Dale, Peter (John)

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DALE, Peter (John)

Nationality: British. Born: Addlestone, Surrey, 21 August 1938. Education: Strode's School, Egham, Surrey; St. Peter's College, Oxford, 1960–63, B.A. (honors) in English 1963. Family: Married Pauline Strouvelle in 1963; one son and one daughter. Career: Hospital porter and orderly, 1958–60; assistant teacher of English, Knaphill County Secondary School, Woking, Surrey, 1963, and Howden Comprehensive Secondary School, East Yorkshire, 1964–65; English master, 1965–71, and head of English, 1971–72, Glastonbury High School, Sutton, Surrey. Head of English, Hinchley Wood School, Esher, Surrey, 1972–93. Since 1993 full-time writer. Associate editor, 1971–82, and co-editor, 1982–96, Agenda magazine, London. Since 1997, with Ian Hamilton, Philip Hoy, on editorial board of Between the Lines, and since 1998, editor of poetry column in Oxford Today. Awards: Arts Council bursary, 1969. Address: 10 Selwood Road, Sutton, Surrey, England.



Nerve. Privately printed, 1959.

Walk from the House. Oxford, Fantasy Press, 1962.

The Storms. London, Macmillan, and Chester Springs, Pennsylvania, Dufour, 1968.

Mortal Fire. London, Macmillan, and Chester Springs, Pennsylvania, Dufour, 1970; revised edition, London, Agenda, and Athens, Ohio University Press, 1976.

Cross Channel. Sutton, Surrey, Hippopotamus Press, 1977.

One Another: A Sonnet Sequence. London, Agenda, 1978.

Too Much of Water: Poems 1976–82. London, Agenda, 1983.

A Set of Darts, with W.S. Milne and Robert Richardson. Grimsby, England, Big Little Poems Books, 1990.

Earth Light. Frome, England, Hippopotamus Press, 1991.

Edge to Edge: Selected Poems. London, Anvil Press Poetry, 1996.

Da Capo: A Sequence of Poems. London, Agenda/Poets and Painters Press, 1997.


The Cell, in Agenda (London), 13(2), 1975.

Sephe, in Agenda (London), 18(1), 1981.

The Dark Voyage, in Agenda (London), 29(1–2), 1991.


An Introduction to Rhyme. London, Bellew Publishing, 1998.

Translator, The Legacy and Other Poems of François Villon. London, Agenda, 1971; revised edition, as The Legacy, The Testament, and Other Poems, London, Macmillan, and New York, St. Martin's Press, 1973.

Translator, with Kokilam Subbiah, The Seasons of Cankam: Love Poems Translated from the Tamil. London, Agenda, 1975.

Translator, Selected Poems of Villon. London, Penguin, 1978.

Translator, Narrow Straits: Poems from the French. Sutton, Surrey, Hippopotamus Press, 1985.

Translator, Poems, by Jules Laforgue. London, Anvil Press Poetry, 1986.

Translator, Selected Poems of François Villon. London, Penguin, 1988; New York, Viking, 1989; revised edition, 1994.

Translator, Dante: The Divine Comedy. London, Anvil Press Poetry, 1996; revised edition, 1998.

Translator, Poems of Jules Laforgue. London, Anvil Press Poetry, 2000.

Translator, Poems of François Villon. London, Anvil Press Poetry, 2000.


Critical Studies: "Notes on the Poetry of Peter Dale," in Agenda (London), viii, 3–4, 1970, and "The Poetry of Peter Dale," in PNR, 119, 1998, both by William Cookson; "The Poetry of Peter Dale" by Terry Eagleton, in Agenda (London), xiii, 3, 1975; "Father's Story" by Donald Davie, in The Listener (London), October 1976; "The Poetry of Ordinariness," in Agenda (London), xiv, 4-xv, I, 1977, and "Fathers and Sons: Peter Dale's Mortal Fire," in Southern Review (Baton Rouge, Louisiana), Winter 1979, both by William Bedford; "Reciprocals: Peter Dale and Timothy Steele" by Wyatt Prunty, in Southern Review (Baton Rouge, Louisiana), July 1981; Peter Dale issue of Agenda (London), 26(2), Summer 1988; Peter Dale issue of Outposts (Frome, England), 156, Spring 1988; "Solipsism Transcended" by W.G. Shepherd, in Agenda (London), xxxi(1), 1995.

Peter Dale comments:

Within the constraints of such a volume as this, not much of significance or assistance may be said about one's verse. It's the job of poems, not poets, to speak for themselves—and the chief problem with that idea in our modern cultures is the difficulty a poem has in getting any distribution, let alone a decent hearing. This isn't helped by the thought that a true poem is a needle in a haystack. Searching for it is no use; it has to find you—and many a thing pricks which is no poem. (The Internet itself, in terms of distribution, is a madly made haystack). Young, you'd set out with a commitment to firm ideas of what you wanted to write; older, in retrospect, in your selected poems, you end up shocked, though often agreeably, at where the vagaries of the imagination have taken you in disregard of the intention. Conscious intention, contemporary acclaim, or dismissal have little to do with poems. A poet's commitment is to giving life, an ineradicable emotion, to a few words that will carry over the years and speak directly to a reader or hearer in the inner voice of mind and imagination. It's almost impossible. Even great poets do it rarely. The commitment remains but, as Larkin remarked, you write not what you like but what you can. And given the cultural situation, you hope—adapting Eliot—"My words echo / Thus in your mind." Though you read on: "But to what purpose / Disturbing the dust on a bowl of rose-leaves …" It's no consolation to substitute "computer screen" for "bowl."

*  *  *

In "'Where All the Ladders Start,'" an essay on Yeats, Peter Dale writes, "For me, the important Yeats is the questioning, observing one who analyses moments—and what poet was given better moments?—rather than the systemising, abstracting one." He offers "After Long Silence" as his initial example of Yeats at his best. The lyric analysis of "moments" is Dale's own great strength as a poet, and it is significant that "After Long Silence" contains much that one finds in Dale's work too: powerful emotion expressed indirectly, an awareness of the mutability of things, the recognition of the past in the present, an attraction to occasions of oblique or transitional light, repetition of word and phrase within a stanza marked by subtle rhymes. Such qualities are evident even in so short a poem as "Crocuses":

   Delicate, firm as porcelain, with that dram
   Of stillness till they lapse back from the rim.
   Love, love, yes, something once, never enough,
   nor you, nor I—today they touch a nerve.

The exact hesitancy of the rhythm enacts in microcosm what Dale has elsewhere, in the foreword to One Another, called "the morphology of an emotion." The internal rhyme ("stillness"/"till"), the repetition ("love, love"/"nor you, nor I"), the gracefulness of the rhyming—of which Dale has been theorist as well as skilled practitioner—all have a heightened naturalness of idiom that is the product of a sure technique. Dale's earlier work includes both poems in traditional forms (e.g., "The Storms") and some minimalist free verse. The later work brings together the virtues of both. The encounter with minimalism certainly helped to develop an alertness to the eloquence of the natural image, as in "Dusk":

   Moon a sliver of apple
   blue on a knife-blade.
   Light enough for a known face
   I touch shadow round your eyes.

The recurrent themes that mark Dale's mature work are, in a sense, nothing other than the high commonplaces of the poetic tradition—love and death. A repeated image—reflections in a window—provides a clue to what is most individual in Dale's treatment of these themes. The sequence "Mirrors, Windows" in Earth Light (first published in Agenda in 1988) is made up of ten sonnets. These impressive poems take as their starting point a situation in which "a middle-aged man observes his dead father's features in the window pane." Reflection, in more than one sense, is the central concern. The window reflects, but it also can be seen through; it combines opacity and transparency; we see in it both what is within and what is outside. Images are thus superimposed, and poetically the window becomes a means to articulate the simultaneous or alternating presences of past, present, and future. In One Another a central concern is with "the years in the window pane" (from "Dusk"—not the poem quoted above), with attempts to grasp the "see-through stuff of memory" ("Memorial"), and the sequence ends with "Window," a poem that begins with the characteristic ambiguity of "your eyes, child, in the window."

Dale's finest work is that in which memory attempts to recall to language the moment of experience, to put wordless epiphany into words. The moments of epiphany are those in which a kind of "double exposure" makes available to the seeing mind the past or the future in the present, in memory or imagination, so that the moment itself becomes timeless, an awareness of mutability coexisting with an apprehension of something outside time. The longer reflective poems examine such questions, although not in a coldly intellectual fashion, establishing an emotional metaphysics of seeing and remembering, recording the activity of the "merciless eye, that nothing can assuage" ("Recapitulation") of the subjectivity of meaning:

   There is no voice in the stream's whispered hearsay.
   There is no beauty here. It's all my eye.

"Summer Shadows," which closes Too Much of Water: Poems 1976–82, is a major poem in which particularity of observation is perfectly married to a searching mind. The language, for all its seeming clarity, is richly teasing in its implications.

Dale is a love poet of the greatest tenderness, whether in the magnificent sonnets of One Another: A Sonnet Sequence or in lyrics that continue the great English tradition, as in "Occasions":

   I wasn't there to look
      the time you saw the lightning sear
   the crooked oak.
      I had your fear for it.
   I wasn't there the day
      you found a wind-cast blossom shadow
   spread from the may.
      Your joy I had for that.
   —You let the bird go free.
      I couldn't see the blood that welled
   but it seemed to me
      a bulb you held had burst …
   When the love that I swear
      is a dry husk on the wind's breath,
   I shan't be there.
      You'll have my death for it.

It is in the precision of his language, its economy and its shapeliness, that Dale creates his poetic idiolect. The emotional and psychological states with which it deals are often at the edge of the poet's knowledge. There is, consequently, obliqueness in the achieved precision, a sense of discoveries, and recoveries, being made.

Though Mortal Fire contains much of value, it is on One Another, Too Much of Water, and Earth Light, particularly in the sequences "Like a Vow" and "Mirrors, Windows," that a claim for Dale's importance as a poet should be based. An equally forceful claim might be made on the strength of his work as a translator. Donald Davie has praised Dale's versions of Villon as the work of an "exceptionally thoughtful and enterprising translator." Dale's remarkable translations of Jules Laforgue certainly demonstrate both thought and enterprise of a high order. So do many of his other translations from the French, notably of Tristan Corbière, and he has published his translation of Dante. Dale is a self-effacing translator; his own personality does not intrude between the reader and the translated text. Elsewhere we often feel, say, that we are reading Marianne Moore as much as La Fontaine, Craig Raine rather than Racine. Dale has no truck with Poundian doctrines of imitation; his is a courageous attempt to find English equivalents for the form, content, and spirit of the original. To have successfully translated such writers as often as Dale has done is an astonishing achievement, and there is courage in his insistence on printing his translations with their originals on the facing page. This kind of courage might have been no more than foolhardiness, but such is Dale's critical intelligence and his technical skill and inventiveness that the results are among the major achievements of modern verse translation. They are the work of a conscientious, and poetically gifted, craftsman.

Dale's work both as original poet and as translator puts him in the first rank of contemporary English poets.

—Glyn Pursglove