Posts Tagged ‘Humphrey Jennings’

A Shrine more numinous

April 12, 2010


City Spring – photograph by Liz Mathews

Kathleen Raine’s wonderfully-titled collection of essays Defending Ancient Springs is opinionated, idiosyncratic and brings the author to some strange alchemical conclusions. It’s also fascinating, inspiring, the work of a true poet – and perhaps out of print. (Certain aspects of it do seem very dated, particularly her failure to even mention a single other poet who’s a woman. Her violent sense of the lack of magic or mystery in contemporary poetry – because it isn’t sufficiently traditional – has been overtaken by new and different kinds of writing.) I bought it second-hand as a great admirer of Raine’s poetry, mainly to read her revealing commentary On the Mythological.

I wasn’t expecting her essay on the poet David Gascoyne, which also considers Humphrey Jennings’ poetic film-making in the British documentary movement of the 1940s. Raine was married to Charles Madge, another poet deeply involved in fact-finding as one of the founders of Mass Observation; her comments on this group of artists are those of an insider. She describes Mass Observation as an exploration of the national imagination, a voyage into the psyche, rather than a quasi-scientific venture of the opinion poll type. (This perfectly describes their weird collection of rumours, home-truths, wild stories and gossipy reactions to news stories – far stranger than fiction, but nowhere near science.)

Since I saw Listen to Britain again – as an extra on the DVD of Terence Davies’ Of Time and the City – with its luminous black and white photography and extraordinarily poignant images, these films and poems have become a source of intense interest to me. (There’s currently a resurgent fascination in this period, of course, and all things British and documentary, so it’s a convenient moment to extend one’s knowledge.) Sometimes it seems as though the BFI have reissued almost every black and white non-fiction short ever made, and all the people – like me – who’ve bought Night Mail go on to get all the rest. They really don’t make ’em like that any more.

Among the many discussions of the films’ propagandist or political messages, artistic or national qualities, historical or nostalgic appeal, what distinguishes Raine’s essay is her emphasis on the surrealist background of her poet/film-maker friends of the 1930’s and 40’s, which she considers far more important than the pro-Communist leanings with which these artists are often associated. Thus, the films are true to the idea of the ‘surrealist object’; the images had to be ‘discovered’, not ‘invented’. She describes the experience of going for a walk with Jennings as seeing ‘the world come to life as he discerned and discovered everywhere expressions of the imagination, past and present, of the English race’.

The films depict this same view of the ordinary environment as one ‘in which the imagination is mirrored and embodied, and where it everywhere may discover images of its own interior order…’ Whether their surreal juxtapositions are found among urban architecture or industrial machinery, pastoral scenes or seascapes, they convey the same vision of human imaginative involvement in the external world. (And Jennings’ ‘ordinary people’ are all heroes, archetypes of the kind Raine argues are essential to literature – though his overtly left-wing glorification of the worker-hero might have earned her censure.)

This connects directly with the work of Kathleen Raine. Her nature poetry celebrates a mythic landscape, a pastoral of the heart, with a sense of wonder at the everyday extraordinariness of things which these film-poems share. In On the Mythological she writes ‘The Lake District is for many a shrine more numinous than St. Paul’s… not nature so much as nature transformed by poetry and painting… which is the environment imagination inhabits.’ Without the action of the imagination, enabled by art, the ‘wet and birdless hills’, she observes, may remain ‘uncommunicative’.

As one of the most sensitive English poets of place, Raine is obviously not suggesting that the Lake District is dull, but rather establishing the inter-dependence of art, imagination and natural landscape. She continues: ‘If a natural environment can reflect back to us imaginative forms, and evoke these in us, the city is the embodiment of those forms; what imagination creates is the city… A city, symbolically understood, is the environment which imagination creates for itself, a work of all the arts…’

The cities she invokes are Blake’s Jerusalem, Yeats’ Byzantium, the heavenly cities of Plato or St. Augustine – with a side-swipe at London’s failure to become Blake’s visionary place. ‘In the profane and quantitative modern world,’ she remarks, ‘we live like exiles from the realities of our own imagination; to enter a beautiful building, a city of art, is like a homecoming.’

This conjures up, among so many other vivid pictures, some of Jennings’ ‘discovered’ images of unlikely urban beauty. Common to Raine and the poet/film-makers is the sense that there is in the environment – whether landscape or city view – the map of the imagination, which they can unroll suddenly before us to show numinous shrines in unlikely places.

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