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Twentieth-Century British and Irish Poetry

Hardy to Mahon


Edited by Michael O’Neill & Madeleine Callaghan


Blackwell Guides to Criticism

Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011

Hardcover. x + 301 p. ISBN 978-0631215097. £65.00


Reviewed by Helen Goethals

Université de Toulouse



The first qualification for judging any piece of workmanship from a corkscrew to a cathedral is to know what it is – what it was intended to do and how it is meant to be used. After that has been discovered the temperance reformer may decide the corkscrew was made for a bad purpose, and the communist may think the same about the cathedral. But such questions come later. The first thing is to understand the object before you: as long as you think the corkscrew was meant for opening tins or the cathedral for entertaining tourists you can say nothing to the purpose about them. – C.S. Lewis, A Preface to Paradise Lost, 1942.

The object before me is a book entitled Twentieth-Century British and Irish Poetry, and what it is meant to be is clear from the outset. Generally speaking, it conforms to the aim of the Blackwell Guides to Criticism series as a whole, in that it “offers students privileged access to and careful guidance through those writings that have most conditioned the historic current of discussion and debate as it now informs contemporary scholarship”. More particularly, this ninth and latest volume in the series, has been written and arranged so as “to provide a critical guide to thinking about and responding to a selection of British and Irish poets from Thomas Hardy to Derek Mahon, covering a period that runs, roughly, from 1900 to 1980” [1].

The book is edited by Michael O’Neill of Durham University, who is also general editor of the series, and Madeleine Callaghan of Sheffield University, and it must be said that they have admirably carried out their self-imposed tasks. They have selected twenty-five modern British and Irish poets and arranged them into eight chapters, in groups of sometimes two (Keith Douglas and Dylan Thomas), sometimes three (Thomas Hardy, Edward Thomas and Wilfred Owen) or more (Philip Larkin and the Movement). As the editors are well aware, much of the authority of the volume rests on our agreeing with their choice of 25 representative poets. Not only is their choice amply justified, but those not chosen are not completely excluded from further discussion. Indeed, they are actually named:

There are many important poets whom we have been unable to accommodate or whom we mention only briefly: Charlotte Mew, A.E. Housman, Rudyard Kipling, Robert Graves, Edwin Muir, C. Day Lewis, R.S. Thomas and David Jones are some of the names that come to mind, all poets who deservedly have their champions.

References to these poets, especially Pound, may be found in many of the critical extracts (hence the helpfulness of an index), and interested students may take up the suggestions contained in the general sections of the annotated bibliography.

The focal points of each chapter are the extracts from the works of a variety of critics. These extracts, as the editors argue in the commentaries preceding them, were chosen because they present a key critical perspective on the poets concerned. The internal organisation of each chapter is perhaps best explained by example. In Chapter 2, aspects of the work of Yeats, Eliot and Lawrence are grouped under the general theme of “Forms of Modernism: Things Fall Apart”. The chapter is organised in three parts: a 6-page introduction to some salient themes in the critical reception of W.B. Yeats, followed by a 7-page extract from Helen Vendler’s Our Secret Discipline: Yeats and Lyric Form (2007); a 5-page introduction to T.S. Eliot followed by a 6-page extract from Calvin Bedient’s He Do the Police in Different Voices (1986); a 4-page introduction to D.H. Lawrence, followed by a 4-page extract from an article by Tom Paulin, “Hibiscus and Salvia Flowers”: The Puritan Imagination” (1989).

The French teacher of modern English poetry, more used to working within a choice of critical school and employing an inductive method, might find this medley of approaches a trifle disorderly, but it has the advantage of offering a variety of critical viewpoints within a small compass. The idea, one supposes, is that one student’s poison will be another student’s meat. Whether students find themselves sharing, for example, John Bayley’s interest in the vocal nature of Dylan Thomas’s poems [144-147] or M.L. Rosenthal and Sally Gall’s curiosity about the poetic sequence [218-229] they are equally at liberty to test the effectiveness of their preferred approach on other poets. The somewhat complicated arrangement is amply justified if one considers the work as a classroom tool, aimed primarily at giving a student audience food for thought. The methodological complication and a certain amount of repetition are by and large redeemed by the clarity of the jargon-free critical style and the very real helpfulness of the paratext. The editors have provided thematic chapter headings, a fully-annotated bibliography and (all too rare these days) a non-mechanical index. Yet, outside the classroom, both the critic and the general reader may miss the intellectual satisfaction of a single, sustained literary argument, a point I shall return to later.

But—in a review there is always a ‘but’—“after that has been discovered”, C.S. Lewis’s larger question needs to be addressed. In the wide world outside the classroom, how valuable are cathedrals, corkscrews or, in this case, critical guides? Why the need, now, for this particular form of critical guide?

With a few notable exceptions, literary criticism itself is largely a twentieth-century phenomenon, one so successful that by the late twentieth century and, as here, well into the twenty-first, it has been felt that poetry-readers required a guide to the guides. This Blackwell Guide to Criticism is only the latest in a long critical line which includes Casebooks, Critical Heritages, Critical Idioms, Reader’s Guides and many more. Whatever the insistence on close reading of the poems themselves, one cannot help but wonder whether the sheer proliferation of signposts may not be at least partly responsible for the general confusion on the paths of Helicon.

For this, in the end, is the point. The care and informed judgment that have gone into this Guide were not intended to be confined to a journey through criticism alone. Indeed, in an ‘Afterword’ the editors speak of “this volume’s journey through twentieth-century poetry”. Ultimately, it is the enjoyment and understanding of modern poetry that is at stake, and the editors’ own essays, together with their choice of critical extracts, are meant to be a cumulative and implicit answer to the question “Why read modern British and Irish poetry at all?”

According to O’Neill and Callaghan, modern poetry is worth reading for the sheer pleasure of listening to poetic dialogues:

We decided to include our poets – Hardy, Owen, Edward Thomas, Yeats, Eliot, Lawrence, Auden, MacNeice, Spender, Larkin and poets associated especially with the Movement (especially Davie, Gunn and Jennings), Douglas, Dylan Thomas, Plath, Hughes, Hill, Smith, Harrison, MacDiarmid, Kinsella, Bunting, Heaney and Mahon – on the grounds that they are all, in our judgement (and that of many other critics), highly significant, that they can be grouped in ways that are suggestive of differing but interlocking emphases and that they bear out our view that twentieth-century British and Irish poetry is characterized by its self-aware commitment to poetic dialogues.

The dialogues, the editors go on to say, are about and between three things: poets’ creative readings and mis-readings of each other; the continuities between modern poetry and Romantic and late-Romantic poetry, and modern poets’ dialogue with History, and their doubts about the poetic vocation.

Since we have been given three not self-evidently related arguments, it is worth paying attention to how, exactly, they are developed. Let us begin with the first two. In themselves, the question of creative influence and that of poetic legacies are critical clichés which deserve a central place in a Guide to Criticism. I would not challenge the validity of the points made, but I would draw attention to the strange ways they are expressed. For the first, we read: “The work of a number of the poets shows a strong sense of the challenges posed by one another.” For the second, we are told that “Throughout, the book sustains and demonstrates the view that modern poetry, to be modern, needs to enter into active dialogue with poetic forbears”. We can understand, and indeed agree with, the general ideas expressed here, but we would also be wise to pay attention to the momentary confusion engendered by “one another” in the first sentence and the incongruity of “poetry”, an abstract noun, entering into dialogue with “poetic forbears”, actual people, in the second. The grammatical slips are important because they are symptomatic of the critical fallacy that, more than any other, is responsible for driving readers away from modern poetry, and that is the idea that poetry functions in an autonomous realm, governed only by its own self-generated laws.

It is the autonomous fallacy that continues to prevent critics from developing the third proposition, the very one, in this reader’s experience, most apt to recreate a taste for poetry. Again, let us look more closely at what the editors call “debates about poetry’s relationship with history” [7]. After telling us that “Over and over, poets wrestle with the apparent conflict involved in seeking to serve poetry and the muse of history”, the editors ask “At what point is poetry merely sentimental and ineffectual trifling when confronted with the challenges of world war or mass exterminations?” [7]. The problem is that such a question cannot be answered in the context of a university system within which literary documents are only read as literary artifacts, and never as historical documents in their right.

So: is this particular example of literary criticism worth reading? The answer is a clear ‘yes’ if you are only interested in poetic dialogues. It is an equally clear ‘no’ if you are equally interested, not in some abstract relation between Poetry and History, but in what poets can in fact say and do about the historical times in which they live.


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