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When Elsewhere is Home: Mapping Literature as Home in Lawrence Durrell’s “Cities, Plains and People”

Cartographier l’ailleurs : faire sa demeure dans l’écriture dans “Cities, Plains and People” de Lawrence Durrell
Corinne Alexandre-Garner et Isabelle Keller-Privat
p. 69-86


Dans son poème “Cities, Plains and People” écrit à Beyrouth en 1943, Lawrence Durrell, auteur anglo-irlandais né en Inde et qui se trouve alors nommé en Egypte, explore la question de son rapport à l’ailleurs et à sa propre identité. L’ailleurs sert au poète de point de départ pour interroger son passé et retrouver l’innocence de la jeunesse, cet espace-temps qui fonctionne comme l’espace maïeutique de l’écriture. Laissant derrière lui le refuge imaginaire d’une enfance rêvée, il offre au lecteur un poème apparemment linéaire et biographique dont la structure profonde compose une Odyssée poussant le lecteur dans la situation instable, décentrée mais cependant enrichissante du voyageur qui doit constamment réévaluer les anciennes frontières. Nous verrons comment l’axe syntagmatique déployant la linéarité du souvenir s’articule avec l’axe paradigmatique de l’exploration mnémonique, philosophique et esthétique, faisant de l’écriture de l’ailleurs la seule demeure du poète et laissant ainsi entrevoir la contrée intime de l’artiste.

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Texte intégral

[. . .] il n’y a plus de modèles d’identification possibles.
Il [l’exilé] se voit ainsi renvoyé non plus à lui-même, à lui comme même, identique et identifiable, mais à lui encore en puissance d’être, sans détermination.
En ce moment du départ, tout est possible sur le plan du monde que l’on quitte.
Un partage des terres se fait entre le passé et l’avenir.
Le moi n’est plus que la frêle frontière qui sépare deux univers, deux temporalités.
(Trigano 24)

1However, a brief look at The Englishman Abroad, with its tripartite structure devoted to stereotyped characters that either went for “The Grand Tour”, “The Middle Distance” or “Wider Horizons”, following a circular, well-organised journey that nearly always brought them back home is enough to suggest that Durrell’s route stands poles apart. Indeed, Durrell did not initially leave freely but was forced away from India by his father and then from England from lack of money and social recognition. Later on, he clearly resented being sent on duty by the Foreign Office to Argentina, Yugoslavia and Egypt, although he was more than willing to be sent to Cyprus, Rhodes and finally to become a resident of Languedoc which was a reminder of Greece, his country of adoption. Thus he was not originally a willing expatriate, but rather displaced from the very beginning, born in a country which could never be his home (in both senses of the word, as his abode and as his country) for obvious political reasons—although both parents were born in India—, and where he chose never to return.

2It is as if Durrell had chosen what the critic George Steiner calls a tangential progress (Steiner 137), following his “heroes” up to the point where he veers away. By choosing to travel away from England and from the tradition of English writers, Durrell was also expressing his need to “re-establish [himself] for a few years somewhere in the European orbit of things in order to write [his] books” (Ingersoll 54). He was clearly not one of those “peregrine martyrs” (Massingham 7), but a resident writer. Indeed, whether chosen or imposed by the Foreign Office, his destinations were places of residence rather than mere ports of call.

3His problematic relationship to the outside world beyond the home sphere—an Anglo-Irishman who didn’t feel at home in England and considered himself as European—turns him into a marginal man and inevitably raises the question of his relationship to his identity. What are we to make then of “Cities, Plains and People”, an apparently narrative poem written during WWII at a very critical personal and historical time? Durrell had just been nominated as press officer in Egypt, where he felt an exile for the first time in his life, having left Corfu where he had been living as a willing expatriate. From Egypt he went to Beirut for ten days to “escape from friends, duties and Egypt” (MacNiven 280) and complete the poem. Interestingly, Beirut was also his first wife, Nancy’s destination with their daughter Penelope in the summer 1942, when they fled the advancing German troops with the other foreign wives and children for a temporary exile that was to last a lifetime. Durrell then wrote to T.S. Eliot: “My wife’s in Syria, and my daughter and my heart” (MacNiven 258). Consequently, temporal, spatial and emotional dissociation provide the poet with a new perspective. The superscription “(Beirut, 1943)” points to the poet’s repeated exiles, from his birthplace, in India, from his country, England, from Greece, the place where he was “reborn” and, lastly, from Alexandria where he was posted during the war. “Exiled from exile” (Alexandre-Garner 2003, 44), he looks back on the past thirty years of his life, presenting his reader with an apparently biographical and linear poem—the longest in the collection, which is granted a central position since it both gives its name to the collection and appears as the conclusive poem. This linearity is immediately undermined by the marginal notes forcing the reader to travel from the main text to the side remarks, as if to dramatise further the spatial tension between East and West.

4It soon becomes obvious that far from being a mere retrospective of one’s experience the poem also develops a circular, Odyssean structure bringing the reader from Prospero’s cell at the outset back to Prospero’s island at the end. However, as Jankelevitch says, one never goes back to the place one has left; the island where Ulysses finally lands is no longer the same: time has gone by and it is precisely the unfolding of time, much more than the poet’s geographic whereabouts, which is at stake in the poem. Thus the seemingly linear structure must be reassessed and questioned.

5One may wonder then if the biographical, syntagmatic outline of the poet’s retrospective woven into the paradigmatic structure of the memorial, philosophical and aesthetic construct does not point to the mapping of home as a perpetual elsewhere. Thus, writing from the point of view of the unwilling exile repeatedly thrown elsewhere while longing to belong, Durrell’s poem apparently strives to recreate an intimate landscape through which the outside world, like so many pieces of a disjointed puzzle, composes a moving, unreachable inner space, a fantasised homeland, a home from home.

  • 1 Personal Landscape was the name of the poetry magazine which published Durrell, Fedden, Spender and (...)
  • 2 We borrow this expression from R. Pine’s study, Lawrence Durrell: The Mindscape.

6Writing as it were from beyond elsewhere, Durrell presents his reader with a poem fragmented into 16 sections which are further divided by the inclusion of occasional marginal notes in italics appearing at irregular intervals on the left and on the right hand side of the page. Thus, the reader feels tempted to read the poem as a series of maps, representing at a reduced scale part of the poet’s personal landscape. Indeed, the marginal notes seem to work as explanatory legends to the text, providing the reader with geographical bearings. But they do not only give us spatial references; they also appear to build a stellar network of human and artistic connections: Henry Miller, Katsimbalis, Wallace and Anna Southam, Seferiades Stephanides, Anaïs Nin. Behind this acknowledged network of well-known artists, lies another hidden but more active network, that of the war poets and of his friends in Egypt such as the Mannings or Artemis Cooper who were part of Durrell’s personal landscape1. Like the ancient portolani, the medieval navigation manuals illustrated with charts to guide the sailors along the coasts and into harbours, “Cities, Plains and People” attempts to guide the reader into the yet untamed Durrellian mindscape2, giving him spatial, temporal, artistic and philosophical landmarks.

  • 3 It is worth noting that Lawrence Durrell initially intended to discard these marginal notes in the (...)
  • 4 This was the small dead end street in the 14th borough of Paris where Miller lived with Alfred Perl (...)

7The reader easily recognises the linear biographical pattern of Durrell’s early years through the enumeration of cities and countries3, just as he easily recognises the literary network of the Villa Seurat4. However, the reader in search of easy beacons soon finds himself subtly misled.

8Indeed, we may note that the marginal notes mostly appear on the left side of the page except for four particular occurrences pertaining to the people met in Paris with and through Henry Miller, thus singling out the importance of the Paris years and of the friendship and literary influence of a writer who might be hiding another, more influential one, as we shall see later. The marginal notes also intertwine references to places and people with quotations, thus setting in the margin both biographical elements and philosophical affiliations.

9Thus, the first marginal note faces the beginning of Part II:

The Nepalese

  • 5 In the text “From the Elephant’s Back” and in his first novel Pied Piper of Lovers we’re made to un (...)

11Devoted to the loss of India, it sets the background for the whole opus. The Nepalese ayah Kasim in Kùrseong in the hills above Darjeeling, like the first ayah in Jullundur, is the provider of comfort and love; but she’s also the teacher of Urdu and Hindi learnt simultaneously with English by Durrell so that his impressions of happiness are intimately woven into the world of two foreign languages5. Thus living abroad, being a stranger, speaking foreign languages will always be equated with an Ur-space, a sensorial haven, which will be transformed into the maieutic space of writing. Kùrseong and Kasim, the land of birth and the motherly figure, circumscribe a personal landscape where “India” and “ayah” symbolically rhyme together, composing the only marginal note which reads like a poem, evoking the concise and poignant strength of a haiku and offering the reader a preliminary recreation of an imaginary elsewhere. Thus India as such does not exist: there only remains a metaphorical space encapsulating both childhood and the loss of the time of childhood. Appearing immediately after the last dysphoric line of Part I “Until your pain become a literature” and the first uplifting line of Part II “Nine marches to Lhasa”, this note works as a threshold heralding the loss and the birth which opens up the path to creation and the writing of a real BildungsGedicht.

12The syntagmatic unfolding starts in a mythical time (“Once” repeated twice in Part I), in the “perfect idleness” (Part I, l. 5) of an innocent child basking in the lights of metaphorical Himalayas, where roads and rivers all lead from birth to early manhood and the realisation of loss and pain which can only be rooted in literature. The poem attempts to map out the artist’s slow awakening through a “world of little mirrors” (Part I, l. 6), starting with that of the illusory identification with his Indian surroundings where the mineral, the animal and the human merge: “Saw the Himalayas like lambs there / Stir their huge joints and lay / Against his innocent thigh a stony thigh” (Part I, l. 8–10). Durrell’s song of innocence, like Blake’s, pictures an undivided, harmonious whole whose elements are at one with each other. The recurring burden “Once in idleness was my beginning” (Part I, l. 1, 26, 39) operates as a Tibetan mantra imposing its circular structure to Part I, emphasising the unity in experience and thought and offering the reader a space for meditation.

  • 6 We cannot fail but think here of T.S. Eliot’s lines: “Every phrase and every sentence is an end and (...)

13Looking backwards, we realise that the first marginal note works as the caption recording the fragments of a lost world, an epitaph to childhood6, at the precise point where the poet is forced to choose between going “forward” and eastward or going “westward only / To the prudish cliffs” (Part II, l. 10–1). Placed at a crossroads between two worlds the persona of the poem faces an impossible choice between two homes: the lyrical concluding “I” of Part I—“I give you here unending / In idleness an innocent beginning” (l. 37–8)—and the 3rd person of the father in Part II embodying England—“But he for whom steel and running water / Were roads, went westward only” (l. 8–9). The opposition between 1st and 3rd person materialises the irrecoverable gap between the spiritual Eastern world adopted by Durrell and the industrial world—the one-dimensional world of the Empire builder, the land they called home, England which will never be home and never can be.

14Going from Asia to Europe, this word travel is organised into 16 sections that both structure the poem as a running narrative and divide it into isolated “congeries of symbols” (Durrell 1952, 90) which can be taken as separate wholes and yet all flow together “Down the stone stairs into the rivers” (Part VI, l. 7) of life, leading the reader from India to England, Paris, Budapest, Corfu, Athens, Alexandria and Beirut where the poem was written. In this way, Durrell’s journey combines the natural flow of time with the stasis of reflection and doubt. Consequently, the poem truly acquires the shape and depth of a moving map, offering the reader a territory of disjointed wholes to be travelled through and explored.

15Thus the reader finds himself in the same position as the poet, torn between movement and paralysis, between the desire to follow the path of discovery and the need to stop and try and understand the meaning of silence in the “cell by the margin of the sea and land” (Part XVI, l. 8). This double bind creates a form of extreme alienation that takes the shape of a dismantled syntax in the last stanza of Part IV, ironically illustrating the collapse of the “thinking lobe” (l. 10):

All these he confined in metaphors,
She sleeping in his awkward mind
Taught of the pace of women or birds
Through the leafy body of man
Enduring like the mammoth, like speech
From the dry clicking of the great apes
To these hot moments in a reference of stars
Beauty and death, how sex became
A lesser sort of speech, and the members doors. (Part IV, l. 18–26)

16Interestingly, the communion between the lovers is a subconscious one, prefaced by the poet’s “metaphors” that attempt to circumscribe Tessa’s message. But it is a message confided unawares, “sleeping”, and that reaches the reader obliquely (one of the first meanings of “awkward”), sending him back to one of Durrell’s recent poems, “At Corinth”, written in 1940: “Men, Women, and the nightingales / Are forms of Spring” (Durrell 1980, 87). Thus harmony is recovered by indirect means: through intertextual echoes conjuring up a world in which man is at one with the vegetal and the animal. However, this harmonious whole is jeopardised by the instability of the syntax. Are we to understand that the sentence is to be construed with an elliptic verb?

Taught of the pace of women or birds [. . .]
[Taught] To these hot moments in a reference of stars, Beauty and death,
[Taught] how sex became / A lesser sort of speech, and the members doors.

17Unless there was no ellipsis, but simply a paratactic juxtaposition of clauses drifting together as past images do in dreams and acting as symbolic stepping stones towards a unified self. Meaning then is no longer the fruit of an intellectual construct but of a sensory experience, as Durrell himself suggests in one of his last notebooks dating from 1990, the year of his death: “VERTRETUNG: Meaning in poetry is inherent & not explicit, is divulged by word-stress through associations, confers an aesthetic experience like an electric shock”.

18We find another syntactic puzzle in Part VIII where “Time” is referred to as a feminine, confusing the reader who unwillingly associates “her swift degrees” (l. 3) with “the sad perfect wife” two lines later. In the following stanza the same possessive adjective in the feminine form successively refers to Penelope (l. 8–9), and to Nancy, Durrell’s first wife (l. 10). Lastly, “her” also refers to Greece in the third stanza (l. 15).

19Thus, the feminine and feminised elements are reunited in their slow process, drifting away from the poet’s hold so that Durrell’s experience of elsewhere is inevitably linked to that of the primal loss and loneliness which spurs him to adopt elsewhere as home. This feeling of dispossession is paradoxically materialised in the dematerialisation of the promised sculpture in Part VIII, stanza 4: “Like an element in sculpture:” (l. 21) the colons preface a sculpture which seems to dissolve before the reader’s eyes, leaving him with the only elements that precisely escape sculpture but rather suggest a painting—“red aerial cherries” (l. 22), “grapes painted green” (l. 23), “the beating crimson hearts of the grenades” (l. 26). The recurrent colons announcing a reality that slips through one’s hands like sand heralds the disappearance of the poet’s art: “beyond the cupidity of verses / Or the lechery of images to tell” (l. 27–8).

20Thus, the reader is invited to witness the metamorphosis of “the gnome” (IV, l. 3) become “faun” (VIII, l. 44), the child become man. The poet’s metamorphosis is in keeping with that of the landscape enacted through the play on recurrent verbal forms in Part VIII that weave a symbolic pattern of correspondences:

So Time, the lovely and mysterious
With promises and blessings moves
Through her swift degrees
[. . .]
Greece moved in calm memorial
Through her own unruffled blue
[. . .]
Differences that matched like cloth
Between the darkness and the inner light,
Moved on the undivided breath of blue.
Formed moving, trees asserted here
Nothing but simple comparisons to
The artist’s endearing eye.
[. . .]
Much later, moving in a dark,
Snow-lit landscape softly
In her small frock walked his daughter (Part VIII, l. 1–3; l. 14–5; l. 30–5; l. 45–7)

21One may note here how the verb “move” appears at key moments in Part VIII (the opening, central and final stanzas), linking up the core elements of the text (temporal, spatial and human bonds) that progressively escape the poet’s hold. The “unruffled blue” of the sensual Greek sky and sea merging together in an ephemeral embrace, and the “undivided breath of blue” endowing the landscape with its own spirit pave the way for the apparition of his daughter’s “small frock” flying in the wind, as much out of reach, as the ideal landscape. She looms in the distance of an unreal “Snow-lit landscape” as the projection of Durrell’s own childhood in the snows of the Himalayas, so that the poet does not seem to be moving through a mere landscape as much as through a fleeting, evanescent space-time, which he describes in his travel book on Rhodes as: “isolated moments existing in a peculiar dense medium of their own which was like time but not of it. Each moment to itself entire, populating a whole continuum of feeling” (Durrell 1953, 123). This continuum does not pertain to any realistic temporality but to a purely poetic one, as defined by the critic George Steiner: “Comme la musique, elle [la littérature] évolue dans des coordonnées temporelles qui, d'une manière tangible, mais difficiles à définir, lui sont propres. [. . .] D'où, je crois, la quête profonde et obsessionnelle que poursuit le poète: la littérature est une forme de langage qui, à un certain degré, sort du temps ordinaire.” (Steiner 194) In other words, the poem creates its own map on which elsewhere is no longer represented by Durrell’s colonial childhood or exotic dreams but becomes a sensual, imaginary and poetic elsewhere. This new elsewhere is then to be read as the poet’s only reality, opening up a new space where the poet ultimately belongs.

22Syntactic, semantic and emotional uncertainty create an open territory for exploration and introspection, losing the reader in a maze of possible meanings and giving a new significance to the maimed epigraph from the Admiralty Pilot “All bearings are true”, in the margin of Part V. What is missing in the quotation is precisely the point of reference: “All bearings are true to North”. This anchorage is the ever absent point of origin which is questioned throughout Durrell’s writing and which Jacques Hassoun calls “the primeval scene of writing”—an insistent yet intangible refraction inscribed in the poet's inner eye.

23This instability is further enhanced by the poet’s abrupt return to a more descriptive style in Part V where he perplexes the reader further by mingling genres, centuries, languages and styles: Valéry, Gide, Rabelais, W.W. Jacob, Defoe and D. H. Lawrence conjure up a highly eclectic and hardly congruent literary picture. This time, the all too facile syntactic and prosodic structure is counterbalanced by a puzzling criss-crossing of literary references. Parallel to the flow of time, a chain of writers and a chain of women participate in the unfolding of a text fraught with “little mirrors” reflecting not only light but also the work of “other selves, / In books” that compose the writer’s own “flesh and noise” (Part X, l. 14).

24Not unlike Gregory Death, the narrator of The Black Book, who warns his reader that “Books should be built of one’s tissue or not at all [. . .] [so as] not to record experience but to record oneself” (Durrell 1938, 121), Durrell attempts to recapture the multiplicity of his “worlds” through a poetic palimpsest, a literary elsewhere.

25“Cities, Pains and People” can indeed be read as the rewriting of the romantic tradition and one is prone to hear the echoes of Keats in Durell’s ode to Autumn (Part VI) or in the “quotation of nightingales” (Part I, l. 14). However, the literary echoes do not just tie Durrell to a web of canonical texts, they also shape out the very matter of the poem, i.e. the subject himself. The palimpsest is not just a literary game for at the heart of the intertextual correspondences lies the question of the construction of the idealised self, of the poet’s artistic identity. The text, haunted by the “mutinous crew of furies” (Part X, l. 12), eventually releases “the naked sprite” (Part X, l. 13) of a double-voiced young man reminiscent both of Dostoevsky and Rimbaud.

26Estranged from himself, the persona of “Cities” recalls that of Rimbaud’s words in his letter to Paul Demeny, “‘Je est un Autre’” (Rimbaud 345), which is also the title of one of Durrell’s poems opening on the figure of “the man who makes notes, / The observer in the tall black hat, / Face hidden in the brim: / In three European cities / He has watched me watching him” (Durrell, 1980, 106). This constant shift backward and forward through past texts dramatises the poet’s split self, torn between identification and alienation, between “Ego, my dear, and id” (Part XIV, l. 14). The poet’s disjointed self strives to achieve completion through art as is evinced in Miller’s quotation on Rimbaud in the margin of Part II. Yet, this struggle to achieve an artistic whole is permanently undermined by the dual split of the self. This is further exemplified by Parts X and XI devoted to the Autumn of love, the realisation that companionship should end, maybe as much for the poet as for “the possessed / Fedör and Anna” whose “sad worn ring” (Part X, l. 27) echoes the “sad perfect wife” (Part VIII, l. 5). Hence, after the loss of all hope, Durrell, identifying with the tragic figure of Dostoevsky, prophesies that “Arts has limits and life limits” (Part XI, l. 15), promising his reader not “death by water” (Eliot 64) but “Death by compromise” (Part XI, l. 22).

  • 7 “In my beginning is my end”, Part I, “In my end is my beginning” (Part V, Eliot, 196–204).

27At this point the reader recognises the deeper layer surfacing throughout the whole poem and sending him back to Durrell’s poetic mentor, T.S. Eliot. At this point it seems that Durrell comes back home as it were by indirect means, by reverberating the prism of another displaced writer at an angle to the world, who chose to live and write not in the country of his birth, but in England where he found his own elsewhere and forged new images of the representation of time which Durrell grafted into his own text. Just as a child moving his finger across a map, the reader then recognises the commutative nature of space: elsewhere can be home and vice-versa. Seen in that light, the poetic palimpsest becomes the very proof of the changeability of the notions of inside and outside since the presence of Eliot’s poetry can both be considered as a warrant of the inscription of Durrell’s opus in the English literary canon and as an instance of otherness. Significantly, the pervasive allusion to T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets7 gives the reader an unstable literary landmark, signalling the circular movement of time and echoing the opening lines from “Burnt Norton”, quoted at length in Durrell’s essay devoted to T. S. Eliot in his Key to Modern Poetry published in 1952:

Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future
And time future contained in time past
If all time is eternally present
All time is unredeemable.
What might have been is an abstraction
Remaining a perpetual possibility
Only in a world of speculation. (Eliot in Durrell 1952,156)

In the last stanza of the penultimate part of “Cities” Durrell gives Eliot a rather pessimistic answer when he writes:

There is nothing to hope for, my Brother.
We’ve tried hoping for a future in the past.
Nothing came out of that past
But the reflected distortion and some
Enduring, and understanding, and some brave. (Part XV, l. 18–22)

28The introductory lines to the poem—“Once in idleness was my beginning”—is a double reference to “East Coker”, which starts with the opening line “In my beginning is my end” before concluding, nine pages later, “In my end is my beginning”. The whole architecture of “Cities,” appears to be built as an answer to “East Coker”. Thus, Durrell’s description of how “Faces may settle sadly / each into its private death / [. . .] Like the fat congealing on a plate” (Part V, l. 1–2; l. 4) clearly echoes Eliot’s description of the crowd in the underground: “And you see behind every face the mental emptiness deepen / Leaving only the growing terror of nothing to think about” (Eliot, 200). Similarly, Eliot’s question “What is the late November doing / With the disturbance of spring” (Eliot 198) seems to find a temporary, enigmatic answer in “Cities”: “Now November visiting with rain / Surprises and humbles with its taste of elsewhere” (VI, l. 1–2). Likewise, Eliot’s cry “O dark dark dark. They all go into the dark, / The vacant interstellar spaces, the vacant into the vacant” (Eliot 199) finds a displaced echo in the recurring burden of Part XII of “Cities”: “Now darkness comes to Europe” (Part XII, l. 1), “Dark Spirit, sum of all / That has remained unloved” (Part XII, l. 40–1), “Darkness, who contain / The source of all this corporal music” (Part XII, l. 50–1).

29Both Eliot and Durrell appear to dread and simultaneously desire darkness, endowing it with an ambivalent power. In “Cities” the arrival of darkness clearly corresponds to the oncoming war (“Barbarians with secretaries move”, Part XII, l. 6); in “East Coker”, Eliot laments the darkness of suburban, industrial and political power: “And we all go with them, into the silent funeral” (Eliot 200). However, darkness is also for Durrell the “Source of all manufacture and repair” (Part XII, l. 43), while Eliot calls for it: “I said to my soul, be still, and let the dark come upon you” (Eliot 200). It appears then, that beyond the mere textual and thematic echoes, both texts obey the law of paradox explicitly mentioned in “Cities”, Part III (l. 5–8):

Truth within the tribal wells,
Innocent inviting creature
Does not rise to human spells
But by paradox

30Interrupting the linear progression of his narrative to introduce the fixed form of the quatrain that plays on interlocked trochaic and iambic rhythms, cross-rhymes, couplet-rhymes and eye rhymes, and that stands out against the free verse of the preceding parts, Durrell surprises the reader both by the sudden formality of his verse and by its instability. He introduces the figure of Prospero as he will later introduce “The old yellow Emperor” in Part XIII in an equally surprising arrangement of three quatrains, to offer the reader an allegory of wisdom. In both cases, wisdom is equated with renunciation, dispossession—“When his love was fully grown / He laid his magic down” (Part III, l. 3–4)—thus illustrating the rule laid by Eliot:

In order to arrive at what you do not know
You must go by a way which is the way of ignorance.
In order to possess what you do not possess
You must go by the way of dispossession.
In order to arrive at what you are not
You must go through the way in which you are not.
And what you do not know is the only thing you know
And what you own is what you do not own
And where you are is where you are not. (Eliot 201)

31Significantly, Durrell chooses this very passage to comment upon in Key to Modern British Poetry, quoting the critic Hugh Gordon Porteus who wrote: “What would be more paradoxical than a poetic denial of poetry itself? Certainly it lends colour to the general notion that Mr. Eliot is emigrating from literature to the territory of the mystics” (Durrell 1952,159–60). The same is true of Durrell’s poetry, where the influence of Lao Tzu can be felt. This desire to shift from the world of Western culture to that of the Eastern world and philosophy will develop, thus closing the circle of the passing of time and, at the end, bringing us back to the beginning.

32The recurrent image of the wheel in Part I exemplifies the importance of the circular structure of life and of the poem which starts and ends with Prospero alone in his cell. The movement of the wheel, static on its axis, yet revolving around it and initiating a spiralling motion which opens up a new dimension, suggests a very specific kind of wisdom that can only be glimpsed at through a willing displacement, a deliberate uprooting, and metaphorises the common ground shared by Eliot and Durrell: that of “dispossession” and renunciation, two necessary paradoxical conditions to approach the state of wisdom. It is then no wonder that the momentum of the wheel should lead to the paralysis of the will: “[. . .] knowledge has end, / And virtue at the last an end / [. . .] / Art has limits and life limits / Within the nerves that support them” (Part XI, l. 1–2; l. 15–6). Renouncing his intellectual and perceptive faculties, the poet shares with us his visions “As in aquariums gloomy / On the negative’s dark screen” (Part XI, l. 5–6). “The negative’s dark screen” acts as a counterpoint to the “world of little mirrors in the light” (Part I, l. 6): instead of showing the outer, luminous landscape of the Himalayas, the poet plunges his reader into the “dark field of sensibility”.

33Durrell’s relation to the classical tradition which he felt excluded from and yet adopted as his own is equally paradoxical as is evinced in the poet’s perception of the European canon: “Yet, here was a window / Into the great-sick room, Europe, / With its dull set-books, / The Cartesian imperatives, Dante and Homer” (Part II, l. 27–30). Recalling the classical perspective of the window as well as the familiar figures of Bede, St Augustine and Jerome, Durrell also hints at the tradition of portrait painting only to debunk it, for the outer world seen through the window of the past only shows a non-world: “But not a world as yet. Not a world” (Part II, l. 43) At odds with the ideal world of innocence where “Sex was small, / Death was small” (Part I, l. 28–9), “the great sick-room” is characterised by the obscene predominance of desire and death: “Death like autumn falls” (Part II, l. 44). By contrast, Part III is to be read as another form of elsewhere, providing the reader with the space for meditation and understanding that is missing in the mundane world. By choosing Prospero as the embodiment of worldly renunciation and wisdom, Durrell forces the reader to reassess the Shakespearean figure in the light of Eastern philosophy, thus placing him in the position of the outsider. Like Prospero who “laid his magic down”, Durrell welcomes failure as a new form of progress, as the dawn of a new awakening which is anchored in a precise place but which is not bounded by space, as is evinced in the plural form—“Here worlds were confirmed in him”—contrasting with the singular of Part II (“Not a world”, l. 43).

34When reading “Cities” we come to understand that poetry is another form of journey, with its own specific motion, taking us through the texts haunting Durrell’s work, through his many “worlds”. The poet then truly becomes a host to the others' voices that permeate his texts and spur the reader on a never-ending journey, as George Steiner aptly suggests: “Ce n'est pas le doute ou l'extravagance spécifique qui compte, mais l'idée centrale de l'écrivain considéré comme un hôte, comme un être humain dont le métier est de demeurer vulnérable à de multiples présences étranges, qui doit garder ouvertes à tous les vents les portes de son logis du moment.” (Steiner 48)

35The contradictory movement shaping the argument of the poem, from Western to Eastern representation, provides the reader with a textual space that is no longer a reliable location but becomes a shifting territory where the distinctions between inside and outside no longer apply, where geographic as well as symbolic and cultural displacement is the rule. From the “Barbarians” (Part XII, l. 6) to “old Cavafy” (Part XII, l. 7) and “to the yellow emperor” (Part XII, l. 12), Durrell creates a text-world “where the signs confuse” (Part XII, l. 21), summoning a “personal world” (Part XII, l. 11), which corresponds to a geographic, poetic and metaphysical wandering and, as such, can only be apprehended as a perpetual elsewhere, an unchartered territory never travelled through: what he calls his “heraldic universe” and which is subsumed here under the image of China. This is why the emergence of “The old yellow Emperor” (Part XIII, l. 1) coincides with an I-/eye-land, a mental space where distance and time are abolished: “Our Here and Now become your Everywhere” (XII 170). Hence, poetry opens to the reader the land of spiritual rebirth and unity which takes the unexpected form of the yellow Emperor’s decrepit body:

His palace fell to ruins
But his heart was in repair.
Veins like imperfect plumbing
On his flesh described a leaf.
His palms were mapped with cunning
Like geodesies of grief.
His soul became a vapour
And his limbs became a stake (Part XIII, l. 3–10)

36This humorous poem within the poem, ironically playing with the conventional form of the cross-rhymed quatrain only to evince an apparent disrespect, symbolically represents the Emperor in terms of landscape, thus enacting the body’s return to the One, to the life-giving principle, and clearly defining the poet’s land as that of spiritual awakening. Not surprisingly, the emergence of the old emperor heralds the emphatic address to “All cities plains and people” in the following part. Oddly enough, this first line opening Part XIV seems to promise a new Jerusalem in the sky which eventually fails to materialise for cities in this poem are only named to be destroyed, while plains and people vanish in the distant past.

37At the very end of Durrell’s poetic journey, some thirty years later, the reader is left with the big river of “sorrows / Which winds to forts of calm where dust rebukes / The vagaries of minds in silent poses. / I have been washed up here or there, / A somewhere soon becoming an empty everywhere. / My memory of memories goes far astray, / Was it today, or was it yesterday?” (“Last Heard Of”, Durrell 1980, 320) Writing these lines in 1971, Durrell explicitly conceives time in terms of space and, in so doing, shows us that the representation of space functions as the metaphor for the irrecoverable past. It is then no wonder that the poet should only be able to write from afar about bygone experiences—which seems to suggest that creation is ontologically linked with the transcendental relationship to the lost country, as Shmuel Trigano explains:

Ce dont on se trouve dessaisi avec le plus de force dans l’exil, c’est l’espace. La dimension tellurique naturelle de notre identité se révèle dans l’exil [. . .] Collines et plaines, méandres et cours d’eau [. . .] tapissent notre être et forgent notre sensibilité la plus secrète. [. . .] L’exil “déracine” le moi, dans le sens où il l’arrache à la terre à laquelle il tient de toutes ses fibres biologiques. [. . .] en prenant de la distance d’avec son paysage natif, la terre lui apparaît comme une réalité distincte mais cette découverte ne se fera plus que dans le souvenir. L’expérience est étonnante : cette terre aura encore plus de présence en lui lorsqu’il l’aura perdue et qu’il se la remémorera. [. . .] C’est ainsi dans la mémoire—et donc dans le temps—que la terre continuera à l’habiter. Elle sera devenue une réalité intérieure et non plus externe, surplombée par le moi ainsi libéré par les effluves du souvenir, générateur d’une conscience revigorée. (Trigano 19–20)

38Asserting “The big rivers are through with me / [. . .] Like Nile or Seine, or black Brahmaputra / Where I was born and never went back again” (Durrell 1980, 320), Durrell keeps on writing of the long sad river of his life in a swirl of images like inklings, trying to recapture the innocence of youth. Words are inadequate, yet the space opened up by the writing of poetry creates a fabric of interwoven flashes of memory mingling rhythms and sounds, replacing the sensual impressions of childhood.

39Despite the poet’s professed hopelessness, despite the “heap of broken images” (Eliot 63) that haunt him—“Bombers bursting like pods” (Part XV, l. 1), the dilapidated cities of Athens and Bremen, “A mass of rotten vegetables” (Part XV, l. 10)—the poet transfigures this disquieting waste land into Prospero’s island which welcomes us in the last section of the poem with its “lime-green, odourless / And pathless island waters / Crossing and uncrossing [. . .] (Part XVI l. 2–4). Prospero, the idealised poetic persona, the distorted reflection of Eliot’s old Tiresias, symbolically lies at the heart of an “evergreen / Cell by the margin of the sea and land” (XVI, l. 7–8). Inhabiting the world of creation, he is a borderline spirit, a dual creature, belonging both to the amorphous, protective waters and to “The rocky island” (Part VIII, l. 6). In his recumbent, sleepy figure in sunlight holding “the Apple in his hand” (Part XVI, l. 12), the reader recognises the beginning of a new world, “once in idleness” (Part I, l. 1).

40Embodying the paradigmatic representation of the creator standing at an angle to the world, the figure of Prospero opens the text to the outer world and the community of artists (Blake, Dante, Homer, E Dickinson, Keats, Wordsworth) and to the readers who also take part in the BildungsGedicht. “So here at last we did outgrow ourselves” (Part II, l. 63), Durrell concludes at the end of Part II, hinting at a literary rebirth which he will make explicit twenty years later in an interview for the BBC: “One is growing with one’s books” (Ingersoll 55). Prospero is the unifying icon, ensuring the continuity both of the chronological unfolding of the poet’s narrative and of its symbolic structure. Thus, the flat surface of the text acquires the depth of a densely layered cell stacked with memories in which boundaries seem to be erased. As “language [becomes] one’s passport” (Ingersoll 55)—in the poet’s own words—here and there, before and after are no longer meaningful.

41Hovering between proximity and distance, exiled writers often steeped in their extraterritoriality forge their art with what they have “shored against [their] ruins” (Eliot 79). Creating new bearings, Durrell seems to have translated Eliot’s verse “Home is where one starts from” into his own artistic reality: “home is where one writes from”. Estranged both from his idealised metaphorical motherland and his paternal ancestors’ birthplace, he is forced into a personal landscape where he keeps looking for a territory he could call his own. With home being always elsewhere, literature becomes his only country.

42Significantly, Durrell’s beginning was in estrangement. Shortly before dying in Sommières, where he had chosen to live since the 1950s, he recalls his arrival in England in the 1920s and writes in one of his last notebooks dating from 1988:

England # India outstares you
I loved England. I came to it like the young man in Balzac “avec son optimisme départemental” ready to live. But I found with dismay that England could not love—it could only bleakly condescend. What a come down. I felt out of place, an Elgin marble [. . .]
I promised my Maker not to pout when he told me he was sending me to an English Public School. I've kept my word. I've been all smiles.

43Recapturing the past from a geographic and temporal distance, Durrell remembers his feelings and the urge not to betray the given word, the need to pass himself off as what he feels he is not: a child of Britain. This estrangement from an assumed self finds its linguistic translation in the bilingual quote where he compares his feelings to those of a French provincial character arriving in Paris for the first time and feeling totally alienated.

44This displacement contaminates language and clearly marks Durrell as one of those displaced writers studied by G. Steiner: “linguistiquement ‘délogé’, un poète [. . .] qui ne soit pas parfaitement à l’aise dans la langue de sa production, mais déplacé, hésitant, à la frontière.” (Steiner 16).

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Alexandre-Garner, Corinne, “Black Snow in Winter. The Lawrence Durrell connection”, Anaïs Nin: Literary Perspectives, S. Nalbantian ed., London: Macmillan 1997, 236–254.

Alexandre-Garner, Corinne, “Exiled from Exile”, Deus Loci, The Lawrence Durrell Quartely, Baltimore, 2003, 44–57.

Alexandre-Garner, Corinne, “L’écriture de la neige dans les premiers textes de Lawrence Durrell : essai de généalogie d’une écriture”, Bulletin de la Société de Stylistique Anglaise n°26, Paris X—Nanterre, 2005, 173–191.

Durrell, Lawrence, Collected Poems 1931–1974 (1980), London: Faber, 1985.

Durrell, Lawrence, The Black Book (1938), London: Faber, 1977.

Durrell, Lawrence, Reflections on a Marine Venus: a companion to the landscape of Rhodes, London: Faber, 1953.

Durrell, Lawrence, Key to Modern British Poetry, London: Peter Nevill, 1952.

Durrell, Lawrence, Lawrence Durrell: Conversations, edited by Earl G. Ingersoll, London: Associated University Presses, 1998.

Eliot, T. S., Collected Poems 1909–1962, London: Faber, 1963.

MacNiven, Ian, Lawrence Durrell: A Biography, London: Faber, 1998.

Massingham, Hugh & Pauline, The Englishman Abroad, London: Phoenix House, 1962.

Pine, Richard, Lawrence Durrell: The Mindscape, New York: St Martin’s, 1994.

Rimbaud, Arthur, « A Paul Demeny », lettre du 15 mai 1871, in Rimbaud, Œuvres, Paris: Garnier Frères, 1960, 345.

Steiner, George, Extraterritorialité, essai sur la littérature et la révolution du langage, Paris: Hachette, 2002.

Trigano, Shmuel, Le Temps de l’exil, Paris: Payot et Rivages, 2001.

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1 Personal Landscape was the name of the poetry magazine which published Durrell, Fedden, Spender and Liddl.

2 We borrow this expression from R. Pine’s study, Lawrence Durrell: The Mindscape.

3 It is worth noting that Lawrence Durrell initially intended to discard these marginal notes in the final edition of the poem in Collected Poems 1931–1974, arguing that “he wished to distance his work from the personal contexts in which it had been written.” Eventually, his editor, James A. Brigham, convinced him to keep them. (MacNiven 632).

4 This was the small dead end street in the 14th borough of Paris where Miller lived with Alfred Perlès, Betty Ryan, Michael Fraenkel, where Anaïs Nin visited regularly and where the Miller circle would revel before the war.

5 In the text “From the Elephant’s Back” and in his first novel Pied Piper of Lovers we’re made to understand that the ayah is the true mother figure and that she’s linked to all the positive childhood memories and sensations which the poet equates with India.

6 We cannot fail but think here of T.S. Eliot’s lines: “Every phrase and every sentence is an end and a beginning. / Every poem an epitaph” (Four Quartets, “Little Gidding,” V 221).

7 “In my beginning is my end”, Part I, “In my end is my beginning” (Part V, Eliot, 196–204).

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Corinne Alexandre-Garner et Isabelle Keller-Privat, « When Elsewhere is Home: Mapping Literature as Home in Lawrence Durrell’s “Cities, Plains and People” »Études britanniques contemporaines, 37 | 2009, 69-86.

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Corinne Alexandre-Garner et Isabelle Keller-Privat, « When Elsewhere is Home: Mapping Literature as Home in Lawrence Durrell’s “Cities, Plains and People” »Études britanniques contemporaines [En ligne], 37 | 2009, mis en ligne le 01 juin 2017, consulté le 25 juin 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Corinne Alexandre-Garner

CREA/CREE, Université Paris X-Nanterre.
Corinne Alexandre-Garner, Maître de conférences, est directrice du Centre de Recherches Espaces/Ecritures et responsable de la bibliothèque Durrell à l’Université de Paris 10. Elle est l’auteur de Le Quatuor d’Alexandrie, fragmentation et écriture (Peter Lang : 1985). Plus récemment, elle a mis sur pied, grâce à l’aide et à la traduction de Barbara Papastavrou-Korionotakis, une coédition franco-grecque de la correspondance de Théodore Stéphanidès avec Lawrence Durrell et elle a dirigé la publication d’Hommage à Jacques Lacarrière, Durrell et Lacarrière : rencontre au bord du Styx et de Frontières, marges et confins aux Presses Universitaires de Paris X en 2008.

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Isabelle Keller-Privat

CREA/CREE, Université de Toulouse, UTM.
Isabelle Keller-Privat, lauréate 2000 de l’International Lawrence Durrell Prize for New Scholarship, a soutenu une thèse de troisième cycle sur l’anamorphose dans l’œuvre romanesque de Lawrence Durrell en 2002. Elle est actuellement Maître de conférences au département d’anglais de l’université de Toulouse le Mirail où elle enseigne la littérature anglaise et la traduction.

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