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.
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.
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.
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.