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Wain, John 1925–
Wain is a British novelist, poet, short story writer, essayist, and editor. His fiction and much of his early poetry humorously attack the British class system, though he is more concerned with human dignity than with broad social injustice. Wain's poetry has recently come under attack for its lack of forcefulness. (See also CLC, Vol. 2, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.)
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[Wain's] verse way [in "Letters to Five Artists"] is to combine the sonorously slack and portentous tones of late Eliot with the informal chat of Auden and the broken eye-rhythms of W. C. Williams. All on the surface, you see, for easy scanning. Not exactly a pastiche though; a synthesis, rather, of what these poets have left for the serious poet writing in England today: a means of talking intelligently about what matters—the fate of the single spirit in this world….
[Exile among Barbarians] is the general theme of the book; the great poet whose works were all youth and love, the flesh, and was forced to live out his days in a bitter, rude place by imperial edict, and who came to see our lives' essence in the flow of water, water which changes like our lives. By singling out five artist friends and thinking of them Wain puts together a world for himself, enough of a world at any rate to live by, invisible and evanescent as it may be….
It is a unified vision, if a sad one. The only trouble is that the book as a whole lacks force and attractive energy. I fail to find much trace of the unseen field of force that a thinking mind leaves in its wake: poetry, in short. Instead, there is a general feeling that, yes, the poet knows what he wants to say, and can't say it in prose because prose would sound pretentious (like so many of our "philosophers" and pundits and gurus from sociology and "psychology").
And I suspect that what he has to say to his friends (and to us) is simple: that there is not much to go on with, but that you must be praised because you do after all go on, even making something from it … because you are creators, loving and suffering and joying in work. But Wain's speech in poetry is ponderous, too, laudatory, elegiac, philosophical and so on. But not, unfortunately, anywhere very interesting.
Jascha Kessler, "Eavesdropping on Letters to Friends," in The Los Angeles Times (copyright, 1970, Los Angeles Times; reprinted by permission), May 17, 1970, p. 42.
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Feng, it seems, was the original of Shakespeare's Claudius, and [John Wain's Feng] takes him as the protagonist of the Hamlet drama…. Feng's inner life, such as it is, remains strikingly tedious; he comes through in his prose-monologues as a garrulous bore. Nothing in the poem really comes alive: it's a savage, violent society and a harrowing plot, but all this is curiously tamed and toned down, filtered through a sensibility too equable, domesticated and undramatic to be adequate to the turbulent demands of the subject-matter. When Wain writes 'I felt their needs drawn through my flesh like wires', it's difficult to believe that he really feels it, anywhere below the cranium. The theme of the poem is POWER (its capitals)—power in that abstract sense characteristic of bourgeois liberalism. Wain seems to dislike POWER, although it's not clear what he feels about the power propping up the society which permits liberals like himself to protest against POWER. (pp. 78-9)
Terry Eagleton, in Stand (copyright © by Stand), Vol. 17, No. 1 (1975–76).
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The proper place to begin a study of Wain's poetry is with the examination of his basic premise: human goodness and love shall outlast violence and brutality. He is willing to admit to man's instinctive selfishness …, but human interaction ultimately transcends and overcomes petty individual inadequacies. Wain traces the source of the violence in the world to mechanization, industrialization, and the consequent dehumanization of modern society. Western civilization, he says, no longer breeds loving, feeling individuals but automatons who, having lost their identity, are ready to pass on to others the psychological violence of which they themselves are victims. Violence breeds greater violence, and the destructive forces that are loose in the world must be brought under control. Finally, he examines the artist's role in a world of violence. In a predictably evasive manner, he insists that the artist must not escape from his responsibilities by submission to the forces of destruction, but must rise above the violence and in this way withstand the onslaught of the darkness.
Again and again it is evident that poems written from the neohumanistic conviction are means of escape rather than of confrontation. As if in answer to those poets who have committed themselves with more abandon, these poets see small hope for those who struggle against violence…. With the poetry presently under discussion, I feel there is no real desire for new insights, or new understanding of violence, but only an intellectual evasion of its implications.
John Wain assumes the role of spokesman for the neohumanistic position with some vigor both in his poetry and in his critical remarks. He has made it quite clear that he considers those poets who are searching into the secret recesses of the psyche in an attempt to come to terms with the modern consciousness inferior to those whose assumptions about human nature are more stable and who are thus able to suggest cures for the illness…. [The fault] lies not with Wain's humanism but with the narrow and crippling limitations he imposes upon it. He carries this to such a point that he accuses those who hold skeptical or cynical attitudes towards the modern world of inventing their pessimism…. (pp. 131-32)
Wain does not exhibit a continuing evolution of theme from his early poetry to his later. His style, on the other hand, developed markedly in Wildtrack (1965) and Letters to Five Artists (1970)…. [He] seems to use an expanding style to compensate for a static, overburdened theme. (p. 132)
The victory of humanity over violence becomes a major theme in Wain's poetry, and he sees the vocal assertion of the human element over everything else as a primary function of the artist: "The artist's function is always to humanize the society he is living in, to assert the importance of humanity in the teeth of whatever is currently trying to annihilate that importance." The early poems of A Word Carved on a Sill show the poet striving to write according to this prescription….
["When It Comes" illustrates] a major failing in Wain's humanistic stance, for while expressing sentiments of private compassion, [it fails] to come to terms with the situation at hand. The poet's emotions are not directed towards the violence and savagery that is visited upon the hundreds of thousands of suffering human beings, but he thinks of those who are not yet born, those who will never have to suffer. Although our first response might well be, "What a compassionate man this poet is!" the tone of the poem suggests that its object is not the suffering of others, but the ennobling of the self through high-minded thoughts in the face of death. (p. 133)
The forces of violence are seen [in "Patriotic Poem"] as ineffective against the ennobled human spirit reinforced by patriotic concerns. But Wain again reneges somewhat on his commitment, for in this triumph of humanity over the base powers of war, the people surrender an element of their individuality to their country:
Rises the living breath of all her children;
And her deep heart and theirs, who can distinguish?
The repetition of such sentiments as this soon degenerates into humanistic doggerel, and the humanism runs very thin. He attempts to elevate humanity in both these poems, but the price ultimately is too high. It is usually at the cost of some greater virtue that he is able to extol the lesser.
This compromise is unfortunate, for at times Wain achieves a remarkable poetic insight into the psychic violence of the modern condition. "To a Friend in Trouble" brings together elements found in Gunn and Plath in an effective fusion. The loss of love in this poem is traced to the loss of other values, and this relation is expressed in a series of violent images…. [The] loss of love is not a personal event but one in which all who live in the modern world share…. Wain rises to greater compassion in this poem than in "When It Comes" because he admits his own helplessness and participation in the selfishness of the world without becoming self-indulgent. (pp. 133-34)
This poem is held together by a fine tension exemplified by the ambiguous role of the speaker as both observer and participant. But Wain does not often lower himself to the role of participant; he is more frequently seen as the detached observer making moral judgments upon the world. It is in this position that he undoes the fine touches of a poem like "To A Friend in Trouble." (p. 135)
Two of Wain's most impressive poems explore violence as a destructive force from which the world must turn away. "A Song about Major Eatherly" and "On the Death of a Murderer" trace the disintegrating effects that violence has, not upon its victims, but upon those who initiate such action and also upon those who observe it. Violence is seen as a chain of reaction whose destructive effects cannot be stopped once set in motion.
"A Song about Major Eatherly" examines the gradual metamorphosis into a madman of the man who supposedly piloted the plane that dropped the bomb on Hiroshima. "Good news," says the poet, "It seems he loved them after all."… The "good news" is that Major Eatherly took upon himself the moral burden of his actions and rescued himself from the greater spiritual destruction. In piloting the plane that carried such devastation to its goal, he had resigned his humanity, for he had allowed himself to be used as an instrument rather than as a man…. There is, however, danger in this acknowledgment, for those who had earlier seen this action as a great patriotic act now must respond out of guilt, for in accepting himself as guilty, Eatherly is also pointing a finger at that society that produced and supported his actions. He the destroyer then becomes a victim in his own society…. Eatherly's atonement is not a symbolic act. He is no scapegoat, for his repentance does not take away the common guilt; it rather increases it and calls forth greater violence in his hostile imprisonment…. (pp. 137-38)
The emotions that Wain expresses in this poem are easy to participate in, almost too inviting. And such emotions are exceedingly difficult to attack from a humanistic standpoint. However, it is precisely at this point that we can show why and how the neohumanistic response to violence is evasive. William Bradford Huie's book The Hiroshima Pilot exploded the myth that Eatherly piloted the plane that dropped the bomb and later was driven to self-destructive criminal acts through guilt for his part in the bombing. In reality, Eatherly commanded the advance weather plane (he was far away from Hiroshima when the bomb was dropped), and his conversion to pacifism grew more out of his earlier psychological problems that were intensified by his deep resentment that he was not given any publicity or fanfare for his role in the Hiroshima bombing than from a sense of profound moral guilt…. Wain is not guilty of purposefully distorting the truth, but I believe it exposes a humanistic laziness in his overall mentality, that in finding a mythologized story that fits his moral outlook, he adopts that as fact and uses it as a moral sledgehammer.
Again and again the poem is marred by the poet's compulsion to philosophize and moralize, as though he were unable to make his point through mere presentation…. And at the very end the poet shows that his sympathies are neither with Major Eatherly nor with the society that he represents; the humanizing impact, which he imposes upon the reader too energetically, is that the bomber pilot has taught us to reject violence…. (p. 138)
[In] a poem like "On the Death of a Murderer," in which Wain himself is the horrified analyst of modern violence, he feels compelled not to let his observation stand on its own merits and he intervenes with offensive nonpoetic explanations and recommendations. Rather than integrate his message into the expressive part of his art, he frequently sets off sections of didactic verse within a poem in order to emphasize his theme. His moral concerns appear to be so great that he fears they may be lost in the artistic process. Certainly we can expect Wain, who has shown himself to be an astute critic in his own right, to be more aware of the relation between propaganda and art, and the necessity for integrating the two; and he should be conscious of how his refusal to subordinate the former to the latter affects his poetry.
It is perhaps this tension in his artistic credo that induces him to write poems about his own art and the art of others. One third of Weep before God is a long poem called "A Boisterous Poem about Poetry." A more recent book of poetry, Letters to Five Artists, discusses the lives and art of five friends…. In both of these works Wain philosophizes about his own theory of art and poetry, and his recommendations are an obvious defense of his own poetical position. They are more philosophical reflection than poetry, and he continuously praises those who share his own particular view of the creative artist. (p. 141)
"A Boisterous Poem about Poetry" is a response to the malaise of the late 1950s in which many were asserting that British poetry had exhausted itself…. Wain suggests that the gloom-mongers were too willing to entomb the spirit of modern poetry…. There are serious poets and fickle poets, the accomplished and the uninitiated. His distinctions rest upon strange grounds, for it is the amateur poet, according to Wain, who concerns himself with the dark side of life: violence, cruelty, sorrow, despair…. The serious poet, on the other hand, is an ameliorator, who observes an unbalanced situation and sets out to rectify it. In his role as healer and savior, the serious poet is somehow able to call on the hidden resources of language to effect his ends, while the poet with his "bag of despair" can only "rattle on tin cans/And claim that [he is] singing."… (pp. 141-42)
In "Introductory Poem" to Letters to Five Artists, he suggests that the artist must not be preoccupied with understanding the violence in which his world is drowning. The poet … is a lyrical recorder who must make others lament and weep over, not understand, such violence…. (p. 143)
The deficiency in Wain's philosophy is that the major problems of mankind are not confronted, or, if they are, only obliquely. Poetry becomes, from his point of view, an assertion of optimism, a refusal to open one's eyes in the dark…. Wain's uncompromising humanism demands the affirmative voice even when events might lead elsewhere. By rejecting analysis and inquiry for indiscriminate assertion, his humanism must be seen as less than adequate for our moment. (p. 144)
Lawrence R. Ries, "John Wain: The Evasive Answer," in his Wolf Masks: Violence in Contemporary Poetry (copyright © 1977 by Kennikat Press Corp.; reprinted by permission of Kennikat Press Corp.), Kennikat, 1977, pp. 130-50.
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Wain can be as quixotic as our own Southern "Fugitive" poets (whose work he intensely admires). Like Allen Tate's Aneas, he has "an infallible instinct for the right battle on the passionate side." Unfortunately, he sometimes lacks the irony that would save him from the excess of insisting, "only in the sphere of art is humanity able to rise totally above its failures and inadequacies." One is also embarrassed to be told that in reading poetry, "we see our imperfections mirrored in our splendors, and we accept ourselves, at last, in peace and thankfulness." (p. 19)
When he concentrates on the work of individual poets, he is superb. He displays empathy and insight in discussing the influence the family history of Milton's patrons had on Comus, or the effect of Eddas on the subjects and style of the early Auden. His magnificent tributes to Philip Larkin and William Empson's poetry are alone worth the price of [Professing Poetry]. Most of all, Wain is attracted to those poets who recognize the need for "roots going down into the instinctual and primitive" to temper our sterile reasoning—for the sense of lifegiving ritual in our lives that art conveys through form. (pp. 19-20)
Phoebe Pettingell, in The New Leader (© 1978 by the American Labor Conference on International Affairs, Inc.), July 3, 1978.
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John Wain, elected [to the Oxford Chair of Poetry] in 1973, offers nine lectures in "Professing Poetry," a charming introduction about his relation to Oxford, and an appendix of his recent poems that gives us examples to judge him by…. His style is straightforward: You know what he thinks all the time, and, like Johnson, he offers firm arguments, stating his positions on art, poetry and politics unequivocably. Of very few commentators may that be said; he belongs, in short, in Edmund Wilson's company. (p. 1)
In "On the Breaking of Forms," and "Poetry and Social Criticism," Wain shows us his own position: individualist, anti-state, common sense, the middle ground today where privacy survives, if precariously. These lectures are powerful attacks against propaganda, social utilitarianism and/or esoteric freedoms and dogmas. Wain is a sort of old-fashioned liberal, which is reactionary indeed today, here as in the English welfare state. He argues for our inherited language, which is what we all speak, unless we are speaking the masses Newspeak.
"Professing Poetry" is everywhere interesting and accessible; nowhere difficult or academic: It wears its learning lightly. Its forceful opinions have been earned by hard labor and show us a man worth hearing. Wain has something important to teach about poetry. Wide though the gulf between England and America be today, we should listen to him and learn. (p. 8)
Jascha Kessler, "Wain on Poetry without Pontification," in The Los Angeles Times Book Review (copyright, 1978, Los Angeles Times; reprinted by permission), August 6, 1978, pp. 1, 8.
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[John Wain] typifies the very best of what one might call "Englishness"—good sense, moderation, a feeling for language, erudition without pretension, and wit.
The essays [in Professing Poetry] cover a wide variety of topics related to poetry and poets, and what comes through in all of them is Wain's deep love for poetry, his delight in sharing with us what he finds valuable. This is true particularly in the essays that deal with the work of individual poets—Auden, Emily Dickinson, Philip Larkin, William Empson and Edward Thomas. He has a knack for going right to the heart of a poet's work, placing it in the context of intellectual and social history without being stuffy about it, without taking anything away from the poem as poem. His insights, if not radical, are fresh and lively….
Wain's is a basically conservative spirit, as indicated by his championship of form and his feeling that poetry should not become a means of social criticism. It is difficult to fault his stance against art as propaganda….
Scattered throughout the essays are also passing remarks that make one smile with delight at their wit or gracefulness…. [For example:] "a poem conveys a great deal just by how it walks on to the stage, and it is possible to fall in love with a poem, as with an actress, just by seeing it move."
The volume closes with a selection of Wain's own poems written during the same period—poems of feeling, grace and humor that confirm one's faith in his criticism. (p. E3)
Susan Wood, in Book World—The Washington Post (© 1978 The Washington Post), October 8, 1978.
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The Pardoner's Tale tells the stories of two men, both "forty-ish", who cannot help falling madly in love, sometimes despairingly, sometimes with great success. The lineaments of gratified desire are persuasively drawn. Precise details of plot and character dissolve into an amorous haze, spreading delight….
The two stories are ingeniously linked…. [The] linking method has been deliberately designed to make it difficult for John Wain's narrative to carry conviction, to suspend the reader's disbelief: he has met this self-imposed challenge and succeeded triumphantly….
We remember [Chaucer's] pardoner, the "full vicious man" who could tell "a moral tale", and priggishly accused others of riggishness so that they would guiltily buy his pardons. The ambiguities of the title offer a field for enjoyable speculation. Perhaps Giles, the novelist, is a sort of pardoner: certainly, he brings about the resolution of Gus's story in a spirit of forgiveness. Perhaps, the dying old lady is as vicious as Chaucer's pardoner, when she tells the story of her life: certainly, she has no concept of forgiveness. At any rate, John Wain's novel is written in a warmly forgiving spirit; and this, together with its engaging riggishness, contributes to the reader's delight.
D.A.N. Jones, "Forty-ish and Riggish," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1978; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), October 13, 1978, p. 1140.