Like the weather, the reputations of even the best poets are subject to change, and the middle years of our century have revealed in a somewhat different light of appraisal and judgment a group of writers whose places, only a short time back as literary generations are measured, seemed fixed and final in the critical canon.
The reason for this change in poetic climate is not hard to determine. Twenty-five years ago the air was expectant with the promise of a bright new day in English poetry. Yeats had achieved the full stature of his later period. Eliot had taken an affirmative stand in ASH WEDNESDAY and was at work on his FOUR QUARTETS. Pound had broken a trail into new terrains of history and art. Auden and others of his generation were stripping drabness and false sentiment from the paraphernalia of ordinary life, bringing witty new insights and values to the contemporary experience. Dylan Thomas had already brought his passionate sensibility to bear on the joined inner and outer worlds and was hymning his findings with full-throated orchestration. All this has now changed, however, for the anticipated new day proved only a false dawn. Yeats and Thomas are dead, the latter with the promise of his early work unfulfilled. Eliot turned playwright before his death. Pound has added to the Cantos without extending his range or influence. The poets of the 1930’s are still honored, but their occasional thin volumes no longer generate excitement in either readers or critics. As for the young apprentice poets on the English scene, their muted voices can scarcely be heard among the strident echoes of our time.
But this situation has produced one good result. Criticism is now willing to take a second look at some poets previously taken for granted or disregarded—the otherworldly lyricism of Walter de la Mare, for example, and the ebullient, idiosyncratic, but always brilliant performance of Robert Graves. Certainly the latest edition of his COLLECTED POEMS reveals a poet who makes greater demands on our attention than do many contemporary writers of more gilded reputations.
Some poets outlast their periods, others their public. The fact that Robert Graves has done neither is easily explained. During his long career—his first book of verse appeared in 1916—he has never allied himself with any movement or group, never cultivated an eclectic or school style; consequently, he had nothing to lose when critical fashions changed. Also, he has never mistaken current popularity for lasting fame or courted the favor of his readers. A veteran of many hard-fought literary skirmishes, he has battled for only one cause, his own integrity as a poet.
The means by which he has maintained his hard-bitten, roughly achieved literary independence help us in understanding both the tart native flavor of his best verse and the defensive attitude he sometimes assumes toward his poorest.
Graves has often stressed the fact that he is not addicted to any poetic “school.” One should not believe, then, that his interest in unusual items of medieval literature makes him automatically a writer of romantic temper. There is in Graves’s poetry, and has been since World War I, a strong element of the satirical, evidence of dissatisfaction with many aspects of the world around him—the times, war, England, even himself. Perhaps even the years he resided outside England seem further evidence of such inner dissatisfaction, the kind that is evident in “To Lucia at Birth,” a sonnet written relatively late in life.
The earnest thought, the hope that the individual can resist changes which will make him or her conform to the...
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