The Advantage of Lyric

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 18)

Barbara Hardy’s The Advantage of Lyric is a commendable attempt to call our attention once more to the importance of “feeling” in lyric poetry, and to find an alternative to the, by now, mechanical aspects of formalist and American “New” criticism. She provides us with subtle analyses of particular poems and, more significantly, she discovers some structural principles that may become central in the criticism of the lyric in the decades to come. However, there are three immediate problems that must be taken into consideration before we look at the particulars of the book. These are the origin of the book as separate lectures and articles, the inadequacy of the theoretical framework for the study, and the failure of the introductory essay to provide a clear description of what is later developed in the separate essays.

The structure of the book is, to an extent, faulty. All of the nine essays were previously given as lectures and then published as separate essays before they were collected here. The essays have been only “slightly revised.” Thus, the promise of a theory worked out and exemplified is seriously weakened by parts that do not always connect. This is especially apparent in the essay on Clough which is taken from a book that reconsiders the Victorian poets. Clough’s major works were long narrative poems, not lyrics, and they do not seem to belong to this book, even if the narratives have “feeling” within their structure. The selection of poets to be discussed also seems arbitrary. We move from Donne to Dylan Thomas and Sylvia Plath with no mention of the place of the lyric in particular periods or movements.

The theoretical justification for the “isolation of feeling” also seems rather limited. The definition of a lyric, which should control the approach to the work, is casually tossed off:Lyric poetry isolates feeling in small compasses and so renders it at its most intense. To say more about the form is to raise doubts and exceptions.

Such a definition limits, for the most part, analysis to the stages, shifts, and patterns of feeling. This is a welcome addition after so many years of New Criticism, but is it a sufficient alternative to imagery, tone, metaphor, paradox, tension, irony? Later in the book we see the “pattern of feeling” give way to the merely personal element in poetry, an obvious diminishment of the promise of the introductory essay.

A more important difficulty in the book is that the first essay promises to focus exclusively on “feeling,” a promise that it cannot and does not keep.The advantage of lyric poetry comes from its undiluted attention to feeling and feeling alone, and its articulateness in clarifying that feeling, in attesting conviction or what may somewhat misleadingly be called sincerity, and transferring this from privacy to publicity.

In fact, we seldom find “undiluted feeling” in the poetry that Hardy analyzes. She includes tone, imagery, generalization, and thought as elements that connect or compete with feeling in the structure of the poem. Indeed, she is at her best when she discovers patterns that show feeling and other elements working together. However, the expectation of “undiluted feeling” and the failure to provide it is frustrating to the reader. The book is too good to be marred by such difficulties, and the introductory essay should be revised for a future edition.

The eight remaining essays can be divided into three groups. The essays on Donne, Hopkins, and Yeats all work out a structural unity that is derived from various elements; the essay on Clough is interesting but does not belong; the last four essays are on three modern poets: Auden, Thomas, and Plath. In the last group, there seems to be an evaluative as well as a descriptive focus; the modern poets are tested by the touchstone of feeling and then praised or dismissed.

The chapter on Donne’s “Songs and Sonnets” fails to break away from Eliot’s famous definition of the “unified sensibility,” a union of thought and feeling. Hardy talks of the way “the passions grow, move, shift, combine, and relate to intelligence and sensation.” And she quotes Donne’s marvelous phrase, “A naked thinking heart.” But she does little to modify the terminology or the approach to Donne’s poetry. She does not succeed in making the poems new for us. Her analysis of “Love’s Growth” is thorough and subtle, but the various shifts from cynical to sincere might be described just as well, if not better, by using “tone” instead of the “stages of feeling.” Her description of “Love’s Growth” as a series of “lifts” is more cumbersome than illuminating. Her later attempts to find opposition in Donne’s poetry are more successful. There is, however, a puzzling ending to the chapter. Hardy makes a teasing reference to the biographical nature of Donne’s poetry.I am very far from wishing to smuggle in an argument about the biographical origins of Donne’s poetry. What this range and variety of passionate lyric tells us, if we need to be told, is that the imagination, passion and intelligence which belong to poetry, and which are both displayed and discussed in Donne, do not belong only to poetry.

She seems intent on having it both ways, and her dismissal of the subject in a footnote does not help to clarify the problem. The question of the relationship between feeling and actual experience is hinted at many times in the book, but it is never fully discussed.

Hardy is better on Hopkins’ poems of religious doubts than on those that celebrate nature and God. She describes “Pied Beauty” as: “the process of expansion, in which we move from one stage of feeling to another, usually from the sensuous and phenomenal to the larger spiritual adventure. In such poems the emotional stages of feeling are transcended but not obliterated.” This seems to be a laborious and tedious working out of a pattern that could be better described in terms of descriptive imagery which is followed by a command to “Praise” the author who is both unchanging and the source of variety. The...

(The entire section is 2,513 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 18)

Choice. XIV, July, 1977, p. 674.

Encounter. XLVIII, July, 1977, p. 82.