F T Prince Centenary Symposium at Southampton University, 20 September, 2012
Hartley Library — University of Southampton
The Special Collections Gallery
The Poetry of F.T. Prince (1912-2003)
3 September 2012 – 28 September 2012 1
Special Collections Gallery Exhibition
The Poetry of F.T. Prince (1912-2003)
F.T. Prince (1912-2003) is one of the most significant poets of the twentieth century. He was one of our first Professors of English, taking up his post in 1957. An important Milton scholar in his day, his poetry was first published by T.S. Eliot in the 1930s, when his work drew plaudits from W.H. Auden and E.M. Forster.
His poetry draws on an impressive array of forms and influences. Through his dramatic monologues, Prince takes on the voice of Chaka, the African king, Thomas Campanella, and Michelangelo, yet his later work explores verse autobiography (Memoirs in Oxford, 1970 and Walks in Rome, 1987). He often draws on his own scholarly interests, reviving Milton‟s strombotti for a collection of poems from The Doors of Stone (1963), but his intellectual passions are wide-ranging, taking in Judaism (Drypoints of the Hasidim, 1975) and poetic afterlives (Afterword on Rupert Brooke, 1976).
The variety and timespan of Prince‟s poetic career means he has resisted a particular school or grouping: two of his poems are included in Skelton‟sPoetry of the Thirties, but he was not part of the Auden generation whose voices defined the decade. Although his poem „Soldiers Bathing‟ was heralded by Spender as the most important work to emerge from the Second World War, he suffered the vicissitudes of post-war poetry publishing, moving from Faber to a number of smaller presses (including Fulcrum, Anvil and Menard) before his Collected Poems were issued by Carcanet in 1993. Yet, paradoxically, his role as a marginal outsider has ensured his appeal to subsequent generations of poets: Geoffrey Hill, John Ashbery and Susan Howe have all cited him as the most significant influence on their work.
This exhibition draws together material from the archive Prince donated to Special Collections after his retirement. The archive was embargoed until earlier this year, and this is the first time these letters, poems, and journals have been made publicly available: taken as a whole, they make a significant contribution to our understanding of twentieth-century poetry, and reveal the important influence Prince had on its development. 2
Prince was born in Kimberley, South Africa, on 13 September 1912. His father, Henry (Harry) Prince, was a diamond merchant from the East End of London and his mother, Margaret Templeton,née Hetherington, a teacher from Scotland. Prince's father was Jewish, his mother Presbyterian. Despite this he was educated at the Catholic Christian Brothers' College in his native Kimberley before attending the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg.
It was at the Catholic College that he would first attempt to write poetry, recalling in a journal entry from 1984 that he „wrote the first quatrains which made up my "first poem" („Strange Castle, bright with turrets tall and fair‟), when Brother Keane one day made us sit down in class and try to write something in verse.‟ In this first poem, with its fantastic vision of a castle recalling Robert Browning‟s „Child Rolande to the Dark Tower Came‟, we also hear the influence of Keats. „On A Picture by Bottecelli‟ is one of three early works included in the College Annual from 1930. The poem, most likely based on Bottecelli‟s „Primavera‟, show an early interest in art. His best-known poem, „Soldiers Bathing‟, was inspired by Michelangelo‟s drawings.
The South African novelist Sara Gertrude Millin recalls he was the „best read boy I had ever met‟; notebooks from the time show he was reading John Keats, Walt Whitman, Baudelaire, and Laurence Sterne.
He would often holiday in Kalk Bay with his mother and brother Jack, and a letter from an 1926 to his father, whom he called Wags, recalls a fun afternoon spent „lover-hunting‟ with his brother, trying to catch canoodling couples unawares in the hotel corridors. While South Africa is the setting for many of his pastoral poems, including „The Swimmers (item 31), it is a country he is glad to give up for England; he is troubled by his mother‟s decision to stay there after the rise of the National Party in the 1940s, and sees in a later visit to Johannesburg only „the squalor, the ugly extravaganza, the disorder‟. In 1930, he leaves South Africa for England, where he takes up a place to read English at Balliol College.
1Photograph of the Prince family in Kimberley (c.1913). This was taken the year after Frank was born.
Prince Archive, 1/11/15.
The photo shows Grandfather Louis Prince seated on the right with Louis Jack Prince, and Grandmother Prince seated on the left with F.T. Prince. Their next-door neighbour was Harry Oppenheimer, the influential South African businessman.
2Photograph of Frank, Jack, and Peggy Prince (c.1919).
Prince Archive, 1/11/13. 3
3 Letter from F.T. Prince to his father, Harry Prince, 3 Jan 1926.
Prince Archive, 6/1.
This was written during a holiday in Kalk Bay. Despite the jokey tone of the letter, Harry was a distant presence in Frank‟s life: his poemMemoirs in Oxford describes him as „stubborn in weakness, dumb in pride‟ (CP 129), and recalls how Frank „rejected him, in an immense / Hard rage and boyish misery‟. Harry was a poor businessmen, and the family house nearly had to be sold in 1932. He died in 1938 of pernicious anaemia, the same year Frank published his first volume of poetry.
I hope that you are enjoying the heat. I hear that you actually did not play golf on Boxing Day. The weather hasn‟t been too good down here, we have had only two days really warm. There are lots of people down here who were here last year, but we have got some queer fish down at the hotel. These are a few portraits: [Plain Jane, Tough Ann, Long Liz]
There is also an old lady with a game leg and earrings that nearly pull her ears off. Her name is Mrs. Lyndon Bell. The bathing has been on the cold side for the last few days.
On New Year‟s Eve there was a dance and Jack and I went „lover-hunting‟ on the back stairs (not the porch). We surprised at least half a dozen couples and spoilt several love affairs. One girl appeared three times with different young men. Mummie says that we will do it once too often and the young men will give us a hiding. We met the Bowers on the Pavilion yesterday. They were supposed to be going to Alex the day before so we were rather surprised. You have a special code of your own when you write because Mummie showed me something like this ~ which is meant to represent „in‟. Well, goodbye, with best wishes for your slumbers from, Frank.
P.S. How does Lucky sleep at night? And how is the tortoise? Tell John that he musn‟t forget to give the canaries fresh water every day because we don‟t want a row of graves awaiting us when we come home
4F.T. Prince, „On a Picture by Botticelli‟, Catholic Christian Brothers' College Annual 1930.
Prince Archive, 5/1.
Two of Prince‟s poems were published in the annual along with a translation of Horace‟s Ode IX. He recalled his time at the college fondly; he converted to Catholicism in 1937, while working at Chatham House, and Christian consolations frame a number of his poems.
5Recommendation letter for F.T. Prince by Sarah Gertrude Millin, 18 Dec 1934.
Prince Archive, 1/5.
This letter was written by Prince‟s former tutor in Johannesburg to support his postgraduate 4
application to Princeton, where he would spend a year of cocktail parties and „continual miserable ferment‟ pursuing a project on Thomas Chatterton .
When I first met Frank Prince he was seventeen, and he was certainly the best read boy I had ever met, and also, I think, one of the best minded. Reading guided him to thought. I believed in him once, and I believe in him still.
He went to Oxford, and was extremely successful there. Now he is considering what to do with his life. Literature is still his first passion, but he is concerned too with human problems and the future of the world – apart from his own future. It would matter more than it generally does for a young man that Frank Prince should have opportunities to develop what there is in him. I don‟t know whether it is a recommendation or not to say he is a poet (a genuine poet) who is, at the moment writing poetry which I, personally, consider too abstruse. I want him to write poetry, but I want him also, with that good brain of his, not to lose himself in a library.
6Transcription of Prince‟s first ever poem, „Strange Castles‟, copied out by his mother. He wrote this aged 15.
Prince Archive, 2/1/4/1.
Strange castles, bright with turrets tall and fair,
Where maidens languished, caught in ogres‟ net.
Hot cavern burning like the Phoenix bier,
With plume smoke and fiery sparks bedight.
Then twisted faery forms in merry mood
And leering faces crumbling with ash,
Grey fading dust where late strange pillars stood,
What lit the darkness with their ruddy flash.
All this I saw, and more, while morning dim
Crept up the night and waked it into day‟s
They passed as pass the busy world‟s loud mimes
Like beauty‟s dream, they could and would not stay.
7Early notebook, begun in December 1926.
Prince Archive, 3/2/1/6.
The notebook intersperses Prince‟s early poems with poems by Shelley, Yeats, Bridges, Shakespeare and Keats. This page shows Prince‟s damning comments on his own poem „Dirge for the Year‟ – „one of the worst plagiarisms I have ever read‟, „painfully bathetic‟, alongside a transcription of Keats‟ I had a dove‟. 5
Prince’s first readers
Encouraged by enthusiastic responses to his poetry from writers including Anglo-African poet Roy Campbell, Prince applied to read English at Oxford. For much of time there, he felt an outsider. He never had enough money to live in college, and a diary entry in 1931 recalls „I am just as bad as ever at making acquaintances‟. His journal often describes people he was too scared to meet, and hid from – including Wittgenstein and Spender, who later become a close friend. Nevertheless, his time there introduced him to new art, music and literature – he attends poetry readings run by the Sitwells, and it is here he reads Milton for the first time. He would also make peace with his experiences in his late narrative poemMemoirs in Oxford (1970), prompted by his return there for an All Souls Fellowship in the 1960s.
Letters of introduction helped combat Prince‟s shyness and formed some of his most significant literary contacts. It was in this way he met Winifred Holtby, who confessed she found his poems „too private‟. Spender encouraged him to send work to Auden and Eliot, who published his poem „Epistle to a Patron‟ in theCriterion. A letter of introduction from Eliot would also bring about his one meeting with W.B. Yeats, whom he visited in Ireland in 1936.
Yet Prince was a poetic outsider too, his seriousness not in step with the diction and form of his Oxford contemporaries, who were keen to explore a poetry that could communicate with a wide audience. His first collection of verse,Poems (1938) was published in a literary climate more concerned with the Munich Crisis than Prince‟s original, syntactically obtuse poems. Eliot‟s support was vital for new poets in this period, and his rejection of Prince‟s work after the war began a difficult period in Prince‟s literary career.
8F.T. Prince, Diary entry, 28 October 1934:
F.T. Prince Archive,3/1/1.
28 Oct 34
Yesterday I went to a Schubert concert, where I stupidly avoided Spender [..] S. has sent the poem to Faber‟s [..] On Tuesday I sent it to him Auden, Con, and Bryce Gallie (for Robert). I have been thinking of a travel sequence, and something on London.
Prince kept a journal sporadically throughout his life, and this records a busy day in Oxford. The references are to W.H. Auden, Conrad Barber (see item 31), and his contemporary Bryce Gallie (later a philosopher). The poem in question is „Epistle to a Patron‟. He travelled back home to Johannesburg the following month, and writes the next entry (dated November 16th) on board the SS. Giulio Cesare.
9Letter from Winifred Holtby to F.T. Prince, 4 April 1933.
F.T. Prince Archive, 4/1/8. 6
In this letter, Winifred Holtby raises concerns about his poetry that Eliot would share. She responds to two poems Prince sent to Holtby, Eliot, and Auden at Spender‟s suggestion, „Sentinel and Enemy‟, and „These waters are attentive‟ (item 12, titled „Event‟). She praises his musical ear, but worries that:
They lack the drive of authentic emotion [..] of course you have felt. „Sentinel and Enemy‟ is the more successful because it‟s [sic] emotional impulse is the more coherent and the more articulate. The latter poem, imaginative in imagery and decorative enough, lacks power and cohesion. You saw - you responded to visual and imagined beauty – you felt this – you felt that – you have painted a rich and glowing seascape enough. But what of it? Probably you meant something. But it hasn‟t got through – I‟m an averagely intelligent reader, though not a critical expert in poetry, and it hasn‟t got through to me. It feels a bit artificial
"(Do off, do away
With this death and its cloths.
Only to burn is sweetness. )…
Now, what made you write that? A lingering echo from remembered words? Lovely. But just how relevant. What did you mean?
Your expression is still too private. It‟s a common enough fault today. I protest it is a fault. The vision that is vital enough glows through even obscurity of diction.
It does not matter. You‟ve got the gift all right.
Her concerns reflects a more general trend in the 30s about the role of the poet in society – Auden would famously champion „Private faces / in public places‟ (The Orators, 1931), defining poetry as „the clear expression of mixed feelings‟ („New Year Letter‟, 1940).
10.Letter from W.H. Auden to F.T. Prince, 13 March 1933.
F.T. Prince Archive, 4/1/2.
In this letter Auden responds to the same two poems. Of the first he notes „there is a tenderness about the poem which I envy you‟, but says of „These waters are attentive‟, „one gets hushed by a wing but the wily old bird has gone [..] that‟s what makes the lines in brackets rather irritating‟. He likens the second poem to „school sermons‟ (Auden was a schoolmaster in the Malverns at the time) and notes „you‟ve got to make the whole poem really symbolic and not half a parable as it is at present‟. In closing, Auden offers the following comment:
It‟s silly of me to generalise about your work from two examples but I feel that you need to explore yourself more, experiment with the different stops on your organ at other tempos. Here and there the verse chops a little, is a little heavy handed, as if you took yourself too seriously.
Auden‟s concern with Prince‟s „seriousness‟ again tells us as much about the 1930s than Prince‟s work: Auden dismissed poetry that worried about the „eternal verities‟, and Oxford contemporaries like MacNeice privileged everyday language and the documentary form.
However, in 1970, Auden would write to him to praise his long poemMemoirs of Oxford as „beautifully made and moving‟ (4/1/2). 7
11. F.T. Prince, „ A Conversation with W.B. Yeats‟.
F.T. Prince Archive, Folder 2 of 2/2/1.
Yeats was Prince‟s favourite modern poet, and is the only one featured in his Clark Lectures given in Cambridge over 1972-3 (the other three were on Spenser, Shakespeare, and Milton). Yeats had recently edited theOxford Book of Modern Verse, and much of their discussion focused on poetic longevity and the modern canon. In this description of their first meeting, Prince recalls Yeats‟ account of the swami and their belief in „thuria‟. Prince wrote the account in 1978, having met Yeats in 1936.
12. F.T. Prince, „Event‟.
F.T. Prince Archive, 2/1/3.
Prince wrote this poem in the early 30s, and sent it to Auden, Eliot, and Winifred Holtby. Although Eliot‟s response to it has not survived, Auden and Holtby‟s concerns about the poem (items 9 and 10) may explain why it was not included inPoems (1938).
These waters are attentive. The rain past,
In their laps they collect a flotsam crust
Of rotting wood, dead weeds and broken tackle
And throw it away on some ledge: surrounding grey
Shifts cautiously…But look, if daylight, east,
Below the sea-brim does not
Hesitate! and start afresh.
Propped on an elbow he colours the thin air.
Against his side that with a laboured glow
Beats firmer, the cold swell is lying. All
The ocean, big with monsters, acquiesces
Under the solace of a nesting wind.
A column built of dark,
A cone of patience, I
Am still, too old
A night: not violated
By a keen dawn, dismembered
And thawing in his breeze.
Where fathoms weigh the most, their grounded lead
Holds down some being, hollow and dry as fear.
Deep as this can the sun hint? Yet, a spur
Her stupor touches and she moves and must
Then prove the liquid mounded and opaque
That hides forgotten morning. For her lamp
Herself, her own the bubbles in her lung,
As soft through underwater deserts gropes
The crushed scent; enveloping, the load
Roars louder: but is less. 8
A dust and sprinkling of the day sinks past.
Here planes that glimmer blunt edges clash,
Bulge and crack; she pushes through them, cutting
Dull matted rays, a bed of fallen veils,
Until above a shower of sparks the roof,
A layer smooth with leafy flakes
Trembles incessantly, but will not melt.
Sucked by it higher, higher,
She bursts the musing surface with an arm.
Where is the sword whose stroke –
And by whom swung? Will slit
The hard knot grown
Between my ignorant eyes?
Wonder she rose; and more, the heel
That trod on sunken winters finds
Too plain the meadow of the waves,
Leaps to elude their heavy fleece
And places on a slip of cloud
Its narrow speed which vexing
The tenderer air from point to point
Leaves a white memory, a floating spiral.
With this, a trail of shining string, the child
Shadows and retraces her design.
To pierce herself with freedom, mounted
Sharpest and furthest, there she hangs and falls
Breast downward with an eyeless laugh help up,
Whipped by her hair. Repeating it, a bugle
Single across bare water she
Interrogates the vacant hours that hover there.
Midsea stares upwards dumb, a crowd
Of foamy heads in hundred leaning back.
Do off, do away
With this death and its cloths.
Only to burn is sweetness
And feed the hungry sky
With a slow strand of smoke.
The impression of that dancing on the air
Still rests as in a glass. She pauses, folding
Gesture and figure, floundering; the lines
Are strained and quivered by a word, exhaled.
Will she not use their vaporous wealth? Swooping,
She plucks the web together, twists
Its matter to a rope of flexible diamond
From which is drawn the instrument
As icy, whole and final as her wish.
One breath may be a knife 9
To murder this dear self:
You! nocturnal maid,
Within your intimate void
Be shrunken, leaving
Nothing, ash or husk.
13. Fair copy of „An Epistle to a Patron‟.
F.T. Prince Archive, 2/1/3.
This poem remains one of Prince‟s best known, and was the first published by Eliot. It was written in January 1935, and was published inCriterion the same year. Ironically, while the poem‟s revives an eighteenth-century debate about poetry and patronage, the beseeching address might also be applied to Eliot, whose patronage Prince was to find invaluable throughout the 1930s.
14. F.T. Prince, early draft of „Chaka‟.
F.T. Prince Archive, 2/1/8.
A note in the archive records that Prince wrote this poem in a B&B in Gordon Street, London in August 1934. He revised it the following summer, and sent the new version to Eliot, which was published inPoems (1938).
In 1931, Thomas Mofolo had publishedChaka, a novel exploring the rise of the Zulu nation and its warfare with neighbouring communities; his account drew on oral narrative material supplied by Sotho oral informants and the narrative arc of Macbeth, portraying a despairing hero who drives others to despair and suicide. It is likely that the novel informed Prince‟s dramatic monologue. His early literary mentor, Roy Campbell, had also explored the Chaka myth in The Flaming Terrapin (1924).
The final version of the poem places more emphasis on Chaka‟s solitude, beginning:
The air cool and soft,
The darkness early about this sorrow, I
Am alone awake, I am alone
To watch the trembling of so many tears
Above my hard and empty lands.
15. T.S. Eliot to F.T. Prince, 10 September 1935
F.T. Prince Archive,4/1/6/1.
This letter was written just before Prince took up his Visiting Fellowship at Princeton, and
before Eliot had published Prince (item 13) in theCriterion. The letter comments on Prince‟s revision of his poem „Tshaka‟ (item 14). Prince spent much of 1936 planning a continuation of Henry James‟ unfinished novel The Ivory Tower which he never completed and later described as a „real folly‟. 10
16. F.T. Prince, draft of „In Himself the One and Many‟
F.T. Prince Archive,2/1/4/27.
This poem, which Prince completed in 1941, was dedicated to the theologian and philosopher Ralph Harper, whose work helped introduce existentialism to the US. They had met during Prince‟s fellowship in Princeton:
As man is, so he knows.
As he knows what and how he is he knows
Other cases, other beings. He exists
In the possession and assimilation
Of himself and other beings.
17. T.S. Eliot to F.T. Prince, 19 February 1942.
F.T. Prince Archive, 4/1/6.
This letter came in response to Prince sending him „In Himself the One and the Many‟ (item 16):
My only criticism is a certain abstractness. I do not mean so much the use of abstract language and absence of imagery but the abstraction from the individual experience. It seems to me in general what makes the animation of philosophy into poetry possible is when the poet can give the impression that somehow the generalisations have sprung out of particular personal experience of his own. The personal experience of emotion may only be hinted at and completely obscure to the reader but it is that feeling of the relation of the ideas to the private passion that I miss in this particular poem so that I feel a little starved after reading it.
Eliot‟s qualified response points to a turning point in their relationship, and marks a significant moment in Prince‟s career. Eliot would accuse his next poem „Soldiers Bathing‟ of being inspired by paintings „rather than the real subject‟, and would go to criticise his new work for being over-loaded with „emphatic adjectives‟. Eliot‟s‟ rejection would lead Prince to publish with small presses for the remainder of his career.
Despite Prince‟s ambivalence about his time at Oxford, it seemed a place he could never quite leave behind. Although he took up a year-long fellowship at Princeton directly after his degree, he worked for Chatham House during the late thirties, which moved from its base in London to Balliol College. He would also make peace with his experiences in his late narrative poemMemoirs in Oxford (1970), prompted by his return to Oxford for an All Souls Fellowship in the 1968. The poem offers a meditation on poetic vocation, and considers how photographs and letters help us reconstitute the past. 11
18. F.T. Prince to Margaret Templeton Prince, 23 Oct 1940.
F.T. Prince Archive, 1/8/2.
Well, it has happened. I am going off today to Winchester for the first stage of my military training. […] I must admit that at the moment I feel slight qualms, but for the last two days I have been feeling enormously pleased at the prospect of going: it seems an age since I had freedom from office work – that in itself will be good for me. As for the month in the ranks that will no doubt have pains as well as pleasures. What appeals to one most is the being relieved of all responsibility for thinking.
19. Stephen Spender to F.T. Prince, 11 March 1934.
F.T. Prince Archive,4/1/5.
Spender writes this letter after reading Prince‟s poem „Cefalù‟ inThe Oxford Outlook, „which it may please you to know, I read because Auden pointed it out to me‟.
Spender and Prince were friends and correspondents throughout his career, and Spender remained an important literary ally throughout the 60s and 70s. Prince‟s friendship with Spender was particularly important in helping him think through ideas of vocation. Later in this letter, Spender suggests to Prince that the only useful things to do in life are to „be a communist whose whole life was concerned with the external and wilful task of changing the course of history, or else to be a poet, whose work is educative & psychological […]‟, and defines poetry as „the clearest possible way of expressing certain human feelings‟.
20. F.T. Prince to Margaret Templeton Prince, 16 Oct 1940.
F.T. Prince Archive, 1/8/16.
Prince returned to Oxford after his time in Princeton to work at Chatham House, then based in Balliol College; he heard war being announced in the Junior Common Room. By this time he was tired of the city, as this letter to his mother suggests.
Returning to Oxford is not a pleasure, and I am glad to be leaving soon. Chatham House is already intolerable to me, and it is an enormous relief to think that I shan‟t have to spend the winter there. The drawing in of winter has made it all seem more repulsive, especially the combination of C.H. wearisomeness and the particular kind of misery which hangs over Balliol at some seasons of the year. Oxford is really a place that corrupts – corrupts one‟s mind and heart. The total absence of simplicity is a heavy curse.
21. Photo of Margaret Templeton Prince in Oxford (c.1931-2).
Prince had a complicated relationship with his mother, photographed here on a visit to him in Oxford during his second year there. In a note from 1954, he recalls a „strong Scotch radical streak – in other words, a stroke of aggressive and grudging spite‟ (3/1/5). 12
22. F.T. Prince,Memoirs in Oxford (1970), in Collected Poems (Manchester: Carcanet, 1993), p.122.
In this 1970 poem, inspired by Prince‟s return to Oxford for an All Souls Fellowship in the 60s, Prince revisits his earlier time in Oxford. Like much of Prince‟s work,Memoirs in Oxford also tracks how experiences and lives are recorded and remembered, as in this section describing a photo of his mother (item 21). The poem sees in this photo „the pang that all along / She had suppressed – and more was here, / More on the way‟. This may be a reference to his father‟s death, which followed five years later. The poem also rebukes her for not feeling more responsible for Prince‟s „self-punishing‟ nature.
Later in his life, F.T. Prince used to joke, „I have written more than one poem, you know‟. His poem, „Soldiers Bathing‟ (1942) was much –anthologised, and the eponymous collection from 1954 ended up in many critic‟s best-of-year lists. E.M. Forster and William Plomer were particular champions of the poem, and Stephen Spender named it the best poem to emerge from the Second World War. It inspired several poetic tributes, and was recently referenced in Alan Hollinghurst‟s novelThe Stranger’s Child (2011).
Like Auden‟s „Musée des Beaux Arts‟ (1938) , the poem uses an artwork as a prompt for a meditation on human suffering but, unlike Auden‟s poem, concludes with the possibility of
Christian redemption. Auden‟s emigration to the US during the war gives us one reason 1950s critics and poets would have prized Prince‟s work over Auden‟s. Prince signed up to the Intelligence Corps in 1940, worked as a „book-breaker‟ on Italian codes and Japanese ciphers at Bletchley, and was made a Captain in 1943.
Much of the poem focuses on etchings by Michelangelo and Pollaiuolo, but there is also a strong biographical strand in its central image. Some of Prince‟s happiest memories were of his swims with his friend Conrad Barber as a young man – they later quarrelled, but Conrad is mentioned in his diary throughout his life. An early unpublished poem, „The Swimmers‟, suggests another source for „Soldiers Bathing‟, a pastoral homage to their friendship. It points to the homoerotic qualities of the poem, aspects Spender was also keen to emphasise.
23. Photograph of F.T. Prince in army uniform (c.1940).
F.T. Prince Archive, 1/11/9.
Prince signed up to the Intelligence Corps, beginning his military training in Winchester at the end of 1940. His military career would see him working as a „book-breaker‟ on Italian codes in Bletchley from 1941 to 1943, then travelling to Cairo. After the Italian armistice, he worked in Heliopolis, then returned to Bletchley to work on Japanese ciphers. After being demobbed in Spring 1946, he worked as an interpreter for Italian Prisoners of War. 13
24. „Soldiers Bathing‟
F.T. Prince Archive, 5/1/2.
25. Stephen Spender to F.T. Prince, 14 June 1954
In this letter, Spender writes to Prince to congratulate him onSoldiers Bathing, in particular its eponymous poem.
I think that some of the poems are among the most beautiful of our time. The „Soldiers Bathing‟ has something of the nobility of the drawing you were thinking of when you wrote it, and the Michelangelo poem, which I have not quite mastered or am not altogether familiar with yet, I put with it. These two poems are extremely original, and yet they have something immediately striking and warming about them, like some great cartoon of the Renaissance or like James‟ notes --- say --- for „The Ivory Tower‟. I like also very much the early poems at the end of the volume [..]
Over the page Spender continues:
I could almost wish that you wrote free verse. You are one of the very few poets who can write with a freedom which is yet controlled and who has avoided falling into a decayed kind of „free‟ rhythm,, like that of The Confidential Clerk,
Spender compares Prince‟s poems to Henry James‟ notes forThe Ivory Tower, ironic given that Prince spent much of 1946 trying to write a dramatic poem based on James‟ unfinished novel.
26. E.M. Forster to F.T. Prince, 18 May 1954
F.T. Prince Archive, 4/1/15.
The publication ofSoldiers Bathing brought Prince new fans and literary allies, among them E.M. Forster:
William Plomer lent me yourSoldiers Bathing when I was staying with him the other day. I have now ordered a copy for myself, and I would like to thank you for the pleasure you given me. I was particularly moved by the long Michelangelo poem. Today I have been working at photographs, and compared his Victory (so strikingly evoked by you) with a group of Vincenzo Danti which it must have inspired. Your poem is not just description of course; it exists for itself, but it has the additional quality of reminiscence.
27. Reviews ofSoldiers Bathing, The Doors of Stone, and Poetry Now: An Anthology ed. G.S. Fraser.
F.T. Prince Archive, 6/1. 14
Although many of Prince‟s friends were dismayed thatSoldiers Bathing was published with The Fortune Press, the volume was well received. E.M. Forster chose it as book of the year in the Observer in 1954 (December 26), finding it „noble, compassionate‟ and „beautifully written‟, and in 1956, John Press declared Prince‟s work „as fine as any verse of the past twenty-five years‟ (London Sunday Times, Oct 14, 1956).
28. E.M. Forster to F.T. Prince, 18 May 1955
Prince subsequently went to visit in King‟s College, Cambridge in 1955. They met several times, including a rather unsatisfactory encounter hijacked by Siegfried Sassoon, who wouldn‟t stop talking:
Thank you so much for your letter and I hope we shall have another meeting before long. I am usually in Cambridge these days (blessing my luck), sometimes in London, and not I‟m afraid in Southampton. I too enjoyed your visit, and only wish Mr Sassoon had not talked so much. Still it is a sign that he is feeling happy.
I am surprised anyone talks at all in Downing. It sounds a scarring place and there is another aspect of it which you would not have encountered: the Toughs periodically raid the rooms of the quiet chaps without any action being taken by the Dons. It‟s not the Toughs one blames. I have the feeling that the ragging, like the corrosive criticism, derives from some central poison.
28. Peter Quennell to F.T. Prince, 12 Aug 1966 [back page]
F.T. Prince Archive, 3/1/4.
Peter Quennell and Prince became friends in the 1960s after Prince wrote an essay on Quennell‟s early poetry; the postscript from the following letter shows how the popularity of Prince‟s passed into literary myth.
Stephen Spender insists that I should read a poem of yours on soldiers bathing, which he says is one of the great poems of the generation. He adds ~with a sly Spenderian smile ~ that the subject is not homosexual ~~~
30. Journal entry, 28 Dec 1951.
F.T. Prince Archive, 3/1/4.
This entry was prompted by a letter from the poet Charles Tomlinson which included an essay on „Soldiers Bathing‟:
Letter from Charles Tomlinson with an essay on Soldiers Bathing. Reading his comments on my state of mind as it was when I wrote the poem made me see how far I am from it now: but, after a moment of pain, makes me feel also that I am right, I must be where I am. Poets must live from hand to mouth, if they are to continue to be poets. Even if they try to escape from the circumstances of common life into some 15
„future‟, geometrical world […] of music; alternatively their poetry can only live on as best it can; and that is hand to mouth. So Valery was a poetmalagre soi; so Mallarmé seems to have escaped from the impasse of his verse into the prose poems of Divagations and the Coup de Dés – where there is a return to the kind of immediacy, a kind of improvisation and „inspiration‟.
31. „The Swimmers‟, notebook
F.T. Prince Archive, 2/1/2.
This poem was written in 1930, drawing on his summers spent swimming with his friend Conrad Barber. He later called those days his „only taste of real youth‟ (1955 diary entry). The images of swimmers‟ bodies with their „smooth voluptuous lilt‟ suggest an obvious link with „Soldiers Bathing‟ and later works such as „Memoirs of Caravaggio‟ (item 36).
32. Ronald Bottrall to F.T. Prince, 26 May 1972
F.T. Prince Archive, 4/2/5.
By 1972, Prince‟s poetic reputation rested on „Soldiers Bathing‟ – his friend and fellow poet Ronald Bottrall sent him a poetic tribute which ends with an envoy asking Prince to write instead on peace:
Prince, it is time to try your artistry
On some new noble theme you have in store,
Greater than war or your biography,
Peace that floods in from God‟s eternal shore.
War is rage, hatred, bitterness and gore.
In the letter, he writes:
It is a very long time since we last met, but for twenty years I have been thinking of writing a poem about you and your great and wonderful poem, „Soldiers Bathing‟. It had to be a ballade, of course.
In 1970, Prince refused to write a blurb for poet Lee Harwood‟s new collection, claiming his own reputation was too „doubtful and obscure‟ to be of any help. Certainly, Prince‟s work was often sidelined in mainstream newspapers, or given slighting reviews that dismissed it as academic and out-of-touch. Yet Prince‟s postwar publishers, from Fulcrum and Fortune to Menard Press, had done much to introduce him to a new, avant-garde audience of Anglo-American poets, who welcomed the intellectual complexities of this „outsider‟ voice‟. This new generation, railing against the Movement orthodoxies of Philip Larkin, found much to admire - Susan Howe declared Prince‟s work was a „beacon‟; Geoffrey Hill admitted to his 16
being an ally; John Ashbery praised him for his „obscurity‟ (referring to his diction, rather than his reception). In their turn, this new generation helped challenge Prince‟s opinions of contemporary poetry; a private performance by Lee Harwood of his poems prompted Prince to reassess the avant-garde.
33. Scrapbook of reviews.
F.T. Prince Archive, 6/2.
This collects together reviews of first collectionPoems in The Listener (15 Sept 1938), The Oxford Times (2 Dec, 1938) and The Poetry Review (Nov-Dec 1938). The Listener salutes „the most careful, scholarly, and certainly one of the most intelligent and sensitive of modern English poets‟ but worries that „Mr. Prince is altogether too gentlemanly, resigned, tired, defeated, sad, weary, and he lacks the audacity necessary for the expression even of such negative emotions‟; Poetry Review finds the „frequent beauty‟ offset by „occasional outbreaks of intellectual obscurity‟; The Oxford Times notes an involuntary hesitation „as though every sentence ended with a question mark‟, noting „a rather happy-go-lucky sense of aloofness from‟ social justice and political problems. These responses set up Prince‟s work in opposition to the politically-minded work of contemporaries like Louis MacNeice, and their reservations would set a pattern for later reviews.
34. Journal entry from 8 May 1958.
F.T. Prince Archive, 3/1/5.
This entry from 1958 reveals Prince‟s sense of remove from mainstream postwar poetry. Larkin‟s poem „Arrival‟ prompts the following remark:
I felt this poem by Larkin should have come to something better, and would like to take the first two lines and write it in my own way. Suggests to me view of outskirts of Milan or Verona from the train; my own view of the strangeness, delightfulness, of it all […] football players on waste ground, etc.
In an entry from August 1964, Prince would dismiss Larkin as a „sentimental blasphemer‟.
35. John Ashbery to F.T. Prince, 29 Oct 1956
F.T. Prince Archive, 4/1/1.
Prince‟s correspondence with Ashbery demonstrates the appeal of his work to the American avant-garde. This letter celebrates Prince for his „genuine strangeness‟.
[..] While I was at home I reread your second book which I brought back with me – it‟s in my trunk so I can‟t talk about individual poems as I‟d like to. I was, though, particularly struck by „The Moonflower‟ and the St. John of the Cross translations. The former is certainly one of the most beautiful poems in English, and I was again amazed by how strange your poetry is without seeming to seek deliberately to be – you seem, on the contrary, merely to be giving the complete facts of a situation. That is one 17
of the things I like best in poetry and in anything – genuine strangeness […]
This letter is also significant for recording Ashbery‟s response to William Carlos Williams‟ poemPaterson:
[…] it‟s a little difficult to figure out totally – something about a man and a woman and the city of Paterson, New Jersey – but the parts are certainly nice, the poetry sections being glued together with prose passages – real letters, newspaper articles, etc., so it gives one the pleasure of browsing through an attic while reading it – quite a clever idea – who could possibly read a 250 page modern poem unless there was some sort of relief like that?
36. John Ashbery to F.T. Prince, 17 Nov 1957
As Ashbery and Prince‟s friendship developed, they began a fascinating conversation about trends in contemporary British and American poetry. As Ashbery‟s work became better known, he would become an important champion for Prince‟s poetry in the US. The American Academy of Art and Letters honoured Prince with the E.M. Forster Award in 1982.
I don‟t think you‟re right in believing one has to be modern in America. What modernism there is in poetry seems to be confined to me and a few of my friends. The new English poets are constantly being held up to us poor folk as examples. We are supposed to learn from the past, though modernistic poetry is of course old-hat […] I forgot to say that there is a modernistic movement in American poetry, centered in San Francisco (Evergreen publishes this bunch), but their poetry is as bad as the academic stuff, which they are always attacking with loud war-whoops. My hope is that these two factions will destroy each other and that my still small voice may then be heard.
37. F.T. Prince to Lee Harwood, 30 August 1967.
F.T. Prince Archive, 4/4/2.
Prince‟s initial scepticism about contemporary American poetry is captured in his early correspondence with the British poet Lee Harwood, who had met Ashbery in 1965 and was much influenced by the New York School of poets. In this letter, Prince refuses to write a blurb for Harwood‟s poetry collection, both because he thinks his reputation too obscure to be a helpful means of promoting Harwood‟s work, and because of his ambivalence about the American influence of Harwood‟s poems.
I think I have had your poems long enough to be able to make some not-quite-useless comments […] I don‟t think I can contribute a note about the book, such as you had thought of. My position and my reputation are such – so obscure and doubtful – that any remarks of mine would do you no good at all. If readers of poetry read and like my poems, there is no sign of it; the only evidence seems to prove that they don‟t – my book doesn‟t sell. Almost all critics reject my work, politely in some cases – disdainfully in others. But perhaps the chief reason for my not writing on your poems is that I don‟t really know what I think of them, and this would make any comment of mine either unconvincing or damaging. 18
38. Journal entry from 23 Oct 1969.
F.T. Prince Archive, 3/1/6.
This account of meeting Harwood in 1969 records Prince‟s reassessment of Harwood‟s work after hearing him read, and shows Prince‟s increasing interest in the New York School.
Lee Harwood gave a reading at the Art School last night; he reads with a remarkable disguised skill – variety of pace and tone, on the whole slowly; so that the somewhat pattering lightness of the printed poem is quite transformed. He came to the house in the afternoon, and we talked – he came back afterwards for supper. So I now feel I know rather more about him, and N.Y. poets, and other things.
39. Geoffrey Hill to F.T. Prince, 11 August 1970.
F.T. Prince Archive, 4/2/5.
Geoffrey Hill is perhaps the British poet most directly influenced by Prince‟s work. As with Ashbery, Hill found Prince‟s „outsider‟ status an important point of comparison between then, as seen in this first letter:
(and I, in turn, hope that I do not seem presumptuous, in using this form of address. "Dear Professor Prince" would perhaps be too aloof while "Dear Frank Prince" is the kind of compromise that satisfies few people) – I was very glad that, in your letter, you suggested that we night maintain our relationship; and I respond to the suggestion most gratefully. It may well not be "practicable" but worthwhile relationships are doubtless meant to transcend mere practicality.
Our work already has a relationship, in being set apart from most of the poetry that holds the place of worldly power in our age – though I confess that I would be incapable of the kind of sustained meditative narration that you build in your new book. I am very grateful to have the inscribed copy; and I wish that you had not anticipated me, by having your own copy of King Log.
40. Tom Raworth to F.T. Prince, 30 September 1970.
The British poet Tom Raworth was similarly drawn to Prince‟s work as a lone voice outside the „acres of boring, whimsical writing‟ that constituted contemporary poetry. Here Raworth writes to congratulate Prince on the BBC broadcast of his poemMemoirs of Oxford (1970).
Thank you so much for the copy of the book – I‟m happy Stuart has done it, and I enjoyed your reading of it on the radio. 19
Summer seems over, here in bleak Essex, and I surface only briefly from an almost continuous depression […] I almost despair, looking at the acres of boring, whimsical writing that seem to make up the „Poetry Revival‟.
Lee tells me he is going to America, and then on to Vancouver: I hope he does well. I liked his Tzara translations, and thought the bibliography excellent.
41. Susan Howe to F.T. Prince, 8 April 1979.
F.T. Prince Archive, 4/2/5.
The sense of Prince as a poet whose reputation is somehow „under attack‟ persists in this letter from the American poet Susan Howe, who writes after Donald Davie‟s review of Prince‟sColleted Poems in the New York Times. Davie‟s review suggested that Prince‟s only worthwhile poems were „Soldiers Bathing‟ and Drypoints of the Hasidism (1975).
I was outraged by Donald Davie‟s review of your Collected Poems. At first I composed furious letters to Davie and to the editor Harver Shapiro (a poet himself) but after floundering around with those attempts, I decided it was no use anyway. I decided to write to you instead. [..]
Your poetry has been and always will be a Beacon to me. The light of language, history, mysticism, the beauty of words, and of deeds of men in the past, all the wonder of Language as we inherit it down through the ages – its all there in your writing. You have written some of the best poems in this century; that a larger public cannot see this is a sad sign of the present we live in. Time (not the New York Times) will tell. If I didn‟t believe that what would be the use of writing at all?
The scholar poet
Prince retired from his professorial post at Southampton in 1974, five years before the University of East Anglia offered the UK‟s first creative writing course. Yet, in his own way, Prince brought together his scholarly and creative writing throughout his career. His most memorable poems are usually prompted by intellectual questions or projects, often focusing on issues of critical reception or biography, as inAfterword on Rupert Brooke (1976) or the unpublished poem „Memoirs of Caravaggio‟. His scholarly book on Milton, The Italian Element in Milton’s Verse (1954) led C.S. Lewis to call Prince „one of the few writers in Eng. Lit. who have really meant something to me‟, and directly informed Prince‟s use of metre and form. In 1972-3, he delivered the Clark Lectures in Cambridge; these accounts of Spenser, Shakespeare, Milton and Yeats provide an important context for understanding his own work. In 1958, he was even planning a book called „Teach Yourself to Write Poetry‟.
42. „Rupert Brooke – Syllabics‟.
F.T. Prince Archive, 2/1/5.
This is a draft for the poem that would be published asAfterword on Rupert Brooke (1977). 20
The poem combines Prince‟s interest in metrics (an earlier version was called „Recounting Rupert Brooke‟) with a focus on poetic legacy and inheritance. This poem is written in syllabics, a metric system which focuses on the number of syllables in a line rather than the number of feet. This version has the word „measure‟ for „pause‟ in the published version (item 43), another hint to the reader of the poem‟s interest in rhythmic patterns.
43. Copy ofAfterword on Rupert Brooke.
44. Letter from Peter Quennell to F.T. Prince, 20 October 1978.
F.T. Prince Archive, 4/1/12.
This letter praises Prince‟s completed poem, which Prince sent to Peter Quennell early in 1978. By this point Prince had retired from Southampton, and was on a visiting professorship in the West Indies.
Thank you so much for your letter of the 11th, which eventually reached me thro‟ John Murray (please make a note of my new address!) and for your Afterword, a fascinating essay in biographical verse. I wish I liked R.B. better. He delighted my youth, when I was still at school; & afterwards he was a present to me when I stayed with Eddie Marsh, & used to read the pencilled inscription (later rubbed out by errand boys) „Mr Rupert Brooke‟ under the names on Eddie‟s door-jamb. But today I fear I like neither him nor his work, & can‟t help thinking that he was a slightly unscrupulous character, surrounded by infatuated devotees. This, however, didn‟t prevent me from appreciation your poem; and I was delighted to read news of you. Are you enjoying Jamaica? I spent two holidays there with Anna and Ian Fleming […] What do you make of American campus life?
45. „Memoirs of Caravaggio‟.
F.T. Prince, 2/1/7.
This unpublished poem was completed early in 1957. For some time Prince had been thinking about the artist in old age, and the relationship between morality and art. Like the laterAfterword on Rupert Brooke, the poem focuses on an artist‟s reputation and the myths that surround them. The poem‟s focus on homoerotic desire may have contributed to Prince‟s decision not to publish it, particularly in the light of the 1956 Sexual Offences Act.
46. Photograph of Prince, 1957-8.
F.T. Prince Archive, 1/11.
This photograph was taken shortly after Prince was appointed Professor at the university.
47.The Italian Element in Milton’s Verse.
This book traces the influence of Dante and Italian forms on Milton‟s poetry, and was first prompted by Prince‟s determination to learn Italian as an undergraduate, believing that any modern poet should be able to read theDivine Comedy in the original. 21
48. C.S. Lewis to F.T. Prince, 3 April 1957.
C.S. Lewis passed on the following letter to Prince, celebrating his book as:
[…] one of the very few books which has really, in our time, „advanced the subject‟ – asserted something wholly relevant, proved the assertion, and then shut up.
49. „Teach Yourself to Write Poetry‟, 31 Aug 1958.
F.T. Prince Archive, 2/2/1.
Although Prince never got beyond the plan and opening pages of this project, it is significant in its focus not just on technical details but a poet‟s vocation and how they might combine writing with living:
Danger nowadays is not (as in 19th century) too much isolation or eccentricity, but too much experience, which become meaningless, owing to lack of preparation. American style. Chief thing is to organise some solitude. Escape from towns. Travel. Stability essential. Physical health and exercise not needed beyond minimum for survival and energy.
[..] Modern poets tend to write too much about their children, wives, dads, mums etc. Point to American obsessions with dad and mum. Democratic vulgarity. Rilke example of one who solved problem by turning in on himself, going into madness, perverse philosophy, etc.
50. „Yeats‟ Clarke lecture.
Prince never published his Clarke lectures, which he gave in Cambridge in 1972-3, but his inclusion of Yeats as the only modern poet in his selection is telling:
The poetry of Yeats may seem esoteric rather than learned. But no poet of modern tines has worked harder to clarify his ideas and reach conclusions --- read more widely, thought more precisely, stubbornly and consistently. His published verse and prose are equal in bulk and weight to the most productive nineteenth-century poets: and when we have noted how much of it is careful critical discussion or speculation, we should begin to see him as one of our most intellectual and serious poets […] he must be given the credit for realising, twenty years before they began, that after the imperfect achievements of the 19th century, the only way forward for poetry was to launch out into radical abstract thought.
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