Yoked together

Frank Kermode

  • History: The Home Movie by Craig Raine
    Penguin, 335 pp, £9.99, September 1994, ISBN 0 14 024240 6

‘There is hardly a stanza in the long poem which is not vivid, hardly one which is not more or less odd, and the reader feels ... as if he had been riding on the rims over an endless timber bridge.’ As I read Craig Raine’s new poem (a novel, an epic, a film, says the ebullient blurb) something stirred in the depths of memory, and I found myself thinking of Theophila, a very long poem published by Edward Benlowes in 1652. Theophila is written in three-line stanzas, a pentameter, a tetrameter and an alexandrine, all on a single rhyme. The judgment on Theophila quoted above comes from The Oxford History of English Literature, which rightly regards Benlowes as representing the giddy limit in 17th-century attempts to write ‘heroic’ poetry in the high metaphysical manner. And this must surely seem an unpromising way to tackle extended argument or narrative. Benlowes was a devotee of the far-fetched conceit, in the by now degenerate tradition of Donne, perhaps with some input from the smoother baroque concettismo of Marino and his followers. (On the evidence of some of his delightful earlier poems I had privately awarded Craig Raine an honorary position in the company of the marinisti.) Marino produced narrative in this style, but in more fluent stanzas, and without proceeding to the metaphorical extremes of the English. Though often eloquent, Benlowes is neither fluent nor moderate, and clearly it formed no part of his plan to make it easy for his readers to know exactly what he was on about.

Later poets with stories to tell normally preferred to use pentameter couplets or blank verse, which allowed the narrative or the argument to be followed with less effort, and did not encourage wild flights of baroque wit. Milton, a contemporary of Benlowes and an admirer of Spenser, not only freed his narrative of ‘the modern bondage of rhyming’, but after a youthful fling more or less gave up conceited poetry. It would not do for real epic.

However, if you hold that lucidity and what the philosopher W.B. Gallie called ‘followability’ aren’t everything, that they may be sacrificed in a good cause, then admirable precedents are not wanting. Conceits can be combined with stories at acceptable cost to the stories. A narrative line can be more or less sustained through complex verse-forms and under repeated pressure from centrifugal interests. Think of The Faerie Queene, with its awkward nine-line stanza and its heavy concluding alexandrine: in this unlikely form Spenser undertook a huge narrative poem combining a great many stories, only more or less germane to one another and required to bear a considerable weight of philosophical and historical allegory. How well he succeeded is a point that has always been disputed. ‘Every stanza,’ wrote Spenser’s 18th-century editor John Hughes, ‘made as it were a distinct paragraph, grows tiresome by continual repetition and frequently breaks the sense, when it ought to be carried on without interruption.’ Others contrast Spenser’s heavy pace and patches of opacity with the more athletic movement of Ariosto. C.S. Lewis, on the other hand, thought the whole poem moved along pretty briskly. Other critics, without necessarily denying either view, waste their lives, though they may also secure tenure, in trying to explain just what is really going on in Spenser’s poem.

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