John Moat (b. 1936, India) was best known as a co-founder of the Arvon Foundation, and not as the prodigiously gifted poet, novelist and painter, who lived in a romantic fastness near the north Devon coast for half a century, far removed from the literary establishment. Let us start with the poet’s photograph, a grainy, out-of-focus snap of a handsome young man and a beautiful woman with a dazzling white dove on her shoulder. It has a curiously Victorian air, like a theatrically staged tableau by Julia Margaret Cameron, evocative of a world both timeless and lost. Here are the poet and his wife and muse, Antoinette, captured in a moment of tenderness with the dove adding that incongruous element of the painterly, the baroque. The image moves us with its teasing intimacies and brief intensity, a picture of time and place charged with the inescapable heartache of memory. So it is with much of John Moat’s poetry, in which he records the subtle rhythms of domestic life with its endless variations on romantic love, nestled there at the woodland’s edge in a mystical seclusion, with unmediated access to a natural world central to the English poetic tradition.

Moat thought of himself as a journeyman, a writer and artist who earned a crust and learned his craft, and this links him to an important strand of social history stretching far back into Mediaeval Europe, a pageant of apprentices and master craftsmen and, of course, mastersingers; indeed, the musical qualities of his verse are as distinctive and memorable as their harmonic and melodic equivalents in the compositions of Gerald Finzi and George Butterworth. His relation to the world is as the singer to his song in which the music elevates the lyric, and the luminous clothes the tangible natural world. He is a poet of feeling, notating infinitesimal shifts of emphasis, stress, sounds and silence. He hears footfall and birdsong; he is a poet of place, like Clare before him. ‘Christmas Eve celebrates a late garden blackbird and ends in a spoken ‘Amen’ to heart-stopping effect, an unforgettable moment. The closing of ‘Stages of Solar Eclipse’ is a magical scene of the devoted couple’s bedroom at dawn, painstakingly painted with that sureness of touch gifted only to the finest lyric poets. He could also mesh meter and rhyme into beautifully wrought tales whose brief narratives tell of youth and age, happiness and sorrow, birth and death, simple folksong themes expressed in melancholy cadences with occasionally feint yet telling echoes of Housman.

Moat also saw the poet as an alchemist, and in other poems he reveals himself to be the sorcerer’s apprentice. The idea of secret knowledge is at the heart of the poet’s art, and this may be found in the hidden leafy dingle of childhood haunts, or in the arcane mysteries of symbolic archetypes with exotic names and heroic destinies, moving in the shadowy world of speculative thought and ancient myths and legends. Moat’s playful nods to Donne and Keats reveal his debt to the Metaphysical and Romantic poets, and his amorous voice is both earthy and chivalric; but perhaps his autobiographical urge owes most to Wordsworth’s Prelude, a favourite poem which records the genesis of that poet’s character, psychology and imagination in vivid recollections of intense experience, during which boyish ache and confusion give way to the tingling heights of epiphany. This is why Moat returned to the landscape of his own childhood after a short exile, a Devon of oak woods, rivers and meadows where he first found freedom, discovering not only his secret inner life but also his unusual gift for making experiences memorable, resonant, visionary even, and lasting.

Yet though he was captivated by nature’s sublime his easy wit and lightness of touch recreate the divine he finds in the commonplace, and in those poems a singular immediacy is as powerful as his loftier tones elsewhere. It is Moat’s versatility, his ever-changing imaginative responses, his technical brilliance that make him such an accomplished and important poet. Too much critical analysis would be otiose, especially for a poet as observant and eloquent as Moat, and there are manifold rewards in all his work which flow from his intuitive sense of ‘the still, sad music of humanity’ and the consolations of love and nature, of art and imagination. Here is a poet, a painter, an essayist and curmudgeonly columnist, a fine figure of a man, still there in his garden hut within earshot of the sea, solitary, meditative and joyful. Listen to him read these poems in that hushed and unrushed way of his, seductively confidential and enchanting, as he sets a scene which so envelops the listener that all sense of reality yields to the poet’s irresistible spell.

This recording was made for The Poetry Archive by Michael Fairfax at the poet's home in Devon.

Poems by John Moat

Books by John Moat