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 prose. Poets came to verse chiefly by reading anthologies, which made light of distinctions of time, and partly as a result they sought to contribute to a musée imaginaire rather than to express something contemporary. A genteel tradition, with tired diction and predictable subjects, showed little sign of yielding until the foundation of Poetry in Chicago in 1912.
Meanwhile the energies of the Nineties had largely died out in England, and what took over were certain compromises of traditional technique and attitude with slightly less traditional subject matter. What was working under the surface would not become clear until the time of the First World War, although, as Mr. Perkins adroitly reminds us, “the greatest fact of the years 1900 to 1914, if literary history ever permits such generalizations, was that Yeats was changing his style.” Ostensibly he had become less symbolistic than in the Nineties, and he was cultivating a more forthright speech. In these ways he appeared to connect with the other principal poets of the time, Robinson, Frost, and Hardy, who infused old forms with modern unease. His ultimate purposes, which were much larger than theirs, were covered over for the time by local ones.
Mr. Perkins has been unexpectedly skillful and successful in disentangling such threads as these, and in grouping poets to the degree that such grouping is possible. His book is the first encyclopedic study of the subject, but a much more agile study than the term encyclopedic would suggest. In so far as he has rivals, they are the two good books published twenty-five and thirty years ago, by Babette Deutsch (Poetry in Our Time, 1952), and by Horace Gregory and Marya Zaturenska (A History of American Poetry 1900-1940, 1946). The second is confined to American poetry, and the first, by organizing the poets thematically, skirts the chronological problem of marshaling the whole poetical scene from generation to generation.
Since those books were published, the first quarter of the century has taken on more coherence, with the innovators clearly differentiated from the non-innovators, By 1925 there was established the high modernist mode, as Mr. Perkins calls it, which on examination proves, a little disappointingly, to be an array of quite different kinds of poetry, united more by ambition than anything else. On the other hand, the situation of verse from the mid-Twenties to the mid-Seventies, which Mr. Perkins promises to rehearse in a second volume, has become increasingly turbulent and difficult to appraise.
Fortunately, Mr. Perkins has temerity as well as intelligence. This first volume is a long book, 600 pages, all of them readable, and deals in some detail with 130 poets, and also with such attendant phenomena as little magazines, anthologies, and publishers of poetry. It keeps to chronology, but not slavishly; groups which seem to be self-generating, such as the black poets, have to be treated separately and out of sequence. Some poets, as Mr. Perkins allows, fit in nowhere. Because Yeats in many ways was the principal poet from the Nineties to his death, Mr. Perkins deals with him lightly throughout, but saves for the conclusion of this volume a full discussion of his career. Other major poets, such as Eliot and Pound and Stevens, are treated only in relation to their work up to the mid-Twenties, the rest of their careers being saved for the second volume.
While Mr. Perkins is primarily setting down a history, he is also concerned to evaluate. He shows himself to have a good eye and a capacity for apt and precise summary, so that many reputations are given a measure that seems likely to stick. He is not shy of making predictions about future reputations of relatively obscure poets, and occasionally reminds his readers that such a poet as Elizabeth Madox Roberts is unjustly neglected. In addition, Mr. Perkins is a good analyst of texts, and his interpretations of such poems as Hardy’s “The Convergence of the Twain,” Frost’s “Design,” or even Eliot’s The Waste Land, are fresh and convincing.
When so much is offered, it’s captious to ask for more. But Mr. Perkins is concerned with a period of great innovation, in which the term modernism is almost as pregnant as the term romanticism. Although he mentions innovations in detail, he has a difficulty, understandably, in establishing a philosophical structure for his study. The lack of one occasionally makes itself felt, as when (on page 300) he attributes the widening of poetic subject matter to purely literary causes, and dismisses the general alterations of human life as much less important than poetic conventions. This might be a useful corrective, but elsewhere (as on page 555) he acknowledges that certain changes were in the air, and not attributable to purely literary causes. The theory seems to change. Dealing with so much, moreover, he must skimp the interrelations of poetry in English with that in neighboring languages, and the effect is a little airless.
Of course, if Mr. Perkins had offered a theory of modernism, a study in depth of its ideology, and a comparative treatment of poetry in other languages, we should not have the excellent book that he has produced. Without considerable self-limitation, the project could not be done at all. We must be grateful to him for this strong first volume of a two-volume study that, when completed, will be the only one of its kind, and should prove itself indispensable.
February 3, 1977