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In 1973 novelist and poet Wain was elected to the five-year-term of Professor of Poetry at Oxford, during which he delivered fifteen lectures; nine are assembled here. The tone is both relaxed and crotchety. A zealot for metrics, Wain shoves half of modernist poetry off the shelf with: ""Form, which used to hold the precious liquor of a poem as a jug holds milk, is broken for no other purpose than to allow the milk to spill on the ground."" Yet, surveying William Empson's ""difficult"" poetry, Wain concedes that ""A poem conveys a great deal just by how it walks on to the stage, and it is possible to fall in love with a poem, as with an actress, just by seeing it move."" Philip Larkin is Wain's idea of the exemplary contemporary poet, feeling as he does that ""art has always sought to contain chaos and failure in a tensile web of the ordered and achieved."" So even Auden makes Wain a little nervous: Auden's leaps and his irony and revisions. But especially where Wain wears his novelist's hat, the essays have a piquant aspect. An affectionate discussion of Edward Thomas, the Georgian poet, reads like a short story. And perhaps best--and least likely--of all is Wain's warm appreciation of Milton's early masque, Comus, in which Milton's youthful connection with a scandal-tainted noble family was deepened, Wain notes, into a ""purifying ritual""--artifice as kindness. All in all, Oxford must have been pleased with Wain; if they were interested in civilization, conservatism, and miscellany, he provided it.

Pub Date: May 1st, 1978
Publisher: Viking