Praised by T. S. Eliot, who published F. T. Prince’s first long poem, “An Epistle to a Patron,” in The Criterion late in 1935; encouraged by William Butler Yeats, whom he met in Dublin in 1937, to trust in happy thoughts and influenced by Yeats to cultivate a lifelong grasp of speech rhythms and a sense for the conversational logic of the verse paragraph; inspired by the works of modern French poets such as Arthur Rimbaud, Paul Valery, Paul Verlaine, and St.-John Perse as well as the fiction of American writer Henry James; fortified with first-class honors in English at the University of Oxford; and, studious thinker and teacher that he became, committed to long intervals between publications—F. T. Prince slowly and gradually developed his lyrical talent and metrical genius. Today he stands as the last living poet of the greatest generation of English poets since the Romantics.
Whereas other poets of the 1930’s such as Auden, Spender, and Christopher Isherwood were attracted to the political left, Prince converted to Catholicism. His poetry did not take on a doctrinal cast, however, even though the exotic aestheticism of his earliest poems cooled somewhat. The resulting seriousness and intensity benefits from this interesting mix of sensuous diction and moral gravity. For example, in “An Epistle to a Patron” the poet speaker addresses his “patron” as “A donor of laurel and of grapes, a font of profuse intoxicants.” This kind of aesthetic paganism yields to the passionate religious feeling of “Soldiers Bathing”:
I feel a strange delight that fills me full
Strange gratitude, as if evil itself were beautiful,
And kiss the wound in thought, while in the west
I watch a streak of red that might have issued from Christ’s breast.
Although the modern reader will detect touches of late Pre- Raphaelite sensual religiosity in these lines, a second look will also evoke the tragic joy of Gerard Manley Hopkins at his most intense. The opposites of sense and spirit never cease to dance their all-consuming rhythms in Prince’s verse.
Perhaps this is most evident in his “Apollo and the Sibyl,” one of the last poems in a collection first published in 1954. This poem is based on the myth involving Apollo and the Sibyl of Cumae. The god granted her “as many years as there were grains in a certain heap of dust.” She, however, forgot to ask for enduring youth. Had she accepted Apollo’s love, eternal youth would have been hers. Refusing the god’s desire, she lived on to become a prophetess, and at last “only a voice, haunting her sea cave at Cumae.” In a brilliant dramatization, Prince has the disembodied voice of the Sibyl resonate in the “cave” of his poem, which echoes rhythms, cadences, and metrical patterns in a long tidal lament. The effect is both deeply sensuous and probingly spiritual. The waters lap ceaselessly as consciousness yearns for spiritual deliverance:
—Questions of hope, despair, changes of mind.…
Acceptance of the changeless mind!
And now I sit and hide my face;
And know that where the soft and rough tide hurries,
The tide will rise and wash the rocks tomorrow;
That cloud of an angelic dignity
Will form and melt tomorrow—and tomorrow,
While far out in the milky...
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