Scientist into Poet: The Emergence of Peter Redgrove

by Neil Roberts

When Peter Redgrove was a young boy he was offered the choice of a ventriloquist's doll or a microscope as a Christmas present. He chose the latter. The first stirrings of his imagination were inspired by 'the world in the water-drop', and before long he had his own laboratory in his parents' suburban house.

Peter went to boarding school at Taunton where he was unhappy, but he excelled at science, and left school at the end of 1949 with Distinctions for Zoology and Chemistry in the Higher School Certificate, a State Scholarship and a College Scholarship to read Natural Sciences at Queens College Cambridge.

At this stage of his life he had no thoughts of being a poet. One of his teachers told him he should not be satisfied with a PhD but go for a DSc. However, before going to Cambridge there was an ordeal to be passed: National Service, which in those days lasted eighteen months. Peter had been fortunate to get accepted by the Royal Army Medical Corps, on the strength of his scientific aptitude, and no doubt he also hoped that it would be one of the more humane corners of the armed services.

Life in the army began with eight weeks of basic training: an organised programme of bullying and humiliation. From the very first day it was designed to shock the young men out of their civilian habits and assumptions, from the brutally short haircut to bundling up and sending home their civilian clothes—a practical measure to deter desertion, but also a powerful emotional symbol of passing out of their previous lives. They had to do everything 'at the double', orders were invariably shouted, recruits were sworn at and insulted for the slightest infringement, they had to complete tedious and often pointless tasks to almost impossible standards of perfection, most famously polishing their boots to a glassy surface. The reason for all this was not sadism or contempt for unwilling conscripts on the part of professional soldiers, though these might sometimes have been additional factors. The motive was deliberately and systematically to 'break the spirit' of the young men, to suppress their individuality and turn them into a functioning unit that would respond to commands instantly and unquestioningly.

Peter had spent four years at a boarding school already and throughout this period he had undergone military training in the cadet force. These were both experiences that usually fortified young men facing the ordeal of conscription. But for him they were no protection: within a week he was hospitalised after having suffered a breakdown. He was to fictionalise this experience in his 1973 novel; In the Country of the Skin:

[W]hen the minute violent lance-corporal screamed at them to dismiss one midday Jonas started tottering around the tarmac, saying, where am I? The corporal leaned into his eyes and said, if you're faking! But Jonas was frightened and valiant, he thought all he needed to do was to get to the doctor.

Later he claimed that he was indeed partly 'faking'—pretending to lose his memory—and that he was suffering from no more than anxiety, depression, obsessive compulsion and what he called 'the distortions of ingrown virginity'. But after three months he was diagnosed with 'incipient schizophrenia' and transferred to a civilian hospital where he was subjected to the standard treatment of the time, Deep Insulin Coma Therapy. Comas were induced in patients five or six days a week, and each coma might last up to fifteen minutes. In deep coma, patients entered a state in which they lost their muscle tension and corneal and pupillary reflexes. They were then administered glucose to bring them out of the life-threatening hypoglaemic state. Reactions to this extreme treatment included restlessness, major convulsions, and 'hypoglaemic aftershocks' which called for continuous nursing supervision and the constant availability of a doctor. About one percent of patients died from the treatment and more suffered permanent brain damage. It made most patients grossly obese. It was normal to continue the treatment until fifty to sixty comas had been induced. Insulin Coma Therapy was challenged by an article in The Lancet in 1953, and in 1957 a controlled randomised study showed that the recovery rate of the insulin patients was no different from that of the control group; after this the treatment was abandoned. Peter's alter ego Jonas has dreams that speak to him of the life-changing significance of his experience:

In one he was dead, truly dead, and dissolved into the soil. Later, when he began to write poetry, he didn't see why anything he had done in his life gave him the right to see things that were true in nature. Then he remembered that death had taken him to pieces, that he was conscious of being the mud and soil, that no mythological personages had greeted or punished him.

Although the full significance of the change took some time to emerge, this was the death of the scientist — at least the orthodox scientist — in Peter, and yet it was also the conception of the poet: these dreams were to be the source of the finest of his early poems 'Lazarus and the Sea'.

He was discharged from hospital in September, with warnings to his parents that he might never fully recover or 'be suited to ordinary industrial life'. They were to keep a close watch on him and, though he was now discharged from the army, there could be no question of his immediately going up to Cambridge. For the next year he took a job at a pharmaceutical laboratory.

There is no evidence that Peter had a girlfriend before this time. Certainly he was still a virgin. During the next year this was to change, with far-reaching consequences for his life, when he met Barbara Sherlock, an art student two years older than himself. She was the first artist Peter had ever met, and she opened up a new world to him, which was a revelation. Their first lovemaking is a foundational event in Redgrove's story of his formation as a poet. After he and Barbara had made love 'a great peace' and 'a silence' came into his head, and into that peace and silence came his first poem. It was 'a call to vocation' which inaugurated his life as a poet and also, in retrospect, the great theme of his poetry: 'a coming together of bodily happenings and mental happenings in a way I had never known before'. This was another death blow to the young scientist: as he was to say later, 'Hormones ceased to interest me as I fell in love. To be a good scientist I would have had to hold the two kinds of knowledge apart, and I could not.' By the time Peter went up to Cambridge in October 1951, he and Barbara were engaged.

Redgrove's own account of his Cambridge career is that he had no interest in his official scientific studies and spent his time instead writing poetry and attending lectures in the English faculty. However, during his first year he seems to have applied himself to his studies in an orthodox way. He passed his end-of-year exam in the Second class. The first sign of his decisive turn from science to poetry is a remarkable flurry of book purchases in the summer and autumn of that year. In July and August he bought Eliot's Collected Poems , Four Quartets , Murder in the Cathedral and The Family Reunion (with the sole exception of The Cocktail Party , this is Eliot's complete poetic and dramatic works up to 1952). Eliot was the presiding genius of Cambridge English at the time, as both poet and critic, but it would be an unusual English student who obtained all of these books at the end of his first year. Peter purchased them on different days, and one can trace here the growth of a passion, the young man devouring one volume and rushing out to buy another. During the same period he bought The Oxford Book of Mystical Verse , evidence that he may have felt a spiritual affinity with Eliot as well as poetic admiration. Barbara's parents lived at Selsey, a strange, isolated peninsula on the Sussex coast, and Redgrove later remembered reading Four Quartets there:

Eliot was the first poet who made me feel I might write something like poetry. I remember reading 4 Quartets lying on a bed at Selsey, where my first wife had taken me to meet her parent—I often stayed there and it was a mystical place—the height of the sky, the sands, the beaches of pebble and their sounds. I was seeing correspondences between the small circular seashore umbellifers arranged in their circles, with Dante's Celestial Rose, and this mediated by the restless sight and sound of the place .... Eliot seemed luminous and clear with his pool filled with water out of sunlight, the movement of darkness upon darkness, the white light still and moving. I have the copy of Four Quartets by me, marked with Langland-like stresses... and when I bought the book marked on the flyleaf 22-7-52. All came together in a place like Four Quartets 'Now the light falls/Across the open field' and the seashore chapel far out among the fields and on the edge of the sea. It was one of the places where the scales dropped away, and 4 Quartets was its book.

He recounts another epiphanic experience in a Cambridge bookshop, looking for a scientific textbook, but preferring the smell, feel and look of the poetry books: 'anthologies that felt better between the fingers, contained more irregular and exciting structures of type, and whose ink smelt better'. He picked up the first volume of the Auden and Pearson anthology, Poets of the English Language , and read the first lines, Langland's 'In a somer seson when softe was the sonne.' His 'hair stood on end' and his 'skin felt sunny' inside his clothes. He 'bought the first volume (being short of money) and then could not resist the whole five'. He did indeed buy the Auden and Pearson anthology in October, when back in Cambridge for his second year, but his account of the naive young scientist lured to poetry books by their sensory appeal is a transparent piece of mythologising. This was a young man who had read the whole of Eliot, eager for more poetry. It is interesting, however, that Eliot leads him on to Langland. Throughout his career he espoused the alliterative metrical tradition, exemplified by Langland, and subtly transformed by Eliot in Four Quartets , against the more courtly iambic tradition inaugurated by Chaucer. (Note the 'Langland-like stresses' that he marked in his copy of Four Quartets ). Near the end of his life he incorporated a modernised version of lines from Langland in an elegy for the Cornish tin-mining industry, 'Elegy for Wheal Jane'.

Shortly after this, in November, Peter read an advertisement in the student newspaper, Varsity , inviting interested people to join a poetry reading group. This was to lead him to the second momentous meeting of his early years. The advertisement had been placed by a group of English students at Downing College—students of F.R. Leavis—who were dissatisfied with the quality of verse speaking at Cambridge. The leading spirit was Philip Hobsbaum, who was then in his first term.

Peter turned up at Hobsbaum's rooms with a friend from Queens, Rodney Banister who had taken a First in Part One English. In his own recollection he is greeted by 'a bearded man in a fine dark woollen double-breasted suit emerging with a cane polished like dark fire in his hand and an interested smile' and introduces himself diffidently: 'I'm just a scientist and I need something else. The chemists are so cold in Cambridge.' Hobsbaum welcomes him, saying a scientist is just what they need. Redgrove calls this meeting his 'salvation', and he makes it clear that the crucial factor was Hobsbaum's personal character. He could be prickly and dogmatic—he later had a long estrangement from Redgrove and an even longer one from another member of the Group, Alan Brownjohn—but Redgrove's memories are entirely of his intellectual generosity:

All the Cambridge people I had met so far were competitive, no more—adversarial, as though their minds were so small there was only room for conflict and refutation; scepticism it was not, it was a habit of incredulity: only room for one person, ego. Hobsbaum's mind was not thrown into disorder by the presence of another. It had room for all of us, and all that he had read too, which was everything in the canon. But for him it was fresh and curious all the time.

Despite his diffidence, Peter made a strong impression on Philip, who thought he 'bore a resemblance to Frankenstein's monster, only better dressed', with a 'well-bred voice' that was 'at variance with his threatening appearance.' One vivid anecdote by Hobsbaum suggests that Peter had already developed the humorous courtliness that was to be such a feature of his personal manner in later years: 'He said in comfortably middle-class tones, "Thank you, my foot is quite warm now", signalling that I had inadvertently placed my brief-case on his toes.' Somebody chose to read Henry King's 'Exequy' from Herbert Grierson's anthology Metaphysical Lyrics and Poems , and Peter said, 'You will find "The Exequy" on page 203.' 'Who was this person,' Philip wondered, 'who appeared to know the page numbers of every poem in the English language?' It was recently acquired knowledge: he had bought Grierson's anthology a few weeks earlier, on the 2nd of October.

Soon the group progressed to the discussion of new poetry and to 'the active production of creative work'. From the start, Hobsbaum instituted the key 'Group' practice of typing the poems for discussion and circulating them in advance. Redgrove was the dominant figure 'physically as well as intellectually ... already prolific as a writer and correspondingly earnest in discussion.' But for Peter it was Philip himself who was the guiding spirit in these discussions. He disliked the word 'genius', but he made an exception for Hobsbaum's qualities as a teacher: 'that genius as a teacher that welcomes people on their own terms'. 'He could see that people spoke better than they knew.'

Independently of the Hobsbaum group, Peter formed a friendship with another aspiring poet, Harry Guest. Between these two there was no mutual criticism: Harry was surprised by the critical atmosphere of the Group and would not himself have welcomed it. Meeting Peter in his second year at Cambridge, it was obvious to Harry that he was 'not just a temporary undergraduate poet' but 'dedicated for life'. He was deeply impressed by everything that Peter showed him. He also provides firsthand witness that by this stage Peter's attitude to science was completely negative; he was utterly contemptuous of the syllabus, and claimed never to attend a lecture or contact his tutor. Harry was reading Modern Languages and they recited French poetry as well as their own work into Peter's tape recorder.

By the spring of his second year, Peter was busy with Banister launching a new poetry magazine, Delta . There is no work of his own in the first issue, which Hobsbaum sniffily dismissed as doing 'little except follow the existing fashions in Cambridge'. This criticism mainly refers to Thom Gunn, the star of Cambridge poetry, who contributed two poems to Delta and was to publish his first collection, Fighting Terms , the following year.

However, the most intriguing figure among the contributors to the first Delta is L E, later Kamau, Brathwaite, who was later to become, with Derek Walcott, one of the two most celebrated Anglophone Caribbean poets and the champion of an African-centred conception of Caribbean cultural identity, expressed in what he called 'Nation Language'. Brathwaite had published in Frank Collymore's Caribbean magazine, Bim , in 1950, the year he went up to Cambridge, but felt 'culturally marooned' there and would have been surprised to be considered an example of 'the existing fashions' at the university. He contributed his important early poem, 'The Day the First Snow Fell', which he later said symbolised the 'pain & separation & Xile loneliness (my first Christmas away from home) ... & the Xpression of the stark (black/white) racial prejudice I was Xperiencing in ... literary Cambridge.' He called the poem a 'suicide note'. However, he considered that the 'one original' among the Cambridge poets of his time was 'my friend Peter Redgrove', who encouraged him to experiment with what he called 'a prose-style technique', helping him in his resistance to the formalism of what was soon to be called Movement poetry. His continued warmth of feeling towards his university friend is marked by the dedication to Redgrove of his poem 'Letter from Roma'. It is a sign of how rapidly Peter developed in accomplishment and authority during his years at university that a poet such as Brathwaite, two years older than himself—who was publishing before Peter began to write and from such a different cultural background—should have cited him as an early influence.

Peter persuaded his parents and the college authorities that he was suffering a recurrence of his earlier breakdown, and he was excused the examinations at the end of his second year. Any psychological difficulties he might have had, however, did not stop him from taking what must have been almost the perfect vacation job, as editorial clerk with the Times Literary Supplement . Here he met the distinguished poet Edmund Blunden, who accepted Peter's first published poem. The TLS did not publish poems every week, and when it did there were never more than two. Poets published in immediately preceding issues included such established names as John Betjeman, Roy Campbell, Robert Graves, James Kirkup and Vita Sackville-West. There were newcomers such as D. J. Enright and Adrienne Rich, but even they were far more advanced than Peter. For a twenty-one year old who had been writing poetry for little more than a year, this was a remarkable debut.

Redgrove himself later described his first publication as a 'very crypto-erotic' poem 'about a mermaid encountered in a coiling tube of sea at twilight.' From its precious Italian title, 'Notturno', to its inflated rhetoric—'the divine/ assault of the sea'—it is almost uniquely unrecognisable as a Redgrove poem. I would like to be able to say that Redgrove is a poet with no juvenilia, but perhaps 'Notturno' is the one example. Blunden is to be congratulated for seeing promise in it. It is, however, intriguing that in both his first two published poems Redgrove picks up motifs from what was then the first known poem of his great example, Eliot. Prufrock has 'heard the mermaids singing, each to each' but does not think that they will 'sing to me'. Redgrove feels no self-conscious inadequacy to the eroticism and creativity that the mermaids represent.

Prufrock is also in the background of Redgrove's much more impressive and important second published poem, 'Lazarus and the Sea', which appeared both in Delta and in Chequer (a magazine started by Harry Guest, Ronald Hayman, Karl Miller and Michael Bakewell), and in which he does not, like Prufrock, hesitate to say, 'I am Lazarus, come from the dead.' 'Lazarus and the Sea', which has its personal roots in his experience of Insulin Coma Therapy, stands out among his early poems as one that is completely in command of its idiom; personal experience has been completely absorbed into the poem's world. For the work of a twenty-one year old it has astonishing authority—an authority that Redgrove was not to achieve consistently for at least another ten years. Its biographical interest is not so much the light it casts on the experience itself; moreover, it is evidence that the experience, devastating as it was, played a significant part in making him a poet. It does not speak with the voice of a callow undergraduate, but with a deeper, more resonant, permanent and impersonal voice that is not heard again so strongly until poems such as 'The Case', which he wrote in the sixties. Paradoxically, although Peter met no 'mythological personages' in his death-like comas, he had earned the right to speak with the voice of the biblical character whose story he borrowed for the poem. It opens with the couplet:

The tide of my death came whispering like this
Soiling my body with its tireless voice.

This is the kind of opening that makes you sit up and read on in the hope that you are in the presence of an exceptional poet. The rhythm is underpinned by iambic pentameter, but one doesn't think of that, because it is so saturated by the pattern of sound—internal rhyme, assonance, repeated sibilant, the chiasmic reversal of the consonant pattern in the first phrase—which obviously evokes the sea, but also fuses it with the death for which it is a simile. (In fact, the sea is never named except in the title; it is dissolved into its attributes.) The poem inaugurates what might be called Redgrove's vision: a religious conception of human existence that embraces man's and woman's earthliness, indeed an erotically-charged embrace of the physical earth itself. (See later poems such as 'The Idea of Entropy at Maenporth Beach', 'Dance the Putrefact' and The Mudlark Poems .) Redgrove's Lazarus is haunted by the imagination of where his 'death' might have taken him if another power had not intervened:

                              The knotted roots
Would have entered my nostrils, and held me
By the armpits, woven a blanket for my cold body
Dead in the smell of wet earth, and raised me to the sky
For the sun in the slow dance of the seasons.
Many gods like me would be laid in the ground
Dissolve and be formed again in this pure night
Among the blessing of birds and the sifting water.

Lazarus imagines himself transformed into the Green Man of medieval iconography. In this version of the story, Jesus' intervention is an unwelcome judgement that 'tore me to life, uprooted me / Back to my old problems and to the family.' For once, in this line, the twentieth-century subject, steeped in psychoanalysis, shows through the persona. But this complaint also serves as a warning not to take the poem naively as disguised autobiography. There is no sense that the insulin comas were a paradise to which he wanted to return.

Peter published eight more poems in his last year at Cambridge, and left without taking a degree. It was not until almost the end of his time there that he made the most often-cited friendship of his student years, with Ted Hughes. This friendship is an important part of Redgrove's story, but not of his early formation as a poet. He himself, perhaps because of Hughes's later celebrity, called his friend the 'senior poet', with curious deference. But Hughes published only two poems, under pseudonyms, at the very end of his student years, and his friends didn't know until then that he wrote poetry.

It was, in fact, Redgrove who was the 'senior poet' when they met, which Hughes implicitly acknowledged when he later wrote to him, 'how important you've been to me. You've no idea how much—right from the first time we met.'


Kamau Brathwaite, Barbajan Poems (New York and Kingston: Savacou North, 1994).
Kamau Brathwaite, Golokwati (New York and Kingston: Savacou North, 2002).
Kamau Brathwaite, Other Exiles (London: Oxford University Press, 1975).
H. Bourne, 'The Insulin Myth', The Lancet, 1 (1957), 607-11.
Elaine Feinstein, Ted Hughes: The Life of a Poet (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 2001).
Philip Hobsbaum, 'The Group: An Experiment in Criticism', The Yearbook of English Studies, 17 (1987).
Philip Hobsbaum, 'The Redgrove Momentum', The Dark Horse, 15, (Summer 2003).
Philip Hobsbaum, 'Ted Hughes at Cambridge', The Dark Horse, 8, (Autumn 1999).
Tom Hickman, The Call-Up: A History of National Service (London: Headline, 2004).
Ted Hughes and Peter Redgrove Correspondence, Emory University, MSS 867, Box 1, F. 7.
Daniel Huws, 'Memories of Ted Hughes 1952—63', unpublished.
Kingsley Jones, 'Insulin Coma Therapy in Schizophrenia', Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, 92 (March 2000).
Letters from Peter Redgrove to Neil Roberts.
Peter Redgrove Archive, University of Sheffield.
Lisa J. Phillips and Patrick D, McGorry et al., 'Prepsychotic Phase of Schizophrenia and Related Disorders: Recent Progress and Future Opportunities' , British Journal of Psychiatry 187 (2005).
Peter Redgrove, 'Notturno', Times Literary Supplement (16 October 1953), 655.
Neil Roberts, interview with Harry Guest (22 August 2007).
Trevor Royle, National Service: the Best Years of Their Lives (London: André Deutsch, 2002).


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