Thursday 1 July 2021

The Inklings as poets - who was the best?

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Tolkien wrote a great deal of unpublished poetry in his early years (including unfinished long poems), published quite a few shorter and comic or lyrical works, including translations and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


Truth to Life said...

For some reason I prefer C. S. Lewis's prose, but Tolkien's poetry. What do you think of George MacDonald? His style is different from Tolkien's, though also very poetic.

Bruce Charlton said...

@TtL - I've tried reading MacD but he doesn't resonate with me, unfortunately.

Hrothgar said...

The only Tolkien poem I remember coming across in an Establishment-endorsed mainstream anthology is the trivial "Cat". I'm sure he himself would have recognized this as a competent piece of light verse, and nothing more. It's the sort of thing that could have been created by at least a few dozen of the more accomplished versifiers of his day, and falls very, very far short of being representative of his true poetic talents or inclinations. It's almost as though "they" don't want the reading public to become too aware of his true poetic capabilities. (In fact I am fairly sure this is indeed the case - his best work would put that of most Modernist "poets" of whom the Establishment approves to shame, for a start, which might help to undermine the Modernist project itself.)

Agreed on Williams. I have no idea what possesses so many obvious non-poets who do evince real talent in other literary fields to insist on thinking of themselves as primarily poets. Graves is another obvious sufferer from this particular delusion. I'm far from convinced he even knew what poetry was - and yet his historical novels, which he did not seem to have much regard for himself, were excellent, as such things go.

Haven't read much by Barfield, but what I have seems surprisingly accomplished if rather narrow in scope; whereas Lewis was not really a powerful poet, and generally at his best imaginatively when writing prose fiction - but was at least skilled at expressing his thoughts in verse. I'm inclined to rate them overall as follows, worst to best:

Williams -> Barfield -> Lewis -> Tolkien

Tolkien is really some way ahead of the others where his best work is considered against their best. This probably comes to around 30 poems in total, inclusive of those you mentioned - though given the lack of a comprehensive collection containing all his verse, reviewing potential candidates is not so easy! If I had read enough of Barfield to feel sure of doing so, I might be inclined to rate him higher than Lewis.