Conquest, (George) Robert (Acworth)

views updated

CONQUEST, (George) Robert (Acworth)

Pseudonyms: Ted Parker, Victor Gray. Nationality: American. Born: Great Malvern, Worcester, 15 July 1917. Education: Win-chester College; Magdalen College, Oxford, B.A. 1939; University of Grenoble, 1935–36. Military Service: Served in the Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry, 1939–46. Family: Married 1) Joan Watkins in 1942 (divorced 1948), two sons; 2) Tatiana Mihailova in 1948 (divorced 1962); 3) Caroleen Macfarlane in 1964 (divorced 1977); 4) Elizabeth Neece in 1979. Career: Member of the U.K. Diplomatic Service, 1946–56; fellow, London School of Economics, 1956–58; visiting poet, University of Buffalo, 1959–60; literary editor, The Spectator, London, 1962–63; senior fellow, Columbia University, New York, 1964–65; fellow, Woodrow Wilson Center, Washington, D.C., 1976–77; visiting scholar, Heritage Foundation, Washington, D.C., 1980–81. Senior research fellow, 1977–79, and since 1981 scholar-curator of the Russian and CIS collection, Hoover Institution, Stanford, California. Since 1981 research associate, Ukrainian Research Institute, Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts; since 1983 adjunct fellow, Center for Strategic and International Studies, Washington, D.C. Editor, Soviet Analyst, London, 1971–73. Awards: P.E.N. prize, 1945; Festival of Britain prize, 1951; Mencken award, 1987; Shevcenko award, 1991; Jefferson Lecturer in the Humanities, 1993; Alexis de Tocqueville award, 1994; American Academy of Arts and Letters award for light verse, 1997; Richard M. Weaver prize, 1999. M.A. 1972, and D. Litt. 1975: Oxford University. Fellow, Royal Society of Literature, 1972, and British Academy, 1994. O.B.E. (Officer, Order of the British Empire), 1955. C.M.G. (Companion, Order of St. Michael and St. George), 1996. Address: Hoover Institution, Stanford, California 94305–2323, U.S.A.



Poems. London, Macmillan, and New York, St. Martin's Press, 1955.

Between Mars and Venus. London, Hutchinson, and New York, St. Martin's Press, 1962.

Arias from a Love Opera. London, Macmillan, and New York, Macmillan, 1969.

Casualty Ward. London, Poem-of-the-Month Club, 1974.

Coming Across. Menlo Park, California, Buckabest, 1978.

Forays. London, Chatto and Windus, 1979.

New and Collected Poems. Irvine, California, C. Schlacks, 1986; London, Century Hutchinson, 1988.

Demons Don't. London, London Magazine Editions, 1999.


A World of Difference. London, Ward Lock, 1955; New York, Ballantine, 1964.

The Egyptologists, with Kingsley Amis. London, Cape, 1965; New York, Random House, 1966.


The Soviet Deportation of Nationalities. London, Macmillan, and New York, St. Martin's Press, 1960; revised edition, as The Nation Killers: The Soviet Deportation of Nationalities, London, Macmillan, and New York, St. Martin's Press, 1970.

Common Sense about Russia. London, Gollancz, and New York, Macmillan, 1960.

Courage of Genius: The Pasternak Affair. London, Collins-Harvill Press, 1961, Philadelphia, Lippincott, 1962.

Power and Policy in the U.S.S.R. London, Macmillan, and New York, St. Martin's Press, 1961.

Russia after Khrushchev. London, Pall Mall Press, and New York, Praeger, 1965.

The Great Terror: Stalin's Purge of the Thirties. London, Macmillan, and New York, Macmillan, 1968; revised edition, 1973.

Where Marx Went Wrong. London, Stacey, 1970.

Lenin. London, Fontana, and New York, Viking Press, 1972.

Kolyma: The Arctic Death Camps. London, Macmillan, and New York, Viking Press, 1978.

Present Danger: Towards a Foreign Policy. Oxford, Blackwell, and Stanford, California, Hoover Institution, 1979.

The Abomination of Moab. London, Temple Smith, 1979.

We and They: Civic and Despotic Cultures. London, Temple Smith, 1980.

What to Do When the Russians Come: A Survivor's Guide, with Jon Manchip White. New York, Stein and Day, 1984.

Inside Stalin's Secret Police: NKVD Politics 1936–1939. Stanford, California, Hoover Institution Press, and London, Macmillan, 1985.

The Harvest of Sorrow: Soviet Collectivization and the Terror-Famine. New York, Oxford University Press, and London, Century Hutchinson, 1986.

Stalin and the Kirov Murder. New York, Oxford University Press, and London, Century Hutchinson, 1989.

Tyrants and Typewriters. London, Century Hutchinson, and San Diego, Lexington, 1989.

The Great Terror Reassessed. New York, Oxford University Press, and London, Century Hutchinson, 1990.

Stalin, Breaker of Nations. New York, Viking, and London, Werdenfeld, 1991.

Reflections on a Ravaged Century. New York, Norton, and London, John Murray, 1999.

Editor, New Lines 1–2. London, Macmillan, 2 vols., 1956–63.

Editor, Back to Life: Poems from Behind the Iron Curtain (anthology). London, Hutchinson, and New York, St. Martin's Press, 1958.

Editor, with Kingsley Amis, Spectrum [1–5]: A Science Fiction Anthology. London, Gollancz, 5 vols., 1961–65; New York, Harcourt Brace, 5 vols., 1962–67.

Editor, Soviet Studies Series. London, Bodley Head 8 vols., 1967–68; New York, Praeger, 8 vols., 1968–69.

Editor, A Childhood in Prison by Pyotr Yakir. London, Macmillan, 1972; New York, Coward McCann, 1973.

Editor, The Robert Sheckley Omnibus. London, Gollancz, 1973.

Editor, The Russian Tradition, by Tibor Szamuely. London, Secker and Warburg, 1974; New York, McGraw Hill, 1975.

Editor, The Last Empire: Nationality and the Soviet Future. Stanford, California, Hoover Institution Press, 1986.

Translator, Prussian Nights, by Alexander Solzhenitsyn. London, Collins-Harvill Press, and New York, Farrar Straus, 1977.


Critical Studies: In Times Literary Supplement (London), 30 May 1955; by D.J. Enright, in The Month (London), May 1956; John Holloway, in Hudson Review (New York), xiv, 4, 1961; Thom Gunn, in The Spectator (London), 4 May 1962; "The Movement against Itself: British Poetry of the 1950s" by Florence Elon, in Southern Review (Baton Rouge, Louisiana), 19(1), winter 1983; "Robert Conquest and Science" by Jerry Bradley, in Readerly/Writerly Texts (Portales, New Mexico), 4(1), 1996.

Robert Conquest comments:

I suppose my main theme is the poet's relationship to the phenomenal universe, in particular to landscape, women, art, and war. Forms usually, though not always, traditional. Sometimes straight lyric, more often with development of a train of thought, an attempt to master, or transmit, a presented reality in intellectual and emotive terms simultaneously. The vocabulary often runs to words—not specialist ones—drawn from the technical, scientific, and philosophical spheres and mediatized into the ordinary language.

Since all this is in principle a complex and difficult process, a strong effort goes into keeping it as comprehensible as possible, avoidance of forced obscurities and provision of a rigorous guidance of sound and structure.

(1995) The above now sounds rather dry and scholastic. "Rigor" is too strong, though form (usually) valuable. Lyrical, sensuous rhetoric, now rare, needed. Fashions in free, wry, minor-key-personal make for criticasters' or academics' private-plot versicles.

Have also published much light verse under various pseudonyms, mainly Ted Parker and Victor Gray.

*  *  *

Robert Conquest's reputation as a historian of the Soviet Union has overshadowed his poetic achievement, even though his New and Collected Poems assembled the contents of five volumes that had appeared between 1955 and 1979, together with poems from a variety of printed sources and a number of new poems. He also edited New Lines, arguably the most influential anthology of contemporary poetry that has appeared since the end of World War II. His introduction to the anthology was not primarily a manifesto or an attempt to promote a new school; it was instead a reasoned and persuasive criticism of certain poetic theories and practices that Conquest held to be deleterious and an assertion that good sense, lucidity, rational control of language, and the traditional use of rhyme, meter, and formal patterns may be valuable servants of the poetic imagination.

At its best Conquest's own verse exemplifies his precepts. It would be wrong to think of him as antiromantic or as an apologist for a neo-Augustan revival. Indeed his range of sympathies is wide, embracing such diverse figures as Catullus, Ovid, nineteenth-century English romantic poets, Chateaubriand, Stendhal, Lamartine, Turgenev, and Hart Crane, along with painters ranging from Salvator Rosa to Paul Klee. But he draws the line at Ezra Pound.

Conquest was attached to the Soviet Army Group in 1944–45, watched the takeover of Bulgaria by the Communists, and returned there after the war as a member of the British embassy. In Poems and in his second collection, Between Mars and Venus, he draws on some of his Balkan experiences, evoking not so much political events as the countryside, the historical associations of places, and the prevalence of bedbugs. Many of the themes in his first two volumes—guided missiles, international politics, travel, music, painting, major writers, love between men and women—reflect his public concerns and his sensuous temperament.

Arias from a Love Opera and Forays represent an advance on their predecessors, commanding a widening range of subject matter and a greater emotional richness. In "Seal Rock: San Francisco" Conquest discerns analogies between the gyrations of the seals and the workings of the shaping spirit of imagination. Two of the finest poems in Arias from a Love Opera are a tribute to Coleridge and a plangently romantic meditation, "Chateaubriand's Grave":

   Silly or not, conventions cannot hide
   The sea's huge swirl of glitter and of gloom,
   Nor pour oblivion on the baffled pride
   That thrusts the memoirs from beyond the tomb.

Forays resumes and develops some of the themes from Conquest's earlier collections and explores new themes. "To Be a Pilgrim" has nothing to do with Bunyan but brings together a number of Conquest's favorite preoccupations—scenery, attractive young women, and great men from the past, especially poets. The narrator spends two nights with his girlfriend on the Isle of Wight, whose associations with Tennyson, Swinburne, and Garibaldi enrich his pleasure in the girl's company. The tone throughout is lighthearted and ironic:

   And then why don't we drive across
   To seek through scent of salt and rose
   The chime-hid church where Swinburne was
   —Baptised? buried? One of those.

Even more nostalgic is "Then and There"—a youthful memory of a prostitute whose beat was opposite St. Anne's Church, Soho:

   Most tarts were awful. Still, there were
   A nereid up on Soho Square,
   An empress by the Caves de France &
   But she who really took the glance
   Moved in the semblance of a bride
   Along the sunlit stretch outside
   That restaurant opposite St Anne's
   (As if that's where they'd called her banns).

The poet never so much as spoke to her, but despite, or because of, this her image haunts him still.

Conquest's virtuosity as a writer of light verse and of pastiche is demonstrated in nine limericks printed under the pseudonym Victor Gray in Kingsley Amis's The New Oxford Book of Light Verse and in the four poems attributed to Ted Pauker that end Conquest's New and Collected Poems. "A Grouchy Good Night to the Academic Year," a marvelous pastiche of W.M. Praed, is a witty, high-spirited attack on progressive theories of higher education. "Garland for a Propagandist (Air: The Vicar of Bray)" is equally adroit and far more savage, because it conveys, like so many of Conquest's prose works, his cold detestation of the cruelty that pervaded Communist rule in the Soviet Union:

   When Yezhov got it in the neck
   (In highly literal fashion)
   Beria came at Stalin's beck
   To lay a lesser lash on;
   I swore our labour camps were few,
   And places folk grew fat in;
   I guessed that Trotsky died of flu
   And colic raged at Katyn.

Conquest's poetry is marked by intellectual clarity, technical skill, the assertion of traditional values, and a strongly romantic sensibility, all of which lend firmness and coherence to his most accomplished work. His poetry, which yields a keen, civilized pleasure, bears witness to the values and traditions in which he believes.

—John Press