In the race for poetic immortality, a few get to enter the Pantheon. Others seem destined for the library store of history…

Against Oblivion is a fascinating and eye-opening book. Written by Ian Hamilton, a British poet, biographer and critic, it was his final (posthumously published) work, dating from 2002. It consists of a series of potted biographies-cum-short critical appraisals of 45 poets who were active and published in the twentieth century. According to Hamilton’s introduction, the book’s genesis came when he was approached to write a modern version of Samuel Johnson’s Lives of the Poets. Thinking this a decent idea, if a little gimmicky, Hamilton says that he duly went back to Johnson’s book to get some ideas and inspiration. However, of the sixteenth and seventeenth century poets ‘immortalised’ by Johnson,  Hamilton says there were a number he’d never heard of at all, and of those names he recognised there were not many he had read in great depth.

This set Hamilton’s mind off in a different direction, and it seems that he was soon pondering which of the twentieth century poets he had planned to include would still be read in decades and centuries to come.  If Johnson’s book was any indication, it seemed that very few would survive. Hence the approach of  Against Oblivion as it appeared in its final form, which outlines the strengths and weaknesses of the poets put forward. For good measure,  a representative poem or two or three is printed at the end of each section. The resulting book is interesting, provocative and enlightening.  What Hamilton doesn’t do (though it is implied in a few instances) is make himself a complete hostage to fortune by coming out and explicitly saying who he thinks will be for posterity’s chop and who will survive to be read in ages to come. While he gives some hints about who he’d back to survive, the odds for most of them are not probably good since this seems to be just the way these things go.  As he states in the introduction, “it does seem a fair bet than in, say, one hundred years from now, about half of the poets I have chosen […] will have become lost to the general view”.

If you are interested in poetry in whatever capacity, I would highly recommend you take a look through this book if you come across a copy. It’s not perfect, but it is supremely good at getting you thinking, and some of Hamilton’s judgements are very sound indeed. He was a very good writer, capable of a memorable turn of phrase. In the months to come I think I may take a closer look at some of the poets mentioned in the book, and see if I agree with Hamilton in his judgements.

It remains to be seen what role the internet may have in terms of keeping alive the names and works of poets otherwise destined for obscurity and ultimate oblivion. In a sense the internet acts as a place where anything is available at any time. To go back to Samuel Johnson’s lives of the poets for instance, had you read that twenty years ago and come away with a sudden urge to take a look at some of the works of, for example, Thomas Tickell, Mark Akenside or Thomas Sprat, it might not have been easy. Chances are most public libraries would not have the works of these men in store. University libraries would perhaps have been a better bet, but even then there’d have been no guarantee you could have tracked their works down easily. With the internet, however, suddenly almost everything is to hand. It doesn’t mean forgotten poets will be widely read again, but it means that things otherwise forgotten now have far more potential to be recalled at some future point.

Anyway, here’s the list of poets Hamilton includes in Against Oblivion.  For the record, there are 8 poets on it I’ve never heard of. There are 7 I’ve heard of but never read.  There are 12 whose work I’d say I know pretty well (and extremely well in a few cases). The rest I know and have read a few poems by over the years.

(Note: the list does not include Yeats, Hardy, Eliot or Auden. Hamilton does not write about them in his book since he states with some certainty that enough has already been done to establish their names in the canon for posterity. Do you agree?)

Rudyard Kipling

Charlotte Mew

Robert Frost

Edward Thomas

Wallace Stevens

William Carlos Williams

DH Lawrence

Ezra Pound

Hilda Doolittle (HD)

Marianne Moore

Robinson Jeffers

Rupert Brooke

Conrad Aiken

Edna St Vincent Millay

Hugh MacDiarmid

Wilfred Owen

EE Cummings

Robert Graves

Hart Crane

Allen Tate

Stevie Smith

Norman Cameron

William Empson

John Betjeman

Louis MacNiece

Theodore Roethke

Stephen Spender

Elizabeth Bishop

Roy Fuller

RS Thomas

Randall Jarrell

Weldon Kees

Henry Reed

John Berryman

Dylan Thomas

Alun Lewis

Robert Lowell

Keith Douglas

Philip Larkin

Allen Ginsberg

James Merrill

James Wright

Gregory Corso

Ted Hughes

Sylvia Plath


Who do you think will be forgotten in another hundred years? Who do you think will survive? And is there any twentieth century poet not in Hamilton’s list who you think stands an equal chance against oblivion? Feel free to leave a comment.














Robert Graves Part 4: Words of warning.


The bronze head from a statue of the Emperor Claudius, now in the British Museum.

The names of Robert Graves and the first century Emperor Claudius are forever linked, since Graves wrote not one but two well-known major novels based on the Emperor’s life. In general it seems that Graves’s time spent bringing Claudius to life was a happy and profitable period. Biographies of Graves report him as stating that Claudius would always look out for him, and so it seemed, with the novels being bestsellers upon publication in the 30’s, and hitting it big all over again thanks to the BBC TV adaptation in the 70’s.

Nonetheless, I wonder if Graves had Claudius in mind when he wrote the poem below (certainly the line “limp as he limped” always brings Claudius to mind for me). Either way, I’ve blogged elsewhere here and here about some of the different aspects of Graves’s writing. Now here’s another poem which I like to think exemplifies another of his poetic voices, that of the finger-wagging scholar.

Graves lived a long and incredibly accomplished life. Though he succeeded in many things, I’ve little doubt that he considered himself a poet first and foremost. However another very important aspect to his life and career was his accomplishment as a classical and literary scholar. He was notably independent, though. I could not imagine him ever having settled to a life within a University (though he was Professor of literature at Cairo University for a while). He was too freewheeling for that.

Nonetheless, a scholar he was, and what he had in common with many of them was total confidence and a need to put others right when they were in danger of going wrong, and it’s a trait that made its way into his verse. In the poem copied below, note the total matter-of-fact bluntness and complete confidence of the first stanza. Then note the sheer number of imperative verbs running through the stanzas. They don’t really function as orders in this poem, but more as stages in a ritual the poem’s narrator has seen time and time again, as someone gets gradually more and more obsessed with the object of his fascination.

When he’s writing in this mode Graves reminds me a lot of Seneca in his letters. It’s a voice of experience, study and reflection, well suited to drawing our attention to life’s pitfalls. So here, from a man well used to studying the lives of others, is a warning about getting too fascinated.

This being Graves, though, there’s an emotional rawness ever present. Note how the poem gradually builds to a more intense emotional pitch, ending with the final stanza and its image of the dead man taking over the psyche and whole life of the living person who became too fixated. Of course it probably makes most sense to the majority of us when read as a metaphor. The dead haven’t literally come to life, they just have a tendency to play on our minds if we’re not too careful. However, we can’t be too sure that’s all Graves meant, and it’s probably more fun if we suspend our disbelief and admit that there might, just might, be a possibility that more than one unfortunate has been literally ensnared in the way described. In this sense, the last stanza’s final image reminds me of something out of MR James, another learned man whose writing mixed intellectual curiosity with terror.

To Bring the Dead to Life.

To bring the dead to life

Is no great magic

Few are wholly dead:

Blow on a dead man’s embers

And a live flame will start.

Let his forgotten griefs be now,

And now his withered hopes;

Subdue your pen to his handwriting

Until it prove as natural

To sign his name as yours.

Limp as he limped,

Swear by the oaths he swore;

If he wore black, affect the same;

If he had gouty fingers ,

Be yours gouty too.

Assemble tokens intimate of him-

A seal, a cloak, a pen:

Around these elements then build

A home familiar to

The greedy revenant.

So grant him life, but reckon

That the grave which housed him

May not be empty now:

You in his spotted garments

Shall yourself lie wrapped.

Robert Graves Pt. 3: Another reason why he defies simple categorisation.


The Suicide in the Copse

The suicide, far from content,

Stared down at his own shattered skull:

Was this what he meant?


Had not his purpose been

To liberate himself from duns and dolts

By a change of scene?


From somewhere came a roll of laughter:

He had looked so on his wedding-day,

And the day after.


There was nowhere at all to go,

And no diversion now but to pursue

What literature the winds might blow


Into the copse where his body lay:

A year-old sheet of sporting news,

A crumpled schoolboy essay.


[Poem ends, blogger’s rant begins].


To the Editor. Dear Sir, In a recent review your publication had the sheer brass neck to categorise me as just a…

So only the other night  I blogged in anger about an Economist review of the new Graves selected poems that tried to pigeon hole the writer as ‘just another’ war poet. Since then I’ve read another more positive review, but still rather tangled, in The Independent. Here the writer acknowledges that “Graves’s range is wide”. However, there is still some pigeon-holing evident because the critic asserts that Graves essentially “espoused a single subject”.

What was this subject? Here I have no option but to let the critic have his say.

“For Graves the imagination was not a framer of secondary worlds but an inhabitant of an underlying reality where a fundamental narrative, “one story and one story only”, was always in progress: the poet’s enchantment in the service of the White Goddess, in the worldly form of a Muse.”

What the critic does here is to take Graves’s own lead in asserting that “all true poetry” is in its way a representation of the poet’s relationship with The White Goddess, or of some aspect of her story. To explain exactly who the Goddess was, and what Graves’s Muse-based poetic system consisted of, is the subject of another blog to follow in due course.

In the meantime it’s worth pointing out that Graves’s Goddess system, expounded in book form in 1948 (The White Goddess) had been some years in the making. But once set down in print it gradually came to inform the bulk of his verse. Hence his later poetic phase where love is perhaps the dominant theme, and his working method whereby he felt he could only really write true poetry if he was in thrall to a real muse (i.e. an attractive, much younger woman, assumed to be the living invocation of the Goddess at a given point in time).

From my point of view, if you really want to add an extra level to your understanding Graves’s verse, you really need to have a basic knowledge of what the Goddess mythos consisted of. It’s worth mentioning, however, that even after he’d developed his Goddess mythos, his poetry continued to reflect the wide range of his lively and enquiring mind. Though the Goddess took over to some extent, he was by no means as love-struck or muse-fixated as the critic seeks to assert above. (I’ve written before about Graves’s immensely varied output:

As I also wrote the other day ( you can’t blithely state that Graves is a war poet and leave it at that. And neither can you just maintain the critical assumption that he is a muse-driven love poet (even if Graves did more than most to give that impression!).

For me, one of the reasons that Graves remains one of the greats is because he defies simple categorisation. Look through any edition of his verse and you will find gems like the one I chose at random above (it was written in the late ’30’s). Have a look at it again and, if you’ve time, have a think about what the poem means to you. The Great War and the Goddess might somehow be factored into some people’s reading of the poem at some stage. No doubt, though,  this will occur far later than a host of other themes will have become apparent.