Raphaël Ingelbien

Misreading England: Poetry and Nationhood since the Second World War

Raphaël Ingelbien, Misreading England: Poetry and Nationhood since the Second World War. Costerus 142. Editions Rodopi B.V.: Amsterdam & New York, NY, 2002. Pp. ix + 252. US$55. ISBN: 90-420-1123-8.

Reviewed by Richard Gravil (online, April 2004)

This book is haunted by a clamorous absence, whose name is America. Since the subject is nationalism, and since nationality, Ingelbien rightly says, is necessarily constructed against an Other, this absence is all the more deafening. Ireland, despite some eloquent pleading to that effect (notably in relation to Hughes’s rather Celtic Goddess of Complete Being), simply cannot be made to fulfil the role of primary ‘significant other’ for English poets, as England often can for Heaney.

Partly because the author’s concern is with what he calls metacriticism (i.e. the errors of identity criticism) the focus is on a narrow selection of canonical writers whose work has been widely enough read for consensual errors to arise. So, despite their creation of some highly distinctive Englands of the Mind, there is little or no reference in this book to such diverse voices as Norman Nicholson, Basil Bunting, or Jack Clemo. It is also disappointing to find no reference to another major lyricist, whose somewhat fraught relation to English lyric is remarkably close to that of Heaney, namely Derek Walcott, another emigrant poet, who, living between empires and writing out of a postcolonial situation, with an ability to feel both lost and at home in the English lyric, has himself colonised and commandeered that tradition in as masterful a fashion as Heaney himself. Ingelbien’s ‘English’ poets, therefore, are mostly ‘the usual suspects’: Hughes, Hill and Larkin, but with the problematic addition of T. S. Eliot and Heaney. All of these are markedly transatlantic in perspective, yet Ingelbien barely notices Ted Hughes’s remarkable marriage with America in the form of Sylvia Plath and her mentors (Lowell, the Ammonses, Elizabeth Bishop, Marianne Moore), his collaboration with Leonard Baskin, and the emigration of his early poetic sibling (Thom Gunn). Geoffrey Hill’s fascination with and self-definition vis-à-vis American Modernism and his own emigration to Boston(specifically to the transcendentalist suburb of Brookline) go unmentioned. So does Philip Larkin’s love/hate relation with black American Jazz. In the case of their Irish ephebe, the book is similarly silent about Seamus Heaney’s admiration of Lowell, the politicization of his poetry by residence in California , and his lengthy connection with Harvard . Although the book chooses to start its survey of English patriotism with Four Quartets (and with Hill’s denigration of its Eliot’s version of English history) it does not consider that poem’s rite of passage as a back-migration. And while Shakespeare and the Goddess of Complete Being is examined for its own way of mythologizing Eliot’s ‘dissociation of sensibility’, no mention is made of A Dancer to God—Hughes’s recreation, or misreading, of Eliot as a sort of John the Baptist to himself.

Nor, rather oddly, is the book especially forthcoming on what Englishness might mean. Rather than attempt to define Englishness (other than through analysis of the perceived incoherence of poetic attempts to do so) Ingelbien refers the reader to (while assuming some familiarity with) such identity theorists as John Lucas, Anthony Easthope, Jeremy Paxman, Roger Scruton, Benedict Anderson, David Gervais and Tom Paulin. He is, on the whole, averse to such criticism: ‘The conclusions reached in analyses inspired by postcolonial or cultural models often fail to take account for other determinants, ranging from individual’s biographies to considerations of class and intellectual responses to the welfare state’ (5). The book may not offer much development of the latter point, but it does justify its suspicion of readings of poems, and of poets, based on ‘attitudes towards England that their texts supposedly embody’.

That quiet ‘supposedly’ is amply justified in the book’s exemplary close readings, especially in a brilliantly sustained demonstration of how Larkin’s ‘Here’ erases any sense whatever of hereness or identity or belonging, and its general treatment of Larkin’s perennial outsiderness. Ingelbien steadily and knowingly marginalizes that iconic photograph of Larkin, which shows him sitting (rather less comfortably than one remembers) on a border stone bearing the word ‘England’ and the Cross of St George. Among other feats of illumination, I would cite the comparison of the speaker of Larkin’s ‘Church Going’ to the Eliotic ‘you’ who ‘came [to Little Gidding] by day not knowing what you came for’, but who, unlike Eliot, fails to find the sought-for values, and finally diminishes Eliot’s liturgically ‘significant soil’ into humanly ‘serious earth’ (21-23). For Eliot’s epiphanies of religious patriotism Larkin substitutes almost Mallarméan ‘visions of absence’ (27). Hill’s struggle with Eliot is treated with similar success. Ingelbien acknowledges Hill’s Eliotic wordplay and measures, as in the lines ‘music’s creation of the moveless dance / the decreation to which we all must move’, but refuses to endorse Paulin’s view of Hill’s imagination as ‘parasitic’ on Eliot’s, or John Lucas’s depiction of Hill as ‘feeding cadaverously on a cadaver’. Instead he acknowledges the force of Hill’s critique of Four Quartets, praises the greater solidity of Hill’s invocations of place, and his (amply demonstrated) ‘refusal to idealize English history’ (37), and emphasises how Hill’s poetry dramatizes what the poet calls ‘the inevitable feelings of love and hate which any man and woman must feel for the patria’ (72). Discussion of Hughes begins with that poet’s return to Hopkins, a poet marginalized in Victorian culture, but representing for post-war poets a salutary populism, a return of poetry to its Anglo-Saxon roots, and the language of the ranks ‘rather than the officer class’. The stylistic originality of Hughes’s Moortown, a modified Hopkinsian style which (like Hughes’s notorious thrush) ‘overtakes the instant’ (98) is excellently observed. And the Englands of Hill and Hughes are significantly contrasted in terms of Hughes’s willingness to embrace the Celtic in his vision of Ancient Britishness: ‘Hughes’s Englishness would ideally merge with the Celtic culture of ancient Britain rather than keep it at bay like Hill’s Offa’ (81). (This notion of fusion derives from Matthew Arnold, and Arnold’s Celticism is not only a sub-theme of the book but an extension of Wordsworth; that being so it is strange that Ingelbien does not notice the perversity whereby, in Winter Pollen, Hughes associates Coleridge with folksiness and ancient Britishness and Wordsworth with Latin and imperial Britishness—preferring Coleridge’s agonized repression of ‘the Goddess’ to Wordsworth’s less violent nuptial hymns.)

Hughes, while more continuously exercised by the question of national myth than either Hill or Larkin is found ultimately incoherent, if magnificently incoherent, in this central undertaking. Ironically, his major success in terms of neo-nationalism, if I follow the argument sufficiently well, is to nurture Heaney’s talent, providing some of the essential philological and mythological tools which Heaney deploys far more coherently in an Irish context. As Arnold was to Yeats, so is Hughes to Heaney. To quote a thesis statement: ‘For all their aesthetic and philosophical differences, both Arnold and Hughes regarded Celticism as an antidote to the Protestant rationalism that dominates English culture, and Yeats and Heaney both proceeded to adapt this argument in order to develop their visions of Ireland’ (147).  Crucial to this adaptation is Heaney’s teleological blindness to ‘the more ironic and unstable aspects of Hughes and Hill’ (149). Ingelbien’s discussion of this creative misprision (the method could be described as Bloom minus Freud) is both subtle and multifaceted. To privilege just one facet: ‘Heaney’s primeval Ireland of sensuous vowels and gutturals’, in Wintering Out, while applauded as a nativist project, ‘has largely been wrested from the mythological fumblings of England’s last Romantic’.

Heaney’s initially disconcerting presence in a book about England is effectively justified by Ingelbien’s deconstruction of Heaney’s essay on his English compeers’ ‘Englands of the Mind’. Although properly canonical, for its brilliance of style and its richly generous celebrations of three very different talents, Heaney’s essay, Ingelbien demonstrates, misreads these three poets through Irish eyes, constructing them as (like himself) focused upon a postcolonial agenda, the recovery of lost English nations and shires. ‘The sense of nationhood that Heaney ascribes to his English contemporaries is a copy of his own sense of Irishness’ (197). He is also, as a poet, shown to be much closer to all three, at different stages of his development, than (I think) anyone else has shown. Ingelbien persuasively maps Heaney’s swerve from Hughesian alliterative Old Englishness, via Hill’s philological laminations and sensuous prose poetry, towards the much less obvious siren tones of Larkin’s ‘negative sublime’.  Larkin, though clearly the least influential of the English poets in Heaney’s early books, may well have had the last word in such recent work as ‘Clearances’ with its spaces ‘utterly empty’ and its ‘bright nowhere’. The light of ‘High Windows’ (‘which is nowhere and is endless’) seems to find a sustained reflection in much of Heaney’s poetry since ‘Casualty’ (with its tell-tale desire, as in Larkin’s ‘Here’, to be ‘Somewhere, well out, beyond’). It perhaps inspires Heaney’s reach for a poetry ‘as luminous and transparent as window glass’ (227).

Ingelbien clearly relishes the irony that a critical emphasis upon neo-nationalism has obscured the fact that some of the most powerful determinants of Heaney’s art have been English. He demonstrates that Heaney’s own (mesmeric) misreadings have occluded the conflictedness of the English models he chose. Emphasis upon Anglo-Irish symbiosis may itself occlude, as I said at the start, the greater significance of a more distant ‘Other’, but methodologically it does underline what Symbiosis is about. Readers of this journal might well ask themselves this question: what might be thrown up by pursuing Ingelbien’s illuminating emphasis upon philology into a transatlantic arena?


(c) Symbiosis 2004