The Complete Poems by George Orwell
The words poetry and George Orwell are not ones that you could normally expect to hear in conjunction with each other. He’s an author much more known for his trenchant essay writing and deceptively straightforward prose style; so the fancies of verse aren’t what you’d expect to find. Yet scattered through all his works are examples of verse and he obviously had a great love of poetry. So Dione Venables, a founding member of the Orwell Society, came up with the wonderful idea of collecting together all of the examples of Orwell’s poetry in one book of Complete Poems. Needless to say, as an Orwell completist I had to have it, and fortunately the offspring were well trained enough to produce it for Christmas!
This slim little book is beautifully put together and collects all Orwell’s work, down to lost scraps and verse that featured in his great works like Nineteen Eighty Four. It’s a laudable thing to do, and gives the Orwell fan a chance to look at his poetry and see what they really think about it.
So was Orwell a great poet? That’s always going to be a subjective judgement, although I think it’s fair to say that some of this is juveline work and some of it probably counts as doggerel. But Owell had a great love of poetry, and there are times when his verse really takes flight and becomes something special. He wrote love poems, celebrations of lost heroes, evocative memorials to past times, limericks and a spirited defence of his right to fight for his country. The stand-out for me was “The Italian Soldier Shook My Hand” from 1942, which evokes his time in Spain fighting fascism and ends with these two moving verses:
Your name and your deeds were forgotten
Before your bones were dry,
And the lie that slew you is buried
Under a deeper lie.
But the thing I saw in your face
No power can disinherit:
No bomb that ever burst
Shatters the crystal spirit.
So George Orwell may be known as a wonderful prose writer (and that’s probably how I’d like to think of him); but on the evidence of this volume and in particular those verses above, he certainly had a talented leaning towards poetry – and I’m very glad I’ve read his complete verse.