Hamilton, (Robert) Ian

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HAMILTON, (Robert) Ian

Nationality: British. Born: King's Lynn, Norfolk, 24 March 1938. Education: Darlington Grammar School; Keble College, Oxford (editor, Tomorrow, 1959–60), B.A. (honors) 1962. Family: Married1) Gisela Dietzel in 1963, one son; 2) Ahdaf Soueif in 1981, two sons. Career: Co-founder and editor, Review, 1962–72, and New Review, 1974–79, London; poetry reviewer, London Magazine, 1962–64, and The Observer, London, 1965–70; poetry and fiction editor, Times Literary Supplement, London, 1965–73; lecturer in poetry, University of Hull, Yorkshire, 1972–73; presenter, Bookmark program, BBC Television, 1984–87. Awards: Eric Gregory award, 1963; Poetry Society of America Melville Cane award, 1983; English-Speaking Union award, 1984. Address: 54 Queen's Road, London S.W.19, England.



Pretending Not to Sleep. London, The Review, 1964.

The Visit. London, Faber, 1970.

Anniversary and Vigil. London, Poem-of-the-Month Club, 1971.

Returning. Privately printed, 1976.

Fifty Poems. London, Faber, 1988.

Steps: Poems. Tregarne, Manaccan, Cornwall, Cargo Press, 1997.

Sixty Poems. London, Faber, 1998.


A Poetry Chronicle: Essays and Reviews. London, Faber, and New York, Barnes and Noble, 1973.

The Little Magazines: A Study of Six Editors. London, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1976.

Robert Lowell: A Biography. New York, Random House, 1982; London, Faber, 1983.

In Search of J.D. Salinger. London, Heinemann, and New York, Random House, 1988.

Writers in Hollywood 1915–1951. London, Heinemann, and New York, Harper, 1990.

Keepers of the Flame: Literary Estates and the Rise of Biography. London, Hutchinson, 1992; New York, Faber, 1994.

Gazza Italia. London, Granta Books, 1994.

Walking Possession: Essays & Reviews 1968–1983. London, Bloomsbury, 1994.

Gazza Agonistes. London, Bloomsbury, 1998.

The Trouble with Money and Other Essays. London, Bloomsbury, 1998.

A Gift Imprisoned: The Poetic Life of Matthew Arnold. London, Bloomsbury, 1998; New York, Basic Books, 1999.

Editor, The Poetry of War, 1939–45. London, Alan Ross, 1965.

Editor, Selected Poetry and Prose, by Alun Lewis. London, Allen and Unwin, 1966.

Editor, The Modern Poet: Essays from "The Review." London, Macdonald, 1968; New York, Horizon Press, 1969.

Editor, Eight Poets. London, Poetry Book Society, 1968.

Editor, Selected Poems, by Robert Frost. London, Penguin, 1973.

Editor, with Colin Falck, Poems since 1900: An Anthology of British and American Verse in the Twentieth Century. London, Macdonald and Jane's, 1975.

Editor, Yorkshire in Verse. London, Secker and Warburg, 1984.

Editor, The "New Review" Anthology. London, Heinemann, 1985.

Editor, Soho Square (2). London, Bloomsbury, 1989.

Editor, Oxford Companion to Twentieth-Century Poetry in English. New York and Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1994.

Editor, Robert Herrick: Selected Poems. London, Bloomsbury, 1996.

Editor, John Milton: Selected Poems. London, Bloomsbury, 1996.

Editor, John Clare: Selected Poems. London, Bloomsbury, 1996.

Editor, Love Sonnets. London, Bloomsbury, 1997.

Editor, Elegies. London, Bloomsbury, 1997.

Editor, Odes. London, Bloomsbury, 1997.

Editor, George Herbert: Selected Poems. London, Bloomsbury, 1997.

Editor, Edward Lear: Selected Poems. London, Bloomsbury, 1997.

Editor, Charlotte Mew. London, Bloomsbury, 1999.

Editor, Edgar Allan Poe. London, Bloomsbury, 1999.

Editor, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. London, Bloomsbury, 1999.

Editor, Algernon Charles Swinburne. London, Bloomsbury, 1999.

Editor, Geoffrey Chaucer. London, Bloomsbury, 1999.

Editor, The Penguin Book of Twentieth-Century Essays. London, Allen Lane, 1999.


Critical Studies: By Peter Firchow, in The Writer's Place: Interviews on the Literary Situation in Contemporary Britain, Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press, 1974; "A Glimpse at Modern English Poetry" by Thilo von Bremen, in Fu Jen Studies (Taipei, Taiwan), 14, 1981; "Pity the Monster? Reflections on a Biography of Robert Lowell" by Edward Neill, in Critical Quarterly (Oxford), 27 (3), autumn 1985.

*  *  *

Ian Hamilton seemed, in the days when his poetry got as close to flourishing as it ever has, to be two contrasting individuals. On the one hand, he was a reviewer with a fearsome reputation, the inheritor of the Grigson billhook; did he not, after all, rumor said, once end a catchall review with "Mr.—'s new book has a nice title"? On the other hand, he was a poet of such vulnerability that one wondered what would have happened had he reviewed his own "Scent of Old Roses," a work that reminded many readers of Dowson and early Yeats, at least in the diction—all those hands, petals, and darkening rooms, all that blood and breath.

Hamilton himself recognizes the dichotomy:

   I decided … to keep the whole business of 'my poetry'
   quite separate from the rest of my so-called literary life: a
   life of book reviews, biographies, anthologies and magazines …

Some said that when The Visit appeared in 1970 the generous reviewing that greeted it had something to do with fear of Hamilton—one might get reviewed in the next issue by this man—which was surely nonsense in a world as honorable as the London literary scene!

It also has to be said at the start that under the occasionally Dowsonesque surface there is a rhythmical sensitivity in Hamilton's poems, a rigorous commitment to emotional accuracy, a dynamic sense of learning going on within the choice of words. Like Michael Fried, whose Powers had made a deep impression on him, Hamilton explored the frighteningly intense moments of lives with a kind of glum courage. The Visit was a powerful book that had, and still has, an extraordinary influence.

At a time when reactions to the perception of the pain of being human were still recovering from Dylan Thomas's occasional facetiousness ("Isn't life a terrible thing, thank God"), various options were in use: whimsy in Liverpool and a system of destruction by drugs and alcohol in America. The most important talent of the time, Geoffrey Hill, chose to look at the world through history. Hamilton, however, who is thoroughly contemporary, offered something neither self-regarding nor jokey nor obscure, and he did not suggest that long-term suicide with whiskey or heroin was the way of the writer.

In the poem "The Recruits," for example, the poet watches himself and a mental patient, who is clearly someone loved, and the details—cats, dead flies, birds—all contribute to an evocation of a terrible calm before the next onslaught:

   Birds line the gutters, and from our window
   We see cats file across five gardens
   To the shade and stand there, tense and sullen,
   Watching the sky. You cry again: 'They know'.
   The dead flies pile up on the window sill …

(I quote here from the version published in The Visit.)

Other poems in the book concern the death of the poet's father. In "Father, Dying" the white roses, while reminiscent of earlier writers, represent the man's fading life, and the effect is overpowering. The strength comes from brevity and reticence. The technique lets Hamilton down only occasionally, when a poem is perhaps only partly penetrable and frankly sentimental ("Epitaph") or less than usually empathetic ("Complaint").

With their air of having had much plotting and narrative cut away, it is always the shortest poems that are the most effective. They give the sense that what is here is what seriously counts and that if we want to be in touch with what it is like to be human we had better listen. This can be seen, for example, in "Awakening":

   Your head, so sick, is leaning against mine,
   So sensible. You can't remember
   Why you're here, nor do you recognize
   These helping hands.
   My love,
   The world encircles us. We're losing ground.

Hamilton is dismissive about the poems that came after The Visit. He describes them in the brief introduction to Fifty Poems as "bruised rewrites of what I'd done before." To me, however, "Bedtime Story," "Ghosts," and "In Dreams" at least have irony and power, as well as the rhythmic tact and lyrical tenderness we have become used to. Other poems were a shock when they first appeared in the Times Literary Supplement and in Review, for they seemed decadent in a different sense from the fin de siècle one. They were poems in which Hamilton seemed anxious still to be writing poems but in which his reticence had dissolved into vagueness, his use of symbols—like green branches and red coats—having become self-parodying. The poems had the decadence, in other words, of a talent that had little to say.

The poem "Larkinesque," for example, seems to have only superficial homage to pay to Larkin. It is an unsuccessful attempt to take material that had earlier been movingly personal and to place it in the public domain of a divorce court. The officialese, the slang, the vulgarity—none of this finds its place in Hamilton's more customary register, and the last line ("Now clutching a slim volume of dead writs") seems a sad return to an earlier manner that no longer has any relevance.

The very arrival of Fifty Poems was thus a surprise to many of Hamilton's admirers, who had assumed that poetry had deserted him. This might have been expected because of his work in the field of biography, both utterly successful (in the case of Robert Lowell) and frustrated yet absorbing (J.D. Salinger). Indeed, much of Hamilton's energy during the past few years has been spent on biography and on writing and its implications generally, for example, the experience of authorship in Hollywood. His Keepers of the Flame explores issues of literary estates and sheds light on many issues of interest to the reader of modern poetry, including, obliquely, Hamilton's own verse.

Although Hamilton's poetic talent may be slender, he can be deeply moving when he is sure of his ground. One hopes for something to shove the work in a new direction so that in 2010 there might be a volume titled "A Hundred Poems," the last part of which is evidence of new preoccupations.

—Fred Sedgwick

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Hamilton, (Robert) Ian

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Hamilton, (Robert) Ian