Lives of the Modern Poets

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 15)

What may turn out to be the most interesting feature of William H. Pritchard’s Lives of the Modern Poets is not his lucid, amiable, occasionally original, ultimately unnecessary collection of prefaces to the lives of the nine most “interesting and important poets writing in English in the first part of this century,” but his Introduction which amounts to a polemic on the state of contemporary literary criticism and Pritchard’s explicit discontent with it. It is this section which has drawn the most response from reviewers and one worth investigating.

Pritchard begins on a Leavis-like note of self-confidence. His aim is to provide “introductions to, reevaluations of” the life and poetry of the nine poets whom he feels constitute the great tradition of modern poetry—Thomas Hardy, William Butler Yeats, Edwin Arlington Robinson, Robert Frost, Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot, Wallace Stevens, Hart Crane, and William Carlos Williams. He presumes that his “ideal” reader will be literate, “at ease with a complicated novel, less so with poetry perhaps; but who in any case is curious about, if relatively unfamiliar with, at least some of the figures treated here.” Who, after all, would not want such an audience? The days, however, when poetry has enjoyed general acclaim ended with the death of Robert Frost, the last great publicly loved poet. Since then reading, appreciating, and wanting to know about poetry has increasingly become an academic pastime and even within English Departments few professors read contemporary poetry for pleasure.

Pritchard’s emphasis, therefore, should be toward a more general, uninformed, only slightly interested reader. This, despite his stated wish, he at first seems to promise in his rejection of “certain tendencies and attitudes in contemporary literary studies.” Pritchard rightfully is not at ease with the structuralists of France (Derrida, Barthes) nor with the deconstructionists of the Yale English Department (Geoffrey Hartman), both of whom seem to view a poem as a verbal coda whose message and meaning are uncovered through precise, impersonal critical methodologies. Nor does he agree with those like Gustave Flaubert in the nineteenth century and Foucault in the twentieth who talk about the “disappearance of the author” in a work, particularly when one has in mind lyric poetry. For Pritchard “the push of the whole man” can be found in the lyric, and he sets as his principal aim the task of uncovering that presence and amplifying the voice speaking to readers. To do so, like the old-fashioned critic he is, Pritchard provides both a biographical sketch of the poets’ lives and a recapitulation of the literary criticism which helped to explicate the poems as they were written.

The aim and approach are good, but the results are far from satisfactory. In presenting the background of his nine poets’ lives, for instance, he states that he has relied on details from letters, revealing anecdotes, and bits of gossip. What he actually presents, however, are bare-boned biographical accounts which leave the general reader without any substantive biographical background to relate to the poet’s work and the more “literate” reader with a rehash of facts with which he is already familiar.

Similarly, Pritchard acknowledges that in this “age of criticism” by which everyone has been influenced, even burdened, an overwhelming amount of commentary has become part of the atmosphere in which the poet or poem now live. He is to be commended for giving credit to these sources. Much of this criticism has shaped the reading and conception of modern poetry, and any reader, literate or not, should know about them. Yet, when it comes to discussing these critical works, Pritchard fails to probe fully the standard interpretations associated with each poet and focuses instead on more idiosyncratic or specialized issues. In his Preface to Yeats, for example, Pritchard never mentions Richard Ellman’s name. Or, in discussing The Waste Land, he gives the reader only passing reference to those such as F. O. Matthiessen and Helen Gardner who helped to unravel the erudition of the poem and turns his attention instead to three current, tangential views of the poem which may be of interest to Eliot scholars but hardly serve to open the meaning of the poem or to reveal how its importance in present cultural life came into being. These oversights, compounded by a lack of a good critical bibliography, occur throughout the book, and are one of its principal failings.

Another point on which Pritchard seems to miss the mark is his adamant denial that his book has any similarity to Samuel...

(The entire section is 1914 words.)