Lawrence Durrell Poetry: British Analysis

(British and Irish Poetry, Revised Edition)

Lawrence Durrell’s poetry has many rare qualities. His multifaceted life gave him a breadth of vision and a balance of mind that, in combination with his natural gifts and hard work, enabled him to produce a body of poetry remarkable for its beauty, richness, and integrity. His poems afford a glimpse into the changeless world of the Mediterranean, and into the ever-changing lives of the people who live there. However, the poems never become mere travelogues; part of Durrell’s integrity lies in his adherence to the central purpose of poetry: to illuminate the human experience. He remains faithful to that goal throughout “the wooing and seduction of form.”

Reading Durrell’s poetry for the first time, a discerning reader might be reminded of T. S. Eliot, echoed in Durrell’s sparse but effective rhymes, his facility in finding the mot juste, and some of his astonishing single lines, and think of “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” (1915) and The Waste Land (1922). Reflecting further, the first-time reader would perceive that both Durrell and Eliot are philosophical poets, and that their work shows their common preoccupation with the Western tradition and certain of its key philosophical issues.

Truly discerning readers, however, will conclude that the resemblance ends there. For all his superficial likeness to Eliot, Durrell has a distinctive voice as a poet. The hypothetical discerning reader might well end up thinking of Durrell as a curious mixture of the qualities of Eliot, D. H. Lawrence, and Gerard Manley Hopkins, but even that remarkable formulation would not cover all the facts. Durrell is unique; he is the Anglo-Indian poet of the Mediterranean, craftsperson, and thinker at once.

In an interview printed in the Autumn-Winter issue of Paris Review for 1959-1960, Durrell reveals his guiding principle as a poet: “Poetry is form, and the wooing and seduction of form is the whole game.” His poems seem rather traditional in their construction; a glance at the printed page reveals few typographical eccentricities. A careful reading, however, will turn up subtle variations in meter, line-length, and rhyme. Durrell worked hard and successfully at wooing and seducing form. He altered form almost imperceptibly, so that a sonnet by Durrell does not seem quite a sonnet. One re-counts lines and syllables and finally admits that the poem is a sonnet, but an odd one. Simply put, Durrell wrested the form away from tradition and made it his own. This victory makes possible—by no means inevitable—the success of the poem.

“A Soliloquy of Hamlet” and “Style”

An example of this phenomenon is the second of the fourteen poems in “A Soliloquy of Hamlet.” The poet has already indicated that the fourteen poems are to be regarded as sonnets. The student of the form, however, will demur because of the lack of rhyme and the arrangement into couplets. On intensive reading, he will be compelled to concede that there is a six/eight structure, the usual arrangement of a sonnet à rebours—in short, that his beloved sonnet form has been seduced.

Durrell offers an intriguing, if somewhat deceptive, insight into his art in a poem entitled “Style.” The poet strives for “Something like the sea;/ Unlabored momentum of water;/ But going somewhere. . . .” Subsequently, he wishes to write “the wind that slits/ Forests from end to end.” Finally, he rejects sea and wind for a third alternative:

But neither is yetFine enough for the line I hunt.The dry long blade of theSword-grass might suit meBetter: an assassin of polish.

The choice is never really made, of course: Durrell can write in all these manners and many more. The poem serves more to convey a sense of his unending struggle for perfection, in his verse and in his prose, than to issue any artistic manifesto.

In this struggle for perfection, Durrell differed from other writers only in his relative success. Other differences are easier to define and more important to the understanding of his poetry. Here it helps to refer to his prose work. Any reader of the novels and travel books knows Durrell’s powers of description, his subtlety in handling love relationships between his characters, and his flair for transforming the mundane into the magical. As a poet, he displays the same talents in a different medium.

The importance of place

As mentioned above, Durrell was the Anglo-Indian poet of the Mediterranean. The phrase is perhaps a trifle awkward, but to omit any element would be to misrepresent the poet. As an Anglo-Indian, he enjoyed at once the benefits of an English education and a childhood in the East. He also suffered, virtually from birth, the plight of the exile, the person without a country. England was alien; English was not. Durrell’s work depends on the English literary tradition, even though he could not bear the thought of living in Great Britain. He found a series of homes on the shores of the Mediterranean: Greece, Lebanon, Cyprus, Egypt, France. The Mediterranean is the sine qua non of his work; nowhere else could he have found such “cities, plains, and people.” Thus, every element in the description is vital, because Durrell’s birthplace, education, and later environment together help to account for the unique nature of his poetry.

“The Anecdotes”

The importance of place in Durrell’s poetry is nowhere more evident than in “The Anecdotes,” a series of brief lyrics with subtitles such as “In Cairo,” “At Rhodes,” and “In Patmos.” Durrell has an unsurpassed genius for evoking the peculiar atmosphere of locale, and he makes good use of the imagination-stirring names of Mediterranean cities. “The Anecdotes” concern people and emotions, but the geography helps the reader to understand both.

In the third poem, “At Rhodes,” Durrell suggests the languorous beauty of Rhodes by way of a few deft images. The memory of the boats in the harbor, the antics of two Greek children, and the town, “thrown as on a screen of watered silk,” becomes a compact poem: “twelve sad lines against the dark.” The lines express nostalgia for Rhodes through a few well-chosen emblems of the city, suggesting a lovely tranquillity that the poet now lacks. The personal association—Durrell missed Rhodes sorely during his tour of duty in Egypt—becomes a theme.

The sense of place in the poems generally does have an importance beyond mere exotic appeal. The...

(The entire section is 2757 words.)