Changeling

Continuous: 50 Sonnets from “The School of Eloquence”

by Tony Harrison
Rex Collings (London), 64 pp., £3.95 (paper)

A young English critic, Blake Morrison, has written recently that Tony Harrison may well be “the first genuine working-class poet England has produced.” There are poems in Continuous to support such a claim. In nearly all the Meredithian sixteen-line sonnets which make up this volume, the poet looks back to his working-class childhood and youth in Leeds, where he was born in 1937. Reading them, one has the impression, underlying all else, of a deepsworn vow, a passionate commitment to a family of which his father and mother, neighbors and former school-follows, are members bound by a love whose very substance consists of their being working class.

At the same time it is difficult—though not impossible—to think of him as their family poet. For if the subject of most of his poetry is their working-class lives; a secondary theme is that they are incapable of accepting either poet or poetry. These seem to be no part of their spiritual inheritance. Tony Harrison can only explain the accident of a poet’s having been born into his working-class family by an ironic theory of psychological compensation:

How you became a poet’s a mystery!
Wherever did you get your talent from?

I say: I had two uncles, Joe and
   Harry—
one was a stammerer, the other dumb.

Reading these mostly autobiographical poems, the reader is tempted to regard Harrison almost as a changeling, not out of some other social class but perhaps out of Shakespearean romance, sneaked into a cradle in some house in a back street of Leeds by some royal parent (poetry being royal) anxious to disembarrass herself or himself of an unwanted offspring. Remembering his schooldays at Leeds grammar school, he recalls

I played the Drunken Porter in Macbeth.

This brings memories of some school-teacher commenting:

Poetry’s the speech of kings.
   You’re one of those
Shakespeare gives the comic bits to: prose!

Whoever said this to the schoolboy gets his comeuppance in the poem by the adult. There is a good deal here of such turning of the tables on those stuffy bureaucrats who speak RP (Received Pronunciation). In the same poem he retrospectively asserts the rightness of his Leeds accent in which at school he read the opening four words of Keats’s “Ode to a Nightingale”; “mi ‘art aches.” (Keats himself, I suppose, being cockney, might have pronounced this “mi ‘art ikes.”)

A contradiction that might occur today is that an English working-class poet should have an aristocratic style and vocabulary, perhaps even have claims to being the only genuine aristocrat of the language writing in English. After all, it is only we snobs who consider aristocracy the monopoly of a particular class. No one should be surprised at a working-class poet tracing his lineage back to forebears coming from the traditional village countryside, as here, in “Lines to my Grandfathers.”

Ploughed parallel as print the stony earth.
The straight stone walls defy the steep grey slopes.
The place’s rightness for …

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