Andrew Young, Paul Nash and Surrealism
For some peculiar and inexplicable reason I tended to associate the art of John Nash (1893-1977) with the poetry of Andrew Young. Occasionally I still do so, as is the case with Young’s poem ‘The Pines’ (SP, p. 33) and John Nash’s painting ‘The Fallen Tree’ (1955). Both give an image of a fallen tree whose roots ‘clutch at the air in wild embrace’. But snow covers ‘the torn limbs and the red wounds’ so that an impression of peacefulness remains.
I felt affirmed when I learned that John Nash had designed the dust jacket for Young’s first book on wildflowers in 1945.
Then I read a remark by Christopher Hassall, Young’s most intimate friend and a poet himself: ‘There are paintings by Paul Nash which, if they could speak, could only express themselves by means of these poems.’ (PP, p. 55)
Trying to follow this hint I came across a study by Roger Cardinal, ‘The Landscape Vision of Paul Nash’ (1989) which opened my eyes to a new view on Young’s poetry. I am not going to state that Young is the poetic equivalent to Paul Nash; I am qualified neither in art history nor in literary criticism to do so. But by quoting some lines from Cardinal’s book and Young’s poems I would like to illustrate a few similarities, either of vision or subject matter.
Cardinal states that Paul Nash (1889-1946) was never a programmatic surrealist (LVPN, p. 62). Neither was Andrew Young. Yet, they developed strategies which amount to surrealistic effects. By ‘dislocating the object of interest, severing it from its accustomed context and exposing its singularity against an alien background’ (LVPN, p. 44) they discovered a new sensibility. Cardinal describes Nash’s aesthetic principal as follows: ‘Fidelity to fact goes by a detour through seeming infidelity, the better to clear an angle on its target.’ (LVPN, p.74) ‘The artistic task is to find a fresh angle upon sites that people have only witnessed from the “blind side”, and to release a real if unsuspected poetry.’ (LVPN, p.118) This applies no less to Young though he never went as far as to systematize his surreal tendencies consciously. ‘The matching of objects in a telling metaphor can never be mechanically measured.’ (LVPN, p.60)
Landscape is an unusual choice of subject for artists and poets of the Thirties. Of course, both Nash and Young had developed their styles in the two foregoing decades but they continued to refine their techniques instead of breaking with them. During the twenties they tried to pare down their styles to the bare essentials, thereby becoming modernists far from any fashion.
To Nash as to Young landscape was ‘the domain of a separate fulfilment – not merely an escapist sanctuary, but a special testing ground with its own constraints and privileges’ (LVPN, p.8). Therefore it is no surprise to find few human figures in the work of both artist and poet. Nevertheless, paintings as well as poems ‘are in a sense saturated with human presence and meaning’ (LVPN, p.7). Instances in Nash are his cultivated gardens (‘The Cherry Orchard’ (1917)) or samples of agricultural instruments (‘Landscape at Iden’ (1929)). ‘February’ (1929) shows a dead tree stump with an axe fixed in it. It came into being shortly after Nash’s father had died.
Young’s observing persona is often the only human being in his poems. In a few instances, especially when describing ancient sites, the distant presence of human civilisation is implied. Then it may fill the observer with a feeling ‘of thankfulness to those dead bones that knit hills closer than loose stones’ (‘The Lane’, WH). But when a group of men interrupts him contemplating nature he ‘too [creeps] off like any stealthy beast’ (The Men, SP, p. 25). In some poems Young tries to cope with feelings of regret about his dead mother by means of detailed nature observation (‘The Burnt Leaves’, ‘The Flood’, ‘The Secret Wood’). The mature poems do not reflect on love between human beings; instead they describe, often in physically realistic terms, the love-making of animals (‘March Hares’, ‘A Wet Day’).
As has been described above, ‘things in the world […] catch Nash’s interest […] because of some feature that gives promise of change’ (LVPN, p.48).
To Cardinal the tree-stump in ‘February’ (1929) can resemble a dog head (see LVPN, p.59).
Photographs in a series of dead tree stumps bear titles such as ‘Stalking Horse’ (1941).
Towards the end of his life Nash began a series of paintings to which he referred as ‘aerial flowers’. A resemblance to clouds or bird’s nests can be made out in for example ‘Flight of the Magnolia’ (1944) (see LVPN, p.59).
Here are a few random lines from Young’s poems in which he creates similar effects:
An Old Road (SP, p. 14): ‘The road itself is now become the hedge’
Loch Brandy (SP, p. 27 f.): ‘The gold moth flies away, too soon / To narrow to a hard white moon’
Young Oats (SP, p. 44): ‘And greater stones were seen / To change to hares and rise and run’
A Windy Day (SP, p. 48): ‘And fields that are a flowing sea / And make the cattle look like ships’
Reflections on the River (SP, p. 83): ‘Beneath a small white cloud that soon / Will pluck light from the dark and be the moon’
Hard Frost (SP, p. 98): ‘Brooks, their own bridges, stop’
The Dead Sheep (SP, p. 100): ‘Rocks rising showed that they were sheep’
‘The Last Leaf’ (SP, p. 14) describes a tree stripped by a storm off to its last leaf. By ‘bursting into song’ the leaf discloses its true nature: the observer mistook a bird for a leaf.
In ‘A Dead Bird’ (SP, p. 112) he almost rehearses for his late poem ‘Into Hades’. Visiting the realm of the dead he neither sees nor hears anything apart from the voice of a dead bird, asking for his feathers. The time-traveller has bound these to his feet to fly off through the air!
Cardinal sees literary analogies in Nash’s technique. He makes clear that there is ‘no rigid glossary of meaning’: ‘Motifs acquire import by virtue of their shifting contexts, much like the words in a poem’ (LVPN, p. 42).
Both Nash and Young were fascinated by earthworks and ancient sites ‘where the constructions of our distant ancestors have long ago been overtaken by the organic attentions of Nature’ (LVPN, p. 20).
For Nash the Wittenham Clumps in Oxfordshire became more and more the centre of his landscape vision. Young wrote several poems inspired by those sites (‘Long Meg and her daughters’, ‘The Thunderstorm’, ‘The Long Man of Wilmington’, ‘The Round Barrow’, ‘A Barrow on the Quantocks’, ‘In Avebury Circle’).
In ‘A Prehistoric Camp’ (SP, p. 80) he climbs Eggardon. After witnessing the love-making of birds he likens the ancient site to a vast nest, ‘its race of men long flown’. This comparison mirrors the ‘vulnerability of human effort’ (LVPN, p. 22) very poignantly.
For Nash fungi had a double attraction. They appear in autumn, the season of decay and death but by growing very fast they also have an aura of ‘magical life’ (LVPN, p. 38).
Fungi seem by nature far removed from solid architecture like Stonehenge. Yet, by an almost surrealistic concoction Young brings both together. In his four-liner ‘The Fairy Ring’ (SP, p. 43) a group of mushrooms, some of which are overthrown, forms a circle. Snails ‘bite away, like time, the tender stone’.
‘An object takes on poetic character […] to the extent that it shows itself available to imaginative development, ceding to the artist a kind of magician’s power to visualise it as something else again.’ (LVPN, p.47)
In discussing Nash’s painting ‘Landscape from a Dream’ (1936-38) Cardinal explains ‘that the bird has for Nash the status not of some casual detail but of a supreme elective symbol’ (LVPN, p.93) like a signature. In Young’s poems the cuckoo played this role. Moreover birds can transport a ‘sense of liberation of all that is earthly’ (LVPN, p.96) as in Young’s poem ‘The Missel-Thrush’ (SP, p. 64) where the bird mocks at the stranger who ‘crawl[s] at the bottom of the air.’
There is a further instance of Nash and Young using the same subject-matter. The natural phenomenon of a white blackbird has great poetic potential. In Nash’s painting ‘The Vale of the White Blackbird’ (1942) Cardinal tries to explain it as ‘a reference to the optical illusion of colour change that can occur when a bird flits in and out of sunlight and dense shadow’ (LVPN, p.95).
The bird in Young’s ‘The White Blackbird’ (SP, p. 52) appears to the observing subject even whiter than gulls. The gulls have in this poem changed the sea for meadows so that the sense of separation and displacement is heightened: ‘you who are white as sin to your black kith and kin.’ Young is not moralizing here. To describe his vision in Cardinal’s words the white blackbird is ‘a sign of the artist’s tension, his sense of being transfixed by what he sees.’ (LVPN, p.95)
Birds had a special meaning for both artist and poet. In his painting ‘The Nest of the Wild Stones’ (1937) Nash likens flint stones to eggs. Two rough stones symbolize nesting birds while two polished ones stand for eggs. The viewer is presented with paradoxical equations: hard and heavy stones are substituted for frail eggs and birds, ‘a stunning instance of the “right association” ’ (LVPN, p.62). Nash himself in an essay of the same title gave an almost mystical explanation: ‘If I broke all the shells of all my wild stones I should find that precious yolk which is like precious stones, the black core of the flint.’ (LVPN, p.61)
Young, though a master of paradox in his own right, took the matter more lightly but with a slight sardonic touch. In his poem ‘The Nest’ (SP, p. 66) he pictures a nest into which he has put four blue stones, ‘content to make the best of turquoise, lapis lazuli’. The ambiguity is obvious: on the one hand the act shows his great love of and care for nature; there seems to be no better place for precious stones than a bird’s nest. On the other hand, Young, haunted poem after poem by the relentless call of the cuckoo, is playing cuckoo himself, ‘providing’ the thrush with his own precious stones. By extending the analogy between the eggs and the blue stones to the blue sky, Young achieves in creating something very similar to Nash’s visual comparisons of small and huge things. (See i. e. ‘Landscape of the Summer Solstice’ (1943), where a sunflower parallels the sun visually; cf. LVPN, p. 115). But this kind of visionary structure is difficult to analyse. As Cardinal says, ‘the choosing of the right angle for viewing an object is not so much a physical as a metaphysical event’ (LVPN, p.47).
The use of binoculars enables the observer to make similar experiences. ‘Through field-glasses one sees a landscape that one can see in no other way’ (Nash to Lance Sieveking, 1943, LVPN, p. 104). In Young’s words: ‘young trees put on a ten years’ growth and stones double their size’ (‘Field-Glasses’, SP, p. 102). Young uses field-glasses to experience mystical union with nature. He is forced to use technical means not to frighten the birds. But then ‘the rooks do not rage caught for a moment in my crystal cage’. Complete fusion with nature is impossible and Young’s typical ‘as though’ weakens the impact of the last line: ‘My shoulders prick, as though they were half-fledged.’
Nash in his late paintings of the Wittenham Clumps tries to realize ultimate synthesis in his own medium. ‘Landscape of the Vernal Equinox’ (1944) for example celebrates a ‘visual marriage of the solar and the lunar in the shape of the twin Clumps, rendered as separately lit forms which nevertheless are beginning to merge’ (LVPN, p.116).
The walker in Young’s poem ‘The Yellow-Hammers’ (SP p. 31 f.) is allowed to accompany a group of yellow-hammers for a while. The experience sets him musing: ‘Myself, the road, the hedge, these flying things, who led, who followed as we climbed the hill?’ Fulfillment is seldom granted that simply.
In ‘March Hares’ (SP, p. 20) the observer has to content himself with ‘watching that serious game of love’ between hares.
Trees offer to Young several points of identification as in ‘The Beech’ (SP, p. 17): ‘Strength leaves the hand I lay on this beech-bole’. Here fusion seems almost physical. ‘The Tree’, (SP, p. 46) offers a further example: ‘Do you not feel me on your heel, my bone against your bone?’
The play of light-spots in ‘The Sunbeams’ (SP, p. 47) ‘that drew apart and singled and ran again and met and mingled’ appears to the walker like ‘souls that love in heaven’. His wish to ‘bathe’ in those flickering lights cannot be fulfilled because ‘they danced there like Bethesda‘s pool’. Biblical associations make clear that the vision is of the utmost importance.
The idea behind this overriding wish to merge with nature is to meet his true self. In later years Young fully accepted his failure in achieving that earthly fusion and took the ultimate step: the prospect of death and afterlife became the subject of his last and greatest poetical effort, ‘Out of the World and Back’ (1952-58).
Roger Cardinal: The Landscape Vision of Paul Nash
Reaktion Books (1989)
(ISBN 978 094846 2023)
Andrew Young: Prospect of a Poet
Tributes by 14 Writers, edited by Leonard Clark
Rupert Hart-Davis (1975)
Selected Poems by Andrew Young
Edited by Edward Lowbury and Alison Young
Carcanet Press (1998)
(ISBN 978 185754 3926)
Andrew Young: Winter Harvest
The Nonesuch Press (1933)
© Mathias Richter, March 2008