Lives of the Modern Poets

by William H. Pritchard
Oxford, $14.95
It’s hard to find a way in which to describe these Lives. Only cursorily biographical, the nine essays that make up the volume fall somewhere between straight literary criticism and a gentler, more personal reading of the work of “the most distinguished poets writing in English” around 1914: Hardy, Yeats, Robinson, Frost, Pound, Eliot, Stevens, Crane, and Williams. Necessarily circumscribed—the longest chapter is only thirty-two pages—each essay concentrates on what Pritchard finds to be most revealing or characteristic or interesting about the poet and his work, in an effort to give readers some new and possibly helpful approaches to the poetry.
Pritchard is a good critic: knowledgeable, intelligent, assertive but not arrogant, and capable of a clear if somewhat old-fashioned prose. Although his love of Frost and Eliot especially illuminates his comments on them, he is best on the less well known poets; his chapter on Robinson, for instance, is replete with insights into that writer’s “pure poeticality.” Similarly, he is generous with his fellow critics, though quick to correct them when he perceives a misguided judgment. Perhaps most important, he assumes an informed knowledge on the part of his readers, yet quotes liberally and to the point whenever he feels a need for it.
As with any piece of criticism, there is plenty to disagree with in Lives of the Modern Poets. One wonders, for example, why Pritchard persists in the delusion, almost universal among critics, that Eliot’s poetry reveals an “anti-
life” sensibility. One wonders, too, whether his occasional references to “the Yeats problem,” “the Pound problem,” and so on isn’t merely a question of usage. On the whole, however, Lives of the Modern Poets will serve as a useful, readable aid to those whose interest goes beyond the texts themselves.