Friday, January 19, 2018

The Living Dead

~ Honouring our poetic ancestors ~

For 'Buttons'

Seemingly upended in the sky,
Cloudless as minds asleep
One careless cemetery buzzes on and on
As if her tombstones were all hives
Overturned by the impatient dead –
We imagined they had stored up
The honey of their immortality
In the soft commotion the black bees make.

Below us, far away, the road to Paris.
You pour some wine upon a tomb.
The bees drink with us, the dead approve.

It is weeks ago now and we are back
In our burnt and dusty Languedoc,
Yet often in the noon-silences
I hear the Vaumort bees, taste the young wine,
Catch a smile hidden in sighs.

In the long grass you found a ring, remember?
A child’s toy ring. Yes, I know that whenever
I want to be perfectly alone
With the memory of you, of that whole day
It’s to Vaumort that I’ll be turning.

– Lawrence Durrell (1912-1990)

I've been revisiting the Durrells over the last few months – brothers Gerald and Lawrence, respectively the youngest and eldest of their family. Gerald was a naturalist/zoologist, memoirist, and sometime TV presenter, who immortalised that family in his most famous book, My Family and Other Animals. Lawrence, a novelist, dramatist, travel writer and poet, was best-known for his series of novels The Alexandria Quartet. 

I saw a new TV series (not the first) based on Gerald's family stories, and was inspired to re-read those and others of his books, which I first discovered decades ago; then sought out Lawrence's fascinating travel books, which I'd never read before, and discovered they go far beyond the merely descriptive into the historical and sociological; found biographies of both men (very different books, about brothers who were in some ways very different men, yet who remained close throughout their lives); and at last took a look at Lawrence's poetry.

I bought the Selected Poems – selected by the distinguished ex-pat Australian poet, the late Peter Porter, who also supplies an illuminating introduction – but I see that Collected Poems 1931-1974 is of course a much more extensive volume. (Both are available from Amazon).

A beautiful prose writer, Lawrence Durrell is often too intellectual a poet for my taste, and rather too erudite, I think, to have wide appeal. Many of his poems assume a level of classical education which not everyone has. That being said, he has quite a range, including the satirical and the bawdy. Porter rates him as an important poet, doing different things from other English poets of the time. Lawrence had a different background, and therefore different influences. He was brought up in British India, and, after finishing his schooling in England, couldn't wait to become expatriate, living in turn in Greece, Egypt and France. 

His love poems (like this one) are the pieces most to my taste, achieving great lyrical beauty. This one is free verse, yet is so musical that I keep thinking it must surely have metre and rhyme. (It has some very subtle and irregularly-placed half-rhymes, if you search for them. One wonders if they're intentional, but he worked so hard at his craft that I think they probably are.)

He was often described as excelling, both as poet and prose writer, in conveying "the spirit of place". That is very evident here too.

One of the things I like best about this poem is the way it says so much in the unsaid. For instance it seems to me perfectly clear the couple made love in that long grass; also there's a strong suggestion that they were secret lovers – yet these things are never spelled out nor even hinted at in the actual words on the page. What mastery!

You can read about Lawrence Durrell's life and work in Wikipedia, and there are several interviews listed on Google, including some on YouTube.

I'm only a little way into his biography – an unauthorised one, which nevertheless draws on recollections of people who knew him well. It's 
Through the Dark Labyrinth by Gordon Bowker.

I'm already thinking about re-reading The Alexandria Quartet and perhaps tackling his other great series, The Avignon Quintet, which would be new to me. Meanwhile, even the poetry I don't like best is an interesting read.

(By the way, although nearly everyone wants to say "Duh-RELL" – and I have had more than one person tactfully correct my pronunciation to that – in this case "Durrell" is actually pronounced with a short "u" as in "but" and the stress on the first, not second syllable.)

Material shared in 'The Living Dead' is presented for study and review. Poems, photos and other writings and images remain the property of the copyright owners, where applicable (older poems may be out of copyright)


  1. Rosemary, thank you for this informative read. I find the pronunciation of the name interesting. I had always thought the accent was on the second syllable, so am pleased to learn otherwise. The Quartet and Quintet series sound intriguing.

    1. "The Alexandria Quartet" was huge in its heyday, unlike anything ever done before (or perhaps since).

  2. Thank you so much for this, Rosemary. I haven't read any Laurence Durrell for a long time - I liked him when I was a teenager, especially The Alexandria Quartet, but then we drifted apart. I think I enjoyed Gerald's tales more. But after reading 'Vaumort', I think I might give Laurence another try. The hive metaphor is very unusual and oblique; it made me think. I also like the phrase 'honey of their immortality'. I agree with you about the love poems.

    1. Yes, Gerald's writing is delightful, and very engaging. They are very different as writers, also – though it was Lawrence who encouraged Gerald to write, from an early age. He had hopes Gerald might become a poet too, but Gerald's passion was always the animals. He wrote the books in order to help finance his zoological expeditions and eventually his own zoo. (And how glad his readers are that he did.) You would love the biography, "Gerald Durrell: the authorised biography" by fellow-naturalist Douglas Botting. Botting can write, too, and the book also contains long excerpts from Gerald's diaries and letters.

      I too had not read Lawrence since The Alexandria Quartet blew me and so many others away when it was first published. I wonder if it will prove to stand the test of time, if I have another look at it now.

  3. Really a beautiful poem share, Rosemary. So nostalgically romantic. I have never heard of the poet, so this poem and your well researched information were an excellent introduction!

  4. "The bees drink with us, the dead approve."
    And I just looked through his oeuvre and realized I've read nothing by him. I think committing to reading him would mean devoting the rest of my life and throwing out the TV to boot! I LOVE his way of evoking atmosphere/setting. It's theatre. Love it. Thank you.

  5. Such a beautiful poem. I like the author's nostalgic tone, his descriptions, his playfulness and the romance that is woven throughout the poem. Thanks for sharing him.

  6. As ever an intriguing and informative post - thank you Rosemary

  7. has been sitting in my library along with Tolstoy
    gathering dust for decades untouched.'My Family and Other Animals 'by Gerald was enjoyable.


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