A cry for wounded Wales

The Collected Poems of Brian Morris
April 12, 2001

Brian Morris's Collected Poems , which come with a foreword by The Prince of Wales and recommendations from poets Norman Nicolson and Kathleen Raine, are the product of years spent pondering and exploring his love and sorrow for Wales, her landscape and people, her cultural history and - with growing desperation - the ecological straits in which she finds herself. The volume presents other topics, other considerations. But this is the overriding theme of three of the four collections previously published by the Gomer Press and which make up the bulk of the book.

The embodiment of this theme, resulting in a densely allusive poetic text, is carried through with considerable passion and a heartfelt, almost Plaid Cymru identification with indigenous problems. Both passion and identification are clearly personal qualities, manifesting themselves for the most part, however, through the other more public features of the poetry. This is doubtless natural in someone such as Lord Morris, who has himself had as distinguished an academic career in English literature as in administration and politics.

In short, the poetry we are presented with, apart from one or two more private poems, exhibits the kind of impersonality that masks underlying strong emotions and that is quite unfashionable in today's poetry scene but that puts one in mind of a poet such as Geoffrey Hill, who belongs to exactly the same generation. Titles of poems such as the following indicate the approach and ambience I have in mind: "Another at the Grave of Henry Vaughan", "Six Songs of Bardsey", "Notes on 'Canu Llywarch Hen", "The Teifi Sonnets" and, beyond Welsh concerns, a cycle of seven monologues entitled "Claudio Monteverdi: l'homme et ses oeuvres ". Like Hill, scholarly and culturally self-conscious, at times recondite to the point of being somewhat cryptic, Morris's poetry nevertheless rests on and encapsulates its author's chief interests wittily labelled by him elsewhere as "mountains, music and museums". This collection contains an informatively personal introduction by the present director of the National Portrait Gallery and a fine portrait by Daphne Todd on the jacket.

Concentrating on the ecology issue we find, for instance, this horrific opening to the poem "No Reclamation": "Well, Wales is my wound./ Pus in Welsh rivers/ Drips down by heartbeats,/ Thickly, to the stiff/ And purulent sea". And later we are told: "Hills are bruises, green/ Fields fool no one", ending with this move beyond: "Cool surgery/ Fails. Infected swabs/ Carry death gently/ To England, chained close,/ Inescapably."

At a time of the foot-and-mouth crisis, lines such as these make an especial impact, expressed as they are with a fierce concision of effect. Indeed, several of "The Teifi Sonnets" move in the same direction, lamenting the disappearance of salmon and coracle fishing from the once-rich river.

Although the series contains a sonnet on the former glories of the great Cistercian abbey at Strata Florida, as do other poems in terms of past triumphs, Morris does not "take the short way with romantic Wales". He always probes and qualifies, ending his series with this from the mouth of the Teifi: "The sight/ Dazzled me, shattered me: across the bay/ A sudden sun flared up that malachite/ Orient and immortal emerald/ Grass, green as heaven, on Cardigan Island." Here we get a glimpse of a paradisical dimension couched in imagery that deliberately recalls Thomas Traherne. Such moments of transcendence are given as they come, here in the present, elsewhere in recorded history or the fields of myth - "for if the living/ Are only living/ there is no hope".

Jack Herbert is a fellow, Temenos Academy, London.

The Collected Poems of Brian Morris

Author - Brian Morris
ISBN - 0 9539951 0 0
Publisher - Rare Books and Berry, Porlock, Somerset
Price - £20.00
Pages - 255

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