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THE BANKER'S POET

Martin Green 

It is not often that the mantle of a poet is worn as easily on the same shoulders, as those wearing the dark suit of a banker.  This thought was provoked by a remark made by one of Anthony Powell's characters in his novel Casanova’s Chinese Restaurant, when he says, 'I. was thinking the other day one might make an anthology of the banker poets. —Guillaume Apollinaire. ...T.S.Eliot. . . Robert W. Service..”

That T.S. Eliot wrote The Waste Land when he was thus bedecked in a banker’s suit, seems now to have been a remarkable achievement; particularly since the poem in question was one that broke with the poetic tradition of his day and let in a breath of fresh air that finally blew away the cobwebs of the Georgians. The Waste Land is not itself a work that is continuously exciting, the original excitement is in a first reading; it lies in the difference, that it concerned itself with ‘the loitering heirs of City directors’ rather than the delights and dejections of the seasons, that it quoted (somewhat clumsily), what was thought to be working-class speech.  Comparing; this with the poetry of Wilfred Owen, who was as equally daring and original and who still excites, it fades somewhat. It was a seminal work, and made things different for poets, as Look Back in Anger was a seminal work that altered the social pattern of theatre-going. Neither of these works has much merit beyond the shock of their first appearance, albeit that they are remembered to this day (and occasionally exhumed) because of what they did, rather than what they are. Eliot's influence as a poet was continued through the stature his approval gave to poets when he transfor­med himself from a banker of other people's money to a publisher of other people's books. So much so, that the accolade of being published by Faber & Faber was enough to launch a career in poetry that would have been un­thinkable without it. The career of Seamus Heaney, from virtual obscurity in the North of Ireland to distinguished professorial appointments in the United States of America, in a brief span of time, is a latter-day illustration -, culminating in the Nobel Prize. ,

T.S. Eliot died in 1965, and one of the last poets to thus receive his imprimatur was Ted Hughes, whose The Hawk in the Rain was published by Faber in 1957. The posthumous legacy is still much in evidence, as Faber & Faber have now become the establishment publisher of poetry, affirmation of this is in Ted Hughes, one of their foremost poets, having become Poet Laureate on the death of John Betjeman.  He was from a different stable, John Murray, who still had the reflected glory of Lord Byron, but who publish no new poetry today. Betjeman's reputation as a popular versifier has detracted from a true evaluation of his poetry, exemplified by a remark in The Guardian news­paper sometime back that, 'there is more poetry in Basil Bunting's little finger than in the whole of John Betjemen's work".

Apart from the accolade of Eliot's poetic aura, Ted Hughes also seems to have inherited a banker's awareness of money and how it can be manipulated in such a way that it is wisely invested and made to grow; the financier's knowledge that money make's money and the expertise to carry it out. An illustration of this, is his establishment of the Arvon Foundation in the mid-1970s at Lumb Bank Manor, at Todmorden in Yorkshire, a property owned by Hughes and leased to the Foundation. The Arvon Foundation runs courses in creative writing at Lumb Bank and at Totleigh Barton in Devon, and also the biennial Arvon Foundation International. Poetry competitions, ultimately judged by Ted Hughes with the assistance of another, usually distinguished Faber poet such as Seamus Heaney. The posthumous Eliot accolade is exercised profitably, as it were, and by proxy  There is no ostensible fi­nancial gain in this activity for Mr Hughes, as the Arvon Foundation is a charitable trust and he presumably only receives such fees as are thought to be appropriate.

However, it was in leasing of Lumb Bank to the Arvon Foundation, its not inconsiderable rental, income, its upkeep and refurbishment of necessity undertaken, and finally the sale to the Foundation in 1989, for £20,000 that would surely have won T.S Eliot's admir­ation as a banker, rather than as a poet.

But it is not Just in the handling of his property that Mr Hughes demonstrated the business acumen that is so admired by. Bankers. We come now to the handling of his late wife's estate, which is surely something else that must win their admiration.  Sylvia Plath, also, a Faber poet, married Ted Hughes in 1956, a year before he was first published by Faber.  Her first book, of poems, The Colossus, was published in 1960, followed by her novel,  The Bell Jar in 1963.  Both these works might have slipped quietly in obscurity had she not committed suicide, four weeks after the publication of the novel.  The separation, suicide and consequent recriminations over the break-up of the marriage and her death have already filled up numerous volumes, and it is not of interest to discuss them here. Justifiably or not, Mr Hughes became the executor of the Plath estate, in charge of which he put his sister Olwyn Hughes, to act as literary agent. In 1965 Sylvia Plath's Ariel appeared which further estab­lished her reputation, followed by various other volumes approved by Ted Hughes, including Collected Poems (1981), carrying his own Introduction.

That Sylvia Plath was suing for divorce at the time of her death did not in any way bar his legal claims to her estate; that he guarded jealously, and in a productive manner, is of course absolutely as it should be. That he benefited financially out of the death of a spouse, estranged though they were, is also beyond reproach.  The manner in which it has been handled must once again give the banker's soul of T.S Eliot, watching over his earthly protégés, some deep source of satisfaction.

Is there a ghostly, prophetic echo in these lines of the banker poet’s Waste Land:

'That corpse you planted in your   garden,
Has it begun to sprout? Will It bloom this year?’

With the much-hyped publication of Birthday Letters, recalling Ted Hughes's life with Sylvia Plath it would seem that T.S. Eliot's prophetic lines have been fulfilled.