In Fiery Letters

Mark Ford

  • Reading F.T. Prince by Will May
    Liverpool, 256 pp, £75.00, December 2016, ISBN 978 1 78138 333 9

Although during his lifetime F.T. Prince (1912-2003) acquired a number of illustrious admirers – including those poetic polar opposites, Geoffrey Hill and John Ashbery – his poetry is still not widely known. ‘Soldiers Bathing’, it’s true, is likely to feature in any anthology or critical account of the poetry of the Second World War, and assiduous scholars of both Hill and Ashbery have explored Prince’s possible influences on their early work. And yet, despite the eloquent advocacy of these two recently departed giants, his work remains a specialised taste. A YouTube video of him reciting his most famous poem has had just 585 hits; only 107 people have heard his reading of ‘Strambotti’.

Prince’s publishing career began early, and in the brightest manner possible. Eliot accepted a number of his early poems for publication in the Criterion, and Prince was only 26 when Faber issued his first collection (austerely entitled Poems) in 1938. Alas, Eliot turned down his second volume, Soldiers Bathing, feeling Prince’s poetry of the 1940s was ‘straining after something too grandiose’ – a verdict echoed in later judgments of much of the poetry written in Britain in that decade. Soldiers Bathing was eventually published in 1954 by the Fortune Press, edited by the dubious R.A. Caton, who was perhaps deceived by its title into thinking it might align with the gay erotica his press also issued.

Prince, by all accounts, didn’t protest much about his reputation’s slide. While a sense of being antagonistic to contemporary poetic orthodoxies fuelled, in different ways, the poetics of both Ashbery and Hill, Prince was content to work on in private, never, in Auden’s phrase, ‘greening/for the big money, never neighing after/a public image’. ‘Our work,’ Hill wrote to Prince in 1970, ‘already has a relationship in being set apart from most poetry that holds the place of worldly power in our age.’ It’s possible that Prince felt cheered by this imagined kinship in opposition to the mainstream, but there is very little that is directly adversarial in his poetry. Indeed one of its most original features is the feeling it communicates of being written in a spirit of indifference to poetic fashion, even, it can seem at times, in a peculiar sort of void.

As the essays gathered in Reading F.T. Prince make clear, the obliquities, the impersonations, the elaborate arcs and sophisticated angles deployed in Prince’s poetry refract a general unease about how to situate and identify himself. No doubt this unease had its origins in his childhood in South Africa. The only son of a Jewish diamond merchant (né Prinz) from the East End of London and of a Scottish Presbyterian teacher, he was born and raised in Kimberley – the native town, incidentally, of another of South Africa’s finest 20th-century writers, the novelist Dan Jacobson. Prince’s delicate health and precocious interest in French Symbolist poetry, in particular the work of Mallarmé, Verlaine and Valéry, set him apart from his fellow pupils at Kimberley’s Christian Brothers College. In his late teens a chance conversation with the philosopher J.N. Findlay, whom he met on a cruise ship, inspired him to abandon the architecture course on which he had embarked at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, and to apply to study English at Balliol College, Oxford.

This decisive shift of interest is subliminally traced in what ended up as the opening piece of Prince’s Collected, the early ‘An Epistle to a Patron’, a struggling architect’s bravura appeal for a commission, addressed to some Medici-style Renaissance potentate. It is one of Prince’s most brilliantly original and effective poems, its elaborate formulations and flatteries hinting at the speaker’s neediness and uncertainties while also unleashing his soaring architectural fantasies. It is also, I think, a poem that makes a different kind of sense when viewed from a postcolonial angle, as a dramatisation of power relations between an empire’s margins and its centre. For all his eloquence and self-consciousness, Prince’s would-be Leonardo da Vinci can’t help letting slip that he views his supposed patron as a ‘tyrant’. Nor can he obscure the fact that he is lamenting, in the most sophisticated terms, the humiliating paradoxes of his status as a gifted but impotent suppliant for favour – ‘broken/By wealth and poverty, torn between strength and weakness’. The more fulsome his praise and the more convoluted his metaphors, the more bitterly the speaker is protesting his condition of dependence.

But the poem also mines empire’s inverse logic: its rhetoric insistently suggests that a symbiotic unity exists between the ingenious, desperate architect and the indifferent but dominant patron. ‘I wish for liberty, let me then be tied,’ the speaker urges, ‘constrained by your emblems of birth and triumph.’

            I will record
In peculiar scrolls your alien alliances,
Fit an apartment for your eastern hostage, extol in basalt
Your father, praise with white festoons the goddess your lady;
And for your death which will be mine prepare
An encasement as if of solid blood.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in