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Wystan Hugh Auden (1907-1973) was a major English poet, probably the most important English-speaking poet born in the 20th century. Noted especially for native lyrical gifts and highly developed technical expertise, he also displayed wide reading and acute intelligence in his poems. His life, about which a great deal of detail has come to light in the last two or three years, contains sharp contradictions. His early poems were praised for their political pertinency as well as their aesthetic modernity, and his later poems were condemned for their religious and political orthodoxy. Even when he had embraced certain kinds of religious orthodoxy, he continued to live what in many ways was an eccentrically bohemian life; but even in his most revolutionary, his most bohemian, or his least sober moments, he maintained a steady and highly productive work schedule, exemplifying if not always honoring the work ethic of the middle class. (Adapted from: Johnson, Richard. “W(ystan) H(ugh) Auden.” British Poets, 1914-1945, edited by Donald E. Stanford, Gale, 1983).
John Betjeman (1906-1984) is a unique figure in 20th century English poetry, enjoying a degree of fame and success unequaled by any poet since Byron. His Collected Poems of 1958 reputedly sold more than 100,000 copies, and they are read by millions of people who normally never read poetry, while he has become a household name through his many appearances on television panels and on programs about architecture. He is also quintessentially English, a pillar of the so-called establishment and he has, during a long and diverse career, accumulated several honorary doctorates, a CBE, and a knighthood before being created the Poet Laureate in 1972. Despite such public recognition (or perhaps partly because of it) Betjeman’s stature as a poet has remained singularly hard to assess. Some critics have always maintained that he is a poet of mediocre talents, a competent versifier whose adroit exploitation of the television medium in its early years enabled him to carve out for himself a reputation he does not deserve. (Adapted from: Clarke, John. “John Betjeman.” British Poets, 1914-1945, edited by Donald E. Stanford, Gale, 1983).
Graham Greene (1904-1991) is among the most widely read of all major English novelists of the 20th century. Intrigue and contemporary politics are key elements of Greene’s entertainments, and in at least two of his thrillers Greene eulogizes the tranquility of European life prior to World War I. Suffering, seediness, and sin are also recurring motifs that typify Greene’s work. Also typical of Greene’s characters is their predilection for sin. Although Greene’s conversion to Catholicism has generated an intense critical debate, only five or six of his more than twenty novels actually focus on the faith. In exploring Catholicism in his fiction, Greene eschewed propaganda. In both religion and politics Greene opposed the dogmatic and the doctrinaire, sided against those who sacrifice the corrupt but living human spirit for a grand but bloodless thesis. Not only a novelist, Greene wrote in more than a dozen other genres, including novellas, short stories, plays, radio plays, screenplays, essays, memoirs, biographies, autobiographies, travel books, poetry, and children’s literature. Although Greene made his mark primarily in the novel form, his stories, plays, and nonfiction prose have all attracted critical consideration. (Adapted from: “Graham Greene.” Contemporary Authors Online, Gale, 2009).
Seamus Heaney (1939-2013) was an Irish poet known for his regional themes and sensibilities. Much of his work reflects his upbringing in an atmosphere of deeply divided political and religious beliefs. He became widely recognized in the 1960s as a founding member of the “Northern School” of Irish letters and is acknowledged as one of the most popular and admired poets of modern times. Heaney has enjoyed critical acclaim since the publication of Death of a Naturalist, which was praised for the poet’s deft use of allusion and respect for things past. Heaney has been lauded for his use of the natural places of his youth to address the strife between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland. Critics have consistently observed Heaney’s use of language to evoke history and place. He gained widespread attention after his third and fourth books, and became a notable influence on other poets. (Adapted from: “Seamus Heaney.” Contemporary Literary Criticism, edited by Jeffrey W. Hunter, vol. 309, Gale, 2011).
Named Poet Laureate of England in 1984, Ted Hughes (1930-1998) is a versatile poet who is perhaps best known for creating powerful poems that feature bold metaphors and resonant language, imagery, and speech rhythms. He often comments on the human condition through the use of myth and symbol, describing natural phenomena and animals in evocative language. Hughes contends that Western civilization has overvalued intellectual faculties, dividing humans both from their instinctual urges and from nature. He suggests that the poet can be a reunifying source by employing such creative energies as imagination and emotion, as well as rationalization, to probe the mysteries of nature and life. Ted Hughes is one of a very few contemporary British poets to have gained a significant reputation outside Britain. In the 1950s, Hughes’ poetry signalled a dramatic departure from the prevailing modes of the period. The stereotypical poem of the time was determined not to risk much: politely domestic in its subject matter, understated and mildly ironic in style. By contrast, Hughes marshalled a language of nearly Shakespearean resonance to explore themes which were mythical and elemental. (Adapted from: “Ted Hughes.” Contemporary Literary Criticism Select, Gale, 2008).
Philip Larkin (1922-1985) managed to capture a loyal, wide, and growing audience of readers. He has been acclaimed the “unofficial poet laureate” of England and the “laureate of the common man,” as a representative spokesman for the British sensibility since World War II. He emerged as the center, if not the starting point, of most critical debate over postwar British verse. He is the best known and most acclaimed—critically and popularly—of the figures who made up the so-called Movement in the early 1950s and as an avowed enemy of the literary modernism scorned by The Movement. His scant four collections of poems, written over thirty years, as well as the two novels he brought out shortly after the war, continue to go into new printings, hardcover and paperback, on both sides of the Atlantic. With his well-known reluctance to grant interviews, he insisted that, rather than meet his interviewers face-to-face, he be sent a series of questions, the first set of which he took five months in answering. The paradox of his consenting to the interview but on such a condition—his sense of a place on the literary map yet his refusal to be a public figure—accords with the combination of wariness and fascination toward all relationships, even the most private, seen throughout his poetry. (Adapted from: Martin, Bruce K. “Philip (Arthur) Larkin.” Poets of Great Britain and Ireland, 1945-1960, edited by Vincent B. Sherry, Gale, 1984).
Dylan Thomas’s (194-1953) life, work, and stature among twentieth-century poets are all matters of controversy and speculation. Until recently, Thomas’s spectacular public life and personality, essentially distinct from the serious craftsman within, obscured the critical view of the body of work which the poet left behind. Not only Thomas’s life but even his poetry is dominated by the problem of the relation of inner and outer, of self and world. This problem remains the underlying theme of Thomas’s poetry in its three major phases: (1) the early juvenilia, the poems in the notebooks, and the post-notebook poems of 1934-1936; (2) the middle-phase poetry of the late 1930s to mid-1940s; and (3) the final poetry of the postwar years (1946-1953). Less centrally, the immediate themes of the poetry in the three periods evolve from an early obsession with a visionary, often demonic fusion of the processes of the body, especially intercourse and gestation, with the processes of nature and the cosmos, through a more directly personal encounter with the “exterior” challenges of marriage, fatherhood, and war, to a final period of imaginative recollection and dramatic evocation of a lost Wordsworthian childhood and a loving vision of nature and death as holy, sacramental, and good. (Adapted from: Middleton, David E. “Dylan (Marlais) Thomas.” British Poets, 1914-1945, edited by Donald E. Stanford, Gale, 1983).
Marina Warner (1946-), cultural critic, novelist, historian, and children’s author, has made significant contributions to fields as diverse as religious studies, contemporary art, and the history of the fairy tale. Her fiction has ranged over many genres, from novels and short stories to children’s books, movie scripts, and opera librettos. Her work appears in a variety of venues and media, including popular and scholarly journals, television, and exhibition catalogues. Warner’s fiction provides the reader with a challenging and ultimately satisfying combination of writerly prose; strongly drawn, complex characters; compelling plots; and an erudite handling of history. Her books have been translated into many languages, and she has held several prestigious visiting lectureships at universities around the world. Warner continues to publish at a prodigious rate, not only major works but also an astonishing number and range of short stories, reviews, and essays in scholarly and popular journals. In addition she has served on the National Council for One-Parent Families, the Advisory Council for the British Library, and other civic and cultural boards. (Adapted from: McBride, Kari Boyd. “Marina Warner.” British Novelists Since 1960: Second Series, edited by Merritt Moseley, Gale, 1998).
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