16 MAY 1992, Page 32

A stranger

in the Capitol

James Simmons

THE COLLECTED POEMS OF JOHN HEWITT edited by Frank Ormsby Blackstaff Press, Belfast, £25, pp.784 • John Hewitt was born in Belfast in 1907, the same generation as Patrick Kavanagh and MacNeice. He survived them and died in 1987 after a diligent and purposeful life, dogged by a sense of failure, yet much feted in his last years. It was a very public life, involved in political and artistic move- ments, friendly with poets and artists; and yet he called a film about his life 1 Found Myself Alone. He was given two honorary degrees and the freedom of the City of Belfast. There was a gathering at the Lyric Theatre soon after his death, which came to life when an old working-class man stood up from the audience and told with halting passion of how much his life had been enriched by Workers' Educational Association classes with Hewitt. Ormsby has uncovered an unpublished poem, 'Valedictory Lines to my WEA Students': Now, having argued and debated long, we've grown a noisy company of friends, no whit agreed on what is right or wrong but somehow sorry that the session ends ...

Now there is a John Hewitt Summer School that uses his life and many interests to focus scholarly gatherings on aspects of Ulster. It often surprises the participants that Hewitt was so often ahead of his admirers or patrons. Hewitt's name has attracted scattered Ulster scholars of real sensitivity and intelligence like Jack Foster and George Watson. The master of cere- monies at the school sentimentalises about Hewitt's love of The Glens, but Hewitt's poems worry over the impossibility of his ever fitting in to the landscape he loved. And towards the end of his life this turned out to be his strength, that he could even- tually live with the realities of middle-class life, and face up to his own emotional shortcomings, and make poetry of it all.

He was professionally a museum man, an 'expert' on painting, a socialist agnostic, nature lover and memorialist of Ulster 'folk' poets of the late 18th century. His material was always interesting, though his prose style was often constipated.

This book is scrupulously edited and well printed. It will be a revelation to many who thought they knew Hewitt. His earliest published poems were put to the service of social justice in left-wing newspapers. But even in his passionate beginnings there is a characteristic note of self doubt:

When I see workless men I hurry by Lest I should seem to mock their wretchedness, For food, and fire, and roof and books have I, And comfortable dress ...

There is a comic formality, a slightly archaic diction and vocabulary, as though instead of trying to be a modern Crabbe he chose to write about today as Crabbe wrote about his day. He also wrote good medita- A drawing of John Hewitt by James Simmons, 1986 tive nature poetry that appeared early in magazines. The archaic style comes between Hewitt and the modern reader, between Hewitt and himself; but because he was serious and informed there is always much to chew on. He lasts better than his more flighty contemporaries like W.R. Rodgers, who was all fireworks, thrilling at the time, then fizzling out. Might he be better than MacNeice, who touched on everything and trusted nothing?

Hewitt was given to privately published pamphlets, although Frederick Muller brought out No Rebel Word in 1948. In some ways he is a happy antithesis to Field Day Publications who never seem short of money and publicity for their grandiose but usually shallow or perverse ventures. His

prose and verse were always published widely in English and Irish magazines, but there was no other public collection until his Festival Pamphlet in the series with Heaney and Mahon etc, in 1967. The next year MacGibbon and Kee, who had brought out Kavanagh's Collected, pub- lished a substantial collection of Hewitt that caused no sensation. In 1974 the Gracey's Blackstaff Press in Belfast, part of a regional impulse that he believed in, pub- lished Out of My Time, and frequent collec- tions thereafter, as Hewitt, in retirement, relaxed and blossomed.

Now Frank Ormsby has collected all the work published in books along with a gen- erous selection from magazines and volu- minous notebooks. It is a handsome volume with useful apparatus and I am very glad to have it. Hewitt made himself a key figure in the life of Northern Ireland, available, helpful, concerned, identifying a tradition of radical puritanism that sustains us against sentimental loyal- ists and nationalists. For him the hero of the '98 Rising was Jemmy Hope rather than Wolfe Tone.

He explored key ideas like regionalism in essays and poems, and found a serious, considered and deeply felt voice for strand- ed colonials and 'planters'. In 'The Colony' he imagines settlers coming out from Rome to establish its Empire. It applies exactly to Ulster Protestants, but evoking the larger context reminds us that the Protestant people of Ulster are not in a unique position. After admitting 'our load of guilt' he goes on. . .

hoping by patient words I may convince my people and this people we are changed from the raw levies which usurped the land ...

for we have rights drawn from the soil and sky; the use, the pace, the patient years of labour, the rain against the lips, the changing light, the heavy clay-sucked stride have altered us; we would be strangers in the Capitol; this is our country also, nowhere else; and we shall not be outcast on the world.

There are quite a few really important poems like this, not plodding, but rich in style and meaning, exploding on the sense, and in his later years he produced a whole series of touching love poems, confessions, satires and portraits of his family which are a delight to read because he no longer hides behind authority . . . the archaisms become part of his personality, and his wide reading and hard thinking find a natural authority and a poetic voice released by his awareness of stunted emo- tions and many self deceptions. He writes of a beloved Nanny who got fired for drink- ing and having an intrusive husband:

Though she's secure in my heart's fellowship, my love achieved its utterance too late.

Too late for conscience, but not too late for poetry.