Wain, John (Vol. 11)
Wain, John 1925–
Wain is a British novelist, poet, short story writer, essayist, and editor. His fiction and much of his early poetry humorously attack the British class system, though he is more concerned with human dignity than with broad social injustice. Wain's poetry has recently come under attack for its lack of forcefulness. (See also CLC, Vol. 2, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.)
[Wain's] verse way [in "Letters to Five Artists"] is to combine the sonorously slack and portentous tones of late Eliot with the informal chat of Auden and the broken eye-rhythms of W. C. Williams. All on the surface, you see, for easy scanning. Not exactly a pastiche though; a synthesis, rather, of what these poets have left for the serious poet writing in England today: a means of talking intelligently about what matters—the fate of the single spirit in this world….
[Exile among Barbarians] is the general theme of the book; the great poet whose works were all youth and love, the flesh, and was forced to live out his days in a bitter, rude place by imperial edict, and who came to see our lives' essence in the flow of water, water which changes like our lives. By singling out five artist friends and thinking of them Wain puts together a world for himself, enough of a world at any rate to live by, invisible and evanescent as it may be….
It is a unified vision, if a sad one. The only trouble is that the book as a whole lacks force and attractive energy. I fail to find much trace of the unseen field of force that a thinking mind leaves in its wake: poetry, in short. Instead, there is a general feeling that, yes, the poet knows what he wants to say, and can't say it in prose because prose would sound pretentious (like so many of our "philosophers" and pundits and gurus from sociology and "psychology")....
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Feng, it seems, was the original of Shakespeare's Claudius, and [John Wain's Feng] takes him as the protagonist of the Hamlet drama…. Feng's inner life, such as it is, remains strikingly tedious; he comes through in his prose-monologues as a garrulous bore. Nothing in the poem really comes alive: it's a savage, violent society and a harrowing plot, but all this is curiously tamed and toned down, filtered through a sensibility too equable, domesticated and undramatic to be adequate to the turbulent demands of the subject-matter. When Wain writes 'I felt their needs drawn through my flesh like wires', it's difficult to believe that he really feels it, anywhere below the cranium. The theme of the poem is POWER (its capitals)—power in that abstract sense characteristic of bourgeois liberalism. Wain seems to dislike POWER, although it's not clear what he feels about the power propping up the society which permits liberals like himself to protest against POWER. (pp. 78-9)
Terry Eagleton, in Stand (copyright © by Stand), Vol. 17, No. 1 (1975–76).
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Lawrence R. Ries
The proper place to begin a study of Wain's poetry is with the examination of his basic premise: human goodness and love shall outlast violence and brutality. He is willing to admit to man's instinctive selfishness …, but human interaction ultimately transcends and overcomes petty individual inadequacies. Wain traces the source of the violence in the world to mechanization, industrialization, and the consequent dehumanization of modern society. Western civilization, he says, no longer breeds loving, feeling individuals but automatons who, having lost their identity, are ready to pass on to others the psychological violence of which they themselves are victims. Violence breeds greater violence, and the destructive forces that are loose in the world must be brought under control. Finally, he examines the artist's role in a world of violence. In a predictably evasive manner, he insists that the artist must not escape from his responsibilities by submission to the forces of destruction, but must rise above the violence and in this way withstand the onslaught of the darkness.
Again and again it is evident that poems written from the neohumanistic conviction are means of escape rather than of confrontation. As if in answer to those poets who have committed themselves with more abandon, these poets see small hope for those who struggle against violence…. With the poetry presently under discussion, I feel there is no real desire for new...
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Wain can be as quixotic as our own Southern "Fugitive" poets (whose work he intensely admires). Like Allen Tate's Aneas, he has "an infallible instinct for the right battle on the passionate side." Unfortunately, he sometimes lacks the irony that would save him from the excess of insisting, "only in the sphere of art is humanity able to rise totally above its failures and inadequacies." One is also embarrassed to be told that in reading poetry, "we see our imperfections mirrored in our splendors, and we accept ourselves, at last, in peace and thankfulness." (p. 19)
When he concentrates on the work of individual poets, he is superb. He displays empathy and insight in discussing the influence the family history of Milton's patrons had on Comus, or the effect of Eddas on the subjects and style of the early Auden. His magnificent tributes to Philip Larkin and William Empson's poetry are alone worth the price of [Professing Poetry]. Most of all, Wain is attracted to those poets who recognize the need for "roots going down into the instinctual and primitive" to temper our sterile reasoning—for the sense of lifegiving ritual in our lives that art conveys through form. (pp. 19-20)
Phoebe Pettingell, in The New Leader (© 1978 by the American Labor Conference on International Affairs, Inc.), July 3, 1978.
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John Wain, elected [to the Oxford Chair of Poetry] in 1973, offers nine lectures in "Professing Poetry," a charming introduction about his relation to Oxford, and an appendix of his recent poems that gives us examples to judge him by…. His style is straightforward: You know what he thinks all the time, and, like Johnson, he offers firm arguments, stating his positions on art, poetry and politics unequivocably. Of very few commentators may that be said; he belongs, in short, in Edmund Wilson's company. (p. 1)
In "On the Breaking of Forms," and "Poetry and Social Criticism," Wain shows us his own position: individualist, anti-state, common sense, the middle ground today where privacy survives, if precariously. These lectures are powerful attacks against propaganda, social utilitarianism and/or esoteric freedoms and dogmas. Wain is a sort of old-fashioned liberal, which is reactionary indeed today, here as in the English welfare state. He argues for our inherited language, which is what we all speak, unless we are speaking the masses Newspeak.
"Professing Poetry" is everywhere interesting and accessible; nowhere difficult or academic: It wears its learning lightly. Its forceful opinions have been earned by hard labor and show us a man worth hearing. Wain has something important to teach about poetry. Wide though the gulf between England and America be today, we should listen to him and learn. (p. 8)...
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[John Wain] typifies the very best of what one might call "Englishness"—good sense, moderation, a feeling for language, erudition without pretension, and wit.
The essays [in Professing Poetry] cover a wide variety of topics related to poetry and poets, and what comes through in all of them is Wain's deep love for poetry, his delight in sharing with us what he finds valuable. This is true particularly in the essays that deal with the work of individual poets—Auden, Emily Dickinson, Philip Larkin, William Empson and Edward Thomas. He has a knack for going right to the heart of a poet's work, placing it in the context of intellectual and social history without being stuffy about it, without taking anything away from the poem as poem. His insights, if not radical, are fresh and lively….
Wain's is a basically conservative spirit, as indicated by his championship of form and his feeling that poetry should not become a means of social criticism. It is difficult to fault his stance against art as propaganda….
Scattered throughout the essays are also passing remarks that make one smile with delight at their wit or gracefulness…. [For example:] "a poem conveys a great deal just by how it walks on to the stage, and it is possible to fall in love with a poem, as with an actress, just by seeing it move."
The volume closes with a selection of Wain's own poems written during the...
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D. A. N. Jones
The Pardoner's Tale tells the stories of two men, both "forty-ish", who cannot help falling madly in love, sometimes despairingly, sometimes with great success. The lineaments of gratified desire are persuasively drawn. Precise details of plot and character dissolve into an amorous haze, spreading delight….
The two stories are ingeniously linked…. [The] linking method has been deliberately designed to make it difficult for John Wain's narrative to carry conviction, to suspend the reader's disbelief: he has met this self-imposed challenge and succeeded triumphantly….
We remember [Chaucer's] pardoner, the "full vicious man" who could tell "a moral tale", and priggishly accused others of riggishness so that they would guiltily buy his pardons. The ambiguities of the title offer a field for enjoyable speculation. Perhaps Giles, the novelist, is a sort of pardoner: certainly, he brings about the resolution of Gus's story in a spirit of forgiveness. Perhaps, the dying old lady is as vicious as Chaucer's pardoner, when she tells the story of her life: certainly, she has no concept of forgiveness. At any rate, John Wain's novel is written in a warmly forgiving spirit; and this, together with its engaging riggishness, contributes to the reader's delight.
D.A.N. Jones, "Forty-ish and Riggish," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1978;...
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