F.T. Prince was one of the most influential and critically-neglected Anglophone poets of the twentieth century. Born in South Africa in 1912, he became deeply engaged as a teenager with French symbolist poetry (particularly Valéry and Mallarmé), an interest which informed his earliest compositions. He moved to England to study English at Balliol College, Oxford, where he composed many of the poems which would make up his first volume, Poems, published by T. S. Eliot at Faber & Faber in 1938. In a literary climate which prized the often explicitly political work of Cecil Day-Lewis, Stephen Spender, Louis MacNeice and W. H. Auden, Prince’s book—which featured monologues spoken by Edmund Burke, a Renaissance architect and the Zulu tribal leader, Chaka—appeared to exhibit a puzzling disinterest in the contemporary world, and consequently received little notice. Though, as Prince himself declared, the poems were concerned with questions of power and ethics on a personal and international scale, this engagement was oblique and subtle, and in this way entirely out of sync with the “earnestly moral, thoroughly evangelical, and indisputably authoritative” didacticism (in Robin Skelton’s words) which characterised so much poetry of the time. 

After the quiet reception, Poems received, Prince’s poetry became more explicitly public in its orientation, as his best-known poem, “Soldiers Bathing”, demonstrates. Eliot rejected this later work, however which led to Soldiers Bathing, Doors of Stone and the remainder of Prince’s poetic output being published by small, independent presses in the UK. Along with his poetic output, Prince published an important study of Milton, The Italian Element in Milton’s Verse, and maintained a successful academic career, teaching at numerous universities, including a long period as Professor of English at the University of Southampton. During much of his career, he felt neglected by his contemporaries, and with some justification; his work had been, like many of the modernist French0inflected poets of the 1940s (such as Dylan Thomas, W.S. Graham, and Nicolas Moore) for a significant period overshadowed by the rise of Movement, many of whose central figures resisted European experiments in favour of a more empirically-grounded poetry. The later enthusiasm of the New York School for his work – a phenomenon which baffled Prince, who found much of their work impenetrable – was central in restoring and maintaining interest in Price’s poetry. His influence can be detected today in poets as diverse as Geoffrey Hill, Susan Howe, John Ashbery, and Lee Harwood, and his reputation has gradually grown since his death in 2003. A definitive Collected Poems was published by Carcanet in 2012.

For many of his admirers, the enduring points of interest in Prince’s poetry are its syntactical complexity, its lavish, varied diction, sophisticated rhetoric and diverse range of speakers. The opening poem of his first book, “Epistle to a Patron”, displays all of these features and, as Donald Davie acknowledged in his book Articulate Energy, is one of the great syntactical performances in English poetry. Here is its opening:

My lord, hearing lately of your opulence in promises and your house
Busy with parasites, of your hands full of favours, your statutes
Admirable as music, and no fear of your arms not prospering, I have
Considered how to serve you and breed from my talents
These few secrets which I shall make plain
To your intelligent glory. You should understand that I have plotted,
Being in command of all the ordinary engines
Of defence and offence, a hundred and fifteen buildings
Less others less complete: complete, some are courts of serene stone,
Some the civil structures of a war-like elegance as bridges,
Sewers, aqueducts and citadels of brick, with which I declare the fact
That your nature is to vanquish . . .

Evident in this rich, delicate and superbly controlled passage are the influence of Mallarmé’s self-descriptive poetry, the dramatic monologues of Browning, and the syntactical intricacy of late Henry James, whose unfinished novel The Ivory Tower Prince would mine in his poem “The Tears of a Muse in America”. Equally significant as Prince’s much-praised monologues are his quieter, less ostentatious pieces, those which Ashbery describes as classical poems “striated with uncertainties”. These elusive, mysterious pieces show Prince to be an evocative lyric poet, and one perpetually on the verge of breaking into modernist fragmentation. “For Thieves and Beggars” begins in this hybrid mode:

On the plain is a tower

For robbers, with a grey wall where

A tattered sentry leans upon his pike,

And the pious viper dwells: but you


Who are gone we also who

She and I here wander, we

Not refuse to remember, and all of you.             

This combination of a classic allegorical scene with an almost Steinian willingness to play with non-referential pronouns gives a sense of the various, inventive and unpredictable poet Prince was. The two poems available to listen to here, “Soldiers Bathing” and “Strambotti Variations”, represent Prince at his most assured. The former poem, based on Prince’s experiences during the Second World War, has become one of the most celebrated and anthologised poems of that conflict, and its powerful concluding vision of suffering and redemption remains deeply affecting:

Because love is frightening we prefer

The freedom of our cries. Yet, as I drink the dusky air,

I feel a strange delight that fills me full,

Strange gratitude, as if evil itself were beautiful,

And kiss the wound in thought, while in the west

I watch a streak of red that might have issued from Christ’s breast.

His careful, deliberate reading highlights the interplay of sensuality and moral seriousness which lies at the heart of this extraordinary poet’s most enduring works.

The Poetry Archive is indebted to Anthony Howell and Grey Suit Editions for this remarkable and precious recording.

Poems by F T Prince

F T Prince in the Poetry Store

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Books by F T Prince

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