In Charge of Morale in a Morbid Time: The Poetry of William Meredith

By Taylor, Henry | Hollins Critic, February 1979 | Go to article overview

In Charge of Morale in a Morbid Time: The Poetry of William Meredith


Taylor, Henry, Hollins Critic


The Wreck of the Thresher, published in 1964, was the book which most firmly established the nature and strength of William Meredith's poetry. It seems now, two books later, to have been the culmination of a development in certain directions from which the poet has since swerved, though not unrewardingly. The Wreck of the Thresher reveals unobtrusive mastery of craft traditionally conceived; it is not full of sonnets, villanelles, sestinas, or other insistent evidences that the poet is comfortable in formal cages; but beneath the steady, honest lines with their sometimes unpredictable rhyme schemes, there is a sense of assurance that for Meredith, form is a method, not a barrier. In its range of subject, tone and mode, the book consistently offers the voice of a civilized man, a man with good but not flashy manners, engaged in encounters with matters of inexhaustible interest.

This style did not come quickly to Meredith--not that his debut was inauspicious: his first book, Love Letter from an Impossible Land, was chosen by Archibald MacLeish in his first year as editor of the Yale Series of Younger Poets. Here were a number of accomplished poems, including a few which spoke in the voice that would be so firmly Meredith's by the time The Wreck of the Thresher appeared twenty years later. Much of the book is apprentice work, but in the "impossible land" of the Aleutians, of the second World War, Meredith came to grips with strangenesses for which no borrowed voice could suffice. So the book falls into two parts, whose relation MacLeish describes as "the way in which the literary vehicle (for it is nothing else) of the Princeton undergraduate turns into the live idiom of a poet's speech reaching for poetry." What is there, one wonders, to like about "the literary vehicle of the Princeton undergraduate"? One possible answer is that the earlier poems show us a young poet diligently studying his waft. In the brief lyrics which acknowledge various masters, there is little room for the voice of Meredith, but there is in them a serious and intelligent setting-forth after the tools that will give the voice, when it speaks, the distinctiveness and force of the later poems. Craft matters to the young poet: of the thirty-three poems in Love Letter, eight are traditional sonnets, and seven others are near-sonnets of twelve to fourteen lines. If some of these are predictable or flat, or if others are too insistent upon their experimentation with formal expansion (as in the packed internal rhymes and slant end rhymes of "War Sonnet," for instance), practice has made nearly perfect by the time we come to "In Memoriam Stratton Christensen":

   Laughing young man and fiercest against sham,
      Then you have stayed at sea, at feckless sea,
      With a single angry curiosity
   Savoring fear and faith and speckled foam?
   A salt end to what was sweet begun:
      Twenty-three years and your integrity
      And already a certain number touched like me
   With a humor and a hardness from the sun.

   Without laughter we have spent your wit
      In an unwitnessed fight at sea, perhaps not won,
      And whether wisely we shall never know;
   But like Milton's friend's, to them that hear of it,
      Your death is a puzzler that will tease them on
      Reckless out on the thin, important floe.

Here the experimentation with local sonic richness is muted, but not below the level of fruitful risk; for example, Reckless in the last line is right not only in itself, but because of its echoes in the second and fourth lines.

In "Notes for an Elegy," a longer poem whose ambition and achievement are larger than anything else in this book, Meredith sounds a note of modesty in the title, a note which he will sound again and again, even as his poems improve. This title, of course, means not to suggest that the poem is unfinished--it is quite brilliantly finished--but that in a time and place more distant from the war, it might have acquired more of the trappings of a formal elegy.

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