Elliot, Alistair

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ELLIOT, Alistair

Nationality: British. Born: Liverpool, Lancashire, 13 October 1932. Education: Attended schools in Wigan, Hoylake, and the United States, 1941–45; Fettes College, Edinburgh, 1946–50; Christ Church, Oxford, B.A. 1955, M.A. 1958. Family: Married Barbara Demaine in 1956; two sons. Career: Actor and stage manager, English Children's Theatre, London, 1957–59; assistant librarian, Kensington, London, 1959–61; cataloguer, Keele University Library, 1961–65; accessions librarian, Pahlavi University Library, Shiraz, Iran, 1965–67; special collections librarian, Newcastle upon Tyne University Library, 1967–82. Since 1983 freelance writer. Awards: Arts Council grant, 1979; Prudence Farmer award (New Statesman), 1983, 1991; Ingram Merrill Foundation fellowship, 1983; Djerassi Foundation fellowship, 1984. Agent: Nicki Stoddart, Peters Fraser and Dunlop, Drury House, 34–43 Russell Street, London WC2B 5HA, England. Address: 27 Hawthorn Road, Newcastle upon Tyne NE3 4DE, England.



Air in the Wrong Place. Newcastle upon Tyne, Eagle Press, 1968.

Contentions. Sunderland, Ceolfrith Press, 1977.

Kisses. Sunderland, Ceolfrith Press, 1978.

Talking to Bede. Ashington, Mid-Northumberland Arts Group, 1982.

Talking Back. London, Secker and Warburg, 1982.

On the Appian Way. London, Secker and Warburg, 1984.

My Country: Collected Poems. Manchester, Carcanet, 1989.

Turning the Stones. Manchester, Carcanet, 1993.

Facing Things. Manchester, Carcanet, 1997.


Medea, translation of the play by Euripides (produced London, 1992; New York, 1994). London, Oberon Books, 1993.


Editor, Poems by James I and Others. Newcastle upon Tyne, Eagle Press, 1970.

Editor, Lines on the Jordan. Newcastle upon Tyne, Eagle Press, 1971.

Editor, The Georgics with John Dryden's Translation, by Virgil. Ashington, Mid-Northumberland Arts Group, 1981.

Editor and translator, French Love Poems (bilingual). Newcastle upon Tyne, Bloodaxe, 1991.

Editor and translator, Italian Landscape Poems (bilingual). Newcastle upon Tyne, Bloodaxe, 1993.

Translator, Alcestis, by Euripides. San Francisco, Chandler, 1965.

Translator, Peace, by Aristophanes, in Greek Comedy. New York, Dell, 1965.

Translator, Femmes/Hombres, Women/Men, by Paul Verlaine. London, Anvil Press Poetry, 1979; New York, Sheep Meadow Press, 1984.

Translator, The Lazarus Poems, by Heinrich Heine. Ashington, Mid-Northumberland Arts Group, 1979.

Translator, Medea, by Euripides. London, Oberon Books, 1993.

Translator, La Jeune Parque, by Paul Valéry. Newcastle upon Tyne, Bloodaxe, 1997.


Manuscript Collection: Literary and Philosophical Society, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Critical Studies: By Alan Hollinghurst, in Times Literary Supplement (London), 30 September 1983; by Peter Jones, in The Times (London), 18 July 1984; by Peter Porter, in The Observer (London), 29 July 1984.

Alistair Elliot comments:

My poems are usually in traditional forms, and either with full or half-rhymes, because I think I perform better on a frame than when just jumping about.

Their contents are fairly varied: for example, a modern party explained to a long dead poet; walking instead of driving to work; meeting someone who has the exact voice of someone I once loved; a blanket spun and woven by my grandmother; clipping toenails as an activity common to all human cultures and times; and most recently a journey from Rome to Brindisi, a book-length poem.

I don't think there are limits on what one can write "about"—lately I have begun to feel that perhaps when I die I can take with me anything I have mentioned in a poem, so I think about furnishing my afterlife. On the other hand, the insurable contents of a poem are not, it seems, entirely in the poet's control. I used to see it as a matter of pulling a poem from its hiding place by the tail, knowing it can shed the tail and get away. Now it seems more as if I am trying to mind read the Muse, who has seen the unwritten poem somewhere in a book of the future.

I try hard to make my work clear and comprehensible; at least the gist of a poem should come across when read aloud to an audience. But I think that should make the audience feel eager to meet the poem itself, that is, the poem on the page, the real whole poem as opposed to one of its sonic shadows. I don't see this audience, these creatures feeding round the pool of general knowledge, in very definite terms—I just expect they will be like me, members of a species that on the whole delights in language, in stories about itself, in nifty problems, in imagined and described things. Some poets try to use verse to change or fortify their readers' point of view. I don't seem to be interested in that, in general, but I have written the odd argumentative poem.

(1995) Translation takes much longer than original writing, perhaps four times as long. I am quite surprised it is possible, since I have never been able to write a poem suggested by another person, and a translation is precisely that, writing something to detailed specifications. I like to think I take at least as much trouble over a translation text as a critic or a textual editor does; though I may have to cut through a Gordian uncertainty with alexandrine gusto and perhaps even give myself the license a cook inevitably takes with a recipe, I normally attempt to read everything my author wrote, or as much as I can in the time I am working on him, so that I feel confident I know what the main drift is as well as what each sentence means. For example, I read all of Euripides for Medea and Verlaine's prose books as well as his verse. I have a habit of reading foreign verse in bed first thing in the morning—it sets me up for the day—and I sometimes have to sit down afterwards and translate something difficult in order to force an understanding. To me, then, translation is a form of critical reading, among other things.

*  *  *

In his first full-length book, Contentions, Alistair Elliot hardly prepared his readers for the extraordinary accomplishment of his second, Talking Back. Elliot's talent needed time to come into its own. At first sight the poems in Talking Back might perhaps appear bookish or overly scholarly (titles such as "Talking to Horace" or "The Aegean: Summer 493 B.C." hardly help dispel this impression), but once read with care and a feeling intelligence, they begin to reveal their depths as well. As Dick Davis has pointed out, "Elliot writes as if we still (just) share a common culture and care about what happens to it." Elliot certainly sees nothing wrong in writing poetry that appeals to the intellect and even presupposes from the reader a degree of knowledge within a living literary tradition. Of the twenty-four pages in the pamphlet publication of Talking to Bede, three consist of a chronology of useful dates from A.D. 547 to 1370, and six are notes on the poem. What is surprising, given these facts, is the poem's essential liveliness of idiom and tone, for it seems actually to be talking with Bede and the reader:

   You think historians must be keen to see
   What followed their escape from history?
   You think we can't find out? I'd rather hear
   The earth described. Remind us of the Wear,
   The creatures, plants and light where I began
   To look around the domicile of man,
   The home I only saw till I was seven.

Thus Elliot gives Bede a local habitation in his poem. This is the very best use of scholarship in poetry. Learning is never on display to impress but rather is always born of an enthusiasm for bringing history to life in the present. This side to Elliot is counterbalanced by his ability—already independently achieved by his contemporary Tony Harrison—to write plainly and also movingly about matters of his own family history. The poem "John Elliot" maintains a correlation between events in history contemporaneous with events in the personal history, from birth to death, of his grandfather, linking the private life with public events. It ends with a stark image:

   Still never losing your temper,
   you grew old in the long beard,
   and died, before my parents met.
   Years later, my father recognised your arm-bone
   held out in the grave
   at his mother's funeral:
   I'd have seen you—if I'd gone.

The care that has gone into making this poem and its truthfulness to a family memory allow the image to have a sensitive delicacy of emotion. As the wife rejoins her husband in a grave, the dead are allowed dignity without a trace of sentimentality. Those who say that Elliot's imagination is most forcefully fueled by Virgil, Horace, Livy, and other classical writers should bear in mind poems such as this or the equally moving "Bless the Bed That I Lie On," written for his grandmother Marion Elliot. The poem, which is collected in My Country: Collected Poems, uses the image of a blanket made by his grandmother to record another instance of the loving kindness that binds together husband and wife in life and death. Elliot's virtuosity with language controls and shapes powerful personal emotion in such poems:

   The history of this blanket's partly known:
   You made it—starting not from yarn but wool
   Sheared perhaps from a known sheep in Glencoul,
   And lichen, from the ultrabasic stone.

On the Appian Way, originally a book-length poem, traces Elliot's journey in Italy along the route taken from Rome by the poet Horace in 37 B.C. The poem combines Elliot's usual liveliness of narration with an effortless and urbane artistry. It celebrates everyday things such as, for instance, breakfast in a bar, while also including enough allusions to Horace's poem on the same journey to fill twelve pages of notes on a work the author claims "is as unobscure and impersonal as I could make it." The poem, divided into fifteen sections, each marking one day and the places seen, is in heroic couplets; the tone, perhaps reminiscent of Arthur Hugh Clough's masterpiece "Amours de Voyage," allows Elliot to be both formal and relaxed:

   These are the hardest hours to justify,
   Not envied by the dead—the hours I pass
   Gaping at their possessions behind glass,
   Windowshopping like Tantalus, an ape
   That, hands in pockets, comprehends pure shape

My Country includes, in addition to the works discussed here, "The American Poems," a substantial group from a journey in the United States in 1983–84, taking in places as diverse as Arizona, California, Florida, and New York. The forms and subjects are as various as the places seen, and—as in On the Appian Way—the poems, alternately ironic and entertaining, incorporate the detail of daily life for the traveler, as in "Reasons for Happiness in San Francisco":

   There are pleasures in maintenance:
   Buying stationery (on Haight);
   Leaving my Harris wool
   Sportsjacket to be cleaned, by a Chinese,
   Of its American dust

There also is good work in the other new poems in the collection. These include the already mentioned "Bless the Bed That I Lie On" and other firmly controlled, yet deeply moving poems on his grandparents and family.

Elliot's book Turning the Stones contains further evidence of the development of his talent along a range of themes. The book contains fine poems touching on classical themes, including "Homer," "Cornelia," and "My Brown Boots," the last a long and quirkily entertaining poem on the loss of a pair of old "coffee-boots" in an excursion around Arcadia. It also includes poems on visits to the United States and two poems on horses. One of these, "At Appleby Horse Fair," is an outstanding example of Elliot's ability to write clearly about an activity—here the long-surviving outdoor horse market at Appleby-in-Westmoreland in northern England—and to provide the reader with a real insight into the meaning it offers for our lives. The poem explains the close relationship between the young men and the horses they are there to sell. "Selling your friends is a hard job; / it helps to do it with style," the poem concludes.

Some of the best poems in Turning the Stones look back in time to make connections with members of the poet's Scottish family or with Elliot's own early days. An example is "Remains of Mining in the Upper Peninsula, Michigan," in which he detects among an old log cabin the domestic scent of his grandmother's farmhouse. In these thoughtful and understated poems the reader is allowed an insight into what Elliot calls "the bounty of the past" and the vitality of past lives as remade in the present.

Elliot's poems, those of his first book aside, are throughout—and often simultaneously—literate entertainment, a moving documentation of life, and high art. His reputation has grown steadily over the years and has spread among those who care for poetry.

—Jonathan Barker