Archive for November 5th, 2016

Robert Conquest’s sensual muse: remembering the legendary poet and historian in the TLS

Saturday, November 5th, 2016
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At work in his Stanford home. (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

I’m at the Times Literary Supplement this week, writing about the historian and poet Robert Conquestand his lifelong balance between Clio and Euterpe:

An excerpt:

Until a few days before his death last year at the age of ninety-eight, Robert Conquest was busy finishing his memoir, completing a poem or two, and sending off a steady stream of letters to a wide international circle of friends. As always, his serenely successful life was divided between poetry and prose. Most of the obituaries concentrated on his groundbreaking work as a historian: The Great Terror (1968), Harvest of Sorrow (1986) and other books had exposed the genocidal horrors of Stalin’s regime and earned Conquest the disapprobation of left-wing intellectuals and the admiration of, among others, Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher.

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With Poland’s Radosław Sikorski in 2009.

But he was also a poet of note; not just for the light verse and bawdy limericks with which he entertained fellow guests at social gatherings (a selection of these, A Garden of Erses, was published in 2010 as the work of “Jeff Chaucer”), but for serious verse that is lyrical, sensual and exactingly observed. …

He wrote about the joys of the flesh even as he wrote, at other times, about the worst atrocities of the twentieth century. For decades after the publication of The Great Terror, Russians would tell Conquest that they had just learned how their loved ones had perished under torture, or by forced starvation, or by being worked to death in Arctic camps. Perhaps his poems were his clearest protest in an age where, as he wrote, “Shiva walks on and on / Down Coventry Street”, of the governments he saw as “the organization of absence of love”. His response to history’s monsters was not only to reveal their horrors; he answered them with his own love poetry, erotic poetry, and even limericks, which asserted an earthy humanity of their own.

Read the whole thing here