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95 THE POETRY OF MARY WSBB: AN INVITATION By W. Eugene Davis (Purdue University) Whatever reputation Mary Webb has today is due solely to her novels and, in the U.S. at least, really to only one of them: Precious Bane. Despite their flaws and the change of literary fashions since her death in 1927, however, they continue to be read and to receive some scholarly attention. The same cannot be said of her poetry, which first appeared in book form in Poems And The Spring of Joy (1928),1 a volume thought to contain all her completed poems. Her poetic corpus was enlarged, however, by Fifty-One Poems (1946), work "select°d and put on one side. . . for publication at some later date by her husband, Henry Webb."2 Neither publishing event generated any scholarly interest. One can perhaps understand (if not quite forgive) letting the first volume pass without critical inquiry since the impact of the poems was weakened by the mannered, rather old-fashioned nature essays that accompanied them, but to ignore the later book is especially unfortunate, since it contains excellent work. In all, then, forty years have passed without significant study of her poems, despite the fact that, as Walter de la Mare said, "few writers indeed have left behind them so rich a posthumous gift."3 Most of what has been written about her poetry (reviews and passing references, largely) is nearly useless, either for helping readers understand her poetic ideals or encouraging further exploration.^ Therefore, what exists In the minds of many students of early twentieth-century literature is a series of misconceptions about her poetry. One of the most common is that she failed to face the truth about Life and Nature. Louise Bogan remarked that her emotlons cover over, rather than lay bare, the reality they are meant to convey. Furthermore, "her poetry escapes the worst defects of her prose; it Is gentle, delicate, and tender, but unfortunately , since poetry has need of sources as savage and cruel as the nature that Mrs. Webb misapprehended, these quiet attributes are not enough."5 Readers of Mrs. Webb's novels, which frequently depict pain and suffering, may doubt the Tightness of Miss Bogan's assertion, and It is equally misleading If applied to her poetry. Another misconception Is that her poetry does not lend Itself to critical treatment, for it is so secret or private that, in the words of an anonymous Times Literary Supplement reviewer, it "eludes critical discussion." It Is, the writer continued, to the class of "more solitary, divlnatory type of poetry that Mary Webb's verse belongs. . . ."6 To be sure, some of her poems are Intensely private, yet to abjure critical study merely for this reason is myopic. A third misconception is even more aggravating because usually left unsaid: her poetry Is so Ingenuous or simple-hearted as to have no relevance for us moderns. Each of these Judgments, together with the often-heard charge of eclecticism may be supported by employing a kind of "tunnel vision" - referring to a few carefully chosen poems and Ignoring the rest. But no one has yet attempted to examine a representative selection of her poems. Mrs. Webb clearly was a minor poet; she had neither the originality nor a sufficient mastery of technique to make It reasonable to 96 claim more. Yet within the boundaries - thematic, structural, linguistic - that she set for herself, she makes a powerful claim to be regarded as more than a versifier. She was above all a lyric poet; her poems are deeply personal songs, spontaneous releases of various emotions. They mirror her need for contact with nature, and, in particular, her love for Shropshire. Her themes are largely traditional: the ambiguous but overwhelming power of love, the many faces of nature, the everpresence of change and death. Her favorite forms are short, rarely the sonnet or ballad, but four- to thirtyline poems rather conventional of rhyme and rhythm. In several ways her poems are reminiscent of the "high romantics," Wordsworth, Coleridge and Keats. But another strain, her mystical apprehension of the Infinite In the finite, brings William Blake to mind. Indeed, a most striking aspect of...


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