Ian Hamilton Essay - Critical Essays

Hamilton, Ian


Ian Hamilton 1938-2001

(Born Robert Ian Hamilton) English poet, nonfiction writer, essayist, editor, and biographer.

The following entry presents an overview of Hamilton's career through 2003.

Recognized as one of the most notable literary critics, poets, and biographers of the twentieth century, Hamilton is applauded for his uncompromising standards of excellence. His role as founder and editor of two short-lived but influential literary magazines, as well as his tenure as editor of the Times Literary Supplement, established his lasting influence on the world of letters. Hamilton’s own poetic output is praised for its finely crafted verse, characterized by restrained but powerful emotion.

Biographical Information

Hamilton was born March 24, 1938, in King’s Lynn, Norfolk, England. He attended Keble College, Oxford, earning a B.A. with honors in 1962. He founded and edited The Review, a small but well-respected literary journal published between 1962 and 1972. The Review ceased publication for two years, and was reestablished in 1974 as The New Review under Hamilton's editorship. Hamilton served as poetry and fiction editor for the Times Literary Supplement from 1965 to 1973. He was a lecturer in poetry at the University of Hull in 1971. For the next few decades, he wrote literary reviews and biographies and edited several prestigious collections of essays and poems. In 1988, controversy erupted over issues of copyright infringement in his biography In Search of J. D. Salinger. In an early manuscript for the biography, Hamilton quoted substantial passages from unpublished letters of Salinger held in a library archive. Learning of this, Salinger sued Hamilton for copyright infringement; Hamilton was ordered to re-edit the biography, cutting out the quotes from Salinger's letters. Later, Salinger filed another lawsuit, claiming that Hamilton heavily paraphrased the letters and thereby violated copyright law. When a high court ruled in Salinger's favor, Hamilton was forced to re-edit his book once again. Hamilton died December 27, 2001, in London.

Major Works

Hamilton is known as a bold and controversial literary biographer. Robert Lowell (1982) traces the life of the celebrated modern American poet, focusing on Lowell's mental breakdowns due to manic-depression. A Gift Imprisoned (1998) chronicles the early years of nineteenth-century English poet Matthew Arnold. In this biography, Hamilton addresses the question of why Arnold abandoned the writing of poetry in his middle age, turning instead to literary criticism. In Search of J. D. Salinger is viewed as much a chronicle of Hamilton's thwarted efforts to research Salinger's life as it is a biography of Salinger himself. Inspired by his experiences with the Salinger biography, Hamilton wrote Keepers of the Flame (1992), a critical discussion of the rise of literary biography, and the struggles between those who hold the estates of deceased writers and the biographers who wish to research writers' lives. As a poet, Hamilton has been called a minimalist. His poems tend to be short—most are fewer than twelve lines—written in finely crafted free verse, with a strong element of lyricism. Most of the poems in The Visit (1970) concern Hamilton's struggles with the death of his father and the mental breakdown of his wife. Fifty Poems (1988) comprises all of the thirty-three pieces in The Visit, with additional poems written since 1970. Sixty Poems (1997) includes all of Fifty Poems and ten newer works.

Hamilton was regarded as an influential critic and editor. His opinions were often harsh and uncompromising, and did not shy away from criticizing the works of such acknowledged masters as T. S. Eliot and William Carlos Williams. Hamilton's Against Oblivion (2002), published posthumously, provides brief essays on the life and work of forty-five American and English poets of the twentieth century whose works Hamilton believed would survive the test of time. In The Little Magazines (1976), Hamilton examined six small but significant literary magazines, and in Writers in Hollywood (1990) he explored the role of screenwriters in the moviemaking process, considering several literary figures who became Hollywood screenwriters. Hamilton's collections of essays and reviews include A Poetry Chronicle (1963), Walking Possession (1994), and “The Trouble with Money” and Other Essays (1998). As editor of The Faber Book of Soccer (1992), he collected several notable essays on the history of professional soccer as well as recollections of the game's greatest moments.

Critical Reception

As a poet, critic, biographer, and editor, Hamilton has garnered both widespread admiration and pointed criticism. Many reviewers have praised his limited poetic oeuvre—some sixty poems over the course of a lifetime—as restrained but emotionally intense works of minimalist verse. Hamilton's authoritative biographies of Lowell and Arnold have met with mixed reviews. Critics have investigated the thoroughness of his research and asserted that he sometimes focuses on the sensationalist aspects of his subject's life. Hamilton's controversial biography of Salinger has been described, in retrospect, as an embarrassment to Hamilton, whose efforts to document the life of a writer he supposedly admired caused nothing but grief for Salinger—not to mention the would-be biographer. Commentators have asserted that Hamilton's most significant contribution to English letters may be his prominent influence as an editor, reviewer, and literary critic, setting the highest of standards in his assessments of modern poetry and providing a fresh perspective on the received masters, as well as championing contemporary poets who might otherwise have gone unnoticed.

Principal Works

Pretending Not to Sleep (poetry) 1964

The Poetry of War, 1939-45 [editor] (poetry) 1965

Eight Poets [editor] (poetry) 1968

The Modern Poet: Essays from “The Review” [editor] (essays) 1968

The Visit (poetry) 1970

A Poetry Chronicle: Essays and Reviews (essays) 1973

Poems since 1900: An Anthology of British and American Verse in the Twentieth Century [co-editor, with Colin Falck] (poetry) 1974; republished as Poems since 1900: An Anthology, 1975

The Little Magazines: A Study of Six Editors (nonfiction) 1976

Robert Lowell: A Biography (biography) 1982

Yorkshire in Verse [editor] (poetry) 1984

The “New Review” Anthology [editor] (poetry) 1985

Fifty Poems (poetry) 1988

In Search of J. D. Salinger (biography) 1988

Writers in Hollywood, 1915-1951 (nonfiction) 1990

The Faber Book of Soccer [editor] (essays) 1992

Keepers of the Flame: Literary Estates and the Rise of Biography (nonfiction) 1992; republished as Keepers of the Flame: Literary Estates and the Rise of Biography, Shakespeare to Sylvia Plath, 1994

The Oxford Companion to Twentieth-Century Poetry in English [editor] (poetry) 1994

Walking Possession: Essays and Reviews, 1962-93 (essays) 1994

A Gift Imprisoned: The Poetic Life of Matthew Arnold (biography) 1998

“The Trouble with Money” and Other Essays (essays) 1998

Anthony Thwaite in Conversation with Peter Dale and Ian Hamilton (interviews) 1999

Sixty Poems (poetry) 1999

The Penguin Book of Twentieth Century Essays [editor] (essays) 2000

Against Oblivion: Some Lives of the Twentieth Century Poets (nonfiction) 2002

Ian Hamilton in Conversation with Dan Jacobson (interviews) 2002


Michael Fried (review date 22 August 1970)

SOURCE: Fried, Michael. “Strictly Personal.” Spectator 225, no. 7417 (22 August 1970): 187-88.

[In the following review, Fried calls The Visit “a magnificent book” and praises the lyrical qualities of Hamilton's poems.]

The poems in Ian Hamilton's first collection, The Visit, are relatively short. Within a given poem the lines are usually of different lengths: some of the most striking moments are the result of juxtaposing long and short lines (‘O world leave this alone / At least / This shocked and slightly aromatic fall of leaves …’). Almost no use is made of end-rhyme, which Hamilton does not need and which besides would distort the delicate internal movement of his poems.

His extraordinary control of pace and rhythm enables him to secure the integrity of each line without apparent effort. His line-breaks are at once natural and musical, ineluctable and unsettling. And in general his poems possess a consistent though never monotonous tone, keyed to direct speech but informed by a unique aural sensibility that cares equally about accentual stresses and the precise quantity of even the most fleeting syllable. Within that consistency of tone the fine texture of the sound—for example, the weight and duration of individual syllables—may alter radically from one line to another (‘Out of bounds, you kneel in the long grass / Deciphering obliterated names: / Old lunatics who died here’). Largely by virtue of such modulations Hamilton more than once infuses set, almost pat, metrical formations with new feeling (‘To each lost soul, at this late hour / A medicated pang of happiness’).

Hamilton's eye is, by and large, less remarkable than his ear, though The Visit contains short passages and indeed whole poems of great descriptive force. But whereas the minuteness of his control of sound is unremitting, his images are on occasion curiously out of focus, inexact. (‘Our smoking heads / Drift back to us / From the grey...

(The entire section is 840 words.)

James Fenton (review date 12 January 1973)

SOURCE: Fenton, James. “Against the Tide.” New Statesman 85 (12 January 1973): 59-60.

[In the following review of A Poetry Chronicle, Fenton asserts that, while Hamilton's criticism may be severe, it offers a fresh perspective on the received literary masters.]

One often hears Ian Hamilton's poetry criticism referred to as ‘severe’ or ‘stern’, and among certain circles there is a vague suspicion that Hamilton, at heart, really doesn't much like poetry at all. This is typical of our times—the opposite of severe being in this case ‘indulgent’: it sometimes seems that poets are engaged in a sort of Dig for Victory campaign in which every little...

(The entire section is 795 words.)

Douglas Dunn (review date 3 March 1973)

SOURCE: Dunn, Douglas. “Poetry and Criticism.” Spectator 230, no. 7549 (3 March 1973): 271.

[In the following review of A Poetry Chronicle, Dunn asserts that Hamilton is a valuable critic, and praises his essays as admirably written.]

Founding father of the ‘Greek Street cénacle,’ Ian Hamilton has been editing The Review and contributing to The Observer, TLS, London Magazine and other periodicals for just over ten years. The earliest of his collected reviews and essays is dated 1963, which could have been only a short time after he came down from Oxford with a traditionally indifferent degree. Somehow, somewhere, Hamilton learned...

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V. S. Pritchett (review date 27 August 1976)

SOURCE: Pritchett, V. S. “Satellites.” New Statesman 92, no. 2371 (27 August 1976): 281-82.

[In the following review of The Little Magazines, Pritchett provides an overview of Hamilton's discussion of each of six literary magazines and their editors. He praises Hamilton's writing as funny and ironic but also fair and even-handed.]

How to define ‘the little magazine’? In name and in time of birth it has the air of being a fierce, chaste sister of the little theatre movement and the sharp one-act plays that made the orthodox theatre look comatose. There was the protest against the heavy Reviews, and other commercial productions at the beginning of the...

(The entire section is 1772 words.)

Francis King (review date 4 September 1976)

SOURCE: King, Francis. “Witty.” Spectator 237, no. 7732 (4 September 1976): 18.

[In the following review, King praises Hamilton's The Little Magazines as witty and amusing.]

The ‘little magazine’ of yesterday could best be defined as a publication in which magnitude of ambition was in inverse proportion to meagreness of funds and of sales. In England at least, all that has changed; and it can now best be defined as a publication in which meagreness of ambition and of sales is in inverse proportion to the magnitude of an Arts Council subsidy. Of the three English magazines dealt with by Ian Hamilton in this witty book [The Little Magazines]—he...

(The entire section is 378 words.)

Richard Eder (review date 28 November 1982)

SOURCE: Eder, Richard. “Poetry Plus Pain in an Outsized and Wondrous Balance.” Los Angeles Times Book Review (28 November 1982): 2.

[In the following review of Robert Lowell, Eder praises Hamilton for his original research into primary sources and his fair, insightful portrayal of Lowell.]

“There's a strange fact about the poets of roughly our age, and one that doesn't exactly seem to have always been true. It's this, that to write we seem to have to go at it with such single-minded intensity that we are always on the point of drowning.” Robert Lowell wrote this to Theodore Roethke, a month before Roethke died of a heart attack, and 14 years before...

(The entire section is 1331 words.)

Victor Howes (review date 3 December 1982)

SOURCE: Howes, Victor. “A Poet's Contradictory Life.” Christian Science Monitor (3 December 1982): B4.

[In the following review, Howes offers a mixed assessment of Hamilton's Robert Lowell, describing the biography as “both compelling and repelling.”]

The poet Robert Lowell was a mass of contradictions. In World War II he was a conscientious objector who went to jail rather than serve in the armed forces. Against United States involvement in the Vietnam war he was one of the foremost protestors, taking part with Norman Mailer and Dr. Benjamin Spock in the speeches made at the time of the march on the Pentagon. He was a pacifist.

And yet...

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Phoebe Pettingell (review date 13 December 1982)

SOURCE: Pettingell, Phoebe. “Mad, Bad and Dangerous.” New Leader 65, no. 23 (13 December 1982): 24-5.

[In the following review of Robert Lowell, Pettingell comments that Hamilton's biography “illuminates Lowell's poetry through a profound understanding of his life.”]

The myth of the bard who is mad, bad and dangerous to know fascinates readers. Often poets fall under its malign spell, too, and feel they must live up to the part. But in Robert Lowell Ian Hamilton describes one who was a prisoner of cyclical breakdowns. Lowell himself once observed in a letter to his friend, John Berryman, “What queer lives we've had, even for poets! There seems...

(The entire section is 1534 words.)

John Simon (review date 27 December 1982)

SOURCE: Simon, John. “Cursed and Blessed.” New Republic 187, no. 25 (27 December 1982): 29-32.

[In the following review of Robert Lowell, Simon praises Hamilton for extensive research and enjoyable writing style.]

A once popular concept of the poet that still lingers on in some quarters perceives him as: (1) an eternal child, unable to look after himself and living by the grace and nurture of friends and sympathetic strangers; (2) a heavy drinker and womanizer—except when he is (2a) a drug addict or pederast; (3) capable of saying and doing the most outrageous things; and (4) mad as a hatter. The notion, though more often wrong than right, fits Robert...

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John Lucas (review date 13 May 1983)

SOURCE: Lucas, John. “Lord Weary.” New Statesman 105, no. 2721 (13 May 1983): 25-6.

[In the following review, Lucas praises Hamilton's Robert Lowell as an impressive biography.]

Why do we need biographies of writers? I can think of only two I would not be without, and Boswell and John Forster not only had an affectionate, awed familiarity with their great subjects, they also had a marvellous story to tell. Most writers, however, do not lead particularly interesting lives, and would not be written about were it not for their art. Yet there is no doubt that people want biographies, and mostly, I suspect, for what they feel are excusable reasons (though...

(The entire section is 1031 words.)

Anthony Thwaite (review date 14 May 1983)

SOURCE: Thwaite, Anthony. “Madness and Authority.” Spectator 250 (14 May 1983): 21-2.

[In the following review of Robert Lowell, Thwaite describes the biography as “a considerable achievement,” asserting that it is “one of the best literary biographies of a modern writer I have ever read.”]

In 1966 Robert Lowell remarked in a letter: ‘John B. in his mad way keeps talking about something evil stalking us poets. That's a bad way to talk, but there's truth in it.’ ‘John B.’ is of course John Berryman. Six years after that letter, he jumped off a bridge in Minneapolis. Five years after Berryman's suicide, Lowell died of a heart attack in a New...

(The entire section is 1163 words.)

William Pratt (review date summer 1983)

SOURCE: Pratt, William. Review of Robert Lowell: A Biography, by Ian Hamilton. World Literature Today 57, no. 3 (summer 1983): 463-64.

[In the following review, Pratt discusses Hamilton's Robert Lowell: A Biography, and Robert Lowell: Nihilist as Hero, by Vereen M. Bell. Pratt asserts that Hamilton's biography is “the fullest presentation of Lowell's life so far.”]

“I go over my life trying to understand it—I think in a way I never understood it,” Robert Lowell admitted to Peter Taylor, many years after they had begun their writing careers together at Kenyon College, and he agreed with George Santayana's saying that “I have enjoyed...

(The entire section is 1134 words.)

Robert Richman (review date spring 1984)

SOURCE: Richman, Robert. “The Saddest Story.” American Scholar 53, no. 2 (spring 1984): 266-74.

[In the following review of Robert Lowell, Richman applauds Hamilton's extensive research into primary sources, but criticizes him for failing to adequately examine Lowell's intellectual development.]

Given the relish these days for scandalous life over honorable art, it should come as no surprise that Ian Hamilton's biography of the American poet Robert Lowell has attracted far more attention than any of the poet's books ever did. Considering the space that has been granted to this book by the sundry publications that normally act as if poetry, like some species...

(The entire section is 4363 words.)

Michael Hofmann (review date 25 March 1988)

SOURCE: Hofmann, Michael. “An Oriental Air.” New Statesman 115, no. 2974 (25 March 1988): 28.

[In the following review of Fifty Poems, Hofmann asserts that, although Hamilton's poetry shows little variation or development through the years, some of his poems are brilliant and express “unwavering intensity.”]

This is a small, indispensable volume. It is a “collected poems” by any other name: but “fifty” expresses more regret, more limitation and more anxiety about the book's achievement than “collected” ever could.

That [Fifty Poems] has been published at all in the indifferent jostle of the 1980s is an act of some...

(The entire section is 537 words.)

Robert Ward (review date 1 April 1990)

SOURCE: Ward, Robert. “As Good as Their Words.” Los Angeles Times Book Review (1 April 1990): 1, 7.

[In the following review, Ward asserts that Hamilton's Writers in Hollywood is an enjoyable read and provides a good general introduction to the history of Hollywood screenwriting.]

Ian Hamilton, author of the definitive biography of Robert Lowell, is having fun this time out.

Obviously no book that is only 330 pages long and covers the history of motion pictures from 1915 to 1951, can hope to do justice to its subject. Writers in Hollywood must be seen as a sort of primer on the subject.

If you want to learn...

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Frederic Hunter (review date 21 May 1990)

SOURCE: Hunter, Frederic. “Hollywood's Write Stuff.” Christian Science Monitor (21 May 1990): 14.

[In the following review of Writers in Hollywood, Hunter praises Hamilton's scholarship and historical research.]

In the beginning was the image.

And the image moved. In silence. The images were first seen in penny arcades, “nickel-in-the-slot Kinetoscopes and Mutoscopes,” as Ian Hamilton notes, “with their two-minute vaudeville routines, their circus turns and boxing bouts.”

Later, around the turn of the century, motion pictures were delivered in small movie houses rather than through slot machines. A bill might...

(The entire section is 802 words.)

Sean French (review date 15 June 1990)

SOURCE: French, Sean. “Refuge for Writers.” New Statesman and Society 3, no. 105 (15 June 1990): 33-4.

[In the following review, French asserts that Hamilton's Writers in Hollywood is fascinating and enjoyable to read, and provides a valuable survey of the history of Hollywood screenwriting.]

In 1926 Herman Mankiewicz, ex-journalist and then a highly successful screen writer, despatched a famous telegram to his friend, Ben Hecht, who was still working on a Chicago newspaper: “Will you accept three hundred per week to work for Paramount Pictures? All expenses paid. The three hundred is peanuts. Millions are to be grabbed out here and your only competition...

(The entire section is 1078 words.)

John Mortimer (review date 23 June 1990)

SOURCE: Mortimer, John. “Two Thousand Dolours.” Spectator 264, no. 8450 (23 June 1990): 32.

[In the following review of Writers in Hollywood, Mortimer praises Hamilton's research and expertise.]

‘The Taming of the Shrew,’ ran the titles on one of the earliest talkies to come out of Hollywood, ‘by William Shakespeare, with additional dialogue by Sam Taylor’. Shakespeare we know about, but the unfortunate Sam Taylor has passed on into the limbo of forgotten screenwriters. It is very hard to think of an unforgotten screenwriter and the same oblivion awaits those whose other literary work survives. Who can remember what films were written by...

(The entire section is 1241 words.)

Tom Dardis (review date 2 March 1991)

SOURCE: Dardis, Tom. Review of Writers in Hollywood, by Ian Hamilton. America 164, no. 4106 (2 March 1991): 252-53.

[In the following review, Dardis offers a scathing critique of Hamilton's Writers in Hollywood. Dardis describes the work as unoriginal, offering no new information or ideas, and containing many factual errors.]

The British-born writer Ian Hamilton, author of Robert Lowell: A Biography and In Search of J. D. Salinger, is fascinated with the United States and its culture. Salinger won a court victory over Hamilton for including his early correspondence without permission, thus resulting in a truncated book that disappointed...

(The entire section is 715 words.)

Albert E. Kalson (review date summer 1991)

SOURCE: Kalson, Albert E. Review of Writers in Hollywood, by Ian Hamilton. Modern Fiction Studies 37, no. 2 (summer 1991): 259-61.

[In the following review, Kalson offers a scathing assessment of Hamilton's Writers in Hollywood, asserting that it fails to provide new information, insight, or analysis.]

Ian Hamilton [in Writers in Hollywood] devotes three pages to determine who put a drunken Dashiell Hammett on a plane back to New York and Lillian Hellman. Was it writer Charlie Brackett or the writing team of Albert Hackett and his wife Frances Goodrich? Maurice Zolotow, author of Billy Wilder in Hollywood, credits Brackett,...

(The entire section is 904 words.)

Patrick McGilligan (review date fall 1991)

SOURCE: McGilligan, Patrick. Review of Writers in Hollywood, by Ian Hamilton. Film Quarterly 45, no. 1 (fall 1991): 46-7.

[In the following essay, McGilligan discusses Hamilton’s Writers in Hollywood, and Ben Hecht, by William MacAdams. McGilligan offers a scathing review of Writers in Hollywood, asserting that Hamilton simply rehashes other books about Hollywood screenwriters while adding little new information or insight.]

Ben Hecht was one of those American literary half-geniuses who spent part of his amazing life, as a scriptwriter of noteworthy films, writing his way into Hollywood history, and another, longer part, when he was mostly...

(The entire section is 878 words.)

Martin Fletcher (review date 21 February 1992)

SOURCE: Fletcher, Martin. “Set Pieces.” New Statesman and Society 5, no. 190 (21 February 1992): 41.

[In the following review of The Faber Book of Soccer, edited by Hamilton, Fletcher praises the collection as classy and full of heart.]

It was when “Vlad” Nabokov made a brief appearance in the first half that I realised this was no Second Division line-up. Mind you, by his own account, he made a hash of keeping goal. Too much navel-gazing to keep an eye on the ball. And Albert Camus? Great thinker, terrible goalie: the ball never came to him where he expected it. A bit like life. Goalkeepers have a tough time of it; even Peter Bonetti gets a pasting for...

(The entire section is 625 words.)

J. L. Carr (review date 7 March 1992)

SOURCE: Carr, J. L. “You Have Not Delighted Us Long Enough.” Spectator 268, no. 8539 (7 March 1992): 27-8.

[In the following review, Carr offers a mixed assessment of The Faber Book of Soccer, edited by Hamilton.]

Quite often, sitting through a parish church council meeting, I think that if an earnest pagan were present he would suppose that Christianity was about saving the steeple. And thus, this anthology. By and large, its soccer is a resurrection of superstars, ego-maniacal managers and solemn pronunciamentos. So, on p.130 [of The Faber Book of Soccer], we find Mr Hopcraft hanging upon Mrs Charlton's words, ‘Our Bobby now, the one thing we...

(The entire section is 967 words.)

Paul Binding (review date 16 October 1992)

SOURCE: Binding, Paul. “Shilling Lives.” New Statesman and Society 5, no. 224 (16 October 1992): 40-1.

[In the following essay, Binding discusses Hamilton’s Keepers of the Flame, and Stephen Spender, by Hugh David. Binding asserts that Keepers of the Flame is an extremely interesting and informative read, but that it lacks a strong line of developed argument.]

“Who live under the shadow of war, / What can I do that matters?” Stephen Spender asks in one of the most poignant and famous of his Poems (1933). It distils the emotions of a whole generation, knowingly trapped between large-scale conflicts while still entertaining hopes and...

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Rupert Christiansen (review date 5 December 1992)

SOURCE: Christiansen, Rupert. “Hanging out the Washing.” Spectator 269, no. 8578 (5 December 1992): 45-6.

[In the following review, Christiansen asserts that Hamilton's Keepers of the Flame is entertaining and enjoyable to read, but that it does not resolve or add to ongoing critical debates about literary biography.]

This is a book which I nearly wrote myself. The idea for a study of the posthumous fate of authors at the hands of their executors and biographers came originally, I believe, from Francis King, but for a number of reasons Hutchinson commissioned me instead. After a year's research, I decided that the subject was intractable and cancelled my...

(The entire section is 844 words.)

Philip Horne (review date October 1993)

SOURCE: Horne, Philip. “Revealers and Concealers.” Essays in Criticism 43, no. 4 (October 1993): 273-83.

[In the following review, Horne asserts that Hamilton's Keepers of the Flame and In Search of J. D. Salinger address ongoing debates over intellectual property rights and other ethical issues surrounding literary biography.]

Beginning his admirable recent book about the history and ethics of literary biography, Ian Hamilton lays out, very usefully, the deadeningly stereotyped oppositional lines of argument, the tired steps it is pointless merely to repeat:

Sometimes, arguing about biography is like arguing about...

(The entire section is 3972 words.)

Michael Horovitz (review date 11 February 1994)

SOURCE: Horovitz, Michael. “Gents at Work.” New Statesman and Society 7, no. 289 (11 February 1994): 37-8.

[In the following review, Horovitz offers a scathingly critical assessment of The Oxford Companion to Twentieth Century Poetry in English, edited by Hamilton. Horovitz asserts that Hamilton's editorial choices reflect a narrow range of literary taste. Horovitz further states that The Oxford Companion is superficial, careless, and full of factual errors.]

These 620 pages [of The Oxford Companion to Twentieth Century Poetry in English] provide entries on 1,500 poets who have written in English and its variants since 1900, and on 100 related...

(The entire section is 1281 words.)

Thomas Mallon (review date June 1994)

SOURCE: Mallon, Thomas. “Life Stories.” New Criterion 12, no. 10 (June 1994): 80-4.

[In the following review, Mallon praises Hamilton's Keepers of the Flame, asserting that it addresses basic and enduring issues about literary biography.]

This highly sensible and entertaining study of literary biography [Keepers of the Flame] seems to have surprised its own author. Ian Hamilton's prescription for approaching writers' lives slowly and respectfully “may sound fishy,” he admits, “coming as it does from the biographer of Robert Lowell (d. 1977) and the near, would-be or failed biographer of J. D. Salinger (1919-), but there it is. We live and...

(The entire section is 2034 words.)

Ann Hulbert (review date 22 August 1994)

SOURCE: Hulbert, Ann. “The Soul and Discretion.” New Republic 211, no. 819 (22 August 1994): 40-5.

[In the following essay, Hulbert discusses Hamilton’s Keepers of the Flame, and E. M. Forster: A Biography, by Nicola Beauman. Hulbert asserts that Hamilton's approach to his subject matter is scholarly and even-handed.]

Literary biography suffers from a chronic identity crisis. Working with methods that are plainly unscientific and from motives that are inevitably open to question, most biographers wonder at many points whether their enterprise qualifies as a creative art, or a more prosaic historical craft, or a scandal. And literary biography, in...

(The entire section is 5206 words.)

Victoria Glendinning (review date 23 October 1994)

SOURCE: Glendinning, Victoria. “Why One Prefers a Biographer of One's Own.” Los Angeles Times Book Review (23 October 1994): 2, 8.

[In the following review, Glendinning asserts that Hamilton's Keepers of the Flame is entertaining and thought-provoking, but that it contains some factual errors.]

What is posterity? Nothing but “an unending jostle of vanities, appetites and fears,” concludes Ian Hamilton at the end of a book that is quite surprisingly entertaining and suggestive. One might not suppose that a work subtitled Literary Estates and the Rise of Biography would give one cause to laugh aloud, but it does. Hamilton is a British poet, an...

(The entire section is 1520 words.)

James L. W. West III (review date winter 1995)

SOURCE: West III, James L. W. “Biography and Literary Estates.” Sewanee Review 103, no. 1 (winter 1995): 20-1.

[In the following review of Keepers of the Flame, West comments that Hamilton's approach is readable and balanced, but observes that the book as a whole lacks a clearly articulated theme.]

Keepers of the Flame, Ian Hamilton's book about literary heirs, executors, and estates, traces the histories of the surviving manuscripts and literary rights of some twenty-two authors, all of them either British or expatriated Americans. There is conflict, some of it operatic, in nearly every one of these stories as the spouses, children, amanuenses,...

(The entire section is 639 words.)

John Simon (review date January 1997)

SOURCE: Simon, John. “Supreme Nonfiction.” New Criterion 15, no. 5 (January 1997): 63-8.

[In the following review, Simon praises Hamilton's Walking Possession as thought-provoking, witty, and entertaining.]

It is harder to review a collection of critical essays than other kinds of nonfiction. A little easier, to be sure, if you take issue with the critic; but what if you are full of admiring approbation? You end up reduced to quoting enthusiastically more and more passages, till the review becomes an anthology of quotations, a miniature commonplace book. I am not sure I can escape this predicament in reviewing Ian Hamilton's Walking Possession: Essays and...

(The entire section is 3392 words.)

Peter Firchow (review date summer 1997)

SOURCE: Firchow, Peter. Review of Walking Possession, by Ian Hamilton. World Literature Today 71, no. 3 (summer 1997): 596-97.

[In the following review, Firchow offers a mixed assessment of Hamilton's Walking Possession.]

Despite the suggestion in the odd title of this book that its contents will represent the accumulated ravings of a perambulatory lunatic, Ian Hamilton's assorted reflections on life and letters in Britain (and, to a lesser extent, the United States) during the latter half of the twentieth century are mostly characterized by their unusual sanity and sensibility. This is true, as it turns out, even of the title itself [Walking Possession],...

(The entire section is 989 words.)

Sanford Pinsker (review date fall 1997)

SOURCE: Pinsker, Sanford. “Essayists, Obsessions, and Hardcovers.” Georgia Review 51, no. 3 (fall 1997): 549-61.

[In the following review, Pinsker asserts that Hamilton's Walking Possession is witty, enjoyable, and thought-provoking.]

In much the same way that good novelists explore the arc of their obsessions in book after book, the essayists who most matter follow the threads of an individual essay only to discover that it leads to yet another sustained rumination—and in due course to a collection lodged between stately hardcovers. No doubt there are as many versions of this ur-tale as there are essayists, but one central fact remains: while a clear,...

(The entire section is 5530 words.)

D. J. Taylor (review date 13 March 1998)

SOURCE: Taylor, D. J. “Counterpoints.” New Statesman 127, no. 4376 (13 March 1998): 53-4.

[In the following review, Taylor praises Hamilton's scholarship in A Gift Imprisoned. Taylor observes that Hamilton's biography of Matthew Arnold provides insight into the cultural context in which the poet lived and worked.]

In Wild Oats, Jacob Epstein's novel of 1970s' US campus life, the hero, Billy Williams, is induced to explain the meaning of “Dover Beach” to an ignorant fellow-student. Effortfully, each cadence reduced to a demotic approximation, some kind of decoding is achieved, by which time initial bewilderment yields up to grudging approval of...

(The entire section is 734 words.)

William Scammell (review date 21 March 1998)

SOURCE: Scammell, William. “A Doubtful Head for Heights.” Spectator 280, no. 8850 (21 March 1998): 45.

[In the following review, Scammell offers a mixed review of Hamilton's A Gift Imprisoned. Scammell comments that Hamilton succeeds in “bringing Arnold vividly to life,” but comments that the book is not an entirely thorough examination of the poet's life and work.]

Who was the ‘much-pondered Marguerite’, subject of Arnold's early love poems? How did Matt cope with that mother and father of all headmasters, Dr Arnold of Rugby? What was his attitude to his own gifts? ‘Why did he abandon the poetic life and settle for three decades of drudgery as an...

(The entire section is 997 words.)

Hugo Williams (essay date 24 April 1998)

SOURCE: Williams, Hugo. “Freelance.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4960 (24 April 1998): 16.

[In the following essay, Williams offers his own personal reminiscences of working with Hamilton on the New Review during the 1970s. Williams comments on the parallels between the life of Matthew Arnold, as described in Hamilton's A Gift Imprisoned, and Hamilton's own life.]

The 1970s is my lost decade, the era before I started keeping albums and having regular money. One of the things I do know about it is that I worked for a while for Ian Hamilton on the New Review, a high-profile monthly literary magazine which took over the Soho building, 11 Greek...

(The entire section is 1469 words.)

Lavinia Greenlaw (review date 26 April 1999)

SOURCE: Greenlaw, Lavinia. “Heads Off.” New Statesman 128, no. 4433 (26 April 1999): 47-8.

[In the following review, Greenlaw offers a favorable assessment of Hamilton's Sixty Poems.]

Ian Hamilton long ago decided to keep his poetry apart from what he referred to as his “so-called literary life”. As founder of the Review, biographer of Matthew Arnold and Robert Lowell, and one of the best critical essayists we have, Hamilton as a literary figure is anything but “so-called”. As for his poetry, he seems to have understood its nature early on when he decided to stop “thinking like a poetry pro … fretting about range” or “output”.


(The entire section is 619 words.)

Helen Vendler (review date 21 June 1999)

SOURCE: Vendler, Helen. “The Unburied Life.” New Republic 220, no. 25 (21 June 1999): 48-52.

[In the following review of A Gift Imprisoned, Vendler questions Hamilton's assessment of Arnold's life and work.]

The provocative case of Matthew Arnold is raised again in this new but truncated life of that extraordinary man. By entitling his account A Gift Imprisoned: The Poetic Life, Ian Hamilton (a poet himself, and the author of the first full biography of Robert Lowell) gives short shrift to the last thirty-five years of his subject's life, during which Arnold's poetic composition declined while his writing of critical prose increased. Those latter...

(The entire section is 4364 words.)

Dorothy Mermin (review date June 1999)

SOURCE: Mermin, Dorothy. Review of A Gift Imprisoned, by Ian Hamilton. Nineteenth-Century Literature 54, no. 1 (June 1999): 110-13.

[In the following essay, Mermin discusses Hamilton's A Gift Imprisoned and three other recent biographies of Matthew Arnold. Mermin asserts that Hamilton's biography does not address the relevance of Arnold's poetry to modern intellectual and political issues.]

Students of Matthew Arnold have available a rich store of unpublished and underutilized manuscript material, most notably the family papers recently made accessible in the Brotherton Collection at Leeds University Library and the correspondence now being published by...

(The entire section is 1424 words.)

Bevis Hillier (review date 25 September 1999)

SOURCE: Hillier, Bevis. “Why Did He Leave Out E. M. Forster?” Spectator 283, no. 8929 (25 September 1999): 48-51.

[In the following review of The Penguin Book of Twentieth Century Essays, selected by Hamilton, Hillier explores varying definitions of the essay form, and questions Hamilton's choices for this anthology.]

I agreed, by telephone, to review [The Penguin Book of Twentieth Century Essays], and before it arrived by post I tried to work out a definition of ‘essay’. Yes, yes, I know it means a try. (If at first you don't succeed, essay, essay, essay again.) As practised by Montaigne and Bacon it meant a short article on a given subject,...

(The entire section is 3453 words.)

Hallman Bryant (review date fall 2000)

SOURCE: Bryant, Hallman. “‘Honor Thy Father.’” South Carolina Review 33, no. 1 (fall 2000): 213-19.

[In the following review of A Gift Imprisoned, Bryant comments that Hamilton's central thesis on Arnold is convincing, but that he provides no new biographical information on the poet. Bryant praises Hamilton's brief commentaries on specific poems by Arnold.]

The title of Ian Hamilton's study of Matthew Arnold's poetry is taken from a poem by W. H. Auden that probes the reason why Arnold “thrust his (poetic) gift in prison till it died.” Auden's diagnosis is that Arnold's allegiance to his dead father's memory caused him to turn away from the life of...

(The entire section is 3803 words.)

Edward Butscher (review date spring 2001)

SOURCE: Butscher, Edward. “Essays of Our Time and Clime.” Georgia Review 55, no. 1 (spring 2001): 170-76.

[In the following review essay, Butscher discusses The Penguin Book of Twentieth Century Essays, edited by Hamilton, and The Best American Essays of the Century, edited by Joyce Carol Oates and Robert Atwan. Butscher assertss that Hamilton's choice of essays for the Penguin anthology is ultimately disappointing.]

Reading maketh a full man;
conference a ready man;
and writing an exact man.

—Francis Bacon

Michel de Montaigne is credited with inventing the essay (essai), although doubtless nudged in that...

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William H. Pritchard (essay date winter 2002)

SOURCE: Pritchard, William H. “Ian Hamilton 1939-2001.” Sewanee Review 110, no. 1 (winter 2002): 180-82.

[In the following essay, Pritchard asserts that Hamilton distinguished himself most significantly as an essayist, poetry reviewer, and editor of literary journals.]

The literary world is very much the poorer for the passing of Ian Hamilton, as gifted a poetry critic and editorial presence as we are likely to encounter. In this country he may have been known mostly as the writer whom J. D. Salinger prevented from publishing the biography Hamilton submitted to his publisher. (The book that ensued in 1988, In Search of J. D. Salinger, made necessity the...

(The entire section is 1136 words.)

Peter Porter (essay date 18 January 2002)

SOURCE: Porter, Peter. “Remembering Ian Hamilton, 1938-2001.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 5155 (18 January 2002): 19.

[In the following obituary, Porter asserts that Hamilton was both “the best judge of writing” in England and “the master stylist of our age.”]

When a gifted writer, who is also a friend, dies, mourning has to be shared between personal feeling and the need to contribute something to the public tribute. Being unable to ring Ian Hamilton to fix a lunch date or to discuss some literary crisis or other, is only the beginning of the missingness. From now on we won't read anything new by the best judge of writing in this country—worse still,...

(The entire section is 1420 words.)

Robert Potts (review date 1 April 2002)

SOURCE: Potts, Robert. “A Passionate Partisan.” New Statesman 131, no. 458 (1 April 2002): 51-2.

[In the following review, Potts describes Hamilton's Against Oblivion as light entertainment lacking in serious thought.]

When one considers how much of English poetry, from Anglo-Saxon onwards, is about transience—about how all things fade and are forgotten in time—and that many poems are (rarely confident) attempts simply to slow that journey to irrevocable oblivion, one might conclude that its lessons have been lost most often on poets themselves. Many poets desire, secretly or not, fame, remuneration or posterity; and the omnivorous desire all three. Few...

(The entire section is 1310 words.)

Mick Imlah (review date 19 April 2002)

SOURCE: Imlah, Mick. “Other Men's Glowers.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 5168 (19 April 2002): 36.

[In the following review of Against Oblivion, Imlah asserts that, while Hamilton's assessments of many of the poets included in this volume are bitingly critical, they are never unfair. Imlah further states that Hamilton's central concern in this book is with “the business of poetry,” the competitive squabbles among poets jostling for lasting status as literary greats.]

A nice idea, if somewhat gimmicky”, was Ian Hamilton's own estimate of his last published project. Against Oblivion is a collection of forty-five obituary-length essays,...

(The entire section is 1301 words.)

Karl Miller (review date 20 April 2002)

SOURCE: Miller, Karl. “Suffering and Control United.” Spectator 288, no. 9063 (20 April 2002): 40-1.

[In the following review, Miller offers a favorable assessment of Hamilton's Against Oblivion.]

Ian Hamilton died on 27 December, to the great grief of those who knew him or cared about his work. Like one of those ‘men of letters’ who are sometimes supposed to have vanished from the scene, he worked in a number of different capacities. He was a poet, an editor, an essayist, a reviewer, an anthologist and a biographer. It all began in Darlington, where he grew up, fell in love with football, and studied with a Leavisite schoolmaster. Leavis's teachings appealed...

(The entire section is 1694 words.)

Hugo Williams (essay date 11 October 2003)

SOURCE: Williams, Hugo. “Freelance.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 5193 (11 October 2003): 16.

[In the following essay, Williams defends Hamilton against recent critics of his decades-long prominence in the world of literary criticism.]

Somebody was bound to rise to the bait, and I suppose it might as well be me, biased as I am. In the current issue of the poetry magazine PN Review, the Editor, Michael Schmidt, levels various insults at the late Ian Hamilton, which he somehow forgot to level during Hamilton's lifetime. Schmidt uses a long-ago review by Donald Davie of Hamilton's first prose book, A Poetry Chronicle (1974), as his blunt instrument. He...

(The entire section is 997 words.)

Further Reading


Carduff, Christofer. Review of A Gift Imprisoned, by Ian Hamilton. New Criterion 17, no. 10 (June 1999): 90.

Asserts that Hamilton's A Gift Imprisoned represents “an important reevaluation of Arnold's poetry.” Carduff praises Hamilton's biography of Arnold as concise, witty, and insightful.

Ford, Mark. “Perishing Genius.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4648 (1 May 1992): 32.

Offers a mixed assessment of The Faber Book of Soccer, edited by Hamilton.

———. “Unimpressed But Not Unappeased.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4754 (13 May 1994):...

(The entire section is 494 words.)