This is an informal history of poetry in English from Piers Plowman to the major figures of the mid-twentieth century, namely Peter Redgrove, Francis Berry, Galway Kinnell and Patrick Kavanagh. Its argument is that the central tradition of English poetry is earthy, alliterative, colloquial, with a strong regard for structure and the claims of plot. Whole alien tracts of subject-matter have been assimilated to this tradition. But from time to time the mistake has been made of imitating the style and not just the content of foreign modes: this is experiment, and it goes against the tradition.
The basic form in English is that of Piers Plowman – or rather just the first half of it. For scholars have made the mistake of lumping together two quite distinct poems, the ‘Visio’ which is pithy, proverbial, local, alliterative and narrative, and the ‘Vita’ which is dismally dull and unreadable. The ‘Visio’ crystallises and defines the possibilities of the English literary tradition; and the language itself diminishes in efficacy as it draws farther away from its central masterpiece.
Chaucer and Shakespeare, though they are great borrowers from abroad – the discussion of their works shows them to consist mainly of sources and analogues – fused experiment with tradition by making over the foreign materials into original works. The great translators of the Elizabethan age – Wyatt, Golding, Chapman, Fairfax, Harington – likewise assimilated a good deal of foreign material into the essentially medieval and alliterative English tradition. But the much overrated Sidney and Spenser were essentially Italianisers. The best Elizabethan poetry, characterised by easiness, directness, pithiness, is that of Raleigh, Fulke Greville, Chapman, Marston and Donne. The failure to notice Marlowe’s achievements hereabouts – and Samuel Johnson’s later – is odd and inexplicable. Equally odd is the attributing to Ben Jonson’s influence nearly everything good in verse or stage comedy up to and beyond the Restoration.
Milton, Dryden, Pope and Byron don’t belong to the central tradition because their long poems lack tough plots and succeed only in certain incidental speeches and characters. Their genre, the poetry of debate, is a limited and simplifying one. Wordsworth is our greatest poet after Chaucer and Shakespeare, setting aside such mistakes as ‘The Idiot Boy’, which is unmeaning drivel, ‘Simon Lee’ which is fit only for The Stuffed Owl, and the regrettable addition of the Wanderer’s part to ‘The Ruined Cottage’. Essentially a narrative poet, his power of revealing character is equal to that of any of the great novelists; and he is less flawed, in his actual narrative, than they are. Had The Prelude been published in 1805 the nineteenth century novelists would have used verse and not prose. Yet no notice is taken of Aurora Leigh, Sordello and The Ring and the Book, or Amours de Voyage.
As for the other Romantics – specifically Blake, Coleridge, Shelley and Keats – not only did they not know enough, but they were hardly ever in control of that which they thought they knew. They had too little regard for the logic and reason of that admirable empiricist philosophy of Bacon Locke and Newton which almost as much as English poetry is a glory of our letters. Blake’s prophetic inspiration comes through as recollection, deliberate or haphazard, of philosophers mostly bad, in translations mostly indifferent. Shelley was ignorant of the serious science of his day; ill-read in the literature of his own language; and never seriously studied the craft of verse. Keats lacked a scholar’s understanding of his sources. Lamia is confused because it depends upon Burton’s misreading of Philostratus, and suffers from Keats’ knowing nothing of the social customs of ancient Corinth. His ‘Grecian Urn’ won’t do because no single urn could carry that wealth of material, and we now know that as a matter of fact it is really an ode to three Roman vases.
In the nineteenth century the dramatic monologue became the dominant form of English poetry. Browning’s most notable successors were Walter Thornbury, Augusta Webster, Aubrey de Vere Jr, Sebastian Evans, Lord de Tablay and Eugene Lee-Hamilton. Then Ezra Pound took up the form; but he will continue to be read only for his influence on Eliot. His Cantos are best read as an anthology of lyrics and fragmentary speeches. At the same time Eliot’s poetry, because it suppresses plot and does not follow a narrative line, is un-English, and has had a bad influence on English poetry – it nearly did for Auden. The trouble with it is that it is really American poetry. Eliot, and Pound and Stevens and Lowell, are deserving of attention as American poets following on from Whitman; but they are eccentric and alien sideshows so far as English poetry is concerned.
The genuine English modernism is in the work of Edward Thomas, Wilfred Owen and Isaac Rosenberg. But English poetry suffered an atrocious stroke of luck in their being killed in the war; and then another in Eliot and Pound starting an essentially American revolution in verse technique over here rather than in the United States. Yet there is hope still for the English tradition – tactile, kinaesthetic, full of muscular movement and packed with interacting consonants, alliterative, packed with sharp particulars thrust close upon each other, and above all narrative with strong plots and striking characters – in the work of Redgrove, Berry, Kinnell and Kavanagh.
The virtue of the book is in Dr Hobsbaum’s enthusiastic appreciations of his favoured writers. But the broad and deep river of literature in English won’t go into his fifties pint pot.