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.

Whether or not such buildings and monuments end up being commissioned and built, the speaker is able to present his identity and art as inextricably intertwined with the family life and imperial conquests of the aristocrat he entreats so magnificently – even to the extent of figuring them as united in death. The ‘encasement as if of solid blood’ that he envisages must refer to his planned use of a reddish marble for his supposed patron’s tomb, but clearly a note of vindictive triumph determines his choice of simile. The resentment that breaks cover here is also, however, an element in the bond that connects petitioner and petitioned. Beneath the Browning-style disquisition on aesthetics, in its own elite terms the poem is exploring with penetration and subtlety what Gramsci had recently characterised as the dilemma of the subaltern.

Prince reflected directly on his years as an undergraduate at Balliol in the early 1930s in the autobiographical poem Memoirs in Oxford (1968). Here he describes the gap between himself and the other students as a ‘nameless difference like a weight’:

The others were a race of gods!
    Over the gap of our disjunction
I scanned their features, mouth and eyes,
Wondering if there could lie the prize;
    But had no foothold, root or function.

Despite the diffidence and shyness so frequently recalled in this poetic memoir, at Oxford Prince got to know Spender, who was not only encouraging about his poetry but urged him to send samples to Auden and Eliot. Auden, in a letter of March 1933, reported himself impressed, while also wondering – rather as the patron might on being confronted with the high-flown epistle addressed to him – if Prince didn’t take himself rather ‘too seriously’.

Prince’s poetry of the 1930s is almost never directly topical in the manner of the English 1930s poets such as Auden and Spender and MacNeice, though if you pry beneath the surface you can excavate possible references to contemporary history and culture. Hill, in an essay of 2002, argued that ‘An Epistle to a Patron’ should be considered in the context of the political situation of 1930s Germany, with the architect modelling the relationship of ‘Hans Pfitzner or Richard Strauss, or Furtwängler, or Paul Hindemith to a patron resembling Goebbels’. He suggests that Prince’s early poetic experiments were ‘influenced by the styles of political, economic and literary criticism as these were presented – or, as some would say, paraded – in the pages of the Criterion’ – where ‘An Epistle to a Patron’ was published (in a somewhat different form, and with a Poundian note on its 15th-century Italian sources) in January 1936. Hill doesn’t offer examples of Prince’s borrowings from the Criterion, but viewed from this angle the Pope of Russell Square himself comes to resemble the all-powerful patron whom the aspirant artist is skilfully wooing by ingesting and recasting his doctrines and preferred idioms.

Memoirs in Oxford is also frank – too frank for Hill, who complains that the poem is ‘ridden by the hag Sincerity’ – about Prince’s state of Prufrockian wretchedness and indecision during his undergraduate years:

So old, so battered, so forlorn
    I might have seemed at twenty-one
A breathing body yet unborn,
Or blown, and withering on the thorn –
    Ten poor enigmas tied in one.

It’s difficult to discuss Prince’s work without broaching the most contentious of these enigmas: like Eliot, in his twenties Prince appears to have been deeply confused about his sexuality, and at least part of his appeal to the teenage Ashbery, who read the New Directions edition of Poems not long after it was published in the US in 1941, was the combination of modernist obliquity and homoerotic undertones. ‘To a Man on His Horse’ and ‘The Tears of a Muse in America’ (whose original title, ‘A Muse for William Maynard’, signals its origins in a relationship with an American presumably met during his spell as a graduate student at Princeton in 1935) were possibly the poems that led Ashbery to assume Prince was gay. This assumption was strengthened when a mutual friend, the American film critic Richard Roud, firmly assured Ashbery of the fact – though by the time Ashbery and Prince eventually met, in 1956, after an extensive correspondence discussed in fascinating detail here by Oli Hazzard, Prince had been married for 13 years.

As a number of contributors to Reading F.T. Prince point out, the sensuous aspects of his poetry are almost invariably in response to male beauty, whether the speaker is Michelangelo in old age rhapsodising over the young Roman nobleman Tommaso de Cavalieri (‘And never have I burned and frozen/More than I have for you,/Messer Tommaso’), or the Sybil recalling her affair with Apollo (‘The shadowy body, the bare breast,/And dusk like nakedness and dew like darkness’), or the poet admiring the young model posing for Cupid in Caravaggio’s Amor Vincit Omnia:

            an impish boy,
Smooth-bodied and bare-faced
Smiles with naked, shameless, joy:
Softly provocative, and graced
With two great dark-grey eagle’s wings,
Their satiny surface stiff, one plume
Caught by the light tip on one thigh,
That’s warm and supple, like the whole
Of that young body’s living bole:
Dusky hair lies on his brow
In tangles

These lines are from the opening section of Memoirs of Caravaggio, a 13-part poem composed in 1955-56, the manuscript of which was found among Prince’s papers after his death. In his excellent introduction to the poem, published for the first time in 2015 by the Perdika Press, Peter Robinson suggests that to issue such a piece in the homophobic 1950s might well have proved ‘controversial’.

The homoerotic charge Ashbery detected in Prince’s early poems is often what makes their Yeatsian rhetoric suddenly catch fire, driving the poem beyond abstractions to specifically depicted scenes. In ‘To a Man on His Horse’ he pays elegant tribute to a friend out riding on a frosty morning, and then imagines running his hands down the flanks of his Arab stallion:

I have wished to become his groom,
And so his smouldering body comb
In a simple and indecorous sweetness.

The poem so fuses man and horse that it’s not entirely clear at first whose smouldering body he wishes to comb – and why, if it’s the stallion’s, he should describe this grooming as ‘indecorous’. It seems likely to me that this poem was inspired by the same relationship as the one behind ‘The Tears of a Muse in America’, which ends with a similarly Lawrentian scene of pastoral male bonding:

Since I have seen him clear,
Whether he fondle a golden mare
Which he has ridden through wet woods,
Or in the sunlight by the water
Stand silent as a tree, this verse no longer weeps.

The androgynous beauty of the poem’s addressee, who is initially pictured as a Wildean decadent (‘Give him a pale skin, a long hand,/A grey eye with deep eyelids, with deep lids’) and whose head is compared to that of Veronese’s equerry, is echoed in Prince’s late portrait of Rupert Brooke, which lingers over the soldier-poet’s ‘bare-throated profile with the tumbled bright young hair’, and decides that he is ‘beautiful/As with a woman’s beauty, and yet masculine’. It’s a beauty that is consecrated and preserved by death, which is figured by Prince as a triumph, since it prevents Brooke from having ‘to grow old, eat dirt, and be satisfied’.

A narrative concerning the purification of male flesh also runs through Prince’s best-known poem (‘I have written other poems, you know,’ he once commented tartly in an interview), which was written in 1942, probably at Scarborough. ‘Soldiers Bathing’ develops an intriguing analogy between each soldier’s recovery of his unselfconscious freedom once he has ‘stripped bare’ and is running about naked or swimming in the sea, and the narrator’s attempts to recover a sense of wholeness by interpreting the violence tearing Europe apart in relation to the tenets of Catholicism, to which Prince had converted around five years earlier. As so often happens in Gerard Manley Hopkins – whose ‘Epithalamion’ perhaps lurks in the hinterland of this poem – the religious meaning and the sensual details presented come to feel part of a complex balanced equation: the earnest efforts made to explain the war in relation to God’s great love for humanity serve to underwrite the poet’s imaginative participation in the soldiers’ frolics on the beach. The militarised male body throws off its ‘bestial strength/And bestial decay’ and grows ‘fragile and luminous’:

Stands in the soft air, tasting after toil
The sweetness of his nakedness: letting the sea-waves coil
Their frothy tongues about his feet

The poet’s release into a similar kind of ‘strange delight’ seems to derive from his articulation of a theology that is able to see evil as necessary; but it is dramatised, in a manner that recalls Hopkins’s ‘Hurrahing in Harvest’, in images that merge the sacramental and the erotic, the physical and the metaphysical:

I feel a strange delight that fills me full,
Strange gratitude, as if evil itself were beautiful,
And kiss the wound in thought, while in the west
I watch a streak of red that might have
issued from Christ’s breast.

The consummation imagined here is tellingly related in David Kennedy’s astute essay on Prince’s ‘Portrayal of National Bodies’ to a notebook entry the poet made in 1950, which details a bored church elder haunted by a ‘dream of naked man, opening his arms, receiving love and death upon his bare breast’.

During the war Prince was employed first in the Intelligence Corps, and then at Bletchley Park, where he worked at breaking Italian codes. On being demobbed in 1946 he took up a position as a lecturer in English at the University of Southampton, where he remained until he retired in 1974. His research interests were concentrated in the Renaissance, although the Clark Lectures he delivered in 1972 also included discussions of Eliot and Yeats. In 1954 he published, as well as Soldiers Bathing, The Italian Element in Milton’s Verse, which stressed the influence of Pietro Bembo, Giovanni Della Casa and Torquato Tasso on the development of Milton’s rhetoric. Aspects of this study, as Hill notes in his essay, open illuminating vistas onto Prince’s own poetry. Of Della Casa, Prince writes: ‘It is learned poetry, so it asks for a somewhat learned response, an awareness of careful modifications of tone and substance.’ Prince is here applying Pound’s concept of logopoiea, or the ‘dance of the intellect among words’, to his reading of the 16th-century Italian poet, but also suggesting a lineage for his own ‘learned poetry’, which – in his reading of literature and history, and in the lives of painters such as Michelangelo and Caravaggio – sought vehicles for the emotions driving him to self-expression.

The Doors of Stone, published by Rupert Hart-Davis in 1963, consists largely of poetic portraits of figures such as Richard Coeur de Lion, the 13th-century leprosy-afflicted French poet Jean Bodel, the fourth-century archbishop of Constantinople Gregory Nazianzen, the Italian Renaissance polymath Tommaso Campanella, and Thomas Wentworth, the first Earl of Strafford, executed by Charles I in 1641. The nature of Prince’s imaginative involvement in the lives and fates of his personae, to borrow another term used by Pound (whom Prince saluted in a late interview as ‘one of my masters’), is best indicated by a notebook entry made on 5 January 1957, a few days after he finished a first draft of Memoirs of Caravaggio. He confesses to feeling ‘disconcerted by the way it has worked out’, then goes on to reflect ruefully: ‘In any case it is a relief to be able to put it away, and turn my capacity for obsession to something else … None of this really alters my present feeling of deadlock and dullness and degradation. I sometimes feel that I have quite simply fallen in the shit.’ It is no coincidence that so many of those who triggered his ‘capacity for obsession’ were imprisoned or executed – or felt, like Keats, the subject of his final literary portrait, that their lives had ended in failure.

In Keats Country was privately printed in 1995 to commemorate the bicentenary of Keats’s birth. Although not nearly as interesting or charged as Memoirs of Caravaggio, it constitutes a fitting end to his career, since Keats was an early and powerful catalyst for Prince. Unshelving his five-volume Buxton Forman edition, acquired when he was 17, he recalls the power of Keats’s ‘viewless wings of poesy’ to ‘with a phantom whirr/Child a new life in us’. The brisk couplets of In Keats Country – a form perhaps chosen in honour of Endymion – aren’t really Keatsian at all, but the passage about Amor Vincit Omnia in Memoirs of Caravaggio, in its sensual detail and erotic evocation of another’s physical being (‘that young body’s living bole’), is a good example of Prince’s own ability to ‘child a new life’ in the reader. In Keats Country also contains a number of 1930s poems that failed to make it into Prince’s first collection, along with the disastrous ‘In Himself the One and the Many’, which reads like a parody of Four Quartets, and was politely but firmly rejected by Eliot in a letter of 1942 on the grounds that it failed to animate its philosophical ideas with either ‘personal experience’ or ‘private passion’.

Will the academic appreciations collected in Reading F.T. Prince and the recent reprints of Memoirs of Caravaggio and In Keats Country by the Perdika Press help transform his critical reputation, as his admirers believe is his due? The contributors to Will May’s volume have had access to Prince’s papers, which became available on the centenary of his birth in 2012, and many of them quote fascinating material culled from this archive. His poetry is approached from all sorts of angles: we get Derek Attridge on his use of syllabics, Gareth Farmer and Michael Molan on the Italian and Miltonic elements in his verse, Natalie Pollard on his responses to sculpture, Adam Piette on his use of the dramatic monologue. Peter Robinson and Todd Swift both provide excellent overviews of his work: Swift has even acquired a draft of the only previous study of Prince’s poetry, by Alka Nigam, which was sent to Prince for comment in the early 1980s, and which he returned with numerous marginal annotations. Always conscious of his own limitations, beside Nigam’s sentence, ‘he has the scholarship of Pound, form and artistry of Eliot, and range, variety and humanity of Yeats,’ he pencilled ‘overstatement – omit’.

Nigam’s admiring monograph was eventually published in 1983, with a foreword by Prince that includes a harrowing account of the difficulties of a life committed to the writing of poetry:

He is on a staircase which rises out of darkness and climbs into another darkness. He stands on a step, which is the manner, the technique and vision of the poetry he has just produced. Out of this step the next step must rise, before he can go further. It has to grow or solidify, and may keep him waiting, meditating, despairing, praying or muttering spells, before it offers itself. Then, as (if he is lucky) he moves up to the new step, the step he has left melts or falls away into the darkness. He cannot go back, and if he has not been able to go on, he must freeze into immobility and silence.

Why not emblazon this in fiery letters above the lintel of every poetry creative writing class in the country?