Munro Beattie

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 555

In no respect whatever is Daryl Hine's poetry "Canadian." His context is resolutely European, with particular devotion to Augustan Rome, seventeenth-century England in its pastoral-metaphysical phases, and late nineteenth-century France; his principal masters have been Virgil, Donne, Baudelaire, Swinburne, Stevens, and Auden. The reader is likely to be struck first by the remarkable charm of language and cadence that this poet can command. Then by an astonishing lack of "presence" in the poems—either of personality or of location. Nothing is there but words seductively put together, images, rhythm. Poetry could scarcely be more "pure." One result of the method (and most of the poems do seem to have been fabricated by a poetic machine of superb delicacy and subtlety, as a master craftsman might produce rolls of exquisite wallpaper or lengths of tapestry) is the intense obscurity of almost all of the Five Poems and about the first half of The Carnal and the Crane. The reader who patiently resists being irritated by this obscurity, and by a baroque stateliness of utterance, will perceive with some admiration the ingenuity with which the poet has animated and diversified his material. Intricate and ambiguous syntax sets up titillating eddies of doubt and certainty about what the lines literally mean…. Similarly, the poet subjects traditional themes to new and surprising adaptations—by distributing the matter among several speakers ("A Masque of Kings," "The Year One"), by placing the interpretative emphases at novel points ("At Pompey's Statue," a pentad of well-turned sonnets), by elaborating and distorting familiar stories (observe what becomes of the Owl and the Pussy-cat, of the twa corbies, and of the fox and the crow, in "Four Fabulary Satires"). Several poems (for example, "Lines on a Platonic Friendship," "The Lake," "Poem for Palm Sunday," "Epithalamium") generate a species of cerebral excitement by seeming to discourse of major topics; but they leave in the end the impression of neither caring much nor expecting the reader to care much about their theses. The treatment of sexual subjects and activities is of the same sort. A good deal of erotic behaviour seems to be going on, or to have been going on—satiety and remorse are two discernible moods in a few of the poems—and the words "vice" and "lust" recur as words; but syntax and imagery combine to veil from the reader exactly what is happening. (pp. 324-25)

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The third of Daryl Hine's collections, The Devil's Picture Book, is more straightforward in style …, but less impressive as poetry. With decongestion of the medium much of the magic has evaporated. The reader is confronted by a charmless Circe, an enervate Proserpine, a rarefied Sodom. "Osiris Remembered" and "Osiris Dismembered" are returns to the intricate tapestry technique of the previous books, but the effect is superficial. The whole book, indeed, gives off an aroma of the nineties, of the succession of authors, from Baudelaire to Tennessee Williams, who have handled the roses of evil…. However thin and jaded this pretty little book may be, it everywhere provokes the reader's respect for proficiency in the use of words, the composition of stanzas, the variegation of rhythm. (pp. 325-26)

Munro Beattie, "Poetry: 1950–60," in Literary History of Canada: Canadian Literature in English, Vol. II, Karl F. Klinck, general editor (© University of Toronto Press 1965, 1976), second edition, University of Toronto Press, 1976, pp. 297-332.∗

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