27 MARCH 1942, Page 16


Symbols in Poetry

READERS of Professor Wilson Knight's previous books will know, more or less, what to expect of his latest study of poetic imagery. His combination of industry with a penetrating :nsight into the workings of the poet's mind gives a unique character to his criti- cism. He has teally found something new to say about the English classics, and no one who has read one of his essays can return to its subject without a richer understanding of its significence as poetry. Those to whom Professor Knight's is a new name may, perhaps, be warned in fairness that he does not provide easy reading, partly because what he has to say is extremely difficult to express, involving, as it does, the interpretation of symbols which are by nature untranslatable, and partly, it must be said, because he does not always make the reader's task easy by writing with the maximum of clarity. " The Starlit Dome " is not for those who want a smattering of aesthetic appreciation served with a spice of smart paradox. It demands constant attention and hard thought, but given that it will greatly reward the reader. The book contains four studies in the " poetry of vision " and is complementary to " The Burning Oracle," which dealt with the " poetry of action." Professor Knight's aim is to show what his poets—here Wordsworth, Coleridge, Shelley and Keats—are writing about, and he arrives at his object by way of a minute examination of the poetic symbols used by them. " Hitherto," he says in a sentence which incidentally exemplifies the occasional lack of ultimate clarity and even of strict grammar in his writing, " these precise and crowning symbolisms (domes corresponding to the Crown in the political order and throughout poetry) have been dismissed as fanciful ornamentation, with excessive attention given to the thought in unfair abstraction and the amazing results we have all witnessed whereby the sovereign wisdom of poetry becomes the monopoly of the erring intelligence."

From this it will be evident that what matters most in a poem is not its story or idea, but the rendering of the poet's feeling about the idea in poetic imagery. Yet oddly enough Coleridge, who ruined his poetic genius by chaining it to extra-poetic ideas, occupies far more of Professor Knight's space than the other poets, although it might be thought that only " Christabel," "The Ancient Mariner " and " Kubla Khan " fulfil completely (and how completely they do fulfil it!) the requirement of being abso- lute poetry. " Kubla Khan," indeed, stands central to Professor Knight's theme. Its pleasure-dome, its rushing torrents and sun- less deep caverns are the touchstones by which he tests the poetry

of vision. He harks back to them on every other page, finding analogies everywhere, and drawing, too, with a ,ich allusiveness upon his stored knowledge of poetry down" to our own times. Indeed, it is astonishing how prevalent is the imagery of Kali Khan in the three other so different poets. They ,appeat like planets, revolving in their own orbits indeed, but around one central complex of symbols. I found the essay on Wordsworth the most stimulating and that on Keats the most sensitive in touch. The analysis of "The Prelude " is masterly, sending one to the original with a quickened sense of its beauty and underlying (as distinct from surface biographical) intent. The " Immortality " ode, too, is wonder. fully illumined, though one may question whether the child is rightly to be counted among its symbols, for is not the child precisely what all the other symbols are gathered about, like the nucleus of the atom with its electrons? And some sentences her; too, will cause head-scratching. Though the subject still be childhood, the poem is more tech- nically erotic than most, a symbolic union with the child-symbol performing a central and most important resolution of dynamic immediacy. But the author is not generally so obscure, and still less frequently does he lapse into absurdity, as when he produces what is almost a parody of his own method: Its very names are so lettered as to suggest first and last things: Xanadu, Kubla Khan, Alph, Abyssinian, Abora. " A " ii emphatic ; Xanadu, which starts the poem, is enclosed in letters which might be called eschatological • while Kubla Khan himself sits alphabetically central with his alliterating k's.

Doubtless Coleridge revelled in the assonances of these names, but it is difficult to believe that he was aware or even uncon- sciously influenced by their position in the alphabetical index— an apparatus, by the way, for ,which this book would have been the better in the interest, not of the lazy reader who will not cope with it anyhow, but of convenient reference for confirmation to