Charles Tomlinson Essay - Tomlinson, Charles (Poetry Criticism)

Tomlinson, Charles (Poetry Criticism)


Charles Tomlinson 1927–

(Full name Alfred Charles Tomlinson) English poet, translator, editor, critic, and artist.

A respected English poet whose verse focuses on the philosophic implications of sensory experience, Tomlinson uses acute observation and detailed description to explore the relationship between the external world and the self. Tomlinson suggests that through sensitive perception of natural phenomenon, human beings are able to gain an awareness "that teaches us not to try to reduce objects to our own image, but to respect their own otherness, and yet find our way into contact with that otherness." Tomlinson's admiration for the work of such American writers as Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams, Wallace Stevens, and Marianne Moore is reflected in the clarity of his language, the musical cadences of his verse, his detached tone, and his objective point of view.

Biographical Information

Born in Stoke-on Trent in Staffordshire to a working-class family, Tomlinson attended Cambridge University from 1945-48, where he studied English literature. It was at Cambridge that he first developed an interest in American poetry, which became a significant influence on his work. In addition to his many well-regarded collections of verse, Tomlinson has translated works by such poets as Fyodor Tyutchev, Antonio Machado, and Cesar Vallejo; he has edited collections of poems and essays by Marianne Moore, William Carlos Williams, and Octavio Paz; and he has collaborated with Paz and other poets on two other books of verse, Renga and Airborn/Hijos del aire. An accomplished graphic artist, he has also published several volumes of his visual images, including Eden: Graphics and Poetry, which combines poetry and artwork.

Major Works

Tomlinson's first major collection, Seeing is Believing, was widely praised for its attention to landscape and visual detail and was noted for its emphasis on the need for disciplined and accurate observation. His succeeding volumes, A Peopled Landscape and American Scenes and Other Poems, reflect his exposure to American landscapes and his contacts with such American poets as George Oppen, Louis Zukofsky, Marianne Moore, and William Carlos Williams, whom he met during his travels across America from 1959 to 1960. Tomlinson's

concern with the natural world, with landscape, place and weather has, as critics observe, remained central to all of his work, but that concern was accompanied by an interest in the processes of time and history that came to figure more prominently in the volumes of the 1960s. In his next two major collections, The Way of a World and Written on Water, Tomlinson presents his themes through the recurring motifs of water and time. The Way of a World contains some of Tomlinson's best-known poems, including "Against Extremity" and the widely anthologized "Swimming Chenango Lake." In The Way In and Other Poems, he introduces personal elements into his verse while continuing to probe the nature of perception and reality. His poems in this volume reflect the shifting balance of constancy and change as he returns to the landscapes of England, creating imaginative portraits of familiar scenes in such poem as "At Stoke" and "The Marl Pits." The poems in his next book, The Shaft, contains the highly regarded "Lines Written in the Euganean Hills," in which the poet denounces human imposition on the natural world.

The Flood reflects his travels in England, North America, and Italy and displays a variety of literary styles, including elegiac and narrative verse and prose passages. In Notes from New York and Other Poems, he imaginatively recreates the urban landscapes of New York City. These poems attest to his concerns about the consequences of human interaction on the physical environment. Tomlinson's most recent collection, Jubilation, explores youth and aging, family life, and meditates on the dialectical relationship between rootedness and aging.

Critical Reception

Tomlinson is well-regarded for the precision, restraint, and originality of his verse, and is often praised for his deft explorations of the relationships between the external world and the self. His complex, philosophical poetry is also noted for its clarity of language, objective tone and view, and detailed imagery. Many commentators have examined the influence of American poets on his work, especially that of Ezra Pound, Wallace Stevens, Marianne Moore, and William Carlos Williams. Often faulted by some critics for being preoccupied with landscape and visual objects, he is also derided for a perceived lack of human warmth and passion in his work. Despite these charges, many scholars maintain the importance of his poetry; critic Calvin Bedient has described Tomlinson as "the most considerable English poet to have made his way since the Second World War."

Principal Works


Relations and Contraries 1951

The Necklace 1955

Seeing Is Believing 1958

A Peopled Landscape 1963

American Scenes and Other Poems 1966

The Way of a World 1969

Renga [with Octavio Paz, Jacques Roubaud and Edoardo Sanguineti] 1971

Written on Water 1972

The Way In and Other Poems 1974

Selected Poems, 1951-1974 1978

The Shaft 1978

Airborn/Hijos del aire [with Octavio Paz] 1981

The Flood 1981

Notes From New York and Other Poems 1984

Collected Poems 1985

The Return 1987

Selected Poems 1989

Other Major Works

Words and Images (graphics) 1972

In Black and White (graphics) 1976

Some Americans: A Personal Record (essays) 1981

Poetry and Metamorphosis (essays) 1983

Eden: Graphics and Poetry (graphics and poetry) 1985


Hugh Kenner (essay date 1956)

SOURCE: "A Creator of Space," in Poetry, Vol. 88, No. 5, August, 1956, pp. 324-28.

[In the following review of The Necklace, Kenner differentiates Tomlinson's poetry from that of other contemporary English poets.]

What claims to be the "agreeable minor verse" of anonymous British culture—the sort of thing for instance that gets printed for filler in The Listener—traffics, as the patient inspector quickly discovers, in void gestures of rumination over themes that, until the ruminative process seized on them, barely existed as themes. A thousand unpretentious poems are amplified samples of the background noise that continually accompanies the chatter of our mental processes, insistent, like all background noise, when the talking machine pauses for a moment: bits of commonplace assimilation of one's environment, isolated and promoted as "poetic" because not crassly practical. This random example comes from The Listener for October 13, 1955 [elisions Kenner's]:

This has a delectable post-Thermidor complacency. Tennyson need no longer be guillotined every Wednesday; poetry has outlived the phase of manifestoes and metrical Schrecklichkeit and can resume its normal business of distracting the middle classes. It is no longer quite the same poetry of course; even the incorruptible pentameter admits numerous hypermetric syllables, and it is licit for vapor-trails, flowers and violins to collapse into a simultaneous sensation. "Sparrows occur" is a very knowing bit of synthetic casualness, decidedly post-Auden. The revolution is consummated, Rupert Brooke is old hat, and we moderns (not of course glass-and-chrome moderns, but at any rate Eden's and Eisenhower's parishioners, not Bonar Law's) have our contemporary poésie d'ameublement. Civilization resumes its course. Time heals all things, even the schisms promoted by Vorticism. Mr. Wyndham Lewis gets a friendly nod now and then. And so on.

Under these circumstances the bored cisatlantic reader would have some excuse for supposing that Mr. Charles Tomlinson, with his apparatus of flutes, seashores and sunsets, was a member in good standing of the BBC party. Let the reader be undeceived; there could be no more convincing instance of the infallibility of the guardians of British public taste in distinguishing between the genuine and the specious than their unanimous condescension toward Mr. Tomlinson. A glance at the pages of The Necklace sufficed to persuade them that all was not well. Quite so: these mere fifteen poems constitute just such a flawlessly alert achievement in the joining of words, unassisted by rhetoric of form or empathy of theme, as the counter-Bohemian arbiters of the Queen's realm, though they go through the motions of prizing such criteria, must make it their business to proscribe.

… But how shall one say so?—
The fact being, that when the truth is not good enough
We exaggerate. Proportions

Matter. It is difficult to get them right.
There must be nothing
Superfluous, nothing which is not elegant
And nothing which is if it is merely that….

This extract—both what it says and the quality of writing it typifies—will serve to illustrate Mr. Tomlinson's minimum virtue, not talking too much while not indulging in a mummery of laconism, epigrams, meaningful glances, knowing understatements. He functions, at his mildest, like a flute-player oblivious to listeners, in a tacit dialogue with his art, getting a short passage exactly right. When this intentness on the contours of a perception extends itself, we have such a poem as "Observation of Facts," which needs to be quoted intact:

Facts have no eyes. One must
Surprise them, as one surprises a tree
By regarding its (shall I say?)
Facets of copiousness.

The tree stands.

The house encloses.

The room flowers.

These are fact stripped of imagination:
Their relation is...

(The entire section is 1716 words.)

Hugh Kenner (essay date 1959)

SOURCE: "Next Year's Words," in Poetry, Vol. 93, No. 5, February, 1959, pp. 335-40.

[In the following review of Seeing is Believing, Kenner discusses the innovative nature and respect for tradition in Tomlinson's poetry and acknowledges his debt to William Wordsworth, Marianne Moore, and the Symbolist poets.]

To be the best poet practicing in England is, these days, to share a meaningless eminence with the wittiest statistician in Terre Haute or the handsomest peacock ever hatched in Idaho. It is therefore virtually useless to locate Mr. Tomlinson with reference to his contemporaries; not only because he is steadily on the move and they aren't, but because he...

(The entire section is 1300 words.)

Donald Davie (essay date 1959)

SOURCE: "See, and Believe," in Essays in Criticism, Vol. IX, No. 2, April, 1959, pp. 188-95.

[In the following review of Seeing is Believing, Davie commends the development of Tomlinson's verse, calling the collection a "landmark. "]

[Seeing is Believing] is Tomlinson's third collection of poems, but the first that is both substantial and representative. His first, published quite some years ago by the Hand & Flower Press, contains, as they say, 'prentice-work', promising, intelligent and various, but now interesting chiefly because it shows the poet casting about for the style he wanted. In The Necklace, fifteen poems published four years ago...

(The entire section is 2321 words.)

Hayden Carruth (essay date 1964)

SOURCE: "Abstruse Considerations," in Poetry, Vol. CIV, No. 4, July, 1964, pp. 243-44.

[In the following positive review of A Peopled Landscape, Carruth explores the imitative structure of Tomlinson's verse.]

At first, [A Peopled Landscape] offers the reader a curious, even excessive, medley of impressions. Its appearance is characteristic of the English taste in thin volumes of poetry; dun-white paper, type in an Old Style face, a binding of pale yellow linen stamped in gold leaf; the whole giving off an iodoformic smell which is always present, I don't know why, in new books of English manufacture. Appalling as it sounds, the composite is not...

(The entire section is 574 words.)

Denis Donoghue (essay date 1968)

SOURCE: "The Proper Plenitude of Fact," in The Ordinary Universe: Soundings in Modern Literature, The Macmillan Company, 1968, pp. 21-50.

[In the following excerpt, Donoghue discusses the defining characteristics of Tomlinson 's verse.]

One might imagine a five-Act drama proceeding along these lines: (I) 'I see a mountain.' (2) 'The mountain exists, owing nothing to me.' (3) 'Now that it exists, however, it will register my feeling, receive its intimation.' (4) 'My feeling, when all is said, is more important than an inert mountain: the mountain will not mind diminishing itself to serve me.' (5) Ί shall now write my poem and it will take the place of the mountain; in...

(The entire section is 3472 words.)

Calvin Bedient (essay date 1970)

SOURCE: "Calvin Bedient on Charles Tomlinson," in The Iowa Review, Vol. 1, No. 2, Spring, 1970, pp. 83-100.

[In the following essay, Bedient analyzes the innovative nature of Tomlinson's verse.]

Charles Tomlinson is the most considerable English poet to have made his way since the second World War. There is more to see along that way, more to meditate, more solidity of achievement, more distinction of phrase, more success as, deftly turning, hand and mind execute the difficult knot that makes the poem complete, than in the work of any of Tomlinson's contemporaries. It is true that the way is strait; but Tomlinson would have it so. For his is a holding action: he is out...

(The entire section is 7702 words.)

Ronald Hayman (essay date 1970)

SOURCE: "Observation Plus," in Encounter, Vol. XXXV, No. 6, December, 1970, pp. 72-4.

[In the following excerpt, Hayman provides a positive assessment of The Way of a World.]

Though American critics have recognised the importance of Charles Tomlinson's achievement, it is still generally underrated in this country and almost without exception, reviews of his new book The Way of a World have been condescending, if not unfavourable. Just as an actor gets type-cast, a poet in our literary climate is all too liable to go on being discussed in the same terms that are applied to him in his first set of reviews. "Painterly," "visual," "microscopic"—the words were...

(The entire section is 1049 words.)

Bill Ruddick (essay date 1975)

SOURCE: A review of The Way In, in Critical Quarterly, Vol. 17, No. 2, Summer, 1975, p. 184.

[In the following mixed review of The Way In, Ruddick praises Tomlinson's comedie sense.]

Certain poems in Charles Tomlinson's The Way In show the dangers of the freewheeling approach. His Hebridean pieces are unmemorable and the title poem of the collection, though it shows sharp observation of externals in its description of the way a remembered place seems transformed out of all recognition as the poet drives past its high rise developments and the smoke of demolition men's fires, refuses to carry the reader in to the muted emotional climax which its...

(The entire section is 323 words.)

Charles Tomlinson with Jed Rasula and Mike Erwin (interview date 1975)

SOURCE: An interview in Contemporary Literature, Vol. XVI, No. 4, Autumn, 1975, pp. 405-16.

[In the following interview, Tomlinson discusses the role of politics in his poetry, the language he utilizes in his verse, and the function of poetry in society.]

[Mike Erwin]: In the Poem as Initiation you write, "there is no occasion too small for the poet's celebrationWilliams' red wheelbarrow, or Wordsworth's 'naked table 'all ask, through the insistence of the poem's ritual celebration, to be recorded by us in their deeper significances. " Is this an archetypal reality, something touching on the primary basis of existence (whatever your sense of that...

(The entire section is 4832 words.)

Michael Schmidt (essay date 1978)

SOURCE: "In the Eden of Civility," in The Times Literary Supplement, December 1, 1978, p. 1406.

[In the following favorable review of Selected Poems and The Shaft, Schmidt explores Tomlinson's rejection of both Neo-romantic and Movement poetry and discusses the ways this conscious rejection informs his own work.]

In "Small Action Poem" (1966) Charles Tomlinson introduces Chopin "shaking music from the fingers". Chopin's art was second nature to him. Tomlinson is not that sort of artist, he is to an unusual degree fastidious. In The Shaft, his latest collection, there are poems which he characterizes as "bagatelles"—a genre he has...

(The entire section is 2214 words.)

Kathleen O'Gorman (essay date 1983)

SOURCE: "Space, Time, and Ritual in Charles Tomlinson's Poetry," in Sagetrieb, Vol. 2, No. 2, Summer-Fall, 1983, pp. 85-98.

[In the following essay, O'Gorman examines the function of ritual in Tomlinson's verse as well as his unique notion of space and time.]

One might show, for example, that aesthetic perception too opens up a new spatiality, that the picture as a work of art is not the space which it inhabits as a physical thing and as a colored canvas … that the dance evolves in an aimless and unorientated space, that it is a suspension of our history….

Phenomenology of Perception


(The entire section is 4835 words.)

Michael Edwards (essay date 1987)

SOURCE: "Charles Tomlinson's Seeing and Believing," in Poetry and Possibility, The Macmillan Press, 1987, pp. 154-68.

[In the following excerpt, Edwards examines the religious aspects of Tomlinson's poetry.]

Seeing, according to the title of Tomlinson's first fulllength collection, is believing, but hasn't his point been missed? Not only is this more than a demand for evidence: the stress falls quite as much on the believing as on the seeing, for the adage has been sounded and then reversed. It declares, surely, in the light of the poems that follow, that what is achieved in seeing well is a kind of belief. Surprisingly, therefore, the poetry of this non-Christian will...

(The entire section is 5617 words.)

Donald Wesling (essay date 1988)

SOURCE: "Process and Closure in Tomlinson's Prose Poems," in Charles Tomlinson: Man and Artist, edited by Kathleen O'Gorman, University of Missouri Press, 1988, pp. 125-34.

[In the following essay, Wesling analyzes Tomlinson's experiments with the prose poem, maintaining that they "must serve in the end to reinforce one's belief that he is after all a traditional poet."]

The prose poem has not been favored by English poets, perhaps because of the prestige and unquestioned greatness of their national tradition of line and rhyme. Those who with Charles Tomlinson have experimented with the prose poem, like Roy Fisher and Geoffrey Hill, have been a shade more...

(The entire section is 2727 words.)

Michael Kirkham (essay date 1988)

SOURCE: "An Agnostic's Grace," in Charles Tomlinson: Man and Artist, edited by Kathleen O'Gorman, University of Missouri Press, 1988, pp. 153-81.

[In the following essay, Kirkham explores the ways in which Tomlinson's more recent poetry modifies and extends the themes of his earlier poetry.]

The evolution of Tomlinson's poerty has been gradual, organic, involving modifications and extensions but no disavowals of his past work. There have been changes over the years, but, as Tomlinson himself said to Michael Schmidt in 1977, "The underlying continuity remains the important thing."

In the late fifties, aspects of his work that caught the eye of...

(The entire section is 9595 words.)

Michael Ponsford (essay date 1989)

SOURCE: "'To Wish Back Eden': The Community Theme in Charles Tomlinson's Verse," in The Midwest Quarterly, Vol. XXX, No. 3, Spring, 1989, pp. 346-60.

[In the following essay, Ponsford maintains that Tomlinson's interest in the idea of community is directly related to his growing concern with the idea and ideal of Eden.]

Charles Tomlinson is one of Britain's most admired poets, and one of her most prolific. His [Collected Poems] represent four decades of intense poetic activity; yet his has never been a household name, and even among his admirers, he is still regarded with some suspicion. Readers, perhaps, are discomforted by the inclusiveness of his verse, which...

(The entire section is 3905 words.)

Ruth Grogan (essay date 1989)

SOURCE: "Tomlinson, Ruskin, and Moore: Facts and Fir Trees," in Twentieth-Century Literature, Vol. 35, No. 2, Summer, 1989, pp. 183-94.

[In the following essay, Grogan discusses John Ruskin's influence on Tomlinson, especially the attention to detail and faithfulness to visual surfaces.]

Charles Tomlinson is undoubtedly one of England's most distinguished living poets and critics. The accumulated work of four decades—his Collected Poems published by Oxford in 1985, his many translations (from Vallejo, Tyutchev, Machado, and Paz, to name only a few), his large body of criticism and memoirs, his exhibitions of graphic work and the three resulting volumes of...

(The entire section is 3909 words.)

Michael Edwards (essay date 1989)

SOURCE: "Providence and the Abyss," in The Times Literary Supplement, December 22-28, 1989, p. 1417.

[Below, Edwards provides a laudatory review of Annuciations.]

Annunciations is the book in which Charles Tomlinson makes explicit what has always been the case, that his poetry looks to this world to provide the "religious" sense of life which Christianity for him can no longer sustain. The Christian vocabulary remains, but only to describe art as a return to Eden, and nature itself as a process of resurrection or a heaven. The "annunciation" of a larger-than-life presence in the world, of a reality which has preceded us and will outlast us, of a mystery...

(The entire section is 591 words.)

Robert Potts (essay date 1992)

SOURCE: "Tomlinson Stands Up," in The Times Literary Supplement, December 18, 1992, p. 19.

[In the following mixed review of The Door in the Wall, Potts explores Tomlinson's continued interest in landscape.]

Charles Tomlinson's poetry has benefited, perhaps perversely, from his frustrated interest in a career in cinema and his often frustrating progress as an artist, and almost fulfils that vexatious Horatian dictum, ut pictura poesis. Firmly categorized now as a poet of landscape, Tomlinson has for over forty years produced his careful, Impressionist pieces, combining a painter's precision and sensitivity with the cinematic facility for recording the...

(The entire section is 872 words.)

John Redmond (essay date 1995)

SOURCE: "Stirring Your Tea is Only a Normal Activity if You Stop Doing it Relatively Quickly," in The London Review of Books, Vol. 17, No. 13, July 6, 1995, p. 19.

[In the following excerpt, Redmond provides a favorable review of Jubilation, calling it an old-fashioned but well-crafted, precise, and intelligent book of poetry.]

Charles Tomlinson's Jubilation is a very old-fashioned poetry book. His sense of the line, his diction and his subject-matter at times are reminiscent of the Georgians and, indeed, there are a couple of references to Edward Thomas and Ivor Gurney. When he is not referring to a timeless landscape and noting the effects of the...

(The entire section is 403 words.)

Further Reading


Brown, Merle. "Intuition and Perception in the Poetry of Charles Tomlinson." The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 37, No. 3 (Spring 1979): 277-93.

Discusses Tomlinson's poem "Under the Moon's Reign," calling it his most ambitious work to date.

Edwards, Michael. "Charles Tomlinson: Notes on Tradition and Impersonality." The Critical Quarterly 15, No. 2 (Summer 1973): pp. 133-44.

Examines the diverse ways Tomlinson's poetry utilizes the themes of chance, tradition, and impersonality.

Getz, Thomas H. "Charles Tomlinson's...

(The entire section is 526 words.)