Introduction

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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.

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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

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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

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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

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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 the point of being nearly mythical and somehow familiar like stories heard as a child…. F. T. Prince's etching is very spare. He exaggerates nothing. The absolute is baldly stated, but always in a social context which makes it breathe and into which it breathes a strange breath. The God of a devout Jew in eighteenth century Poland is somehow more real and interesting than ours.

The individual poems of this collection are so carefully and almost flimsily constructed that it seems harder than usual to quote from them. The lines are based on an iambic pentameter…. The stories are allusive, threaded into continuous, brief commentary and interpretation of events. The complete sequence is a history of the Hasidim. If we include the page or two of notes at the end, the whole poem or collection of poems is only twenty pages long. Its importance and its excellence are out of all proportion to so small a scale. It is an honour to review so surprising and satisfying a work.

But poetry is literature after all, once the books are on the shelf, and it feeds on other literature. Poetry may degenerate when it becomes criticism of literature or when it dissolves into commentary on myth; it can be impressive, attractive and useful when it is criticism of life. The impressiveness is moral I suppose. F. T. Prince's twelve-page poem [Afterword on Rupert Brooke] … is poetry of this kind. It is a kind of biography, a moral and psychological analysis of Rupert Brooke's life and loves, or rather of the gruesome inner conflict which in some ways ineptly, but in the end aptly, made him a symbol.

It reads like excellent literary journalism, but better written, more compassionate and more moral. Once again it is a quality of spareness, of having something to say, of accurate hints of an insight that would lose by being articulate. What would it lose? A respect for the reality of someone else's life which modern literature ought not to presume to penetrate. There is something cocky about psychological analysis as it is usually practised in literary journalism. But in this study, quite as sharp as prose, and written as sparely as notes for a study, the hints coexist not as a chapter but as a poem. They have the cumulative and exciting context of a poem. It is a very effective piece of work, and something more rare, it is a new literary form in English poetry. (pp. 147-49)

Peter Levi, "F. T. Prince," in Agenda, Vol. 15, Nos. 2 & 3, Summer & Autumn, 1977, pp. 147-49.

Donald Davie

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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

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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 belies his wish to become a lackey. In this confrontation with animal fire, art and the artist have held their own.

"An Epistle to a Patron," another early poem, explores the relationship of an artist to his audience and his medium. The speaker is a sculptor…. This courtly tour de force proposes a dual relationship between the artist and his medium: "And so let me / Forget, let me remember, that this is stone, stick, metal …" And the passage itself seems both mindful and forgetful of linguistic resistance, joining abandon with strict control. Its supple parallel clauses, fluent speech-rhythms, and rich aural textures create an ambience of graciousness, even as its spondaic phrases and emphatic monosyllables, played off against Latinate diction and formal locutions, remind us of the harshness of the artist's labors. Prince's formal restraint is severe, but his effect is one of ease and expansiveness.

In "The Old Age of Michelangelo," another study of the artist, Prince contrasts the "fierce substance" of marble with the sculptor's "divine idea."… This complex reverie is a kind of centerpiece in Prince's collection. Two of the poet's obsessions, the power of art and the power of passionate love, mingle in the person of Michelangelo, whose art transforms marble and whose being is "an infinite savage sea of love." Elsewhere Prince examines the horrors of war, the loss of innocence, and the vicissitudes of political life. But it is in his poems on art and love, especially romantic love, that he seems most at home. At points in Prince's work, as in the poem on Michelangelo, art becomes the vehicle of passionate love. In other poems, such as "Afterword on Rupert Brooke" and "Memoirs in Oxford," love, art, and abstract thought become heroes and antagonists, alazons and eirons, in an intricate drama of the psyche. Recalling his days at Oxford, Prince depicts himself as "disabled or unfit to live / And love—reach out and touch." (pp. 106-08)

To write obsessively of love is of course to risk clichéd expression. Fortunately, Prince's poems steer clear of the sentimental platitudes of popular culture. Less happily, they sometimes fall victim to literary convention. Too often one hears the unassimilated voices of Renaissance lyricists and sonneteers, notably Donne and Shakespeare…. Yet even the most leaden pentameter, in Prince's hands, seems eloquently derivative. And at their best, Prince's poems combine a cultivated sensibility with a sculptor's fastidious skill. One hopes they will find a wider audience. (p. 108)

Ben Howard, "Chords and Keys," in Poetry (© 1980 by The Modern Poetry Association; reprinted by permission of the Editor of Poetry), Vol. CXXXVII, No. 2, November, 1980, pp. 105-12.∗

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