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D(ennis) J(oseph) Enright 1920–
English poet, novelist, critic, and editor.
Enright is an important literary figure whose poetry and criticism exhibit a liberal, humanistic outlook. Underlying the witty, ironic, and sometimes irreverent tone of his writing is a sensitivity to the human suffering Enright has witnessed in England and during his many years of teaching abroad. Many of Enright's stylistic and thematic concerns are typical of those of The Movement, a literary group with which he is sometimes associated. As editor of the anthology Poets of the 1950s (1955), Enright is partially responsible for bringing what would become known as The Movement to the attention of readers and critics. The anthology includes poems by Kingsley Amis, Donald Davie, Philip Larkin, and Enright, among others. Enright is also well known as a literary critic whose reviews have appeared in the New Statesman, Encounter, and London Magazine.
Enright spent over twenty years teaching English literature in Egypt, Japan, West Germany, Thailand, and Singapore. Many of his works are informed by his experiences in these countries. Enright's first novel, Academic Year (1955), for example, concerns three expatriate Englishmen in Egypt with thematic emphasis on the conflict between Western and Eastern sensibilities.
The suffering and powerlessness of the individual which Enright observed in impoverished countries appears as a major theme in much of his poetry, most notably in his collection Some Men Are Brothers (1960). Political power and hypocrisy are themes which Enright develops through foreign settings but which he also applies to situations in England. The Terrible Shears: Scenes from a Twenties Childhood (1973) is an account of Enright's youth in a working-class family and his early recognition of human suffering. Paradise Illustrated (1978) and A Faust Book (1979) are tongue-in-cheek revisions of the biblical tale of the Garden of Eden and the Faust legend.
Enright's literary criticism displays the same mistrust of established authority as his poetry and fiction. In The Apothecary's Shop: Essays on Literature (1957) and Conspirators and Poets (1966) he examines classical and contemporary literature, questioning conventional interpretations of the works of numerous important authors. Similarly, in Shakespeare and the Students (1970) Enright questions traditional academic approaches to Shakespeare's plays and advocates more pragmatic interpretations based on character analysis.
(See also CLC, Vols. 4, 8; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 1; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 27; and Something about the Author, Vol. 25.)
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The words human and humane ring briskly through [the essays in Mr. Enright's The Apothecary's Shop], as, indeed, do their implications through his poems. Mr. Enright is a moralist—undoctrinaire but (if one can rid the word of false and mis-leading accretions) committed. He is impatient with work which is not demonstrably about something, scornful of critics who obfuscate the something when it's there….
'The greater part of current literary criticism resembles a game of skittles played with ivory chess pieces,' writes Mr. Enright. The danger of the other kind of literary critical game which has come into being since Mr. Enright wrote those words is that the equipment is deliberately crude and the players deliberately tough…. Mr. Enright is not really this sort of player, but there are a few distressing streaks, chiefly apparent in the dialogue on The Cocktail Party and, to a lesser extent, in 'The Use of Poetry.' What is painful is the slightly strained jauntiness of tone, a feeling that the poet is not just a man speaking to men but a chap chatting to chaps.
Healthy common sense is not enough. Mr. Enright's peculiar strength is his alliance of common sense with a wide range of reference: the general critical pieces are supported by essays...
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on (among others) Shakespearian and Jacobean drama, Goethe, Thomas Mann, a useful juxtaposition of Auden and Rilke, and—as one might expect—a volley of praise for Forster at the expense of Virginia Woolf. Mr. Enright is already well known and appreciated as poet, traveller and entertainer: he is now available, in solid form, as a travelled and entertaining critic.
Anthony Thwaite, "Literary Games," in The Spectator, Vol. 199, No. 6752, November 22, 1957, p. 718.∗
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[The Apothecary's Shop] is an extremely lively, sensitive and sensible collection of critical essays, varying greatly in subject matter and in quantity. Some of the material—"On Not Teaching The Cocktail Party" and "The Use of Poetry" for example—was not really worth reprinting, but what remains reflects a vigorous and wide-ranging mind, and one which detests the vast amount of nonsense in much modern criticism….
Mr. Enright's forthrightness and commonsense approach to literature and criticism come out nicely in the opening essay "Criticism for Criticism's Sake" and in "The Brain-washed Muse: Some Second Thoughts on Tradition" but, engaging as he is here, he is still better, because more positive, in such essays as those on Coriolanus, Wilhelm Meister and "To the Lighthouse or to India?". Personally, I find it refreshing to read a critic who refuses to elevate Coriolanus to the first rank of Shakespearean tragedies, who, while admiring Miss Woolf's technique, questions the value of her purpose, and who writes in a lucid and extremely witty style which makes his book a pleasure to read.
John Pettigrew, in a review of "The Apothecary's Shop," in The Canadian Forum, Vol. XXXVIII, No. 451, August, 1958, p. 119.
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Thinking of D. J. Enright's poems, one feels no inclination to talk in terms of 'promise,' for they are already fully achieved things in themselves. They face up to whatever judgment one makes of them with no petitions in their hands, no defensive pleas based on age or inexperience or a broken home. [Some Men are Brothers] is divided into four sections—Siam, Berlin, Japan and Displaced—whose titles might suggest that its author is more of a foiled circuitous wanderer than he appears to be. For while he is strongly aware of the exile within him, and who is in all of us, he bridges the gap between him and the ferocious world of the strange, the starved and the brutal with a sympathetic irony which puts himself and it in their places. Sometimes, I guess more and more often, he closes that gap with an understanding compassion that has none of the distance in it that irony implies, and, though the ironic ones are charming and witty and not without a weight of meaning, it is these others that seem to me the most interesting poems in the book. He is not a man to quote in the small space of a review, for he is not notably a phrasemaker. It is the general tone of the poems, that is to say, fundamentally it is the quality of the mind and the sensibility behind them that give them their special flavour. That mind is interested in peasants and politicians, landscapes and loneliness, fans and furores, but always as they matter in everyday living. He recognises their involvement with each other and with him, and these poems therefore are about a real and complex world in which real and complex poems are still possible, as he shows.
Norman MacCaig, "Peering and Seeing," in The Spectator, Vol. 205, No. 6893, August 5, 1960, p. 223.∗
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[D. J. Enright] is out to make poetry from absolute, unambitious honesty. It is enough for him to be human and ordinary and to give exact rendering to the promptings of a humane consciousness. His role of professional and itinerant humanist is very sympathetic and one waits eagerly for the perfect Enright poem [in Some Men are Brothers], one in which the looseness of his verse justifies itself as flexibility, a freedom of approach allowing the subject to impose its own natural shape. (It would be the aesthetic counterpart of his tolerant and adaptable humanist ethic.) One has to do a lot of waiting; indeed, one gets into a mood of thinking the whole thing not poetry at all. When one remembers what Ezra Pound has done with free verse, Enright's often seems to have no more tension than a burst balloon. His great rambling octameters are not pulled into order by any tautness in the lines which follow them; indeed it seems a point of honour that no line should ever repeat the rhythm of the one that went before. And lacking any formal interest, what the poems have to say often seems scrappy and conventional too. However, the successes come at last, and they are worth waiting for. What really seizes and disturbs his humanism is the realization that there are some men who are outside its range; that there are human castaways so abject that it would be hypocrisy to think of them as human at all. Out of this thought springs a poem, 'Written Off', about Japanese vagrants, which is taut, poised, and most moving in its directness.
P. N. Furbank, in a review of "Some Men Are Brothers," in The Listener, Vol. LXIV, No. 1646, October 13, 1960, p. 651.
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The better part of Figures of Speech, or at least the more assimilable part, is a private view of Bangkok and Japan, with the author's comments on the East-West imbroglio and what Unesco calls the mutual appreciation of cultural values. It's Mr Enright's own voice one hears detailing the traps and vanities of university life, embassy parties and literary gatherings—and in his characters' observations on the equivocal scene…. [Mattie is a] Chinese typist on holiday from Singapore; voluble, Westernised, but baffling. The starting-point of her thoughts about anachronism is Chung Lu, a young writer from Hong Kong who quotes the sages and models himself on the Confucian 'superior man'—anachronism or not (Mr Enright seems to be saying yes and no), he's pretty baffling too. They conduct a strange courtship, and are left facing a marriage that I find unimaginable. Something about them, however, may be deduced from the English character, George: a teacher of English literature prone to misadventures, who after a night in jail is shipped home from Bangkok as one of the British Council's failures—to reappear in no time in another well-heeled cultural role, flashing an expense account. He, at least, is a familiar figure, in novels and indeed in life, and if I call him a stereotype it's only to make the point that Mattie and Chung Lu may be valid in their own way, and possibly Mr Enright's audience in the East will find them just as true to life. If so, I would still feel that Figures of Speech fails to communicate to the rest of us their peculiar aptness. (p. 456)
Robert Taubman, "Style-Spotting," in New Statesman, Vol. LXIX, No. 1775, March 19, 1965, pp. 456, 458.∗
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I have always respected D. J. Enright, a useful all-rounder; critic, poet, teacher, novelist. [In Figures of Speech] he has not greatly extended himself: alternatively, as they say, he is 'writing comfortably within his reach.'
I don't mean that the poet-critic is condescending to the wider public. He has achieved real comedy, entertaining, often witty, about intellectual life and love in Bangkok and Tokyo, while making things easy for himself with the sitting targets of cultural nannies, linguistic conferences, genial brothels, old-world diplomats worried by rising human rights, the usual farcical British Council lecture…. Occident and Orient rub noses and produce not sparks, but courteous solecisms, ornate mis-understandings.
The story links George, a casual English lecturer, with a priggish but teachable young Confucian and an attractive Chinese girl from Singapore. They fumble charmingly on the great divides of race, culture, sex, in a tinted atmosphere of well-bred unreality. On all sides are heard high-sounding exquisitely phrased moral principles whose actual practice must be avoided as pleasantly as possible. Like attending London PEN dinners without paying. Harrying the myth of the inscrutable and unchanging East, Enright has an adroit eye for the tender, absurd and gently disconcerting.
Peter Vansittart, "Strictly for Entertainment," in The Spectator, Vol. 214, No. 7135, March 26, 1965, p. 410.∗
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The thesis that all liberals become defeatist reactionaries is one which D. J. Enright could see off wittily—has done so, indeed, in earlier poems. But [in The Old Adam] his pleas for the old Adam—private, disorganised, indecisive man—take him into strange waters, whose subtlety contains some less subtle fish…. He is nothing if not a civilised grumbler, detached even from his own detachment. It's a privileged position, whose cost, as he recognises, sometimes falls on others….
[His] wispy but pointed observations certainly speak, or murmur, for the age. Poetically, they vary: they are never coarse or harsh but can sag a little, can become too restrained—even faded Japanese paintings are invoked:
Soft pastels and stern primaries, A line which bears you where it will. The master at his most assured, Not one hair out of place.
But one still wishes that the master's assurance weren't so linked to understatement, that his line gave rather stronger evidence of its will; perhaps even that he would muss his hair up a bit. The ratio of stern primaries to soft pastels needs looking at. Not even jokes—and his can be excellent—will always do.
Francis Hope, "Pastels and Primaries," in New Statesman, Vol. LXIX, No. 1788, June 18, 1965, p. 972.∗
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Professor Enright apologetically suggests that some of the short articles and reviews he has collected in [Conspirators and Poets] could 'scarcely be called "literary criticism."' By the standard he himself set in the best essays in his previous collection, The Apothecary's Shop, that may be true. But the apology can be read in more ways than one. When he writes in one of these pieces that the symbolism in John Updike's novels is
all very neat and contrived, as if some sophisticate is amusedly performing for a psychiatrist of low intelligence
—that, we can't help agreeing, is certainly not literary criticism of the kind we have become most familiar with. It is too swift, too witty, too decisive; it uses everyday experience to effect, in a manner carefully avoided by most writers on contemporary literature in the professional academic reviews. The fact is—to paraphrase the old joke about Shakespeare's comedies being better than other people's tragedies—that Mr Enright's journalism is often more to the point than other people's criticism….
[With few exceptions] Conspirators and Poets deals entirely with 20th-century writers. The author fights or snipes on many fronts. In turn he tries to rescue literature from the academics, from the ideologists, from the fashion-mongers, from the moralists, from the sociologists manqué; and then, quite as spiritedly, repudiates the advances of the aesthetes, the dilettantes, the sub-Flaubertians, those who think of 'words as an end in themselves' and of art as a refuge from life's disorder and unseemliness.
If he is likely to displease critics and university teachers by attacking them for the 'mountainous molehills of criticism' which they are raising in every direction, he also makes pretty short shrift of some of our recent rebels and their causes….
However, it would be quite wrong to give the impression that the book is entirely, or even mainly, deflationary in tone. The author is always ready to acknowledge the merits of the work he cares for least, and elsewhere in the book he writes gratefully and gracefully about the achievements of many other contemporary or near-contemporary figures: Thomas Mann, C. P. Cavafy, Dr Leavis, Italo Svevo, Mary McCarthy (though he excludes The Group from his approval), Robert Graves, Philip Larkin, D. H. Lawrence as a poet, Wilfred Owen, Gunther Grass. These writers' gifts are enormously different in kind and magnitude, but the praise Mr Enright gives to each of them never diminishes the value or meaning of that accorded to the others. One curious and paradoxical consequence of the journalistic origin of a few of the pieces, however, is that one feels them to be more allusive, more bookish, than a straight, formal critical essay might have been. We don't get Enright on Mann, for instance, but rather Enright on a book by Erich Heller about Mann … and so on. Which is a pity, especially as allusions and covert references to other writers abound in the essays anyway. 'Most of us,' Mr Enright says, in defence of literary journalism, 'don't have more than two thousand words' worth to say on most topics.' Here we have an exception propounding a rule—and then sticking to it. It is hard to decide, finally, whether he is to be applauded or chided for doing so.
Dan Jacobson, "Enright's Articles," in New Statesman, Vol. 73, No. 1856, October 7, 1966, p. 523.
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Enright is so witty, cogent and right-minded a commentator on literary practice, and believes so energetically in culture in a straightforward sense—'people listening to music and composing it, reading books and writing them'—that [in Conspirators and Poets] he offers a heartening view of what the endeavour is about. I would only say, too heartening. An inheritor of the Scrutiny tradition (one of the best pieces here is an unusually genuine appreciation of what Scrutiny gave us), he indicates that the distinguishing fiery spirit, the giant energy, of that magazine is not his…. One consequence of his geniality is that the old Scrutiny concern with the overall decline of culture gets played down. What remains is—along with a suspicion of criticism and literary fashion—a kind of 'man's unconquerable mind' theory of literary continuance….
Enright's famous inaugural at the University of Singapore … praises Robert Graves for his literary 'soldiering on', ignoring fashion to answer to the dark gods prompting literary creation. The debate about whether a 'culture' or autonomous creation produces art is old; Enright is not unsophisticated or obscurantist; but even soldiering on depends on the culture's letting it happen.
The answer to a bad cultural environment—an essay on Dylan Thomas shows how literary culture can grow grotesque, a poet be ruined by idolatrous second-rate critics and frantically Bohemian friends—is hardly none at all, hardly a lone-wolf theory of art. Most of the cautions are proper; Enright shows, in a review of Irving Howe's Politics and the Novel, all the decent and necessary grounds for protesting against the current admiration for ideology, and 'the historical process', in letters—'do we have to lick the hand that is suffocating us?' Yet we may have to fight in the arena for literate and literary culture in order to be able to go on saying that.
But it would be wrong to leave the impression that this is a severe or even schematized book, even though this thread of attention runs through it and produces notable pieces on several other English lone-wolf poets—Wilfred Owen, D. H. Lawrence, Philip Larkin. For the other striking tendency is its eclecticism; or rather cosmopolitanism. This comes out in the writers surveyed—in, say, the strong interest in German literature (filled out even more solidly in an earlier book) which in turn seems to assist in Enright's effective analyses of other modern ironists, from Svevo to the usually much underestimated Mary McCarthy, to whom he does fine justice. It also comes out as a tone, an appreciative if at times nicely ironic attentiveness to various neo-decadents (Durrell, Cavafy, etc.), the charms and oddities of eastern sex manuals, and the problems of English literature on foreign shores. The good thing is that the appreciation can stop short when it has to; one can only express a humble human and critical debt of gratitude for his answer to Simone de Beauvoir's question, Must we burn Sade? (He asks, why not?) Like all good occasional writing, it widens enjoyment and awareness and halts before excesses; and for the sake of mental vigour and general literary concern the culture surely needs not less but more of it.
Malcolm Bradbury, "Too Nice for a Statesman?" in The Listener, Vol. LXXVII, No. 1974, January 26, 1967, p. 139.
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In a wry little poem, "The Fairies," D. J. Enright neatly sums up his response to the foreign countries in which he has worked: …
and the closet door swings eagerly open And out falls a skeleton with a frightful crash.
Enright's inaugural lecture at the University of Singapore, on which this poem presumably comments, aroused governmental hostility by criticizing the banning of jukeboxes. Such a skeleton appears to an outsider comparatively small; it is his poems about Japan that display to the full his talent for dropping bricks, for X-raying through the public "face" of a country to the bones beneath.
The "humanism," the concern for individuals rather than governments, that conditions this response first made its appearance in Academic Year, a novel based on Enright's experience as a lecturer at the University of Alexandria…. Enright reiterates this problem in his preface to Poets of the 1950's, and says that "the poet's task … is to get beneath the mud"—a task which requires "a fairly tough intelligence and an unwillingness to be deceived."
These qualities are admirably in evidence in the Japan poems which make up his volume Bread Rather than Blossoms (1956) and comprise the largest "ethnic group" in Some Men are Brothers (1960). The tensions of a Japan in transition, in the years 1953 to 1956 when Enright was a visiting lecturer at Kōnan University near Kobe, seem to have bred an equivalent tension in the poems which makes them a significant microcosm of his verse: certainly the fact that they far outnumber his poems about any of the five other countries in which he has taught indicates how deeply Japan got under his skin, and the pointed observations of his prose commentary The World of Dew confirm this diagnosis.
One looks in vain among these poems for testimonials to the Japan of the tourist brochures, the Japan of cherry-blossom, Mount Fuji, Kyōto temples, Nōh, Tea Ceremony, Flower Arrangement, and Zen. All these aspects appear, but as a background against which Enright asserts the human beings and the human values which, for him, they negate. (pp. 100-01)
What he remarks, and remarks on, is a Japan of overpopulation, poverty, landslides, suicides, streetwalkers rather than geisha, and
Concentration campuses, throbbing with ragged uniforms And consumptive faces, in a land where the literacy Rate is over 100%, and the magazines Read each other in the crowded subways.
For Enright, the enigma of the mysterious and inscrutable East is so much obscurantism manufactured by a national vanity to distract attention from inadequacies that, if pointed out, could perhaps be dealt with…. In The World of Dew he describes Japan as "the testing ground of humanism. An excess of man and an insufficiency of man's means: if your faith in man survives this test, it is impregnable." This "faith in man" is the positive pole which prevents Enright's poems from seeming to bite the hand that fed him, however much they may have embarrassed his Japanese hosts; and it is apparent that it emerged not too damaged: "If the Japanese can finally liberate themselves from the past and survive the present, they should do great things. There is an unused fund of virtue in them."
Slightly condescending as those final sentences of The World of Dew sound, they still convey the tenderness, the sense of human likeness, which underlies Enright's frequent criticisms of Japan; the condescension is perhaps a naturally irritated reaction to the "smug conviction [of 'certain Japanese'] that they and their country are so peculiarly unique and so unfathomably deep that no foreigner can hope to write successfully about them." For Enright "nothing is exotic if you understand," and his poetry attempts to correct the overbalance of interest in Japonaiserie by stressing that the Japanese are not "human dolls" but "real people, real people, real people."… This humanity, this "fund of virtue" Enright finds preeminently in the ordinary Japanese people, rather than in the upper classes with their constricting code of decorum and "expected" behavior…. (pp. 102-03)
Politics is one ivory tower which seems to Enright to be blind to the fate of individuals; the other is Japanese tradition and Japanese art, with their stylization and precise rules which are for him a denial of the merely human and an attempt to pretend that the real physical world and its inconveniences are only an illusion of the unpurified mind. In "A Kyōto Garden" Enright describes the neatly-planned miniature world of Japanese landscape-gardening where everything is designed to purify the viewer and bring him the peace of an aesthetic contemplation in which "the eye need never be averted, nor the nose." This viewer, however, refuses to be so purified, and asks, as usual, the awkward question: "What feeds this corpulent moss, whose emptied blood, / what demon mouths await?" Peace of mind, where so many are debarred from it, is too conscience-pricking a privilege, and the only aspect of the garden which brings Enright any satisfaction is the one which connects it to the disorganized world outside and to the common man…. (pp. 105-06)
Like the Tea Ceremony, the aloof, aristocratic Nōh drama, with its extreme stylization of gesture and austere use of stage properties, is an art-form for which Enright has only a frigid regard: "it is art-cum-religion, a mixture which always fills me with misgivings." But even Kabuki, which he clearly enjoys, feeling that it has "that right kind of stylization which has not lost touch with its human origins," does not always succeed in reinterpreting for its audiences the life to which they return when they leave the theatre; their pity is reserved for the daughter they have seen on the stage, "sold into a brothel with a modest groan," and is quickly forgotten in the flurried scramble for a taxi home…. It seems to Enright that, in Japan, value is attached not to how closely art approximates to life, but to how near man comes to being himself a "work of conscious art." Just as the government declares certain historic temples or gardens to be "National Treasures," and therefore subject to special protection, so, when a man has refined himself into a consummate artist, will it extend the same dubious honor to him. "Psalm 72: Man Declared a Treasure" broadly satirizes this strange tendency. (pp. 106-07)
Although Enright's humanism was already present in his Egyptian novel, Japan, by providing the contrasting friction of a traditional formalism, sharpened and defined it in his poetry; it is in Bread Rather than Blossoms that we first truly find his characteristic subject-matter: the inescapable involvement of the man of conscience with the lives and sufferings of his fellows. His dissatisfaction with Japanese poetry springs from its apparent lack of this kind of concern: "in no western literature of any period has the gap between art and ordinary life been so wide."
But whether this gap becomes either too wide or too narrow depends on the poet's vigilantly maintaining within himself the precarious equilibrium of man and poet. This double loyalty is not easy: just as the Japanese poet errs in the direction of art for its own sake, so "a sharp reaction" against this orientation in favor of truth to life "can throw one into a narrow preoccupation with the more obvious hardships and miseries of contemporary Japan and so lead to an inordinate amount of moralizing." A warning, "intended for myself," against undue moralizing is conveyed in the poem "Busy Body under a Cherry Tree." In one sense the cherry tree may stand for much in Japan that is shallowly pictorial, "a tree / Whose fruit is eaten only by the eyes"; but it is undeniably beautiful, and in another sense symbolizes the enviable perfection which only that kind of art which is free of propaganda may attain…. (pp. 107-08)
Asked, in 1962, "Do you see this as a good or bad period for writing poetry?" Enright replied that "in a scientific and technological age, many writers are bound to feel doubts about the usefulness of [their] writing." One can see that the humanist poet, with his particularly strong sense of the real, objective existence of human problems—and his feeling that, while as a poet he may be called upon only to describe them, as a man he is partially responsible for helping in their solution—would begin to have misgivings about his art qua art. Certainly Enright's Japan poems show that his occasional hankerings for poetic purity are outweighed by his doubts about poetry itself: for him, literature is subordinate to life. (p. 109)
[The] attitude expressed here has important repercussions in the kind of poetry Enright's is: it explains his lack of emphasis on "style." Not that his poems, particularly those of his Japan period, have no style; but it certainly consists far less in quotable passages of fine writing than in an habitual ironic stance and a system of careful and often punning cross-references which heightens by repetition the significance of key phrases. For Enright too much "appliqué" style is felt to be a betrayal of subject-matter…. Enright is no mere journalist; but he does feel that poetry should be "about something" and that the something should be "people, preferably other people."
This being so, the humanist poet has a special duty not to "tart up" experience but render it straightforwardly so that the reader's response will be less one of admiration for poetic skill than one of sympathy for the person or situation described. Even "humanism," in the wrong hands, can become a mere gimmick; the Japanese poet whom Enright advises, in "Changing the Subject," to deal with human themes instead of "the moon, and flowers, and birds and temples, / and the bare hills of the once holy city" dresses up his portrayal of "those who sleep in the subway" with so much rhetoric that the real becomes the artificial:
"Are they miners from Kyushu?" Neither he nor I will ever dare to ask them. For we know they are not really human, are as apt themes for verse as the moon and the bare hills. (pp. 109-10)
Despite … Enright's scruples about the possible pitfalls of humanist poetry, one's final judgment is decidedly not that he falls into them. Rather one admires the unending effort to balance the respective claims of life and art, realizing that the emphasis placed on the former demands of the poet considerable artistic self-denial without bringing the man the compensating sense of having solved the problems of the world in which he lives. (p. 110)
Philip Gardner, "D. J. Enright Under the Cherry Tree," in Contemporary Literature, Vol. 9, No. 1, Winter, 1968, pp. 100-11.
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[Enright's] personal commitment has been profound, and often courageous. But it has resulted in his verse becoming a sustained lament for the ineffectualness of art—'man's slight nonmurderousness'—in a world controlled by politics and economics. It is hard to see how much more can be got out of this theme after the present volume [Unlawful Assembly], although the writing is as sensitive and likeable as ever. Unlawful Assembly repeats the topics and attitudes of several earlier books, with little new added and with rather less energy (the poems are less observant and pointed than they used to be). Enright continues to write appealing, but slightly tired, accounts of places and politics, casting wry glances at cultural foibles, shrugging off causes with sad, cultivated weariness. 'Writing Poetry in a Hotel Room' ironically echoes the proud detachment of some Fifties poetry…. One trouble is that the irony has become an automatic response. No one writes on these things with a more compassionate perception, but it is sad to see an interesting talent standing still. (pp. 362-63)
Alan Brownjohn, "Repetitions," in New Statesman, Vol. 76, No. 1958, September 20, 1968, pp. 362-63.∗
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[In Unlawful Assembly the] conversational, ironical tone of poems that are more like footnotes to experience than anything more ambitious, is immensely pleasing…. Commonsense and humour run through this whole collection ('ordinariness has much to be said for it'). Control is good, the effects are achieved—though sometimes with a certain amount of discursiveness ('Processional') and sometimes with too much of the footnote's curtness ('Cultural Freedom'). Very enjoyable are 'After The Riots', 'Roman Reasons' (about Enobarbus) and 'What became of What-was-his-name?', the miniature equivalent of a Graham Greene novel set in a Police State. Best of all, perhaps, is 'Map', where the material is compressed into a stricter form. Enright is not what anyone would call a 'soaring' poet, and his technical skill as a writer of verse is not dazzling (nor perhaps would he want it to be); but those critics who give him the brush-off have been reading too much pretentious nonsense. (pp. 94-5)
Gavin Ewart, "Old Scores," in London Magazine, Vol. 8, No. 9, December, 1968, pp. 92-5.∗
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The best … of this year's books on Shakespeare is D. J. Enright's Shakespeare and the Students…. It is relaxed and non-theoretical. It arises not only from teaching Shakespeare (as its author explains) but from an experience of life and poetry. There is no mystical pursuit of Shakespeare, no embarrassing attempt to expose a Christian or neo-Platonic "pattern": the approach is in the essentially human terms of psychology and poetry. It is truly eclectic (not in the now pejorative bibliographical sense), and almost unerring in its selection of what is most moving; its explanations stimulate where they provoke disagreement. There have been few commentaries so full of new insights. Perhaps this is because Mr. Enright is modest, has no theories, has not made up his mind about Shakespeare—is, in short, a true sceptic. (p. 63)
Martin Seymour-Smith, "Whose Shakespeare?" in Encounter, Vol. XXXIV, No. 6, June, 1970, pp. 56-8, 60-1, 63.∗
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[Enright's Daughters of Earth is] a better volume than he has recently given us, more varied and less repetitive, more obliquely subtle yet also more trenchant. And the pictures of life in Singapore and Japan in his [Foreign Devils] … seem sharper than usual; and name names.
Enright is still writing with a despairing smile about a teacher's failure to communicate, about the pretensions of governments and the miseries of peoples in poor or 'developing' countries ('Tourist Promotion', 'Board of Selection'), and about hanging on, despite everything, to a faith in some humane western values. And no attitude, whether strenuously ideological, or high-minded, or just innocent, is ever right or untarnished. But in these two selections, the manner, the subjects and the treatment all seem to have gained a fresh lease of energy now that he has settled again in England after his long years teaching Eng. Lit. overseas. He is negative, pessimistic; yet by shunning false hopefulness his poetry manages to define an area of basic decency. His scope is wider in this latest work, partly so because of some personal poems which are both harder and more rewarding than the straight political satires. Daughters of Earth represents a good—and an enjoyable—shift of direction for a very talented writer who was getting bogged down. (p. 842)
Alan Brownjohn, "Change Direction," in New Statesman, Vol. 83, No. 2152, June 16, 1972, pp. 842-43.∗
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D. J. Enright is a poet preoccupied with responsibilities. He is an itinerant and committed, if lazy moralist, not positively seeking to squeeze out a moral from experience, but doggedly prepared to confront any moral that obtrudes itself on him—and thousands do. His sytle reflects this moral stance. The poems [in Daughters of Earth] spar about rather loosely to begin with, without especial finesse, before going in to deliver their upper-cut. This they deliver with great precision: the punches of this Forsterian 'connect' all right, sometimes with his own chin. Indeed he sticks his chin out on our behalf: in no egotistic spirit, but on the assumption that it might as well be his as another's—which is a good definition of humanism. 'Why are the faces here so lined?' he asks, in 'Public Bar', one of his most funny and telling poems. The faces' owners haven't, like critics and intellectuals, agonised over complex issues or tragic art…. Such single-moral poems, in forms so casual and in language so relaxed—as, relatively, it is even here—can only rise to a limited kind of beauty. You may wonder if they are poetry at all. But whatever the nature of their virtue, it is sterling and obvious. And, oddly, it is Enright's bringing the same trick off time and time again that, far from creating monotony, is his most convincing credential. (p. 375)
P. N. Furbank, "Knockabouts," in The Listener, Vol. 88, No. 2269, September 21, 1972, pp. 374-75.∗
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The four separate essays which comprise [Shakespeare and the Students] … will not be of great interest to serious critics of Shakespeare. Professor Enright presumably intends his leisurely discussions for students but does not indicate the level of sophistication of his audience, and his account of difficulties encountered by Singaporean students suggests that some of the misunderstanding he wishes to dispel has a cultural as well as a dramatic basis. Students at any level might well be confused by the many snippets of critical opinion used out of context and without adequate elaboration…. Moreover the critics cited, being almost exclusively British, lend a parochial flavor to the essays. (p. 337)
The emphasis on character analysis, in the tradition of A. C. Bradley's criticism, is obviously limiting here, but more serious is the divorce of these characters—in proving them "real people"—from their dramatic origins. He dismisses imagery, symbolism (which he goes out of his way, almost stubbornly, to condemn), and poetic effects as devices for realizing characters and their meanings within dramatic contexts of the individual plays, as well as a variety of dramatic conventions and Shakespeare's characteristic use of them that govern both the reliability and the significance of speeches…. Character analysis when too far extended beyond the normal artistic limits of a work becomes isolated from genuine aesthetic concerns, and can create problems, as these essays sometimes seem to do, that are not encountered when figures are seen as part of a complex dramatic whole.
It is hard to see how this work, though it sometimes provides useful insights, has any superiority over several better balanced guides already available to the student reader. The scene by scene organization, putting the reader at the mercy of "the author as conversationalist," sacrifices originality, a working hypothesis, and lacks the structure to direct expectation—the systematic presentation of an idea that invites new appreciation or understanding significant in scope or depth to merit a whole book. (pp. 337-38)
Myra Hinman, in a review of "Shakespeare and the Students," in Shakespeare Quarterly, Vol. XXIV, No. 3, Summer, 1973, pp. 337-38.
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[D. J. Enright's] four novels, which appeared between 1955 and 1965, while they have had considerable critical acclaim, have received less than their due attention from the reading public. All these novels are set abroad, in Alexandria, the imaginary island of Velo, or Bangkok or Japan. No doubt this fits in with the simple biographical fact that Enright has spent a considerable part of his career abroad as a Professor of English Literature in various Far Eastern universities. He undoubtedly knows what he is talking about. But it is also in keeping with his reflective, poetically sensitive and coolly registering mind. He is a writer who believes that 'civilization consists in the diminution of human tears', and his response to Far Eastern life contains a quite unsentimental pity for the harsh life of the poor, a cool antagonism for affectation and power whether of academics or politicians, and the small and human virtue of hope, offered by Enright with a characteristic mischief—or flippancy, as some call it.
'The four novels I have published are all really travel books, I am afraid' is Enright's own comment on his fiction. This is an unduly modest dismissal of work in which the execution is finished, the writing light and elegant, the comedy smoothly evolved and the product of an individual point of view, the characters clearly projected, the values humane and coherent, the effect tartly different and original. And yet Enright's deprecating remark makes a point of substance about his first novel, Academic Year (1955). It is not so much that it has to do with travel as with a peculiar consequence of a certain kind of travel, that which makes a man an expatriate. Alexandria, the university, the academic year, the people well off or poor, that is, the place and its life, are seen through the eyes of three expatriates, Brett, a cultural officer destined for success though liable to bring disaster to others, Bacon, the long-serving university teacher, 'a rather unofficial kind of man', and another, younger university teacher, the spiritually youthful Packet. On each of the three the city makes its own impression. Brett sees it as different, sometimes horribly different, in its cruelty, violence, lawlessness, venality; Packet sees what is unique in it and mostly good; Bacon, the failure, the good man ruined, sees what is common or universal in it. Their separate views, wittily and sensitively articulated, together make a wholeness of vision and construct a place complete and human in its life, suffering and comedy.
The blend of sad and comic is something one is conscious of throughout Academic Year, as is the manner which never fudges the former or misses what is productive of the latter. The effect of the delirious Egyptian city on the three principals is seen with a kind of ironic sagacity or sardonic gentleness. The writer's personal tone is unmistakable throughout. It is one which works from the imagination not towards the document, but it never interferes with, its sensibility seems wholly in sympathy with, the accurate, sympathetic, unfussy registration of experience. (pp. 77-8)
Wit and then charity: this is the combination of qualities rare in the contemporary world, which marks Enright's work in the novel. It may be that it relaxes on occasion into witticism and sentiment, though not I think in Academic Year, but at its best, at its usual best, it is a most original marriage of intelligence and feeling. (p. 83)
Generosity of attitude, alertness to discrepancy, the insight of the poet, the knowledge of the inhabitant, the detachment of the expatriate—these things make Enright not only a fine observer of place and society but also a most capable fashioner of character. Character, the steady shape of the person in all his connections and relations, is something Enright's four novels are remarkably rich in…. [I am] aware in Enright's poetry, for all its spry contemporary spirit, of a traditional whole someness of feeling, and of a steadiness of moral centre. In the same traditional way he sees the individuality of the person in the stability of character, his universality in the nature he shares with others. Enright apprehends existence through its consistent shapes and particulars and he works towards a vision of human nature by means of specific forms and humble everyday instances. More modest than those who imitate Lawrence without his genius, Enright is concerned with hewing ordinary practical coal rather than with uncovering the mysterious substance of carbon, or he is concerned with the coal first and the carbon no more than indirectly.
Heaven Knows Where (1957) is Enright's Utopia. Packet, jobless after Egypt, answers an advertisement for a teacher of English Literature in the Far Eastern island of Velo. The King of the island is devoted to the Anatomy of Melancholy and he accompanies the action with a calculatedly ambiguous and Burtonian commentary upon the life of the community and in particular on the disaster which overtakes his rational and delightful society when it is subject to a managerially modern, political take-over. The inhabitants of Velo represent, or are, the quiet, the amused, the merely human, in contrast to the intellectuals and power maniacs who invade them. The only response the Velonians can make to the overwhelming military power of the Derthans is to fold them into a melting embrace—and it does indeed melt their power away. This pointed parable or analogue of a situation daily to be seen in the newspaper—at least half of it is, the invasion part—confirms in one a sense one has of Enright as a writer with a peculiarly naked sense of actuality. He has the enviably unusual gift of being able to see what is there for his eyes to see. At the same time as he registers the fact he brings to bear upon it a richly orchestrated feeling for human value, at once tender, commonsensical, and ironic.
To be able to see, to evoke, to judge, to be able to let one's fantasy race, though within the limits of a deeper sanity, to have a wild appetite for the ridiculous checked only by an unpatronising generosity—these are certainly gifts helpful to a writer of an unschematic Utopian parable. If we add that the account of the imaginary island is conducted in a prose as well bred and grave, as supple as Swift's, though without any of the intimations of loathing and disgust which his carries, we can understand how effective and shapely and entertaining Heaven Knows Where is. (pp. 83-4)
The sunniness and certainties of Heaven Knows Where give way in Insufficient Poppy (1960) to a bleaker and more troubled obscurity. There is the same fluent and lissom idiom but it draws on harsher sources. It is an effective—much less reflective than Heaven Knows Where—an effective, sad novel, closer in mood to Enright's poetry than the lighter Academic Year and Heaven Knows Where. The sadness which disturbs the even life of three friends in Bangkok, one, the narrator, Roderick, the manager of a family business dribbling away into nothing, who makes a little money by exporting live snakes, another a teacher of English, Harry, who is given the working class, vaguely nonconformist, Trade Union background attributed to Packet in the first two novels, and another a weird exfilm-cowboy, Colorado Kid, a ruined, inexplicable hulk of a man, is not the small sadness we find every day in every breath, but a large and brutal sadness when one of the friends, Harry, is shot. This calamity shockingly ends the mild pleasures of the trio…. Insufficient Poppy is remarkable (as indeed Academic Year was in respect of Alexandria) for the tactful indirection with which the life of the place and its people is evoked. There are no set-pieces, no longueurs, no explicit descriptions, but we come to have, no doubt because it is refracted through human beings, the clearest vision of the life and the firmest feeling for its people. (p. 85)
Insufficient Poppy is a disturbing, painful book, at moments even, in the second and third parts, throbbing with intense personal anguish. But a certain blurring of the design and too explicit declaration of bitterness make it a less achieved and more fragmentary success than Figures of Speech (1965), which with Academic Year is, in my view, his best novel. Figures of Speech is decidedly more active as a story, the characters are more engaging, the fiction altogether more embodied and appealing. There are only three characters, in effect, another English university teacher, George Lester, Chung Lu, a high-minded young Chinese scholar, and Mattie, a crisp girl on vacation from Singapore, who displays both the elegance and the forcefulness characteristic of the educated young Chinese woman. The love affair of the two Chinese and the gorgeously comic adventures of George are plaited together with nimble and natural smoothness. There is also an abrasive treatment of George's relations with, and betrayal by, the British Council and the Embassy. The conduct of both towards their own nationals, especially when these are writers, poets and similar dandruffed types, shows unbridled cautiousness competing with unabashed stupidity and composes a not very admirable if highly comic model of British diplomatic and cultural moeurs. In addition there is a characteristically sharp and perceptive account of the Japanese mode of entertaining foreigners, which is a marvellous piece of dancing humour and social analysis. It is hard to define the effect of this remarkable book in which an unaffected fastidiousness of spirit is accompanied by the most open and inclusive generosity of response, and in which both are conveyed in an idiom utterly personal and devastatingly witty.
It is the union of flippant and forgiving, wit and pity, in Enright's fiction which gives it its intensely personal flavour of blended tartness and kindness, or, given the Eastern provenance of so much of it, of its sweetness and sourness. We find this double savour throughout the narrative, in the tone, in the imagery, in the reflections which jink suddenly from melancholy to mordant…. And of course we sense this sweetness and sourness most in the characters…. Chung Lu's transformation as a result of his travels and of his feeling for the attractive and rational Mattie, from his cool state of Chinese superiority and his scholarly dedication to verse, calligraphy and correctness in thought and behaviour, into that of agitated and nervous lover, is shown with a balanced, unpatronising sympathy and a clear eye for every absurdity. Chung Lu is perhaps the most complete and satisfying, as he is the most graceful, character in Enright's fiction. Authentic and ancient in tradition, fine in quality, magnificently Chinese, he is also seen as instinct with a common and instant humanity. (pp. 87-8)
Enright's novels are, in a very special way, intelligent. By intelligence I mean that liveliness of faculty which combines a measure of wisdom with a sense for the concrete occasion and an intuition which effortlessly brings a cogently human standard to bear on the grasped situation, and it hardly seems necessary to stress why this capacity daily appears more rare and more desirable. This intelligence speaks in all the material of his fiction, just as it does in the actual writing, which joins a lithe, light-footed strength to sensitivity, and sardonic mockery to affectionate recognition. His account of the expatriate life of teachers, their friends, lovers and superiors in Bangkok, Singapore, Japan, is poetically evocative of the places, shrewd in its analysis of them, and at the same time quick with the sense of calamities, public and private, either waiting to trip us up or thronging to mob us. Enright is full of pity for others but wary about self-pity for himself. And he is always aware of the sanitary necessity of laughter. So often in official bad books himself, he feels for the victims of power, and who of us isn't one of those sometime? If intelligence is the principal character of—perhaps the principal character in—Enright's novels, the quality most marked in their method and presentation, their effect is to cherish and to foster in circumstances of brutal antagonism the remnants of humanity. (pp. 88-9)
William Walsh, in his D. J. Enright: Poet of Humanism, Cambridge University Press, 1974, 107. p.
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D. J. Enright, in Paradise Illustrated, has written 34 short poems on the myth of the Fall of Man, and 20 more from a similar vein. They are wry, dry, succinct poems; often with a throw-away feel about them, leaving the reader wondering whether he has ducked, or has received, a punch line. Adam and Eve appear as a humorous, somewhat sexy couple who might be sharing, as it were, an apple in a pub. God is one of those omniscient landlords….
These characters get through the opening-hours of sin, knowledge, alienation, labour; always ready with a quip, a self defensive technique, a sort of Cockney or Jewish humour. As a model for enduring a fallen life, this is not a bad theology. There is no grandeur. This, too, seems reasonable—in the light of the one simple story.
What Adam and Eve seem to have learned from their eating of the tree of knowledge is a way not with things but with words: they have a penchant for punning, for double-entendres….
This is a theology for a clever, self-conscious people who feel they do not have time for that more complex story about redemption, but who still are not going to be done down by a fall that has left them clever without much to be clever about. They have discovered a sort of karate technique of mockery to defend themselves: they can knock out with a funny kick a suggestion that there might be things to be solemn about. It is a theology for Don Juans having a good time in hell—away from all those stuffed-shirt angels.
Nicholas Mosley, "An Apple in a Pub," in The Listener, Vol. 100, No. 2567, July 6, 1978, p. 29.
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Comic updatings of old tales rarely work well, whereas serious ones get away with it too often. D. J. Enright has made it clear that his intentions in Paradise Illustrated are at least fairly serious, but he is much too witty and clever a writer to let solemn truths about the Fall of Man drop too heavily from his typewriter. The result, in this long sequence about Adam and Eve, is an uncomfortable mixture: some of the jokes come off…. And some of them sink to depths of homeliness plumbed more often by Jewish comedians than poets. This is a surprising misadventure from a writer who redeems himself at the end of the book with some "Other Poems" which show him in top form: mordantly satirising authoritarianism in ex-colonial places, chastising modern biographers, detecting the dangers in the deification of "opinion"…. (p. 67)
Alan Brownjohn, "Heads, Tongues & Spirits," in Encounter, Vol. LI, No. 5, November, 1978, pp. 63-9.∗
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['A Faust Book'] is full of cunning literary allusions and learned puns (of which I probably missed as many as I recognised) and the perfect reader of Enright's book would be a widely read don with something of his own donnish turn of mind.
Considered only in these terms Enright's 'Faust' is a very funny book. He has a great knack for sliding from the sixteenth century into our own and back again; and much of the humour comes from comic and pointed anachronisms. But this is plainly a book about 1979, and the trappings of the sixteenth century are really no more than a device for a sharp satirical glare at our own times….
[A] careful reading of Enright's 'Faust' shows that traditional morality is a scarlet thread running through the work from start to finish. Because the Faust legend is set as much in hell as on earth—wherever Mephistopheles is, he creates a hell all around him—and partly, perhaps, because it is notoriously easier to describe hell than heaven, most of this poem is about the pains, follies and vices of mankind….
Some of the jokes fall flat: sometimes Mr Enright is too keen for the applause of the Senior Common Room: but this is a good poem, and a serious one. The best of the jokes are serious which certainly doesn't mean that they are not the sort we laugh at. It seems to me that the message, however drily delivered, is that hope is a virtue, which should be practised in our own time as in every other.
Philip Toynbee, "A Faust for Our Time," in The Observer, October 7, 1979, p. 39.
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It seemed well-trodden ground for D. J. Enright to cover in Paradise Illustrated, his sequence of poems updating the Fall; I thought the joke had been better done by other, less sophis ticated, artists. Now, in A Faust Book, he has followed the exhortations of Heine and Valéry to do your own Faust, and come up with an altogether subtler, funnier and more sustained set of personal variations on the legend. His Faust and Mephistopheles are, for one thing, not put so relentlessly through all the latest hoops: the story seems to have compelled Enright to treat it a bit more on its own terms; perhaps a moral in that, about its more convincing relevance to our own times…. A Faust Book moves steadily through the Faust tale from beginning to end, getting most mileage out of its potential for modern academic and political satire; and using a considerable variety of forms. Enright perennially defines the boundaries of human achievement—of human decency and honesty—by outlining the cynical plausibility of the forces of darkness. In the past, he's rarely done the positive side with much conviction since his first two or three books; but his Faust comes much nearer to the scope and range of his best earlier work than "middle" Enright, which was always funny, and right, yet infallibly depressing and sometimes repetitive. (p. 67)
Alan Brownjohn, "An Unprovincial Province," in Encounter, Vol. LIV, No. 1, January, 1980, pp. 64-8, 70.∗
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The earliest of [Enright's] Collected Poems go back more than 30 years, to the end of the 1940s; but already in them you find that absolutely characteristic move away from a feeling of his own to a thought about somebody else—and then another thought….
Enright has lived abroad, teaching English literature, for much of his life, and he has written poems about Egyptians, Japanese, Germans, Thais, and the Malays and Chinese of Singapore. He has seen a lot of suffering and oppression; but he has always tried to picture it in individual terms, turning a situation from facet to facet to catch it in as many lights as possible.
He can write as well about an Asian prime minister, listing the names of students who are to be arrested that night and for a moment seeing his own past reflected in their lives, as he can about a 13-year-old Japanese bootblack who killed himself with rat poison because he had a headache. ('Kazuo—who found rat poison cheaper than aspirin," Enright says in the last line of that poem—again remembering exactly what poverty means.)
It might seem that this is a very impersonal poetry, and indeed Enright has been admonished for that…. But of course the truth is that you feel his personal presence in all of his poems. It takes a very special art to put across such uncomfortable observations as Enright does without seeming priggish; and he does it precisely by his disarming personality, so funny, and so conscious of his own weaknesses, without ever losing sight of the point he wants to make. I spoke of his wit and his scrupulousness as though they were different things; but often they are one and the same, the humour lying in the very way in which he sees and reports some fresh implication….
There is one [poem] I have always especially liked: the very Proustian 'Words', where in a new country, where even the moon looks strange, this perpetual traveller begs: 'Words, tell me where I am!' I don't know if he feels his plea has ever been answered. But I don't think there is any English poet writing today whose words have done more to tell us where we are.
Derwent May, "Scrupulous Wit," in The Listener, Vol. 106, No. 2728, September 24, 1981, p. 347.
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Anybody at all interested in English poetry should read [D. J. Enright's Collected Poems]. It has in it the best autobiographical sequence written this century: 'The Terrible Shears.'… It also contains, in the short pieces, some of the wittiest and wryest comment on the modern world to be found in the verse of our time….
The intelligence, the irony and the wit are there from the first…. Puns appear throughout, good ('The hot iron of the railroad hisses in the air') and not so good ('The Metropolitan Water Bawd'). Yet the descriptions of Egypt and Japan often have a sensuous quality, and pathos is not beyond him….
Enright isn't a lyrical writer, nor is he fluent as some poets are. He isn't strong on form, the rhymes happen when they want to. 'A Pleasant Walk' is the one exception, where the stanzas stand like solid citizens and make one wish that this happened more often, though with him the truly free poems are often the most satisfying. Nursery rhymishness is common in the early verse….
The tone is low-key, conversational, full of lightness and lack of optimism…. The judgment is only occasionally at fault. 'The Quagga,' for example, is a fine doomful poem but its last line arrives with a terrific thump of expectedness. Verbalism sometimes gets the upper hand….
From these minor faults 'The Terrible Shears' (1973) don't suffer. They belonged in fact to his grandfather, a gardener in a public park. The 70 short poems are little cameos from Enright's early life, a working-class childhood in the Twenties and Thirties. Pathos occurs again here, a quality conspicuously lacking in contemporary verse of any intellectual standing, though attempted often in the poems on the deaths of budgies submitted for Poetry Competitions, and so does humour…. 'Paradise Illustrated' (1978), the next sequence, lacks the personal emotional involvement (I feel). It relies of course heavily on knowledge of Milton, an extended academic blague—though many of the jokes are good, with some mickey-taking of Milton's style…. Is some of it slight, too easy an irony?
'A Faust Book' (1979), on the other hand, is sometimes laboured. The German Rustic of the peasants reminds me of Benny Hill as a Swedish nymphomaniac. Theology was of absorbing interest to the Middle Ages; it's less interesting to us. Even the 'New Poems' that end the book are concerned with theology, the causa causans, etc.—'The Retired Life Of The Demons' is not a bad example. 'Guest' and 'Explanation' are actively good. The talent is alive and kicking and there are, for certain, many fine poems to come.
Gavin Ewart, "Very Much Alive and Kicking," in The Observer, September 27, 1981, p. 32.
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The 'Movement' was doubtless a force in post-war poetry. But was it—as Robert Conquest, one of its leaders, claimed—unanimously empirical, ironical, and insular? Some of its members were incurably romantic, soft-hearted and keen on 'abroad'. Even D. J. Enright, who edited the Movement anthology Poets of the 1950s, was never absolutely faithful to the preferred neutral tone, and a reexamination which begins with him makes the Movement look rather a hotch-potch.
The bulk of his early poems are set in and around Egypt or the Far East, and respond to the exotic strangeness of those places with a good deal of flamboyance…. Equally, though, Enright's first two or three books [reprinted in Collected Poems] catch him in the act of developing an acute social conscionce—and his view of the world becomes bleaker, his use of language becomes increasingly astringent. The suffering he encountered in Japan after the war had a particularly potent effect. Some cases of hardship were so appalling that to write about them at all seemed a kind of insult…. Others were more approachable, providing that the diction, form and attitude of his poems were kept scrupulously self-effacing…. The result was to turn him into a more typically Movement writer, and a more boring one, than he seems to have originally intended….
Once his humane impulses had shaped a plain style, they hung on to it. There has never been any doubt his sensitivity to the sadness of the creatures, but neither has there been much chance of it being realised in terms other than the flatly colloquial or the wryly ironic….
During the 1960s Enright seems to have felt increasingly frustrated by these self-imposed restrictions on tone and theme. In Unlawful Assembly (1968) he even admitted to having 'Nothing much to write about': 'Love and death' seemed impossibly 'grand and soporific themes'. In the '70s, though, he sought to solve his dilemma by making a virtue of the almost exclusively chatty, anecdotal mode he had allowed himself to develop.
The Terrible Shears (1973) retails incidents from his childhood with a dogged lack of drama; Paradise Illustrated (1978) tells the story of Adam and Eve as a series of quips, jokes and feeble satires; and A Faust Book (1979) recreates Faust and Mephistopheles as a couple of buffers pottering around refusing to deal adequately with the 'grand themes' that history thrusts upon them. All three sequences testify to a compassionate sense of the world's misery, without showing much inclination to make us feel it on our pulses. (p. 20)
Andrew Motion, "Limited Company," in New Statesman, Vol. 102, No. 2638, October 9, 1981, pp. 20-1.∗
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[Collected Poems] is a severely pruned collection of poems written by Enright between 1953 and now. What picture of the poet emerges from them? Academic, humanist, traveller. (p. 85)
But most of all a single scene comes to mind. The poet is at his desk in some far-flung corner of south-east Asia. It is night, so the desk lamp is switched on. The poet continues to write, as insects gather under the lamp. Then the lizards come and eat the insects. The insects think the poet is punishing them by feeding them to a spring-jawed dragon. That is the scenario of 'The faithful'. It ends:
It isn't difficult to be a god. You hang your lantern out, Sink yourself in your own concerns And leave the rest to the faithful. (pp. 85-6)
And that is a large part of Enright's theme. It isn't difficult to be a god. But what about being a just god, with all the moral casuistries to try to make intelligible? After all, in the Western tradition, that's what a god is expected to do—which is something different from administering arbitrary punishment and rewards. In point of fact, Enright is not a god and his lamp is not a spring-jawed dragon. But he has hung his lantern out, he has sunk himself in his own concerns, and it can fairly be said that it's up to the faithful to interpret that as they please—or don't please. In other words, it's not difficult to have yourself taken for a god—by somebody. Prime Ministers do, cultural officials do, even the gulli-gulli man does—by his chicken. If he is not a god, he is at least 'the greatest of beings'. But there is an exception. And that is the poets. They are not gods. They have to work from the opposite end of the theological-cultural spectrum. As Enright says in 'Cultural freedom', 'You need defeat's sour / Fuel for poetry. / Its motive power / Is powerlessness.'
Powerlessness, for example, to prevent the deaths of children—which must be to the God in the sky what the deaths of ants are to the god at the typist's desk [in 'Hands off, foreign devil'], or students to unscrupulous Oriental politicians [in 'Prime Minister']. Much of the Collected Poems reads like a gloss on the famous words Ivan Karamazov spoke to his brother Alyosha: 'If all must suffer to pay for the eternal harmony, what have the children to do with it?' (p. 86)
But it happens. Children die in their tens of thousands, and nowhere better to witness it than among the Asian poor. One of the very first poems in the book is entitled 'On the death of a child', followed by the better, because more tersely descriptive, poem from Enright's second volume, 'The short life of Kazuo Yamomoto'. Kazuo, who 'wanted to die because of a headache', a headache shared, in the metaphorical sense (which makes all the difference) by 'the great ones', the politicians, the gods, grappling with notions of Sovereignty and Subjection. (pp. 86-7)
Unusual for a poet these days to have got his priorities right: gods, poets, the deaths of little children. In other words suffering, responsibility for suffering, and what is to be done about it, how one is to write about it. So far as the poet is concerned, the most important thing is not to confuse pity as a response to all this with pity as a subject to write about…. [Where poems] are good they are salutary reminders of the relativity of suffering, which can sound harsh, uncharitable. The poem from The Terrible Shears, for example, about a schoolgirl run over by a bus, having her leg amputated but passing her exams and getting married. Not a bad life, in the poet's judgement. No secret police dragging you out of bed in the middle of the night, no children stabbed or having their brains dashed out, no one starving to death. (p. 87)
So it isn't difficult to be a god, but it's just as easy to be the victim of a god. Probably we are all both at once from time to time in our lives. The almost infinite gradation from ants to angels is bound to place us in the power of some strange being, and make us seem like some strange being to someone in our power. And when we drop out of the chain, we are soon replaced, our absence not noticed for long—as Enright reflects on leaving one of many houses he has occupied in Thailand or Singapore….
In the earlier volumes, Enright places his insights in vividly realised, more highly coloured, circumstances. The Egyptian poems in particular make greater use of landscape and atmosphere than survives into the poems set in the Far East, which realise the scene more obliquely, more sketchily. Here the emphasis falls heavily in one sense, lightly in another, on the moral perception—tricked into life as much by teasing metrical games as by a fragment of a scene, or an object, or the tail-end of an event seen through the corner of the eye. (p. 88)
Later, we discover Enright making a great deal more use of literary reference and religious myth to sharpen his perceptions into pain, pity and suffering. In Paradise Illustrated and A Faust Book he reduces religious symbolism to a convenient method of stating the old questions in a way that allows new connections to be made between them….
Enright remains what he calls 'a lurching humanist', but with a developed idea of how such a person, such a poet, might make use of the vantage points offered by the Creation story, or the Faust myth. What he is looking at from those vantage points is still the secular reality of human suffering. 'Thus Faust did good, as he wanted and / little good came of it'—the link between 'do-gooding' and 'good done' is clarified by the Marlovian and Goethean references….
With Musil, then, Enright 'inclines to a chronic irony', but not one that he can flatter himself will lead to the downfall of anything so portentous as the Austro-Hungarian Empire (see 'Pains'). Rather than cause, it comments on another kind of fall—what in Biblical terms he envisages as the Fall of man, into sin and death, pain and suffering, and finding that it isn't difficult to be a god, but that poets mustn't be. Poets must always be on the look-out for gods, both inside and outside themselves. For gods are really words, formed out of god knows what fears and apprehensions, and then masquerading as real—in useful stories, myths and legends. Now the stories must be used to return us to ourselves, to expose and disentangle the moral conundrums that words express, but conceal and distort too. (p. 89)
Patrick Swinden, in a review of "Collected Poems," in Critical Quarterly, Vol. 24, No. 3, Autumn, 1982, pp. 85-90.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 569
There is something to be said against collecting old book-reviews—but not when they are as good as D. J. Enright's. Flaubert and Heinrich Böll, 'Earthly Powers' and 'A Dictionary of Catch Phrases,' 'The Golden Lotus' and E. B. White: coming from most reviewers, the pieces assembled in 'A Mania for Sentences' would simply represent so many fares picked up at the rank. But in Enright's case they cohere, bound together by a consistent (and consistently enlivening) approach and a distinctive tone of voice, and by the mixture of subtlety tempered by common sense (or vice versa) which makes him one of the most rewarding critics currently plying his trade.
He is also a master of the witty formulation, and the book would be worth reading for the jokes alone….
Some of Enright's finest comic moments are at the expense of criticism (other people's criticism) which has lost touch with reality. His wit also serves as a teaching-aid, since he sees his own brand of criticism as 'practical'—by which he means that it is of the kind which attempts to be of practical use to readers 'by describing, drawing out, comparing, concurring or quarrelling with the work it discusses.' All of which he himself does to excellent effect…. On the other hand he does not seem to have any very strong urge to erect a large self-aggrandising theory of literature….
What he does have is a keen sense of history, and more particularly of what history feels like at the receiving end. He warms to the Good Soldier Svejk; he writes amusingly about Chinese immigrants in cheap fiction (Fu Manchu and Charlie Chan) and thoughtfully about Chinese immigrants in complicated fact (the memoirs of Maxine Hong Kingston). He is also dedicated to the proposition that it takes more than one culture to make a world, while recognising just how tricky a business crossing a cultural boundary can be….
A small bundle of essays, among the best in the collection, are concerned with language. A contentious subject just now, when usage has a much harder time battling against abusage than it did in the old hierarchical days (whose language is it anyway?), when idioms are unmanned in the name of sexual equality and students of 'verbal aggression' are pushing back the frontiers of four-letter scholarship. As you would expect, Enright takes a sensible undogmatic view of things. Not all change, he reminds us, is decay, and some decay turns into new life; but slovenly is slovenly, and illiterate is illiterate, and a good deal of what passes itself off as change is mere floundering around.
One opportunity which he does not fail to seize is presented by a dictionary of obscure and unusual words….
There are many other miscellaneous pleasures in 'A Mania for Sentences'—if I had to single out one, it would be the funny and touching account of the ways in which a group of American five-year-olds responded to the stories told them in kindergarten, a reminder (among other things) of how well Enright has written about his own childhood in his sequence of poems 'The Terrible Shears.' Like everything else in the collection, it sets you thinking; like everything else it bears witness to the rival claims of fantasy and reality, and to the art through which they can sometimes be reconciled.
John Gross, "Mister Enlight," in The Observer, July 24, 1983, p. 25.