Currey, R(alph) N(ixon)
CURREY, R(alph) N(ixon)
Nationality: British. Born: Mafeking, South Africa, 14 December 1907. Education: Studied at government schools in South Africa, and at Kingswood School, Bath; Wadham College, Oxford, 1927–30,B.A. (honors) in modern history 1930, M.A. 1938. Military Service: British Army, 1941–46; commissioned with the Royal Artillery; wrote and edited Army Bureau of Current Affairs publications; Staff Major, 1945. Family: Married Helen Estella Martin in 1932; two sons. Career: Senior English master, 1946–72, and senior master for arts subjects, 1964–72, Royal Grammar School, Colchester, Essex. President of the Suffolk Poetry Society, Ipswich, 1967–79. Awards: Viceroy's prize, 1945; South African poetry prize, 1959. Fellow, Royal Society of Literature, 1970; fellow, English Centre of P.E.N.. Address: 3 Beverley Road, Colchester, Essex CO3 3NG, England.
Tiresias and Other Poems. London, Oxford University Press 1940.
This Other Planet. London, Routledge, 1945.
Indian Landscape: A Book of Descriptive Poems. London, Routledge, 1947.
The Africa We Knew. Cape Town, David Philip, 1973.
Collected Poems and Translations. Oxford, James Currey, forthcoming.
Radio Plays: Between Two Worlds, 1948; Early Morning in Vaaldorp, 1961.
Poets of the 1939–1945 War. London, Longman, 1960; revised edition, 19671967.
Vinnicombe's Trek: Son of Natal, Stepson of Transvaal 1854–1932. London, James Currey, 1989; Pietermaritzburg, University of Natal Press, 19891989.
Editor, with R.V. Gibson, Poems from India by Members of the Forces. Bombay, Oxford University Press, 1945; London Oxford University Press, 19461946.
Editor, Letters and Other Writings of a Natal Sheriff: Thomas Phipson 1815–1876. Cape Town and London, Oxford University Press, 19681968.
Translator, Formal Springs: French Renaissance Poems. London, Oxford University Press, 1950; New York, Books for Libraries, 19691969.*
Critical Studies: A Critical Survey of South African Poetry in English by G.M. Miller and Howard Sergeant, Cape Town, Balkema, 1957; by W.G. Saunders, in South African Poetry: A Critical Anthology edited by D.R. Beeton and W.D. Maxwell-Mahon, Pretoria, University of South Africa Press, 1966; by Jack Cope, in Companion to South African English Literature, edited by D. Adey, Johannesburg, Ad Danker, 1986; War Like a Wasp edited by A. Sinclair, Middlesex, Hamish Hamilton, 1989; The War Decade edited by A. Sinclair, Middlesex, Hamish Hamilton, 1989; by Iain R. Smith, in African Affairs, 89(355), April 1990.
R.N. Currey comments:
It takes a lifetime to discover what kind of poet one is. I appear to be an occasional poet, having written much more at some periods of my life than at others.
In the war I found myself placed, quite unprepared by any previous technical training, in a highly-technical branch of warfare, in which destruction was carried out impersonally at a distance. I received from this experience an intense impression of what I take to be the likely warfare of the future, in which it will require a strong effort of imagination on the part of the killer to realize what he is doing. I wrote of this in This Other Planet and in Between Two Worlds and am intrigued to find out that some of the poems in which I tried to express my response to this are now being anthologized more often than the conventional war poems that found more favor at the time.
When I was posted to India, I found there, still going on, the Middle Ages I had read about when studying history at Oxford. Indians still went on pilgrimage, as people did in the England of Chaucer's time, and my antiaircraft gunners, who had the same names as the gods in the Indian temples, belonged to the same preindustrial world. The excitement of this theme is still with me, and I hope to write about it again. Translating French poems of the Renaissance and Middle Ages has also given me an entry into those preindustrial times, and I am glad to find that these poems, too, have the vitality that gets them reprinted many years after first being published.
I have written other topographical poems about places of special importance to me. South Africa, where I spent my boyhood and where I have a long family connection, has underlined contrasts and aroused tensions of the sort that produced poetry. The Africa We Knew is a book of South African poems, most of which have been printed and broadcast both in England and in South Africa. I have also edited the letters of a great-grandfather, Thomas Phipson, who landed in Natal in the first year of British settlement, 1849, and have done a biographical study of a grandfather, Thomas Vinnicombe, who kept a remarkable record, most of it in verse, of the crucial years leading to the Anglo-Boer War of 1899–1902. In a life spent on horseback and with wagons he used verse for its original purpose of record.
I find that I have to go to a new country to discover the one in which I live, to move for a while into a different period in order to come to terms with the present. Both North Africa and the western United States have given me new viewpoints from which to see the imperial world in which I grew up.
I have published poems, at different times in my life, in different countries, mainly in England but also in the United States, India, South Africa, and Ireland. For many years I have done my writing and broadcasting alongside teaching English and running an English department at a grammar school.
During our long married life, my wife and I closely shared many writing interests, and I was able to take part with her in the editing and production of her father's children's classic—the Uncle series by J.P. Martin (London, Jonathan Cape, 1964–73).
Although I have never been one of a group of writers, I have had enough generous encouragement from David Cecil, Edward Thompson, John Arlott, T.S. Eliot, Dylan Thomas, Ronald Blythe, as well as Roy Campbell, Roy McNab, Guy Butler, Jack Cope, and other South African writers.* * *
T.S. Eliot said of R.N. Currey that he was the best war poet, in the precise sense of the term, that World War II produced. This was high praise since between 1939 and 1945 some very distinguished verse appeared in the little reviews and the numerous anthologies of the period. But the war poems collected in Currey's volume This Other Planet, reconsidered some fifty years later, seem still to hold the essence of their period in what was felt and thought by those who were the dramatis personae of "this damned unnatural sort of war," where so much was remote and impersonal. Like the enemy pilot,
To us he is no more than a machine
Shown on an instrument; what can he mean
In human terms?—a man, somebody's son,
Proud of his skill; compact of flesh and bone,
Fragile as Icarus—and our desire
To see that damned machine come down on fire.
It was as a war poet that Currey really established his reputation, and it is significant that he was chosen by the British Council to write its publication Poets of the 1939–1945 War. Nevertheless, it is largely as a South African poet that he developed. He finds his themes in and feeds his imagination on the physical Africa that he knew as a boy and on the history of men and things in that complicated but fascinating Euro-African world with its odd duality: "Eating our Christmas pudding beneath the grace / Of feminine willows on the vivid grass," or "My father, all that tawny homeward run, / Remembering snow as I remember sun."
Although Currey has lived most of his adult life in Britain, he has gone home from time to time, and his long work Early Morning in Vaaldorp, successfully broadcast by the BBC, is in a sense a tribute to his South African oeuvres, "which could not have been written if I had not come from a long South African tradition and spent most of my impressionable years there." North Africa, particularly Morocco, has been responsible for other impressive poems by Currey, who claims to be able to see the Southern Cross from both ends of the continent, a kind of unifying light in his work. India, too, where he spent much of the war years, makes a further link in this chain of poetic topography.
Some of Currey's most memorable poems, of love particularly, have a lyric poignancy that are devoid of any particular context of time or place and that achieve a universality of appeal. Such is his beautifully constructed "Song," revealing how truth emerges only from the tug-of-war of contrasts:
There is no joy in water apart from the sun,
There is no beauty not emphasized by death,
No meaning in home if exile were unknown;
A man who lives in a thermostat lives beneath
A bell of glass alone with the smell of death.
In poems such as these Currey reveals himself as a poet of considerable artistry, taking infinite pains with his verse-making to derive the maximum impact from word or image. He is an observer of life or landscape with very particular vision.