16 JUNE 1950, Page 20


HERE is almost a generation between Dr. C. M. Bowra, the Professor of Poetry at Oxford, and John Heath-Stubbs, a writer in his early thirties with three or four books of highly nished poems to his credit ; and it would be very easy to fill these wo columns with praise of Bowra's lucid and unobtrusive scholar- ship, reserving only a final paragraph in which to castigate Heath- Stubbs. For whereas Bowra, in each of these Harvard lectures Pere reprinted, succeeds in saying something perfect, complete and illuminating about the poet he is considering, Heath-Stubbs seems to combine an intuitive understanding of certain kinds of poetry with a perverse talent for collecting mutually irreconcilable reasons to explain his tastes. But the important thing about his standpoint is that he realises how very mysterious a force the poetic imagina- Pon is. Bowra's is the easier task, because he finds less that stands in need of explanation.

Both men, significantly, have appliefhthemselves to the revalua- tion of the Romantic tradition, which, despite repeated attempts to break with it, has not seriously weakened its hold on our literature in the last hundred and fifty years. For notwithstanding the efforts of Matthew Arnold, of Robert Bridges and of T. S. Eliot to supply The theoretical basis for a new classicism, most of our contemporary poetry is written in the implicit belief that " the primary Imagina- tion is the living Power and prime Agent of all human perception." This definition of Coleridge's is cited by Bowra, though, I feel, without a full acceptance of its implications. He subscribes with more conviction -to Coleridge's other statement, that the writing of poetry is " a repetition in the finite mind of the eternal act of 'creation."

For Bowra a poet is essentially a creator ; the order of reality 'perceived by the imagination and bodied forth in the act of creation concerns him less. He avoids metaphysics. Heath-Stubbs on the other hand considers poetry " a species of mythology or significant dream." For him the poet has access to layers of experience beneath the conscious mind, which are not his alone but are the property of mankind in general. He does not go as far as the surrealists and claim that symbolism derived from this level should be understood by any reader, in the light of our common heritage Of dreams. Poetry, for him, must satisfy the intellect and the senses together. But the important thing is that Heath-Stubbs sees the imagination to be in contact with another order of reality, which he locates in the " unconscious " mind, whereas Bowra thinks of this same imagination as an autonomous creator.

Heath-Stubbs is chiefly concerned with the lesser poets of the Victorian age, who were subject to bad dreams. These he ascribes, of course, to their uneasy consciences, and finds the cause of their unease in the corrupt nature of capitalist society Coleridge's ," primary agent " is distorted by the bleak materialism of the „industrial age. Every Romantic poet should rightly, therefore, be a radical. The implication is that by political change an order of society might be founded in which finer poetry would be written by poets not in conflict with their surroundings. Bowra is guilty of no such crudities. Though not concerned with the reality behind appearances, perceived by the poet in the act of creation, he is aware that insight and imagination are a single faculty ; that when the poet is building an imaginary world he is at the same time drawing nearer to an understanding of the real one. On Byron's " Don Juan," on the debt to the Greeks of " Prometheus Unbound " and of " Atalanta in Calydon," on the interrelations of Wordsworth's ," Immortality Ode " and Coleridge's " Dejection," Bowra makes most penetrating observations ; his reassessment of Christina Rossetti, too, is not only timely but charming.

To Keats alone does Bowra do less than justice, and that because The Romantic Imagination. By C. M. Bowra. (Oxford University J'ress. 18s.) The Darkling Plain. By John Heath-Stubbs. (Eyre and Spottis- *node. 10s. 6d.) in the last year of his life Keats was feeling towards an apprehension of reality that strains the limits of Coleridge's definition and Bowra's interpretation of it. It is less important to know just what sort of Grecian urn he was visualising, and what his attitude was to the Hellenic past—though here Bowra is most interesting—than to understand Keats' conception of beauty and timelessness. Timeless- ness for him was not, as it is for Bowra, the timelessness of a work of art which " transcends time by making a single moment last for ever "—or rather it is that and something more. " Time," says Meister Eckhart, " is what keeps the light from reaching us." A moment of timeless vision enabled Keats to see his urn, and through it the world, in this light of eternity that Eckhart speaks of, to see its beauty. or essence, as a timeless whole. It is as if, having always viewed it from a single angle, or at a single moment in time, he was suddenly able to see it from all sides, to comprehend its whole existence at once.

Heath-Stubbs does not consider Keats. He gives his first atten- tion to the Romantics of the second generation, to Darley, Beddoes and Hood. Then, excluding Tennystm and Browning, he moves on to Patmore, the Pre-Raphaelites, Hopkins and Yeats, accepting or dismissing the poets of the nineteenth century according to his sympathies and his ill-assorted collection of theories. The pages he devotes to Thomson's " City of. Dreadful Night " are remarkable for their tempered and well-reasoned enthusiasm. He can see the effectiveness of Thomson's slow build-up, and the religious quality of that mind which so furiously rejected religion. He is equally discerning in his praise of Hawker's " Quest of the Sangraal," an Arthurian legend with a rugged strength and occasional magnificence of phrase. His prejudices, however, betray him at times into absurdity. As a Jungian—or is he a Freudian here ?—he praises Hood for recording his nightmares, while dismissing him as a comic poet. Then, as a Socialist, he awards a medal to Hopkins for " clearly and unflinchingly estimating what was the real condition of the working class in his time," and gives Browning a black Mark for failing to do so.

Browning, in fact, collects a positive splatter of black marks, which might with greater justification go to the critic himself In " A Death in the Desert " and " Caliban upon Setebos," Heath- Stubbs complains, neither intuitive faith nor honest doubt speaks clearly. But Browning's supreme merit, surely, is that for him there are several ways of interpreting any set of facts, and that neither faith nor doubt, in his view, tells the whole story. He earns Heath-Stubbs's further disapproval by his " pseudo-Elizabethan " diction. Yet this wayward critic is prepared to pass the language of Doughty's archaic epics and of " The Testament of Beauty," and quotes with pleasure a passage from Hopkins which reads like a snap translation from the Anglo-Saxon. His book is uneven, prejudiced and careless. Yet it is the work of a man with a true feeling for poetry, and some understanding of the world to which certain poets have, at rare moments, limited access_ If ever he were to discard his present critical apparatus and outgrow his addiction to bad dreams, he might be a considerable critic.

Bowra speaks, as ever, out of his unrivalled knowledge of poetry, extending from the Greeks to contemporaries throughout Europe and the Americas. He seems to read without reference to any previous criticism, and to interpret each familiar poem in the light of his own insight alone, which fails him only once, in the case of Keats. His is the anonymity of true scholarship. One sees nothing of his prejudices or preferences ; and if he rather over- rates the poetry of Poe, it is difficult to say whether it' is out of compliment to his transatlantic audience, or out of his own addiction to violence in poetry, demonstrated in some of his previous essays on the moderns. He can show you a familiar landscape—and by a miracle you have never seen it so clearly before ! But should yOu stumble in the footsligpa of Heath-Stubbs you may be rewarded with an unexpected view into territory a little beyond that habitually