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Robert Wells
Born: August 17, 1947 in Oxford, England
Other Names: Wells, Robert Willis, Jr.
Nationality: American
Poets of Great Britain and Ireland Since 1960. Ed. Vincent B. Sherry. Dictionary of Literary Biography Vol. 40. Detroit, MI: Gale, 1985. From Literature Resource Center.
Full Text: COPYRIGHT 1985 Gale Research, COPYRIGHT 2007 Gale, Cengage Learning



  • 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:

For hand in hand with hope, life in his hands,
And clothed in powerful youth, he turns aside
From local ambition, even from the abyss
Of human feeling, though to stand at loss,
Frustrate or joyous amid the idle paths
Where nature cancels history, where strength
Of body is the means toward its own end;
And is the strongest he will ever be.
The laborer achieves fulfillment, not in self-absorption and introspection, like so many romantic solitaries, but in completing one task and moving on to the next, engaging the world actively through hard work. Hence the protagonist struggles "to break/the tryst of self-possession," to shake off both childhood memories and existential doubts about the final value of the products of his labor. The poem concludes by discovering in the task a deeper way of apprehending and embracing a reality and purpose beyond the self.

"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 knot cuts across however far
You cut back the wood,
A deep engraining. The figure moving there
Is not where your passion centres
But is a likeness of the shape
That itself moves inside you.
The second stanza of the poem, however, acknowledges that apprehension of this core of being will upset the inward-turning impulses of the ego. This theme is also developed in the next poem in the volume, "The Changeling," a sensitive account of childhood betrayal, nightmarish history and insomnia. These two poems immediately precede the title poem, which seems to offer a corrective to the introspective urges they express.

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:

His nature was mild like the fields.
It was the soft turf under his tread,
The alteration of weather.
But desire was in his nature too
And that was not like the fields.
This desire which hinders harmony with the landscape takes two different forms in Wells. In poems such as "The Changeling" and "The Knot," one senses an inner turmoil, rooted in childhood dreams and disappointments, which the maturing protagonist struggles to master. Elsewhere, in "Angel," "Virginity," and the quartet of brief lyrics consisting of "Bonfire," "His Thirst," "Love's Default," and "The Stream," the poet describes a desire for human love which is limited by the laborer's sparse and solitary life. A few of these poems invoke an absent loved one, as in, for example, "Morning." Two poems in the collection, "The Trance" and "Deus Loci," record with almost mystic intensity the intuition of a hidden but compelling divine presence in the landscape. Thus "Deus Loci" invokes a deity who "is on the edge of appearing, and is withheld/only by so slight a thing as his absence." But if human and divine absence can evoke a sense of presence and love in the empty landscape, Wells also records the laborer's frequent sense of solitude in the company of his fellow workers. "Lost Company," "Cattlemen," "On the Hillside," and "The First Thing," for example, reflect in various ways on the pleasures of solitude which one finds both in company and in unexpected separations from one's fellows.

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:

Keep away the lizards with bright green scaly backs
And harmful birds like the bee-eater and swallow,
Its breast-feathers stained by Procne's hands for a sign.
These do great damage, snatching the bees from flight--
Sweet morsels to stop their nestlings' gaping throats.
There should be water close by, pools green with moss,
And a small stream running shallowly through the grass
This passage demonstrates well the economy and smoothness of the translator's verse as well as his skill in capturing the life, variety, and color of the Latin poet's rural world.

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.



  • 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.

Source Citation   (MLA 8th Edition)
Staudt, Kathleen Henderson. "Robert Wells." Poets of Great Britain and Ireland Since 1960, edited by Vincent B. Sherry, Gale, 1985. Dictionary of Literary Biography Vol. 40. Literature Resource Center, Accessed 22 May 2019.

Gale Document Number: GALE|H1200003830