Nationality: British. Born: Ipoh, Malaya, 23 March 1915. Education: Hereford Cathedral School; Dean Close School; University College, Exeter, 1937, 1946; University of London, B.A. 1947; University of Exeter, M.A. 1960. Military Service: British Army, 1939–46. Family: Married 1) Nancy Melloney Graham in 1947 (died 1967), one son and one daughter; 2) Patricia Thomson in 1970 (marriage dissolved 1975); 3) Eileen Lear in 1979. Career: Lecturer, then professor of English, University of Sheffield, 1947–70; professor of English, Royal Holloway College, University of London, Egham, Surrey, 1970–80, now emeritus. Visiting lecturer, Carleton College, Northfield, Minnesota, 1951–52, and University of the West Indies, Jamaica, 1957; British Council Lecturer in India, 1966–67;W.P. Ker Lecturer, University of Glasgow, 1979; visiting fellow, Australian National University, Canberra, 1979; visiting professor, University of Malawi, 1980–81; British Council Lecturer in Japan, 1983; honorary fellow, University of London, 1987. Fellow, Royal Society of Literature, 1968. Address: 4 Eastgate Street, Winchester, Hampshire SO23 8EB, England.
Gospel of Fire. London, Mathews and Marrot, 1933.
Snake in the Moon. London, Williams and Norgate, 1936.
The Iron Christ. London, Williams and Norgate, 1938.
Fall of a Tower and Other Poems. London, Fortune Press, 1942.
Murdock and Other Poems. London, Dakers, 1947.
The Galloping Centaur: Poems 1933–1951. London, Methuen, 1952.
Morant Bay and Other Poems. London, Routledge, 1961.
Ghosts of Greenland. London, Routledge, 1967.
From the Red Fort. Bristol, Redcliffe, 1984.
Collected Poems. Bristol, Redcliffe, 1994.
Radio Plays: Illnesses and Ghosts at the West Settlement, 1965; The Sirens, 1966; The Near Singing Dome, 1971; Eyre Remembers, 1982.
I Tell of Greenland. London, Routledge, 1977.
Herbert Read. London, Longman, 1953; revised edition, 1961.
Poets' Grammar: Person, Time and Mood in Poetry. London, Routledge, 1958; Westport, Connecticut, Greenwood Press, 1974.
The Shakespeare Inset: Word and Picture. London, Routledge, 1965; New York, Theatre Arts, 1966; revised edition, Carbondale, Southern Illinois University Press, 1971.
John Masefield: The Narrative Poet (lecture). Sheffield, University of Sheffield, 1968.
Thoughts on Poetic Time (lecture). Abingdon-on-Thames, Berkshire, Abbey Press, 1972.
Editor, Essays and Studies 22. London, Murray, 1969.*
Manuscript Collections: Lockwood Memorial Library, State University of New York, Buffalo; Sheffield Public Library; Brotherton Collection, Leeds University Library.
Critical Studies: "Francis Berry," in Neglected Powers, London, Routledge, and New York, Barnes and Noble, 1971, and "My Life's Work, with a Discussion of Francis Berry's Poetry," in Literature and the Art of Creation, edited by Robert Welch and Suheil Badi Bushrui, Totawa, New Jersey, Barnes and Noble, 1988, both by George Wilson Knight; Tradition and Experiment in English Poetry by Philip Hobsbaum, London, Macmillan, and Totowa, New Jersey, Rowman and Littlefield, 1979.
Francis Berry comments:
Have been deeply enchanted by geography—the Mediterranean, the West Indies, Greenland—for the settings it supplies for human actions. Strongest emotion used to be fear in its varieties, especially around sunset or in the night. But even strong noontide sunlight provoked anxiety. Cruelty figures in early poems because I am frightened of cruelty. Have felt responsive to other times as well as other places: so history and myths are also poetic preoccupations. I believe the dead might still care and would not hurt them. It is a gratification to have written any poem that I think is good enough, but the long poem, narrative or dramatic, of lively structure, compact, of varied rhythm, and vivid images, is what I most delight in making: its making sustains the maker day after day during its making and renders tolerable the return of first consciousness each morning.* * *
Francis Berry is a master of the long poem, and his finest work is in that genre. Because of this he has been underrepresented in magazines and anthologies, and his reputation has yet to match the opinion such critics as G. Wilson Knight and Donald Davie have formed of his work.
The Iron Christ tells of a statue made from the guns of the frontier fortresses of Chile and Argentina and the attempt to erect this on the highest point of the Andes as a symbol of peace. The struggle up the mountain is rendered graphically:
The driver turns his face, his arm to throttle
Levering steam, but, with a cursing, spin
The driving-wheels, skidding upon raw rails,
Circuiting vainly, then grab, heel over rods,
Pistons pant, valves hiss, wheels grip, groan, grab …
Morant Bay deals with an uprising of blacks in Jamaica that was put down ruthlessly by Governor Eyre in 1865. The exotic coloration is instantly compelling:
… On the other side of the ravine
Rises the opposing flank of another spur,
Its sandstone swooned from the blurs of that sun,
Dotted with thorned scrub, roots bedded in stone,
On which the red spider darts or the lizard waits
Before his next scurry with a sobbing throat …
Equally compelling are the different voices that interweave the narration. One thinks of the diatribe that emanates from the black Deacon Bogle, who denounces the governor and who is echoed by the impassioned responses of his congregation:
"Der he be
In dat King's House, an' he eat"—
In dat King's House, an' he eat.
"He eat fishes an' he eat meat,"
He eat fishes an' he eat meat,
War-o, heavy war-o …
Because he uses the voices of his protagonists, Berry is able to enter into their characters and see all sides of the question: Eyre, courageous but bigoted; the instigator of the uprising, Gordon, intelligent and envious; Deacon Bogle, a personification of the superstitious blacks. What is so impressive about this poem upon a vexed subject—race hatred—is that it does not take sides. Instead, it seeks to understand the difficulty of a situation. In many ways Morant Bay is a great Catholic poem. It sees the massacre at Morant Bay in terms of original sin, an obeah "whose magic undergoes all manner of transfer/But cannot be cast out."
In Illnesses and Ghosts at the West Settlement, Berry's recreation of voices takes a further step and enters a new terrain. This is the Greenland colonized at the end of the first millennium A.D. by Erik the Red. Plague strikes down the little settlement, smashing the sanctions that govern even this primitive society. The remnant of people staying there becomes demoralized. The whole poem is couched in terms of a recollection by the various ghosts hovering above the colony where they suffered so dreadfully a thousand years before. Gudrid, Erik's daughter-in-law, is the central character. Her voice comes across the centuries in characteristically tentative meters, re-creating a woman's agony in the face of male intransigence:
Illnesses and ghosts.
You founded Greenland, I've seen enough of your Greenland
And I want the sun for a while, husband or no husband.
I want the sun because I am so cold, you know I am so cold,
That I could hear that particular sound again
Oh, I am so old
Before I am hardly girl. Dear Father, Father-in-law, help me …
It is questionable whether any contemporary poet can offer a greater range of technique and subject matter.
The story does not end with Greenland. "The Singing Dome," which appears in From the Red Fort, concerns Shah Jahan, who built the Taj Mahal in memory of his wife. Here is the voice of the dead woman, Mumtaz, interrupting her husband's thoughts, accusing him of wishing her dead in order that he might build his immortal dome:
I died because you wanted me to die.
Or thought you did & sometimes. For I could read
That silent thought in the way you looked
At me … sometimes. It made me sad—for you
Because I surmised you would be desolate
And helpless … I gone. And that you would regret
That thought you had allowed me to discern …
Sometimes & though you should have not …
Note the pondering meter, the quiet dwelling upon the word "sometimes." This is a sparser, more intimate verse than we are used to from Berry. The pain lies nearer the surface. There is a sense of autobiography here not evident, on the whole, in the earlier poems. "Mbona," a narrative concerning a rainmaker, and "The Banana Plant," about a deceased wife who is enshrined in that vegetable, exhibit kindred qualities together with what, for want of a better phrase, might be described as a feeling for nature. Berry has also written successful poems about animals—"The Peacock Senescent," "The Panther," and "Lumping It"—the last an expressionist piece about a boa constrictor.
The process of development with Berry seems to have been a progressive stripping off, so that he has come to confront us with experience at its most personal. One of the most naked of the later poems is called "Ad Patrem." The title is an ironic reference to a text by Milton, who had a father who encouraged him. Berry's history seems to have been quite different. He reverses the direction of Milton's poem, making the father a third-person figure and addressing himself as a second person in a verse as austere as anything he has ever attempted:
He remembers you
Immediate male ancestor
As the declared atheist, son and book hater
The stern and disappointed one
Of whom he was afraid …
In 1994 the bulk of this output was gathered together in a truly magnificent Collected Poems. The volume was reviewed by David McDuff in Stand Magazine (spring 1995), where he termed it "an extraordinary medley of verse pieces on subjects that range from the Icelandic sagas to the Iron Christ of Chile and Argentina, from the Jamaican riot of Morant Bay to the building of the Taj Mahal."
In the end it is to the long poems that we turn. Here we have an oeuvre unsurpassed in the later twentieth century. As Robert Nye said of Berry in the Times (September 15, 1994), "He has a rich vein of humanity which makes him interested in verse as a means of storytelling through the use of different voices." All we need do is learn from the approach exemplified in Berry's various critical works and attempt to develop an auditory imagination.