Between 1994 and 1999, the poet, critic and journalist James Fenton was Professor of Poetry at Oxford. The Strength of Poetry is the text of his professorial lectures. To his predecessor, Seamus Heaney, he dedicates "The Orpheus of Ulster", defending the Irish laureate's aesthetics and his politics of individual witness. W H Auden, Fenton's guiding star, pops up everywhere and is the subject of four chapters. Fenton's final lecture-sermon considers Auden's vexed marriage to Chester Kallman: "to be conscious but to refuse to understand, to live not in a fine but in a lean country, to hold to what was most difficult, to face that which was most hostile..." This is Saint Wystan: high rhetoric, and highly effective.
Academic litcrit tucked up its skirts and ran up the beach to escape the tide of such old-fashioned, impassioned advocacy. These lectures were not universally popular when Fenton delivered them in Eagletonian Oxford - but they are as good and as eccentric as Robert Graves's, or Auden's own. Fenton dedicates his volume to John Fuller, Auden's explicator and Fenton's tutor, friend and collaborator. There is a contained pietas about all this.
Philip Sidney's Apology for Poetry starts with a discussion of horsemanship. Fenton begins with Renaissance sculptors and painters, but his quarry is poetry. He considers it unprogrammatically, because each poet provides a different challenge and pleasure - how they transform and transcend their own experience, including their libidinal nature. In his first lecture he declares, "There is no such thing as the artistic personality." That is the bracing theme to which his lectures return, often (paradoxically) through his considerations of biography.
The modern heresy is that the individuality of the poet should be audible in each ego-charged syllable. Voice is recognised less in reinvented syntax or diction, more in narrative postures, manifests of suffering, winking bonhomie, or tediously comprehensible politics. Self-conscious personality displaces a poem's responsibilities to its subject and language.
Fenton quotes Keats: "We hate poetry that has a palpable design on us". He recalls the damage that Wordsworth's self-obsession did to Keats and others. Coleridge is reported to have said of Byron: "The art was so neglected; the verses would not scan". Fenton continually returns to form - not imitative form or "form-as- exercise", which creative writing courses propose. That runs contrary to the dynamic of making poems.
That dynamic is something that Wilfred Owen eventually, "exalted by his gift", discovered, but only after the confusion of his early verse, the whispers and fumblings in the dark alleys of Bordeaux, his troubled eros, had been recognised. Fenton introduces just enough biography to explore how the poet transcends himself, how the local givens of a life become the big, durable givens of a …