Introduction

THIS long overdue selection will, I hope, re-introduce the work of an accomplished and neglected poet into public awareness. Ross Nichols' published poetry came out between 1941 and 1947, in three main collections: Prose Chants and Proems (1941) The Cosmic Shape (co-authored with James Kirkup, 1946) and Seasons At War (1947). It has not been reprinted since, although he continued to write right up until his sudden and unexpected death in 1975. There are several reasons for this, not least his own gradual withdrawal from the literary scene a literary scene he went beyond as a result of his increasing preoccupation with the priestly role that found its expression in his leadership of the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids (from 1964). Poetry, for him, however, remained essential, as the quality of his unpublished work unquestionably demonstrates. As Philip Carr-Gomm (the present Chief of the Order) remarked in his introduction to Ross' last major work, The Book of Druidry (Aquarian Press, 1990): "Often that which we think of as lost is only in fact hidden from us for a time, in order that we may discover or rediscover it at the right moment." I'd refer anyone interested in the unusual circumstances around the loss and retrieval of Ross' poems to that introduction.

      Besides having retrieved much, and perhaps all (we can never know for certain) of Ross' poems, we also have a record of the appreciation his work received when it was first published, including his lively and acute prose journal Sassenach Stray (The Fortune Press, 1941). His work was noted by the TLS (Times Literary Supplement), Poetry Quarterly, The Listener (for its "sharp intellectual wit"), and by Edwin Muir, who described Ross as having "A genuine sensibility of his own." Although by birth a contemporary of Eliot, Auden and the thirties he was born in 1902 his poetry, at its beginning, belongs to the forties, to the "Apocalypse" group which included Dylan Thomas, Henry Treece and J. F. Hendry among others. It was a period dominated by consciousness of the War, as everyone knows from Eliot's Four Quartets; and it was a short-lived period, in many ways pre-determined by the style of the thirties, dominated by Auden, which subsequently fed directly into the mainstream English "house style" of the fifties, eclipsing the emphasis on imagination, and putting more popular survivors like Thomas, and David Gascoyne, out on a limb. This is important to realize. Fashions, and fashionable status quo, however temporary, can successfully bury all opposition: the politics of poetry is no less innocent than the politics of government, as any committed poet tends to discover. (The present emphasis on journalese in so-called mainstream British Poetry, after Larkin, is strikingly similar as is its unwillingness to confront what is entailed by a new apocalypse in relationship to outmoded forms and values).

Wit and intellectualism have their place in early Nichols, as do a number of literary echoes that recall Eliot, and (more interestingly) Beckett (the section of Prose Chants And Proems titled "The Moment's Madness", as well as using devices from Surrealism, echoes Beckett's own "Whoroscope", not then widely available). Nichols' work retains a satirical and objective slant, but from the outset his emphasis is on the imaginal, the lyrical, the prophetic:

Do we chase into gas-filled ruin

Down a Cresta run of years?

he asks, in "New Year Songs" (1937). And in the second of the songs, the question is left hanging with its ominous, ambiguous closing line

and the sky is wide.

Later (in the same collection), there is the poem "Now It Is High Time To Awake Out Of Sleep", with the lines

Psychic sees from the personal mindAngels drift in the sunset Many-armed and -winged, stately inclined, with a seething roar, as a distant flame Or a fan that winnows the grain...

reflecting, with eerie precision, more recent events in relationship to global Babylon. At the same time, he is already looking beneath the surface, and not only for causes, but towards resolutions, with that particular combination of invisible (or "psychic") metaphor and earthliness which is the hallmark of his style, with all its occasional and deliberate subjective quirks. So, in "Cyclistic", he meditates on the phenomenon of cycle riding: "Novel, Theme For" on destiny, and in the haunting "Transcript", past-life knowing and recognition:

and when I looked at him I knew      that I knew him and had always known him      when time was never.

The tension between time and the timeless the concept that the process of time can only be revealed and understood by what is beyond time, becomes a major theme in his work, and is at the centre of The Cosmic Shape, both in "Cosmic Legend", with its recollections of Egypt and the Arthurian, and in the shorter poems, gathered under the title "The Lyric Shape". Both the process around the Egyptian sun god (Ra) and his passage through the night towards dawn and rebirth; and the Arthurian wounded Fisher King, which is central to Eliot's The Waste Land, are references which remain in Nichols' poetry right into the 1970's. Death and rebirth become keys to the secret of time and the meaning of time of living in time, as part of something far larger than we can generally or easily imagine. In "The Lyric Shape", "Taliesin" embodies this quest, and like Eliot's Tiresias

knew all things, suffered all things.

Nichols adds:

   And Taliesin shall be    in many wonderful shapes,    a grain of wheat and a hare    sown and running while there are fields, and the spirit of men leaping alive at a harvest, or silver in the waters of time.

It is a prophecy he furthers in his Cecil Collins poem "Reflection" (about the archetype of the Fool) and in the Isis poem "Isian":

I am slowly reborn.

After The Cosmic Shape, his work deepens into the mythic. Seasons At War, which is a cyclical sequence using the months of the year, is an attempt, using both the poem and the prosepoem, to come to terms with the rhythm of time itself inherent in the movement of the seasons a focus which predicts the rituals and festivals he would grow into as a Druid. It also anticipates his own increasing realization of the connection between imagination and earth: a realization that led him to become a naturist and vegetarian, and stress issues of ecology we are only now recognizing as paramount.

At the same time, the journey his poetry takes explores the experience and meaning of priesthood. The Druid or Druidess is a priest or priestess of earth and also a priest/ess of the soul. Both dimensions interpenetrate. It is no easy journey. In Seasons At War, he strikingly identifies his personal experience here:

Did I indeed ask for worship, and would I not rather    lodge in a wall? But walls will not hold me, nor cages contain me, because I hold in me a Word:

   But the Word is dumb.

And, prior to this in xiii (faith of eostre) as he predicts:

I will hold up the chalice and wear yellow silk and around me shall be an aura of joy because I spring from a crab and hide my face before the Lord.

It is at this stage, from the fifties onwards, that his gradual withdrawing and deepening begins. It is a development that takes place out of the public eye. It is, first and foremost, no longer a question of "Literature", but of the Word. The gate of dumbness he passes through is the transition from poet to priest: from bard to ovate to druid. The three basic grades of Druidry are what he himself experienced. They are a logical and necessary development involving an increasing transparency of the ego (or little "I") which anyone on any spiritual path invariably encounters. For some poets, it also requires a period of silence. Something else has to come in, beyond the vocabulary of the poet. Literature is a question of time the Word is timeless. That is the difference, and the relationship. (It is perhaps best illustrated in Kahlil Gibran and not only in The Prophet, but in his less well known books, particularly Jesus, The Son Of Man).

In the final sequence of unpublished poems (from "Quadrivia") the 'classic mythos, truth outside of time' that he had identified in Seasons At War is explored in a variety of coexistent traditions. Myth, and creativity itself, become vehicles for understanding both the mystery and the responsibility of incarnation. As he puts it in "Creation":

All have been sent from sea to find the land, first footprint for a shore. Ulysses and his folk are waiting, tense and the keel is ready to ground.

Both his narrative and formal (as well as his lyrical) gifts go into the telling of these stranger stories, which are now specifically archetypal and which parallel the preoccupations of Robert Graves. What Nichols adds, or never forgets, is the human touch. So in "Incantation From Eire", "Stranger", and "The Soul Transmigrant" there is a humanness and a humility that in Graves is lacking. As he says at the end of the latter poem:

Be suffering fish in man again.

This is the Christ-fish, the Pisces emblem as distinct from Graves' paganism (or even Years' magical autonomy). At the same time, his language becomes more in one sense
hieratic: but this is a conscious, rather than inflated, device. So, in "Seven Voices":
then is the trumpet blast, the victor voice the voice as of a trumpet proclaiming that the kingdoms of this world are those of the spirit.
This is the "trumpet voice" or "Voice Direct" mediums speak of it is channelled, in the same way that Yeats recognized. It is the angel voice that serves that which comes from behind it. It is the voice at the essence of inspiration. It is the connection that humanism has forgotten. It is a paradox of which Nichols is well aware.
12 13
Prophet, Priest and King
In these last poems, there is a direct perception of and beyond the cosmic apocalypse seen through as a time of pain and confusion and break-up before rebirth. Some of us tend to forget that the "New Age" isn't new not only do you find it in Blake, but you find it in the Gospels themselves (the text from Matthew Chap. 24 is perhaps the best example for now). What we are experiencing now is a harvest of time
and this is the theme of Nichols' last writings. 'What he moves towards is exactly the breakdown we are witnessing. But now, he can see its purpose and its meaning. In "Tors":
But the thunderbolt comes that flashes from east even to west that strikes where it will. Indeed it has destroyed: But where it has struck, there the Graal is made.
Eliot evoked the Hanged Man as a sign for his time
Nichols evokes The Lightning Struck Tower for ours, fifty years later. "The heart is transformation", as I found myself writing it in the introduction to my anthology Transformation
it is the change of heart that can alone change who we are and how we experience who we in fact are. What Parsifal confronts now is not so much a Grail castle as a crumbling superstructure but at the root of it, and of himself, is redemption
is the heart's opening. For Nichols, this was the an/eh, the key, where the rivers of different traditions meet: in the heart, the heart's blood connection with the earth (with matter) and,
within the heart itself, in what he saw as "the child" the
Introduction
Mabon in the Druid tradition, who is both the inner child, the golden child; and the Christ child: the redeemer of innocence and as Collins so lucidly realized of paradise.
Light and dark struggle in these final poems; and in the last three they come together as the journey enters into a realization both of peace and endurance, beautifully encapsulated in "Solstice", contained as it is in the ritual it makes.
In "A Human Situation", this realization which in the deep sense is kingly, is coupled with humility. Standing, so to speak, and kneeling, come together and define humanness in all its uniqueness and its limitation. The poem reads almost like a farewell in its poignant naturalness:
Also our colours and changings of direction are of a small corner of the world, we are small creatures, and playing perhaps at
a wrong point.
Do not be frenetic with dogma.
His final word is faith, because there isn't any other:
The waters of the weir are dammed But the falls flow on;
The sun dies and is eaten of Set But there is a new sun.
Ross Nichols died of a heart attack, fifteen years ago. He was 73.
'4 '5
Prophet, Priest and King
This selection is essentially an introduction to Ross' work. It is not a Collected Poems. I have chosen poems that I felt reflected the full range of his themes and his style, and which (it seemed to me) narrate the stages of his journey. These are, mainly, his shorter poems. His longer ones are almost impossible to extract from in an appropriate way ("Cosmic Legend" for example). Anyone interested can either contact the Order of Bards Ovates & Druids or visit the Poetry Library at the South Bank, where the full texts are available. I have retained his private or esoteric spellings because they were deliberate on his part. They are not mine to correct. We stand most by our words, perhaps, when our words are strangest.
At least, Ross did.
Jay Ramsay
October 1989

 

 

Home|Contents