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Collected Poems of Francis Webb

Edited by Toby Davidson



Toby Davidson's new collected poems is the most definitive version of Webb's work so far - replacing the previous collection by Angus and Robertson which was first published in 1969. It contains many previously unseen early and late poems and also attempts to reinstate some of Webb's original wording.

However, before we go any further, it's worth asking the question: who is Francis Webb anyway? Well, the answer to this questions depends very much on where you happen to live. If you're an Australian then he's a  complex and prolific poet - espoused by the likes of Les Murray and Judith Wright and judged to be the 'gold standard' of poetic language - whereas if you live in the UK - then the chances are you've never heard of him.

The reason for our lack of knowledge of Webb is partly due to the fact that his work has never been published here and, even if it had, the challenging nature of it would hardly place him in the 'easy reading' category.

The next question we need to ask is: why is the work of an Australian poet being reviewed on a website dedicated to the literary output of Norfolk (England)? Well, that's where the tale of Webb's life becomes more fascinating - for Webb, as well as being a wordsmith, was something of a traveller. In 1943 he moved to Canada with the RAAF but then following a sea voyage to England in 1949 he experienced the first of a serious of breakdowns which led him to remain in psychiatric care for most of his adult life. In England, he first entered that care system in Birmingham before moving to the David Rice Hospital in Drayton near Norwich in the mid 1950s.

He remained in Norfolk until 1960 and during the 4-5 years that he was here he wrote over 20 poems inspired by the county. Most of these appeared in his 1961 collection Socrates and Other Poems with another couple, and most significantly, Around Costessey appearing in his later The Ghost of the Cock (1964). Specifically there are poems about the River Wensum, Mousehold Heath, Beeston Regis, Hethersett, Costessey Hall and St Edmund's Church in Norwich.

Webb's poems are not light-weight, landscape poetry however - but complex, challenging pieces which blend location and intense poetic vision. It is no surprise to learn that Webb used to carry around with him a copy of Gerard Manley Hopkins' poems  - for the two poets share the same dense and muscular language. Furthermore, both men were also ardent Catholics and much of Webb's work has a religious overtone about it. Gale Force, for example, which is a poem about a storm over the Wensum valley - ends with a Hopkins-esque dedication to God: 'You tell me all are as leaping fish/And his silver devoted ripples, all are one./ Slave, power, your creative force and wish/ Inform with praise the clouds, the earth, the sun.'

The most astonishing of the Norfolk poems however is undoubtedly his Around Costessey sequence - which comprises 13 separate long poems - including a four-part memorial to the Norwich School painter Anthony Sandys. This sequence was inspired by the village which he came to know during his stay at the David Rice. As a Catholic, he was allowed to walk from the hospital to the nearest Catholic church - which happened to be St Walstan's in Old Costessey. His journey would have taken him down Costessey Lane - over the Wensum at Costessey Mill and up the Street past St Edmund's (C of E) Church.

Here is a section from the Sandys poem called Death. He originally saw the self-portrait of Sandys on a visit to the Stanger's Hall museum in Norwich.

Come out to Norfolk and the diligent green
Under majestic handsprings of cumulus.
Mannerly light battens on tiny cattle.
Form kisses form in a fine and lowing fettle.
The mill that kissed his soul again is seen
Bearing by day as by nightfall the tall Cross.

Painterly greens of Norfolk in a dance
That is in some wise the ambitious buried heart:
Your metaphor is this picture: I am taken
By words from the crevasses and icefall spoken,
Ingenious but simple eloquence.
Mild weathers unloose the arrested and set apart.

This is quality work - easily on a par with that other famous poem about the county by John Betjeman. Another masterpiece in the Costessey sequence is The Tower - which was inspired by one of the remaining red brick towers of Costessey Hall, the seat of the Jerningham family, which by the late 1950s was derelict but still standing in parts:

And why do I look from you at this dead thing?
It cannot hold your innocence, nor your eye.
Out of the quicksands and the anarchy
I see a strangeness stretch and flap a wing:
This tower of a red stone, eroded whistling ghost
Where bush and grasses cross themselves and cower
And juvenile pigeons play at being lost
And the airman's initials rest one single hour.

However, there is a much darker side to Webb's poetry too
which taps into his schizophrenia and his experiences in various mental hospital. Poems such as October - which specifically mentions the David Rice - or Ward Two or Hospital Night - which invoke nightmarish visions and are often linked to his ECT and ECG treatment.

On a more joyful side, though, are poems such as Bells of St Peter Mancroft which records the sound of the chimes of Norwich's largest church as 'Gay golden volleys of banter' or Five Days Old about the newborn child of his doctor at the David Rice: 'Christmas is in the air./You are given into my hands/Out of quietest, loneliest lands./My trembling is all my prayer.'

It is also fair to say that some of his work is quite impenetrable. One wonders, as one does when reading Sylvia Plath, whether it is genuine poetic inspiration or the product of a distressed mind. Mousehold Heath, for example, is a long poem which is quite bewildering at times e.g. 'Bedded whitely upon garbled trestles of memory/Before time's skirt and shoulder./ So turn to the moulderings of day, when daylight/ wagged the head, waved leafless arms in derision. Hethersett, a late unfinished poem, about the village in South Norfolk is similarly unfathomable.

However, Webb is undoubtedly the real deal: frequently producing stunning images and ecstatic word-play. In Derelict Church he compares the bells of St Edmund's on Fishergate to ghosts from the sea and the church itself to a wrecked vessel which is 'still seaworthy, hallowed and functional.' Wonderful.

In 1960 he was given his passport back and was allowed to return to Australia following a Commonwealth Literary Fund Fellowship and in The Ghost of the Cock he records his plane's descent with one of the saddest, most beautiful poems I've read in years called Airliner:

Beneath me the sad frescos of the clouds:
Towerings and defiles through intense grey valleys,
Huge faces of kings, queens, castles - travelling cinders,
And monuments, and shrouds.

9/10 Buy it!






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