“Bright Feather Fading” Lilian Bowes Lyon (Jonathan Cape) – book review

Bright Feather Fading by Lilian Bowes Lyon poetry book cover

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Bright Feather Fading” was Lilian Bowes Lyon’s second collection. The title poem uses the death of a hawk, “So earth steals back/ The stranger, whose light-track/ Has scarred foolhardier ground;/ Bright feather fading and night found.” but could also be a metaphor for the death of a proud man who thinks himself invincible. “Battlefield” was inspired by the death of her own brother, a Lieutenant in the Black Watch, in the First World War, a poem with a long germination,

“Men in their prime,
Boys venerably young.
With all-unfaded brows, died here upon a time;
So heavy a wrong –
How may this black world right who trod them into slime?

Still must pour milder suns,
Splintering the stained glass window of a wood,
Be darkly seen through these men’s blood
And midnight mutter in her sleep with guns.”

She kept questioning “how may this black world right who trod them into slime?” for the rest of her life, despairing at man’s inhumanity yet never quite losing her faith that humanity would triumph. Lilian Bowes Lyon was not a politician but prepared to reach out and help those in need and sought out people with her values rather than her status.

In “The Hedgerow Story” she moves away from the mannered initial capitals for each line and allows the poem to flow,

“When fields here lose their colour, when the wood
trailing a hoary wing turns home
to raven night, I reckon up the sun
of rustic evil and clay-spattered good.

I think of the innumerable slow lives whose history
differs a hairsbreadth from the hedgerow story:
thorns in black competition, the roped glory
of gossamer, soon gone,
with berries dipped in blood.

When fields here lose the light, I fear the mystery
of men like trees, that tower but touch the sky
they cannot and are felled one by one,
I think of saint and scarecrow schooled to die;
their leafless victory stands, where nothing stood.”

The long vowel assonances in “wood”, “home”, “sun”, “good”, “slow… whose history, “hedgerow story”, “roped glory”, “soon gone”, “blood”, “tower… touch”, “one by one”, “scarecrow schooled” and “stood” give the poem a sense of world-weariness and timelessness. It’s a timeless story too of the change from night to day from season to season as the hedgerow shakes off  Spring’s spiderlings to reveal its seeded berries and then lose summer’s light to winter where they outlive men who attempt to farm and control nature. Lilian Bowes Lyon loved but was not sentimental about a countryside she often described in winter, perhaps reflecting the season of her birth, rather than the soft hues of spring or sharp greens of summer. In “Duchess”, “Moth horse silvery raven./ Look at her, gloaming a fur/ Rope-rough she roams, a witch;/ Yonder what cobweb leech/ Is milking the pond stealthily of black.// The stark days, soon they come;/ An old mare under the hedge,/ Rump to the blizzard,/ Is carved on the year’s tomb./Wind-bitten Duchess, breast/ Frost-laced she glows, august,/ Knows winter’s worst,/ Lean havoc, storm-stock hazard./ Leave her to rust, nor grudge/ This yoke-proud labourer lost;/ Scored flank December-fleeced/ She conjures the snow softly into bloom.” This is further exemplified in “Pastoral”

“This field has buried men; is browed
With easy gold; day’s Midas touch
Turns all to richness, only these were ploughed
By poverty under, pave a roofless church –
Kindle no saffron cloud.

These nothing want, are nameless loam;
But hungrier bones we knew as boys
Stand gauntly erect or swelter out their doom,
Live grist to the machine that still destroys;
And wolves sing harvest-home.

On evening lea unearth long sighs,
The lingering testament of their pain;
Tear open the sepulchred acre till they rise
And call Peace hypocrite, who dumbly stain
With blood her pastoral skies.”

“Pastoral” is clearly an ironic.title. Lilian Bowes Lyon doesn’t flinch from describing
the poverty and grinding work of eking a living from the land at the mercy of the climate and pests. Her country was the rocky terrain of Northumbria with wide-open skies and nothing but isolation for miles in any direction, “The Glittering North” ends, “The wild years cover that yonder of serenity/ Yet carry it with them, like this sedgeling stream/ That braids the glittering north, a ghost in debt,” the final image lifting the poem.

Lilian Bowes Lyon wasn’t a modernist or an urban poet and didn’t follow any school, but remained true to what she felt compelled to write. She let her heart guide, but not override, her head. She didn’t quite have the courage to completely let go of poetic traditions, but arranged her poems to convey her message. Although she was independently wealthy, she did have the courage to leave the family home and live alone at a time when women were expected only to leave the family home on marriage and spend their days wrapped in domesticity. It is unsurprisingly that as a woman writing she felt the pull of convention, yet used it to her own ends. Her words are carefully stitched together but the result isn’t a flowery table decoration to be buried in spindly tea sets. The result is a picture using deliberate, strong colours hung on a wall for you to choose to ignore to pay attention to. She would ask that you look but not force you to. Should you look, you’ll find the experience rewarding.

“Bright Feather Fading” contains a “Sonnet (for RJ)” which is dropped from “Collected
Poems” and two poems are renamed, “Where Sailor Used to Lodge” is renamed “Old Cardigan” which is a shame as the original title was better and “Still Journey” is renamed “Unborn”. Titles are difficult to get right and Lilian Bowes Lyon tended to choose descriptive titles that sum up her poem, which is a weakness as titles need to intrigue and draw the readers in.

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