November 9, 2015
Okay, okay: Orwell was no Byron
by Kait Howard
Last month, despite apparent reservations, The Orwell Society decided to publish a slim volume of 42 little-known poems written by George Orwell. The poems were written over a 35-year span, from his school days as well as the years he spent in Burma in the 1920s. They haven’t been collected before because, as all parties more-or-less agree, they aren’t very good. (“If you love Orwell, never read his poems,” read a headline in The Guardian.)
Joel Gunter of the Independent spoke with Dione Venables, the editor of George Orwell: The Complete Poetry and founder of The Orwell Society, who conceded:
“‘[Orwell] is a good poet but not an excellent poet, and his poetry is not up to the consistent brilliance of his political writing and his journalism,” she said. I can’t think of any poem that is downright bad, but there are quite a lot that are average.’”
According to Venables, pressure from certain of the society’s members, as well as from retailers Amazon and Waterstones, prevailed in the decision to publish.
One of the poems, “Romance,” begins “When I was young and had no sense, / In far off Mandalay / I lost my heart to a Burmese girl / As lovely as the day,” and shows the touching mediocrity of Orwell’s light verse. But, Venables maintains, for readers interested in understanding Orwell’s experiences in Burma, there is value in examining such a trifle. In an essay published on the website of The Orwell Prize, Venables writes:
“The…changing angles and unexpected layers of perception apply to the Orwell poems…One wonders whether Orwell considered that his life was really dull and colourless because his novels seem to reflect a tired kind of depression and seediness…But George had his own ways of gingering things up.”
British novelist and Orwell biographer D.J. Taylor also argued for the value of the poems in an essay published on The Orwell Society website, noting that we should see the writer’s sustained poetic output as evidence that, during the early 20th century, trying one’s hand at writing poetry was a common pursuit. He also marvels at the way Orwell, who accomplished so much in his prose, chose to tackle certain topics poetically — “Orwell thought poetry a better vehicle for conveying this mixture of personal reaction and universal truth.”
Still, nothing indicates that Orwell considered his poems particularly successful (only a few were printed during his lifetime), and The Orwell Society hasn’t made it clear that the writer would have considered them worthy of being published in a collection.
The final decision to publish the poems rested with Bill Hamilton, the executor of Orwell’s estate. Initially, Hamilton resisted clearing publication, but was convinced, according to Venables, by the choice to preface each poem with a biographical note. Hamilton told The Bookseller:
“If you tried to present this purely as poetry you’d get shot down. So, actually, what turned out to be the case is that what was produced is an absolutely wonderful biographical portrait — which is a quite different thing altogether: It’s a portrait of Orwell through his poetry.”
George Orwell: The Complete Poetry was published in a very small print run of 500. It’s not currently available in the U.S.
Kait Howard is a publicist at Melville House.