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Collected Poems 1935-92 by FT Prince - review

Previous Teazles

Paul Batchelor finds much to admire in a collection by a long-neglected 20th-century poet

FT Prince's Collected Poems opens with a long, enthralling poem, "Epistle to a Patron", in which a sculptor attempts to ingratiate himself:

My lord, hearing lately of your
opulence in promises and
your house
Busy with parasites, of your hands
full of favours, your statutes
Admirable as music, and no fear of
your arms not prospering,
I have
Considered how to serve you and
breed from my talents
These few secrets which I shall
make plain
To your intelligent glory.

The reader is drawn in at once. "Your opulence in promises" is risky, and "your house / Busy with parasites" would be a fatal misstep for one hoping to win favour. And what of his too-obvious obsequiousness, and his boasts that he can "breed" secrets from his talents? He is wise enough to see that the prospective patron is a tyrant, but not wise enough to resist saying so: "your miserly freaks, / Your envies, racks and poisons ... ". Elaborate syntax and witty enjambment ensure that a dramatic tension between the speaker's ambition and his reason is maintained. As the sculptor's requests grow increasingly paradoxical ("I wish for liberty, let me then be tied"), we realise that the poem is, amongst other things, an expression of Prince's wish for the liberating constraint of poetic form – and the tyrant he is importuning may well be the reader.

Frank Templeton Prince is a superb poet who has been too long neglected. He was born in 1912 in Kimberley, South Africa, when it was a British Dominion, and attended the University of the Witwatersrand, and later Balliol College, Oxford. After graduating, he travelled in Europe, and in the second world war served in the Army Intelligence Corps, stationed in the Middle East. After the war, he seemed to settle, becoming professor of English at Southampton University; but upon retiring he resumed travelling, taking visiting professorships in Jamaica, the United States and Yemen. Prince's life of travel, and his war-time experiences, bring to mind Basil Bunting; and while the two poets do not stylistically resemble one another, both have a formidable and highly individual understanding of British history, and both have learned much from Ezra Pound.

Honouring the variety of his imaginative roots and legacies, Prince drew inspiration from Greek myth, Hasidic Judaism, African folklore, British history, Rennaissance art and the 8th-century Chinese poet Po Chü-i. His gallery of historical personae includes Michelangelo, Laurence Sterne, Edmund Burke and Rupert Brooke. The most impressive of these poems concerns Thomas Wentworth, First Earl of Strafford, an adviser to Charles I and a notoriously brutal Lord Deputy of Ireland in the years leading up to the English Civil War. "Strafford" guides the reader gracefully through its historical moment, and the complexities of an individual who is "impatient of himself, his greatness / Rooted in limitation". Pride and stubbornness are his downfall. King Charles, the unworthy recipient of Strafford's loyalty, is brilliantly sketched: "Sullenly delicate, that wan mean dignity!". The poem exemplifies Prince's ability to transform his research into art: the poem has not dated, while its source material has.

Prince's most famous poem is unusual in that it appears to be more straightforwardly autobiographical. "Soldiers Bathing" is a meditation on the body and the soul, on love and war, on life and art. Such themes would have tempted a lesser poet into indulgent, ponderous writing, but "Soldiers Bathing" moves lightly on sinuous lines, its rhyming couplets kept supple by the varying line length and the ingenious syntax. The poem begins with a depiction of soldiers bathing at evening. The poet observes but does not join in (he was an officer after all):

All's pathos now. The body that
was gross,
Rank, ravenous, disgusting in the
act or in repose,
All fever, filth and sweat, its bestial
And bestial decay, by pain and
labour grows at length
Fragile and luminous.

The poem then considers similar scenes depicted by Michelangelo and Pollaiuolo, and the Christian iconography behind those works of art, before addressing the spiritual dimension of the war itself:

But night begins,
Night of the mind: who nowadays
is conscious of our sins?
Though every human deed
concerns our blood,
And even we must know, what
nobody has understood,
That some great love is over all
we do,
And that is what has driven us to
this fury …

"Soldiers Bathing" stands comparison with the best of Keith Douglas's poems. Prince's vision may be more hopeful and generous, but the poem's insights and associative leaps feel similarly guaranteed by experience. The phrasing is so clear-eyed as to be breathtaking: "Because to love is frightening we prefer / The freedom of our crimes".

In later work such as "Memoirs in Oxford", Prince seems to speak to us even more directly; but he always wears the mask of poetic form. He is adept at metrical, syllabic and free verse, and borrows unusual stanzaic forms from Wyatt, Shelley and Robert Bridges, among others. The mastery Prince achieved and the thrilling variety of his modes and voices means that, with the exception of the self-consciously minor late work (Prince labelled it "Senilia"), this volume reads like the highlights of a more copious body of work. Collected Poems will introduce readers to a poet of supreme skill and great intellectual curiosity.

• Paul Batchelor's The Sinking Road is published by Bloodaxe.

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