In this vale of tears one often meets unpleasant people. These are the sort of people who say things like, “You have too many books.” Yet sometimes the criticism sticks in one’s craw. As you lie upon the bed at night, you wonder, “Why on earth do I have so many (yet not too many) books?” The answer comes: because books are not just books. Books are the dead living through their words. Books are strangers who are willing to tell you anything you might want to know. We humans are fascinated by fascinating people, especially when they themselves are fascinated by something else. As the late Harold Bloom said, “We cannot know enough people profoundly enough.”
Enoch Powell is a perfect example of such a man. He appears as a rare specimen of a dying breed—that of the writer-statesman. Powell was a brilliant classical scholar, and an orator who seemed to carve his speeches out of marble. He delivered the emotionally turbulent “Hola Massacre Speech,” spoken against the racist abuses perpetrated by the British against the Mau-Maus. Yet his infamous anti-immigration politics, as made known in the famous (and misnamed) “Rivers of Blood” speech, were excoriated by many contemporaries, despite their popularity. Powell was fundamentally anti-racist; he was a patriot, and thus he valued the sovereignty of the nation, and of his nation’s roots.
As one might expect, however, the common multitude of sound bites usually neglects what Powell himself might have judged to be more important: his poetry. It might surprise those who are acquainted with Powell only by his point of demarcation along the political spectrum to know that he does not seem to have written one truly political poem. His poetic thought deals exclusively with what we might call the pre-political: love and death, the love of country and the deaths of soldiers, and the love of God, as well as what Kirkegaard called the “sickness unto death”. It is no small point to make. The greatest politicians are not the ones who are merely political. As he says himself in one of his poems:
Laws, councils, monarchies,
On your hypocrises
The only power
Which given is to me
Of all eternity
In haste before I go
The thing alone
Is of reality
This tradition of public men who were also educated and scholarly men (a trait shared by the American Founders) has its roots in England. In demonstration, one might mention Churchill, Disraeli, or Thomas More. But if one does, one must also mention Powell. Indeed, he was the second-youngest man to be appointed a full professor in the history of Western academia. In 1937, Powell was appointed Professor of Greek at the University of Sydney. Nietzsche was just a few months younger when he was made Professor of Classical Philology at the University of Basel in 1869.
Powell’s relative unfamiliarity to most Americans must be chalked up not to a lack of merit but to the stern divisions of our time. Put simply, he was on the losing side.
And like many who stand on the “wrong” side of history, Powell is deeply traditional: his poetry, like his speeches, is classical in style. He is nearly always formal. He owes much to other poets, and the general style and preoccupations of his earlier verse has its lineage from A. E. Housman by way of Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon. The younger Powell’s wartime experiences make it tempting to see him as an odd sort of genre writer, formed, as so many were, both by the cloisters of the university and the crucible of war. Although not merely a war poet, Powell does seem to owe even his later work to the contrast between a married, religious life in peacetime, and the insanities of a world at war. In his verse dialogue Annunciation, he writes:
Why since I fare to Nowhere, must I take
Companion on the road, my journeying
Bitter enough without the twofold ache
Of other’s woe, worse felt than own? Why bring
Into the world what need not be of pain—
The yearning and the lack, the torturing doubt,
Estrangement, sickness, grief—and all in vain,
Since all perforce in nothing, soon or late,
Has end? I fight my own way to the Gate,
And thence go out.
Think not resultless thou canst do the sin
Called Of The Holy Ghost. Albeit thou diest
Both soul and body, the command within,
Once heard and known, if thou density,
Since all cause hath effect, the universe
From that one act, when thou art dust of dust,
Will herit an inexpiable curse.
Fear, anguish, loss, destruction, suffering weigh
In that eternal scale as naught. Obey
Therefore thou must.
The question of the first speaker’s desire for suicide—“I fight my own way to the Gate,/ And thence go out”—and the angel’s naked threat of an “inexpiable curse” mimic Hamlet’s famous soliloquy, in which “the dread of something after death” “makes us rather bear those ills we have/ Than fly to others that we know not of.”
The difference is that where Hamlet wallows in doubt and uncertainty, Powell gives his character a clear answer. The Angel’s reply to the anonymous human speaker is hardly what we might call consoling. Were it not for the tone of command, we might very well consider the argument unfinished. But Powell ceased writing here. Quod scrispi, scripsi, he seems to say. To a soldier, the command must seem more convincing than any argument.
Though Powell converted to the Church of England in 1949, his fundamental view of the world seems deeply formed by the antique pessimism in which he immersed himself during his academic career. In the ancient tragedies such as Oedipus Rex, the primary tension of the play is drawn from two opposing views of mankind. On the one hand, we have the strong, conquering, rational being whose control over his own destiny is assured. On the other, we have a dependent, suffering, doomed creature whose only hope is to reconcile himself to suffering, as Oedipus eventually does at Colonus. Powell is a conscious inheritor of this basic human dilemma. Suffering abounds in his poetic work, which confronts us with it in a striking (if occasionally maudlin) way.
For the most part, the poems are lyric, interior, and terse. They betray sudden experiences of emotional intensity, yet are obviously the result of careful thought and poetic technique. This fitful approach to writing—which was necessary, given Powell’s hectic political life—gives these lines a coiled intensity that is difficult to define, as well as a biting honesty that can cause the reader to wince physically. One never knows when something like the following will be dropped in the reader’s lap:
Sweet child, you need not fear
Lest spring be lost,
Nor think of autumn sere
And winter’s frost.
Fear not lest suffering bow
Or age betray;
Holy and fair as now
You still shall stay.
The Gods will set their guard
To shield you well:
Flame, and the flying shard
Of bursting shell.
After such a reversal, that Powell was a powerful orator—capable of bringing hardened backbenchers to tears—should not surprise us. Only twelve brief lines long, what might first appear a mordant witticism has, in fact, a kernel of hard truth: in the chaos of modernity in war-time, where the rule of Christ has given way to “the Gods” of tragic antiquity, all things are finite, and even the “holy and fair” had better shuffle quickly into the dark, lest they undergo inevitable decay. Like many of his fellow Stoics, Powell finds plenty of time to explore the deliciously agonizing fact that beauty and goodness are forever carried away into the abyss. These lyrics are the punctuation marks of a life marked by a deep sense of suffering.
Yet even his most suicidal poem is a love song to eternity, and his devotional works have all the world-weary patience and self-torturing scrutiny of a desert father.
Up to my lips again,
Thou golden brim!
The foaming, headstrong fire
Which edged thy rim
Promising life brought pain
And shot through every limb
Fever and ire.
But that which worked my harm
Is strong to cure:
Deep in thy fatal lees
Lies venom sure,
Which like a potent charm
No suffering can endure,
But healing ease,
And ever-during sleep
My hurt will sain.
Therefore, O wondrous cup,
This once again
Out of thy golden deep
A last long draught to drain
I lift thee up.
In his new collection of essays, The Catholic Writer Today, Dana Gioia writes that “if Catholic literature has a central theme, it is the difficult journey of the sinner towards redemption… Many Christian readers want inspiring books written by exemplary individuals who depict virtuous characters overcoming life’s obstacles to arrive at happy endings. These readers should avoid Catholic literature.”
Powell was, of course, a High-Church Anglican—one who brought to his faith an ineradicable sense of the fact of man’s fallenness, and the imperative need for sacrificial atonement. When Powell writes of the Eucharist, he writes as one who knows the power of pain redeemed. From Seneca to Nietzsche, men have strategized around suffering, advocating everything from indifference to affirmation. In particular, Nietzsche taught that suffering was a sacrifice, not of atonement but of overcoming, repeatedly made upon the altar of the self.
Powell was wise enough to know that death makes a mock of this pagan nobility. Powell was not a Catholic poet with a capital “C”. Yet, in his poetry, he prepared himself to “drink the cup” that Christ had once dared His own disciples to drink. If this is not enough to make him a catholic poet with a small “c,” I am not sure what is.