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").
And I suspect that what he has to say to his friends (and to us) is simple: that there is not much to go on with, but that you must be praised because you do after all go on, even making something from it … because you are creators, loving and suffering and joying in work. But Wain's speech in poetry is ponderous, too, laudatory, elegiac, philosophical and so on. But not, unfortunately, anywhere very interesting.
Jascha Kessler, "Eavesdropping on Letters to Friends," in The Los Angeles Times (copyright, 1970, Los Angeles Times; reprinted by permission), May 17, 1970, p. 42.
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).
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 insights, or new understanding of violence, but only an intellectual evasion of its implications.
John Wain assumes the role of spokesman for the neohumanistic position with some vigor both in his poetry and in his critical remarks. He has made it quite clear that he considers those poets who are searching into the secret recesses of the psyche in an attempt to come to terms with the modern consciousness inferior to those whose assumptions about human nature are more stable and who are thus able to suggest cures for the illness…. [The fault] lies not with Wain's humanism but with the narrow and crippling limitations he imposes upon it. He carries this to such a point that he accuses those who hold skeptical or cynical attitudes towards the modern world of inventing their pessimism…. (pp. 131-32)
Wain does not exhibit a continuing evolution of theme from his early poetry to his later. His style, on the other hand, developed markedly in Wildtrack (1965) and Letters to Five Artists (1970)…. [He] seems to use an expanding style to compensate for a static, overburdened theme. (p. 132)
The victory of humanity over violence becomes a major theme in Wain's poetry, and he sees the vocal assertion of the human element over everything else as a primary function of the artist: "The artist's function is always to humanize the society he is living in, to assert the importance of humanity in the teeth of whatever is currently trying to annihilate that importance." The early poems of A Word Carved on a Sill show the poet striving to write according to this prescription….
["When It Comes" illustrates] a major failing in Wain's humanistic stance, for while expressing sentiments of private compassion, [it fails] to come to terms with the situation at hand. The poet's emotions are not directed towards the violence and savagery that is visited upon the hundreds of thousands of suffering human beings, but he thinks of those who are not yet born, those who will never have to suffer. Although our first response might well be, "What a compassionate man this poet is!" the tone of the poem suggests that its object is not the suffering of others, but the ennobling of the self through high-minded thoughts in the face of death. (p. 133)
The forces of violence are seen [in "Patriotic Poem"] as ineffective against the ennobled human spirit reinforced by patriotic concerns. But Wain again reneges somewhat on his commitment, for in this triumph of humanity over the base powers of war, the people surrender an element of their individuality to their country:
Rises the living breath of all her children;
And her deep heart and theirs, who can distinguish?
The repetition of such sentiments as this soon degenerates into humanistic doggerel, and the humanism runs very thin. He attempts to elevate humanity in both these poems, but the price ultimately is too high. It is usually at the cost of some greater virtue that he is able to extol the lesser.
This compromise is unfortunate, for at times Wain achieves a remarkable poetic insight into the psychic violence of the modern condition. "To a Friend in Trouble" brings together elements found in Gunn and Plath in an effective fusion. The loss of love in this poem is traced to the loss...
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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...
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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...
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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...
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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...
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