Review of Bonamy Dobrée, The Broken Cisterns: The Clark Lectures.

[Review of Bonamy Dobrée, The Broken Cisterns: The Clark Lectures. Canadian Forum (Sept 1955): 143.]


Mr. Dobrée is deeply concerned that poetry is not read much today, and that the poet has lost his traditional role of bard, prophet, seer.  Poets have lost or neglected the great common themes to which the public could respond in the past; criticism has concentrated on recondite values to the exclusion of the public, and has encouraged poets to write for each other or for the critics.  The situation is indeed menacing, if one shares Mr. Dobrée’s conviction that the poet’s function in society is indispensable.  These lectures, informed with curious learning and flashes or urbane merriment, trace from the late sixteenth century to the present the “natural history” of three themes – Stoicism, Scientism, and Patriotism to show through what transmutations and what forms of debility they have passed. As imaginative sources, all three themes seem now to have run dry. Stoicism and Patriotism survive only in fragmentary and indistinct form: scientism, though it has produced some of the most amusing verse in the language, is now scarcely viable unless in the Paracelsian modes of anthropology and psychology.  Nevertheless, Mr. Dobrée affirms, the poet might reestablish contact with the public by combining common themes with his more personal search for reality.

The crisis is probably more complex than these lectures indicate, the solution less straightforward.  For lack of a positive suggestion how the poet can mitigate his unloved condition, we may be disposed to exonerate him, saying that this is an age of disintegration and despair (nothing as positive as doubt, please) and that the poet’s job is to mirror that unlovely spectacle.  Critics, teachers, and professors cannot escape so lightly since their duty is clearly defined: to inculcate, on whatever scale is possible, an appropriate response to poetry.  Certainly poets should never be driven to the expedient of writing only for professors.  It is surprising and humiliating that the spectacular and powerful resources of contemporary criticism have so far done little to bring the public into direct touch with poems – which are, after all, entities of direct appeal.