Poetry Centre

Bernard Spencer, On the Road

  • Introduced by James Taylor, undergraduate student in English and History, Oxford Brookes University

    On the Road

    Our roof was grapes and the broad hands of the vine
    as we two drank in the vine-chinky shade
    of harvest France;
    and wherever the white road led we could not care,
    it had brought us there
    to the arbour built on a valley side where time,
    if time any more existed, was that river
    of so profound a current, it at once
    both flowed and stayed.

    We two. And nothing in the whole world was lacking.
    It is later one realizes. I forget
    the exact year or what we said. But the place
    for a lifetime glows with noon. There are the rustic
    table and the benches set; beyond the river
    forests as soft as fallen clouds, and in
    our wine and eyes I remember other noons.
    It is a lot to say, nothing was lacking;
    river, sun and leaves, and I am making
    words to say 'grapes' and 'her skin'.

    Bernard Spencer

    Bernard Spencer was not a critically acclaimed poet during his lifetime, and arguably has yet to reach the level of fame which I believe he deserves. He spent most of his life working for the British Council as a teacher, lecturer and administrator. It is understandable that the setting of the majority of his poetry is essentially an escape from the mundane and an exploration of the rural. He died in Vienna, 1963, at the age of 53.

    The language in his verse is relatively colloquial, even conversational at points such as: ‘it is a lot to say, nothing was lacking’; however this colloquial undertone does not infringe upon the concise, direct style of Spencer’s poetry.

    My first encounter with this piece was during the dark depths of revision for my GCSE exams, it was as refreshing then as it is now; the portrayal of the ‘forests as soft as fallen clouds’ remains to provoke an ambience of emollient tranquility, providing evidence that the voice of the poem is content within this timeless and idyllic setting.

    I selected this poem as a result of its descriptive prowess, and its ability to allow a reader to relate to the setting it’s portraying. Furthermore, Spencer focuses on the aspect of time; using the example of a river which both ‘flowed and stayed’ to emphasise the timelessness that one can experience when encountered with an appropriate situation; in this case being with a loved one. He concentrates on the plentitude of a passing moment and the difference to a situation that a woman can make. I believe that much like MacNeice's poetry, Spencer has captured the setting, and atmosphere of enduring calm.

    This poem catalysed my passion for poetry and my desire to write my own material.  This piece is one that, in my opinion, has escaped the strict confines of Pound or Eliot’s template for modernist poetry whilst still having a direct style. This style of writing is not usually coupled with the descriptive elegance that Spencer conveys; thus this is why I found it particularly refreshing and enjoyable to read.

    This poem is reproduced by permission of Bloodaxe Books, and comes from: Bernard Spencer, Complete Poetry, Translations and Selected Prose, ed. by Peter Robinson (Hexham: Bloodaxe Books, 2011). The Poetry Centre is grateful to Neil Astley, Suzanne Fairless-Aitken, and Peter Robinson.