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This article is taken from PN Review 9, Volume 6 Number 1, September - October 1979.

A Fragmentary Poem

Between the emotion from which a poem rises and the reader there is always a cultural layer of more or less density from which the images or characters in which it is expressed may be drawn. In the ballad 'I wish I were where Helen lies' this middle ground is but faintly indicated. The ballad, we say, is simpler than the 'Ode to the Nightingale'; it evokes very directly an emotional response. In Keats's ode the emotion gains resonance from the atmosphere of legendary association through which it passes before reaching us. It cannot be called better art, but it is certainly more sophisticated and to some minds less poignant. From time to time there appear poets and a poetic audience who prefer this refractory haze of allusion to be very dense; without it the meanings of the words strike them so rapidly as to be inappreciable, just as, without the air, we could not detect the vibration of light. We may remember with what elaboration Addison, among others, was obliged to undertake a defence of the old ballads before it was recognized that their bare style might be admired even by gentlemen familiar with the classics.

The poetic personality of Mr Eliot is extremely sophisticated. His emotions hardly ever reach us without traversing a zig-zag of allusion. In the course of his four hundred lines he quotes from a score of authors and in three foreign languages, though his artistry has reached that point at which ...


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