Robin Skelton Essay - Critical Essays

Skelton, Robin


Skelton, Robin 1925–

Skelton is an English-born Canadian poet, essayist, and editor. The duality of his geographic background plus his wide-ranging interests in art, music, and poetry are reflected in the varied content and changing styles of his poetry. His influence on Canadian letters is felt through his editorship of the Malahat Review.

Doug Fetherling

Professor Skelton obviously learned to polish his verse into what … is now the "casual mastery" mentioned in one of the poems, but I am unable to find anything very new or interesting in what the poems stand for [in Selected Poems]. One of two examples exist where the conclusions are meant to be half understood by the readers. One is "At Walden Pond" where

   I stamp on the ice of a man a hundred years dead.
   My children scream half-laughters at the risk … (of crossing the ice.)
   But I don't laugh.

The best poem in the collection is one about a prisoner of war released by the Japanese after World War Two who recalls having been marched through Nagasaki after the American atomic bombing:

              "It looked like a flower
              among the stones," he said,
              "a cup and saucer
              melted and hardened back
              into folds of petals.
              Lovely it was," he said,
              "but I felt sick…."

This poem and a much longer one about Vancouver Island make up for a lot. You've got to really go for Mr. Skelton's poetry to keep from wandering through the book, which also would have been better with the exclusion of his traditional ballads. (p. 30)

Doug Fetherling, in The Canadian Forum, December, 1968.

Daniel Hoffman

[Through] changes of venue and circumstance Mr. Skelton's verse retains its characteristic diction, stance, and rhythm. His normative mode works through short lines in strongly stressed dimeters or trimeters, conventional syntax, whether rhymed or no, and a vatic stance. (pp. 339-40)

These poems [in his retrospective Selected Poems] abound with such words as leaf, star, rock, love, breath, beast, death, the vocabulary of Celtic bards, of Yeats and Dylan Thomas and Vernon Watkins rather than the ironic, self-deprecatory domesticities of The (London) Movement and The Group. It is not surprising that Robin Skelton made anthologies of Irish verse and emigrated to British Columbia.

This Romantic amplitude of feeling and commitment to inherited meters is evident, too, in his ballads. I much prefer the Blakeian quatrains of A Ballad of Johnnie Question and A Ballad of Despair to the longer ballads in part three of the book. These swiftly grow monotonous, all in fourteeners broken into duple stanzas of eight lines, and based, not on the great ballads of old oral tradition, with their swift alternations between narrative and refrain, but on the tedious and circumstantial broadsides of the last century. (p. 340)

Other poems in other modes of Skelton's are admirable. Begging the Dialect beautifully dramatizes the tension between the transcience of common speech, collected by a linguist in "crumpled villages", and the hoped-for permanence of verse, of language: "What is that? And that? And that? What did/your father call it? What his father? What?"… Two of the last poems are among the most memorable poems of the Second World War I have read. Both dramatize prisoners of war—in Remembering Esquimalt, a Canadian held by the Japanese; in The Reliquary, a German Skelton met in Africa, whose father and the poet's father had also fought on opposing sides of the same battle a generation before. In these poems sharp emotion is intensified by restraint. (pp. 340-41)

Daniel Hoffman, in Poetry (© 1969 by The Modern Poetry Association; reprinted by permission of the Editor of Poetry), August, 1969.

Neil Rennie

If (as in Robin Skelton's first poem) 'the numbering disc' is the dial of a telephone, what etiolated banality cringes in the shadows of (his book's title) The Hunting Dark? Or in those of 'the rivering dark'? Or the 'vast unravelling dark'? The 'hunting dark' would seem to be the preying doubt to which the middle-aged are particularly prone and Skelton, no exception, confirms his anxiety by haunting the scenes of his past. While the tone is well controlled and there are no histrionics, the information that places have changed, that people have died and that 'no dead awake' does not help to convince the reader of the necessity for these reminiscences.

His past accounted for, Skelton brings us up to date with the self-abnegating candour of the confessional poet who reports his lusts, his worries and the contents of his mirror: 'At forty sensual enough, no grey/at jaw or temple….' And, at fifty: 'A plump dark man,/grey hair thick at the nape, bags under eyes …' etc. There are, too, the '… fragments … scattered, random,/fumbling scraps together'. 'Profound? or mad?' asks Skelton.

In the last pages of his book, the poems have been slimmed to a fashionable shape, an elegant brevity, and poetry supersedes autobiography with agreeable results. Some of these pieces are too fragmentary to be effective, but others are self-sufficient, laconic and focus the miniature image precisely realized:

                     'The earth is
                     dark. I see
                     owls in your

I hope the poems in this volume are in a generally chronological order and that we can assume that Skelton has overcome his self-indulgence, written off the confessional poet (whose poems risk unflattering comparisons) and is developing an individual voice. For the variety of postures he adopts only serves to emphasize the absence from his writing of any definite personal style. (pp. 121-22)

Neil Rennie, in London Magazine (© London Magazine 1971), August-September, 1971.

Robin Matthews

Timelight, fittingly enough, is concerned with quest and travel—physical and psychological. A seven part series, it is the attempt of a battered and blunted and dulled ego to see itself in universal terms, principally by connecting (on a Canada Council travel grant) with foreign writers and scholars who have names. The unhappy speaker of the poems moves through time and travel deathwards, with metaphorical and real phlegm in his throat. Anguished, his "spirit enters waste/sargassoes of unreal/conformables and miles" ("The Fell of Dark"). He feels pain and frustration: "I beat upon the rock./There is no answering voice" ("Lakeside Incident"). Finally, he can say: "I mingle memory/and desire/dream and dream/to hint a whole/beyond the vagaries/of its parts/…/turning my face/into the light" ("Timelight").

In his Preface, Skelton suggests the book has a major theme, which it is the reader's "duty … to identify". That's not too hard: Life is vanity; time steals away; look for the little light. But Skelton makes almost unconscious play upon the quest structure which is built from the Preface through to the appendix. The book becomes a comment upon its own apparent intentions. For the Preface is mock-humble. The poems have their life in a kind of strutting, hurting, black-country pretentiousness. The conclusion is almost a spoof on the scholarly appendix in which Skelton reveals his borrowings from (mostly) Pound and Eliot—and...

(The entire section is 490 words.)

David Jackel

Here we have, as Skelton terms [Because of Love], "a more or less narrative sequence" (less rather than more, I think, since several of the poems were separately published before being gathered into this narrative), one which both depicts the course of a particular love affair and attempts to celebrate love as a vital force in human life. Technically the poetry is impressive in nearly every line. Skelton is a craftsman whose work shows that he has not merely studied but absorbed the major traditions of poetry in English, and can write with gracefully assured precision in a variety of tones and rhythmic forms.

His technical skill is expended, however, on delineating in this new book the nuances of feelings which are seldom clearly motivated. The sensitive speaker in the narrative is too much in love with love, and too self-consciously sensitive, to deal adequately with any person or quality outside himself; his beloved exists for the reader only as a set of gestures, detached phrases, and stray details of physical appearance. The speaker's response to her is vivid enough, but sexual attraction too often empties his mind of every other concern. Although he has much to say about love, the language he speaks is rarely the language of love, that language which shows desire and affection transforming the public and private aspects of a whole personality. (p. 38)

David Jackel, in The Canadian Forum, August, 1977.