August sees the publication of Daniel Swift’s study of bombing and poetry in World War II, Bomber County: The Poetry of a Lost Pilot’s War. It promises to be fascinating. Daniel is the son of Caroline Moorehead, the highly respected biographer of Martha Gellhorn and Iris Origo, and grandson of Alan Moorehead, whose brilliant books on the Nile captivated me as a teenager; his sister Martha is the co-author of Cupcakes from the Primrose Bakery. Clearly, he has writing in his blood.
‘Writing in his blood’: how often I have wished that might be said of me! I’m not sure why: I’ve always thought Martin Amis and Alexandre Dumas Fils diminished by having literary parents, and should be proud of having pulled myself up by my bootstraps. Do I envy them their entrées to publishers’ offices, or the assurance lent to their pens by DNA?
Not that I am starting from zero: my mother wrote most of a book about the translators and copyists of the Bible, only to be thwarted by the death of a vital interviewee, the Dead Sea Scrolls expert Père de Vaux. A cousin, Brian Inglis, wrote several books on history and the paranormal, and also edited The Spectator – but as I never met him, I feel little sense of kinship. I was far more excited when my brother-in-law emailed me recently with the details of a book of poems called The Secret Hill, published in 1914 by my first cousins twice removed, Ruth and Celia Duffin. I was aware that they and their sister Emma (known to my mother as ‘the Summerhill aunts’ after a family house in Northern Ireland) had been involved in the Cuala Press started by Yeats’s sister Elizabeth, and a few weeks ago I bought the only copy of their book I could find on the internet.
My expectations were disloyally low, but the poems – though obviously derivative of Yeats – were better than I expected. (They even went into a second edition.) It is their derivative quality, in fact, that makes them so interesting. We may read of the Celtic Twilight’s great figures, but it is only by examining the work of their neglected followers that we can appreciate the ripples sent out by the movement. The Secret Hill has the full panoply of fairies, mythical warriors, holy fools and beggars lamenting in dialect – things to our mind completely at odds with the horrific reality of the violence about to engulf Europe, though Yeats with his genius managed to adapt them to the times.
Here is a traditional love poem – Ruth Duffin’s When We Are Old, written in her very early twenties.
“When we are old,” you said, and plucked a rose
And held it to your lips, “it will be sweet
To walk together in the June-tide heat
Just such another day, when the wind blows
Warm from the south, and buttercups unclose
Their varnished goblets where still pools repeat
The heavy trees with cattle at their feet
Knee-deep in grasses. Will you come?” “God knows.”
“God knows,” I said. Today I come again
Along the path that once our footsteps knew ;
The sunset reddens all the frozen wold
Where no flower opens, and the winds complain
In naked boughs that once were green – and you
Long, long are dead, and I, thank God, am old.