Robert Nye Essay - Critical Essays

Nye, Robert


Nye, Robert 1939–

Nye is a versatile British poet, playwright, short story writer, and author of novels for adults and children. His novels range from Doubtfire in the New Novel form to Falstaff, a fictional autobiography of Shakespeare's unscrupulous knight. His plays are sometimes based on medieval morality plays or Greek tragic myths. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 33-36, rev. ed.)


[The] specific tendency of Mr Nye's work can be seen as interesting. He is the only poet I know now writing who seems to be directly influenced by the attitudes and the diction of the later nineteenth century: his book breathes the spirit of a queer Frenchified pre-Raphaelitism crossed with early Pound and Wallace Stevens…. Mr Nye is perhaps more like an even more recherché writer, the half-French neo-jongleur Theodore Julius Marzials, whose ninetyish farrago of the Gallic and the listless came out as early as 1873. Mr Nye has a taste for archaic language which he deploys mellifluously. In a love poem called 'Of A Jar You Are' he catalogues what I take to be a list of vessels (my dictionary baulked more than once at his vocabulary):

                Sendaument goodwill,
                Jorum and noggin,
                Come-cruse and shellsnail.
                Eve-spect manchyn

Now the point about this is that the precise meaning of the terms doesn't much matter: they're used for their sound and their mediaeval associations…. [This] is a protozoic sort of pleasure in poetry and Mr Nye as yet offers us little more. In another love poem called 'Other Times' he writes well about a bonfire night:

    The gloam rains slowly; fireworks kick with green,
    Attach all marigoldal to the hand.

Here both 'gloam' and 'marigoldal' are nice in themselves but they also work for their keep in the verse. If Mr Nye has more lines like these in his next book and less like

          Espy and wink of the impossibly moon

I shall applaud his progress. (p. 92)

George MacBeth, in London Magazine (© London Magazine 1962), January, 1962.

Gillian Freeman

Alain Robbe-Grillet is, I suppose, the high-priest of the roman nouveau. I have never been an acolyte of the movement…. I confess I find Robbe-Grillet's flat prose style … excruciatingly tedious…. I felt much the same frustration as I read Robert Nye's Doubtfire. This is a ranging exploration of the mind of an adolescent boy who, developing towards sexual maturity, is unable to sort out reality from fantasy. The interaction of truth and fear and wish and memory, which ultimately leads him to attempt suicide, form a tightly interlocking narrative…. [With] the stylised names and speech one cannot tell where the characters are merely extensions of the boy's own personality, and where he has absorbed them from actuality…. (p. 176)

Robert Nye is funny, savage, witty, sharp and illuminatingly visual. I wanted to enter wholly into this disturbed boy's mind as the author had done, but I only achieved isolated moments of identification and comprehension. (p. 177)

Gillian Freeman, in New Statesman (© 1968 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), February 9, 1968.

Robert Nye's poems in Darker Ends are so reticent they need to be hunted at night with an infra-red lamp. One called "Let It Go" will serve to demonstrate the poet's well-mannered whisper; unfortunately it is also typical of his attack:

             Snow fell so quick
             that snow was melt
             before it lasted on the ground.
             The fleering pane
             of gloomy fire
             turned steadfastness to water also.

It's the kind of thing you recite after trotting out from behind a screen with a paper flower in your hand. (p. 109)

The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1970; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), January 29, 1970.

Derek Stanford

One of those all round virtuosi, Robert Nye can be relied on to surprise, whether in verse or in prose. His two utterly different poems in the recently published Scottish Poetry 7 … are examples of his power to create something new. Criticism—whatever its conclusions—is not usually prodigal in unexpected opening gambits, but Mr Nye can hang a whole essay on Donne upon the inaugural statement that the poet heartily detested milk. His mask in verse The Seven Deadly Sins … is a further manifestation of Mr Nye's extraordinary prestidigitation….

Mr Nye's intention [is] to reflesh with modern speech the skeleton form of the mediaeval morality play. Indeed, it is indicative of his conjuror's imagination that he likes to think of his mask as replacing 'the earliest recorded morality play in English' which 'set forth the merits of the Lord's Prayer'. He tells us that his own work turns upon the prayer known to all Christians together with the Jesus Prayer of the Orthodox Church ('Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner').

For those who understand what Mr Nye is talking about when he refers to sin as 'so many little sips of the grave / Original and actual', here is a work to be read with profit as it is to be watched with pleasure. (p. 66)

Derek Stanford, in Books and Bookmen (© copyright Derek Stanford 1975; reprinted with permission), August, 1975.

John Coleby

I do not know what to make of Robert Nye's version of Penthesilea, a Greek tragic myth written down, or up, by the late eighteenth century German, Heinrich von Kleist…. Wads of rather aerated imagery punctuated by artificial barracks-type slang leave one feeling that one might be watching The Long, and the Short and the Tall performed in period gear by the more intellectual members of a public school Combined Cadet Force. Apart that is from the Amazons whose Queen, Penthesilea, goes crazy about Achilles; in the end literally so. His death at her hands does messy violence to truth, both mythical and dramatic. (pp. 89-90)

John Coleby, in Drama, Summer, 1976.

Paul West

In the main, ["Falstaff" is] a fresco of groinwork, more monotonous than inventive, from a first-person Falstaff. He is worth hearing from because, as the Shakespearean scholar, John Dover Wilson puts it, we find it exhilarating to watch a being free of all conventions, codes and moral ties, who nonetheless wins us with "his superb wit, his moral effrontery, his intellectual agility, and his boundless physical vitality."

Well now, Nye's rampant loudmouth, while certainly a lord of misrule, a pastmaster of civil and military disobedience and a self-stroking hyperbole, isn't so much intellectually agile as ramshackle and offhand, and his wit is heartiness dolled-up….

It's like being pounded at by an Ancient Mariner turned satyr. For all his procedural antics (portrait of the artist as a self-conscious tub of lard), his quotations from Shakespeare and his Tiresias S. Eliot pose, this Falstaff wears his welcome out. Talk of maypoles, bananas, Italian dildoes and Norfolk loaves cannot disguise his relentless empty-headedness over 452 pages. A Scotsman, Nye has written a novel of the type that British taste never seems to grow out of: Philistine knockabout, complete with cakes and ale, and not an idea in sight, its patron saint not Rabelais but Terry-Thomas. (p. 38)

Paul West, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1976 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), November 7, 1976.

Michael Wood

[In a sense] the novel is flourishing, and always will be as long as we have an appetite for well-told lies of any length. Nye's Falstaff, the imaginary autobiography of Shakespeare's splendid old scoundrel, is an excellent representative of this continuing life, and a good example of what a talented writer can do with a string of shaggy dog stories and some fine lines.

The danger with Falstaff is that we shall lose him to melancholy, as Orson Welles does, albeit with some panache, in his lugubrious film Chimes at Midnight. Indeed, Shakespeare suggests that Falstaff dies of Hal's rejection of him….

Nye's Falstaff is bawdy rather than melancholy, and often seems to...

(The entire section is 423 words.)

T. A. Shippey

Three Red Ravagers of the Island of Britain: Arthur, and Run son of Beli, and Morgant the Wealthy. And Three Unfortunate Disclosures of the Island of Britain. And Three Fierce Handslaps. And Three Futile Battles. Everybody can do ancient Welsh triads once they've got the idea.

What turns up in Robert Nye's Merlin could be called "Three Enormous Spankings of the Court of King Arthur": first the birching of Vivien the virgin when she was with child with Merlin and no man had touched her. And second the whipping of Ygrayne the Countess by her husband's shape at the time her husband was alive and dead. And third the beating of Morgan le Fay by her half-brother that was King Arthur. But onto the...

(The entire section is 468 words.)