The Collected Poems of 1979 brought together all the early work from Poems and Soldiers Bathing, and Other Poems that F. T. Prince wanted to retain. He also included the whole of The Doors of Stone and four long, late poems, Memoirs in Oxford, Drypoints of the Hasidim, Afterword on Rupert Brooke, and A Last Attachment. These poems may be safely considered the work by which Prince would wish to be judged.
“To a Man on His Horse” and “An Epistle to a Patron”
The first poem is “An Epistle to a Patron,” so admired by Eliot. When one recalls that the great young poet of the day was W. H. Auden and that the most admired poetry then was political and very aware of the contemporary world, Prince’s lines are startling.
My lord, hearing lately of your opulence in promiseand your houseBusy with parasites, of your hands full of favours,your statutesAdmirable as music, and no fear of your arms not prospering, I haveConsidered how to serve you . . .
The reader is at once in Renaissance Italy, a period much favored by Prince and one in which he is at home. Although the poem is written in the first person, it must not be assumed that the voice is Prince’s voice. Rather, the poem is a dramatic monologue. It is not in the manner of Robert Browning either, although it moves in an area Browning sometimes occupied. Its splendid opulence, its sonorous and bewitching periods, are not like Browning. Nor do they hide the slyness, the mockery behind the flattery with which this postulant addresses his hoped-for patron. Ben Jonson could have written it, but it is a strange invention for the late 1930’s. If Prince uses the first person voice, as he does often throughout his career, rarely does he speak as himself—then he is a more everyday speaker altogether—but rather as a real resident of those times and places into which his learning and his curiosity have led him. His manner is courtly and aristocratic. If he uses, as he does in the opening lines of “To a Man on His Horse,” a poetic inversion, it is for the dance of the statement, because he wants the movement:
Only the Arab stallion will IEnvy you. Along the waterYou dance him with the morning on his flanks . . .
The early work is full of such lines, stately, strangely out of time, full, too, of references to painters such as Paolo Veronese or statesmen such as Edmund Burke. It is a paradox when one realizes that Prince’s most famous poem, “Soldiers Bathing,” is not at all like the rest of the early work, that it is written about ordinary men, poor, bare, forked animals of the twentieth century. It gave Prince an immediate fame and is known to many readers who know nothing else the poet has written.
“Soldiers Bathing” is a poem of sixty-six lines, organized in six irregular verse paragraphs. The lines are not of regular length, and they rhyme in couplets. In it, the poet, an army officer, watches his men as, forgetting momentarily the stress and mire of war, they swim and play in the sea. It is often a clumsy poem, the longer second line of some of the couplets occasionally dragging along without grace, the structure and movement absurdly prosaic for a poet of Prince’s skill, yet it is intensely moving. The extraordinary syntax of the last line of the first stanza, so written, surely, to accommodate the rhyme, has been noted by many critics, particularly by Vernon Scannell in Not Without Glory. “Their flesh worn by the trade of war, revives/ And my mind towards the meaning of it strives.” It is also, however, full of marvelous compassion, as Prince, recalling Michelangelo’s cartoon of soldiers bathing, is able to unite friend and foe, dead and living soldiers, through his insight into the continuing folly of wars. He does this through his knowledge of art, but his own comfort comes from his religion. Prince is a Catholic, and the reader’s understanding of his poetry is incomplete without this knowledge. He arrives at a sad conclusion: “Because to love is frightening we prefer/ The freedom of our crimes.” He began the poem under “a reddening sky”; he ends it “while in the west/ I watch a streak of blood that might have issued from Christ’s breast.” This is a typical movement in a poem by Prince, one in which the plain and dissimilar elements are united in an understanding...
(The entire section is 1970 words.)