Obituary: Sean Rafferty
Friday 07 January 1994
THE POETRY of Sean Rafferty was known to a handful of people only, for he had never sought publication. This left him at peace to read and to write. Now that his Collected Poems are due from Carcanet his share in the great Scots tradition will become obvious.
Born in Dumfriesshire in 1909, a schoolmaster's son, Rafferty read literature under Sir Herbert Grierson at Edinburgh, and listened to Robert Garioch play piano in a cinema - who, like him, kept quiet about poetry. Rafferty would not say he was Scottish, Irish or English and never went abroad, because he felt he would stay put if he did. He published in the Modern Scot and Edwin Muir did his best to encourage him. From 1932 to 1948 he lived in London, seeing wartime service as a fireman, and he worked at the Players Theatre, writing musicals and revues for performances in 1947 and 1952. The poems he cared for began in 1940 on the birth of his only child, a daughter. Her mother Betty died in 1945.
High over ruin and reason the tower from twice rocked foundations
shoulders faith like a firkin into the morning air;
out of a hole in a wall was the great hooped window
Saint Anne considers her parish; a heart laid bare.
Remarrying, Rafferty moved to Iddesleigh, in west Devon, and ran a pub, The Duke of York. His poems, alliterative, uniquely rhymed in the French sonnet form, carried an indescribable silence of despair like an aura. At times all that there seemed left of a man in the poems was the cast-out persona noting the remains of worlds and beliefs no longer there. Refrains from erotic ballads, echoes of Herbert and Corbiere, underpinned the continual presence of spirits Rafferty knew, while old men's ravings at the pub walls heralded ghosts from wars and hunts. Coupled with elegies for his first wife, the dead and the living were sometimes reunited a stark yet lyrical poetry. Steeped in border ballads, Percy's Reliques and the Latin, French and British poetry he cared about, he created sounds which were strangely new for one so rooted in the past.
The candles yawning and the fire gone out.
Silence, your sin; let silence make amends.
You will not write a line and if you wrote
what could you write but epitaphs and ends?
Although some of these poems were published by Grosseteste and PN Review in 1973 and 1982 nobody asked for any more, and under the many variants of his name the poems went back into his drawer, as had happened before, for 25 years. In a farm cottage given to him and Peggy for the rest of their lives he finished his two laments for all that had gone from his life in wartime London. Then he stopped. In 1989 his wife died - and Sorley Maclean remembered him in an essay. A renaissance befell his life. The young came to visit; and an old man of 82 began to write again.
How shall I? Help me here. Whisper it. What can I
what can I give to a child
in farewell? softly, speak softly,
in farewell to a child who is sleeping
What can I give but a dream?
It was the last vanity of the old, he said; for his work to be acceptable to the young. His letters were like prose poems, containing a wonderful humour, and he read his own poems from memory: he had known them long enough. On the day of his death he was still a gardener, still shutting up hens. He had heard a tape of Sorley Maclean reading his poetry at the Six Towns Poetry Festival, and knew his work was going to be published. Peacocks. Full Stop (Poetical Histories, 1993), Salathiel's Song (Babel, 1994) and Collected Poems (Carcanet, 1995) will find their audience. He was a great and mysterious poet.
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