Thursday 1 July 2021

Who was the best poet of The Inklings?

Several of the Inklings were poets; and all the Big Four - CS Lewis, JRR Tolkien, Charles Williams and Owen Barfield - began their literary careers intending primarily to become poets; only Williams ended his life regarding himself a poet. 

Williams was the only successful poet among them; being regarded as one of the leading British poets of his generation; albeit mostly for the poetry that was published before Taliessin Through Logres and The Region of the Summer Stars - which Williams himself regarded as his best and only significant work. 

At the other extreme, it has been said that Tolkien is, because of the songs and verses in The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings, the most often read of twentieth Century poets (this is assuming that the verse is not just skipped by readers - as has been suggested). 

Tolkien wrote a great deal of unpublished poetry in his early years (including unfinished long poems), published quite a few shorter and comic or lyrical works, including translations and modern-language development of ancient works, mostly in small magazines.   

Lewis's first two books were poetry - and it was only the critical and sales failure of Dymer (when he was aged about 28) that he decided not to continue on that line; although he published many more verses in magazines through the rest of his life. 

Barfield wrote considerably more poetry than he published; but he did publish in small magazines - mostly later in life. 

But which was the best poet? Williams seems like the obvious candidate; but I do not regard Williams as a real poet. And to my inner-ear; Lewis and Barfield were also 'contrived' versifiers; whose work lacked that something unique to real poetry.  

So there is no doubt in my mind that JRR Tolkien was the best Inklings poet - indeed the only real poet among the Inklings if judged by the standard of English lyrical poetry (i.e. song-like verse, plus something more) that defines for me what is 'poetic' about poetry. 

If I was asked to define what makes real poetry - as contrasted with verse - I could only do so indirectly; for example by pointing out that Palgrave's Golden Treasury (1861) displays the nature of this tradition in a very pure and concentrated form. 

Most of Tolkien's output would best be characterized as verse; and it varies pretty widely in quality (as does the work of most real poets) - but Tolkien at his best was a real poet; whereas the other Inklings were writers of verse, and not true poets. 

My selection of Tolkien's poetry at its best would include these five poems; The Sea BellImran; and Aotrou and Itroun - and also some others, including a few of the earliest poems posthumously published in Lost Tales


Anonymous said...

A possibly interesting tangent here is song. Tolkien must be very far and away the most frequently and variously of the Big Four to be set to music - and enjoyably and memorably, in many and different ways.

I don't think I've actually heard any of Williams's songs from the Masques or The House of the Octopus, or the texts he provided for a couple OUP sheet music publications. (I suppose I ought to try chanting his translation of the Stabat Mater... but do I have the text?) I've looked over Robin Milford's setting of some of the late Arthurian poetry, which was sung and broadcast, but am not a good enough sight-reader to hear it in my mind's ear while looking at it.

I'm not sure I've tried to sing Lewis's parodic Evolutionary Hymn, though that should be easy enough - I ought to! I have tried to get some help in figuring out how to chant the Psalm-varying texts in The Great Divorce (with Lewis Estate permission), but have not yet managed to get them sorted out. I did run into an art-song setting of one on YouTube, but did not note the details and have never rediscovered it (!)

And I cannot immediately recall what - if anything - I have read about Owen Barfield texts set or sung.

Another interesting question is, Tolkien as long - as distinct from lyric - poet (or writer of verse), both in the Beren and LĂșthien Lays and in his Arthurian and 'Northern' poetry published posthumously - in addition to the Lay of Aotrou and Itroun, which you note as among his best.

David Llewellyn Dodds

Anonymous said...

Speaking of long poems, I cannot recall if you have mentioned The Tower: Major Poems and Plays by Owen Barfield, published not so long ago (which I have not had in hand, but only encountered very briefly described online, so far).

David Llewellyn Dodds

Bruce Charlton said...

@DLD - I haven't yet read this. In general, I haven't much appreciated OB's straight-fiction or poetry; and I don't find many plays that I enjoy reading these days (tho' in my youth I must have read several hundreds). So if/ when I do read this volume, it will probably be mostly a dutiful 'ploughing-through'!