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Readers are asked to send a note of any misprints or mistakes that they spot in this article to editor@pnreview.co.uk

This article is taken from PN Review 147, Volume 29 Number 1, September - October 2002.

Il Cortegiano: F.T. Prince's Poems (1938) Geoffrey Hill

A poem that has appeared in a literary periodical prior to publication in book form sometimes repays examination in its original context. F.T. Prince's 'An Epistle to a Patron', included in his first volume, Poems (Faber, 1938), had previously appeared - with some textual differences - in The Criterion of July 1937.

Perhaps the most significant change is the omission from Poems of the rather Poundian 'Note' placed after the text in the Criterion version. This reads: 'Letter from Leonardo da Vinci to Ludovico il Moro, c.1483./Leon Battista Alberti, De Re Aedificatoria./Alberti and Sigismundo Malatesta of Rimini./Luciano Luarana and Federigo de Montefeltro of Urbino./Michelozzo and Cosimo de Medici.'

The occurrence of such names as Malatesta, Medici and Urbino comes as no great surprise. That being said, 'Letter to a Patron' (Criterion title) sounds rhetorically unlike the Cantos in language, syntax and measure. Prince is imitative, in a broad sense, of Pound's ambition to create a poetic medium in which public and private ethics, together with true and false aesthetics, are made to circle around an unshifting fulcrum which is the power of patronage, which in turn is worldly power. That is to say, Prince, in common with Pound, MacDiarmid, and early Auden, is concerned with the nature, retention and vulnerability of the public good in ways that are scarcely conceivable under the present dispensation. 'And a good thing too!' many will say, recalling Pound's fascism, MacDiarmid's hard-line Communism and perhaps Auden's Anglo-Catholicism. The objection has significant consequences if, as I think is the case, it causes readers to prefer Prince's Memoirs in Oxford, 1970, to his much finer Poems, 1938, on the grounds that the later volume is the more attractive because of its confessional vulnerability.

Given the situation, the predicament, of being a skilled and vulnerable artist in the 1930s (imagine the fictive 'An Epistle to a Patron' as being written by the equivalent of Hans Pfitzner or Richard Strauss, or Furtwängler, or Paul Hindemith, to a patron resembling Goebbels), Prince was right to negotiate his oratory as he did. In poems that are as well-written as 'An Epistle to a Patron' it is sometimes possible to find a sentence, a phrase, an enjambment, that stands in epigrammatic relation to the measure and diction - what I will call the stance - of the poem as a whole. I read two phrases from 'An Epistle...' so: 'as an orator plays off/Against each other and his theme his casual gems'; and 'bind me/To a prudish luxury'. The aesthetic oxymoron is that 'casual gems' are not in the least casual, as sprezzatura does not happen by chance. The method, in this as in several other major pieces in Poems, can be summarised as a way of 'playing off' associations and expectations against themselves and each other. 'Prudish luxury' plays, in an apparently superficial way, with various gems of apperception; but the context of Prince's 1930s poems is one in which the real luxuries are - or would be - freedom from fear and freedom to speak directly rather than obliquely. Prince's mother was Presbyterian, his father Jewish; he himself is a Catholic convert. In his poems - and this is as true of Memoirs in Oxford as of Poems or of Soldiers Bathing - apperception is apprehension. Prince's fictional author/speaker is prudish in intimations of revulsion and recoil, on occasions when Pound would be scatological and libellous.

In 'Epistle to a Patron' as it appeared in The Criterion, a phrase reads 'Or else spilt and spread like a feast of honey'. In Poems, 'spilt is given as 'split'. If this were not the poem it is, one would confidently correct this as a routine misprint. I recall a poem by Allen Tate in which the phrase 'Arcturus spilt his light' appeared in one anthology as 'Arcturus split his light'. My reservation is that Prince, in this respect very like Tate, has evolved a poetic idiom that moves so obliquely in relation to semantic expectations, to what I will perilously term the 'normative', that one can think of a variety of baroque reasons why 'split' might be deemed more wittily laboured than 'spilt' and therefore be received as the authentic reading. Like Tate's, Prince's is an equivocating oratory; and such a style is vulnerable to accidents of printing. [Note by G.H. at proof-stage: Collected Poems has 'spilt', thus confirming that 'split' was indeed a 'routine misprint' in Poems, which does not invalidate the point in this paragraph.]

A subsidiary question might be: where did he find, or how did he teach himself, this style? It is not that of Mauberley or Homage to Sextus Propertius nor of 'Triumphal March' and 'Difficulties of a Statesman' though, sixty and more years on, it is easy to see that they are all exercising in the same terrain.

In 1954 Prince published, with the Clarendon Press, The Italian Element in Milton's Verse, one of the few still essential works of literary scholarship and criticism produced during the past half-century. I have no way of knowing whether he had been immersed in the work of the Italian poets sixteen or eighteen years earlier, at the time that he was working on the major pieces collected in Poems, 1938. My guess is that he was alert to them even then: The Italian Element reads to me like a book that has been long-pondered. I may of course be wrong; and I certainly have no wish to stand accused of fiddling the chronological accounts. With that major caveat, I invite consideration of the following excerpts from Prince's book:

An intensely literary school or tradition of poetry will foster certain virtues: clarity, high finish and polish, intellectual deliberation and consistency, a fastidious taste. But it will be attended by certain dangers, always ready to entrap 'the practitioner of poetry': frigidity, a stiffness of approach to everyday experience and events, an inclination to substitute artistic formulae for emotion and vision. (p.5)

The appreciation of such poetry as Della Casa's perhaps demands a special feeling for language and form: as it is learned poetry, so it asks for a somewhat learned response, an awareness of careful modifications of tone and substance. (p.30)

It is the artificiality of the word-order which makes possible the special beauties of both Della Casa and Milton. This alone makes possible the continuous interplay of the expected and the unexpected, the transformation of occasional verse into singular and vivid poetry. (p.104)

Yet the underlying prose-quality often to be detected in [Milton's] sonnets is as much a source of strength as of weakness; it is just the way in which this rational plainness, this solidity become poetic that may excite most admiration. (pp. 104-5)

Prince has here a scholar's commitment to the European historical moment when certain formative minds took hold of the idea that 'it is not the thoughts which make a Poet, as some would have us believe, but the locutions' (p.104, n.i). In addition to this, however, I would suggest, on the evidence of his poems, that his argument about 'strength' and 'weakness' and 'occasion' in Bembo, Della Casa, Tasso and Milton both undermines his assurance and confirms his doubts as to the value of his own slender output of beautifully- crafted dramatic soliloquies and 'personal' (as we say) lyrics. Remarks in The Italian Element that are perceptions based on rigorous objective scholarship none the less make poignant reading when set alongside passages from Memoirs in Oxford, 1970.

Certain poems in Prince's first volume - in particular 'An Epistle to a Patron', 'Words from Edmund Burke', and 'The Tears of a Muse in America' - though perhaps deriving from Eliot's, or Pound's, practice of direct quotation and close verbal allusion, stand as powerfully individual structures in which mannered statements are simultaneously instances of cloaked, equivocal speech and of naked revelation. These poems are twentieth-century equivalents of poems by Bembo and Della Casa as interpreted by Prince the professional literary scholar: they show 'clarity, high finish and polish', 'intellectual deliberation and consistency, a fastidious taste', 'the continuous interplay of the expected and the unexpected, the transformation of occasional verse into singular and vivid poetry' (for this latter quality, see particularly 'To a Friend on his Marriage' in Poems). But in Bembo especially such virtues were offset by actual or potential vices: 'frigidity, a stiffness of approach to everyday experience and events, an inclination to substitute artistic formulae for emotion and vision.'

It is with a certain frisson that, in Memoirs in Oxford, one reads the phrases of self-castigation, phrases that vibrate sympathetically and painfully with criticisms that Prince has directed at the work of Bembo. Such phrases from the Memoirs include 'what had frustrated/A nature ardent and direct', 'cold, confined,/withholding what I longed to give ', 'A sensitive/Of the most complicated kind', 'Cut off from old simplicities/Others had carefully been taught', 'Not dead at heart but separated'; also:

The endless, aching waste of feeling
    And death, some kind of purity,
That death and torment of my youth
My need of love and hope of truth
          It was the same as poetry!

Is it possible that Prince has confused the mannered, fastidious style of Poems with his own 'youthful cold[ness]' in familial and other personal relationships? Would he be heartened or not if one were to say that 'withholding what I longed to give', etc., etc., is a youthful shortcoming that makes him similar to ninety-nine percent of the human race and that what made him unique were the highly-wrought soliloquies in Poems? I fancy he would not: Memoirs in Oxford has too much invested in it.

Poets of the 1930s - for evident and good reasons - gave much attention to questions of just and unjust rule, the public good (again one wants to add: in ways totally incomprehensible to the poets of today).

Eliot's inability or unwillingness to extend - or complete - the Coriolan sequence was a tragic failure; and Murder in the Cathedral, successful though it is, is none the less a withdrawal from the self-challenge of 'Triumphal March' and 'Difficulties of a Statesman' towards and into a style of less challenging technical problems - the conventions of 1930s choral verse-speaking and the requirement to bring movement and variety to the culturally statuesque.

A successfully completed Coriolan sequence, even if as slim a volume as Ash-Wednesday, would, I believe, have taken Eliot forward in a direction from which 'Burnt Norton' deflected him: into a synthesis, in twentiethcentury terms, of Dryden's two forms of satire - the heroic and the burlesque.

To shift the focus somewhat abruptly: Auden's 'In Memory of W.B. Yeats' is powerful in the disposition of its opening rhetoric, where affirmation and reservation, irony and praise, enhance each other; but the gear shift into marching quatrains in the final section is an abdication of judgement; the metre itself works a 'strange excuse' in which parody and self-parody are indistinguishable.

In the soliloquies of the 1938 Poems Prince had evolved a style of presentation which came closer than that of any of his contemporaries to fulfilling the uncompleted commitments of the Coriolan torso. There are magnificent things in David Gascoyne's Poems 1937-1942 but the major difference between this book and Prince's Poems is succinctly phrased in the Italian Renaissance opinion that Prince cites and which I quoted earlier: 'it is not the thoughts which make a Poet... but the locutions'. Gascoyne places a high premium on thoughts as the close correspondence between his Journals and Poems 1937-1942 testifies. His locutions can skid from magisterial to gauche in the space of a few lines. So can Eliot's in the two Coriolan pieces, but in his case it is deliberate.

A degree of semantic and rhythmic intelligence, so alert that it is practically tactile, constitutes the peculiar virtues of Prince's Poems. It is, so it seems to me, finer than the semantic and rhythmic abilities of 'Triumphal March', 'Difficulties of a Statesman', 'In Memory of W.B. Yeats', 'Miserere', 'Ecce Homo'. This is high praise, for Gascoyne's book in particular is a noble achievement.

Prince - post 1938 - shares one major weakness with Gascoyne: they are both ridden by the hag Sincerity. Already, in the communing of 'Soldiers Bathing', it is as if the poet were silently reproaching himself for an earlier violent preciosity. I am saying that the criteria, the creative intuitions, that went into the making of Poems (1938) were well-founded. Confessional sincerity is the undoing of Memoirs in Oxford (1970).

It was asked - rhetorically - earlier in this paper: where did Prince learn the style which, at least as early as 1935, he had brought to a pitch of mastery? A tentative response was offered: it is possible that, as early as 1935, he had perceived how the rhetoric of Bembo, Della Casa and Milton worked, within the phrase-unit as well as in the verse paragraph: and that he was able, even at that relatively early stage, to create their modern equivalents.

I here offer a further suggestion, equally tentative, equally conscious that in making it one cannot bring forward convincing chronological data. The suggestion is that Prince could have been influenced by the styles of political, economic and literary criticism as these were presented - or, as some would say, paraded - in the pages of The Criterion, the periodical in which his own poems were appearing in 1936/7. Restricting my instances to the issues of January 1936 (which included 'Epistle to a Patron') and July 1937 (where 'A Muse for William Maynard' - subsequently 'The Tears of a Muse in America' - first appeared), I take the following: 'Emotions well handled in art are somehow absorbed into the structure; their expression is made also to express where and why they are valid' - William Empson, 'Feelings in Words'; 'Yet perhaps it is as a psychologist that Miss Butler is most disappointing. With a certain prim complacency she tells us that Winckelmann was incapable of love...' - Stephen Spender, reviewing E. M. Butler, The Tyranny of Greece over Germany; 'In addition, these essays as a body of writing reflect in remarkable fashion the peculiar temperamental and stylistic qualities of their author, especially the famous diffidence and the exquisitely frigid irony...' - Gwilym Price-Jones reviewing Collected Essays by F. H. Bradley; 'For Mr Auden art is a means of cryptic instruction, cryptic because overt precepts are insufficiently flexible' - A. Desmond Hawkins, reviewing The Arts Today, ed. Geoffrey Grigson; 'Art is both "rage for order" and "rage against chaos". It is a classifying, a botanizing, a voracity of contemplation. "The actual is a deft benefi- cence."' - Marianne Moore, reviewing Ideas of Order by Wallace Stevens; 'But James [the First] betrayed the Catholic Faith and chose a heretic [as Archbishop]. The appointment of Abbot meant the loss of the Catholic tradition; and it was a dead loss' - Henry S. Swabey, 'The English Church and Money'; 'the danger I foresee for the next period is in a negligence of the problem of 'how to write' - such that the creative writers may become insuffi- ciently critical of their own workmanship, and the critical writers absorbed in problems which are not literary at all' - T.S.E., 'A Commentary'.

I return for the last time in this paper to Prince's observation that in Milton's sonnets a 'rational plainness' contributes to their eloquence: 'the underlying prosequality... is as much a source of strength as of weakness'. None of the critical excerpts quoted in the previous paragraph appears to have less than a 'rational plainness'; and it is such rational plainness that acts as a kind of armature to the major pieces in Prince's 1938 collection. If, on being replaced in context, in the reviews section of The Criterion, such critical and polemical plainness were to be revealed as self-contradicting or delusional, to a poet such as Prince in his early virtuosity this discovery would not act as a deterrent but rather as more grist to the creative mill. 'Chaka' is a masterpiece

Such were the gifts inflicted upon us who trembled
At their brilliance -


This article is taken from PN Review 147, Volume 29 Number 1, September - October 2002.



Readers are asked to send a note of any misprints or mistakes that they spot in this article to editor@pnreview.co.uk
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