The Life and Poetry of Lynette Roberts
Norma Bull ‘ Effigies of Crusaders in Round Temple Church London ‘ ( Courtesy of Imperial War Museum, IWM ART LD4889 )
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Lynette Roberts was born in Argentina in 1909, and her family relocated to Britain by the 1920’s. In the 1930’s Lynette Roberts studied at the Central School of Arts and Crafts in London. She became a flower arranger and also appeared in the notorious Fitzrovia set of the 1930,’ marrying Welsh magazine editor and poet Keidrych Rhys in 1939. Dylan Thomas was best man, and fellow poet Vernon Watkins was to lend Keidrych Rhys a jacket for the occasion.
The couple settled in the village of Llanybri . Rhys was conscripted on 12th July 1940, serving with the London Welsh Regiment as an anti-aircraft gunner in Kent, London, Essex, Suffolk, and fought during the Battle of Britain. One reviewer, Alan Tucker claimed that Rhys went AWOL in 1942; Rhys was certainly treated at Northfield military psychiatric hospital near Birmingham during 1943, perhaps earlier, and then employed by the Ministry of Information after being formally discharged from the Army.
Lynette Roberts immersed herself in Welsh village life, studying the mythology and language of the country, proud of her own distant Welsh ancestry. And wrote poetry of her own.
Keidrych Rhys edited an anthology titled ‘Modern Welsh Poetry, published by Faber in 1944, which included eight poems by Lynette Roberts. The publishing compamy he owned-‘Druid Press’- published a work by Lynette Roberts titled ‘Village Dialect’ in 1944.
Backed by T.S. Elliott’s influence at ‘Faber’ two poetry collections subsequently appeared ‘ Poems’ in 1944 and ‘Gods With Stainless Ears-A Heroic Poem’ ‘ in 1951,and the latter featured a long poem written in Wales in 1941-1943, taking in the 19th -21st February 1941 Air Raid on Swansea. The people of Llanybri could see the flames…230 died, 397 injured , 7,000 homes were destroyed.
From ‘Gods With Stainless Ears’ ( Part III)
“… Night falling catches the flares and bangs
On gorselit rock. Yellow birds shot from
Iridium creeks,-Let the whaleback of the sea
Fall back from a wrist of ripples, slit.
Snip up the moon sniggering on its back,
For on them sail the hulls of ninety wild birds
Defledged by this evening’s raid; jigging up
Like a tapemachine the cold figures February
19th, 20th, 21st. A memorial of Swansea’s tragic loss….”
It is incredible in the first four lines how many images and also how many actions that Lynette Roberts captured. It was almost if she was using poetry to film a scene of warfare unfolding on to a natural landscape. Nature seems startled and jolted but not concerned by the casualties of war until the poet reminds of ‘Swansea’s tragic loss’ . Personally I feel that the word ‘tragic’ is irritating, over eggs the proverbial pudding.
From Part 5 of ‘Gods with Stainless Ears.’
“……..To the Bay before,
The warm and stagnant air raising wellshafts
Of putrid flesh sunk deep in desert sands. Stepped out onto
Blue blaze of snow. Barbed wire, No man of bone
A placard to the right which concerned us.
Mental Home for Poets. He alone on this
Isotonic plain; against a jingle of Generals
And Cabinet Directors determined
A stand. Declared a Faith. Entered ‘Foreign
Field’ like a Plantagenet King; his spirit.
Gorsefierce; hands like perfect quatrains.
Green spindle tears seep out of closed lids…
Mourn murmuring…..remember my brother.
His Cathedral mind in Bedlam. Sign and
Lettering-black grail of quavering curves. “
The strange desolate images seemed to get more intense, ranging from ‘desert sands ‘and ‘Blue Blaze of Snow’ within two lines.
‘Mental Home for Poets’ most likely refers to Keidrych Rhys’ spell at Northfield Hospital
‘Cathedral mind in Bedlam’, is probably a reference to Lynette Roberts’ brother Dymock who was confined to a mental hospital near Salisbury after his 16th birthday ( sometime in the 1930’s ) until his death in 1980.
The marriage between Lynette Roberts and Keidrych Rhys broke down in 1948 : Lynette Roberts took their two young children to England in 1949. Her book ‘The Endeavour’ , about Captain Cook’s famous voyage from 1769-71, was published in 1954. and in 1955 she opened an art centre at Chislehurst Caves in Kent. In 1956 part of the cave roofs collapsed seriously injuring a sculptor called Peter Danziger.* The centre closed. Lynette Roberts had the first of a series of breakdowns and suffered from recurring mental health conditions from the rest of her life. In 1970 Lynette moved back to Wales and remained there until her death in 1995
The already published works of Lynette Roberts were left to lapse-seemingly out of fashion as new trends began to flourish in the late 50’s such as ‘The Movement’ and ‘The Angry Young Men’. Her previous friendships with such luminaries as Dylan Thomas, Edith Sitwell, Alun Lewis,and T.S. Elliott earned her the occasional mention and the odd footnote.
Lynette Roberts shared her research into Welsh culture and mythology with Robert Graves for his work ‘The Roebuck in the Thicket’ , which later became ‘The White Goddess’ . In fact she was credited with sending Graves a copy of Reverend Edward Davies ‘Celtic Researches on the Origin, Traditions and Languages of the Ancient Britons’ (1804) , which inspired him a great deal.
Even in the late 1970’s /early 1980’s wave of feminism which explored women’s relationship to war, there was little focus on her work. Lynette Roberts was conspicuously absent from Catherine Reilly’s influential ‘Chaos of the Night -Women’s Poetry and Verse ‘ from 1984. One exception was ‘Poetry Wales ‘ magazine that devoted a complete issue to Lynette Roberts in 1983.
Anne Powell’s 1996, ‘Shadows of War-British Women’s Poetry of the Second World War’ featured of three of Lynette Roberts’ poem.It is now known whether the obituaries of 1995 encouraged the inclusion of her work a year after her death.
And in 21st century a new wave of interest appeared in her work with the appearance of ‘Lynette Roberts-collected poems’ edited by Patrick McGuiness in 2005 and a companion volume of ‘Diaries, Letters, and Recollection ‘.A particularly intriguing entry reads:
“And my stay at the Inner Temple when I turned up while the library buildings were still smouldering and continued to burn for another five days. The Round Church wet and empty like a grotesque seashell. Out of this experience I wrote my poem ‘Crossed and Uncrossed.’ “
‘Diaries, Letters and Recollections’ 12th June 1942 – Looking back at 10th May 1941 Raid. Here are some verses from said poem to consider :
‘ Crossed and Uncrossed ‘
“Heard the steam rising from the chill blue bricks
Heard the books sob and the buildings huge groan
As the hard crackle of flames leapt on firemen
and paled the red walls……….
Round Church built in a Round Age, cold with grief,
Coloured Saints of glass lie buried at your feet;
Crusaders uncross limbs by the green light of flares,
burn into Tang shapes
From paper window we gaze at the catacomb of books,
You,unflinching stern of spirit, ready to
Gather charred sticks to fight no gas where gas was
Through thin library walls where ‘Valley’ still grows,
From Pump Court to dry bank of rubble, titanic monsters,
Roll up from the Thames, to drown the ‘storm’ should it
dare come again.
Still water silences death : fills night with curious light,
Brings green peace and birds to top of Plane tree
Fills Magnolia with grail thoughts; while you of King’s Bench
Walk, cherish those you most love.”
Personally I so admire the short lines which say so much-
“No Gas where gas was escaping.” -Slightly ironic comment about life in war time.
“Coloured saints of glass lie buried at your feet” – Just says so much about a church hit by an air raid.
Although Lynette Roberts’ work is indulgent and obtuse ….what are ‘Tang Shapes’ in the line ‘Burnt into tang shapes’ ?- is the poet just showing off how many words that she knows? Remember Spanish was her first language. But by contrast I hope to have given examples there of when she compacts so many impressions. And I don’t think her writing deserved decades’worth of obscurity.
*I have contacted the Chiselhurst Caves project but so far they have been unable to unearth any information about the Art Centre of 1955-56.
Lynette Roberts- Diaries, Letters and Recollections‘ , edited by Patrick McGuiness, Carcanet Press (2008)
Lynette Roberts – Collected Poems edited by Patrick McGuiness, Carcanet Press (2005)
Keidrych Rhys –The Van Pool: Collected Poems edited by Charles Mundye, Seren ( 2012).
Lynette Roberts Independent Obituary
Lynette Roberts feature written by Alan Tucker Flashpoint Magazine ( Makes the interesting claim that Keidrych Rhys went AWOL from his regiment during World War 2. ) Rhys is the only World War 2 poet I can think next to Vernon Scannell who went AWOL- Scannell was also treated at Northfield Hospital , after finally being caught ‘on the run’ by the authorities in 1947.