Collected Poems, 1935-1992 Summary
Praised by T. S. Eliot, who published F. T. Prince’s first long poem, “An Epistle to a Patron,” in The Criterion late in 1935; encouraged by William Butler Yeats, whom he met in Dublin in 1937, to trust in happy thoughts and influenced by Yeats to cultivate a lifelong grasp of speech rhythms and a sense for the conversational logic of the verse paragraph; inspired by the works of modern French poets such as Arthur Rimbaud, Paul Valery, Paul Verlaine, and St.-John Perse as well as the fiction of American writer Henry James; fortified with first-class honors in English at the University of Oxford; and, studious thinker and teacher that he became, committed to long intervals between publications—F. T. Prince slowly and gradually developed his lyrical talent and metrical genius. Today he stands as the last living poet of the greatest generation of English poets since the Romantics.
Whereas other poets of the 1930’s such as Auden, Spender, and Christopher Isherwood were attracted to the political left, Prince converted to Catholicism. His poetry did not take on a doctrinal cast, however, even though the exotic aestheticism of his earliest poems cooled somewhat. The resulting seriousness and intensity benefits from this interesting mix of sensuous diction and moral gravity. For example, in “An Epistle to a Patron” the poet speaker addresses his “patron” as “A donor of laurel and of grapes, a font of profuse intoxicants.” This kind of aesthetic paganism yields to the passionate religious feeling of “Soldiers Bathing”:
I feel a strange delight that fills me full
Strange gratitude, as if evil itself were beautiful,
And kiss the wound in thought, while in the west
I watch a streak of red that might have issued from Christ’s breast.
Although the modern reader will detect touches of late Pre- Raphaelite sensual religiosity in these lines, a second look will also evoke the tragic joy of Gerard Manley Hopkins at his most intense. The opposites of sense and spirit never cease to dance their all-consuming rhythms in Prince’s verse.
Perhaps this is most evident in his “Apollo and the Sibyl,” one of the last poems in a collection first published in 1954. This poem is based on the myth involving Apollo and the Sibyl of Cumae. The god granted her “as many years as there were grains in a certain heap of dust.” She, however, forgot to ask for enduring youth. Had she accepted Apollo’s love, eternal youth would have been hers. Refusing the god’s desire, she lived on to become a prophetess, and at last “only a voice, haunting her sea cave at Cumae.” In a brilliant dramatization, Prince has the disembodied voice of the Sibyl resonate in the “cave” of his poem, which echoes rhythms, cadences, and metrical patterns in a long tidal lament. The effect is both deeply sensuous and probingly spiritual. The waters lap ceaselessly as consciousness yearns for spiritual deliverance:
—Questions of hope, despair, changes of mind.…
Acceptance of the changeless mind!
And now I sit and hide my face;
And know that where the soft and rough tide hurries,
The tide will rise and wash the rocks tomorrow;
That cloud of an angelic dignity
Will form and melt tomorrow—and tomorrow,
While far out in the milky straits
The black shape of a boat sits,
And drags itself.…
Wet flashes on dipped oars.
The Sibyl’s endless vigil evokes Romantic echoes such as Percy Bysshe Shelley’s famous closing stanza in Prometheus Unbound (1820), “To love, and bear; to hope, till Hope creates/From its own wreck the thing it contemplates” and the late Romantic pathos of Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s “The Lady of Shalott,” “There she weaves by night and day/ A magic web with colors gay.” But finally, there is a distinctly modern urgency in the tension between suffering and redemption in Prince’s sonorous closing stanzas:
I remain in my pain that is
A golden distance endlessly,
Outrageously more beautiful,
The burning young tumescent sea,
—And the sky opens
Like a fan its vault of violent light, unfolding
A wide and wingless path to the impossible.
Opposites are a dialectical challenge to Prince. They do not deconstruct into a deferred meaning that is food only for skeptical detachment. The voice of the Sibyl is historicized in the monologue, “The Old Age of Michelangelo.” The great artist speaks for Prince’s own struggle with the opposites of desire and faith that have rages in unabated confrontation:
And now I have grown old,
It is my own life, my long life I see
As a combat against nature, nature that is our enemy
Holding the soul a prisoner by the heel;
And my whole anxious life I see
As a combat with myself, that I do violence to myself,
To bruise and beat and batter
And bring under
My own being,
Which is an infinite savage sea of love.
Prince has his lighter vein and delights in the play of verse as well as its passion. In a collection of 1963, The Doors of Stone, he experimented with an Italian stanza first introduced to English poetry by Sir Thomas Wyatt. These stanzas, “Strambotti,” enable Prince to exercise his dialectical imagination in a poised, cerebral dance of witty argument and rhyme. At the same time, the intensity of love hovers over the wit like a protective vapor:
I am not lodged in such and such a Street,
But live in banishment with dust and Stones.
I wear these clothes you see for cold and heat,
And yet I burn and shiver in my bones.
Apparently I live, and work to eat,
But inwardly I die of wounds and groans.
And you know well that you can bring me balm,
My pearl, to whom I pray with open palm.
F. T. Prince was born in South Africa of English parents. His love of the South African landscape of his childhood never left him and may account for his wanderlust, his lifelong wandering. He studied at Princeton University and served with British intelligence in Cairo during World War II; he has taught in English departments in Halifax and Jamaica, for one year at Washington University in St. Louis, and for two years at Brandeis University in Boston. His cosmopolitan life is reflected in his poetry, perhaps most impressively in “Drypoints of the Hasidim” (1975), a late and long poem of some four hundred lines. It is a measure of Prince’s devotion to religious experience that he, a devout Catholic, should have been drawn to the intense inwardness of Jewish mysticism. It is also expressive of his interest in the other, his fascination with the exotic, the different, and demonstrates the commitment of his art to transcendent imagination.
On one level, the remoteness of the Hasidic Jews of Eastern Europe is conveyed with haunting imagery: “Dark hollow faces under caps/in days and lands of exile.” On another level, Prince is identifying his own life in exile, outward and inward: “To believe is above all to be in love,/ And suffer as men do who are in love.” Critics have remarked that there are unspoken allusions to the Church in this “Jewish” poem, but the connections between Christianity and Judaism in this poem are not a matter of doctrinal counterpoint. What intrigues Prince is the closeness of that which appears remote, of the mysterious power of the religious impulse to raise and level all humankind (“The same in us, the same in them”) and steel human beings “To endure and be silent,/ Reason, rejoice and pray;/ Die if you must.”
There is a certain irony that this poet, one of the last of the moderns, should be so clearly identified with traditional values of high craft, religious transcendence, and historical continuity. His career reminds us that we do not stand in relation to the past exclusively in a landscape of revolutionary change. On the contrary, it is in our very experience of difference that we are finally reassured of our common humanity in time and thought.
Sources for Further Study
Choice. XXXI, October, 1993, p.293.
Library Journal. CXVIII, May 15, 1993, p.72.
The Observer. April 25, 1993, p.62.
The Spectator. CCLXXI, November 27, 1993, p.36.
The Times Literary Supplement. August 27, 1993, p.8.
The Virginia Quarterly Review. LXIX, Autumn, 1993, p. SS137.