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Bright Margins: The Poetry of E.J. Scovell
by Catherine Tufariello

s though to deflect interest in her biography, E.J. Scovell (1907-1999) once summed up her life by saying, with quintessential English reticence, “I have had a fairly ordinary life I think, with normal experiences.” Perhaps a sly humor was operating there: Scovell, contentedly married and from a stable upper-middle-class family, knew she lacked the tumultuous and tormented personal history expected of a modern poet. Though many of her poems are autobiographical, Scovell focuses on what she has in common with other people rather than, as a modernist or confessional poet would do, on what sets her apart. She never shocks, dramatizes, or puts the uniqueness of her sensibility (unique though it was) on display. Rather, Scovell’s poems are rooted in, and make extraordinary for an attentive reader, the events and experiences of her “fairly ordinary life.” Her gift is to find quietly precise words for shared, even universal, yet elusive and complex impressions and experiences. She attends with particular care and sympathy to the lives of women and children.

Life and Critical Reception

Edith Joy Scovell, called Joy, was born in Sheffield, South Yorkshire, in 1907. Her father, F.G. Scovell, was an Anglican rector of a village near Sheffield, and Joy was one of eight children. Despite growing up as a minister’s daughter, after childhood she was apparently not a believer. “I lost religion fairly early on,” she told an interviewer, “I mean religious faith—if indeed I ever had it. It seems to me that I realized my agnosticism as soon as I began to question what I was told” (Interview with Jem Poster, 46). Scovell’s poem “Agnostic” compares a believer’s faith in a silent God to her own love of a nature that similarly does not speak to us, despite “the look of utterance on the silent flower.” Her poems treat questions of faith and doubt seriously, and perhaps for that reason she is, despite her lack of belief, sometimes considered a religious poet. She was educated first at home and then at Casterton School, which in the nineteenth century had been the Brontë sisters’ school—the model for the infamous Lowood of Jane Eyre, though it was a much different place by Scovell’s time. She remained close to her siblings throughout her life.

After attending Casterton School Scovell went up to Somerset College, the women’s college founded at Oxford University in 1879. Oxford had only granted women the right to matriculation and all degrees about five years before Scovell enrolled. As a student she began to publish poems in undergraduate magazines and edited the college’s literary journal, Fritillary, named for a purple flower that grows in Oxford. She started her studies in the Classics program but ultimately took her degree in English literature. After graduating in 1930 Scovell moved to London and worked in a series of secretarial jobs, writing occasional book reviews for the political and literary magazine Time and Tide.

In 1937 Scovell married the distinguished Oxford ecologist and naturalist Charles Elton, who had established Britain’s Bureau of Animal Population. A highly influential specialist in the study of animal populations in tropical rainforests, Elton is sometimes considered the founder of British ecology. The marriage produced a daughter, Catherine, in 1940 and a son, Robert, in 1943. It was a long partnership and, by all accounts, a mutually happy one. Scovell accompanied Elton to Central and South America and the West Indies as a recorder and field researcher, and many of her poems contain minutely observed details of the natural world that seem outgrowths of their work together. In a late interview she said that she had learned a great deal from her husband and his books and that his “way of looking at things” clearly had influenced her art (Interview with Jem Poster, 47).

What of literary influences? Scovell was an exact contemporary of W.H. Auden, her years at Oxford overlapping with his. Asked about this in an interview near the end of her life, Scovell said that she never knew Auden (Oxford “was large even then”), though she did get to know Stephen Spender late in her time there. As Auden’s star rose throughout the politically turbulent 1930s, Scovell, reaching back to the nineteenth century and beyond for her poetic influences (Shelley and Robert Browning were the favorite poets of her youth), felt increasingly out of place. Among twentieth-century poets she most resembles the pre-Modernist Georgians and women formalists like Charlotte Mew, Elinor Wylie and Louise Bogan.

Though Scovell continued to write throughout the 1930s, her twenties, she published little. Her quiet, understated and intimate verses were more and more unfashionable. In an interview near the end of her career, Scovell remarked, “[T]here does seem to be some pressure on poets nowadays to be explicitly feminist as there is to be political in other ways. There was a similar pressure in the Thirties for poetry to show political consciousness—perhaps another thing that made publication difficult then.” Yet Scovell’s poems, while not “explicitly feminist” in a political sense, are implicitly feminist in their focus on lives in the “bright margins,” as she titled one of her poems, of the larger world—with the lives of women and children, animals, trees and flowers.

Scovell later was revived as a poet of the 1930s when the anthologist Geoffrey Grigson, a vocal admirer of her work, included eight of her poems in Poetry of the Present: An Anthology of the Thirties and After, published in 1949. Grigson praised her observational skill and called her “a poet less concerned with celebrity and self-importance than with being alive and in love… The purest woman poet of our time.” By calling Scovell’s poems pure Grigson meant that they represent people and places with minimal authorial intrusion. But that often-quoted last sentence, with its patronizing qualifications, and Grigson’s association of women’s poetry with purity, modesty and romantic love, did Scovell no favors with critics or with women readers.

Scovell’s first book of poems, Shadows of Chrysanthemums, was published in 1944, on wartime austerity paper, when she was 37. The Midsummer Meadows followed in 1946. Then a decade elapsed before her third book, The River Steamer, appeared, and a still longer silence succeeded it: her fourth collection, The Space Between, was not published until more than a quarter century after The River Steamer, in the early 1980s. Her poems continued to appear in anthologies, however; Philip Larkin chose two of them, “The Swan’s Feet” and “After Midsummer,” for the Oxford Book of Twentieth Century English Verse (1973). Throughout this protracted hiatus between books, during which Scovell reared her children and accompanied her husband on his travels, she continued to write poems and to circulate them privately to family and friends—a form of self-publication common among women poets of earlier generations. But she wrote considerably less than before, and with diminished confidence that her work would find readers outside her immediate social and intellectual circle.

During this time when she was writing relatively little original work, Scovell produced an exceptionally fine set of translations of poems by Italian poet and classical scholar Giovanni Pascoli (1855-1912). Her translations are both faithful to the originals and beautiful English poems in their own right. She is an unselfish translator, not drawing attention to herself as mediator but attempting to make her versions transparent windows onto Pascoli’s world. An admirer of her own verse can see what might have appealed to her in them: a simplicity and purity of language, a limpid clarity, a love of nature, an empathetic interest in the lives of children, farmers, woodsmen, weavers, and other country people. Like her own poems, Pascoli’s are metrical and rhymed. Scovell brings them into English meter and rhyme with no evident strain, with a kind of quietly confident, un-showy sprezzatura. The Pascoli translations appear in the book that broke her silence, The Space Between (1982).

In the final years of her publishing career there was some resurgence of interest in Scovell’s work. A pamphlet of verse, Listening to Collared Doves, was published by John Mole and Peter Scupham in 1986. After it appeared Poetry Review called Scovell “probably the best neglected poet in the country.” In 1988 Scovell published her Collected Poems with Carcanet Press, which brought out her Selected Poems in 1991. The Collected Poems received a Cholmondeley Award, an annual poetry award given by the Society of Authors in the United Kingdom, and the Selected Poems, her last book, was a Poetry Society Recommendation. In 1999 the new Poet Laureate, Andrew Motion, talked with producer Richard Carrington about the value of poets making recordings of their works. When Carrington asked which older poets’ voices he would most like to preserve, Scovell’s was the first name he gave.

Scovell’s old age was remarkable for a poet in that it brought no diminution either in quality or quantity; the poems of her seventies and early eighties are stronger than those of her twenties and at least as accomplished as those of her middle age. As she aged and confronted mortality, her work became more intimate in feeling. She made increasing use of slant rhyme, at which she excelled, and her meters loosened subtly. Her syntax, always complex and intricate, drapes over the lines of her late poems fluidly as folds of silk. Carol Rumens, a champion of Scovell’s poems, has observed that “her natural sense of rhythm produces lines beautifully relaxed and unstilted within their metrical boundaries, and a flexible, capable, varied syntax flows across her most formal stanzas.” The poems she published in the final decade of her career, between 1982 and 1991, show Scovell at the peak of her achievement. She died in Oxford in October 1999, at the age of 92.

Partly because her poems address traditional “women’s subjects”—marriage and motherhood, faith and doubt, childhood and old age—Scovell was underrated in her lifetime and has remained so. In a recent reconsideration of her work, British poet Clive Watkins points to the “meditative and small scale” style and subjects of her verse, in which “social and historical topics figure only obliquely—if at all,” as a partial explanation for her critical neglect. Another reason is that she continued to write in meter and rhyme (the love of which first drew her to poetry, she told Jem Poster) when to do so was to brand oneself out of step and out of style. As her obituary in the Independent put it, Scovell “neither belonged to nor could be claimed by any of the dominant movements in twentieth-century poetry” (Mole). She habitually avoided literary circles; in the words of Peter Scupham, “She jostled for no prizes, jumped through no hoops, never called out ‘Look at me, I’m writing!’ She read at no festivals, served on no committees, did not play Snakes and Ladders with other poets’ reputations.” Few writers have been less interested in making connections or promoting a literary “career”—which is not to say that she lacked ambition. Her ambition was the old-fashioned one of writing beautiful and memorable poems. Because Scovell’s poems have never been au courant, neither have they become dated, marked with her era’s preconceived notions of what a poem should be or say. They remain arrestingly fresh.


An early poem anthologized by Larkin, “The Swan’s Feet,” exemplifies Scovell’s accuracy of observation and the freshness of her perspective, even on a seemingly worn-out poetic subject. It opens with a question:

Who is this whose feet
Close on the water,
Like muscled leaves darker than ivy
Blown back and curved by unwearying wind?

Without its title this poem could be a riddle, one turning on the paradox of the swan seeming a wholly different creature viewed from underwater than viewed from the typical human perspective above. While Scovell has given us the riddle’s solution, the “Who is this…?” that opens the poem is not a rhetorical question but an expression of wonder. The swan’s feet—tough, dark, prehensile, revealing the bird’s dinosaur origins—contrast with the ethereal beauty of the creature floating on the surface. Or seeming to float: as Scovell reminds us, the “muscled leaves” of the feet are in strenuous, rhythmic motion, alternately grasping at the water and crumpling to stream back in the wake they create.

The second stanza further develops the metaphor of the feet as leaves:

These dank weeds are also
Part and plumage of the magnolia-flowering swan.
He puts forth these too—
Leaves of ridged and bitter ivy
Sooted in towns, coal-bright with rain.
He is not moved by winds in air
Like the vain boats on the lake.

The “dank weeds” or “leaves of ridged and bitter ivy” that propel the swan through his element are as much a part of him as the magnolia flowers of his snowy plumage. The line “sooted in towns, coal-bright with rain” fleetingly superimposes on the lake where the swan swims a rainy town, the buildings covered with ivy and the leaves themselves with the soot of coal furnaces. The invented adjective “coal-bright” finds beauty in that urban scene, as in the swan’s superficially ugly feet. Unlike the pleasure boats on the lake, subject to the caprices of the wind, the swan participates in creating the currents through which he moves. The poem closes by addressing the reader directly, cautioning us not to be deceived by surfaces:

Lest you think him too a flower of parchment,
Scentless magnolia,
See his living feet under the water fanning.
In the leaves’ self blows the efficient wind
That opens and bends closed those leaves.

The imperative to see the living world, clearly and precisely, is at the heart of Scovell’s poetry. In addition to being an accurate description—without recourse to the pathetic fallacy—of a marvelous, paradoxical creature, “The Swan’s Feet” is a self-portrait and an ars poetica. Like the swan, Scovell’s poems, which can seem to float effortlessly as “flower(s) of parchment” on the river of experience, are propelled by sinuous and sinewy “muscled leaves,” like Whitman’s leaves of grass. The poems, with their metrical “living feet,” create the self-willed “efficient wind,” the rhythms and flexible syntax, by which they move. To regard the swan as an inanimately lovely “flower of parchment” is to mistake his essential nature. To dismiss E.J. Scovell as a naively sentimental celebrant of nature and domesticity is to mistake her equally. Scovell’s formal diction and her occasional use of inversions (e.g., “See his living feet under the water fanning”) may contribute to this misperception. But as Carol Rumens has written, “It is this unemphatic, undeceived and honest observation of what is that reveals [Scovell’s] sensibility, despite superficial impressions, to be very much that of our own time.”

In “The Swan’s Feet” we already see the distinctive quality of Scovell’s poetic gaze. She looks at the world without possessiveness or judgment, her ego seeming not to interpose itself between the poem and the subject or the poem and the reader. Her poems aspire to the condition of “see-through curtaining” that she perceives in nature (“The Space Between”). Her poems about flowers and birds seem indeed to become transparent, so rapt are they in the particular nature of the thing seen. In the sonnet “Shadows of Chrysanthemums” the flowers’ shadows are not vague or blurred but “crisp their profiles” clearly on the wall. There is no Romantic haziness in her verse. Even in a poem about haze, “A Web of Mist,” the saturated air sharpens instead of obscuring: “Black slugs are grazing on the diamonded grass.” The wonderful juxtaposition of diamonds and slugs makes the scene leap into focus.

In a 1988 interview with Jem Poster, Scovell revealed a recurrent wish that she could have been a painter as well as a poet (48). One can feel this impulse both in the style and subject matter of her verse, which attempts to represent exactly what she sees without editorial comment. In a sonnet describing a young girl in a photograph, she asks herself that in view of such beauty as exists in nature, such visual poems, “What are words to/Express or be? What is the poem to do?” She answers herself that a poem has “nothing to do but follow its vocation” and “nothing to be but tribute to what is in being.” For Scovell, paying tribute to what exists entails capturing the most fleeting, subtle and fugitive of experiences and impressions. She is fascinated by literal and figurative shadows, by the “secondary ripple, the shadow’s shadow” on the green awning of a river steamer, or the shadows of chrysanthemums that “answer their wild lightness with a deeper tone/And clearer pattern than their own.” Literal seeing, for her, wears a visionary aspect too.

Scovell’s work is characterized throughout by a deep respect for otherness, whether in nature, animals or people. She never bullies her subjects, imposing her own perspective or assumptions on what she sees. And her stance in relation to others goes beyond respect: she is always prepared to wonder at and take positive pleasure in what is not-her—ready to see a river as “that bright and far-brought mineral other,” to catch “the look of utterance on the silent flower” without presuming to speak for it, to regard a newborn infant as jewel-like in his beauty and strangeness, a distillation in little of all that is “human, ours.” Scovell unerringly finds mystery and complexity in her seemingly modest and conventionally feminine domestic subjects. For her such subjects are, as Jem Poster has observed, not ends in themselves but points of departure for the “transcendent reach” of her poems (24-25).

Her many poems about children, for example, address themselves to mysteries at the very heart of human existence. In “An Early Death,” the first in a sequence titled “Three Poems in Memory of a Child,” Scovell reclaims a grandchild who died before the age of three for the world of life. The poem begins, “Judith, my grandchild, older than I in death,” and concludes

I called you learned in death more than us all,
Yet death you never knew in life, too young
Even to have heard its name, too quickly gone
For fear or pain to touch you, light gazelle.
And if the dead know death we cannot tell.
If in some way, in that way you know all.

And if in no way… yet to have been,
To have stood in the doorway in your shift of grace
With hands half lifted, so to have looked in
On mortal life, it is not nothing—is
A hammer stroke that rings and rings. Love, being
And not being both are strange; you belong to being.

How can a child elegy, that most perilous of genres, avoid veering into sentimentality? By approaching the subject with emotional restraint and without preconceived ideas about what such a poem should be or say. By acknowledging a fundamental doubt as to whether the dead can be said to know death. By wresting from the possibility of a negative answer, and from a double negative, the assertion that even the briefest life is “not nothing.” By earning the present tense in the final claim that the child, having once lived in her “shift of grace,” still belongs to being. The phrase conjures, with a delicacy and tact characteristic of Scovell, both the child in her chemise, standing in a literal doorway, and the fleetingness of a life that nevertheless partook in an enduring grace.

“Being and not being both are strange”—how well this realization applies to Scovell’s poetry, which constantly makes us feel the compelling strangeness of being alive in the world. She is most haunted by the thought of beauty that exists without ever being apprehended—by the “vast and rich compost” of human experience and natural life never imprinted in human memory, much less memorialized in art. In a late poem, “The Geese on the Park Water,” she grieves the loss of unremembered and unperceived beauty:

Time is a sluice set open
And through it, we mourn, too fast
All beauty shown or spoken,
Apprehended, runs to the past.
Yet what quells my mind the most
Is not the loved and known
But the unregarded un-
Apprehended constantly flowing,

Unless there is God, to waste.

Her clear-eyed poems are attempts to salvage as much beauty as possible from that open sluice of the unregarded and unremembered; to make the “endless eloquent line” of the poet, like that of the flying Canada geese, endure. To that end, she is drawn again and again to the small, easily overlooked lives on the “bright margins” of existence, and to scenes and experiences so subtle and fugitive as to approach the inexpressible: to “the space between” flowers in a garden bed seen from a high window; to liminal moments when shadows seem more substantial than the objects that create them; to the permeable threshold between sleep and waking; to the lives of infants and the very old, verging on the oblivion before birth and after death.

In one of her finest poems, “The Evening Garden,” Scovell evokes another liminal moment, the tidal evening hour “when all is seeming” and the garden peers with “gold wild-cat eyes” in the windows, contending with the first shadowy reflections of the room within. The narrator tells us that she used to close the curtains when twilight fell, but she now leaves them open to watch the garden pressing, nearer than it used to do, on the windowpane. The poem concludes:

The lighted room is small.
Now we exist: and now we fashion
A garden and a girdling wall,
Our salient into wild creation.

The stanzas of Scovell’s poems are just such lighted rooms or enclosed gardens. Their deftly crafted forms represent not a defensive retreat from the wildness of human existence and the inhuman universe, but a “salient”—a projection, etymologically a springing or leaping—into the midst of it.

E.J. Scovell offers contemporary women poets a forerunner whose poems are distinctive and distinctly modern without jettisoning meter and rhyme, deeply personal without being confessional, intellectually sophisticated without being obscure, affirmative without recourse to doctrine or dogma, and affecting without sentimentality. Making supple, flexible use of traditional meters and rhyme, Scovell wrote poems that speak directly to the varied experiences of being a woman, and a human being, in the world. We would do well to reclaim, enjoy, and learn from her art.

Works Consulted

Brown, Susan, Patricia Clements and Isobel Grundy. The Orlando Project, 2006 2010.

Contemporary Authors, “E(dith) J(oy) Scovell.” Gale Literary Databases, updated 2/13/2000. Online.

Dowson, Jane ed. Women's Poetry of the 1930s: A Critical Anthology. London: Routledge, 1996.

Grigson, Geoffrey. Poetry of the Present: An Anthology of the Thirties and After. Phoenix House, 1949.

Mole, John. “The Poetry of E.J. Scovell.” Poetry Review 76:4, December 1986.

——-. Obituary: E.J. Scovell. November 12, 1999. Independent.co.uk.

Poster, Jem. “In Love with Space: The Poetry of E.J. Scovell.” PN Review 61, vol. 14, no. 5, pp. 24-27.

Rumens, Carol. “Long, Patient Looks.” Review of Listening to Collared Doves by E.J. Scovell. Poetry Review 76:4, December 1986.

Scovell, E.J. Shadows of Chrysanthemums. London: Routledge, 1944.

____. The Midsummer Meadow. London: Routledge, 1946.

____. The River Steamer. London: Cresset, 1956.

____. The Space Between. London: Secker & Warburg, 1982.

____. Listening to Collared Doves. Herts: Mandeville, 1986.

____. Collected Poems. Carcanet Press, 1988.

____. Selected Poems. Manchester: Carcanet, 1991. Poetry Book Society Recommendation.

____. “E.J. Scovell in Conversation with Jem Poster” (interview). PN Review 74, vol. 16, no. 6, pp. 46-48.

Scupham, Peter. “Shelf Lives: 9: E.J. Scovell.” PN Review 131, vol. 26, no. 3.

Watkins, Clive. “The Near is Crossed with Distance: A Note on the Verse of E.J. Scovell.” www.carcanet.co.uk, 2009. Revised version of an essay that first appeared in Able Muse: A Review of Poetry Prose and Art.

Sample Poems*

The Swan’s Feet

Who is this whose feet
Close on the water,
Like muscled leaves darker than ivy
Blown back and curved by unwearying wind?
They, that thrust back the water,
Softly crumple now and close, stream in his wake.

These dank weeds are also
Part and plumage of the magnolia-flowering swan.
He puts forth these too—
Leaves of ridged and bitter ivy
Sooted in towns, coal-bright with rain.
He is not moved by winds in air
Like the vain boats on the lake.

Lest you think him too a flower of parchment,
Scentless magnolia,
See his living feet under the water fanning.
In the leaves’ self blows the efficient wind
That opens and bends closed those leaves.

The Geese on the Park Water

The Canada geese
Pose in the light and dark of ripples,
And in and out of narrow shadows
Pose, compose, improvising
Their endless eloquent line.

And elongated, dissolved by ripples,
Cast by the trees, tree-casts, the shadows
Are only material for the posing,
Are driftwood salvaged for the composing,
The endless flowing-away improvising
Of the Canada geese.

Like the arts that exist in time
Alone or essentially—
Acting, dancing, even
Music and poetry—
The lives of men and of birds,
The line their living scores
Upon time, the notes or words
Are as if performed. But for whom?

For us the dancing; the elegant
Water-birds if they pose
These do not pose for us
Though their existence flows
Away in forms that to us
Are grace, grace flowing out
Like water wasted in drought
Constantly into unbeing.

Time is a sluice set open
And through it, we mourn, too fast
All beauty shown or spoken,
Apprehended, runs to the past.
Yet what quells my mind the most
Is not the loved and known
But the unregarded un-
Apprehended constantly flowing,

Unless there is God, to waste.
As, when the gates close, unseen,
Unknown (as we think of knowing)
The Canada geese on the lake
Will transpose from now to the past
(For now, as we say it, is past)
Will compose for time and death
(For time is promised to death)

Their endless eloquent line.

Song for a Ghost

When or where I cannot guess,
I lost my life in the deep grass
Between youth and middle age,
Not with pain and consciousness
But like a brooch dropped from a dress.

Will the search never be over
Through the trampled grass and clover
Between youth and middle age
Where I slept by hedge and river,
Where I dreamed it was for ever?

While we sleep there’s life to lose.
Which of all the flowers I chose
Between youth and middle age
Cupped the poison? Or which grass
Soft of blade was honed to pierce?

When or where I cannot guess,
I lost my life in the deep grass
Between youth and middle age,
Not with pain and consciousness
But like a brooch dropped from a dress.

The Evening Garden

Not dark nor light but clear,
But lucid with no source of light,
But breathing with no flow of air
The garden journeys into night.

Late gangling flowers lean—
Anemones, tobacco flowers—
Over the gravel, over the brown
And silken leaves that mulch the grass.

More than I did, I now
Leave in the lighted room undrawn
The curtains. More than it used to do
The garden presses on the pane,

Or seems it does, in this
One hour when all is seeming, when
It wars with shadowy lights in the glass,
And losing, is most potent then—

Only in this one hour,
Tidal, returns—day’s utmost edge—
Pressing with eyes of question or power
Gold wild-cat eyes on the window-ledge.

Walled plot of fruit trees, flowers,
What strength it wields, how hard it bears!
Why should it not bear hard? It has
Behind it all the universe.

The lighted room is small.
Now we exist: and now we fashion
A garden and a girdling wall,
Our salient into wild creation.

Grateful acknowledgment is made to Carcanet Press for permission to reprint these poems from E.J. Scovell: Collected Poems, Manchester and New York: Carcanet Press Limited, 1988.

E. J. Scovell
Years: 1907-1999
Birthplace: U.K.
Language(s): English, Italian
Forms: short lyrics, rhymed quatrains and longer stanzas, sonnets, nonce forms
Subjects: Motherhood, childhood, nature, love, marriage, old age
Entry By: Catherine Tufariello
32 Poems
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