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Andrew Young: Priest, poet and naturalist — a reassessment, by Richard Ormrod

05 March 2021

Martyn Halsall remains uncertain about Andrew Young and his legacy

ANDREW YOUNG (1885-1971) has become the poet laureate of obscurity. Acclaimed by Philip Larkin, elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, friend of Norman Nicholson and Christopher Fry, he is now largely forgotten. Richard Ormrod’s “reassessment” is, therefore, a plea for the literary resurrection of a complicated Christian.

Distant son and cold father, he studied in Edinburgh before serving as a priest in the Presbyterian and Anglican Churches. Volatile, self-obsessed, at home with fellow writers, but distant from parishioners, he sounds a pastoral disaster. A woman friend “wept buckets” when he died while also remembering “a terrible man”. One parishioner, embarrassed or frustrated by Young’s silence during a visit, gave him a book to read. Afterwards, the priest walked home.

Such walks, particularly through his adopted Sussex countryside, fuelled his poetry. An acute observer of the natural world, Young has had a reputation primarily as a “nature poet”. Only later in his writing life did he unite his priestly and poetic vocations.

P. J. Kavanagh, in 1985, claimed: “In his subject-matter . . . he [Young] made no change at all in 50 years.”

Young displayed fluent industry. Ormerod lists 19 poetry collections, the last produced in 1998 by the intellectual Manchester publisher Carcanet. Young also wrote four plays and seven prose works, including two acclaimed studies of the wild flowers that were his lifetime’s fascination. He consciously changed direction, from exploring “nature” in his earlier work to analysing the nature of God in two late collections in the 1950s. Equally, he divided critics.

Young’s friend and editor Leonard Clark acclaimed “signs of genius” in Young’s work. The poet Roy Fuller praised Young’s “phenomenally accurate observation of nature”, and heard echoes of “Hardyesque stoicism” in the religious works Into Hades and A Traveller in Time, which “rather improve on reacquaintance”. Reference to Hardy is pertinent; for Young’s poetic references were primarily historical. He disliked “modernists”. Recognised as a unique voice, he revered rather pastoral writers such as John Clare and Edward Thomas, though Ormerod detects echoes of modernism’s high priest, T. S. Eliot.

The poet and critic Geoffrey Grigson felt that Young “is not a great poet [but] he is one who used language honestly and without vanity”. Norman Nicholson, reviewing Young’s The Poetical Works in 1985 in the Church Times, found that the poems were “obviously very good — concise, unforced, fresh, witty”.

Ormrod, whose critical assessment is only the third such study of Young, and the first to be published in Britain, notes: “Outside universities Andrew seems largely forgotten.” Our current focus on the global ecological crisis and its potential alliance with the spiritual ought to encourage new attention to Young’s work. But whether Andrew Young was the “great” poet that Ormrod champions remains a matter for the jury.

Dr Martyn Halsall is a former Poet-in-Residence at Carlisle Cathedral.


Andrew Young: Priest, poet and naturalist — a reassessment
Richard Ormrod
Lutterworth Press £22.50

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