FREDA DOWNIE was one of the best of our contemporary poets. But her modest and retiring nature was such that her talents and achievements were not as widely known or appreciated as they should have been. Much of her work appeared in the printings of small Hertfordshire presses such as the Mandeville and Priapus, and she was a winner of the Stroud Festival Poetry Competition in 1970.
Downie's two principal collections were published by Secker and Warburg and gained her nationwide recognition amongst the perceptive of her poet peers. The first of these collections, A Stranger Here (1977), won an Arts Council Prize and the rare praise of Geoffrey Grigson, no less, who described it as 'a better book of new poetry than any I have seen for years'. The second, Plainsong (1981), was also received with critical acclaim. Peter Scupham wrote of her work: 'She is a formalist, an apparent mandarin, a writer whose syntax is easy and conversational, but whose vocabulary shows a refinement of epithet and habit of exactitude.'
Downie's poetry could be deceptively gentle, concealing a sinewy preciseness of language and a sharply observant eye which offered the reader a quizzically oblique angle of vision. Yet, oblique as it was, it was always steady and uncompromising.
Supporting their trees,
The island of shadow
Can be seen from the house.
He sees them, plans quietly
And leaves the house
By the French window.
from 'At Home'
Freda Downie was born in London and educated at schools in England and Australia. She worked for many years at a music publishing firm and a bookshop in London, and for the last 30 years or so of her life she and her husband, David Turner, lived quietly in the small Hertfordshire town of Berkhamsted.
Freda was also a talented visual artist and her liquid-eyed portraits are full of feeling and affection. For those to whom she was also a friend she will be deeply missed for her conversation and her kindnesses.
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