Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1970
The Collected Poems of 1979 brought together all the early work from Poems and Soldiers Bathing, and Other Poems that F. T. Prince wanted to retain. He also included the whole of The Doors of Stone and four long, late poems, Memoirs in Oxford, Drypoints of the Hasidim, ...
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- Critical Essays
The Collected Poems of 1979 brought together all the early work from Poems and Soldiers Bathing, and Other Poems that F. T. Prince wanted to retain. He also included the whole of The Doors of Stone and four long, late poems, Memoirs in Oxford, Drypoints of the Hasidim, Afterword on Rupert Brooke, and A Last Attachment. These poems may be safely considered the work by which Prince would wish to be judged.
“To a Man on His Horse” and “An Epistle to a Patron”
The first poem is “An Epistle to a Patron,” so admired by Eliot. When one recalls that the great young poet of the day was W. H. Auden and that the most admired poetry then was political and very aware of the contemporary world, Prince’s lines are startling.
My lord, hearing lately of your opulence in promiseand your houseBusy with parasites, of your hands full of favours,your statutesAdmirable as music, and no fear of your arms not prospering, I haveConsidered how to serve you . . .
The reader is at once in Renaissance Italy, a period much favored by Prince and one in which he is at home. Although the poem is written in the first person, it must not be assumed that the voice is Prince’s voice. Rather, the poem is a dramatic monologue. It is not in the manner of Robert Browning either, although it moves in an area Browning sometimes occupied. Its splendid opulence, its sonorous and bewitching periods, are not like Browning. Nor do they hide the slyness, the mockery behind the flattery with which this postulant addresses his hoped-for patron. Ben Jonson could have written it, but it is a strange invention for the late 1930’s. If Prince uses the first person voice, as he does often throughout his career, rarely does he speak as himself—then he is a more everyday speaker altogether—but rather as a real resident of those times and places into which his learning and his curiosity have led him. His manner is courtly and aristocratic. If he uses, as he does in the opening lines of “To a Man on His Horse,” a poetic inversion, it is for the dance of the statement, because he wants the movement:
Only the Arab stallion will IEnvy you. Along the waterYou dance him with the morning on his flanks . . .
The early work is full of such lines, stately, strangely out of time, full, too, of references to painters such as Paolo Veronese or statesmen such as Edmund Burke. It is a paradox when one realizes that Prince’s most famous poem, “Soldiers Bathing,” is not at all like the rest of the early work, that it is written about ordinary men, poor, bare, forked animals of the twentieth century. It gave Prince an immediate fame and is known to many readers who know nothing else the poet has written.
“Soldiers Bathing” is a poem of sixty-six lines, organized in six irregular verse paragraphs. The lines are not of regular length, and they rhyme in couplets. In it, the poet, an army officer, watches his men as, forgetting momentarily the stress and mire of war, they swim and play in the sea. It is often a clumsy poem, the longer second line of some of the couplets occasionally dragging along without grace, the structure and movement absurdly prosaic for a poet of Prince’s skill, yet it is intensely moving. The extraordinary syntax of the last line of the first stanza, so written, surely, to accommodate the rhyme, has been noted by many critics, particularly by Vernon Scannell in Not Without Glory. “Their flesh worn by the trade of war, revives/ And my mind towards the meaning of it strives.” It is also, however, full of marvelous compassion, as Prince, recalling Michelangelo’s cartoon of soldiers bathing, is able to unite friend and foe, dead and living soldiers, through his insight into the continuing folly of wars. He does this through his knowledge of art, but his own comfort comes from his religion. Prince is a Catholic, and the reader’s understanding of his poetry is incomplete without this knowledge. He arrives at a sad conclusion: “Because to love is frightening we prefer/ The freedom of our crimes.” He began the poem under “a reddening sky”; he ends it “while in the west/ I watch a streak of blood that might have issued from Christ’s breast.” This is a typical movement in a poem by Prince, one in which the plain and dissimilar elements are united in an understanding brought about by the poet’s belief.
The great popularity of that fine poem tended to overshadow a number of poems that might more surely have suggested the nature and direction of Prince’s gift. There were, for example, some love poems of great beauty and passion. He was to develop this ability until, in July, 1963, an anonymous reviewer in The Times Literary Supplement could write of Prince that he is “one of the best love poets of the age, a lyricist of great charm and tenderness and emotion, counter-balanced by a subtlety of thought and metaphor which often reminds one of Donne. . . .” The reference to John Donne is felicitous, since there is an affinity in the work of these men, brought into even clearer focus by Prince’s liking for and familiarity with the seventeenth century.
The Doors of Stone
The Doors of Stone, then, contains poems of all the categories noted so far: monologues such as “Campanella” and “Strafford,” love poems such as the eighteen sections of “Strombotti,” and poems suggested, like “Coeur de Lion,” by history. They demonstrate once again the curious, elusive quality of Prince’s poetry; it possesses dignity, honesty, even directness, yet the poet himself remains aloof, often behind masks.
Memoirs in Oxford
Almost as a rebuff to that opinion, Prince’s next book was a long autobiographical poem, Memoirs in Oxford. Written in a verse form suggested by the one Percy Bysshe Shelley used in Peter Bell the Third (1839), it is at once chatty, clever, and revealing. It is particularly helpful about the poet’s early life. It is also a delightful and accomplished poem—and a very brave one. To write a long poem in these days is unusual; to abandon what seems to be one’s natural gift for eloquence and adopt a different tone altogether in which to write a long poem might seem foolhardy. Yet it is a very successful poem, having the virtues of clarity, wit, and style as well as some of the attraction of a good novel.
Drypoints of the Hasidim
Prince’s father was of partly Jewish extraction, which might account for his interest in those “Dark hollow faces under caps/ In days and lands of exile . . . and among unlettered tribes” which figured so strongly in his next long poem, Drypoints of the Hasidim. Hasidism was a popular Jewish religious movement of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and Prince’s poem is a long meditation on the beliefs of this movement. Despite its learning, it is extremely clear, like all of Prince’s poetry. Rarely can there have been a poet so scholarly and knowledgeable whose verse is so accessible.
As if to emphasize his virtuosity, Prince’s next work is a verse reconstruction of the life and times of Rupert Brooke, the young and handsome poet whose early death in World War I assured him of fame. Using the information provided by Christopher Hassall in his biography of Brooke, Prince wrote from his own standpoint of “the damned successful poet” and also added, years after his own war, a commentary on youth and love and the ironies of war. The texture of these lines is far removed from the great splendors of the young Prince:
But Bryn quite blatantly prefersWalking alone on Exmoor to the drawing-roomWith the Ranee, and she finds all the girls so odd . . .
It does, however, contain a real feeling of the times, despite occasional prosiness.
A Last Attachment
Prince had never been afraid of the long poem; even as a young man, he wrote pieces of unusual length for modern times. A Last Attachment is based on Laurence Sterne’s Journal to Eliza (1904). Shorter than the two poems previously noted, it once again considers the recurring problems that are central to Prince’s preoccupations: love, the onset of age, an inability to settle and be content, jealousy, the triumphs and failures of the creative and artistic life—all great problems, glanced at, too, in The Yüan Chên Variations. They are problems that no doubt beset Prince himself, but he has chosen with dignity and objectivity to consider them most often through a series of characters taken from literature or history or art, rather than use direct personal experience. He has written of them all with elegance and seriousness and with great skill and honesty. His poetry is sometimes said to be unfashionable, and so it is if the word means that he belongs to no group, is determined to be his own man. He has always commanded the respect of his fellow poets, and that, very probably, is a guarantee of his importance and his growing stature.
Collected Poems, 1935-1992
Prince converted to Catholicism in the 1930’s. His poetry did not take on a doctrinal cast, even though the exotic aestheticism of his earliest poems cooled somewhat. The resulting seriousness and intensity benefits from this interesting mix of sensuous diction and moral gravity. For example, in “An Epistle to a Patron,” the poet speaker addresses his “patron” as “A donor of laurel and of grapes, a font of profuse intoxicants.” This kind of aesthetic paganism yields to the passionate religious feeling of “Soldiers Bathing”:
I feel a strange delight that fills me fullStrange gratitude, as if evil itself, were beautifulAnd kiss the wound in thought, while in the westI watch a streak of red that might have issued from Christ’s breast.
Although the modern reader will detect touches of late Pre-Raphaelite sensual religiosity in these lines, a second look will also evoke the tragic joy of Gerard Manley Hopkins at his most intense. As evident in many of the poems in this collection, the opposites of sense and spirit never cease to dance their all-consuming rhythms in Prince’s verse.
Opposites are a dialectical challenge for Prince. They do not deconstruct into a deferred meaning that is food only for skeptical detachment. The voice of the Sibyl (from the myth involving Apollo and Sibyl of Cumae) is historicized in the monologue, “The Old Age of Michelangelo.” The great artist speaks for Prince’s own struggle with the opposites of desire and faith that have raged in unabated confrontation:
And now I have grown oldIt is my own life, my long life I seeAs a combat against nature, nature that is our enemyHolding the soul a prisoner by the heel;And my whole anxious life I seeAs a combat with myself, that I do violence to myselfTo bruise and beat and batterAnd bring underMy own being,Which is an infinite savage sea of love.
Prince also has his lighter vein and delights in the play of verse as well as its passion. In “The Doors of Stone,” he experimented with an Italian stanza first introduced to English poetry by Sir Thomas Wyatt. These stanzas, “Strambotti,” enable Prince to exercise his dialectical imagination in a poised, cerebral dance of witty argument and rhyme.
The collection also showcases Prince’s cosmopolitan life, perhaps most impressively in Drypoints of the Hasidim, a later and long poem of more than four hundred lines. It is a measure of his devotion to religious experience that he, a devout Catholic, should have been drawn to the intense inwardness of Jewish mysticism.