Portrait of the Artist as a Very English Laureate
Schmidt, Michael, The Independent (London, England)
Ways of Life By Andrew Motion FABER & FABER Pounds 18.99 (269p) Pounds 17.09 Pounds 17.09 (free p&p) from 0870 079 8897
"We see nothing till we truly understand it," John Constable declared, and we understand through careful and prolonged engagement. Ways of Life is a thoroughly English book of essays, full of seeing and defined by particularity, whether Andrew Motion's subject is a place, painter or poet. The foreign painters included - Ruisdael and Bonnard, and in the afterword, most memorably, the Monet of "Les Coquelicots", a reproduction of which Motion's mother hung in her room - serve to underline the virtues of his principal quarries: Palmer, Constable, Turner and Howard Hodgkin.
His foreign poets are all American: Frost, Plath, Lowell and Anne Stevenson, writers assimilated into the story of English poetry. The last essay is devoted to Bob Dylan, who does not seem at home in the style or the company he is made to keep, with Donne, Owen and Betjeman.
Motion's is, if not a romantic, then decidedly a rural imagination. He embraces the Georgians and their legacy. None of the Modernists is included in a book culled from over 2,000 pages of reviews and articles written since John Gross first invited him to contribute to the Times Literary Supplement in 1976. This is a small portion of his happy hackwork, conducted as "an evolution of Practical Criticism: close concentration on the printed page, but with a special interest in historical context". He chooses several figures whose work has been undervalued.
Is the deeper subject England, Englishness, and himself? Can we read Ways of Life as an oblique Biographia Literaria, in which Motion discloses his poetic mainsprings? The publisher provides no index or bibliography, proof that we are in the zone of belles lettres, remote from the academic writing one might expect from a Royal Holloway professor. For Motion, the arts belong in the wide world, and there is a distrust of works which at first seem to repel the common reader.
He explores the "places" of his subtitle in part to elicit histories and lives. "Sailing to Italy" is about his relations with Keats; in "Normandy", he puts his father's war in the context of the poet Keith Douglas's and stands beside both in a place events left profoundly altered for the imagination. …
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Publication information: Article title: Portrait of the Artist as a Very English Laureate. Contributors: Schmidt, Michael - Author. Newspaper title: The Independent (London, England). Publication date: November 28, 2008. Page number: 34. © 2009 The Independent - London. Provided by ProQuest LLC. All Rights Reserved.
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