David Wheatley, in Edinburgh Review 135, examines political poetry from the seventeenth century Andrew Marvell through to contemporary anti-war poetry and poets (who on the whole do not come out of it all that well: “Only the hardest of hearts amid the horror of war will fail to respond, and only the softest of heads flatter themselves that theirs is the help for which the helpless cry out, or that they, spokesmen of the tribe, are uniquely mandated to provide it. That way lies only artistic vanity and self-delusion.”)
“A successful poem,” Wheatley writes, “will offer the reader many different levels on which to respond, but that of mere opinionation may lure the unsuspecting reader away from the poem’s deeper rifts of meaning, or give the illusion of reading in the absence of any real engagement. Many poets ask to be taken on their own terms, constructing whole personae to this end, while secretly defying the reader to see them awry, in an entirely different light. Consciously, late Yeats speaks to us of the decline of the Anglo-Irish elite; unconsciously, he identifies with a ruling class at the moment of its demise the better to stamp his lonely ruminations with the glamour of historical tragedy. Consciously, the Sunday-driver imperialist Philip Larkin emits howls of protest at the doing down of Old Blighty; unconsciously, he knows that the England of ‘Going, Going’ had departed long before the ‘cast of crooks and tarts’ ever got their hands on it, and has assigned it objective correlative status of a far more private grievance (the ‘violence /A long way back’ of ‘Love Again’).
“This is not to condemn either of these writers: on the contrary, it is the unconscious script they follow, and not what they put in their letters to the editor (or Kingsley Amis), that gives them their political fascination. But critics are fond of promoting writers’ opinionation to statements of guiding artistic principle, whether it be to make a post-colonial nationalist of James Joyce on the strength of his youthful hack journalism, or to taint the author of Harmonium as a fascist fellow-traveller (Wallace Stevens was so rattled by the attacks on him in the 1920s that he wrote easily his worst long poem, ‘Owl’s Clover’ in reply, suggesting he ought to have followed the Duke of Wellington’s practice of never apologising and never explaining). Stevens was indeed a Mussolini supporter, writing to Ronald Lane Latimer that ‘the Italians have as much right to take Ethiopia from the coons as the coons had to take it from the boa-constrictors’, a statement that as much explains or negates ‘The Man with the Blue Guitar’ as Frank Lloyd Wright urinating against it would explain or negate the Guggenheim Museum.