W(illiam) R(obert) Rodgers Essay - Critical Essays

Rodgers, W(illiam) R(obert)

Rodgers, W(illiam) R(obert) 1909–1969

Rodgers, an Ulsterman, was a poet sometimes compared to Gerard Manley Hopkins. He served several years as minister of a Presbyterian church—the oldest in Ireland—and, later, as a producer and scriptwriter for the BBC, working closely with Louis MacNeice.

The complete lack up to now of poetry in the manner of Rupert Brooke has bothered and annoyed a portion of the English and American public. It is this public's notion that such poems as Rupert Brooke's sonnet "If I should die, think only this of me" should appear, by some process of spontaneous generation, at the beginning of any war in which England is engaged. Perhaps it would be worth while to try to puzzle out why such poetry is modernly impossible and why [Awake! and Other Wartime Poems] contains the kind of poetry we are going to get, in English, from those poets who manage to remain sincere through the present upheaval.

Classically, the two high types of war poem are the battle cry (or hymn), written in the definite iambics which presuppose the march's four-four time, and the elegy…. The war sonnets of Rupert Brooke and the popular elegy "In Flanders Fields" are war poetry at its very worst. They were decadent and puerile twenty years ago; they are unthinkable now. What people who yearn back to them want is the stale and dowdy moral atmosphere of the early nineteen-hundreds. In spite of ourselves, we live in a more bracing air and are made of more sincere and sterner stuff.

The First World War impaired the notion that war poetry can be written by non-combatants. The only decent 1914–1918 verse was written by young men in their early twenties who were soldiers in the trenches—Wilfred Owen, Isaac Rosenberg, Charles Sorley, and Siegfried Sassoon. The hack writing of Kipling and Noyes made no impression, then or subsequently. One attempt at war poetry was made by both Rilke and Yeats. Rilke's hysterical "Five Songs, August 1914" were repudiated by him five days after they were written. Yeats wrote the superb "An Irish Airman Foresees His Death" and then announced his withdrawal into silence in "On Being Asked for a War Poem." The silence of these two men during those years is even now more impressive than volumes of exhortation and elegy would be. It was the soldiers who impressively spoke. (pp. 216-17)

W. R. Rodgers, whether or not he is a soldier poet, is not a profound thinker, but a contemporaneous and candid spirit is in him. He has at his disposal a firm, rugged idiom, since Ulster still has here and there surviving pockets of primitive speech. He uses the packed directness of the alliterative Anglo-Saxon of Hopkins' and Auden's experiments and gives it surprising Celtic turns. His unexpected and salty epithets pick out many unexpected details of what he observes, from a fountain in a park to an airman in his bomber. What is best about this poet is his glance into the future and his realization that more than a casual peace must be demanded after the end of this war. (p. 218)

Louise Bogan, "War Poetry" (1942), in her Selected Criticism: Poetry and Prose (copyright 1955 by Louise Bogan), Noonday Press, 1955, pp. 216-18.

[Apart] from a few pastorals (rollicking or edgy as the case may be) W. R. Rodgers survives for his long poem Europa and the Bull, a sudden, almost unprepared-for burst of delectable, sensuous celebration that still has the capacity to keep the reader sustained for fifteen pages. The roistering language, with its puns and plosives (yes, and alliterations) is ripened out, here, into a long ceremony of desire that does truly celebrate the "soil in the Soul. God in the clod" (Spring-Dance). True, there are gaffes ("But look! the Bull! indubitably bull!"), but they do not make falter the progress or the delight…. The failure is, finally, a failure of some essential poetic belief. For his last project Rodgers had chiselled his technique down finely, and apparently had a theme particularly suited to his aims and his language. But between 1949, when it was first proposed, and his death in 1969, he had written only seventy six lines. His Collected Poems, for all the effusiveness of Dan Davin's Memoir, do not excuse the dead man that failure. (p. 40)

Thomas Shapcott, in Poetry (© 1973 by The Modern Poetry Association; reprinted by permission of the Editor of Poetry), April, 1973.

Most of Rodgers's poetry is buoyantly rhythmical, and as it reflects a keen eye for the form, texture, and movement of the external world and shows an exquisite sensibility for words we get a combination of qualities likely to delight many readers.

Why is it that W. R. Rodgers is so little known?… Perhaps he is neglected mainly because his output was small, some 85 poems, most of them appearing in his only two books 'Awake!' and Other Poems (1941) and Europa and the Bull (1952) and now [in Collected Poems]. But many poets whose output is equally small are widely known and Rodgers will eventually join their company. (p. 71)

Rodgers … is far more than a descriptive nature poet. In the 11 years between his two books he widened his horizons and sounded new depths…. [His] Easter Sequence of 14 poems [prove him] to be a religious poet of no mean order….

There is a tough, proletarian quality about much of Rodgers's verse which comes out in the didactic and semi-political poems from his earlier book. Poems like 'End of a World' and 'Directions to a Rebel' do not embody any new political thought but they are brilliant, epigrammatic descriptions of revolution and social upheaval. The many imperatives urge upon us certain lines of action and behaviour. His lines are packed with memorable epithets and the volcanic energy of his "Fun-Fair of Words" provokes a breathless reaction in the reader. Perhaps in this vein Rodgers occasionally lapses into mere heterogeneity, but if 'End of a World' strikes one as a catalogue of disintegration the suitability of the marriage between manner and matter is not in question. (p. 73)

"The idiosyncratic I" is a memorable phrase from the poem entitled 'Song For War'. Bertie Rodgers remained strongly idiosyncratic throughout his life and his poems bear the unmistakable finger-prints of his idiosyncracy. I know few poets whose work is more rewarding to study from the point of view of imagery, simile, and metaphor. But despite this strongly-marked individuality he is not an egotistical poet of the first-person singular. None of his poems begin with "I". (Compare with Yeats, 61 of whose 400 Collected Poems begin thus.) Indeed it is quite rare to find the first person singular anywhere in Rodgers.

What else have we in his Collected Poems? Two constantly recurring themes must be mentioned—the theme of flight and pursuit, and the dialectical clash of tense opposites. The former is often linked with the concept of a tether, of something held taut and then released ("elastic" is a favourite word) and the image of a hare occurs frequently in his considerable bestiary. Animals head the list in a count of his most-used images….

The abrasive friction of opposites was the breath of life to Rodgers. He saw in intimate enmity a means to community peace: "For by nature we are dualists who believe that Evil twins and twines with Good…." (p. 74)

His Collected Poems are also memorable for some remarkable refurbishings of classical myths and for poems on music. By any standards 'Europa and the Bull' (which runs to over 14 pages) is a notable achievement. All his many qualities are here displayed to perfection and the nature descriptions—light and shadow, movement, texture, sound, scent, and sensuality—are exquisite. We should approach his classical poems not anticipating re-interpretations of ancient myths in modern terms, but, rather, old masters renovated and cleaned by a restorer of genius. If we do that, 'Europa and the Bull', 'Pan and Syrinx', and 'Apollo and Daphne' will not disappoint us….

The few poems on music show the author to have had a deep feeling for that art and in particular for the timbre and character of orchestral instruments. Note these well-chosen epithets:—"Unanimous instruments"; "upstart trumpet"; "lean violins"; "weasel-lean voice"; "demotic drum"; and the "thin blue bore of light" cast by the oboe (a nice touch of synaesthesia here). (p. 75)

Patrick Stevenson, "Volcanic Poet," in Phoenix (8 Cavendish Road, Heaton Mersey, Stockport, Cheshire, England), July, 1973, pp. 71-6.