It’s typical of Clive James to leave us an anthology of poems he knows by heart that is eccentric and compelling in equal measure, with an introduction that will charm you, even if you’re dumbfounded by his selections.
James has the supreme critical quality of ease. If there is a downside to this, it’s that he doesn’t bother too much about the “best” poetry around: he just wanted, as he lay there dying, to tell us about the richness of what resounds in his head.
His commentary on the Shakespeare sonnet “The expense of spirit in a waste of shame” (129) shows what a master critic he was: “Remarkable for its technical assurance, this great sonnet is also remarkable for what it hasn’t got … What drives the sonnet more than its pictures is its syntax: ‘Past reason hunted’ shades to ‘past reason hated’ like a champion skater turning on the spot.”
He includes nothing Neoclassical or 18th century, although he showcases Byron’s “She Walks in Beauty”, which he likes for the perfection of its balance. After a beguiling discussion of the movie Lady Caroline Lamb, James says that in “Byron’s headlong playfulness” you can hear “the very tones of the modern intelligence”.
There’s plenty of this in the 20th-century section. He includes a fabulous poem by Brian Howard (reputedly the model for Anthony Blanche in Brideshead Revisited) and a stunning villanelle by William Empson, which is as great as this kind of cold enamelled elegance can get: “Slowly the poison the whole blood stream fills. / It is not the effort nor the failure tires. / The waste remains, the waste remains and kills.”
It’s hard to see why James includes Peter Porter’s “John Marston Advises Anger” in preference to a masterpiece such as “Non piangere, Liù” but it’s natural perhaps that he should go for craft rather than heartbreaking intensity.
There’s not a great deal of Australian poetry, but there’s a fascinating discussion of the poetry James grew up with, including James McAuley’s. There’s the oddly moving tidbit that his mate Robert Hughes could quote Eliot’s Four Quartets from start to finish. James says he couldn’t do that himself, but that he could hear every line coming.
This is a good extra for the Christmas stocking, full of small poetic and critical jewels.
Picador, 320pp, $34.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on December 5, 2020 as "Clive James, The Fire of Joy".
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