105 years ago today the poet A.S.J. Tessimond was born, and today marks the end of our celebration here of his work. It has been a curious process for me putting this together, a slow journey discovering how completely a life might disappear in less than fifty years. There is still very little known on the man himself; Hubert Nicholson’s introduction to the Collected Poems, and a tiny six page pamphlet by the artist Frances Richards (which coincidentally had a print run of 105) remain our only main sources on the poet’s life. In total there are less than twenty items of Tessimond’s correspondence held in library archives, and the Hubert Nicholson Archive in Hull (though at time of writing, inaccessible due to flooding) appears not to hold any materials either. What has become of the Tessimond’s personal papers is at present unknown, but I would be grateful to anyone who has any information on the poet getting in touch.
It is surprising that a poet who throughout the 1930s and 40s was such a regular name in the poetry presses, should slide from our consciousness so quickly. There is a short, touching poem that appears in the posthumous collection Morning Meeting about half forgotten women in hotel lounges:
The lonely women in hotel lounges
Us the unloved, unlovely and unloving,
Half-loving a cat, our morning tea, jewels in a trunk,
Warmth and a little ease.
Pity our too much peace;
Our absence of release;
Our long days falling without cease;
Us who have missed and still at moments know we miss
Life’s bonfire and his kiss.
It is a poem as good as any for expressing a sense of what Tessimond is about. A sad, poignant portrait of a way of life; observed with the precision of good satire, but ultimately not mocking. There is humour here; ‘Half-loving a cat, our morning tea’ seem trivial things for a person to love – love in the sense suggested in the line before, perhaps – but the feeling of having missed out in life is moving. It is the same thing felt in ‘The Man in the Bowler Hat’; the desire and fear of rising up and making something of a life. I love the phrase ‘our too much peace’, it is that simple yet weighty kind of expression that stirs you when you read his poetry, and perhaps ‘too much peace’ is what has befallen Tessimond himself these days.
But he remains loved, lovely and loving. His view on life is beautifully human, he has warmth for transgression and failiure:
In the heaven of the god I hope for (call him X)
There is marriage and giving in marriage and transient sex
For those who will cast the body’s vest aside
Soon, but are not yet wholly rarefied
And still embrace. For X is never annoyed
Or shocked; has read his Jung and knows his Freud,
He gives you time in heaven to do as you please,
To climb love’s gradual ladder by slow degrees,
Gently to rise from sense to soul, to ascend
To a world of timeless joy, world without end.
Here on the gates of pearl there hangs no sign
Limiting cakes and ale, forbidding wine.
No weakness here is hidden, no vice unknown.
Sin is a sickness to be cured, outgrown.
With the help of a god who can laugh, an unsolemn god
Who smiles at old wives’ tales of iron rod
And fiery hell, a god who’s more at ease
With bawds and Falstaffs than with Pharisees.
Here the lame learn to leap, the blind to see.
Tyrants are taught to be humble, slaves to be free.
Fools become wise, and wise men cease to be bores,
Here bishops learn from lips of back-street whores,
And white men follow black-faced angel’s feet
Through fields of orient and immortal wheat.
Villon, Lautrec and Baudelaire are here.
Here Swift forgets his anger, Poe his fear.
Napoleon rests. Columbus, journey done,
Has reached his new Atlantis, found his sun.
Verlaine and Dylan Thomas drink together.
Marx talks to Plato. Byron wonders whether
There’s some mistake. Wordsworth has found a hill
That’s home. Here Chopin plays the piano still.
Wren plans ethereal domes; and Renoir paints
young girls as ripe as fruit but not yet saints.
An X, of whom no coward is afraid,
Who’s friend consulted, not fierce king obeyed;
Who hears the unspoken thought, the prayer unprayed;
Who expects not even the learned to understand
His universe, extends a prodigal hand,
Full of forgiveness, over his promised land.
It is an intensely kind voice that runs throughout his work, frequently sad but also with playful wit and irreverence. It is a shame for us all he is not more read. It’s a Victorian idea, but I suspect Tessimond is an ‘improving poet’ (a notion he would probably have hated). The Collected Poems, though out of print, is still obtainable through second-hand bookshops and libraries. I’d like to thank Anthony for giving over a fortnight of The Filter^ to a long and obscure reflection, and to those who have read and commented on these posts. Finally: Happy birthday, Mr. Tessimond.
On the death of a great man
He goes. You, world, are poorer for his going;
And poorer yet again, world, for not knowing
Your loss … ‘Tis well, world. You deserved to lose
That which you neither sought, nor cared to use!