Peter Yates: "The Explorers"

Border of the Mud Desert near Desolation Camp, 1861. Painting by Ludwig Becker

[Image source: . State Library of Victoria, ID H16486.]

post by Michael Peverett

In the locale of  Peter Yates' “The Explorers” the hands on the clock don’t move, but the compass needle does.

Explorers moving through the vivid lands
Of moveless time: inebriated urge
Towards the dreamed Americas, the end
Where last magnetic rays of sunlight bend
Till vertical and horizontal merge
In final contact, touch of ungloved hands.

The axis in the mind projecting hope,
The folded mountains and the cobalt sea
Emerge; shadows of sunlight on the rock
Seduce the senses, wind the moveless clock,
Give birth to wishes, fears; the will to be
Immortal, and the twitching fingers grope.

The compass moves, glint of the Phoenix eye;
November and the melancholy wind,
Snow on the marbles tombs: elastic flesh
Expands, consumes; fakes with its fuse a flash –
The image, vivid, flickers in the mind,
The vibrant, beautiful, exciting lie.

These are the first three of twenty-nine stanzas. The stanza-form is, by Yates’ standards, simple; six five-stress lines rhyming abccba. There are only a few internal rhymes (tombs, consumes). There are harsh chatters of prolonged alliteration, like a burst of machine-gun fire. The “iambic” flow is a constant in all his poems. Each of these stanzas gathers a sense of purpose towards the middle, when the rhymes are closer together and we feel we’re “getting somewhere”, and then loses it, reaching its firm full stop with a feeling of dissatisfaction. The form makes each stanza seem self-contained and isolated from its fellows.  

Progression is by noun-phrases. Nouns are preceded by the definite article, though this is somewhat disguised by elision of particles (for example, in the first stanza we assume “the inebriated urge”, “the last magnetic rays”, “the touch of ungloved hands”). Nevertheless, the appears 155 times in “The Explorers”, and a/an just six times. What’s going on here? When we read “the vivid lands” our faces are held down, coerced by the poet’s imagination. But when we read (as above, in the third stanza) “a flash”, a familiar context is implied: we are referred to the world outside the poem in which we have seen other flashes; this is but one of them. Yates makes very sparing use of that context in his early poems. You might like to know that the next time we run across a, it is “a stifled cry”, and the next time “a shriek”. These three faint animal interjections are pitifully crushed by the engine of the poem.

“Snow on the marbles tombs” may be a misprint, but don’t be too sure; tombs may be a verb. Verbs have a tendency to seem like nouns in this moveless operation. Several stanzas (like the first) manage without any direct verb. But one verb – “move” – is insistent.

Again the compass moves; the visions pass
and burn like spectral fevers in the eye.
The thunder speaks, the fatal axis moves,
Recedes, slips off its safe and formal grooves
To where gigantic mirrors multiply
Only the total being of their glass.

O wanderers, betrayed by swamp and slime,
Receding from alacrity of youth
To move in lonely circuits of the brain
Down pensive passages, propelled by pain
In search of moments motionless with truth,
Adrift, lost in the wilderness of time.

Explorers moving through imagined space
Led by equator’s never ending line
In search of pyramids and plangent curves;
Creating new sensation with the nerves;
New instruments to heat the blood’s decline;
New formulas to hide the ego’s face.

Explorers sinking in bewildered blood
I watch you through my lenses, see you move
In search of final islands, and that place
Where lost and rigid parallels embrace
With kiss and crackle of electric love
The separate polarities of good.

Insensate time: clock without face or hands,
Revolting torso with the abstract eye
Made hideous by hate, I see you move
In moveless moments in which secret groove
Towards what formula or frozen lie
Only the lucid madman understands.      

                                                            (Stanzas 7-11)

What, then, moves? The explorers, the compass, the mind’s eye; the poet’s mind and the reader’s eye. 

They move through a dense thicket of repetitions, deterring progress. The poem does the opposite of providing a mimesis of journeying; it provides, instead, a non-progressing obstacle. There is nothing to drink; it is the explorer’s own need that inebriates.

But voyagers on gleaming parallels
Still reach towards the image in the mind... 

(Stanza 16)

“Gleaming” gives us a sense of relief. Like the “kiss and crackle of electric love”, it falsely suggests something drinkable, and also something speedy – the gleam, as it were, shoots ahead of the voyagers. But this is deceptive relief under a burning sun. Consider that arresting phrase in Stanza 2, “shadows of sunlight”.

“The Explorers” continues Yates’ long quarrel with thought, and is a toxic mindscape. Nothing is fixed there (we have already seen the November wind), and much else comes within its compass; including, with some reticence, war-time Britain.

            And in the towns, where death becomes an art...             (St 21)

But Yates keeps his focus on the tangle of the self:

Where being is itself the subtle crime                             (St 25)

His own mind, no doubt one of the hungry explorers too, snags on non-progressive images of futility:

And speedboats with no destination move
Tracing their foaming circles of false love                       (St 28)

So much for speed. Through much transmutation, Yates’ poems remain fixed on their object, and this idea is still lurking forty years later in the slow barge of the memorial to his wife:

Metaphor burns me with the edge of dreams.
Love holds in need, by net of names
The intricate and simple, grief and joy,
Green water rippled by a swan.

A hand, a shape, a scarf of hair -
Pure drunkenness of open air!
I follow where the dead have gone
The hidden path once printed with your name.

You wander in the dark
Beyond the comfort of my arms!

Through scalding tears of reverie
I watch the lion sun with blazing mane
Creep from his cloud, and slowly pace
The secret meadow where we used to lie –
He draws across your flickering lake
The Yew tree’s shadow like a sombre barge.

(In Memoriam E.Y.)


[Peter Yates was born in 1911. I hope it is fair to consider him (though such considerings always involve a falsifying diminution) as a poet of the forties. At any rate, his first two collections were published by Chatto in 1942 and 1943, and gained some attention. In many ways they will seem to be characteristic of the era (in Britain); “The Explorers” is from this period. One further collection appeared in 1951; he also published two verse plays, which were staged. Petal and Thorn, a low-key selection of old and new poems published by Peter Ward, appeared in 1983, and that’s what I’ve been reading. This is all I know about his career as a writer, but the inescapable impression is that he was talked about in the early forties as someone with “promise”, a “poet to watch” in the words of Stephen Spender. And then time went by and, gradually, he wasn’t. The blurbs carry less authority. If Graham Greene is only quoted as saying (of The Assassin) “in his minor characters and prose scenes Mr Yates shows himself a dramatist of great promise”, then one is bound to guess that Greene had serious reservations about the verse part of the play. The modest later poems were I imagine written for Yates himself.

There is a brief comment on his work on p. 192 of A. Trevor Tolley’s The Poetry of the Forties (1985).


“Peter Yates (1914 - ) was born of British parents in India and educated at Sevenoaks School and London University. Before the Second World War he lived a wandering life in America, Sumatra, and …” (Ian Hamilton, The Oxford Companion to Twentieth-Century Poetry in English, 1996). Unfortunately, my library doesn’t have a subscription, so I can’t read the full article. This sounds like our poet, though the date of birth doesn’t quite match my information.

There are online references to a Peter Yates Selected Poems titled The Garden Prospect and published by Jargon (in Kentucky) in 1980.  I think this might be a different poet (born in 1909 according to one online page).

The relatively well-known British architect Peter Yates (1920-1982) is someone else. So is the British director Peter Yates (1929-2011) (Bullitt, The Saint).

And I think it’s another Peter Yates again, a Californian, who wrote articles and books about contemporary music (e.g Twentieth Century Music, 1967) and organized some important concert-series in LA. ]


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