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This item is taken from PN Review 205, Volume 38 Number 5, May - June 2012.

For its annual Review the Royal Society of Literature, marking the Queen's Jubilee (God save her), invited a number of writers to describe what is being branded the 'Second Elizabethan Age'. Professor John Carey issued the levelling proclamation we'd expect from the author of The Intellectuals and the Masses: Pride and Prejudice among the Literary Intelligentsia, 1880-1939 (1992): 'For me the big literary achievement of the last sixty years has been the recapturing of poetry from the modernist avant garde. Throughout the first half of the twentieth century it went without saying in literary circles that poetry should be unintelligible.' His Venn diagram of 'literary circles' is remarkably congruent, though ahistorical. He builds his usual rhetoric on this dubious nostrum:

Profundity and obscurity were thought to be necessary partners, and to write poetry that could be understood by ordinary readers was to relegate yourself to the status of versifier. The most notable poets of the first half of the century, Auden and Dylan Thomas, were both perfectly capable of making sense, and when they did so they both produced poems that have become part of our cultural life-blood.

Professor Carey mentions 'Do Not Go Gentle' and 'Lullaby', a lifeblood rather limited in haemoglobin. Then he adds, 'they often wrote gibberish out of obedience to the received norm'. Out of such darkness stream three redeeming lights.

The change has come about, mainly, through three poets. After making a false start with the Yeatsian The North Ship in 1945, Philip Larkin found his own voice in The Less Deceived, 1955. Two years later Ted Hughes published his first collection, Hawk in the Rain. Larkin and Hughes came from different poetic roots - Larkin from Hardy and Auden, Hughes from Wordsworth and D.H. Lawrence. But they had intelligibility in common. Their poems could be - and quickly were - read and understood by schoolchildren. They both earned the respect of the non-literary establishment. Hughes became Poet Laureate, Larkin could very probably have done so but refused to have his name put forward.

The third revolutionary poet, Seamus Heaney, can hardly be counted an 'Elizabethan' since he is firmly Irish. But like the other two, he has brought poetry back to the common reader, and it was reading Hughes, as he has acknowledged, that inspired him. Like the other two, also, he avoids erudite allusions and literary mannerisms and chooses to write about the commonplace and transform it by his writing.

Without these three poets the last 60 years would be immeasurably poorer.

Would Hughes or Heaney, or Larkin for that matter, recognise themselves in this atmosphere entirely drained of the oxygen of Modernism? The triumph of the second Elizabethan age is a turning back, turning a collective back.

'Why should not old men be mad?' a cantankerous old Modernist declared. Restore to the people their God-given ignorance!

In the same journal, the newly retired editor of Poetry Review Fiona Sampson takes us on a breathless tour of the second Elizabethan age as viewed from a less doctrinaire Parnassus. The Movement, the Group and their aftermaths pass before us like the Scottish Kings in Macbeth. In conclusion, a sweeping, diplomatic paragraph provides a neutralised vision of contemporary British poetry. Her language is less categorical, more defensive than Professor Carey's. 'Still, arguably,' she begins, standing outside what she has to say, 'the quiet success story of this era has been the shift from retrospective imperialism to post-colonial shame.' One gropes about in memory, in the anthologies, for poetic evidence to support her argument, to little avail. 'The seventies saw a surge of free-verse inventiveness, some of it with a Caribbean accent, much of it by women.' Boxes are ticked, an implausibly autonomous age, sexually and ethnically inclusive, continues releasing its distinctive poem.

We might have predicted from her record as an editor and competition judge her examplars. 'Certainly from the deeply thoughtful Sean O'Brien to unlikely eco-heroine Ruth Padel, and from language activist Bernardine Evaristo to dreamers like John Burnside and David Harsent, we're enjoying the “peace dividend” of six settled decades.' Decades that, incidentally, begin with the Suez Crisis and include the problems in Ulster, the mainland bombings both by the IRA and by other groups, the Thatcher years, the miners' strikes, the rise of the National Front, mass demonstrations, riots, the problems in Mesopotamia and further East... Poets who lived through and responded to those troubles, poets from the earlier decades of her Majesty's reign, don't get a name-check.

The idea of a second Elizabethan age is complicated by the fact that, this time round, the island has shared its language with the world and that world shares it back, transformed, enriched. Borders, where they still exist, are blurred: it's possible (to tick some of Sampson's boxes differently) for Derek Walcott to lay claim to Philip Larkin, for J.H. Prynne to acknowledge kinship with Ed Dorn. Eavan Boland, Adrienne Rich and Elaine Feinstein (also Fiona Sampson) are connected by language in ways that make empire and nation points of increasingly remote departure. The poetic triumphs of a second Elizabethan age reside in the formal and linguistic addition to writers' and readers' experience of the art. Must we speak of success stories and dividends, honouring Thatcherite aesthetics that degraded more than a decade of this 'era's' culture?

A second Elizabethan era might be characterised by the greater space available to poetry in Britain due to Modernism and its various wakes. The dreamers, the deeply thoughtful, the eco-heroines and language activists themselves might wish to read and be read beyond conventional borders, physical and theoretical. They might, too, be keen to keep a wider company, and for editors and critics to dispense with reductive epithets.

This item is taken from PN Review 205, Volume 38 Number 5, May - June 2012.

Readers are asked to send a note of any misprints or mistakes that they spot in this item to
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