Poetry Focus: Bernard Spencer

Peter Robinson on Bernard Spencer

Bernard Spencer (pictured above with an unknown singer), born a hundred years ago next November, is still read and admired.

Talking recently to the poet John Welch about him, I was pleased to hear that he had recited Spencer’s "On the Road" at a daughter’s wedding. Since Spencer, a British Council lecturer for much of his life, had died in Vienna, his body discovered by suburban train tracks in September 1963, I included his "Night-Time: Starting to Write" in a reading at the festival there to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the Council office’s founding in 1946.

Jo Shapcott, who performed with me, mentioned that she and Matthew Sweeney had chosen his "Boat Poem" for their Emergency Kit anthology, published in the same year. His poem "A Thousand Killed" is discussed by Christopher Hitchins in a 2004 article in Slate. From a collateral line of the Spencer-Churchill family, he can also be found on the peerage website.

During his lifetime, Spencer published just three books of verse, Aegean Islands and Other Poems (Editions Poetry London, 1946), The Twist in the Plotting (University of Reading, 1960), With Luck Lasting (Hodder and Stoughton, 1963), and the first collection of George Seferis in English, The King of Asine and Other Poems, co-translated with Lawrence Durrell and Nanos Valoritis (John Lehmann, 1948).

Alan Ross published a Collected Poems in 1965, and Roger Bowen edited an enlarged edition for Oxford University Press (1981). Now out of print, some of these books can be found second-hand online.

Here is an uncollected translation from the Spencer archive at the University of Reading, reproduced with permission of the poet’s estate. It is taken from the script for "Poems by Seferis", selected by Ian Scott-Kilvert, producer D.S. Carne-Ross, broadcast on The BBC Third Programme, Sunday 8th December 1957, 9.55-10.15 p.m.

The Mourning Girl

You sat on the rock waiting
as the night came on
and the pupil of your eye showed
how much you suffered.

And your lips were drawn in a way
exposed and trembling
as if your soul were whirled like a spinning-wheel
and your tears were pleading.

And you had in your mind the thought
of yielding to tears
you were a body falling from its bloom
back to its seed.

But there was no cry from your heart’s breaking:
that breaking became
the meaning, scattered upon the world
by the sky, all stars.

Peter Robinson is Professor of English and American Literature at the University of Reading. His most recent book of poems is The Look of Goodbye (Shearsman, 2008), reviewed on Eyewear in April, and currently one of the recommended books at the blog.
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