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This review is taken from PN Review 248, Volume 45 Number 6, July - August 2019.

Cover of Selected Poems edited by John Clegg
Oliver DixonA Baggy Oeuvre
John Heath-Stubbs, Selected Poems edited by John Clegg (Carcanet Classics) £12.99
Opening the new Selected Poems of John Heath-Stubbs onto ‘Leporello’, the seasoned poetry-forager may be intrigued by its first line’s formal dynamics: nineteen syllables, divided into a question and an answering clause, with something like ten stresses arranged along the perhaps unwieldy line. If we accept that a poet’s formal expedients are invariably a crucial aspect of their meaning, it may be useful to enquire into the provenance of this unusual line as an entry-point into Heath-Stubbs’s poetics.

If we return to his only book-length critical study, The Darkling Plain (1950), an attempt to trace the legacy of Romanticism through the examination of a number of nineteenth-century poets, we may gain a more accurate sense of Heath-Stubbs’s starting points. Although sceptical of Browning, he writes more approvingly of Arnold and Clough, whose long-lined, wryly colloquial style may have partly informed poems like ‘Leporello’. However, its densely coiled, often macabre imagery recalls another post-Romantic explored in The Darkling Plain, Thomas Beddoes.

Like the nineteenth-century poets he analysed, Heath-Stubbs had a double-edged relationship with Romanticism. During the 1940s, a strain of what was later called Neo-Romanticism flourished both as a stylistic reaction to the pseudo-Modernist rhetoric of the Thirties Poets and as a nostalgic turning away from the horrors of the Battle of Britain and the Second World War. While certainly influenced by his friends Sidney Keyes, Dylan Thomas and George Barker, Heath-Stubbs was always a more restrained poet, an artificer rather than a ‘voyant’. As his critical essays demonstrate, he also possessed a more developed sense of literary history and ...

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