W(illiam) R(obert) Rodgers

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Rodgers, W(illiam) R(obert)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Rodgers, W(illiam) R(obert) 1909–1969

Rodgers, an Ulsterman, was a poet sometimes compared to Gerard Manley Hopkins. He served several years as minister of a Presbyterian church—the oldest in Ireland—and, later, as a producer and scriptwriter for the BBC, working closely with Louis MacNeice.

The complete lack up to now of poetry in the manner of Rupert Brooke has bothered and annoyed a portion of the English and American public. It is this public's notion that such poems as Rupert Brooke's sonnet "If I should die, think only this of me" should appear, by some process of spontaneous generation, at the beginning of any war in which England is engaged. Perhaps it would be worth while to try to puzzle out why such poetry is modernly impossible and why [Awake! and Other Wartime Poems] contains the kind of poetry we are going to get, in English, from those poets who manage to remain sincere through the present upheaval.

Classically, the two high types of war poem are the battle cry (or hymn), written in the definite iambics which presuppose the march's four-four time, and the elegy…. The war sonnets of Rupert Brooke and the popular elegy "In Flanders Fields" are war poetry at its very worst. They were decadent and puerile twenty years ago; they are unthinkable now. What people who yearn back to them want is the stale and dowdy moral atmosphere of the early nineteen-hundreds. In spite of ourselves, we live in a more bracing air and are made of more sincere and sterner stuff.

The First World War impaired the notion that war poetry can be written by non-combatants. The only decent 1914–1918 verse was written by young men in their early twenties who were soldiers in the trenches—Wilfred Owen, Isaac Rosenberg, Charles Sorley, and Siegfried Sassoon. The hack writing of Kipling and Noyes made no impression, then or subsequently. One attempt at war poetry was made by both Rilke and Yeats. Rilke's hysterical "Five Songs, August 1914" were repudiated by him five days after they were written. Yeats wrote the superb "An Irish Airman Foresees His Death" and then announced his withdrawal into silence in "On Being Asked for a War Poem." The silence of these two men during those years is even now more impressive than volumes of exhortation and elegy would be. It was the soldiers who impressively spoke. (pp. 216-17)

W. R. Rodgers, whether or not he is a soldier poet, is not a profound thinker, but a contemporaneous and candid spirit is in him. He has at his disposal a firm, rugged idiom, since Ulster still has here and there surviving pockets of primitive speech. He uses the packed directness of the alliterative Anglo-Saxon of Hopkins' and Auden's experiments and gives it surprising Celtic turns. His unexpected and salty epithets pick out many unexpected details of what he observes, from a fountain in a park to an airman in his bomber. What is best about this poet is his glance into the future and his realization that more than a casual peace must be demanded after the end of this war. (p. 218)

Louise Bogan, "War Poetry" (1942), in her Selected Criticism: Poetry and Prose (copyright 1955 by Louise Bogan), Noonday Press, 1955, pp. 216-18.

[Apart] from a few pastorals (rollicking or edgy as the case may be) W. R. Rodgers survives for his long poem Europa and the Bull, a sudden, almost unprepared-for burst of delectable, sensuous celebration that still has the capacity to keep the reader sustained for fifteen pages. The roistering language, with its puns and plosives (yes, and alliterations) is ripened out, here, into a long ceremony of desire that does truly celebrate the "soil in the Soul. God in the clod" (Spring-Dance ). True, there are gaffes ("But look! the Bull! indubitably bull!"), but they do not make falter the progress or the delight…. The failure is, finally, a failure of some essential poetic belief. For his last project Rodgers had chiselled his technique down finely, and apparently had a theme particularly suited to his aims and his...

(The entire section is 1,397 words.)