24 SEPTEMBER 1948, Page 24

The Poem and the Age

Five Poems 1470-1870. By E. M Tillyard. (Chatto & Windus.

8s. 6d.)

DR. TILLYARD'S latest book sets out to explain and criticise five representative poems, ranging from The Testament of Cresseid to Hertha, in terms of the prevalent ideas of their different epocns- ' those ideas least paraded and most taken for granted which are the peculiar property of the age. He modestly calls it" an elementary essay in the background of English literature." It is in fact a convincing plea for the historical approach in criticism, an extension of the method already employed in his Elizabethan World Picture ; and as such it is useful and timely. In these days when as large claims are made for English studies as the new humanities (with little Latin, less Greek and still less of the Bible), it is well for student and teacher to be reminded that, they can no longer assume "the enviable coherence and uniformity of culture which came from the assurance that a limited body of (such) knowledge was common property."

Dr. Tillyard is too sane a critic to mistake background for fore- ground. He knows his method is a means to an end, and that when, with added knowledge and curiosity satisfied, we return to the literary qualities the real business of criticism begins. His own book is on the whole more illuminating at the first stage of the process than at the second. An essay which has new and interesting things to say about The Testament of Cresseid somehow manages to miss the essential difference between Henryson's treatment and Chaucer's—dramatic handling of the theme replacing the analytical ; it also passes by the puzzle of why at the great moment of meeting Cresseid should fail to recognise her erstwhile lover. An odd though obvious remark that Swinburne's verse is "easy and delightful on the muscles of speech" suggests an approach to metre which will not get us far. It is perhaps significant that the best essay is the one which treats the least " poetic " of the five poems, Dryden's Ode on Anne Killigrew. This within its limits is a model appreciation and a tribute to what both Dryden and Dr. Tillyard believe in—the value of good manners and of an ordered way of life.

To relate it more emphatically to its age each poem is illustrated by a more or less contemporary work of art. Anyone who has tried these parallels between poetry and painting knows that they are liable to miss fire ; regardless of dates the two arts have a disobliging trick of refusing to keep in step. Here the elaborate Grinling Gibbons overmantle framing a formal Lelyesque child is a particu- larly happy fit for the conventions of Dryden's ode. But the rich- ness of Elizabethan fancy might have been better matched by something from Hillyard or Oliver than by the dull undistinguished Jacobean tablet which is given to Davies's Orchestra. And a violent Fuseli illustration to Macbeth, all sound and fury signifying nothing, is a far enough cry from the spirit of The Ancient Mariner.