Restraint in Poetry: The Power of Subdued Expression in British Post-War Poetry

Category: Criminology, God, Love, Poetry
Last Updated: 30 Mar 2023
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Restraint, whether in diction, image, theme, or meter can be used as expressively in poetry as bombastic meter or jarring images and complex diction. In some cases, a muted approach toward the formal expression of a poetic theme allows a poet to convey a sense of magnitude and urgency which one might not expect from a subdued or highly-controlled technique. However, British poets of the post-war generation such as Ted Hughes, Philip Larkin, and Derek Walcott exemplify the use of an aesthetic which makes effective use of a subdued and muted idiom.

Their example is illustrative if not definitive of this tendency as applies to much of British poetry composed after the world wars. One interesting questions as pertains to these four poets is whether the impulse behind each of the poets' delving into muted understatement is similar or whether each poet sought for disparate reasons a similar style. For Hughes, a quality of stillness and contemplative quietness pervades most of his work, from his first published title "Hawk in the Rain" through his famous cycle of myth-driven poems "Crow" and beyond.

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In "Crow's First Lesson," Hughes drives a complex theme (the cosmic nature of love and its role in the creation of the universe) against a linguistic pallette of utter simplicity. The words are delivered in the cadence of a children's story or a school primer:"God tried to teach Crow how to talk. /'Love,' said God. 'Say, Love. '/Crow gaped, and the white shark crashed into the sea/And went rolling downwards, discovering its own depth. " Here there is a conspicuous absence of complex word-construction or even complex thought associations.

In addition to the sing-song cadence and the child-like sentence structure, the images of the poem are those of simple construction: a god, a crow, a shark, a sea. No specific qualities are probed or explored for any of the poem's elements; there is no subjective reaction to the inner-elements of the poem by the poet, there is no overt confessional element. The muted, simplified construction persists throughout the poem, even through the poem's most complex (penultimate) stanza:

And Crow retched again, before God could stop him. And woman's vulva dropped over man's neck and tightened. The two struggled together on the grass. God struggled to part them, cursed, wept-- At this point the poem can be said to have progressed out of its childlike facade and into its more difficultly explicated themes regarding cosmic creation, sex, love, and the relationship between men and women, and also men and women and God.

The most obvious reason for Hughes' use of a muted, simplified construction in "Crow's First Lesson" is to forward the sense of new-beginnings. As though the reader is being instructed in the fundamentals of creation and (Creation) as he or she encounters the poems in "Crow. " The secondary reason for Hughes' use of poetic restraint in "Crow" is to convey a sense of sacred respect and grief. These latter qualities may emanate form his personal experience as Hughes' biography, as is well known, is one which contains much personal suffering and grief.

Hughes attains a nobility in the surface of the poem which masks the faces of the grotesque which lie just beneath and are most accessible in the poem's closing stanzas. In this way, the construction of the poem expresses Hughes cosmic vision of a universe of "laws" and "logic" which masks, just beneath, a procession of myth and archetypal realities which to human conscious perception are often terrifying and grotesque. Similarly, in Derek Walcott's "The Sea is History" a muted and highly controlled technique lends the poem a dignified and sacred air.

Walcott's desire in this poem is to present the reader with a poem which offers as many shifting images as the sea itself while simultaneously preserving the rhythmic ease of the sea's sounds and motion and also preserving a feeling of entering greater and greater depth as if the reader is being led into the sea and its pacific, hypnotic procession of images. Unlike Hughes, whose main emotive impulse in "Crow's First Lesson" is one of cathartic grief, Walcott's poem flows with a sense of grandeur and history.

It is a far less personal poem than Hughes' in some ways, but in a many ways it is also more deeply personal as a confession of personal vision. Like Hughes, Walcott is ultimately concerned in this poem with a Creation myth: and in the salt chuckle of rocks with their sea pools, there was the sound like a rumour without any echo of History, really beginning. However, Walcott's poem traces back from the modern to the ancient past of time's beginning (leading the reader "deeper and deeper") with little sense of grief or catastrophe. Instead, the pervading impulse of the poem is one of embracement.

And it is necessary for the poem to mimic in sound and form its central image, the sea, in order for the thematic ideas of the poem, that history binds all times in a single flowing "sea" of being, to be expressed. Again, both Hughes and Walcott have nurtured a quiet and contemplative idiom in many ways as an homage to and symbol of their hoped-for connection with nature. The muted, contemplative qualities of these poems is an indication of the poets' desire to enter into the same quiet creativity that is often displayed in nature, and also to show reverence for the restraint and contemplativeness in nature:

fireflies with bright ideas and bats like jetting ambassadors and the mantis, like khaki police, and the furred caterpillars of judges examining each case closely, and then in the dark ears of ferns It is worth mentioning that Walcott, in the closing lines of "The Sea is History" momentarily steps out side of the pervading feeling of contemplative discovery and descent into the pacific depths. In the following passage, the poem modulates to a much more complex and verbally agitated state: "the plangent harp of the Babylonian bondage,/ as the white cowries clustered like manacles/on the drowned women".

It is likely that Walcott intended this change in diction and pace to indicate an urgency in its historical and Biblical references. While Hughes and Walcott attain mythic stature by way of a restrained and muted poetic technique, Philip Larkin's "Faith Healing" seems to lament the absence of a working, living myth in the everyday lives of the people of the poem. His vision is one of sadness and lost love: By now, all's wrong. In everyone there sleeps A sense of life lived according to love. To some it means the difference they could make By loving others, but across most it sweeps As all they might have done had they been loved.

That nothing cures. An immense slackening ache, Larkins' emotional impetus seems to be one of empathy, providing in the poem what the faith-healer cannot rightly provide in the context of the poem's narrative. The muted and restrained diction, rhyme and meter in this poems helps to impart to the poem a sense of the pedestrian, everyday setting that is the poem's central concern. It is ordinary people with ordinary problems all who suffer who may be redeemed by love. So, Larkin's quietude is in reverence for the redeeming quality of love and nature, but is also a respectful lament for the people who have been left out of love's redemption.

This "quiet" poem masks a deep and rebellious sentiment which lies at the heart of the poem's themes. Larkin in lamenting the lack of redemptive love and tying this observation to a "weak" religious impulse is, in effect, criticizing the spiritual sincerity of his own society and questioning the value of religious faith as affectation, when the authentic redemptive quality is love, not religion. In conclusion, each of the poets examines made use of a restrained and contemplative voice for the expression of deeply emotional and spiritually profound themes.

For Hughes and Walcott, the accessing of myth by way of a restrained and tempered idiom which drew from nature its tone of creative quiet, led to the expression of mythically charged Creation stories. The expression of abiding grief and the identification with elemental nature is also present in each of these poets. For Larkin, the muted and restrained idiom found effective use as a method for conveying his bitter observations of spiritual and religious hypocrisy. In each of the poems discussed both similar and dissimilar motivations for the poets' use of a restrained technique were found.

The connecting energy between these poets is one of grief and of identification with nature. The dissimilar aspects are those regarding personal versus collective expression, with Hughes closer to the at the end of subjective confession and Larkin moving toward the universal, and Walcott somewhere in between. The poets' uses of a similar compositional technique and philosophy seems not to have occasioned a similar emotive and thematic range. Each poet chooses to use the muted and restrained idiom for a different purpose,, united in style if not in purpose.

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Restraint in Poetry: The Power of Subdued Expression in British Post-War Poetry. (2016, Aug 07). Retrieved from

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