We Should Study Romantic and Modern Poetry

in Poetry

Hearing things both ways, as O'Neill does to great effect throughout this book, allows us an opportunity to pick up on potential straining within a sustaining air.

O'Neill conceives poetry as, among other things, a form of literary criticism, so it feels apt that his own prose style is shaped by a loving, enquiring commitment to the language of the poets themselves.

The first chapter ends by airing another voice from within the commentary: 'post-Romantic poetry is often, and at its greatest, concerned, as Ezra Pound has it, "To have gathered from the air a live tradition'".

A study of both the tradition and what can be gathered from it entails a study of allusion, and O'Neill shows how one abiding concern of Romanticism (a vision of poetry as 'an arena of struggle between poetic desire Shoes Online and recalcitrant reality' is staged in allusion, in the ways that allusion might allow poets to acknowledge what's going on outside a poem even as they are composing their own inner quests.

The All-Sustaining Air traces lineage through the lines themselves, and displays a real feel not just for shared forms and images, but for single words and turns of phrase. Shelley is one presiding ghost, but another monitory presence is Wordsworth.

And O'Neill is excellent when drawing out Wordsworth's connections with Elizabeth Bishop via the word 'something', with Auden via words like 'this', 'bleak', and 'old', with Heaney via 'sense', and with Geoffrey Hill via the weight of the word 'is'.

There are many other suggestive avenues of enquiry along the journey; we see how Keats's 'Ode to a Nightingale' for example, is reworked in Eliot's The Waste Land, and how Hill revisits and combines fragments from Shelley's Adonais, Alastor, and Defence of Poetry in Canaan.

There are moments in The All-Sustaining Air when discussion of these filaments of connection feels too compressed in the chapter on 'Post-Romantic Strains in Kavanagh, Heaney, Mahon, Carson and Others', for instance. The discussion of Kavanagh's sonnet 'The One' would have benefited from Discount Shoes quoting the poem whole at the start, so as to allow the poetry a little more space to breathe on the page before O'Neill demonstrates how that lyric engages with the past as well as the present.

The typographical errors in the volume also often seem to come from verbs being shortened or punctuation being squashed. On occasion, one wishes for a longer book, one in which the densely compacted tunes of some of the poems could have been worked out (and worked through) at more leisure.

But then, this isn't such a bad thing to wish for, and is itself testament to O'Neill's sharp sense of how Romantic bequests frequently come to shape themselves as a series of enduring, provocative questions.

The All-Sustaining Air is a pleasure to read. Its subtitle speaks of 'legacies and renewals', and the book's own commitment to renewals of various kinds should ensure it a sustaining afterlife in future studies of Romantic and modern poetry.

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We Should Study Romantic and Modern Poetry

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This article was published on 2010/10/05