THE COUNTRY is England, the place an idyllic farm with its neat farmhouse in a combe leading down from the Cornish village of Lichen towards the sea. George Alban is a good farmer and respected by his neighbours, and his wife Mary is as good as she is beautiful. Just another cosy corner of Old England, sighs the inattentive reader, and he is quite wrong.
The year is 1999, England has fought her last war and has lost, the country is under the heel of a harsh, corrupt and philistine tyranny, the correct address of the village of Lichen is LU/9O/Z12/Western Region, and visitors to the village church enter through a turnstile to observe and patronise a relic of an obsolete superstition. Government is by fear, literature is propaganda, science is a slave of the State. Privilege, and its abuse, are the rewards of subservience. KK Hengist, the Commissar, can ride at his pleasure into George's farmyard with his deafening escort of motor-cycles, radiating faux-bonhomie upon the farmer while furtively looking about for his handsome wife; even Merlin the wizard cannot abolish him, although he can and does make him look ridiculous. But what is Merlin doing in this scene? True, magic always glimmers at the edges of an ignorant society, but here is a magician who seems to have powers quite alien to those of the State and is not afraid to use them, and very soon we learn what he is really up to. He serves not the State but his King, King Arthur, who still waits, and waits, in another world for the moment when he shall return and redeem this one. Merlin, his chief Intelligence Officer, judges that the moment has arrived, and reports accordingly; Arthur at first hesitates, then, after some artful and grisly briefing, agrees and goes into action.
The rest of this long poem by Martyn Skinner, The Return of Arthur - so long that it had to be published in parts, in 1951, 1955 and 1959, and did not achieve publication till 1966 - describes how Arthur, with the impish prophet Merlin always at his side, did succeed in re-kindling the lamps of Faith and showing once more to mankind the way of redemption.
It is a lofty theme which requires to be presented accordingly, with dignity and reverence, and this Skinner did in his noble and finely modulated verse, but he knew very well that in human affairs the vicious, the bawdy, the trivial and the absurd all play their parts and must be given their lines, and this he did too. Even the most ludicrous or salacious of his scenes fail to disturb the stately march of his Rhyme Royal, and if in some happier state Martyn Skinner is now able to meet Aeschylus and Aristophanes he will be equally at home with either.
Skinner's mastery of verse forms is unrivalled in our time and it is fascinating to his readers to observe its development in his work. Sir Elfadore and Mabyna (1935), his first poem to be circulated in print, shows a master's ability to relate structure to sense, the vehicle (so to say) to its occupants. He is painting in miniature and has studied the masters of that art so that (to change the metaphor) he can play his own music upon Drayton's instrument.
The poems which made Skinner's name, the Letters to Malaya, published in three volumes, in 1941, 1943, and 1947, are of a character totally different, requiring narration and discussion of actual events and contemporary attitudes so that - with a wry smile at himself for doing so ('A lineal parrot on the perch of Pope') - he chooses the heroic couplet.
These Letters form the literary portion of Skinner's contribution to the war effort. (His other response was to till the land. He became an enthusiastic and successful farmer at Ipsden in Oxfordshire, and the prize that he won for his malting barley gave him more pleasure - or so he liked us to believe - than any of his literary awards.) Excluded by frail health from any kind of armed service, he determined to use his other gifts and to subject the war and its brutalities and absurdities to the scrutiny of a highly intelligent, witty and creative mind. So he began his correspondence with his friend Noel Alexander, who was interned in Malaya, and letters turned to verse beneath his pen.
He loved a correspondence and his letters in prose almost equal his letters in rhyme. Wise friends kept his letters, among them the novelist RC Hutchinson, and their letters between 1957 and 1974 were edited by Sir Rupert Hart-Davis and published as Two Men of Letters in 1979. Letters between Skinner and another friend were woven by Piers Plowright into his programme Dear Martyn Skinner and broadcast in 1991, the last occasion when any of Skinner's work may be said to have been published. His last poem, Old Rectory (1977), was printed (privately and exquisitely, at the Rampant Lions Press) and is already a collector's item.
But The Return of Arthur remains his grandest work, for which he had to devise or adopt a metrical scheme which could be adjusted at need to convey gripping narrative, evocative description (some of his finest passages portray the beauty of the English countryside), comic-strip journalism or the profoundest spiritual insights while retaining the continuity of the whole. The triumphant result places him among the truly great poets of the English tradition and language.