Poets in Their Time: Essays on English Poetry from Donne to Larkin 
by Barbara Everett.
Faber, 264 pp., £15, October 1986, 0 571 13978 7
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Faced with the average book of modern literary criticism, the reviewer may wisely resolve to say nothing about the author’s skills as a writer of prose. If they ever existed, they would very likely have been dissembled, for many now believe that to write well is to act in bad faith, even to risk the charge of fascism. This belief may not at first glance seem compatible with the opinion that poetry and criticism are indistinguishable – both of them just writing; even less with the view that in our present situation literary criticism and theory are in fact the highest kind of poetry available.

I mention these paradoxes, not from any immediate desire to resolve them, but to suggest that Barbara Everett’s essays are on the face of it untimely. For what she attempts is impossible to anybody who declines, or is unable, to write well: her whole mode of proceeding depends on doing so. Yet she also appears to believe that in some rather mysterious way poetry is more important than criticism. Caught in this muddle, holding these deplorable and mutually conflicting opinions, she nevertheless carries calmly on as if unaware of the problem. Only rarely does she say what she thinks reading and writing ought to be – ‘individual inward apprehension of language’ – or what it is to read badly: ‘applying systematic method in contempt of the true nature of the subject’, a vice peculiar, she says, to ‘the Academy’. Since she thinks she knows ‘the true nature of the subject’, she can maintain rather boldly that ‘some people are much better readers than others’ – better in the sense of ‘truer’, more accurate, more revealing. For her part, it is enough to bring together ‘historical study and literary criticism’ on the assumption that in the work of ‘the great writers’ (a hierarchy ripe for deconstruction) ‘history speaks with a human voice’ (a revealingly phonocentric trope).

Faced with this seemingly reactionary volume, the reviewer has to find ways of explaining why it is quite exceptionally good, and he can hardly do so without comment on the way it is written. Everett is a connoisseur of styles, and has a distinctive style of her own; it shapes her sentences and is manifest also in her general approach to the poets she discusses. Donne, we are told, seems ‘to be involved in a stumbling, stammering battle with language from which a cadence or a tenderness will suddenly float free, as though friendship or civility or writing at all were a matter of working against the grain of things until the miraculous happens’. Here’s a crowd of metaphors – walking, talking, working wood, working miracles – and in the middle of it a technical term (‘cadence’) immediately caught up into a poetic reflection of the subject (‘a cadence or a tenderness’). The whole thing should sound a bit woozy but is somehow exact. It is a risky style, and occasionally it falls flat. So, too, with the design of the essays at large: it can seem perverse, over-elaborate to the point of irrelevance, altogether too laboured or too mannered, but when it works, it justifies the risks by getting across genuinely individual and inward apprehensions, so that one is left with clearer notions than ever before of the peculiar gifts of Browning, Auden or Larkin.

There is no denying the disadvantages of this way of doing criticism. The reader soon finds out that in Everett’s prose there are few variations of pace, the tempo is a steady andante and never con moto. There are vague patches. A poet may be called authentic in italics, as if the italics somehow gave the word precision. The writing is so good most of the time that lapses are noticeable; and when pulled up in this way one sometimes discovers that one has been lulled by it into going quietly along with arguments that turn out, on consideration, to be unacceptable. For example, Rochester’s ‘Upon Nothing’ is characterised as ‘an object with the extension of a Rubens ceiling reversed’, and while you are guessing at the local meaning of this you may come to realise that it is meant to illustrate a larger issue which now seems equally doubtful. Such moments of strain are rare, but they are worth mentioning as emblematic of a more general disposition to go a long way round, to fetch from afar something required to establish an argument of unusual refinement. Whatever comes to mind deserves the most elaborate exposition possible, however far it takes the reader from the main line of argument.

For instance, the essay on Browning starts with a detailed discussion of Thurber’s cartoon ‘That’s my first wife up there ... ’ This devious and rather weighty exordium is justified by the supposition, not to me very credible, that Thurber was somehow thinking of Browning’s ‘My Last Duchess’. Everett calls Thurber’s caption a ‘quotation’ in inverted commas, not really proposing it as one; what we seem to have here is a little critical conceit, given far too much importance by the stately obliquity of the style in which it is delivered. The Pope essay, which is a review of Maynard Mack’s biography, opens with three pages, admittedly much lighter in manner, on the proper pronunciation of the name ‘Theobald’ – an essay in itself learned and charming and right, but perhaps a shade over-elaborate as the introduction to a demonstration that this ‘definitive’ life of Pope calls for some very limiting judgments. (Incidentally, we are told that this is nevertheless likely ‘to remain for years the definitive life of Pope’. I see that the OED Supplement agrees that ‘definitive’ now means ‘the most complete to date’, rather than ‘fixed, final’, but I do not think its examples support that definition, which I don’t want to accept as definitive.)

The Pope essay is nevertheless excellent, just and charitable to the book that occasioned it, and full of delicate observations on the poet. So, too, with the study of ‘Sweeney Agonistes’, which devotes much of its considerable length to speculations about the national origins of the style Eliot devised for it. Here Everett takes issue with other critics, something she does rather rarely, and especially with Americans who assume that the language of the play derives from London pub talk. She thinks it purely American, and even argues that Sweeney’s acquaintance (‘I knew a man once did a girl in/Any man might do a girl in’) must have been a Chicago gangster. This seems doubtful: ‘do in’ is surely an indigenous English idiom. In a rather similar way, she supposes that the drink brought to Doris’s flat must be bootleg liquor (it ‘bespeaks ... the speakeasy’): but the English have been known to bring drinks to flats. It is true that there is a strong American colouring (‘I gotta use words ... We all gotta do what we all gotta do/We’re gona sit here and drink this booze’): but it is mixed with language that cannot be so definitely ascribed to Chicago. In fact, it might have suited the overall argument better to dwell on the mixture of manners, the ‘tension between the styles’. Everett suggests that Robert Hitchens’s Bella Donna, a bestseller which figures in the Thompson-Bywaters case of 1922 – a fine English murder – was one of Eliot’s sources, and that he had been reading Gentlemen prefer blondes and Ring Lardner, here described with some inaccuracy as a forgotten writer. This is certainly a plausible blend of influences, and we might look for something similar in the diction of the piece. But speakeasy liquor goes to the head. Everett thinks Eliot may have picked up from Lardner his trick of giving characters peculiar names, for Lardner was ‘the original inventor ... of preposterous American names (“Mr Kloot”, “Rube de Groot”, “Mrs Garrison”, “Mr and Mrs Glucose”)’. But here it may be part of Lardner’s fun that ‘Garrison’ is actually a quite posh American name, a Mayflowerish name lost among the comic immigrants. And anyway Eliot was making up comic-sinister names well before ‘Sweeney’: you could play the game easily enough with a copy of the Almanach de Gotha and the New York (or Boston, or Chicago) telephone book. The point is that a valuable perception may be obscured by excessive attention to speculative flourishes.

The Auden piece, generally admirable both on the virtues and limitations of Carpenter’s biography and Mendelson’s Early Auden, the books it is reviewing, and on the poet himself, is made to turn on the issue of Auden’s ‘flight’ to America in January 1939: not because Everett thinks it was all that important, but because other people still appear to do so, and their mistake is part of a larger misunderstanding of the way this poet works. Biography is easier, and so is the critical exposition of a large oeuvre, if one is willing to accept explanatory myths or patterns; to make one’s understanding of Auden depend on the myth of one crucial decision – to jump, to get out of England at such a moment – is probably to accept a formula which will distort one’s sense of the whole work. Everett finds everything much less sharply defined than the mythographers do, and her picture seems the truer one. She thinks of the poet as not making decisions, but as supposing – wrongly, of course – that luck would arrange the world around him in some convenient way (as he expected traffic lights to turn green when he approached them): but he was in fact unlucky (it is a loaded word in his poems), and so the ‘defection’ of 1939 can be said to bespeak a ‘terrible gracelessness’ at worst, and at best mere bad luck. It was bad luck indeed to arrive in New York on the day Barcelona fell.

It may be said that Everett is herself doing some myth-making here, but it is true that the world rarely conformed with Auden’s nanny-like notions of how it ought to conduct itself, and his attempts to impose them might be called graceless. And it is equally true, and more important, that critics who overemphasise his conscious choices tend to forget the quality of unforeseenness in the poetry – in fact, as Everett complains, rarely attend very closely to the qualities that make Auden a great poet. She writes of his ‘surface’ of ‘extreme aggressive ebullience’, ‘perhaps only accentuated almost to the point of caricature by the sense always of weakness, even of void, beneath. And this is surely the curious complex quality or character that comes through directly in the poems: a huge vitality of surface outgoingness, of intellectual life and energy that is (precisely) of the surface, because powered only by a sense of internal void, of weakness, of failure, almost non-existence. Whether or not this is neurotic, in his poetry Auden managed to correlate surface and depth as he could almost never in life; he wrote a poetry of which the “unluck” of his life became the “luck” of his verse.’ Part of the evidence is that surface disturbance we think of as ‘Audenesque’, recognised ‘by the way things don’t fit: epithets together (“tolerant, enchanted”, “warm and lucky”) or objects with their figures of speech (“the winter holds them like the Opera”)’. This isn’t the whole story of a 17th-century fertility in improbable conjunctions that ranged over worlds of time and space, and was sometimes combined with architectonic powers that could unite the conceits in a structure, moving, for example, from the counting-frame and the cromlech, via a Spain crudely soldered to Europe by the Pyrenees, to bicycle races in the suburbs and the revival of romantic love. But this essay begins, and gives intellectual impetus to, a proper study of that strange neo-Mannerist style which is, as Everett said, rarely well studied and often traduced.

The volume opens with the oldest of these pieces, a lecture on Donne as a London poet. It is characteristic that a great many luminous observations of the poetry are threaded, with some occasional awkwardness, onto this metropolitan string. One certainly finds in this poet metropolitan ‘amusement and anxiety and fatigue’; and the metropolitan qualities of 16th-century London are deftly sketched in, the City growing in wealth and luxury and, a little upriver, that lure to ambition, Westminster. In such a city a poet might well think of Rome and Horace, Ovid, Juvenal. But the real purpose of bringing all this up is to say something about Donne’s style, which Everett again regards as a neglected subject: the link between metropolis and style is the necessary existence of a very smart audience.

I admire what is here said about the style, though disagreeing with a great deal of it. Is it true, for instance, that ‘A Valediction: forbidding Mourning’ is introduced with ‘the raw immediacy of a street accident’? When Donne says that ‘the trepidation of the spheres’ is ‘innocent’ he uses the word in the etymological sense: ‘it does no harm.’ Can one find in it evidence of, or a comment on, ‘an adult need to play games, deep enough to discount much belief in innocence’? Can it be true that ‘Air and Angels’ ends ‘with a flatly depressed statement of the incompatibility of men and women’? I read it as a rather lofty tease: it says there is a disparity between men’s love and women’s love which may be compared with the disparity between angels in their normal state and angels when for purposes of communication they assume bodies of air – that is, women’s love has a very slight degree of material contamination and is therefore less pure than men’s. It is a weird joke, and may even seem objectionable, but it is not about incompatibility, unless at a remove (that a man can make such jokes establishes an incompatibility with women). I think Everett is also fancifully wrong about ‘The Ecstasy’.

But the method is entirely justified by its successes, as in the essay on Milton’s epic catalogues. These have often been studied, but so far as I know there is nothing in the literature to compare with Everett. Here is an example, necessarily of some length. She is attending to the lines:

When Charlemagne and all his peerage fell
By Fontarabbia ...

And she writes:

Fontarabbia was forty miles distant from Roncesvalles, where Roland fell ... though one Spanish author, Mariana, put the defeat of the French at Fuenterrabia itself, ‘There was no version in which Charlemagne fell’; and [Fowler] wonders whether Milton may be contrasting the greater Charles with his own later monarch, who went to Fuenterrabia in 1659 to engage in some ignoble diplomacy. This speculation ... provides a genuinely fascinating context for Fontarabbia; but it is a context which (like all scholarly contexts) defines the field of Milton’s poem as shadow does light. That field can only be crossed by going to Fontarrabia through Milton’s own directions. The meaning of the name is not in history or geography or other nations’ myths or other men’s poems; but in the repetitions and iterations and monotony of splendour. The lines have their climax in the dying fall of Charlemagne, followed by the greatness and the smallness of mockingly alliterated Fontarabbia: a good name for the romantic place, recalled with tenderness and harsh irony, where a battle was not fought for a king who did not die there. The context is the arrogant dreaming mind of Satan, as he desperately calls up his legions to send them against a God bound to defeat them: a heroic gesture – as the names are beautiful – but with a heroism that always moves on the rapid current of the godly poem towards the proper end, the expulsion from Innocence. Thus, the echoing high polysyllables, Aspramont and Montalban (the dark mountain and the bright mountain), baptised or infidel, by recurrence converge to the purity and monotony of trumpet-blast, a note that by its emptiness holds enormous power of connotation: all courage, all romance, all arrogance, all delusion – the pastness of the dead past recalled in a voice of brass: Fontarabbia.

Here the criticism of epic acquires such epic splendour as is appropriate to criticism, with the right measure of repetition and iteration, purity and brass. It is easy to see that a critic risking so much will sometimes fail, as in the laboured commentary on Rochester’s poem ‘The Fall’, and parts of the essay on Marvell. But she always commands a high level of argument, and if you disagree, you have to take on more than a dubious interpretation: your opponent is far less tangible – a style, sometimes an arrogant style. For if it seems necessary this critic will sometimes utter challenges almost outrageous. Wanting to refine our notions (also Larkin’s notion) of Larkin’s relation to Modernism, she writes a lengthy analysis of the poem called ‘Sympathy in White Major’ which takes the poet on a long tour through Gautier, Baudelaire and Mallarmé as well as Whistler, with only this apology for an apology: ‘It can be said that though Larkin’s poem does not appear to need or benefit from extraneous information, none the less there is extraneous information which can lead a reader to find it even cleverer and funnier (or possibly sadder) than at first strikes one.’ If Milton can benefit from extraneous information, why shouldn’t Larkin, despite his professed abstinence from ‘foreign poetry’?

This is one of the finest collections of criticism for years. I have said little of its reticent learning, and merely suggested its great independence of other critics and reigning fashions. The worst mistake one could make would be to think of it as reactionary criticism, the old literary history plus impressionistic comment. It blends historical insight and critical perception with real originality, and if it needs a label it should not be ‘Pre-Modern’. ‘Post-Post-Modernist’ would be nearer the mark – the very latest thing.

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