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CONSTANTINE, David (John)


Nationality: British. Born: Salford, Lancashire, 4 March 1944. Education: Manchester Grammar School, 1955–62; Wadham College, Oxford, 1962–66, B.A. (honors) in modern languages 1966, Ph.D. 1971. Family: Married Helen Best in 1966; one daughter and one son. Career: Lecturer, then senior lecturer in German, University of Durham, 1969–81. Since 1981 fellow in German, Queen's College, Oxford. Literary editor, Oxford Magazine.Awards: Alice Hunt Bartlett prize, 1984; Sir Steven Runciman prize, for nonfiction, 1984; Southern Arts Literature prize, 1987. Address: 1 Hill Top Road, Oxford OX4 1PB, England.

Publications

Poetry

A Brightness to Cast Shadows. Newcastle upon Tyne, Bloodaxe, 1980.

Watching for Dolphins. Newcastle upon Tyne, Bloodaxe, 1983.

Talitha Cumi, with Rodney Pybus. Newcastle upon Tyne, Bloodaxe, 1983.

Mappa Mundi. Hereford, Five Seasons Press, 1984.

Madder. Newcastle upon Tyne, Bloodaxe, 1987.

Selected Poems. Newcastle upon Tyne, Bloodaxe, 1991.

Caspar Hauser. Newcastle upon Tyne, Bloodaxe, 1994.

The Pelt of Wasps. Newcastle upon Tyne, Bloodaxe, 1998.

Novel

Davies. Newcastle upon Tyne, Bloodaxe, 1985.

Short Stories

Back at the Spike. Keele, Ryburn Publishing, 1994.

Other

The Significance of Locality in the Poetry of Friedrich Hölderlin. London, Modern Humanities Research Association, 1976.

Early Greek Travellers and the Hellenic Ideal. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1984.

Hölderlin. Oxford and New York, Oxford University Press, 1988.

Friedrich Hölderlin. Munich, Beck, 1992.

Editor, German Short Stories 2. London, Penguin, 1976.

Translator, Selected Poems of Hölderlin. Newcastle upon Tyne, Bloodaxe, 1990.

Translator, with Helen Constantine, Henri Michaux: Déplacements Dégagements. Newcastle upon Tyne, Bloodaxe, 1990.

Translator, with Mark Treharne, Pensées sous les Nuages, by Philippe Jaccottet, Newcastle upon Tyne, Bloodaxe Books, 1994.

Translator, Die Wahlverwandtschaften. Oxford and New York, Oxford University Press, 1994.

Translator, Selected Writings of Heinrich von Kleist. London, Dent, 1997.

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Critical Study: "Arcadia Revisited: An Interview with David Constantine" by Bruce Meyer, in Waves (Richmond Hill, Ontario), 14(4), spring 1986.

David Constantine comments:

I have written poems as a way of dealing with the world I live in. I like to be tangible and close, having perhaps a particular place or a particular person in mind, but the expression I arrive at may often be oblique (I like the myths, their characters and structures). I try to give my poems a definite shape; formlessness makes me uneasy. I think of writing as a way of combating the sort of ideology we have lived under in Britain for too many years. I think that poetry is intrinsically, in its rhythms, a gesture in favor of generous and passionate life.

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After the publication of his first full-length volume in 1980 when he was thirty-six, David Constantine's reputation developed rapidly, to a point where by the end of the 1980s he was regarded as one of England's most important poets. This is despite the fact that he is the most un-English of poets in several respects. The principal influences on him are classical poetry and modern German and French writers, with the result that he is entirely free of the elegant, self-constraining ironies characteristic of contemporary English poetry. In Alvarez's terms, he is farther from "the gentility principle" than almost anyone writing seriously in English. This is not accidental; both major tendencies of his writing—toward the overtly sensual and toward social observation—are determinedly opposed to genteel restraints.

This program was already in evidence in A Brightness to Cast Shadows, the blurb of which called the poetry "direct and uncomplicated." The main impression here is of a writer who is l'homme moyen sensuel, often, indeed, more than moyen. But the sensuality has to be seen in the context of the overall meaning of the poetry. It is as much tactile as sexual (as in "Streams"), and it is only one insistent aspect of human fulfillment as a whole, no more or less significant than the intellectual, though it is more prominent at this stage. Several technical features of the poetry recall German poets such as Heine and Hölderlin (the latter translated by Constantine to great critical acclaim), taking a poem's opening words as the title, for example, or starting in medias res—both techniques evidenced in "But Most You Are Like." And it is not only nineteenth-century German poetry that is evoked. It is hardly an overstatement, for example, to call Constantine a courtly love poet in the way the word "mercy" is used with a subtle ambivalence between the amorous and the religious. Other characteristics of the earlier poems, sustained in his later work, are an objectivity achieved by a varying persona and a marked social concern in a series of poems about down-and-outs. The volume is dominated by a single poem (in a way that his later volumes have not been), an impressive sequence about the death of his grandfather in World War I, "In Memoriam 8571 Private J.W. Gleave." All of Constantine's strengths are in evidence here—precision, formality, and unsentimental compassion. It tends perhaps to overbalance the book; only the long Aphrodite poem, "Among Those Fortunate Dwellers," does not seem dwarfed by the sequence.

Admired as this first volume was, Constantine's second, Watching for Dolphins, was immediately recognized as a more impressive achievement, and it won the 1984 Alice Hunt Bartlett prize. The individual poems are both larger and more complex, and the volume cannot be called "direct and uncomplicated." There is a higher proportion of mythological poems, providing a weightier start to the volume, and it ends with a series of fine translations, including some brilliant versions of Sappho. Most impressively, the volume gains authority by its greater stylistic uniformity. The opening in medias res has great sureness and expertise and is often evocative, perhaps coincidentally, of Meredith's Modern Love: "But then her name, coming to her averted" ("Bluebells"). Significant of the increased ambition is the way a haunting poem from the first book, "The Drowned," finds its place among a group of even stronger poems in a series here called "Islands." Both as a whole and in its individual poems, of which the title poem has achieved celebrity, Watching for Dolphins shows greater power and confidence. The use of Christian-derived and classical mythology in collaboration in the sensual personal poems creates a consistent humanist philosophy, expressed across a wide eclectic range.

Constantine's book Madder builds on these strengths to achieve an even more persuasive wholeness. The socially conscious element, which also is powerfully evident in Constantine's novel, Davies, is integrated into the humanist philosophy, with economic privation held to be deplorable because it denies its victims the capacity to achieve full humanity. Tactile sensuality or imaginative exultation in nature cannot be achieved where the violence and injustice coldly faced in poems like "Eldon Hole" and "Pictures" prevail. Constantine's established themes and subjects are found here: shells, mercy, streams, solitude, sexual closeness. "Sols," a long, imaginative elegy on the death of the poet's three-week-old cousin, born a year before him, is possibly his finest single poem. The virtue of the volume is that the technical skills and devices that earlier had excited admiration, sometimes at the expense of calling attention to themselves, have now settled into a light but telling artlessness, as at the ambiguous end of "Donn' Elvira" from the "Don Giovanni" sonnets:

   I am the widow of a man at whom
   I never smiled as though I were his whore.

It is a poetry in which the public and private sides of life are in equilibrium and that presents the world, seen in its fullness, as always worth living in.

This drive toward humane seriousness Constantine sees as a restoration of English poetry to its true traditions in an age that desperately needs it. He would claim, after all, to be an archetypally English poet of an ageless school.

—Bernard O'Donoghue

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Constantine, David (John)

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