Listen to this article
Does great poetry need to be disquieting? I was pondering this question as I spent several Tube journeys recently reading, with much enjoyment, the middle-aged and slightly older WH Auden. Why shouldn’t poetry be like this – discursive, intelligent, worldly-wise, more like after-dinner conversation at a high table accompanied by some excellent port – rather than the solitary howling of a wounded beast?
The mid-20th century English poet Wystan Hugh Auden, who began as a leftwing firebrand, in later life saw himself as a Horatian (he even wrote a poem called “The Horatians”) and celebrated the joys, however shadowed, of living in the moment. A typical late poem begins like this: “Spring this year in Austria started off benign.” Another one is dedicated to the creative satisfactions of morning defecation, which enable us to “Leave the dead concerns of/ Yesterday behind us,/ Face with all our courage/ What is now to be.”
Where has all the angst and torment gone? Sex was no longer a tyrant, and Auden had been received into the Anglican faith, of an idiosyncratic and accommodating kind. His faith was all about this world, not some other world, and he said that “to pray is to pay attention or …to ‘listen’ to someone or something other than oneself”. This was not idle talk; he performed many acts of remarkable kindness and generosity to friends and strangers (giving a friend a manuscript so that he could have an operation, supporting the school and college costs of two war orphans, and so on) without drawing the least attention to them.
The stress in later Auden seems to be on making the most of what this world, here, now, offers to us, however imperfect it or we may be (and he is quite unsparing about that). He celebrates his relationship with Chester Kallman (who was serially unfaithful), his friendships, the natural world – a great and growing consolation. He reflects on the sheer luck, against all the odds, of being alive.
The later Auden is not the only undisquieting poet but he may be one of the few. I have a special place reserved in my heart, and my personal pantheon, for the English 17th-century clergyman-poet Robert Herrick. He managed to live through three-quarters of one of the most dramatic and violent centuries in English history while retaining not just sangfroid but positive cheerfulness. In “The Argument of His Book”, he says that he sings “of bridegrooms, brides and of their bridall-cakes” and as the poet Stephen Romer remarks in the introduction to his excellent Faber Poet to Poet selection, “the third element [carries] apparently the same weight for the poet as the other two”.
Herrick, a life-long royalist, was certainly with Sir Toby Belch and against the Puritan steward Malvolio in his frank enjoyment of “cakes and ale”. One of his most enchanting and famous lyrics begins: “Cherry-ripe, ripe, ripe I cry/ Full and fair ones; come and buy.” Of course, he is singing not just about literal cherries but about his mistress Julia’s lips. Herrick is a celebrant of carnal as well as culinary delights but his erotic verse has a rare delicacy, even what he called a “cleanly-wantonness”.
Enough happy poets, you may be saying. Or rather, happy poets go only so far. Surely Herrick, for all his grace and physicality, doesn’t go as deep as John Donne or George Herbert.
In Dublin, 125 years ago, there died one of the most tortured poets who ever lived; probably he would not be known and recognised today if it had not been for the tireless efforts of his friend and fellow poet, Robert Bridges, who arranged for the posthumous publication of Gerard Manley Hopkins’ verse in 1918.
To call Bridges a happier poet than Hopkins is to speak only relatively; but Bridges lived a long and full life, starting as a physician, becoming poet laureate in 1913 and dying full of honours at the ripe age of 85. Hopkins was cut down by typhoid at 44 but even before then his life was shadowed by an endless series of physical and mental afflictions, as becomes painfully clear in the splendid new two-volume Oxford edition of his correspondence. Bridges and Hopkins were both assailed by melancholy (Bridges’ fine poem of that name is well worth reading) but Hopkins’ melancholy went deeper. No poet has ever written more profoundly, and, in a way, magnificently, about mental distress: “O the mind, mind has mountains; cliffs of fall/ Frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed. Hold them cheap/ May who ne’er hung there.”
Hopkins often felt he was half-mad but he went on writing, teaching and corresponding with unstinting honesty and intellectual verve. And he was just as capable of splendid elation as of plunging despair; his nature poems, such as “Pied Beauty” and “The Windhover”, are unmatched in the way they do not merely describe but enter into the energy of natural forces. Hopkins was racked by guilt and gloom but also swept by gusts of delight. The greatest poetry, I think, needs to be sprung with tension, not to sag into familiar comfort like an old sofa.
More columns at ft.com/eyres
Get alerts on Life & Arts when a new story is published