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A Stretch of Verse

The notable, the quotable, and the forgettable.

A stretch of verse can have quite a high yield of quotable moments but we still might not think of it as being in one piece, as something coherent and ready to be recited or even learned by heart. This rule of thumb can be brutally dismissive, but all too often it meets the facts. Nobody except a prisoner serving a life sentence learns Wordsworth’s “Immortality Ode” by heart. To think of it as the one thing, like any other poem you know and admire for itself, you would have to be sitting an examination. Yet it is well sprinkled with quotations. The distance between them gives us a measure of how long a stretch of verse can go on discouraging quotation without wrecking the poem in which it appears:

The Rainbow comes and goes,
And lovely is the Rose.

Occurring in the poem’s second stanza, the line about the rainbow became famous enough to be raided, in the following century, for the title of a book by Lady Diana Cooper, The Rainbow Comes and Goes. Most people who bought the book would have known that it had a title from a poem, even if they didn’t know that the poem was by Wordsworth. But nothing as catchy shows up in the next stanza or the next. “Now, while the birds thus sing a joyous song” is so banal that it sounds Wordsworthian in the sense we have learned to dread, and “Land and sea/Give themselves up to jollity” is of interest only because he is saying the world is merry while he isn’t. “I hear, I hear, with joy I hear!” The tip-toed ecstasy would be pretty hard to bear if we didn’t suspect that he was preparing us for the revelation of a contrary mood lurking underneath. The mood breaks through with a quotable couplet:

Whither is fled the visionary gleam?
Where is it now, the glory and the dream?

The Visionary Gleam has been borrowed for a book title on occasion, but to no very stunning effect. William Manchester did better with The Glory and the Dream, which he used as the title of his “Narrative History of America.” He would not have lifted the motto if it had not already become proverbial. The moment got into the language and so did several other of the poem’s moments, even if they were only a phrase long. The “Immortality Ode” is the home of the phrase “the vision splendid,” and there is yet more splendor in the couplet that begins to sum up the poem near the end:

Though nothing can bring back the hour
Of splendour in the grass, of glory in the flower.

The key phrase, a truly delicious mouthful, was the title of Elia Kazan’s big film of 1961, Splendor in the Grass; and it was thus, while watching Natalie Wood resisting the perils of sex with Warren Beatty, that I finally got interested in Wordsworth, after several years of being bored by him. In my experience, poetry often gets into the mind through a side entrance. When, as a student, I saw a production of Long Day’s Journey into Night in Sydney in the late fifties, I went home with my head ringing to the cadences not of Eugene O’Neill’s dramatic prose, but of Ernest Dowson’s lyric poetry, which is quoted often throughout the play, but could never be quoted often enough to suit me. “They are not long, the days of wine and roses,” I told my bathroom mirror. Yes, it was Wordsworthian, but every phrase was begging to be said. Dowson liked to keep things short: short and tight.

The “Immortality Ode” is laid out like an essay. It has an argument, which can be paraphrased. But it also has moments that can’t, and as we read we find it hard to resist the conviction that those moments ought to be closer together. We tend to deduce that even a poem that is laid out like an essay is trying to be a short poem. It just might not have the wherewithal. This wish for the thing to be integrated by its intensity seems to be fundamental, although it might be wise to allow for the possibility that it has taken the whole of historic time for the wish to become so clear to us. Reading the Aeneid, you would like the whole thing to have the compact intensity of the Dido sequence. But that idea plainly never occurred to Dante, who worshipped Virgil; and still less could it have occurred to Virgil.

In 1813 Byron, still only twenty-five years old, wrote a letter to his protectress and surrogate mother Lady Melbourne which gives a strong hint of the kind of poet he would be when, in what we call his maturity—he was only in his thirties—he came to write his masterpiece Don Juan. In the letter he quotes a fragment of social verse which includes the couplet

A King who can’t—a Prince of Wales who don’t
Patriots who shan’t—ministers who won’t

And then, straight afterward in the same letter, he tells her that she may read the couplet this way if she likes:

A King who cannot—& a Prince who don’t—
Patriots who would not—ministers who won’t—

If we count syllables we find the second version smoother than the first. The point here is that Byron himself counted the syllables: he filled in the gaps to make the lines more fluently speakable. In that sense, he was a technical perfectionist from the beginning. It’s just sometimes hard to spot because he was so colloquial. In a letter to Henry Drury he mentioned “the floodgates of Colloquy”: fair evidence that he was attuned to the impetus of conversation. His best poetry is good talk based on knowledge, and even his finest poetic phrases are something he might have said. Certainly he might have written them in a letter, or in a journal. In the Alpine Journal of 1816 we find a glacier “like a frozen hurricane.” Armed with this triple ability to observe something, remember it, and turn it to poetic account, he had every right, in a letter to Leigh Hunt, to deplore Wordsworth’s tendency to make things up when he hadn’t seen them.

When he started off as a poet, Seamus Heaney had the inestimable advantage of having been born and raised where hard work was done. The textures and odors of the farm and dairy were in his blood, and they got into his first poetry as a seemingly inexhaustible supply of imagery. Later on, Heaney gave a lot of credit to Patrick Kavanagh as an influence, but it seems likely that he had it by nature, and had it to burn. When he described a spade digging into the peat, you could see it and hear it. In the long day’s work of churning butter, he could see the whole process with a specificity of memory that no literary description could have equaled, except perhaps his. Later on, as he got successful, his work was less impregnated with these memories, and some of us thought that he was running thin. If we were wise, we knew that it was only the difference between gold and beaten gold; and anyway, it wasn’t necessarily true. Occasionally he would put in a moment to remind you that his best poems had always been beyond mere notation. He could still do the grand metaphor. In his poem “Shore Woman” he is out fishing for mackerel at night in a low boat when he and his friend suddenly realize they have company:

            I saw the porpoises’ thick backs
Cartwheeling like the flywheels of the tide,
Soapy and shining.

“Soapy and shining” counts as notation: he could have put it in a notebook, had the circumstances been conducive. But “the flywheels of the tide” are metaphorical in the most transformative and connective sense of the word: they make the sea a giant engine. At such a time we have the right, indeed the obligation, to bring out the word “vision.” These effects are open only to the visionary poet. And once again we have to ask ourselves whether we are wrong to wish them packed tighter together, with all connective matter compressed or excluded. Such an impulse was probably behind the advent of so-called “Martian” poetry, which seemed like a terrific idea at the time: all climax and no build-up. In the seventies and eighties Martian poetry was the dominant poetic tone in Great Britain: exponents such as Craig Raine seemed to see anything as looking like something else. But after Martian poetry became a drug on the market it grew apparent that it might be better to have the narrator rowing out in his little boat to catch the mackerel, before the porpoises dramatically appear.

Keats lived for such a short span—ten years less even than Byron, who, we ought to remember, died tragically young—that it might strike us as absurd when scholars talk of his “development.” But re-reading Keats late in my life, I find more and more that everything that came before the dazzling batch of Odes is a development leading up to them, and everything written after them still leads up to them. Though his first book, Poems, was a flop, there were always people who could tell he was promising: to anyone with a palate, the succulence of his phrasing was unmistakable. Yet even the longer poems that were meant to be masterpieces have a tentative air when put beside the short poems of his magic year 1819. To put it bluntly, we might conceivably study Endymion in order to read the Odes, but we wouldn’t study the Odes in order to read Endymion. The smaller structure is the more integrated. In Endymion there are some seductive lines about a nightingale but they do not add up to the Ode on the same subject:

Thou wast not born for death, immortal Bird!

Barely out of my teens, I said it to the same bathroom mirror that had served me so well when I recited Dowson. “They are not long, the weeping and the laughter.” Suddenly Dowson’s death-knell poem seemed to embody a Keatsian sentiment, one of those fateful premonitions of which the Odes were so brim full, all the more poignant for being packed so tight. In the Odes, if the hero does any languishing, he can do it in a line: in Endymion or The Fall of Hyperion he goes on for a page.

We can’t call this superiority of the short form a law because it isn’t always true, and is sometimes conspicuously false. Important though Dante’s lyric poems are, we study them in order to read the Divine Comedy, not the other way around. But the Divine Comedy is not only larger; when taken as a whole it is at least as compact as any of the minor poems. The Divine Comedy is a poem in epic form. It is said that there is always someone in Italy who can recite the whole thing from memory, but to believe this you have to take it for granted that someone, book in hand, spent many hours sitting with the reciter in order to check up. Nevertheless the urban legend is indicative of a quality. That it can be got by heart is one of the ways we tend to define a poem. When I arrived in London in the early sixties, Keats’s “Ode to a Nightingale,” in a fair copy written in his own hand, was still on display in a glass case in his house. I got it almost by heart—“almost” because it is very tricky to memorize—and can still recognize any phrase from it. It has always been raided for book titles but Scott Fitzgerald picked the plum: Tender is the Night. When my mind plays tricks, it assigns that phrase to the “Ode on Melancholy”: my favorite among the Odes, and indeed among all poems by anybody. And he was just a boy.

Ungaretti said that the touchstone of poetry was the hammered phrase within the singable scheme. Since he himself occasionally produced poems that were barely a phrase long, we might think that he turned an ideal into a fetish: but surely he was right about everybody else. Poets do their best to pick and mount a phrase so that it will generate music, both within itself and within the structure to which it contributes. Our objection to so much Victorian verse, and to what happened next, is that the phrases went clunk. When they rang clean, that particular small stretch of verse was often singled out later on, in the modern age, as an example of how poetry could defy its time. For just that reason, everyone still admired Tennyson. Eliot, to get his admiration within bounds, had to say that Tennyson had no brains.

Tennyson was a notable example of poetry getting into my mind by a side door. My science fiction phase lasted years and started early: I had SF books piled high long before I enrolled as a student at Sydney University. One of my favorites was John Wyndham’s The Kraken Wakes, which quotes Tennyson’s short poem “The Kraken” as an epigraph. “In roaring he shall rise and on the surface die.” I was entranced—it was good, solid, horror-show romanticism, worthy of being recited into the bathroom mirror—and therefore I was very ready to follow up on Tennyson when his Idylls of the King got a mention in first year English. I only just enjoyed it, and one of my teachers told me there was a reason: Tennyson’s lengthy capital work was stretched far beyond its content, and to see how the same material could drive an epic I should read Malory. He was right. He had also set a teaching standard which I have ever since tried to follow: never discourage a student from reading something unless you can encourage them to read something better.

Philip Larkin once said that the influence of Yeats could be all-pervasive, getting into everything like the smell of garlic. Yet although we can recognize Yeats’s influence on Larkin’s monumental stanza forms (judged by the size and capacity of the stanza, “The Whitsun Weddings” is a bigger poem than “All Souls’ Night”) we don’t often recognize the echo of Yeats’s voice. The voice that got into early Larkin wasn’t the voice of Yeats or even of Hardy, the poet he loved best. It was the voice of Auden:

So you have been, despite parental ban
             That would not hear the old demand again;
One who through rain to empty station ran.
                       —From So you have been, despite parental ban

It’s Larkin, but every construction in it is taken from Auden. One way or another, all the poets of the thirties and forties reacted to Auden, either by rejecting him or trying to absorb him. Even Empson, the most original poet of the thirties generation, was driven to parody; but really “Just a Smack at Auden” is an act of homage.

Waiting for the end, boys, waiting for the end.
What is there to be or do?
What’s become of me or you?
Are we kind or are we true?
Sitting two and two, boys, waiting for the end.

Shall I build a tower, boys, knowing it will rend
Crack upon the hour, boys, waiting for the end?
Shall I pluck a flower, boys, shall I save or spend?
All turns sour, boys, waiting for the end.

In Larkin’s generation, the most conspicuous victim of Auden’s tone was Kingsley Amis. The case is especially fascinating because later on, when he had shaken Auden’s influence off, Amis became so distinctive: a voice recognizable after a single stanza. But in his early work a single stanza was likely to be riddled with Audenesque effects:

But love, once broken off, builds a response
In the final turning pause that sees nothing
Is left, and grieves though nothing happened here.

So close to Auden that it sounds as if it might be stolen, “the final turning pause” is one of the many examples in early Amis of fine phrases that tried to cash in on Auden’s knack for a resonant vagueness. Amis, who had a keen ear for a phrase, probably caught himself at it long before he quit, but he kept doing it because everybody else did. Auden’s influence had been so immense that younger poets thought he had changed the weather.

It is always as if Auden has just arrived. He was the hero of the most conspicuous recent example of poetry getting in by a side entrance. The movie Four Weddings and a Funeral, which quotes Auden’s poem “Funeral Blues,” sent a lot of people away in search of more poetry by the same author. Faber made sure that their wish was satisfied. You could say that the film’s popularity created an artificial market, but the poem would not have been in the movie if its writers had not been true Auden fans. Similarly, it was out of love for the poems that the creators of the musical Cats set about converting Eliot’s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats into a stage spectacle. My younger daughter, when I took her to see the show, was as happy as any human being I have ever seen. It was her second time, so she had already learned the words, and sang them silently along with the actors. Faber participated in the profits of the enterprise. Any publisher would like to do the same. It’s comforting to say that poetry never makes any money but the chastening truth is that when it does it makes a mint.

Milton trained himself from early on to clog any passage of his verse with learned references:

Nymphs and Shepherds dance no more
By sandy Ladon’s Lillied banks;
On old Lycaeus or Cyllene hoar.

By the time he reached the great poems, there seemed no stopping the mechanism by which he crammed into them their high quota of learned unreadability. Yet things could have been different. Near the end of Paradise Regained, at the eleventh hour, we find the line:

Aim therefore at no less than all the world.

It is Satan, tempting Christ. Untouched by the italics that denote a classical reference, the line is perfectly speakable, even conversational. Is there anyone among Milton’s most diehard admirers who does not, coming across a line like that, wish that all of Milton was like that? Among poets I know who profess to admire Milton, I have never found even one who did not quote Shakespeare more often. But this is a dangerous theme. When T.S. Eliot professed to have acquired a respect for Milton to replace his earlier aversion, F.R. Leavis accused Eliot of treason. Leavis wanted Milton’s reputation kept down. That was a long time ago, but the air is still smoldering in the corridors of English faculties all over the world. And I suppose Milton emerged unscathed from the battle. Certainly it is powerful evidence of his worth that Harold Bloom once proved to Charlie Rose that he could be given a starting point anywhere in Paradise Lost and go on to recite the rest of it. But was there somebody standing by with a copy of the book?

Dryden had a name for the happy phrase that came unbidden: he called it a hit. “These hits of words a true poet often finds, as I may say, without seeking; but he knows their value when he finds them, and is infinitely pleased.” It is hard to think of Philip Larkin howling for joy except possibly at the sound of a clarinet solo by Pee Wee Russell, but he must have been infinitely pleased when the last lines of “The Whitsun Weddings” occurred to him. That uniquely powerful little stretch of writing is all hits:

There we were aimed. And as we raced across
       Bright knots of rail
Past standing Pullmans, walls of blackened moss
Came close, and it was nearly done, this frail
Travelling coincidence; and what it held
Stood ready to be loosed with all the power
That being changed can give. We slowed again,
And as the tightened brakes took hold, there swelled
A sense of falling, like an arrow-shower
Sent out of sight, somewhere becoming rain.

Of those three linked hits at the very end, the second one, “sent out of sight,” strikes me as the miracle among the miracles, because somehow it gets in the sense of the longbows being lifted and the strings let loose. At the start of the line, the phrase is perfectly placed. It’s a fine example of a phrase finding its poem: the hammered phrase helping to generate the singable scheme.

Being in the right spot can make a phrase powerful even when it might seem frail heard on its own. Consider the placing of Louis MacNeice’s lovely phrase “the falling London rain.” It comes at the very end of his poem “London Rain” and seems to concentrate all the phonetic force of the poem:

My wishes now come homeward,
Their gallopings in vain,
Logic and lust are quiet,
Once more it starts to rain.
Falling asleep I listen
To the falling London rain.

This is the least obvious version of the hit: when ordinary words become extraordinary because they are in the right spot. The most obvious version is when one or more of the words is doing strange work. When Auden saw the proofs of one of his poems he found that the printer had saddled him with “and the ports have names for the sea” when what he had written was “and the poets have names for the sea.” He decided to stick with the misprint because it was less predictable.

But the Auden hits that really stun us happen when a whole phrase gets transformed by its new use:

The earth turns over, our side feels the cold.

By a mental mechanism that can only be guessed at, he saw the connection between the Earth turning and himself turning over in bed. With the second phrase, “our side feels the cold,” guessing becomes entirely inadequate. Does he mean that our side of the bed is a simile for Europe torn by politics? Better for the reader to just enjoy the feeling of disorientation—or rather, of being oriented toward everywhere, a sliding universality. After the war Auden wrote a masterpiece of a lyric that was all hits from start to finish: “The Fall of Rome.” Since there isn’t a line in it that does not demand quotation, the poem is a cinch to learn. But few poems are packed as tight as that with memorable moments. Quite early in Endymion we come across

Now while the silent workings of the dawn
Were busiest.

The cadence is unforgettable, but there is nothing else like it for miles on either side. It’s a hit. One can imagine a critical work of great length which would consist of nothing but hit moments extracted from poems from the beginning of time, with a paragraph attached to each quoted moment speculating on how it came into the poet’s mind. An entertaining book, perhaps, and an enticing introduction to poetry: but as for the critical content, speculation is all that it would be. The truth is that Seamus Heaney had no clue where he got his picture of the porpoises as the flywheels of the tide: it was just something he could always do and the other boys couldn’t.

Looking back through these pages, I catch myself in a posture about the “Ode on Melancholy.” Like any other work of literature, it is my favorite only when I am reading it. One of the characteristics of a work of art is to drive all the other works of art temporarily out of your head. If comparisons come flooding in, it means that the work’s air of authority is a sham. No such fears with the “Ode on Melancholy,” which, at the time I first went mad about it, I could recite from memory—well, almost. In the matter of memorization, length sets severe limits. Hence the absurdity in the final scene of the movie Truffaut made out of Ray Bradbury’s supposedly prophetic dystopian novel Fahrenheit 451. People walk around in the forest reciting Anna Karenina, etc. A nice idea, but wishful thinking, even when applied to poems. In the old Soviet Union, where, for obvious reasons, there was a great emphasis on memorizing contemporary poems, the manuscript still counted. People remembered things only until they could get them safely written down.

More from this issue

This poem originally appeared in the November 2012 issue of Poetry magazine


  • Critic, author, poet, and lyricist Clive James was born in Sydney, Australia, and educated at Sydney University and Cambridge University. James is the author of several collections of poetry, including Opal Sunset: Selected Poems 1958–2008, Angels over Elsinore: Collected Verse 20032008, and the satirical verse epic Peregrine Prykke’s Pilgrimage Through the...

Prose from Poetry Magazine

A Stretch of Verse

The notable, the quotable, and the forgettable.


  • Critic, author, poet, and lyricist Clive James was born in Sydney, Australia, and educated at Sydney University and Cambridge University. James is the author of several collections of poetry, including Opal Sunset: Selected Poems 1958–2008, Angels over Elsinore: Collected Verse 20032008, and the satirical verse epic Peregrine Prykke’s Pilgrimage Through the...

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