An Inchoate Note on the Poetry of William Hope Hodgson by Phillip A. Ellis


I’m delighted to present what I hope will be the first of many guest posts on this blog from my friend and poet, Phillip Ellis.  Hodgson’s poetry doesn’t get much attention from the critics.  Part of the reasoning for that is because it is just automatically assumed that it is bad… and some of it is.  But WHH’s poetry is not without some merit and deserves consideration if we are to examine Hodgson’s work as a whole.

I am not a poet.  I fear that my ear is rather deaf when it comes to poetry, good or bad.  So I am thrilled that Phillip has agreed to share his far more insightful comments with us.  I hope that you enjoy this as well.–Sam Gafford

An Inchoate Note on the Poetry of William Hope Hodgson

by Phillip A. Ellis

Another 'posed' picture of WHH.  Possibly a few years after the last one.

Another ‘posed’ picture of WHH. Possibly a few years after the last one.

As readers, we come to a text with a set of assumptions and
experiences. Usually these are unstated. As critics we tend to do
likewise. So it is with my own set of assumptions that I approach the
poetry of William Hope Hodgson, and it is with a very specific set of
experiences that I come to terms with it.

For one thing, Hodgson wrote “most of his poetry between 1899 … and
1906” (Frank: vi). This is during the transition from Victorianism to
early High Modernism in English poetry. There was still a degree of
poetic diction, and other poeticisms that Ezra Pound and other
Modernists were to react against.

So Hodgson was very much a poet of his own period.

This means, then, that we must approach Hodgson in terms of his
contemporaries. That is, we fail to appreciate him when we apply
Postmodernist standards to pre-Modernist verse. The same way
Lovecraft’s contemporaries failed to appreciate the Augustan poets,
and for the same basic reason.

It is my belief that literature sets up the criteria for its own
appraisal. That is, does a sonnet succeed as a sonnet, using the
standards that have developed around the form of a sonnet, as opposed
to a ballad, a ballade, and so forth.

So, then, as i start to write an analysis of Hodgson’s poetry, I have
to ask how successful it is on its own terms. And in comparison to his
contemporaries. I want to compare one aspect of Hodgson’s poetry to
the poetry of Christopher Brennan, to indicate this. That aspect is
his poetic diction. Is Hodgson more or less reliant on Victorianisms
as compared to a major (albeit Australian) contemporary?

I shall quote a representative example from both; first, this is Hodgson:

Speak well of the Dead in thy hearts,

Speak well of the Dead,

Who are looking on, sorrowful, now;

Speak well of the Silent Clay, sped–

Of the sad, bitter Spirit that starts

At each epithet thou

Hurl’st on the defenceless head. (“Speak Well of the Dead” lines 1-7)

This is Brennan:

Thick sleep, with error of the tangled wood,

and vapour from the evening marsh of sense,

and smoothness of the glide of Lethe, would

inaugurate his dullard innocence,

cool’d of his calenture, elaborate brute:

but, all deceitful of his craven hope,

the devious and covert ways of dream

shall lead him out upon no temper’d beam

or thick grass’d ease, where herbs of soothing shoot

in asphodel, but on the shuddering scope

and the chill touch of endless distances

still thronging on the wingless soul that flees

along the self-pursuing path, to find

the naked night before it and behind. (from “Poems”)

There is, in both passages, a degree of freedom away from that
diction. In neither is it overwhelming. And in Hodgson there is a
greater sense of rhythmical looseness, of musicality against Brennan’s
rhythmical compression.

But both passages are in essence equivalent. Neither is closer to
Victorian fustian than the other. Neither is, that is, other than of
its time.

As you may guess, I am fascinated by the ways that poems are developed
and speak through us. So I will be spending much of my time on
Hodgson’s verse looking at how it speaks, its style rather than
substance. In doing so I hope to explore the way Hodgson used his
technique to develop his verse, a technique employed in other areas,
in The Night Land among others.

And I guess I may approach the following question: to what degree was
Hodgson’s need to make a living from his writing detrimental to his
style, and to his literary efforts? That is a question that must be
dealt with, not only when looking at Hodgson, or Lovecraft, but all
writers, from the earliest poets on.

Works Cited
Brennan, Christopher. Poems. Sydney : George Robertson, 1914.

Frank, Jane. “The Lost Poetry Books”. In: Hodgson: v-xi.

Hodgson, William Hope. The Lost Poetry of William Hope
Hodgson
. Ed. Jane Frank. Hornsea : Tartarus Press, 2005.

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1 Comment

Filed under Hodgson, William Hope Hodgson

One response to “An Inchoate Note on the Poetry of William Hope Hodgson by Phillip A. Ellis

  1. “In doing so I hope to explore the way Hodgson used his
    technique to develop his verse, a technique employed in other areas,
    in The Night Land among others.”

    You have my full attention . . .

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