Second Childhood review: Looking back on a ‘landscape with figures’
It is John Montague’s generous readiness to revere others that is so attractive
John Montague: His lucid lyricism and good humour, free of any trace of pomposity, will be sadly missed. Photograph: Paddy Whelan
Gallery Press published what has turned out to be John Montague’s last book, Second Childhood on what would have been his 88th birthday. So both its subject and its title have a fitting elegiac quality to them as he circles back to his childhood in Co Tyrone with the fissures in society and family there, and the excitement of incipient sexuality in his schooldays.
The new book also conforms to several established patterns in the publication of Montague’s work. When the substantial first Collected Poems was published in 1995, the component volumes were represented not chronologically but in two sections that separated off the major mythographic volumes, described as “orchestrations” by the editors – The Rough Field (1972), The Great Cloak (1978), and The Dead Kingdom (1984) – from the six volumes of lyric poems published between 1958 and 1989, before finishing with two volumes from 1993 and 1995 in their chronological place. The editors called the collected volume a “landscape with figures” which captures the nature of Montague’s work perfectly.
This structuring of Montague’s work across his whole career is remarkably echoed in the briefer compass of Second Childhood. Again the volume is organised very consciously, first into two major “Parts” (reminding us that he said a long time ago that the writer of short lyrics always has a wish to write more extended sequences, like the “orchestrations” the editors mentioned): Part One is the lyrics of Second Childhood itself , further divided into three groups of poems dealing first with family and locality, then schooldays, and finally a series of elegiac poems mostly concerned with poetic encounters, including acquaintances like Hugh MacDiarmid and John Berryman but also dwelling with humanising lightness on the anxiety of Hopkins in Dublin.
Part Two is the “orchestration”, The Great Bell, a remarkable series of poems (previously published in a limited edition by Enitharmon Press in 2015) drawing on Montague’s meetings with the poet and artist David Jones. This series, especially its final poem, Lord of the Animals, now provides a powerful Christian-mythological end to Montague’s work. At the head of it he remarks that “Younger writers need older ones to look up to; or at least I did, lacking a father in the ordinary sense”, so he sought out the company of figures like Jones and MacDiarmid. In fact it is this generous readiness to revere others that is so attractive in Montague, whether in his attitude to older writers or to the old people who were “like dolmens round his childhood” in his most famous poem.
The Great Bell serves Montague’s purposes in a number of ways. Jones is the perfect mentor and compare-and-contrast conversationalist for him, sharing Catholicism – from birth in Montague’s case but chosen by Jones – and Celtic origins. Jones was Welsh and Montague Irish, but both were decidedly not English (though Jones was “a Cockney whose Catholicism was not that of a real Roman”). Montague says of the exchanges with Jones that make up The Great Bell, “Much of our conversation I committed to memory but when I was especially moved I took notes, as discreetly as I could . . . the cantilevered structure of these cantos follows the cadences of our exchanges”.
Interestingly – and valuably for Montague’s purposes – it is not always possible to tell which part of the exchanges is assignable to which speaker. Some pieces are set out in italics, some not. Some parts are definitely in the voice of Jones, such as the section about suffering headed – “Teste David” and ending “Dixit David, Spring 1970”. The most affecting passage is the piece actually called The Great Bell where Jones speaks of the Irish soldiers in the first World War in terms evocative of his greatest work, the long poem In Parenthesis; asked what those soldiers thought of the Easter Rising, Jones reports: “I said the most of them / I knew are dead. / I helped to bury / a fearsome number / of those Irish chaps, / we cut them off / the barbed wire, / scapulars and medals mixed”.
He then goes on to report an experience in Limerick just after the War when their sergeant-major knocked aside “with a single swipe / into the wet gutter . . . an old shawlie who tried to cross between the two battalions”. Montague’s Jones says with great bitterness he thought “no wonder they hate us. / In England of course / you would never be / permitted to cross / the road at parade time . . . But it certainly showed me / the difference between / soldiers at home / and in a hostile land.” This picks up on the italicized voice earlier in the section who finds the “German and Iberian troops / dispatched from Rome / to quell the Gauls / harsh as the Second Paras / in the Ardoyne.”
Powerful as the Jones exchanges in this last section are, the wonderful poem The Leap at the end of Part One here provides the book’s most moving and elegiac coda. In what is now the last of the Dolmen-like presences in Montague’s poetry, his schoolfriend Austin Lynch is a recurrent figure here; the meadow of the Lynch family is the perfect setting for this “ultimate leap” into the unknown. The grown-up (grown old) poet is now “leaving behind ground / tested and safe / using a lesson learnt / long ago in Lynch’s meadow, / circling the task / to vault the flow / and taking off again / into the uncertain dark, / hoping to land safely / on a far warm bank”. As so often with Montague’s work, we are left marvelling at his extraordinary gift for the spare, exact word (like “vault” here), now admiring it anew for the last time. His lucid lyricism and good humour, free of any trace of pomposity, will be sadly missed.