In his introduction to Blairway To Heaven in 1994, NS editor Steve Platt idly wonders where the setter and judge of Competition no. 1 ‘is now’. He was being facetious, but Armstrong, who died at the age of 91 in February 1974, was the author of between 30 and 40 books between 1912 and 1944 – he was one of the new seven poets to be introduced in the last anthology (1920-1922) of Georgian Poetry, and he was better known as a poet than a novelist. (Another of the seven, Vita Sackville-West, was also an early competition-setter.) The Week-end Review shared with New Statesman and Nation a commitment to the pastoralism of Georgian poetry, although New Statesman and Nation‘s literary editor, J.C.Squire, one of the Georgians’ chief proponents, was notably more hostile to modernist poetry (see Squire’s entry).
Martin Donisthorpe Armstrong had fought in World War I from 1915 in the ‘Artists’ Rifles’, originally as a private (like Edward Thomas); he later served in the Middlesex regiment as a lieutenant and major, and came from a prosperous family in Newcastle. His wife Jessie (nee Mcdonald) was a Canadian writer who had formerly been married to Armstrong’s friend, the writer Conrad Aiken (in marrying Jessie, he became the stepfather of the prolific writer Joan Aiken. Like everyone else who came Conrad Aiken’s way – like Malcolm Lowry – he features in Aiken’s highly autobiographical novel Ushant). He and Jessie had one child, David Armstrong.
Armstrong maintained a steady career as a writer and journalist throughout his life. He had been associate literary editor of The Spectator in the early 1920s, and subsequently wrote for The London Mercury and New Statesman. After the publication of his last book, he wrote a thirteen year (1944-57) weekly column for The Listener called ‘The Spoken Word’, and was a regular contributor to the BBC radio ‘Children’s Hour’ programme. He lived in West Sussex.
Here is one of the three poems in that last Georgian volume:
When evening came and the warm glow grew deeper
And every tree that bordered the green meadows
And in the yellow cornfields every reaper
And every corn-shock stood above their shadows
Flung eastward from their feet in longer measure,
Serenely far there swam in the sunny height
A buzzard and his mate who took their pleasure
Swirling and poising idly in golden light.
On great pied motionless moth-wings borne along,
So effortless and so strong,
Cutting each other’s paths, together they glided,
Then wheeled asunder till they soared divided
Two valleys’ width (as though it were delight
To part like this, being sure they could unite
So swiftly in their empty, free dominion),
Curved headlong downward, towered up the sunny steep,
Then, with a sudden lift of the one great pinion,
Swung proudly to a curve and from its height
Took half a mile of sunlight in one long sweep.
And we, so small on the swift immense hillside,
Stood tranced, until our souls arose uplifted
On those far-sweeping, wide,
Strong curves of flight,–swayed up and hugely drifted,
Were washed, made strong and beautiful in the tide
Of sun-bathed air. But far beneath, beholden
Through shining deeps of air, the fields were golden
And rosy burned the heather where cornfields ended.
And still those buzzards wheeled, while light withdrew
Out of the vales and to surging slopes ascended,
Till the loftiest-flaming summit died to blue.