving a sense of weary resignation. This echoes the sense that the lady cannot prevent what her neighbours are doing. The choice of “gossamer” and “wan” give a fleeting sense of someone who wasn’t quite there in life but lived like a ghost or something delicate and ethereal and suggest she’s watching her gossiping neighbours weigh up her life.

I have ignored the section “Early Poems” for the purposes of this review. Some of these early poems use dialect and show that Lilian Bowes Lyon’s poetry matured between the earlier poems of adolescence and publication of “The White Hare”. In selecting for her “Collected Poems”, Lilian Bowes Lyon reproduces the order of poems in “The White Hare” virtually faithfully apart from the omission of two poems, “The Doors of Evening” and “Saturday Afternoon.”

Overall the poems in “The White Hare” do not use overtly poetic language or obscure words that send readers scurrying for a dictionary, but a carefully chosen vocabulary that reaches out to include the reader. Her choice of language is deceptively simple: if you try to substitute a different word or add or delete a phrase, the poem crumbles. Very little effort is required to read her poems aloud, demonstrating that Lilian Bowes Lyon has paid careful attention to the rhythm and sound patternings within her poems. They work whether they are read from the page or heard read aloud. Her strength lies in making the poems look effortless.


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