Dannie Abse Abse, Dannie - Essay


(Poetry Criticism)

Dannie Abse 1923-

Welsh poet, playwright, novelist, essayist, editor, critic, and physician.

One of the United Kingdom's best-known contemporary poets, Abse has been compared to Philip Larkin and Rainer Maria Rilke. Praised for his honesty, for his balanced view of life, and for his compassion, Abse focuses on modern, daily life. Abse's Jewish heritage, his Roman Catholic education, and his practice as a physician have helped to shape his individual sensibility.

Biographical Information

Abse was born to Jewish parents in Cardiff, Wales, on September 22, 1923. Abse became seriously interested in poetry as a youth when his older brother Leo introduced him to The Left Review, a political magazine that contained poetry and essays about the Spanish Civil War. Abse's concern for social issues has continued throughout his life. Although his parents struggled financially, the children of the family achieved prominent careers. Abse and his brother Wilfred became physicians, while Leo became a Labour Member of Parliament. Abse attended St. Illtyd's College in Cardiff from 1935-41 and the University of Wales. In 1942 he entered the medical program at King's College in London and then began training in 1944 at Westminster Hospital. From 1951-55 he served as a squadron leader in the Royal Air Force (RAF) at a military chest clinic near Middlesex Hospital in London. Abse married Joan Mercer in 1951 and together they have three children. He was writer-in-residence at Princeton University from 1973-74. He has received numerous awards including the Charles Henry Foyle award for House of Cowards in 1960, and both the Welsh Arts Council Literature award and the Jewish Chronicle Book award for Selected Poems in 1970.

Major Works

Abse's first book of poetry, After Every Green Thing (1949) was published while he was still in medical school. This led him to consider leaving school to pursue writing full time. His struggle with his identity as a doctor kept him from writing about his occupational experiences in his early poetry. He wanted to be known as a poet and not a doctor. After Every Green Thing has a prominent use of symbolism that Abse rejected in his later poetry. The language and imagery found in Walking under Water (1952) differs from the style of his first work, and presents subjects of a more personal nature, for which he would later be known. Tenants of the House (1957) and Poems, Golders Green (1962) focus on Abse's personal experiences. The shift away from social issues to those of a personal nature results in a conversational tone that is carried through to A Small Desperation (1968). His first poems dealing with medical themes appeared in A Small Desperation (1968) and Funland (1973). Previously, Abse avoided writing about his experiences as a doctor. Howard Sergeant of Books and Bookmen praised the poet for the depth and wholeness that resulted from Abse drawing upon his medical experience. The poems in Way Out in the Centre (1981) reflect Abse's Jewish background and family life. In One-Legged on Ice (1983) Abse continues to explore themes of a personal nature including those about love and his son, while leaving room for the dreamlike and mysterious. In Ask the Bloody Horse (1986), the mysterious and strange create a recurring theme of what Abse calls “numinous hauntings.” As with his previous volumes of poetry, Abse continues to draw from his personal experiences and Jewish background in Remembrance of Crimes Past: Poems 1986-1989 (1990). The title poem describes how he eluded a piano lesson to play in the park, causing the dismissal of his piano teacher. Again in Arcadia, One Mile (1998), Abse draws on Welsh literature and his experience as a doctor in exploring the duality of life and death.

Critical Reception

Abse's popular success is paralleled by favorable reviews from many critics. Specifically, his poetry is viewed has having a depth that is composed of religious, literary, historical, and emotional layers. He is also lauded for taking on universal themes while maintaining a personal connection. Abse's exploration of dichotomies including personal and professional, love and loss, scientific and artistic, creates tension that runs throughout his poetry. His work has been described as romantic, ironic, dark, mysterious, sophisticated, and socially conscious. The romantic and symbolic style of his early poetry gave way to the more lyric and personal character. It is precisely these qualities that have led many critics to agree that Funland and Other Poems (1973) is one of Abse's strongest volumes of poetry.

Principal Works

(Poetry Criticism)

After Every Green Thing 1949

Walking under Water 1952

Tenants of the House 1957

Poems, Golders Green 1962

Dannie Abse: A Selection 1963

A Small Desperation 1968

Demo 1969

Selected Poems 1970

Funland, and Other Poems 1973

Collected Poems, 1948-1976 1977

Way Out in the Centre 1981

One-Legged on Ice 1983

Ask the Bloody Horse 1986

Remembrance of Crimes Past: Poems 1986-1989 1990

White Coat, Purple Coat: Collected Poems 1986-1989 1990

On the Evening Road 1994

Selected Poems 1994

Welsh Retrospective 1997

Arcadia, One Mile 1998

Be Seated, Thou: Poems 1989-1998 2000

Ash on a Young Man's Sleeve (novel) 1954

Some Corner of an English Field (novel) 1956

House of Cowards (play) 1960

O. Jones, O. Jones (novel) 1970

Goodbye, Twentieth Century (autobiography) 1974

A Poet in the Family (autobiography) 1974

Pythagoras (Smith) (play) 1979

A Strong Dose of Myself (essays) 1983

The Dogs of Pavlov (play) 1990

There Was a Young Man from Cardiff (novel) 1991

Roland Mathias (essay date 1967)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Mathias, Roland. “The Poetry of Dannie Abse: II.” Anglo-Welsh Review 16, no. 38 (winter 1967): 84-98.

[In the following essay, Mathias examines the poems in Tenants of the House and Poems, Golders Green.]

‘The Water Diviner,’ printed second in Poems, Golders Green, is one of several pieces in which Dannie Abse treats either of the predicament of poets as a class or of himself in particular.

Late, I have come to a parched land
doubting my gift, if gift I have,
the inspiration of water
spilt, swallowed in the sand.

He reflects that instead of transforming ‘amorphous mass’

so that the aged gods might dance
and golden structures form

he should have built

                                                  plain brick on brick
a water tower.

In other words, he chose to work on the discipline of form, to make available to himself the power and impetus of tradition, instead of ensuring the one thing necessary to irrigate the verbal desert, a constant supply of inspiration. It would not merely be heavy-handed and insensitive to variations of mood to see in this a realistic analysis of the poetic development of Dannie Abse: it would also be illogical, because the alternatives which the poem sets are not a matter of choice. They are, indeed, not even alternatives. I introduce ‘The Water Diviner’ here solely as a possible guide, albeit a subjective one, to literary judgment. If Dannie Abse felt, over the general period of which this poem is part, that the supreme gift, summonable as water is by a hazel stick, had deserted him, how far does his ‘feeling’ fit what may be said more objectively about Tenants of the House (1957) and Poems, Golders Green (1962), the two volumes which contain all the poems which I wish to consider in this article. Was there a barren period for a year or two from 1957?

Tenants of the House, which contains poems written between 1951 and 1956, is, to my mind, the high plateau of Abse's achievement. The organisation of the contents under five headings, Metaphysical Ironies, Social Ironies, The Identity of Love, The Identity of Place and The Identity of the Word, warns one against the attempt to draw any inferences about the chronological order of composition; but it is interesting, if not significant, that the fourth group includes, in ‘Field’ and ‘Port of Call,’ two of the weakest and most ineffective poems to come from Dannie Abse's pen at any time. Another poem in the same group, ‘Postcard from Cornwall,’ a late, last outburst of Dylanism, is not very much better. But the term ‘plateau’ justifies itself for the remainder. Of some thirty poems there is scarcely one which is not more successful than all but the very best in Walking Under Water, his volume immediately previous, and perhaps half of the thirty reach for higher ground yet.

But in Poems, Golders Green the altitude falls. Not by many feet, perhaps, but, for the climber who has come so far, enough for significance. With the exception of that magnificent poem, ‘Return to Cardiff,’ and perhaps ‘The Water Diviner’ already mentioned, the first part of the book contains few, if any, pieces which are not in some way flawed. To this extent there is a rough correspondence between Dannie Abse's own feeling about his poetic condition at that time and the contour which I am drawing now. But it was not inspiration he then lacked (inspiration, that is, in the sense of the provision of an idea, an angle, an incident for the poem's forming) so much as the energy and the discernment to cut the secondary material away and carry through the intended theme unobscured to its conclusion. In the second half of the book, however, (and I bear in mind that this again may have no basis in a real chronology of composition) there appears a spinney of poems on high ground which perhaps overtops the little-varying levels of the volume previous. In the centre of the spinney I have for markers ‘One Spring Day,’ ‘Jew,’ ‘Surprise! Surprise!’ (despite the title), ‘After a Departure,’ ‘Postmark,’ and ‘The French Master.’ On the edge, and more doubtfully, stand ‘The Magician,’ ‘The Grand View’ and two of the ‘Three Voices.’ It is noticeable that these poems, like ‘Return to Cardiff,’ are all (with the exception of ‘The Magician’) more personal in their genesis than the Metaphysical Ironies and Social Ironies with which I would wish to compare them. Whether this says anything at all about the nature and development of Abse's inspiration could only be argued against much more biographical information than I possess. But it is at least interesting that he seems latterly to have moved away from the public poetry and the hortatory tone formerly so characteristic of him.

If we accept that Tenants of the House and Poems, Golders Green both contain poems in number which overtop all but a very few in Abse's two earlier volumes, our next task must be to identify as far as possible the characteristics of this later period of writing, especially those characteristics which, being newly developed, may be held to be the cause or basis of the new success. And here the first to be mentioned must be the poet's continual search for new poetic experience. This, though not the most fundamental, was the most continuous factor involved and one which played second and stoutly in two different phases of Dannie Abse's development. History, evangelical religion, psychology, spiritualism, politics, the Bomb, the Ancient World, social revolution, athletics, football, mountaineering, the circus, the music hall, the railway, otherness—Abse's two later volumes are remarkable for their diversity and versatility. There is no timid lurking behind the facades of well-worn poetic themes. And while this determination to measure poetry against the utmost of modern life is common to many poets writing since the War (one thinks immediately of James Kirkup's poem on a heart operation in a Leeds hospital) Dannie Abse manages to make of his books not frenetic scrabblings together of novelties but architecturally unified compositions. This achievement is supported, in Tenants of the House and to a much smaller extent in the volume following, by the second characteristic to which I must now draw attention, a characteristic whose pressure towards structural unification was of the most marked kind.

During the years 1951 to 1956 in particular, the poet began to provide a symbolic concept or structure which supported the entire poem and was the poem in everything but the human and apposite moral the reader was intended to draw. Not that such provision was an entirely new thing. There were poems in Walking under Water, such as ‘The Search’ and ‘The Occupation,’ which attempted this. There were others, like ‘The Clock’ and ‘Journeys and Faces,’ in which two or more symbols were provided and the structure depended on the interplay or tension between them. But in all these the narrative line was unsatisfactory—in ‘The Occupation’ because it was cluttered and obscured by decorative trivia and a mass of words, in ‘The Search’ because it was neither logical nor coherent in mood, in ‘Journeys and Faces’ because there was no real interplay and therefore no unification. Only ‘The Clock’ offered a movement or dance of symbols which, maintained, was also unifying. But this was a different sort of poem. ‘Soho: Saturday Night,’ which essayed a symbolic concept based on grouping rather than development, was able to use existing knowledge in the reader (knowledge of moral as well as narrative patterns) to make a success of parts even if the unity of the whole might be in doubt.

But the poems in Tenants of the House reveal such an increase in the ability to maintain and clarify this symbolic structure that even the pieces that are relatively unsuccessful remain clear in the memory. Because this is difficult to demonstrate except by what would undoubtedly seem an excess of quotation, I am compelled to choose an example from a poem which is less than a total success, a poem in which the concept is broken by an ex machina utterance which attempts to extend it and comment upon it. But this poem, ‘The Meeting,’ has the merit (for my purpose) of providing twelve or fourteen lines together, a nucleus in which the point of the concept can be discerned, a node of the One Dream which envelops the tenement-dwellers as melanchly spring seeds the railway bridges, the canals and the ‘streets tangled like string,’ and which moves the Meeting in which they wait to understand each other and recognise the leader they hope for.

Arrive at the Meeting down a flight of stairs:
regard the glass of water on the table, the rows of empty chairs.
Whisper of dry voices. The Deaf Man asking: What are they
saying? And the traffic outside and a clock striking
the World's Time. Wheels, oil, piston, one dream.
What are they saying? They are not saying anything, sir.
The Speaker has not arrived. One day our hands
will fall: read the writing on the wall.
Far away the conscripted dead, the scarecrow in the dark
field, like an artificial ragged ghost.
But here—the shuffle of feet, the table, the platform, the Chairman
without a head, waiting for the Unknown Speaker. …
And the lights flickering on and off: Exit dark, Exit dark,

Babel, murmur of many tongues, but One Dream. The sustained concept of the Meeting is magnificently successful until the poet decides that he wants to comment (by some other way than an internal change of mood) upon the limitations of the Dream (‘Oh absurd the territories they would voyage to’). This attempt at definition from outside does much to destroy the reader's identification with the generalised post-Eliot mood of the Dream: this one voice disturbing the muttered regrets of Babel undoes the Meeting's desire. The final recapitulation of the Meeting's theme is valiant, but the heckler has made his entry and not even his silence thenceforward can restore a unity so heavily dependent on non-definition.

It is worth noticing, in passing, that the primal force of the poem's concept has been diverted earlier by one or two decorative clevernesses which slide across the path. The contrast with the sad, urban world intended in

Far from the chessboard fields where cows and horses munch
          sunlight, far from the factories of grass and the trees'
workshops for artificial limbs

is lost in the off-key ironic inversions. But there will be more to say of this later. For the moment I want to emphasise the importance of the symbolic concept, when presented clearly, in unifying the poem, acting as a vehicle for the message which so hortatory a poet as Dannie Abse was then always anxious to give, and in presenting a surface of immediately assimilable detail which the reader associates naturally with the concept (which in its literal aspect is often familiar enough to him). The first and last of these considerations, successfully weighed, give the poem a first level which the reader can accept without difficulty, a guise of easy acquaintance behind which the message can fructify.

It ought, perhaps, to be made clear that Dannie Abse's use of a single symbol extended is by no means unique; Auden, Spender and Day Lewis made single-symbol structures not infrequently, and Thom Gunn, writing in the early fifties, developed the practice independently, if ultimately from the same source. Where Dannie Abse differs is in providing a symbolic concept which is familiar or commonplace and in avoiding structures which are themselves esoteric or demand special knowledge even before the probably abstruse philosophical point is inserted. This, of course, is a generalisation that can be refuted in detail. If one accepts that every reader has some idea, preferably some visual idea, of men in armour fighting a battle hand-to-hand in open country, then Thom Gunn's poem The Byrnies struggles into the category that already holds many of the poems in Tenants of the House. But more often with Gunn there is a concept that appears to exist for its own sake, as in The Court Revolt, or is shot through and through with external commentary to such an extent that almost every rag of detail has an interpretation pinned to it. That well-known poem ‘On The Move’ is built on a scaffolding of this sort, flying its rags like bunting.

Dannie Abse, on the other hand, allows the percipient reader to concentrate on his second level of intention by making his first familiar and worthy of special notice only for the heightened language and the imagination spent on the selection of detail. Thus ‘Go Home, The Act Is Over,’ the last poem in Tenants of the House, uses the symbol of the big top and a trapeze act to say something about the poet's predicament, and ‘The Magician,’ from the volume following, lets a music hall turn reach the point where charlatanry slips unwittingly into real and frightening illusion.

Sometimes, something he cannot understand
happens—atavistic powers stray unleashed,
a raving voice he hardly thought to hear,
the ventriloquist's dummy out of hand.

This example, of course, underlines again the characteristic I noted first, namely the intent to use poetry to penetrate new alleys of experience or knowledge.

A caveat may be necessary, however, before I leave the discussion of the single-symbol concept. Not merely is this much less frequently used in Poems, Golders Green: it is also true that where it is used, as in, say, ‘The Abandoned’ and ‘The Mask-Maker,’ the resulting poems are not amongst the most successful. It is evident that this method commended itself to Dannie Abse at a particular period of his development as a poet, that period during which the poems in Tenants of the House were written, and that its efficacy for his purposes began to diminish thereafter. In discussing the best poems in his last volume I shall have to find other reasons for his success.

What first occurs to me as the substitute quality is no substitute at all, for it was also present in the period 1951-6. I refer to a determined fidelity to experience and a close observation of the nature of that experience, especially experience of the self, of personal relationships and of love. Even as I write this, however, I realise how impossible it is to begin a discussion of it without some indication of Dannie Abse's disposition and cast of mind. Not for him the smart stuff about bizarre and occasional meetings, sardonic narratives of seduction, or bitter and ironic commentaries on the mutual re-charge of isolated egos in temporary collision. He offers instead the nuances of a continuing affection, a fundamental belief in man's spiritual potential, and a willingness to look at a happy relationship or a pleasant possibility at least as carefully as others explore the counterbalancing glooms. Poem of Celebration ends:

                                                                                Hardly evangelical
but still my rainbowed heart blessed and thumping.
Any man may gather the images of despair;
I'll say ‘I will’ with an ascending Lazarus voice
and, like an accident, breathe in space and air.

This ‘plus sign,’ to which I referred briefly at the end of my first article, is uncommon among modern poets of any quality, and its...

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Michael Mott (review date 1971)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Mott, Michael. “Recent Developments in British Poetry.” Poetry 118, no. 2 (1971): 106-07.

[In the following excerpted review, Mott discusses the chilling imagery that appears in Abse's Collected Poems.]

Dannie Abse's work has appeared here in a number of anthologies; his Selected Poems will win him a wider attention. The best of the poems in the selection are from his most recent collection, A Small Desperation (1968). In the earlier part of the book there are some flaws and uncertainties, though “The Second Coming” has the cool and chilling echo of old folk poetry in it and “The Victim of Aulis,” also from Tenants of the House...

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Times Literary Supplement (review date 1973)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “Nut Cases.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 3712 (27 April 1973): 474.

[In the following review, Funland and Other Poems is praised for its uniquely surrealist and comic quality.]

The title-work of Dannie Abse's new book [Funland and Other Poems] is a sequence of nine poems loosely pegged to the euphemistic expression whereby a mental hospital is “a funhouse.” Society, or the world—“funland”—is a lunatic asylum, with “the superintendent,” “Mr. Poet,” “black-garbed priests / and scientists in long white coats” and others as the inhabitants. Dr. Abse's invention here runs much more to surrealist comedy and farcical fantasy than he has hitherto attempted, and it is a risky enterprise. Where everything is arbitrary, everything has to be taken on trust. For example, someone called Pythagorus starts a society and everyone joins it:

There are very few rules.
Members promise to abstain
from swallowing beans. They promise
not to pick up what has fallen
never to stir a fire with an iron
never to eat the heart of animals
never to walk on motorways
never to look in a mirror
that hangs beside a light.
All of us are happy with the rules.

But “a Society … has to be exclusive. / Therefore someone must be banned.” So the Thracians, whom no one has ever seen, are marked down for discrimination. And so on.

All this is done with a nonchalant jokiness of a kind that reminds one of such ingratiating performers as the Adrians Henri and Mitchell and Roger McGough:

Bored with his own act he shouts

is very much in that area. Of course Dr. Abse is far more adroit than they, but their relationship with their audience is comparable with what Dr. Abse seems to be reaching towards in “Funland.” The whole sequence has been successfully done on radio, and one imagines that it works very well from the platform too; but to many Abse admirers the real stuff will still seem to be found in the more private, less strenuously entertaining poems with which the new book begins—“Mysteries,” “Peachstone,” “A New Diary,” “Here” and several others, all of them confident, tactful, eloquent, with touches of gently worried humour. He can be more broadly humorous too, as he is in “Miss Book World” and “The Death of Aunt Alice,” without forcing tone or mood. At his best Dr. Abse is both a delightful and a disturbing poet.

Dannie Abse and Mark Boada (interview date 1975)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Abse, Dannie, and Mark Boada. “An Interview with Dannie Abse at Princeton University.” Anglo-Welsh Review 25, no. 54 (1975): 128-46.

[In the following interview, Abse reflects on how his background has influenced his approach to medicine and writing.]

Dannie Abse was born on September 22, 1923, the youngest of four children of a lower-middle class Jewish family in Cardiff. After attending a state primary school, Abse went on to an Irish Catholic high school in Cardiff, where he was taught by the Christian Brothers. Then, with the strong influence of his eldest brother, Wilfred (a medical student at the time, and now an eminent psychiatrist), Abse decided...

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John Mole (review date 1977)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Mole, John. “Digging for Rainbows.” Times Literary Supplement no. 3947 (18 November 1977): 48.

[In the following review, Mole describes Abse's poetry as humorous, compassionate, and ironic.]

Dannie Abse's Collected Poems is a substantial book. It displays a serious poet (“Yes, Madam, as a poet I do take myself seriously”) developing his characteristic sense of irony, and a style which managed to move rapidly from the artificiality of an early poem like “Epithalamion” to a mixture of plain speaking and sonorous elevation capable of expressing how “everything and everybody / are perplexed and perplexing, deeply unknown.” In “Letter...

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Joseph Cohen (essay date 1983)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Cohen, Joseph. Introduction to The Poetry of Dannie Abse, pp. 7-14. London: Robson Books, 1983.

[In the following essay, Cohen explores the dualities that make up Abse's poetry.]

The study of a poet's work normally begins with early work but I wish to start and end with ‘Funland.’ Firstly, because I believe ‘Funland’ to be Abse's masterpiece where his art appears at its most daring and assured; secondly, because a number of Abse's earlier and later themes, symbols and allegories—from those in Tenants of the House (1957) to his most recent collection of poems, Way Out in the Centre (1981)—are resumed or prefigured in this long poem;...

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Gigliol´ Sacerdoti Mariani (essay date 1983)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Mariani, Gigliol´ Sacerdoti. “From Funland to Funland! An Ellipse.” In The Poetry of Dannie Abse, pp. 47-84. London: Robson Books, 1983.

[In the following essay, Mariani discusses the body of Abse's work, praising “Funland” as the masterpiece.]

The contributors to this collection of essays on Dannie Abse have made my task in introducing their articles both easy and difficult: easy because they have capably identified the essential qualities in Abse's poems and plays and articulated, in many instances superbly, much that is worth knowing about them; difficult because as each contribution arrived it effectively narrowed the range of topics I had...

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Vernon Scannell (essay date 1983)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Scannell, Vernon. “A Vision of the Street.” In The Poetry of Dannie Abse, pp. 26-38. London: Robson Books, 1983.

[In the following essay, Scannell assesses Abse's contribution to poetry.]

The vacillations of literary reputation and fashion, especially among poets and poetry, are a curiosity of history, and those of the final quarter of the 20th Century will no doubt seem as strange to posterity—provided, of course, that there is to be a posterity, and that it will be a literate one—as any of the evaluative oddities of the past. Looking back at what seem now to be the misjudgements of the critics of former times—the high estimate for example, of the...

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Choice (review date 1984)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Review of One-Legged on Ice, by Dannie Abse. Choice 21 (February 1984): 818.

[In the following review, the critic praises the poems in One-Legged on Ice for their balance and duality.]

The title of the Welsh poet Dannie Abse's collection [One-Legged on Ice] is a line borrowed from one of the poems, and it connotes a precariousness and an uncertainty of balance. Technically, these pieces are usually far too well crafted to seem precarious, although Abse's work often takes risks with content and emotion. Occasionally, however, a reader may wish for even more emotion and less intellect, although candid and powerful pieces such as the love...

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Michael O'Neill (review date 1987)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: O'Neill, Michael. “A Nostalgia for Belief.” Times Literary Supplement no. 4373 (23 January 1987): 92.

[In the following review, O'Neill comments on the mysterious quality of Ask the Bloody Horse.]

Both the charm and the limitations of Ask the Bloody Horse are highlighted by the fact that its poems are never so cheerfully wise or conversationally at ease as when they display their obsessive interest in the mysterious. In “Quests” Dannie Abse presents desire for “the other world” with a detachment which shades into regret in the last tercet: “Who knows? Not me. Secular, I'll never hear / the spheres, their perfect orchestra, or below, / with...

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Genevieve Stuttaford (review date 1991)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Stuttaford, Genevieve. Review of White Coat, Purple Coat: Collected Poems 1948-1988, by Dannie Abse. Publishers Weekly 238, no. 6 (1 February 1991): 72.

[In the following review, Stuttaford offers a positive assessment of White Coat, Purple Coat: Collected Poems 1948-1988.]

This comprehensive volume of British poet Abse's work serves as both an introduction to and an enduring touch-stone of his lyrical voice. A doctor and a poet, Abse brings to his writing a level of humanism often missing from contemporary verse; as he himself puts it, “Humankind / cannot bear very much unreality.” Even so, what “reality” his poems reflect often borders on the...

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Publishers Weekly (review date 1993)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Review of Remembrance of Crimes Past, by Dannie Abse. Publishers Weekly 240, no. 9 (1 March 1993): 51.

[In the following review, the critic offers a generally positive assessment of Remembrance of Crimes Past.]

Abse (White Coat, Purple Coat), a British physician, writes thoughtfully about medicine, ethics and the art of poetry. Much of the work is inspired by themes from his Jewish heritage that are generally handled with irony and dark playfulness. The book's title [Remembrance of Crimes Past]is a reference to a longish poem about the speaker's childhood, describing how he escaped his piano lesson to join other boys in the park and the...

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Clara Gyorgyey (review date 1998)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Gyorgyey, Clara. Review of Welsh Retrospective, by Dannie Abse. World Literature Today 2, no. 4 (autumn 1998): 829.

[In the following review, Gyorgyey offers brief criticism of Abse's Welsh Retrospective.]

Dannie Abse's latest book [Welsh Retrospective], a slim volume of forty poems, many of them published in earlier collections, is a retrospective in several senses. Not only do these poems review his poetic career, but they also look back over Abse's experience as a Welshman, and very far back into the past of the Welsh culture and language. Teasing out and tracing the complex thread of his identity has been Abse's central theme throughout his...

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Ray Olson (review date 2000)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Olson, Ray. Review of Be Seated, Thou: Poems, 1989-1998, by Dannie Abse. Booklist (1 June 2000): 1839.

[In the following review, Olson offers high praise of Be Seated, Thou: Poems, 1989-1998.]

Welsh, Jewish, socialist, physician, author of some 20 books, and editor of several poetry anthologies, Abse is a man of culture. That stands him in good stead, now that he is retired and old. Ditto, readers of this gathering of his last two British collections of warm, amusing, profound, and varied verse [Be Seated, Then: Poems, 1989–1998]. For Abse can call on the philosophers Schopenhauer, Pufendorf, Hobbes, and Rousseau, list the seven wonders of the...

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Nicholas Wroe (essay date 2001)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Wroe, Nicholas. “Is There a Poet in the House?” Guardian (29 September 2001): 13.

[In the following essay, Wroe discusses Abse's combination of medicine and literature.]

The Abse brothers of Cardiff have proved to be one of the most remarkable groups of 20th-century Welsh siblings. Wilfred was an acclaimed psychiatrist, and Leo a longstanding Labour MP who was instrumental in reforming laws on homosexuality and divorce. Dannie, the youngest, not only became one of the country's leading poets, but did so while maintaining a career as a doctor in a London chest clinic.

Next month Dannie, now 78, publishes an updated version of his acclaimed...

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Further Reading

(Poetry Criticism)


Curtis, Tony. Dannie Abse. University of Wales Press, 1985, 123 p.

Discusses the body of Abse's work.

Davies, Daniel. Review of Arcadia, One Mile, by Dannie Abse. Lancet (24 October 1998): 1397.

Praises Abse for including universal themes in Arcadia, One Mile.

Mathias, Roland. “The Poetry of Dannie Abse: I.” Anglo-Welsh Review 15, no. 36 (summer 1966): 107–23.

Follows Abse's early development as a poet.

Review of One-Legged on Ice, by Dannie Abse. Poetry 145, no. 3 (1984): 166-67.

Offers a...

(The entire section is 208 words.)