Puck’s Dream

Mark Ford

  • Selected Poems 1990 by D.J. Enright
    Oxford, 176 pp, £6.95, March 1990, ISBN 0 19 282625 5
  • Life by Other Means: Essays on D.J. Enright edited by Jacqueline Simms
    Oxford, 208 pp, £25.00, March 1990, ISBN 0 19 212989 9
  • Vanishing Lung Syndrome by Miroslav Holub, translated by David Young and Dana Habova
    Faber, 68 pp, £10.99, April 1990, ISBN 0 571 14378 4
  • The Dimension of the Present Moment, and Other Essays by Miroslav Holub, edited by David Young
    Faber, 146 pp, £4.99, April 1990, ISBN 0 571 14338 5
  • Poems Before and After: Collected English Translations by Miroslav Holub, translated by Ewald Osers and George Theiner
    Bloodaxe, 272 pp, £16.00, April 1990, ISBN 1 85224 121 7
  • My Country: Collected Poems by Alistair Elliot
    Carcanet, 175 pp, £18.95, November 1989, ISBN 0 85635 846 0
  • 1953: A Version of Racine’s ‘Andromaque’ by Craig Raine
    Faber, 89 pp, £4.99, March 1990, ISBN 0 571 14312 1
  • Andromache by Jean Racine, translated by Douglas Dunn
    Faber, 81 pp, £4.99, March 1990, ISBN 0 571 14249 4

D.J. Enright recently celebrated his 70th birthday. In commemoration, Oxford University Press have prepared a rather lean Selected Poems, and a volume of personal reminiscences and critical essays about Enright’s life and work by a variety of writers. This festschrift’s title, Life by Other Means, derives from an Enright poem called ‘Poetical Justice’ which muses rather more ambiguously on the relations between art and life than the stirring phrase might suggest in isolation.

Dr Johnson, one of Enright’s touchstones, records how he was so shocked by Cordelia’s death in King Lear that he could never bear to reread the play’s last scenes until forced to as a Shakespeare editor. In ‘Poetical Justice’ Enright’s speaker presents himself as similarly disturbed by tragedy’s unfairness:

It will be many years before I read again
Of the death of Cordelia,
Or indeed (though he deserves cuffing)
Of the Macduff boy’s stabbing.

‘Poetical Justice’ is a dry, witty exploration of one of Enright’s most characteristic dilemmas: art’s responsibility to life. In his discussion of King Lear Johnson admits that the sufferings of the good in the play at the hands of the evil constitute an accurate ‘representation of the common events of human life’, but goes on to argue that art should present a more idealistic vision of experience. He writes: ‘since all reasonable beings naturally love justice, I cannot easily be persuaded that the observation of justice makes a play worse.’ The speaker of Enright’s poem readily agrees with this – indeed he is even more distressed than Johnson at the idea of a literature committed to a realistic imitation of the injustice and illogic of life:

That such things happen in life is no cause
For them to happen in literature.
If it is true that ‘all reasonable beings
Naturally love justice,’
Then where shall they hope to find it?

I prefer to hear of such unlikely events
As Hermione surviving in private, or
Isabella furnished with a ducal husband.
(Some have tried, too late, to save Cordelia.)

But surely the choice of Isabella from Measure for Measure as an example of unlikely happiness rather undermines our confidence in the speaker’s literary judgment. At the play’s end she is notoriously silent, neither accepting nor rejecting the Duke’s proposal, coerced into a happy ending that is at odds with the comedy’s unsolved problems. Enright is illustrating the fine gradations between artistic conclusions that magically resolve a work’s issues, those that are imposed by an ironic use of convention, and those that are mere wish-fulfilment, of which Nahum Tate’s rewriting of King Lear with a happy ending is the most glaring example. Enright’s poem concludes:

In life we barely choose our words even.
Only those we hurt will still recall them.
Art, they say, continues life by other means –
How other are they?

Thus, rather than a celebration of art’s ‘other means’, the poem ends up offering a complex enquiry into art’s powers of equivocation. It’s almost impossible to gauge the poem’s tone with any certainty. How ironic is this wistful harking back to the firm Johnsonian ideals of justice which ‘all reasonable beings’ would accept? Are we meant to condemn or to concur with the speaker’s wish to see Cordelia saved? How can art offer comforting alternatives to life’s miseries without becoming sentimental fantasy? But what is clear at least, amidst this thicket of ironies, is the poem’s success in making us aware of the morally slippery interface between life and art.

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