Charles Tomlinson Tomlinson, Charles (Contemporary Literary Criticism) - Essay

Tomlinson, Charles (Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Tomlinson, Charles 1927–

British poet and translator. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.)

[Charles Tomlinson] is a sophisticated student of the French Symbolists and of Pound and Eliot…. He is also indebted to Stevens and, even more, to Marianne Moore. His remarkable precision and his gift for the implication of intense passion held in reserve are not to be denied. The affinity with Miss Moore is therefore quite natural, though poem after poem is marred by certain purse-lipped, almost prissy effects that really parody her work. Tomlinson has her grave shrewdness, her trick of weaving quoted phrases into the body of his text, her manner of marshaling images and observations toward a pithy conclusion, and her wise dismissal of a subject when the time is right.

M. L. Rosenthal, in his The Modern Poets: A Critical Introduction (© 1960 by M. L. Rosenthal; reprinted by permission of Oxford University Press, Inc.), Oxford University Press, 1960, p. 224.

Charles Tomlinson is interesting as a heritor of poets like Eliot and Stevens at their most philosophical: his poems are a total fusion of reflection and experience, abstract and concrete, and he is obviously aiming for the kind of thing that Hart Crane called "absolute" poetry. But the overall tone is grey, with none of Crane's own summer-lightning quality. Tomlinson has the good ear that this kind of poetry requires, but his own poems seem over-elaborately composed and to lack any real sense of urgency or of why it is that others have such a sense. A poem needs to be a notch more powerful than Tomlinson's to get away with addressing words to Van Gogh like "Farewell, and for your instructive frenzy / Gratitude". One sees what Tomlinson means, but Van Gogh is still with us. Above all there is a deadening absence of other people in these poems most of the time. Tomlinson's style is potentially fertile, but to see it turned to conflicts which were more emotional and less directly metaphysical might be a lot more interesting than the poems he has so far given us.

Colin Falck, "Dreams and Responsibilities," in Review, No. 2, June/July, 1962, pp. 3-18.

Charles Tomlinson is one of the better poets now writing in England, but his …, American Scenes, is a disappointment. Although it contains several poems as good as the better (but not the best) poems of his earlier volumes, that section of the book to which his title specifically refers is an attempt to broaden the range of his subject-matter, and in comparison with the poems of his first volume, Seeing Is Believing …, they seem to me unsuccessful. Tomlinson's first volume was admirably named, for he has striven in his work for an objectivity that opposes the visual process of registering the material world with accuracy and precision to the Wordsworthian "inward eye" that half sees and half creates.

Marius Bewley, in Hudson Review, Autumn, 1966, pp. 483-87.

Tomlinson is one of the few British poets to go to school with the French Symbolists and with the American masters of the generation of Pound, Stevens, Eliot, Williams, and Marianne Moore. His first book to be published in the United States, Seeing Is Believing (1958), gave clear evidence of this study. The sequence 'Antecedents: A Homage and a Valediction' echoes its French and American sources subtly and wittily. Sometimes grave, sometimes parodying or self-ironic, it indicates what Tomlinson loves in the tradition and what he is perhaps willing to bid farewell to—'How long / Can a sun go on setting?' But it also indicates his post-Imagist bearings and insistence on an aesthetic viewpoint close to Pound's….

Tomlinson's two more recent volumes, A Peopled Landscape (1963) and American Scenes (1966), reflect a continuing relationship with the formal discoveries of American poetry and also with literal American experience…. Without surrendering either his British consciousness or the special characteristics of his earlier style—the restraint, precision, fine 'sculptural' eye, and feeling for the literal realities of place and atmosphere—he has come rather strongly under the influence of Williams and of the Black Mountain poets.

M. L. Rosenthal, in his The New Poets: American and British Poetry Since World War II (© 1967 by M. L. Rosenthal; reprinted by permission of Oxford University Press, Inc.), Oxford University Press, 1967, pp. 244-51.

The nonchalance of this poetry is partly Tomlinson's readiness to accept the invitations of language, and partly an equal readiness to accept the casualties of event, whatever the day offers. He still pares his poetic apples with concern, but he is now responsive to the yield of chance. He takes things as they come. This was implicit in his terminology from the beginning, but held back by some scruple. Now it is free. Tomlinson trusts, of course, that things, as they come, will not come too violently: his poems are not yet ready for the big storms, the 'violence without', in Stevens's phrase. When things come, the poet receives them with the values already declared in the earlier books. So we hear of 'a loving lease/on sand, sun, rock', and the splendour of 'Castilian grace'. If we need a motto to hold these poems in mind, we have one: 'the tranquillity of consciousness/forgotten in its object'. This may be Tomlinson's answer to those modern writers who insist upon remembering their consciousness, whatever the fate of the object. So Tomlinson proceeds, compiling an anthology of minor occasions to endorse a pervading tact. His masters in this transaction are Ruskin, Lawrence, and Williams, so far as one can see; there is still a trace of Marianne Moore, but hardly a sign of Stevens, an early master. Ruskin is audible particularly in 'A Given Grace', where two cups on a mahogany table are seen to 'unclench the mind, filling it with themselves', a figure elsewhere invoked for the tranquillity of consciousness. Lawrence seems to underwrite those poems in which the acknowledgement of separateness is a first step toward larger courtesies. Williams is invoked, mostly in the American scenes, to guide the younger poet in dealing with casualty and 'rankest trivia', the things that come into the poems because they are true, they were there at the time…. The casual is not enough, as Stevens says, but the ability to receive the casual, giving it a flick of feeling, is rare in poets. Tomlinson's happiest development is in this direction. Seeing is still believing….

Denis Donoghue, in his The Ordinary Universe (reprinted with permission of Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc. from The Ordinary Universe by Denis Donoghue; © 1968 by Denis Donoghue), Macmillan, 1968, pp. 30-1.

The recognition accorded to Charles Tomlinson's experiments with poetic form ought not to obscure his more traditional critical and philosophical position. In a genteel, restrained, but resolute voice he defies our program-obsessed and manipulative age. Pointing to inflexible natural laws and to processes beyond our control, he argues against the premise that the natural world is the plaything of man and concludes that we are shaped by our surroundings. If we wish to know ourselves, then, we must permit the world unobstructed entry to our senses, seek to determine its 'facts'. As Tomlinson says of the landscape painter Constable, 'what he saw/Discovered what he was'. Through his verse this poet brings many such facts to the attention of his readers. In the process he finds it necessary to entertain several fundamental questions concerning apprehension itself. Particularly in his first two volumes, The Necklace … and Seeing Is Believing …, he is preoccupied with such issues as relative perspective, light and darkness, space, and motion. As he resolves these issues through his own poetic practice, he turns increasingly in his next three volumes to the assignment of human meaning to the 'plenitude of fact' revealed in his verse….

The exploration of visual problems in The Necklace and Seeing Is Believing, while not ending completely, gradually gives way in A Peopled Landscape …, American Scenes … and The Way of a World … to concern with philosophical reflection. Vision remains Tomlinson's chief instrument of observation, but the sights he describes are subjected to rumination, and his verse centers increasingly upon reflection. Having disciplined both his vision and his poetic medium, he seems more willing to assign meaning to the 'plenitude of fact'. Sunlight, wind, and clouds, which have always fascinated him, now assume philosophical interest, since, while commonplace, they operate with consummate disregard for human wishes, thus affording daily evidence that nature is beyond man's control and shapes him more profoundly than he may wish to admit.

Julian Gitzen, "Charles Tomlinson and the Plenitude of Fact," in Critical Quarterly, Winter, 1971, pp. 355-62.