Some General Considerations

One style has followed another with bewildering rapidity in the last hundred years — Symbolism, Modernism, Vorticism, Dadaism, Surrealism, Classicism, Neo-romanticism, proletarian writing, Postmodernism, magic realism, etc. Each has its mission statement and articles of faith. All are fascinating in their way, and have something to suggest to the adventurous poet.

The reasons are obvious. Serious writers meet the same problems that confronted their forebears, which those forbears evaded or surmounted as the period allowed allowed. Even traditional poetry has lessons to teach, and individual solutions are still applicable. Moreover, the responses that lead nowhere — to dead-ends, falsity, outmoded conventions — need to be marked, so that contemporary writers don’t waste time attempting the impossible.
Elizabethan Poetry

Broadly considered, including the poetry written under the succeeding James I, the Elizabethans composed with a freshness, inventiveness and heart-stopping felicity of phrase that we have not seen since. Why?

The country was adventurous and forward-looking. The long civil wars were over, and a wary Protestantism kept religious dissent contained. Possessions in France had been lost but England was again a proud nation, her armies fighting on the continent and her ships sailing the globe. But the harsher aspects should be noted. The monarchy was not secure, and did not scruple to use repression when state interests were threatened — censorship, imprisonment without proper trial, torture and barbaric execution. Life was short, even for the rich, and the poor had few rights or basic amenities. A grammar school education included Latin and some Greek, but only 12% of the 3 million inhabitants were literate. Hell certainly existed — demons fought for the soul in the dying body, and taunted the living.

That dark underside feeds through — look at the circumspect portraits, or at Holbein’s haunted drawings. If Elizabethan literature was eclectic, glorying in its own abilities but also importing themes and fashions from abroad, it was only slowly that Chaucer’s skills were recaptured by Wyatt, Surrey and Spenser. The glories of Shakespeare’s blank verse were brilliantly foreshadowed by Marlowe, but he died mysteriously in a Deptford brawl. A good story roundly acted brought most folk to the theatre, but the groundlings listened to the poetry of their social betters. Writing poetry was a social accomplishment, no different from dancing or playing a musical instrument. Jonson might portray everyday characters,  but Shakespeare looked to the main chance, and wrote of and for the governing classes. Neither his diction nor  his settings were very real, the last being taken from the Italian authors and the Sicilian pastoral tradition. The New Learning spread slowly into the country, but the medieval cast of mind still held its place.

Theology was dangerous, but God could be an experienced reality. Or perhaps one of many realities. For courtiers as much as for peasants, foreign myths and local legends were part of everyday consciousness. The pagan gods were not defeated, but remained as astral influences or demonic possession. Soul was the most precious part of the human being, and it was man’s religious duty to care for that soul by realising an objective goodness in the world outside. Soul was comprehensive, moreover, and each physical particle of the world was charged with its presence, ensuring that the human soul was composed of same ingredients as the cosmic soul. The social order was preordained, and reflected the great chain of being that linked animate matter to God himself.

Is that a quaint view, irrelevant now? Consider two points. What are today’s sub-nuclear particles and forces but the occult forces of the medieval world refashioned in the workshop language of the merchant classes? Sub-nuclear entities are elaborated in rarefied mathematical expression and can be conjured to appear with the right experiments, but they are still mysterious, awesome and beyond our comprehension. Who can conceive a universe created out of nothing, or the statistical existence of an electron?

Consider also one influential school of psychology today: depth psychology. Soul is here given preeminence, and forms the self-sustaining and imagining substrate to our lives. And that soul — witness the parallel to nuclear physics — is not substance, but a perspective. It is the primary fashioning entity. The soul deepens events into experiences, makes meaning possible, and includes dream, image and fantasy in its operation, suggesting that all realities are primarily symbolic and metaphorical. Depth psychology begins with images — self-originating, inventive, spontaneous and complete — and such images are archetypes or fundamental metaphors.  God, life, health, art — these hold worlds together, and cannot be adequately circumscribed.

Elizabethan society seemed confident and exuberant, but was held in by pervasive state control and a complex medieval order. Man had a definite place, in society and the universe, and to know the limits of thought and action was the one thing that separated man from the beasts. Poets were most original when most orthodox, observed E.M.W.Tillyard, and a probing self-knowledge was essential. Of the heroes in Shakespeare’s four tragic masterpieces two (Othello and Lear) are defective in understanding, and two (Macbeth and Hamlet) in will.

Some conclusions. No more than ours did Elizabethan poetry ‘reflect the times’ but drew upon literary precedents and earlier philosophies. Events of the sixteenth century were no less brutal than those of our bloodstained century. If the medieval mind seems strange to us  — its belief in demons and occult forces, unquestionable religious truths and an unchanging social order — that strangeness is largely because our prosaic terminology carves the world at different joints. We have curtailed the power of words, and then sought the bedrock of reality which words now imperfectly express. The Elizabethans  — and still less the classical world –  would have seen no hope in that. The poet gives to airy nothings a local habitation and a name, said Shakespeare, who realised that the world very much has the variety and wonder with which we choose to express it.


Who could be less useful to today’s poets than John Milton? An austere, forbidding figure, treated with respect by literary scholars but loved by no one. Leavis dismissed his thought. Eliot joined the long list of poets to impugn his influence. Beautiful early work, and many glories in Paradise Lost, but who now wants so cumbrous and artificial a language?

Histories are more often written by the victors, and Milton was not on the winning side. His views were dangerous, and are more so still than those of the Modernists or Beat poets. Milton’s thought cannot be appropriated by commerce or made into the lingua franca of an aspiring intelligentsia. It cannot be squared with orthodoxy, or with the cosy understandings of a pluralist society. Milton was ruggedly himself — heretical, deeply studied, sympathetic to activists — and polemicising for real political change. In later life, blind and at odds with society, Milton used every resource to pursue in literature what was closed to him in action. He meant what he said, and made no concessions. Such attitudes are anathema to a century that has separated expression from truth, and sees poetry merely as a superior form of entertainment.

Why then read him? For two reasons. In English poetry there are three superlative technicians: Shakespeare, Milton and Pope. Shakespeare gets his effects no one quite knows how. Pope works within a smaller compass, and his exactness needs long reading to appreciate. Milton is the more varied, and is accessible through the publications of an immense academic industry.

Some prolonged effort is needed. The early work is too much modelled on the style of university debates. The moral instruction of Comus jars on us. Fear of prosecution introduced obscurities in Lycidas. There are long sections of Paradise Lost that few will wish to read again. Paradise Regained and Samson Agonistes seem very plain, sometimes pedestrian. Milton is hardly a poet of continuous delight, though he is one who repays continual study.  Indeed Milton’s stanzas will bear many pages of discussion — which is indeed the difference between great verse and the merely serviceable. From the foothills of writing, all the peaks may look the same, but it is only the experience of climbing those peaks — i.e. of writing oneself — that  makes the unassailable splendour of some lines apparent.  L’Allegroand Il Penseroso look jejune or trite — such obvious thoughts, such simple rhymes — but they are not easily matched. Comus is a masque about enchantment, and therefore artificial throughout, but contains some of the most enchanting lines in English.  The grandiloquence and latinate diction of Paradise Lost has been severely censured, but who can forget the opening lines?

No doubt the Miltonic style is too bookish and individual for our ears, and perhaps should only be assayed by those who can do better, which is probably no one.  But Milton knits his lines together by rhetoric of a very special sort, by a densely orchestrated music of verse, and that approach is certainly worth rethinking.

The second reason for reading Milton is the thought itself. The philosophy is too dense, individual and bound up with radical seventeenth-century issues to be easily summarised. Milton was not an academic. He attacked the universities for their corruption and conservatism, hated the papists, and pressed for social change and equality far beyond what even the nineteenth century would contemplate.  But he was also a classical scholar, saw nothing wrong in fine living, and distrusted the common people. He read widely. He knew the hermetic philosophy, cabbala and astrology, and questioned such orthodox Christian beliefs as the Trinity, the creation of the world from nothing, and the immortality of the soul.  If that seems perplexing, we should note that contemporary theology is again concerned with such matters.

What’s to be done?  Read him seriously.  He is not the woman-hater or sour Puritan of popular imagination.  Nor again is he champion of orthodoxy in mighty organ harmonies of verse that the eighteenth and nineteenth century supposed.  Milton is very radical and very relevant, adding the dimension of history to contemporary debates on religion, the state and feminism. He is also an riposte to political correctness: he would not have equated standardised thinking with social equality.

Milton was a conscientious writer who matured slowly. He dedicated himself to poetry, but put aside his ambitions for long years to help the greater causes of the Commonwealth. He did not flatter, and — within what was possible with heavy censorship  — said explicitly and at length what he believe in. He enjoyed the best education money could buy, and continued educating himself. In youth he was modest and patient. Study, hard work and self-honesty created a citadel safe from the vicissitudes of life, and brought him to a deeper trust in his God.  Anyone who wants to write good poetry today may need some of that fortitude.

The Caroline Poets

The work of the Carolines, or cavalier poets (1625-60) has characteristics we deplore in contemporary poetry. It’s appallingly lightweight, polished and artificial. Worse, if Marxists and many Modernists are right in asserting that true art must represent social realities, Caroline poetry is inauthentic and evasive. Where among the innumerable Corinnas going a-maying do we sense the crushing inequalities of rural life, the groundswell of Protestant dissent, the fatuous policies of Charles I that led to the English Civil War? But then come to mind lines which every poetry-lover has by heart:

Ask me no more where Jove bestows,
When June is past, the fading rose:

Bid me live, and I will live
Thy Protestant to be:

Angels alone that soar above
Enjoy such liberty.

Contemporary poetry is many things — innovative, fascinating, intellectually demanding — but beautiful in this sense it is not. Nor are contemporary painting and music. Why have such qualities fled from the area where they were once preeminent, art now being self-absorbed in social protest and moral reproach? The protest may not even be honest: we attend readings, exhibitions and concerts as directed by critics, but spend the bulk of our salaries elsewhere, on the new car and gleaming apartment.

Advertising is effective. Notions of beauty change. The fashion of the art world is not that of Vogue, and the avant-garde, by definition, is never popular. Nor indeed are the poetic trifles of the Carolines so empty of substance: contemporary theory has found a good deal to dig out of these polished surfaces — political protest, gender repression, etc. But the enigma persists. We seem to have transferred what were personal values to material objects. Films of only forty years ago show how much a society of restraint and good manners has been invaded by mass persuasion and popular consumerism. Is that one reason why poetry has suffered, both in quality and appeal? Maybe. But whatever Shelley said, poets must accept the world like everyone else. In fact, they must strive to do more — investigate, overcome old views and prejudices, see matters in deeper and more fulfilling contours.

If, therefore, the poetry of the Carolines still appeals, as indeed it does, something important is being overlooked. The range of subject matter was narrow — love, religious devotion, satires on rival poets — but the Carolines were more than competent craftsmen. What is evident in their work — the epigrammatic compression, the self-enclosing rhythms, the melodic invention — can be found in Jonson and Donne, but the effect is different. The exuberance of Elizabethan poetry was long past, and the polished surfaces of these poems resemble the van Dyke portraits hanging in stately home: aloof, patrician and refined. Moreover, if deconstruction stresses the hermetic nature of literature, then these poems point not to words only but to a world of ease and learning, and perhaps to the grand tour soon to become part of a gentleman’ s education.

Those who read the old languages with difficulty (or not at all) may find the classical world remote or unreal, but a similar unreality is close at hand. We accept the gritty settings of spy thrillers without questioning their far-fetched plots or dubious morals. Their authors are complicit with our expectations. Actuality may be quite different, but we’ re hardly to know, and perhaps don’ t care. The thriller and spy novel provide a stage for our vicarious emotions, and we accept the conventions readily enough. Why then should we object to the Carolines? Because Modernism has been predominantly anti-establishment, erecting its own standards when denied entry to the fashionable world? A case can be made for that view, and such an inverted snobbery has its dangers. A classical education is unusual today, and few will want to go back to the rigid class divisions of even fifty years ago, but the world of poetry is only impoverished by dwelling on an overall tawdriness in contemporary society. It is untrue. For millions, life offers perspectives and living standards unimaginable when Modernism began.

How then is the poetic machinery of the classical world inferior to the psychiatry, continental philosophy and left-wing politics that serve as poetic devices in much of poetry today? To walk on a high summer’ s evening in the country houses where the cavaliers composed and recited their work is to glimpse a world which is regained with only a little imagination. Poetry has certainly become more cosmopolitan, but the foreign names that line our bookshelves are still chosen by current prejudices, and often translated into a style that would outrage their authors. The continuing appeal of the Carolines suggests we need a more generous conception of poetry, and one more in keeping with the larger aspirations of the reading public.

Alexander Pope

Alexander Pope was born in May 1688, the son of a London linen merchant, and died in 1744, a literary celebrity with friends in all levels of society. Pope was a Tory, as passionate about English society as Milton had been, and equally despairing of country and politics by the end. England was not the staid, domesticated place of its exteriors. James II had fled, but the Catholic cause was continually expected to reassert itself with Scottish or Irish support. Far from being political appointees, William and then Anne formed factions to influence Parliament and the running of the country. The Royal Society had been founded, and agricultural improvements were being made by the great landowners, but many aspects of English life were lamentable — in hygiene, medicine, transport and the law most particularly.

Pope was disadvantaged on several counts. He was Catholic and therefore debarred from the professions, from inheriting, from even being resident within ten miles of London. His physical frailty cut him off from the normal enjoyments of youth. At 14 he contracted Pott’s disease, and grew up a misshapen dwarf, constantly racked by pain that exacerbated a marked hypersensitivity. Pope was largely self-taught, and therefore inordinately proud of his achievements — quick to take offence, and slow to forget real or imagined slights. Moreover, as the first English poet to make poetry pay, his commercial activities were anything but straightforward. He fell afoul of copyright piracy, took up cudgels for friends, and treated all sectors of society to vitriolic comment. Translations of theIliad (1720) and Odyssey(1726) brought him fame, friends and financial independence, but the drudgery hardened his character. The equable observations of  An Essay in Criticism (1711) and the mischievous fun of The Rape of the Lock (1714) gave way to the more trenchant EpistlesEssay on Man (1734), and Dunciad (1743).

Pope’s prose was undistinguished, though he took great pains with innumerable letters, being more personal and forthcoming in these than is usual in eighteenth century correspondence. Pope’s fame  — and he is the most published and quoted writer after Shakespeare — rests on his poetry. He was an incessant reviser. Publications would appear without his name — to be taken back and polished until they were worthy of ownership. Many publications remain unacknowledged, their authorship disputed, particularly those of a more lighthearted nature, where Pope used forms other than the heroic couplet. At least in the longer works, Pope seems to have worked to a set pattern. He drafted a paragraph in prose, set out the arguments and counter-arguments in verse, organised the prose notes and verse paragraphs into an effective structure, and then perfected the couplets. The aim was order, clarity and persuasive common sense. Each part was interrelated, and the rhythms, arguments and imagery orchestrated accordingly. Depth and subtlety could be imparted without impairing the overall design.  And no doubt it also suited someone like Pope to lay out the days’ tasks when writing was a necessary escape from pain and suppressed longings.

To later generations, the heroic couplet has been a difficulty. It was not used much after Crabbe, and has not been written well this century — as excised portions of The Waste Land unfortunately demonstrate. The problems are these:

The couplets are self-contained. Each thought has to be apprehended separately,  which gives the argument a staccato effect, and is irksome to an age of looser prose expression. The antithetical nature of couplets makes the poetry seem more of statement than of feeling or the vague presentiment developed by the Romantics. Rhymes can appear too predictably, as though leading the sense. Various devices are required to balance the lines — the caesura, tight alliteration, inversion of normal word order — which give the verse a contrived air. Not only does the pentameter length of the line commonly need “fillers” –  the studious haunts, verdant greens,  etc. –  but the epithets are drawn from polite and therefore restricted usage.

From these shortcomings, Pope was largely free.  He could write with colloquial directness:

Content with little, I can piddle here
On Broccoli and mutton, round the year;

With accumulated density:
 The glory, jest and riddle of the world.

And with a freshness that the Romantics would have envied.
Yet shall thy grave with rising flow’rs be dressed,
And the green turf lie lightly on thy breast;

But such accomplishments require immense labour, and possibly genius. What lessons are there for today’s poets? And what could they do with Pope’s worship of reason, friendship and virtue? Well, there is the miraculous verse craft: Pope is the greatest verse technician in the English language, and his successes in the difficult heroic couplet provide endless learning material. Then there is the thought behind individual lines, whose aptness, the splendour and sensitivity grow more apparent with reading. And surely there is the couplet itself, ever useful for epigrams, or rounding off sections of verse, but capable of greater things if line lengths be varied and/or the iambic metre loosened.


The classic story. Born into an isolated clergyman’s family in the bleak Lincolnshire wolds. Brothers unstable, one going permanently mad. Brief promise at Cambridge, but then the young man, neurotic and introspective, comes down without a degree and wastes his limited inheritance in scribbling poetry. His 1833 collection is attacked for affectation and Keatsian effeminacy. His only mentor, Arthur Hallam, dies, and the young man sinks further into despondency. Then comes the 1842 Poems, a reworking of the 1833 volume, plus additions, and the public is slowly brought to accept that a major poet is with them. The volume sells. The poet is awarded a Civil List Pension, and can summon the energy to write The Princess (1847) and In Memoriam (1850). He marries at last. The slow rise from despair to modest faith depicted by In Memoriam finds an echo in the heart of the bereaved Queen Victoria, and the poet so long ignored and derided becomes the spokesman of his age. He is made Poet Laureate and then Peer of the Realm. Maud, Enoch Arden and Idylls of the King ensure his popularity, and at his death in 1892 Alfred Lord Tennyson is interred in the pantheon of great English poets.

His literary contemporaries were less decided. The twentieth century poets disparaged the ‘Tennyson and water’ of contemporary amateur poetry, and their academic heirs preferred Arnold and Hopkins. But the sense of greatness lingered, and a counter-reaction began in the twenties. Tennyson’s poetry had range, evocative power and memorability. The odes, lyrics, narratives and plays covered innumerable subjects, contemporary and ancient. Even the poetry in dialect was readable. Tennyson’s musicality was deeply moving, and Morte d’Arthur, Tithonus and Ulysses were truly the last great blank verse in English. Add to these The Lady of Shalott, The Lotus-Eaters and Idle Tears, and Tennyson had achieved an extraordinary perfection of utterance. The thought was not profound,  but Tennyson also unwittingly initiated something important. He took the gustatory imagery of Keats, thinned it into melodic echo and so opened the door to Symbolism and many Modernist movements.

Tennyson the man was an enigma. His great work had nearly all been done by 1842, but the musing fit could fall unbidden in later life — in Idle Tears, or Crossing the Bar. He believed in his public mission, yet seemed most happily himself as the unkempt countryman, discoursing on pipes and local beer. The only poetry he confessed to reading constantly was his own, and he was distinctly unsociable. Criticism was deeply wounding, but Tennyson was attentive, making the changes necessary. He had perhaps the best ear of all English poets, but read his own work in a high-pitched singsong that a drama class would laugh at today.

More than most of his contemporaries, Tennyson belongs to an age we still read through Edwardian and Bloomsbury spectacles. Word-painting is not to our taste. Post-colonial studies scoff at paternalism or civic high-mindedness. Galahad and Guinevere are bloodless creatures, for all their adultery. We can use mythological dictionaries, but only a classical education will bring the ancient world alive. Tennyson’s imagery is not always attractive, indeed is often spectral and chilling. His inwardness and feminine sensitivity were innate, a combination of personality and upbringing. His immense industry no doubt also had roots in misfortune: like Shakespeare, Donne and Pope, Tennyson was escaping from stigma and social disadvantage. What of this is transferable?

An answer lies in two areas — Tennyson’s melodic invention, and what the invention serves. By our standards, Tennyson’s poetry seems very enclosed and self-protecting. Browning’s verse is written for the speaking voice, but Tennyson seems not to trust outside performance. So closely knit is the verse, and so fully the metrical resources deployed, that the poetry operates as though independently of the reader, even to seeming disembodied. French critics were surprised to learn that Tennyson had not been born into the hothouse atmosphere of high society life, and perhaps the closest parallels are not with writing at all, but the Victorian classicism of Frederick Leighton’s paintings.

Tennyson remained immensely conscientious, but the ‘poem as a thing made’ replaced the ‘poem as expression’. Tennyson had not simply overcome personal unhappiness and morbid sensitivity, but had stopped listening to himself. That is not to say traditional poetry that draws on other poetry, on what has been winnowed out by long criticism, is necessarily inferior, but that its selection and shaping still requires some personal involvement. The poetry of Pope thickened as old age and personal animosities turned him back into himself. Tennyson also became a public figure, but sees not to have grasped what Yeats later observed: that we make poetry out of the quarrel with ourselves. The need for self-honesty, to explore what is individual and painful, may be what we should learn from the failures of the later Tennyson.