ithell colquhoun magician born of nature
All texts copyright Richard Shillitoe


prose poems The majority of Colquhoun’s prose poems date from the early 1940s, although some are slightly earlier. Some are based on dreams. They occupy a continuum from pieces that retain the form and syntax of prose and which may almost be thought of as very brief short stories, to those at the other extreme which use the heightened imagery and language more associated with poetry. Elsewhere I have referred to Colquhoun’s identification with Huysmans character Des Esseintes and the importance of the prose poem as a literary format. A more immediate influence may have been the prose poems composed by the authors associated with Mass Observation. Nowhere in her writings or surviving correspondence does Colquhoun mention Mass Observation, so the evidence of its influence is entirely stylistic. However, she must surely have been familiar with Mass Observation, especially as some of its leading lights – Humphrey Jennings and David Gascoyne in particular – had close ties with the English surrealists. The prose poems of Charles Madge, another of the originators of Mass Observation, collected in his volume The Disappearing Castle (1937, Faber & Faber, London) are obvious comparators for Colquhoun’s short prose texts and share many characteristics. Mass Observation was concerned with social research. Incorporating ideas drawn from anthropology and psychology, it was a point at which science and surrealism, the rational and the poetic, the individual and the collective converged. Using methodologies of observation and self-report, it attempted to extract significance from slices of everyday life. In his prose poems, Madge used the precise and objective language of a dispassionate observer to describes scenes that are entirely fanciful. The dissonance between what is being described and the way in which it is described is highly disquieting. Colquhoun achieves much the same effect in Everything found on Land is found in the Sea, an extract from Goose of Hermogenes that Colquhoun published separately in 1939. In this text, Colquhoun derides the impersonal language of science before, ironically, presenting as ‘experiments’ – the essential scientific paradigm - three pieces of apparently objective geological and botanical observation but which are utterly fantastic. Other typical examples would include Nature Note (1943) and the unpublished Socio-pathological Vignettes (c. 1943). In Nature Note Colquhoun describes the flight of aeroplanes in terms that a naturalist might use to describe the flight of butterflies and other insects. In Migrants, one of the Socio-pathological Vignettes, she describes the uniforms and behaviour of soldiers among civilians as an ornithologist might use to describe the plumage and behaviour of visiting birds. (The fieldfare is a thrush that winters in the UK.): Here conservative nature retains many survivals long after their usage has lapsed; each detail has its history, as, were the knowledge of evolution more accurate, each spot on the fieldfare’s breast. One notices a strap crossing the sternum, shoulder-tabs or arched pocket-flaps, innumerable buttons, that now, far from being useful, often increase danger at aesthetic expense. The migrants belong to several main colour-groups — navy blue, light navy, grey-blue, khaki, navy with red facings. Khaki and grey-blue predominate on the land highways. Some individuals are heavily burdened and well-armed; some not at all, though nearly everyone carries a sack. Most display on shoulder or lapel an image of their cult-object or totem animal — an exploding grenade, an un-exploded bomb, a lion, a pig, a dog, wings — others, enigmatic slivers of colour or geometric patches. There are several indigenous varieties of each main colour group; and then, far fewer but more noticeable, those overseas stragglers whom some unquiet wind has brought to these shores. (1) notes 1. The typescript in in the Tate archive at TGA 929/2/1/52/33.
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