BOOK REVIEW / Stoic of fag-end years: Last Poems by Roy Fuller: Sinclair-Stevenson pounds 14.99

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The Independent Culture
ROY FULLER was born in 1912, two years before Dylan Thomas, five years after Auden. A solicitor for the Woolwich Building Society for nearly half a century, a governor of the BBC and professor of poetry at Oxford, he was in both his life and work the antithesis of the wild, dithyrambic poet of romantic fantasy.

His earliest poems appeared in Geoffrey Grigson's New Verse in the 1930s, and they reflect his enthusiasm for Auden. During the war, after a brief period of more elaborate writing, he refined his style to the ironic, stoical voice which was to remain his distinctive expression. He is a complex poet of technical virtuosity and erudition, and it is not always easy to follow his thought as he veers away from his focal image into the abstract. He was well aware of this ('It seems I rarely found the common touch, / Though my emotions common as they come'), but he continued unrepentantly, up to the end of his life, to ponder metaphysics and to question the roles of science, of the arts, of history. Two constancies emerge: his belief in absolute honesty ('Art is a human activity admitting of no duplicity') and his awareness of death. From middle age he charted his own gently gathering infirmities, often half- gleefully - 'Already I've an old man's laugh' - and cast a sad but unflinching eye on the mortality of friends and family.

This posthumous collection has been put together by Fuller's son John, himself a poet. It consists of material he believes his father would have been ready to see in print: some of these poems had not been finalised in time to appear in the three collections which came out after the New and Collected Poems of 1985. Unsurprisingly, death is the dominant theme of the volume. The tone is as before, wry, resigned, at times witty and deliberately self-parodic: 'I love the days and weeks when nothing looms, / Save illness and demise.'

For Fuller, death is the only factor to make any sense of life: it frees existence from triviality. There are spasms of prognostic terror ('And yet I blench to think some moment in / The story I shan't be there to turn the page'). The ferryman's coin is with him, sour beneath the tongue; a philosophical speculation on the nature of new and old can bring no comfort, indeed is dropped for a brooding look at 'cycles of songs that never will be sung'. However, the general mood is calm, benign; physical disabilities impose accepted limitations and Fuller seems more at peace with himself than in any of his earlier work. He celebrates the pleasures of these 'fag-end years'.

Music as always delights, and liberates him from his perennial probings, his restless search for universal principles. He strives for precision, the exact naming of parts and pieces, the exact likeness of a dissolving aspirin, which becomes both a slow-motion blossoming and a dispersing nuclear explosion. Forsythia buds are 'like a ripe sow's teats' and cygnets float by, coloured as snow and slush. He reads the Sunday papers and enjoys a 'pizzle' of black pudding. And he rescues spiders and reflects that perhaps for this he will be remembered. Dozing by the fire he dreams of old friends; awake, he writes their elegies. Medicines bring hallucinated sleep.

The final part of the book is a sequence of sonnets or quatorzains, 'Later Sonnets from the Portuguese'. A deserted wife wanders about her empty house and broods on her loveless existence, her writing, her vanished children, and of course death. Technically these poems are exquisite, but they are tainted by the protagonist's unpleasing soul. However, they provide a final splendid Fullerian couplet:

O great deoxyribonucleic acid]

Even the molecule of life's iambic.