Jon Silkin: Writing 'The Coldness'

Jon Silkin donated his set of drafts for 'The Coldness' (BC MS 20c Silkin/01/03/08) to the University of Leeds Library in 1964, along with a letter giving 'an account of the poem - a brief explanation of the drafts and the way it came to be written.' These went on to become part of Silkin's complete archive (BC MS 20c Silkin), which was acquired by the Library after his death in 1997.

In this resource Jon Glover and Kathryn Jenner (editors of Complete Poems by Jon Silkin (Carcanet, 2015)) use this set of manuscripts to explore the development of the poem. There are seven separate drafts of 'The Coldness' in the Silkin Archive.

'The Coldness' first appeared in Jon Silkin’s book The Re-ordering of the Stones published by Chatto and Windus in 1961. It was the first of two poems under the title 'Astringencies'. The second was called 'Asleep?'

The titles 'The Coldness' and 'Asleep' were printed underneath the word 'Astringencies' so they became '1 The Coldness' and '2 Asleep'. Most commentaries do not refer to the significance of the numbering or to the links, if any, between the two poems.

'The Coldness' is almost a present-tense 'voice-over', a commentary exploring a view over the River Ouse in York. The commentary to what might be a film starts by identifying a building, 'the printing-works' before moving into judgemental descriptions: 'the cold township', 'a cold northern river', 'But they seem cold.'

This coldness is explained by an account of York’s Jews' suicide in 1190 'To escape christian death / By christian hand. Silkin set the 'c' in lower case partly in response to T S Eliot's spelling of 'jew' with a lower case 'j' in his poem 'Gerontion'.

Silkin identifies a visible moral and physical absence of Jews in York since 1190. He wonders what jobs and social functions they might have had were they still to have a community there:

'Where are the stone-masons, the builders / Skilled in glass, strong first in wood… / Makers in the institution of marriage?'

But the absence of Jews has never been recognised, explained or rectified; local 'frigid York' is both cause and result of the wider Holocausts of Europe, past and present.


 

Photograph of Cliffords Tower (MS 1788/50/8)

Copyright University of Leeds