Previously unpublished love poems written by Anthony Burgess to each of his two wives have been discovered, along with a verse in which he dismissed A Clockwork Orange, the savage satire for which he is best known, as “a foul farrago”, urging people to read Shakespeare and Shelley instead.
They are among dozens of unknown poems that have been found, the majority in his vast archive held by the International Anthony Burgess Foundation, an educational charity in Manchester, where the writer was born in 1917.
One poem was found tucked into a book in Burgess’s library, others were on scraps of paper or card, including cigar-boxes and matchbooks. The discoveries will be included in a 450-page book to be published in December, entitled Anthony Burgess: Collected Poems, which brings together around 350 verses, of which a fifth are unpublished.
Jonathan Mann, a Burgess scholar and the new volume’s editor, told the Observer: “The poems offer a fascinating insight into the way that he created these things with a sense of urgency. Many are in a vigorous, messy scrawl. These are very robust poems. Burgess had a real flair for structure and an understanding of how to create music with his poetry.”
Burgess married his first wife, Lynne, in 1942. They had a loving relationship, with a shared appetite for drink, but she died from liver failure in 1968. Later that year, he married Liana, an Italian linguist and translator. Theirs too was a good marriage.
The unpublished poems include A Ballade for the Birthday of My Dearest Wife, written for Lynne: “Dearest, although the signs of age appear/ In me, in greying hair, deciduous tooth,/ You work your yearly miracle. Lo, here:/ Another anniversary of youth.”
Another, entitled January 1 and dating from 1985, was apparently an apology after a row with Liana: “Last night, before the death of the old year,/ ‘I got the catalogue of my year’s sins’./ Chronic sins really, hurled at me…”
He ended by telling her that he had put a steak-and-kidney pie in the oven: “Would that act rate a/ Slight remission of at least one sin?”
Andrew Biswell, Burgess’s biographer and the foundation’s director, said of the unpublished material: “What excites me is the range and variety of his work, ranging from epic poetry to occasional verses, political, satirical… We can see Burgess working in all the available poetic forms and styles.”
Burgess, who died in 1993, made his name as a satirical novelist with the 1962 publication of A Clockwork Orange, admired for its linguistic originality, its exploration of moral questions and its dystopian portrayal of drugs, music and juvenile violence.
With an invented teenage language, “Nadsat”, he created a nightmare vision of youth in revolt. It inspired Stanley Kubrick’s 1971 cult screen adaptation, one of the most notorious films ever made, with violent and sexually explicit scenes blamed for copycat crimes.
After a vociferous campaign in rightwing newspapers, including the Sun, Daily Mail and the Telegraph, several local councils prevented the film from being screened. Kubrick eventually withdrew the film himself – a self-imposed ban that lasted until his death in 1999.
Although the novel is considered a classic of 20th-century literature, Burgess felt that it was not typical of his work, which included more than 50 published books and features that he wrote for the Observer – “my paper”, as he called it – over more than 30 years.
Biswell said: “Most of his other books are non-violent and not about teenage boys. But, thanks to the popularity of the film, people were always asking him about A Clockwork Orange.” The previously unpublished poetry includes A Sonnet for the Emery Collegiate Institute, a verse letter urging students not to read that novel: “Advice: don’t read/ A Clockwork Orange – it’s a foul farrago/ Of made-up words that bite and bash and bleed./ I’ve written better books… So have other men, indeed./ Read Hamlet, Shelley, Keats, Doctor Zhivago.”
In an unpublished poem titled An Essay on Censorship, which dates from 1989, he touched on A Clockwork Orange: “A book is perilous, a book can slay:/ That is the text I ponder on each day,/ And, smoking, restless, wonder why I chose/ To sell my soul for thirty years of prose./ Banned in Malaysia, burned in Arkansas,/ Offensive to the Afrikaaner’s law… ‘Whom did I kill? Whom did I hurt?’ I ask,/ Reflecting that the writer’s only task/ Is not to preach or prophecy but please.”
Biswell said: “There was a famous lecture he’d given on censorship in 1970. This replays a number of arguments, but in rhyming couplets. It’s very well crafted.”
He added: “Burgess always wanted to be known as a poet. One of the things he did was to smuggle poems into his novels. You find a character who is a poet, who will write or recite a poem. In the collected poems, we can see that poetry was at the heart of his ambition as a writer.”
• This article was amended on 8 November 2020 to correct the length of the poetry book, which is 450 pages, not 50 as an early version said.