Poetically, Dannie Abse owes allegiance to no particular school. A humanist, his tendency is to explore complex philosophical themes through things visible and comprehensible in daily existence. At the beginning of his career, he was strongly influenced by the work of Dylan Thomas. Later, however, he moved away from the mode of adjectival and rhetorical excess that was Thomas’s hallmark to a quieter, more questioning style of writing. Drawing on his professional life for incident metaphor, he acquired his own poetic style, easily recognized by the student of modern poetry. His voice is gentle, never strident; the personality that emerges from the writing is endearing, not irritating. He expresses ideas that occur to all but not everyone has the ability to voice.
In the “Introductory Note” to Collected Poems, 1948-1976, Abse briefly outlines some of the impulses that motivate his writing and makes it clear that one of his strongest motivations is his desire to share the wealth of his experiences with the reader. There is a strand of humanism in his work, reinforced by his obvious belief that in communication lies humankind’s hope of salvation. Over and over again, his poetry stresses all people’s common humanity and the vulnerability of each person without the support and understanding of his or her fellows. Paradoxically, however, Abse also states that one of his ambitions is “to write poems which appear translucent but are in fact deceptions. I would have the reader enter them, be deceived he could see through them like sea-water, and be puzzled when he cannot quite touch the bottom.” Here, he seems to be balancing a wish to communicate with an artist’s prerogative to retain some of his work for himself.
In his early work (perhaps surprisingly, considering the fact that many of his most impressionable early years were overshadowed by World War II), neither Abse’s Jewishness nor his role as a physician is particularly noticeable, although the scientific (if not always specifically medical) cast of his mind is ever present in his analytical, questioning style. He is capable of seeing at least two sides to every question and, apparently, believes that nothing is as it seems, that all is deception and ambiguity. When he speaks of attempting to achieve a “translucence” in his writing, what he seems to mean is poetry of infinite possibility, an effect produced by infinite ambiguity.
His ability to see two sides of every question is clearly illustrated in such poems as “Duality” and “Odd.” In later works, he writes less fancifully and rhetorically, having taken very much to heart the aphorisms that he quotes at the beginning of his Collected Poems, 1948-1976: William Carlos Williams’s “No ideas but in things,” and Alfred North Whitehead’s “Truth adds to interest.”
In his early writing, Abse is concerned with religion in an abstract rather than a personal sense, as though his emotions become engaged in the question only after he has first thought the matter through. His feelings of paranoia are much more noticeable in the early work, combined with an uncertainty of identity and expressions of anger and alarm, directed against those impersonal forces that may shape the ultimate destiny of humanity. Questions of faith come to interest him only later in his writing. For example, in “Verses at Night” and “New Babylons,” he expresses his anxiety, both about the possibility of the Holocaust and the intolerable social pressures that human beings exert on one another.
These themes appear repeatedly in Abse’s work, sometimes expressed rather enigmatically. For example, in “The Uninvited,” Abse reflects on the effect of the unforeseen and unexpected events in his life, those occasional moments when he may feel that one of life’s overwhelming questions may be about to be answered. In this poem, the moment of revelation passes, leaving the speaker changed by disappointment and very much aware of his own isolation. There is often an almost mystical strain in Abse’s early work that seems to have diminished as he has matured.
A related preoccupation is how people react to the unexpected and to change. In A Poet in the Family, Abse relates that even moving from one street to another nearby in the same city caused him considerable distress as a child, and this awareness of and sensitivity to change has remained with him throughout his life. The related questions of change and humankind’s search for identity appear in “Duality,” “The Trial,” “The Magician,” and, in modified form, in “The Second Coming,” among other poems.
Wales and Dylan Thomas
Less elusive than some of his other themes, Abse’s sense of nationality permeates his writing, especially in such poems as “Leaving Cardiff,” “The Game,” and “Return to Cardiff,” as well as in his more colloquial poems relating to childhood figures and incidents. Especially in these latter poems, which are worlds away from his usual abstract, questioning style, the influence of Thomas is apparent. It must be pointed out that Thomas almost inevitably influenced most writers of this generation, especially Welsh writers. In Abse’s case, it is possible to see an awareness of Thomas’s work in “Epithalamion,” “The Meeting,” “The Mountaineers,” and, more appropriately, in “Elegy for Dylan Thomas.” He then seems to shake himself free of Thomas’s ghost until much later in his poetic career, when his character sketches begin to emerge.
Crises of identity
Abse has gradually shaped his own voice. In A Poet in the Family, he relates the tale of his visit to the United States under the aegis of John Malcolm Brinnin, where he followed in Thomas’s footsteps, watched hopefully but apprehensively by an audience that seemed constantly to be waiting for him to give evidence of being a wild Welsh bard. “I, at once,” says Abse, “became nicer than myself, more polite, better behaved.” Perhaps this ever-present reminder of a very different artistic persona serves to underline Abse’s preoccupation with crises of identity: in his own case, as a Welshman, a Jew, and a physician. The importance of his Jewish heritage and his family can be seen in the 1981 collection Way...
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