Robert Conquest, Penultimata

120 pp, ISBN: 978-1-904130-36-9, £8.99 (paperback only),  
UK Publication, June 4th 2009

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A note about Penultimata

"In the history of modern poetry, Conquest occupies a permanent place." So wrote the Nobel Prize winning poet, Czeslaw Milosz, and in Penultimata, his seventh collection of poems, we see further evidence of Conquest's remarkable poetic talent, a talent that stresses the art's relationship to the phenomenal universe – in particular to landscape, women, art, and war. His entirely individual poetic voice, varying from achieved lyrical sound and structure to other well-rendered forms and finish, gives us disturbing fictions, emotive landscapes, vivid erotica, off-beat humour, historical sufferings – and even odd demons, planets and philosophies.


A note on Robert Conquest

Robert Conquest was born in Malvern, Worcestershire, in 1917, to an American father and his English wife. Educated at Winchester College, the University of Grenoble, and Magdalen College, Oxford, he took his B.A. and (later) M.A. degrees in politics, philosophy, and economics, and his D. Litt. in Soviet history.   

In Lisbon on an American passport at the outbreak of the Second World War, he returned to England to serve in the Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry, and in 1944 was sent from Italy on Balkan military missions awkwardly attached to the Soviet Third Ukrainian Front – and later the Allied Control Commission in Bulgaria. From 1946 to 1956, he worked in the British Foreign Service – first in Sofia, then in London, and in the U.K. Delegation to the United Nations – after which he varied periods of freelance writing with academic appointments.

Conquest’s poems were published in various periodicals from 1937. In 1945 the PEN Brazil Prize for a war poem was awarded to his “For the Death of a Poet” – about an army friend, the poet Drummond Allison, killed in Italy (published in The Book of the PEN 1950) – and in 1951 he received a Festival of Britain verse prize. Since then he has brought out six volumes of poetry previous to Penultimata, and one of literary criticism (The Abomination of Moab). He has published a verse translation of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s epic Prussian Nights (1977), and two novels, A World of Difference (1955), and (with Kingsley Amis) The Egyptologists (1965). In 1955 and 1963 Conquest edited the influential New Lines anthologies, and in 1962-1963 he was literary editor of the London Spectator.

He is the author of twenty-one books on Soviet history, political philosophy, and international affairs, the most recent being The Dragons of Expectation (2004). His classic, The Great Terror, has appeared in most European languages, as well as in Japanese, Arabic, Hebrew and Turkish.

In 1959-60 he was Visiting Poet and Lecturer in English at the University of Buffalo, and has also held research appointments at
the London School of Economics, the Columbia University Russian Institute, the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, the Heritage Foundation, and Harvard University’s Ukrainian Research Institute.

In 1990 he presented Granada Television’s Red Empire, a seven-part documentary on the Soviet Union which was broadcast in the UK, the USA, and in various other countries, including Australia and Russia.

Conquest is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, the British Academy, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and the British Interplanetary Society, and is also a member of the Society for the Promotion of Roman Studies (contributing to Britannia an article on the Roman Place Names of Scotland). His honours and awards include the Order of the British Empire and Companion of the Order of St. Michael and St. George; the Jefferson Lectureship (1993); the American Academy of Arts and Letters’ Michael Braude Award for Light Verse (1997); the Richard Weaver Award for Scholarly Letters (1999); the Fondazione Liberal Career Award (2004); and the Presidential Medal of Freedom (2005).

He and his wife Elizabeth live in California, where he has long worked as a research fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution.


Praise for Penultimata

“Robert Conquest’s sparkling light verse has always tended to distract attention from the seriousness that was in his poetry from the beginning, but in this collection the depth is unmistakeable. In a poem about St Petersburg, the city comes back from the historical disaster which he did so much to analyse and combat. In poems about love, the subversive, lyrical proof that desire goes on into old age is alive in every cadence and perception. As ever, he makes many a younger writer look short of energy.” – Clive James

“‘What’s left of love and beauty just survives,’ according to one of these poems. Really the whole of Penultimata is about what’s left of love and beauty, after a long life and 3,000 or more years of western civilization: to be recovered in memory, in a Roman figurine, in sharp sensuous delight, or in speculation on the nature of the universe. To poetry folk, Robert Conquest is a legend for having helped promote the talents of, among others, Philip Larkin and Thom Gunn, and in the wider world he is revered for having published the murderous realities of Stalinism. Here a hunger for truth-telling and the virtues of his own poetry are all in evidence. Those virtues – precision, wit, craftsmanship – only seem old-fashioned to those who believe poetry can do without them. For others, this book will be a continual reminder of times when poetry was turned to in the sure and certain hope of pleasure and instruction.” – Alan Jenkins

“In his tenth decade, Robert Conquest retains all his characteristic virtues. The poems in Penultimata are smart, funny, tough-minded, generous, and utterly individual.” – Zachary Leader



Praise for the poetry of Robert Conquest

"To pay tribute to an exceptionally worthy man is to realize once more that there is no equality in the republic of arts and letters ... Robert Conquest, though he is the author of several scholarly books, is a poet, and I wish him much free time to pursue his true vocation....In the history of modern poetry, Conquest occupies a permanent place." – Czeslaw Milosz, National Review

"... in addition to imperishable works of modern history...he has been one of our most distinguished poets (and critics of poetry)." – Christopher Hitchens, TLS, February 15, 2006

"A strong and individual voice talking about things that matter ... hard energetic movement ... lucidity and power." – Thom Gunn, Spectator

"Of Conquest's many moods and modes, two seem foremost here: a sometimes unabashedly erotic love poetry and a well-tuned way with light verse ... Conquest writes with great subtlety and often with great tenderness. – David Yezzi, New Criterion

"Characterized by an emotional generosity and nobility of style ... He is one of the few who can write about love without either gushing or sniggering." – D.J. Enright, The Month

*... a poet of distinction ... honourable, courageous and deeply civilised. – George Walden, Sunday Telegraph

"The measured confident richness of a poet who knows his own full power, resource and sincerity." – John Holloway, Hudson Review

"Conquest's poetry is marked by intellectual clarity, technical skill, the assertion of traditional values, and a strongly romantic sensibility, all of which lend firmness and coherence to his most accomplished work. His poetry, which yields a keen, civilized pleasure, bears witness to the values and traditions in which he believes." – Contemporary Poets

"... his verse and prose alike display the virtues of scholarship, intelligence, and lucidity, proclaiming a belief in the value of rational discourse, formal strength, and the power of reason to check and guide the emotions by which we live." – John Press, Dictionary of Literary Biography



Reviews of Penultimata


Hudson Review, LXIII:2, Summer 2010

"Many poets are born old but achieve a youthful spirit – later in life, regardless of their subjects. So it is affirming and delightful to find Robert Conquest publishing vigorous poems in his tenth decade ... He excels at comic verse, but Penultimata bears a much broader range of subjects and strategies than such a descriptor implies. "The Idea of Virginia" is that rarest of creations in our time, an elegant verse essay. And Conquest's outrage at terrorism, wheteher perpetrated by criminal governments or maddened individuals, appears in several poems here, including "At the Rebirth of St Petersburg," "Whenever" and "Demons Don't," a poem reminding me of Auden's ogre. Invoking that name along with Larkin's might suggest that I am over-praising Conquest's contributions to modern poetry. It does not seem that he has left us a poem as grand as "The Shield of Achilles" or "The Whitsun Weddings," to name two examples. If his achievement is more modest than those two masters, he still deserves an honored place in anthologies representing recent British poetry. What Conquest offers is a civilized voice, alternatively irreverent and grave, praising the life of the body, the individual over the collective ... These are poems by a man of the world who has seen and studied much and has apparently lived with gusto. It is good to be in his company." – David Mason



TLS, 25 June 2010

"This is a warming, engaging book ... Now in his ninety-third year, one of the four or five most influential anthologists of the twentieth century and one of the first unmaskers of Stalinism shows that his grip on the present and his love of poetry are both unabated." – Lachlan Mackinnon



Yale Review, 98:2, Spring 2010

"Not only a comic poet of genius but also a love poet of considerable force ... [Conquest's] indelible limericks are the best of the past hundred years ... [A] poet producing some of his finest poems in late career ... [He] makes Hardy look like a whippersnapper." – David Yezzi


Poetry Review, 100:1, Spring 2010

"The elegance and liveliness of Robert Conquest's poetry skims depths suggested by his lovely quotation from De Musset, 'si triste et profonde'. The poems flow in cadences which draw an intricate net of echoes and names into their wake ... Conquest has an equally fine ear for speech. 'Perfect's a word you mustn't use,' / She said.' The poems in Penultrimata depend on perfect poise ... These vigorous poems have an exquisite colour sense: St Petersburg's light is 'ermine, almond'. They linger wittily over longing: 'There'll be no naiads in that rill / So let's forget about them. (Still ...)' ... Conquest was born in 1917 and the lightness and sharpness of this writing remain exemplary to all of us who are under ninety. With its long drawn-out falls and quickfire wit, it is a restorative music." – Alison Brackenbury


Booklist, December 1st 2009

"Perhaps wistfully and certainly hopefully entitled, this is the sixth collection by a poet now in his ninety-third year. Conquest is much better known as a historian of the Soviet Union, intent on exposing its internal crimes; his Great Terror ... on Stalin's purges, is a classic. As classic, or classical, is his poetry. Its themes – love, history, manners – are those of the great Greeks and Romans; so, too, is its wit, warmth, and the ultimate humility of recognizing that anyone's life fades and dies, while human nature endures. Love, especially eros, is the concern of the volume's first part; history and, again, love, with some politics and physiology, of the second part. Although poems in the others are often funny, always light-footed, the third part consists of deliberately humorous verse that frequently touches upon ... love. Without losing any wit, the poems of the last part are generally more reflective than those of the others. And do they, like the others, scan, rhyme, require one's shar attention – and reward it? Most graciously. – Ray Olson


Quadrant, October 2009

"Penultimata comes already garlanded with praise from Clive James (well worth having), Alan Jenkins, the estimable Poetry Editor of the Times Literary Supplement, and Professor Zachary Leader, who wrote the authorised biography of Kingsley Amis. And now Mr Conquest can add me ...

Here, in “serious” mode, is the last of a set of triplets about a sunset called 'Last Hours'. You cannot write better than this, nor more seriously.

Dead in the water, the day is done
There’s nothing new under the sun,
Still less when it’s gone down.

Is it the journalist in him makes Conquest so good at grabbing your attention?...

Her fucking fool of a father
Was waiting when we got home.

... Often the verse has all the qualities of good prose, which may sound odd praise, but I might say the same of Samuel Johnson. There is always solid sense in Conquest, surely something we don't want to be short of." – John Whitworth


Daily Telegraph, August 4th, 2009

"Although none of the poems is given a date, many are clearly the work of old age. It has often been pointed out that there are very few good novels written by old people. The urge to create new human characters fades; the grip on the details of the world loosens; the sheer energy required is lacking.

But this is much less of a problem with poetry. On the contrary, the ability to look back can add depth and poignancy to a situation, particularly a youthful belief, or hope, or love. Thomas Hardy, most of whose best verse was written in old age, was the gloomy master of this – the feelings that 'shake my feeble frame at eve, with throbbings of noontide'.

Bob Conquest had quite a few throbbings in his noontide. Before settling down happily with his present wife nearly 30 years ago, he had three others, including one married in, and another met during, the war.

Some of his best poems in this book are about early love, and I would say that they owe a good deal to Hardy. They take much of their drama from the sea and the moon, and the linking of the two, and they even use a very Hardy-esque word, 'demi-lune'.

'Only Natural' is a poem that begins in the light of the moon on a cliff-top, as the young man approaches the house of his new girlfriend's parents, for a farewell dinner. They – and she with them – are taking a new posting abroad. 'In this early hour / Of the second night which should have been / Theirs', he prefigures the loss of something he has barely gained.

A poem called 'The Last Day (Embarkation Leave)' is about spending the title's last day with his girl in a cove:

Salt-scent; thyme-tang; transsensual skies.

And it's not that the outspread scene
Is no more than props for their stage, the sun
Its arc-lamp. But it amplifies.

And what it amplifies is a paradox of love: 'An appeasable yearning / For what we already have'.

One of Hardy's most famous poems is called 'Afterwards', about what people will say about him after he is gone. One of Conquest's best in this collection has the same title, but the subtitle, 'recollected in tranquillity', refers to Wordsworth. Poetry, wrote Wordsworth, took its origin from 'emotion recollected in tranquillity'.

Conquest's poem takes issue with the idea. How can violent emotions be accurately recollected that way?

A passion, sharp and hot,
Might once have seized the heart
To rip or scald.
So far as this can be
Recalled in tranquillity
It's not recalled.

And yet the chief note of most of this verse is of tranquil recollection, an old man amused and touched, more than agonised, by what has happened to him.

It is good that Conquest writes fine poetry, that he is part of the free civilisation that his history has done so much to defend." – Charles Moore


To read the whole of Charles Moore's review, please click on the link below:

Charles Moore, "Tranquil Reflections on a Passionate Past"


From Penultimata



“It’s such a pity that we don’t have
Anything like a photograph
Of her about whom the ancients rave ...”

He’d been talking about the well-known tale
Of her lawyer at her blasphemy trial
Baring her breasts to gain an acquittal.

Now, it wasn’t the ‘beauty’ of what they saw
That made the judges unloop the law,
But what’s been described as ‘sacred awe’.

Would visual be better than verbal, though,
Projected into the long-ago
Till we think we know what we’ll never know?

Fragments, copies, museums still hold
Of statues she modeled, or so we’re told
(Though not the Delphi one in gold).

Well, at Thespiae how did they feel as
Praxiteles, daring celestial malice,
Set up together, on equal pillars

Statues of her and of Aphrodite.
A girl and a Goddess damn-near Almighty
With a temper not to be taken lightly?

He could only pre-empt their sacred fear
With what could unarguably appear
As spillover from another sphere

On to physique made partly free
From the pressures of externality
Which is all that the subtlest lens can see.

(And Marilyns, Sophias, the very cream
Of our time, aren’t sewn without a seam
Directly into the fabric of dream.)

But she’s gone! Long gone! Gone to the grave
And left us, instead of a photograph,
The residual glow of an ancient grief.




In Suspense

Mist-murked, a swollen moon protrudes
Out of the West, and brings to mind
– Gibbous, askew – the bare behind
Of one of Stanley Spencer’s nudes.

Suet-hued, lax limbs outspread,
Eyes glazed, as if they didn’t know
They were being watched: indeed as though
Caught in the dark on infrared.

A dead fly on the canvas web,
Some old cave’s supine stalagmite ...
Even this gold-starved, furtive light
Plumbs the pulsed ocean’s flow and ebb.

His concepts hardly seem to mesh
Into our more reactive space
– Not just an inexpressive face
But even inexpressive flesh!

Clearly no sex or shock was meant
With genitalia on display
Like organs on a butcher’s tray
Quite untransgressive in intent.

With tissue samples cut from time
He sought a fixed, unspurious pose
As truthful as the tightest prose
– Velásquez more like rose-blurred rhyme ...

Moonset: that unorganic sphere
Rolls on; and where we live and breathe
Likewise the sensual spectra seethe
Swept down the irreversible year.




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