In this week’s Dispatches from the Secret Library, Dr Oliver Tearle reassesses an experimental work from the 1920s by an underrated author
When he reviewed the published facsimile and drafts of The Waste Land in 1971, the poet-critic William Empson remarked that ‘I would never have believed that the Symbolist programme could be made to work at all, if it had not scored a few resounding triumphs, such as this.’ The Imagist programme, too, seemed to have burned itself out by 1917, when Amy Lowell, who had taken lead of the movement after Ezra Pound’s defection to Vorticism (‘Every kind of geyser from jism bursting up white as ivory, to hate or a storm at sea’), ceased publication of the annual anthologies that had appeared since 1914. Imagism as a movement seemed to be a spent force, having declined, in Pound’s punning compound, into ‘Amy-gism’.
But not quite. That’s the official narrative, and where most accounts of Imagism tend to end. Yet May Sinclair (1863-1946) proved that the tenets of Imagism could be put to use for a longer project, much as T. S. Eliot has shown, in The Waste Land, that the shorter Symbolist poems of Laforgue and Mallarmé could help to inspire a modern epic, albeit a fragmentary one. What May Sinclair showed in her underrated and overlooked verse-novel of 1924, The Dark Night, was that the mode and techniques of Imagism could be co-opted for a longer, book-length work, and need not be confined to one-page meditations on the moon or a rock-pool. One could write using the vers libre of much Imagist verse and yet cover the romance, plot-twists, and soul-searching one tends to find in a full novel. This is what Sinclair gives us in The Dark Night.
Sinclair is not often spoken of alongside Virginia Woolf or James Joyce, yet her work was similarly concerned with literary impressionism and, whilst not as straightforwardly ‘modernist’ as Ulysses or Mrs Dalloway, Sinclair’s fiction often looks for new ways of depicting character with a greater emphasis on interiority, on the vagaries of psychological perception. And she was a friend to the modernists, too, being the first one to apply the term ‘stream of consciousness’ to describe modernist fiction (specifically, the writing of Dorothy Richardson), and writing an important defence of Imagism, as distinct from Symbolism, in 1915 (this is available to read, thanks to the excellent Modernist Journals Project, here).
The Dark Night is narrated by Elizabeth, a young woman who falls in love with a poet named Victor, whom she subsequently marries. The poem charts her troubled marriage to him (he has an affair with Monica, Elizabeth’s young ward) and her relationship with God. Parts of The Dark Night seem to echo the free-verse Imagist poems of Aldington and F. S. Flint:
The small house stands
In a wide street of small houses,
White and clean,
So low that above them
You can see all the sky,
Blue over purple roofs
And green tree-tops;
Shallow roofs dropping broad eaves
Above the black windows.
Round my garden a low white wall,
Topped by a screen of espalier limes,
Black boughs stretched out, laced and knotted,
Carrying round bunches of green leaves,
Making a black and green pattern
Against the white house.
But other sections of the poem recall the Imagism of H. D. in, for instance, ‘Oread’ or ‘Sea Rose’:
Oh hold me up,
Keep me within your walls of light,
Oh crystal soul, oh hard and clear,
Swinging your light in darkness,
Shine through me,
Shine through me lest I lose the sight of God.
But the poem is noteworthy also for Sinclair’s treatment of unhappy marriage and adultery (Elizabeth’s husband’s affair, and fathering of a child, with Monica) and other taboo issues: it contains what has to be one of the first explicit descriptions of breastfeeding in English poetry. In other respects, The Dark Night echoes that great Victorian verse-novel, Aurora Leigh by Elizabeth Barrett Browning, in which the male lover is blinded for his transgressions (as Victor is at the end of Sinclair’s novel) and a young woman ends up giving birth to a child out of wedlock. In both Barrett Browning’s and Sinclair’s verse-novels, the woman ends up describing the world to their blind male lover. So not all of the tropes and themes in The Dark Night were invented in the twentieth century; but the way Sinclair treats them is decidedly modern, and modernist. Whereas Barrett Browning used blank verse for Aurora Leigh, Sinclair uses free verse for The Dark Night.
Sadly, The Dark Night remains out of print and copies of the original 1924 run tend to go, if not for astronomical sums, then for more than your average modern edition (though at the time of writing a rare first edition of The Dark Night is available for £15 from Amazon). But that may be about to change, with the imminent publication of the Edinburgh Critical Editions of the Works of May Sinclair, which will see all of Sinclair’s prose writings (she was predominantly a prose writer) into print again. Whether The Dark Night will follow remains to be seen. It deserves it. A cross between the Imagism of H. D., the novelistic ambitions of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Aurora Leigh, and the modernist epic of The Waste Land, yet somehow eluding all of them, Sinclair’s poem is sui generis. What a shame it remains so difficult to get hold of.
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Oliver Tearle is a lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History, available now from Michael O’Mara Books.
Image: May Sinclair in 1904 (author unknown), via Wikimedia Commons.