Toby Davidson's new collected poems is the most
definitive version of Webb's work so far - replacing
the previous collection by Angus and
Robertson which was first published in 1969. It contains many
previously unseen early and late
also attempts to reinstate some of Webb's original
before we go any further, it's worth asking the
question: who is Francis Webb anyway? Well, the
answer to this questions depends very much on where you happen
to live. If you're an Australian then he's a
complex and prolific poet - espoused by the likes of Les Murray and
Judith Wright and judged to be the 'gold standard' of
poetic language - whereas if you live in the UK - then
the chances are you've never heard of him.
reason for our lack of knowledge of Webb is partly
due to the fact that his work has never been
published here and, even if it had, the challenging
nature of it would hardly place him in the 'easy
question we need to ask is: why is the work of an
Australian poet being reviewed on a website
dedicated to the literary output of Norfolk
that's where the tale of Webb's life becomes more fascinating
- for Webb, as well as being a wordsmith, was
something of a traveller. In 1943 he moved to Canada
with the RAAF but then following a sea voyage to
England in 1949 he experienced the first of a serious
of breakdowns which led him to remain in psychiatric
care for most of his adult life. In England, he
first entered that care system in Birmingham before
moving to the David Rice Hospital in
Norwich in the mid 1950s.
remained in Norfolk until 1960 and during the 4-5
years that he was here he wrote over 20 poems inspired by
the county. Most of these appeared in his 1961
collection Socrates and Other
Poems with another couple, and most
significantly, Around Costessey appearing in
his later The Ghost of the Cock (1964).
Specifically there are poems about the River Wensum,
Mousehold Heath, Beeston Regis, Hethersett, Costessey Hall and St
Edmund's Church in Norwich.
poems are not light-weight, landscape poetry however
- but complex, challenging pieces which blend
location and intense poetic vision.
It is no surprise to learn that Webb used to carry around with him a copy of Gerard Manley Hopkins'
poems - for the two poets share the same dense
and muscular language. Furthermore, both men
were also ardent Catholics and much of Webb's work
has a religious overtone about it.
Gale Force, for
example, which is a poem about a storm over the
Wensum valley - ends with a Hopkins-esque dedication
to God: 'You tell me all are as leaping fish/And his
silver devoted ripples, all are one./ Slave, power,
your creative force and wish/ Inform with praise the
clouds, the earth, the sun.'
astonishing of the Norfolk poems however is
undoubtedly his Around Costessey sequence -
which comprises 13 separate long poems - including a
four-part memorial to the Norwich School painter
Anthony Sandys. This sequence was inspired by the
village which he came to know during his stay at the
David Rice. As a Catholic, he was allowed to walk from the
hospital to the nearest Catholic church -
which happened to be St Walstan's in Old Costessey.
His journey would have taken him down Costessey Lane
- over the Wensum at Costessey Mill and up the Street
past St Edmund's (C of E) Church.
a section from the Sandys poem called Death. He
originally saw the self-portrait of Sandys on a
visit to the Stanger's Hall museum in Norwich.