West of Midnight. By Paul Engle. Random House. $2.00. Awake! and Other Wartime Poems, By W. R. Rodgers. Harcourt, Brace and Company. $1.50. Eleven Poems on the Same Theme. By Robert Penn Warren. New Directions. $.35.
If to be a war poet one has only to write poetry about war, then both W. R. Rodgers and Paul Engle are war poets, though with a difference. But to have war, or earnest feelings about war, as a subject matter is not enough for good poetry, as one can readily see in Engle’s recent group of poems, “West of Midnight.” It is necessary to understand war, or at least to be able to express it with force, in order to make good poetry of it. Engle has done neither; beneath his bright, hortatory, smoothly versed surfaces there is scarcely more to be found than the truism that democracy must be defended. The “gigantic arrogance of guns,” which he says is “the true sound and temper of our times,” he proposes to meet with “a steady heart,” an idea which will not impress many serious readers of poetry, though it may please Van Wyck Brooks. His poems about Finland in its 1939 war with Russia have already been deprived of force by subsequent events. And yet in some matters of technique Engle is a poet of talent.
Rodgers, on the other hand, has come much more directly to grips with war as an actuality in “Awake! and Other Wartime Poems.” To Mark Van Doren he seems to be “the war poet of this war,” but that appraisal seems, to this reviewer at least, to be overpraise; certainly it does not offer the hope of a really fine poet of this war, since Rodgers for all of his virtues is not of first rank as a poet. Unlike Engle, Rodgers fails more in his technique than in what he has to say about war. Rodgers is first of all a poet of the home front. Looking around him, he sees the effects of the war on the people of England, the changes it has made not only in their lives, but in their attitudes. Some he sees still unaware of the war as a reality, while others are driven by it to express their group instincts by seeking old unities. He feels that the evil which is to some extent innate in all human beings has been drawn out of the individual and made to prevail as a principle, but in the midst of this he is moved by the still continuing cycle of the seasons.
Some of these themes are made to carry a good deal of meaning. They are usually treated with an honest simplicity which is not without its good effect. But in lyrics of this sort Rodgers is dealing with the obliquities of the war, and he is at his best when he takes a more direct hold of it, as he does in several poems. In the piece de resistance of the collection, the title poem, the imagery is on the whole less good, although the poem has in it most of the real poetic drive which is to be found in the whole volume. Rodgers as a poet has several prevailing weaknesses, the greatest of which is a fatal proclivity for imitating Gerard Hopkins who, though a fine poet, is certainly so individual in his effects that when he is imitated by anyone, the result always sounds somewhat as though it were plagiary; and that is the case when Rodgers does so in lines such as,
Seek, suck, sack such, in each socket set tooth,
High over hoarding hurl, and always spill,
Hug the elbowing horde, hard under hill . . .
Robert Penn Warren’s “Eleven Poems on the Same Theme” is not directly of the present war; the poems have to do with an older and still continuing war: the struggle in man’s mind and in his inner self between his knowledge and beliefs and feelings, and their primal antagonist, doubt about ultimate reality. Man believes and acts, but in the end he does not know. The whole structure of life, of knowledge, of experience, has in it that residual flaw that in the end man does not comprehend ultimate reality. This is indeed a negative flaw, but it acts in Warren’s poems with a positive force. It is the theme, never directly expressed as such, upon which the eleven poems are variations. Sometimes it is expressed in terms of the experience of love remembered as good, but with a flaw:
The bright deception of that day! When we so readily could gloze All pages open to expose The truth we never would betray; But darkness on the landscape grew And in our bosoms darkness too; And that was what we took away.
Sometimes it is imaged as the ghost of original sin, “in the crepuscular clatter of always, always, or perhaps.” In intensity it ranges from the speculative doubt of a question,
. . . are we Time who flee so fast, Or stone who stand and thus endure?
to the dramatic terror of Macbeth facing the ghost of Banquo:
But you crack nuts, while the conscience stricken stare Kisses the terror; for you see an empty chair.
In poetic method Warren’s poems demonstrate a fine skill. Here is the work of a mind to which poetic expression is a normal function. In every one of the eleven poems the mind settles contemplatively and naturally into image after image which finely and easily correlates feeling. There is an inescapable impression that Warren has chosen his images from an untold wealth of them, and that he has chosen each one with an exact care to what it will convey. Even when he turns openly to the Donne manner, he uses it with so complete an understanding that the result is not mere imitation; Warren’s talent for the manner begins as far back as Donne’s does—in the attitude towards life of which the manner is a product. It is from such a mind as Warren’s that we may expect the best and most lasting poetry of our own times. In these eleven poems he has written out of his intimate experiences, but if he takes up the war with the same success, we may hope to have some fine war poems yet.