Obituary: E. J. Scovell

John Mole
Friday 12 November 1999 01:02

BORN IN the same year as W.H. Auden and Louis MacNeice, but not publishing a collection of poems until 1944, when she was 37, E. J. Scovell was a lyric poet of the first order, forced by circumstance to bide her time.

Never a prolific writer, Joy Scovell neither belonged to nor could be claimed by any of the dominant movements in 20th-century poetry. Indeed, her response to the changes of fashion was always a thoroughly realistic, if sometimes regretful, acceptance. In an interview given only a few years ago she compared the present with the past when asked about her experience as a woman poet nearing the end of her career, though the very term "career" in the sense that so many poets of either gender would use it now, seems at odds with the resilient patience of her life and work: "Yes, there does seem to be some pressure on poets nowadays to be explicitly feminist as there is to be political in other ways. There was a similar pressure in the Thirties for poetry to show political consciousness - perhaps another thing that made publication difficult then."

Shadows of Chrysanthemums, that first wartime collection containing poems that Scovell had been writing since her undergraduate days at Oxford, came out as a flyweight economy volume from Routledge in their New Poets series. "Not for many years," they announced, "has there been such a stirring of the poetic imagination as now exists in this country, and among this new poetry are new and individual voices." Or, as Scovell herself put it, "It seems the war created a need, or a liking for poetry of all kinds." So, with publication difficulties temporarily in abeyance despite a paper shortage, her voice was heard.

Another poet on that list was Geoffrey Grigson. He had drawn the attention of Routledge's editorial adviser, Herbert Read, to her work and was to remain its champion. Writing in one of his own last books, Recollections (1984), he asked

why, for instance, an Oxford poet who has written early and late with strong tenderness such as Joy Scovell isn't better known or known as she deserves to be. I have to answer because she was a woman less concerned with celebrity and self-importance than what she discovered in being alive, and in love.

Unfortunately that well- intentioned last phrase teeters almost patronisingly on the edge of Mills and Boon, and, by the time Grigson wrote it, Joy Scovell had published three more volumes, The Midsummer Meadow (1946), The River Steamer (1956) and, after a considerable resurgence of interest in her poetry in the early 1980s - which included my own Radio 3 feature and a pamphlet, Listening to Collared Doves from the Mandeville Press - a substantial Secker and Warburg collection, The Space Between (1982).

The fact remains, though, and in this sense Grigson was entirely right in his implication, that the kind of poetry Scovell wrote is almost certain to be as undervalued by successive fashions as it is to be treasured by those lucky individual readers that come across it as I did when - knowing nothing of her work - I read a single poem, the marvellous "The Evening Garden" in a 1980 issue of The Listener, cut it out and read it again and again.

Then, later, to my amusement though not surprise, I discovered from its dust-wrapper after Scovell had given me a copy of The Midsummer Meadow, that Vita Sackville-West had done the same: "It was in Life and Letters that I first came across some verses by E. J. Scovell and was so much struck by them that I cut them out to stick in a private anthology." Such quiet undercurrents of continuity beneath the flood of reputation are surely essential to the survival of true poetry.

Joy Scovell often referred to what she once described as her betrothal at birth to a sense of otherness which she always took for granted. She was brought up in the Church of England, her father a clergyman; her loss of faith was, as she once put it, "not so much losing belief as noticing I hadn't got it. Some time later when I began to have an intense, almost mystical pleasure in nature, in the countryside, I thought of myself as a pantheist for a time - then settled down to agnosticism." Does any poet, though, settle down comfortably to a fixed position, however broad the church or absence of it? The enduring value of Scovell's poetry lies in its awareness of an immanence in the slightest scene or incident, the smallest detail of natural life. In her poem "Agnostic" she writes:

So where deepest silence lies

Gathered to pools, my steps will draw;

The speechless child that sleeps or cries;

Age with the secret not the power;

The look of utterance on the silent flower.

In her finest poems, Scovell transcribes that look of utterance, or those recesses where the deepest silence lies, with a concentrated attention which matches them, often achieving a verse movement which teases out, or threads through, a fugitive experience as in the beautiful "The Scent".

It is this constant sense of quiet astonishment in the presence of an epiphany (though she would probably have raised more than an eyebrow at the word) that lies at the heart of her work, whether she is considering the face of a child in which "meaning with such power / Flowed through, I could have watched an hour" or watching the "heavy thoughtful head" of her husband, the distinguished animal ecologist Charles Elton, with whom she spent time working in the South and Central American rainforests, as he stands "thigh-deep, a patient man in flannels, /. . . rooted in the brome, / Stock of that natural garden, never so at home."

In 1988, to its great credit, Carcanet Press published a handsome Collected Poems which included work written after the Secker volume as well as Scovell's translations of Giovanni Pascoli, the latter having been done over one of the periods when she was writing little else. "I have had a fairly ordinary life I think, with normal experiences," she said in retrospect. It is precisely that, it could be argued, that has made her poetry exceptional.

Edith Joy Scovell, poet: born Sheffield 9 April 1907; married 1937 Charles Elton (died 1991; one son, one daughter); died Oxford 19 October 1999.

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