- Biographical and Critical Essay
- The Winter's Task
- "The Knot"
- Writings by the Author
- Further Readings about the Author
WRITINGS BY THE AUTHOR:
- The Winter's Task (Manchester: Carcanet Press, 1977).
- Selected Poems (Manchester, U.K.: Carcanet, 1986).
- Jim Hunter, ed., Modern Poets Five: C. H. Sisson, Andrew Waterman, Craig Raine, Robert Wells, Tom Paulin, Andrew Motion, includes notes by Hunter and Wells (London: Faber & Faber, 1981).
- Vergil: The Georgics, translated by Wells (Manchester: Carcanet Press, 1982).
- "Nine Poems," PN Review, 5, no. 2 (1977): 54.
- "For Pasolini," PN Review, 5, no. 4 (1978): 26.
- "Leaving" and "Nothing But the Flicker of Leaf Shadow," PN Review, 6, no. 4 (1979): 46.
- "Virgil's Fourth Georgie," PN Review, 8 (Winter 1981): 22-26.
Robert Wells, one of a number of young poets currently published by the PN Review and Carcanet Press, has been praised most often for the classical purity of form and subject in his poetry. Deeply influenced by long study of Greek and Latin poetry, his style is lucid and carefully wrought. His orientation to the world is at once objective and also morally engaged.
For his commitment to formal clarity, Wells is frequently associated with his friends and contemporaries Clive Wilmer and Dick Davis . Thom Gunn and Yvor Winters have also been cited as modern poets whose ideas harmonize with Wells's own practice, and one can detect echoes of the British preromantics--especially William Collins. Thomas Gray , William Cowper , and James Thomson--in the landscape poems of The Winter's Task (1977). Nonetheless, Wells's style is finally a particular and original one, developing in calm, stable, and transparent forms a modern pastoral vision deeply rooted in the landscapes of Exmoor, on the Devon-Somerset border, and of the Licenza Valley in the Sabine Hills outside Rome.
Wells was born in Oxford, the son of a classical don and teacher at the university. From about his tenth year, his education consisted largely of translating between English and Greek or Latin, and his poetic style testifies to this long devotion to the classics. Wells read classics and English at King's College, Cambridge, from 1965 to 1968. During this period, he became close friends with fellow poets Clive Wilmer , Dick Davis , and Michael Vince. Between 1968 and 1979, after completing his studies at Cambridge, Wells worked as a forester on the coast of Exmoor, North Devon, and later as a teacher of English in southern Italy and in Iran. The landscapes of Exmoor and southern Italy are brought to life vividly in The Winter's Task .
The title poem of this collection, which focuses on the figure of a woodcutter working alone in Exmoor, offers an extended meditation on the virtues of solitary labor in nature. As in many poems in this volume, the protagonist is described in the third person, so that despite the details of his consciousness, the poetic self is objectified. The poem emphasizes the changelessness of the natural landscape despite the passage of time and the efforts of human energy. Ultimately, it celebrates the laborer's pursuit of work for its own sake, as he moves out of himself and lays hold of a fundamental and objective reality:
"The Winter's Task," with its twelve stanzas, is the longest and most ambitious poem in the volume. The other poems, however, demonstrate a remarkable mastery of the brief (4-6 line) lyric. Such poems as "His Thirst," "The Bathing Place," "Off the Path," "Waterfall," "At the Well," and "After Haymaking" rely on vivid and concisely expressed images to convey the simple sensuous pleasures of the worker's life. Others develop more specifically the effort to find within work a core of reality which would lift the individual worker out of the self-absorbed "abyss of human feeling" into the stately peace of the landscape. As the poem "The Knot" suggests, discovering this core of being in nature is analogous to achieving "self-possession," but it involves moving beyond the subjective world:
The tension between the conflicting demands of inner self and outer world is summarized well in "Not Like the Fields," which also exemplifies the spare, meditative style of some of Wells's shorter poems:
The contemporary pastoral vision comes into sharper focus in a group of poems toward the end of the volume--"Disco," "While Dancing," "Expectations," and "At the Back of His Mind," which look longingly at rural life from the perspective of the modern urban world. "Outside," "Vendemmia," and "Gran Sasso" recall in loving and literal detail the sounds and shapes of rural southern Italy. The Winter's Task ends with a few experiments in less typical themes and forms, notably in the final two poems. "The Last Caliph" is based on an incident from Persian history and traceable, perhaps, to Wells's time in Iran. The final poem, "Chinese Dish," demonstrates Wells's attraction to the clarity and fluidity of Chinese poetry, which he has read in translation by A. C. Graham, Arthur Waley, and Ezra Pound .
Given the classical lucidity evident in The Winter's Task, it is not surprising to find that Wells's most recent work has been a translation of Vergil's Georgics completed while he was teaching English at Leicester University, from 1979 to 1982. His introduction to this volume provides useful insights into the things he most appreciates in classical poetry and the qualities he strives to achieve in his own work. He expresses admiration, for example, for Vergil's valuation of hard work as a means to discover "the mind that is present in matter and the sympathies that bind things together" and for the Vergilian analogy between the labor of the farmer and that of the poet. His account of Vergil's style suggests a source of his own commitment to clarity, accuracy, and objectivity in poetry: "Vergil's clarity is not a clarity of surface--it has not that sharpness of edge and line that Ezra Pound has taught us to look for. To read Vergil is like looking down through very clear water; one is barely conscious of the surface, but the objects on the riverbed are made to shine. Bathed in his sensibility the world has a subdued brightness, like pebbles underwater, all their colours enlivened."
The initial response to Wells's translation of the Georgics has been positive, and as poems in their own right, Wells's versions effectively transmit to the English speaking reader the pleasure that he has found in the Latin poet's style and rural themes. Among the many examples one might cite is the beginning of the fourth Georgic, where the poet tells the beekeeper what animals to keep away from the hive:
In addition to the translations from Vergil, Wells has published a number of other poems in PN Review since the appearance of The Winter's Task. Notable among these is "For Pasolini," a poem in memory of the Italian poet, which vividly describes a decaying and disorderly landscape, reflecting elegiacally on the loss of the antique virtues celebrated both in Pasolini's early work and in The Winter's Task. The elegiac tone of this poem, critical of life in the modern world, indicates one of the more recent directions of Wells's poetry. He also hopes to do further work on classical translation, perhaps of the work of Theocritus.
Although Robert Wells is still young and his work quite recent, a number of readers have hailed him as one of the most important and promising talents of his generation. Perhaps because of his long devotion to the classics and to the landscapes he loves, he brings to poetry a sincerity, discipline, freshness, and depth of moral vision that many of his contemporaries welcome.
FURTHER READINGS ABOUT THE AUTHOR
- David Middleton, "'Men in Dark Times': Three New British Poets," Southern Review, 15 (Summer 1979): 585-604.
- Michael Schmidt, "The Time and the Place," Kenyon Review, new series 3 (Summer 1981): 9-31.