Frances Bellerby, who died in 1975, was born 112 years ago in Bristol. She wrote fiction, essays and poetry. Much of Bellerby’s verse is set in Devon and Cornwall; her first, 1946, collection is named after Plash Mill, her cottage near Upon Cross, on Bodmin Moor. Charles Causley praised, among the many other qualities he admired in her work, her ability to evoke “the ambience and essence of place”.
Bellerby’s poetic locations are coloured by the changing seasons, and may respond to the church calendar, as here. All Souls’ Day, from her Selected Poems, weaves together imaginary and remembered conversation in a hushed, precisely-realised late-autumn setting. The sky is colourless, the “day draws no breath”. Such an atmosphere has an intense, mystical quality for Bellerby. And yet, although a Christian poet, she treats religious experience unconventionally, and seems to have an intuitive grasp of space-time, and the possibility of other dimensions, in those wishful lines: “what the small day cannot hold / must spill into eternity.”
All Souls’ Day itself, usually celebrated on 2 November, is the day set aside for remembering and honouring the “ordinary” dead. In Mexico, on El Dia de los Muertos, the dead, and death itself, are made welcome among the living. Bellerby’s poem, too, though deeply English, seems to melt the borders between life and death, past and future: “Let’s go our old way …”
The brother she lost in the first world war may be the figure in All Souls’ Day. This otherwise taciturn person knows about butterflies; he has a poet’s eye as he compares their colours with those of the leaves. He is clearly a soulmate.
Psalm 42, in a metrical translation, begins: “Like the deer that thirsts / for running streams / my soul is thirsting / for you, oh God”; in a later verse, God’s might is imagined in terms of the sea. Similar images occur in Bellerby’s poem: the rustling of kicked leaves has “the rhythm of breaking waves”, and there’s a stream, though it’s almost stationary. Could the poem be alluding to this psalm, often included in the Office of the Dead?
Bellerby appears just as much a traditionalist in technique as she does in her subjects. Yet even in this poem of familiar-looking quatrains, there are unexpected touches. Half-rhymes (“moth”/”lost”, “together”/”November”) mingle with more conventional couplings (“breath” / “death”, “walk” / “talk”). The rhythm ebbs and flows informally: syllables sometimes crowd around the stresses (“witnessing the variousness of light”), or they may be suddenly thinned out (“enter the year’s night”). Nothing is fixed or rigid.
The speaker is confidently intimate with her addressee, but, at the same time, the companion is present, however vividly, only in her imagination. There is a tremor of premonition in stanza seven. The walk is a memory, and the companion dead, but it’s as if – with sufficient care – the past could be relived and the future made safe.
The poem increasingly vacillates: the companion is close, but, as always, “leaf-light” – and then not present at all. The last stanza sends a shiver up the spine: “and the leaves where you walk do not stir”. Death is feared in the poem, but the dead themselves are “scatheless” (harmless). The ghost is no Halloween horror: it is frail and sad and no sooner conjured than lost.
Bellerby’s work reminds me of other quiet-voiced, independent-minded female writers of a similar era: Anne Ridler, EJ Scovell, Ruth Pitter. Gender, I think, is relevant to the way we read this generation as writers. Because of their particular, English experience of the early 20th century, it was inevitable such poets stayed with the pastoral and/or religious subjects and traditional forms they had always known. Although they increasingly had educational opportunities and paid jobs, they remained keepers of the emotional home fires. From our later perspective, we can see how Bellerby’s work claims continuity with the past (Charlotte Mew seems an important immediate forebear) and also begins to change shape and become coloured by the new century. It makes a bridge to the present, because the sensibility and diction, although not quite ours, are still close to ours.
I’m grateful to the poet Maurice Rutherford, a regular reader of the printable version of poem of the week, for suggesting we take a look at the work of the underappreciated Bellerby.
All Souls’ Day
Let’s go our old way
by the stream, and kick the leaves
as we always did, to make
the rhythm of breaking waves.
This day draws no breath –
shows no colour anywhere
except for the leaves – in their death
brilliant as never before.
Yellow of Brimstone Butterfly,
brown of Oak Eggar Moth –
you’d say. And I’d be wondering why
a summer never seems lost
if two have been together
witnessing the variousness of light,
and the same two in lustreless November
enter the year’s night…
The slow-worm stream – how still!
Above that spider’s unguarded door,
look – dull pearls…Time’s full,
brimming, can hold no more.
Next moment (we well know,
my darling, you and I)
what the small day cannot hold
must spill into eternity.
So perhaps we should move cat-soft
meanwhile, and leave everything unsaid,
until no shadow of risk can be left
of disturbing the scatheless dead.
Ah, but you were always leaf-light.
And you so seldom talk
as we go. But there at my side
through the bright leaves you walk.
And yet – touch my hand
that I may be quite without fear,
for it seems as if a mist descends,
and the leaves where you walk do not stir.
Full article and photo: http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2011/nov/01/poem-of-week-frances-bellerby