F. T. Prince Prince, F(rank) T(empleton) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

F(rank) T(empleton) Prince 1912–

South African-born English poet and scholar.

Prince's often-anthologized poem, Soldiers Bathing, has been hailed as the finest individual poem of World War II. His diverse interests and influences are evident in the subjects of his works: Hasidism, undergraduate life at Oxford, Rupert Brooke, and Michelangelo.

(See also Contemporary Authors, Vol. 101.)

The Times Literary Supplement

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

F. T. Prince is one of those unfortunate poets best known through the efforts, or lack of them, of the anthologists, who, by sedulously repeating each other over the years, have contrived to give the impression that he is to be judged by one poem. "Soldiers Bathing" is not even very typical of the bulk of his work; it is not by a long stretch his best poem; it is not even a very good poem. One can see why it became popular. There were very few war poems even in its class; its grief is deep and immediate but it succeeds at the same time in taking a longer view of suffering; it offers a profundity and even a message of hope. But though what it says ("That some great love is over all we do") may be true, "Soldiers Bathing" does not carry this statement across poetically, as a necessary consequence of the poetry, only emotionally, that is by prior agreement of some readers that it is a true or a profound or a consolatory statement to make.

The present volume, The Doors of Stone, which contains all that Mr. Prince wishes to preserve from two previous collections plus a number of new poems, may surprise many who know only his anthology piece. He is for one thing one of the best love poets of the age, a lyricist of great charm and tenderness of emotion, counter-balanced by a subtlety of thought and metaphor which often remind one of Donne, and he frequently succeeds in creating at least glimpses of the relationship of human love to the divine. Like most good love poems in English from Donne onwards these poems are constructed to reveal their meaning epigrammatically and through prolonged metaphor and analogy…. Mr. Prince is so often prosy beyond belief, though, of course, "Soldiers Bathing" is prosy, too. However, "An Epistle To A Patron", supposedly written by a Renaissance all-rounder to a putative supporter, does, unlike some of the others (which are really essays and reveal their meaning all too clearly) succeed in saying wittily, ambiguously and disingenuously more than on the first few readings it appears to say.

Mr. Prince, so far as his imagery is concerned, is more or less timeless.

"Here and Now," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1963; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 3204, July 26, 1963, p. 557.∗

Anne Stevenson

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Drypoints of the Hasidim is a particularly interesting study of an 18th-century middle-European Jewish sect about which a non-Jewish, or even a Jewish, audience is likely to know little. Since F. T. Prince is an eminent scholar as well as a poet, he explains the references in an introductory essay, separate from the book, and in his footnotes. Still, on a first reading one may be put off by allusions to unfamiliar names and places. The entire poem, however, is suffused with an empathetic passion difficult to ignore. Fragments of history alternate with wise commentary…. Formally, Drypoints of the Hasidim derives, probably, from Pound and Eliot, but it is far less pretentious than The Cantos and less preachy than Four Quartets. It is also, one has to add, a much less ambitious poem than those 20th-century landmarks, as Dr. Prince would probably be the first to admit. Nevertheless, this is an impressive and far-reaching piece of work…. (p. 717)

Anne Stevenson, "Waiting for the Apeman" (© British Broadcasting Corp. 1976; reprinted by permission of Anne Stevenson), in The Listener, Vol. 95, No. 2460, June 3, 1976, pp. 716-17.∗

Peter Levi

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

F. T. Prince is the kind of poet we call distinguished. That just means he is famous, technically admirable, and over fifty. For some inscrutable reason, or maybe by chance, no volume of his has ever been more admired than his second, Soldiers Bathing (1954). In that same year the Clarendon Press published his most famous critical book, The Italian Element in Milton's Verse. It was a book only a poet and only a fine scholar could have written. As a non-specialist I found it exciting and brilliant and extremely helpful. In 1970 he published a long poem, Memoirs in Oxford, which at the lowest is a highly original work. [Drypoints of the Hasidim] is based largely on Martin Buber's collection of stories about eighteenth century Hasidic Jewish masters. It will be seen that F. T. Prince has some range of intelligence and curiosity as a poet.

To say that the respect I felt for him as a craftsman was drowned in much warmer admiration of these new poems is hardly to begin to explain how good they are. I had not realized that sanctity could be so moving in English poetry, ever again. It is something to do with the thinness of bones. The poems are cool and sour and very Jewish. The level of language is almost throw-away in a sense, but at the same time dramatic. They are really like dry-points…. It is extraordinary and wonderful when an aging eagle like F. T. Prince stretches his wings.

He has found in these poems a subject-matter which would not have been safe in younger or more pretentious hands. Horace mocked at sublime Pindaric pretentions in a young poet, but before he had finished writing he himself had learnt and used the lessons and forms of Pindar. One of the attractions of Hasidic Jewry as a subject is that their lives seem to us both strange to...

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Donald Davie

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Setting aside Eliot's "Four Quartets," F. T. Prince's "Soldiers Bathing" is perhaps the finest poem in English to come out of World War II; and this is widely acknowledged. Why has he never since done anything so good? This brutal question has to be asked, now that we have the "Collected Poems" of this most self-effacing poet…. Certainly to Mr. Prince in middle age, looking back on himself as an Oxford student in 1931 newly arrived from South Africa, it seemed that the business of poetry, for himself and for others, was "the beyond."… I wonder if he recognizes what a giveaway this is to coarse-grained readers like myself, who ask of poetry precisely this earth, this sea, this sun, this wind; who find this specificity in "Soldiers Bathing" and after that only once in all his work—in the Poland, Hungary and White Russia of "Drypoints of the Hasidim."

The breakdown in communication is complete: Mr. Prince will not give us what we ask for, though we know that he could if he wanted to. Not often does a difference in taste translate itself so directly into a difference of theory, about what poetry is and what it is sent into the world to do. Mr. Prince indeed is quite awesomely all of a piece. Thus it is no good asking where his native South Africa gets into his verse, or objecting that his early sequence "Chaka" converts that Zulu warrior—except for a few adventitious stage properties—into a prince or princeling of the European Renaissance; the answer is too obvious—poetry, as this poet conceives of it, has a duty to reach beyond all racial and anthropological and geographical accidents….

["Collected Poems"] will be well-liked. For the notion that the poet is an unworldly creature who tells the truth about "the beyond," not the "here-and-now," meets with a ready welcome. It is a notion that—I must declare my interest—seems to me as destructive of civic order and human responsibility as of poetry. (p. 13)

Donald Davie, "Beyond the Here and Now," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1979 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), April 8, 1979, pp. 13, 43.

Ben Howard

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

F. T. Prince is an extreme instance of the neglected British poet. To most readers of Poetry, he is probably known only as the author of Soldiers Bathing, one of the finest wartime poems in the language.

What Prince's Collected Poems reveals is the sheer copiousness and variety of his achievement, which includes conventional stanzaic lyrics, reflective poems on historical themes, a sequence in "open" form and another in a stanza borrowed from Shelley, an experiment with Bridges's twelve-syllable measure, and several ambitious meditative monologues. Whatever the mode, Prince's hand is deft and firm, but his most memorable work lies in his monologues, where the romantic and scholarly lineaments of his sensibility, the leisured ease and elegance of his style, can find their fullest expression. (pp. 105-06)

Prince's lyric grace can be seen in one of his earliest poems … ["To A Man on His Horse"]. To a familiar genre Prince brings an unfamiliar perspective. What distinguishes the poem from other examples of the genre, such as the "animal" poems of Lawrence, Ted Hughes, Roethke, and Peter Redgrove, is its overt commitment to artifice. It does not attempt mimetic rhythms and textures or propose organic analogies. The artist honors the stallion; and Art admires Nature, clothing the object in a sweetness that is neither indecorous nor simple. A panoply of rhetorical devices, including syntactic inversion, elevated diction, slant rhymes, assonance, and a simile of horse-as-fop, transforms a chance encounter into a ceremonious occasion. The poem closes on a note of humility, even servility, but the poet's ostentatious act of attention...

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