George Granville Barker (19131991), by John Deakin, c.1952
Barker, George Granville (19131991), poet, was born on 26 February 1913 at 106 Forest Road, Loughton, Essex, the first son and fourth of the five children of George Barker (18791965) and his wife, Marion Frances, née Taaffe (18811953). His father, a former batman in the British army, had served under Kitchener; he had subsequently become a butler in a private household and was at the time of George's birth a temporary police constable; after a period as an insurance clerk he later became a much respected butler to Gray's Inn. His mother came from an old Catholic family in Drogheda, Ireland, where her father had been a pilot in the port. Because of insecure employment in the post-war years, the Barker family lived in relative poverty at a number of addresses around Chelsea and Fulham, where George attended Marlborough Road elementary school as well as taking instruction at the London Oratory.
Having acquired a love of verse but little else, Barker left school aged fourteen and briefly attended the Regent Street Polytechnic where, as a series of early notebooks attests, his determined purpose was already to be a professional writer. His chance came in 1932 when, encouraged by an elder sister, he sent the typescript of a recent journal, later published in fictionalized form as Alanna Autumnal (1933), to John Middleton Murry, editor of The Adelphi. Murry gave Barker reviewing work and an introduction to that Maecenas of 1930s poets Michael Roberts. At Roberts's suggestion he entered the bohemian circle which then frequented the Parton Street bookshop in Bloomsbury run by the generously disposed, though feckless, David Archer. By the age of twenty Barker was contributing to the Twentieth Century, a radical journal issued by the Promethean Society which had offices above the shop; in the same year Archer issued his Thirty Preliminary Poems at the Parton Press. On the strength of this success on 18 November 1933 Barker married his childhood sweetheart Jessie Winifred Theresa (Jessica) Woodward (19091989); they moved to a cottage overlooking the rugged coastline at Worth Matravers, Dorset, the first of several west country addresses.
It was while gazing down from the nearby St Aldhelm's Head that Barker had an idea for the vertiginous Daedalus, first item in successive Collected Poems; he sent the poem to Walter de la Mare; de la Mare forwarded it to T. S. Eliot at Faber and Faber, who promptly commissioned a volume. His action was the making of Barker, who for several years came to rely on Eliot for advice and, to some extent, for financial assistance. Eliot soon organized a temporary and anonymous fund to support his protégé; he also proposed the contents and running order for Poems (1935), the volume that brought the young poet to the attention of W. B. Yeats. Yeats thought him the most promising of all the up-and-coming generation of British poets. Despite such praise, Barker spent the rest of the decade finding a consistent voice. A second volume of fiction, Janus (1935), and the long surrealistic poem Calamiterror (1937) did little to enhance his reputation. It was not until Lament and Triumph (1940) was published shortly after the outbreak of war that Barker's individual blend of muscular rhythm, euphonious vowels, and medieval and Rilkean echoes attracted widespread respect.
By the time of its appearance, Barker and his wife had departed for Japan, where he had taken up a lectureship at the Imperial Tohoku University, Sendai, vacated by the British poet Ralph Hodgson. The appointment was not a success: Barker felt ill at ease as an academic and, more to the point, Japan was gradually being drawn into the ambit of the axis powers. Realizing the danger he was in, Barker wrote to , a Canadian writer who had been collecting his manuscripts since 1937. She arranged for passages for Barker and his wife to Vancouver, from where they joined her at an artists' commune near Big Sur in California. Barker's subsequent affair with Smart was to be the subject of her novel By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept (1945). The book conveys her point of view of a relationship that, from Barker's own, was both rewarding and disruptive. By the time he left the United States to return to Britain in the summer of 1943, he had fathered a daughter with Smart and twins with his wife, whom he left behind in New York. He settled with Smart in the Cotswolds where their second child, a boy, was born; they were to have one more son and daughter. Barker was rejected for war work, made one more attempt to rebuild his marriage by revisiting New York in 1946, and then spent a wretched winter with Smart in Galway before fleeing to London in February 1947.
The 1950s were to be a creative decade for Barker, but his circumstances were no more settled than before. He continued to see Smart at her cottage at Tilty Mill, Essex, but in the meantime took up with the film-maker Betty (Cashenden) Cass (b. 1924?), with whom he travelled to Collioure in France, Zennor in Cornwall, and around Italy before renting a woodcutter's cottage near Haslemere. In Cornwall, Barker became the mentor and unofficial teacher of the younger poets John Heath-Stubbs and David Wright, who had moved there to be near him; in Italy his companions were the raucous painterly duo Robert Colquhoun and Robert MacBryde. In England his social life consisted of crowded weekends at Tilty Mill, and regular forays to the pubs and clubs of Soho, where he swapped drinks and witticisms with the painter John Minton, the photographer John Deakin, and a host of young admirers.
As Barker's personality grew gregarious and florid, his work generally became more limpid. The lyrics of Eros in Dogma (1944) and News of the World (1950) demonstrate an increasing control and beauty of line. It was when he attempted more lurid effectsin the extended Villon-inspired ballade The True Confession of George Barker (1950) or The Dead Seagull, a novella of the same year intended as a riposte to Smartthat Barker lapsed into marginality. Eliot rejected the former; the latter remains a cult book. A dramatic turning point in Barker's life occurred in August 1957, when Cass left him for an alternative life (she was eventually to settle in San Francisco). He spent a year in Manhattan renewing former contacts and mixing with Allen Ginsberg and the beats. After a short interlude back in London, he then took up residence in Rome with Dede Farrelly, former wife of his friend the American writer and critic John Farrelly; with her he had three sons. Rome was to inspire The View from a Blind I (1962), among his most atmospheric volumes of verse, as well as the second, slightly disappointing, part of the True Confession (1964). After the first had been voted joint winner of the Guinness prize, Barker revisited London where at Smart's Westbourne Terrace flat in March 1963 he met the young Scottish writer Elizabeth Langlands (b. 1940), always known as Elspeth. Their long relationship and eventual marriage was to provide Barker with the most stable environment that he had ever known. With Elspeth he was to have five children; in 1967 they moved to Bintry House, a National Trust property in north Norfolk wherewith the exception of semesters spent teaching at Buffalo, Wisconsin, and Floridahe spent the rest of his life, producing a volume of verse every few years, of which the most distinguished are In Memory of David Archer (1973) and Villa Stellar (1978).
Three tendencies are especially marked in Barker's later work: a vocal delight in rural and family life; an increasing assurance in the composition of elegies through which he lamented the gradual demise of his generation; and strenuous meditation on his own lapsed Catholicism. All of these elements come together in what many consider to be his masterpiece: Anno Domini (1983), a rhetorical prayer to the absent God of post-Christian Europe at once fervent, humorous, and informal. A Collected Poems was issued in 1987, replacing an earlier edition of 1957.
From his Irish mother Barker inherited a direct blue gaze, above which was set that noble ridge of bone known as the bar of Michelangelo. Tall and darkly handsome in youth, he early learned to stoop. In middle age, devoted to cars and roguish headgear, he reminded his friend the photographer Bruce Bernard of a Bohemian motorist (Fraser, 232). In his very last years, even if using a wheelchair, he resembled some suave erudite pirate.
After suffering from emphysema for some years Barker died at Bintry House on 27 October 1991. He was buried on 2 November in Itteringham churchyard, just a few yards from his last home.
The volume Street Ballads (1992) was published posthumously as was a Selected Poems (1995). As to Barker's place in twentieth-century British verse, opinions are still divided. When he wrote with discipline he was without doubt one of the most plangent and witty voices in modern literature; idiosyncrasy and excess, however, mar his weaker work. In Calamiterror, Barker described himself as a minor bird on the bough. It was a typically risky pun, but also a self-estimate with which even his most ardent supporter would probably now concur.
R. Fraser, The chameleon poet: a life of George Barker (2001) · J. Heath-Stubbs and M. Green, Homage to George Barker on his sixtieth birthday (1973) · The Times (29 Oct 1991) · The Independent (29 Oct 1991) · R. Sullivan, By heart: Elizabeth Smart, a life (1991) · J. Heath-Stubbs, Hindsights (1993) · personal knowledge (2004) · private information (2004) · special supplement, George Barker at seventy, Poetry Nation Review [R. Fraser, ed.], 31, vol. 9/no. 5 (FebMay 1983)
BL, literary and personal papers
BL, notebooks, Add. MSS 7169671699
Col. U., Rare Book and Manuscript Library, corresp. and literary papers
Harvard U., Houghton L., poetical notebook
Ransom HRC, corresp. and literary papers
U. Leeds, MSS
U. Texas, MSS
University of Victoria, corresp. and literary papers | National Library of Canada, Elizabeth Smart papers
NYPL, Berg collection, MSS
BFINA, South Bank Show, George Barker, January 1988
BL NSA, interview with Robert Fraser, NSA 6537 NR
J. Deakin, bromide print, c.1952, NPG [see illus.] · P. Swift, oils, repro. in Heath-Stubbs and Green, Homage