Rosemary Tonks (17 October 1928 – 15 April 2014) was an English poet and author. After publishing two poetry collections, six novels, and pieces in numerous media outlets, she disappeared from the public eye after her conversion to Fundamentalist Christianity in the 1970s; little was known about her life past that point, until her death.
Early life and marriage
Rosemary Desmond Boswell Tonks was born 17 October 1928 in Gillingham, Kent, the only child of Gwendoline (née Verdi) and Desmond Tonks, a mechanical engineer. Desmond, who died of blackwater fever in Africa before Rosemary's birth, was the nephew of the surgeon and painter Henry Tonks, an official war artist on the Western Front during World War I and then professor of fine art at the Slade during the 1920s. Desmond's brother Myles was married to Gwendoline's sister Dorothy (the aunt who was later to provide Rosemary with refuge in Bournemouth, when Rosemary's life crisis had become unbearable alone). Tonks attended boarding school at Wentworth college in Bournemouth.
Rosemary published children's stories while a teenager. In 1949, she married Michael Lightband (a mechanical engineer, and later a financier), and the couple moved to Karachi, where she began to write poetry. Attacks of paratyphoid, contracted in Calcutta, and of polio, contracted in Karachi, forced a return to England. She lived in Paris in 1952-53, before returning to London where she settled with her husband in Hampstead. They later divorced and lived several doors from each other for some years.
Tonks worked for the BBC, writing stories and reviewing poetry for the BBC European Service. She published poems in collections and The Observer, the New Statesman, Transatlantic Review, London Magazine, Encounter, and Poetry Review, she read on the BBC's Third Programme. She also wrote "poetic novels".
Her work appears in many anthologies, including Anthology of Twentieth-Century British and Irish Poetry (ed. Keith Tuma), Oxford Book of Twentieth Century English Verse, British Poetry since 1945, and The Firebox: Poetry in Britain and Ireland after 1945 (ed. Sean O'Brien).
Tonks published two collections, Notes on Cafés and Bedrooms (Putnam, 1963) and Iliad of Broken Sentences (Bodley Head, 1967), and after both books went out of print following each publisher's decision to axe their poetry lists, she was discussing a selected edition of her work with John Moat and John Fairfax's Phoenix Press in Newbury from 1976 until 1980, when the project was abandoned following her conversion to a puritanical form of Christianity. Little was known publicly about her subsequent life past that point. As Andrew Motion wrote in 2004, she "Disappeared! What happened? Because I admire her poems, I've been trying to find out for years... no trace of her seems to survive – apart from the writing she left behind." In the 30-minute BBC Radio 4 Lost Voices documentary, "The Poet Who Vanished", broadcast 29 March 2009, Brian Patten observed, from the literary world's pespective, she'd "evaporated into air like the Cheshire cat"; Tonks had disappeared from public view and was living a hermetic existence, refusing telephone and personal calls from friends, family and the media.
Following her death in April 2014, Neil Astley published an obituary and then an article in the Guardian, followed by his introduction to the Bloodaxe collected edition of her poetry and selected prose, Bedouin of the London Evening, in which he revealed the background to her "disappearance", how she had "turned her back on the literary world after a series of personal tragedies and medical crises which made her question the value of literature and embark on a restless, self-torturing spiritual quest". Her mental and physical health deteriorated following an emergency operation on New Year's Day 1978 to save her eyesight which left her almost blind for the next few years, and in 1979 she moved to Bournemouth to recuperate. In 1980 she moved into a house behind the seafront where she lived alone for the next 33 years, using her former married name, Rosemary Lightband, as her chosen identity. In 1981 she made the decision to "confront her profession" and burned the manuscript of an unpublished novel. That October she travelled to Jerusalem and was baptised near the River Jordan on 17 October 1981, the day before her 53rd birthday. "Obliterating her former identity as the writer Rosemary Tonks, she dated her new life from that ‘second birth’," according to Astley, and thereafter she never read any books apart from the Bible.
Character of her poetry
Tonks' poems offer a stylised view of an urban literary subculture around 1960, full of hedonism and decadence. The poet seems to veer from the ennui of Charles Baudelaire to exuberant disbelief of modern civilisation. There are illicit love affairs in seedy hotels and scenes of café life across Europe and the Middle East; there are sage reflections on men who are shy with women. She often targets the pathetic pretensions of writers and intellectuals. Yet she is often buoyant and chatty, bemused rather than critical, even self-deprecating.
She believed poetry should look good on a printed page as well as sound good when read: "There is an excitement for the eye in a poem on the page which is completely different from the ear's reaction". Of her style, she said "I have developed a visionary modern lyric, and, for it, an idiom in which I can write lyrically, colloquially, and dramatically. My subject is city life—with its sofas, hotel corridors, cinemas, underworlds, cardboard suitcases, self-willed buses, banknotes, soapy bathrooms, newspaper-filled parks; and its anguish, its enraged excitement, its great lonely joys."
Her poem, "The Sofas, Fogs and Cinemas" ends:
- — All this sitting about in cafés to calm down
- Simply wears me out. And their idea of literature!
- The idiotic cut of the stanzas; the novels, full up, gross.
- I have lived it, and I know too much.
- My café nerves are breaking me
- With black, exhausting information.
Writing novels in a highly personal style that at times approached the tone of Evelyn Waugh in its cynical observations of urban living, Tonks as a novelist had a mixed critical reception at best, although her critics admit that her grasp of the English language and her sense of London are sharp at times. Her novels are a kind of fictional autobiography in which is she not only plays the leading role but one or two supporting roles as well. She includes incidents and experiences directly from her past, often with only a thin fictional veil to disguise them. Some critics felt this was a fault and labelled the autobiographical dimension of her writing "feminine" in a negative sense; others decided her directness was invigorating and showed the uniqueness of her voice, making for a lively, distinct fictional world. Whatever the verdict, Tonks’ novels deal with aspects of her life up to 1972, when her last work was published. Her fiction, in particular, moved from a dissatisfaction with urban living found in both her collections of poetry and in satiric novels such as The Bloater and Businessmen as Lovers to a pronounced loathing of middle to upper-middle class materialism in her later work. Her distaste for materialism meant that Tonks also developed an interest in the movement of symbolism that eventually led her to a conception of spirituality as the only alternative to materialism. This embrace of what she called "the invisible world" may have ultimately led her to distrust the act of writing itself, and caused her to abandon writing as a career.
Assessment of her work
Critics praised Tonks as a cosmopolitan poet of considerable innovation and originality. She has been described as one of the very few modern English poets who has genuinely tried to learn something from modern French poets such as Paul Éluard about symbolism and surrealism. Al Alvarez said Notes on Cafés and Bedrooms showed "an original sensibility in motion". Edward Lucie-Smith said "the movements of an individual awareness – often rather self-conscious in its singularity – supply the themes of most of her work." Daisy Goodwin commented on her poem, "Story of a Hotel Room", about infidelity: "This poem should be read by anyone about to embark on an affair thinking that it's just a fling. It is much harder than you know to separate sex from love."
- Notes on Cafés and Bedrooms (Putnam, 1963)
- Iliad of Broken Sentences (Bodley Head, 1967)
- Bedouin of the London Evening: Collected Poems (Bloodaxe Books, 2014)
- Opium Fogs (Putnam, 1963)
- Emir (Adam Books, 1963 or 1964)
- The Bloater (Bodley Head, 1968)
- Businessmen as Lovers (Bodley Head, 1969); US title, Love Among the Operators (1970)
- The Way Out of Berkeley Square (Bodley Head, 1970)
- The Halt during the Chase (Bodley Head, 1972)
- On Wooden Wings: The Adventures of Webster (John Murrray, 1948)
- Neil Astley (2 May 2014). "Rosemary Tonks obituary: Poet and novelist who turned her back on the literary world for four decades". The Guardian.
- Motion, Andrew (2004). The Times (London); 30 October 2004 p.8
- Astley, Neil (2004), Being Alive, Bloodaxe Books. Quoted in The Indexer, April 2005. Accessed 12 January 2007
- Neil Astley, introduction to Bedouin of the London Evening: Collected Poems (Bloodaxe Books, 2014).
- Keith Tuma (ed.): Anthology of Twentieth-Century British and Irish Poetry (OUP, USA, 2001)
- Neil Astley, introduction to Rosemary Tonks, Bedouin of the London Evening: Collected Poems (Bloodaxe Books, 2014)
- Astley, Neil (31 May 2014). "Rosemary Tonks, the lost poet". The Guardian.
- Rosemary Tonks: Bedouin of the London Evening: Collected Poems (2014)
- Introduction to Rosemary Tonks: Bedouin of the London Evening: Collected Poems (2014)
- Keith Tuma (ed.): Anthology of Twentieth-Century British and Irish Poetry (OUP, USA, 2001).
- O'Driscoll, Dennis (2003)"The outnumbered poet" Poetry Daily. Accessed 12 January 2007
- 61406. Tonks, Rosemary. The Columbia World of Quotations. 1996
- Lucie-Smith p.247
- Lucie-Smith p.245
- Daisy Goodwin. (2004). "Poems to Last a Lifetime". Quoted in Andrew O'Hagan. (9 November 2004). "Selling poems to the people". Daily Telegraph. Accessed 12 January 2007
- Lucie-Smith, Edward (1970), British Poetry since 1945.
- Tuma, Keith (ed), Anthology of Twentieth-Century British and Irish Poetry. Contains a biography of Tonks credited to "Tuma"
- Rak, Julie. "Rosemary Tonks". Dictionary of Literary Biography, British Novelists Since 1960.