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This review is taken from PN Review 51, Volume 13 Number 1, September - October 1986.

Peter Levi MICHAEL HAMBURGER

A generation of poets cannot really alter the state of poetry because it is really the language that sets us our problems and history that determines them. Certainly the generation now about sixty years old worked out their problems alone, one of the issues being precisely that of the individual voice. The sense of a movement, of an organized verse style, was imposed by critics, and what similarities exist between different poets have their roots in the axioms of criticism. But the aim of the exercise was always to break loose to be oneself, to be accepted for oneself. Within the self-imposed but generally accepted limits of the English university poets from the 1940s to the 1960s, that was an arduous task; it is amazing that so many poets achieved it in the end.

Among them Michael Hamburger stands out as a kind of hero. He has not only accomplished what T. S. Eliot, borrowing an idea from Dryden, said of Walter de la Mare:


... those deceptive cadences
Wherewith the common measure is refined;
By conscious art practised with natural ease;


but he has been a beacon-light of rigour to other poets, by offering his personal version of the seriousness, the strength and economy of modern German poetry. In doing so, he has certainly contributed to the definition of its tradition. It goes back, as his own career does, to Hölderlin, though his personal poetry is ...


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