Brave men, and women too, might quail before undertaking to describe the history of poetry in English during the last eighty-five years. It was a period during which poets changed from being smiths to being miners. The difficulties are manifold: so many poets born, and made, before and after and between the wars, and in such different countries as England, Ireland, and the United States. And among them so few were content, as Housman was, to publish two thin volumes and call it quits. The best of them exhibited an unhelpful inclination to outstrip their earlier work and, by renewing themselves in later life, to blur those distinctions into decades which historians cherish. David Perkins candidly admits, “The great figures present problems to which there are no perfect solutions.” Mr. Perkins, a professor at Harvard and the author of two books on the romantic period, has shouldered his new burden with daring and carried it with poise. He tries to give both the sense of poetry as an ongoing enterprise of many people responding to temporal pressures, and the sense of major figures working out self-imposed problems as well as those conferred by the “Body of Fate.”
Take the tension between English and American verse, to begin with. At moments they are alike, though never superposable, and at other moments quite unlike, in spite of the fact that, as Mr. Perkins remarks, they are always the principal influence upon each other. Mr. Perkins could have begun his history with the American incursion into England in 1908 of Pound and in 1914 of Eliot. These two writers cut against the grain of verse, and might be said to have reshaped both poetries, English and American. But to have begun so, with the Assyrians sweeping down, would have left indistinct the situation in which Pound and Eliot were nurtured. Or Mr. Perkins might have begun in 1900, when as Hardy said “the [nineteenth-] century’s corpse” was “outleant,” but this would have been to ignore the very real differences between English and American verse during the last decade of the nineteenth century.
Mr. Perkins has wisely chosen, then, to begin in 1890. The Nineties in England took place almost entirely in London, where all the poets clustered, instead of being spread around the country, as in the United States. The London poets formed a coterie that called themselves variously decadents, aesthetes, artists; they didn’t merely write poetry, they were poets. In this character they defied the earlier Victorians who thought poetry should be imbued with moral purpose and have lots to say about nature and human life. Mr. Perkins demonstrates that many of the tendencies which became current in later verse, such as objectivity rather than subjectivity, moods rather than comments, symbolism rather than discursiveness, and in general showing rather than telling, were given a strong impulsion during the Nineties.
But in the United States no such reaction to established verse took place at that time. The main innovations were in …