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This review is taken from PN Review 30, Volume 9 Number 4, March - April 1983.

THE VOICES OF HISTORY Stan Smith, Inviolable Voice: History and Twentieth-Century Poetry (Gill & Macmillan) £17.00

Poetry, in Stan Smith's view, is history in disguise. 'All poetry, at its deepest levels, is structured by the precise historical experience from which it emerged', even though some major twentieth-century poets - Eliot is a notable example - have tried to resist history, to deny its determinations. Impossible: history, inevitably, pervades poetry: a history, moreover, of violence and oppression. Poetry is the inviolable voice which must speak of this, even against the will of those who write it.

This is a challenging thesis: Smith's book fails to support it. The main problem is that he is no historian. Towards the end of the book, he suggests how Robert Lowell's History shows that ' the "history" we assume as a given is merely that which has been recorded, preserved, transmitted'. But this historiographical sophistication is conspicuously lacking in the rest of Inviolable Voice: his view of the history of the twentieth century, insofar as it emerges in his argument, lacks empirical particularity or interpretative subtlety. It tells too simple and schematic a story, from the start of decline in the late Victorian and Edwardian era (Hardy), through the smash-up of the Great War (Edward Thomas), the political temptations of Fascism and Communism in the 1920s and 1930s (Pound, Eliot, Auden), the post-war sense of violence (Hughes, Gunn) and Imperial decline (Larkin, En-right), and the fantasy-fed brutalities of Northern Ireland (Derek Mahon). It unrolls as easily and blandly as a soap-opera, and this comes home especially when Smith's ...


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