Tomlinson, (Alfred) Charles

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TOMLINSON, (Alfred) Charles

Nationality: British. Born: Stoke-on-Trent, Staffordshire, 8 January 1927. Education: Longton High School; Queens' College, Cambridge, B.A. in English 1948, M.A.; Royal Holloway and Bedford Colleges, University of London, M.A. 1955. Family: Married Brenda Raybould in 1948; two daughters. Career: Lecturer, 1957–68, reader, 1968–82, professor of English, 1982–92, and since 1992 emeritus professor and senior research fellow, University of Bristol. Visiting professor, 1962–63, and Witter Bynner Lecturer, 1976, University of New Mexico, Albuquerque; O'Connor Professor of Literature, Colgate University, Hamilton, New York, 1967–68, 1989; visiting professor, Princeton University, New Jersey, 1981; Southey Lecturer, University of Bristol, 1982; Clark Lecturer, Cambridge University, 1982; Kenneth Allott Lecturer, University of Liverpool, 1983; Lamont Professor, Union College, Schenectady, New York, 1987; visiting professor, McMaster University, Hamilton, Ontario, 1987; Edmund Blunden Lecturer, Hong Kong, 1987; honorary professor, University of Keele, 1989; Stubbs Lecturer, Toronto, 1992; St. Jerome Lecture on translation, National Translation Centre, Norwich, 1995. Artist: individual shows—Oxford University Press, London, 1972; Clare College, Cambridge, 1975; Arts Council tour, 1978; Poetry Society, London, 1983; Regent's Park College Gallery, Oxford, 1986; Colby College, Waterville, Maine, 1987; and McMaster University, Hamilton, Ontario, 1987. Awards: Bess Hokin prize, 1956; Levinson prize, 1960; Oscar Blumenthal prize, 1960; Union League Civic and Arts Foundation prize, 1961; Inez Boulton prize, 1964; and Frank O'Hara prize, 1968 (Poetry, Chicago); University of New Mexico D.H. Lawrence fellowship, 1963; National Translation Centre grant, 1968; Institute of International Education fellowship, 1968; Cholmondeley award, 1979; Wilbur award for poetic achievement, 1982; Cittadella Premio Europeo, Italy, 1991; Bennett award, New York, 1993; Research residency, Rockefeller Study Center, Bellagio, Italy, 1991. Hon. D.Litt.: University of Keele, Staffordshire, 1981; Colgate University, Hamilton, New York, 1981; University of New Mexico, Albuquerque, 1986. Fellow, Royal Society of Literature, 1974; honorary fellow, Queens' College, Cambridge, 1974; honorary fellow, Royal Holloway and Bedford New College, University of London, 1991; foreign honorary member, American Academy of Arts and Sciences, 1998. Address: Brook Cottage, Ozleworth Bottom, Wotton-under-Edge, Gloucestershire GL12 7QB, England.



Relations and Contraries. Aldington, Kent, Hand and Flower Press, 1951.

The Necklace. Oxford, Fantasy Press, 1955; revised edition, London, Oxford University Press, 1966.

Solo for a Glass Harmonica. San Francisco, Poems in Folio, 1957.

Seeing Is Believing. New York, McDowell Obolensky, 1958; London, Oxford University Press, 1960.

A Peopled Landscape. London, Oxford University Press, 1963.

Poems: A Selection, with Tony Connor and Austin Clarke. London and New York, Oxford University Press, 1964.

American Scenes and Other Poems. London, Oxford University Press, 1966.

The Matachines. Cerillos, New Mexico, San Marcos Press, 1968.

To Be Engraved on the Skull of a Cormorant. London, Unaccompanied Serpent, 1968.

Penguin Modern Poets 14, with Alan Brownjohn and Michael Hamburger. London, Penguin, 1969.

The Way of a World. London, Oxford University Press, 1969.

America West Southwest. Cerillos, New Mexico, San Marcos Press, 1969.

Renga, with others. Paris, Gallimard, 1970; translated by the author, New York, Braziller, 1972; London, Penguin, 1979.

Words and Images. London, Convent Garden Press, 1972.

Written on Water. London, Oxford University Press, 1972.

The Way In and Other Poems. London, Oxford University Press, 1974.

The Shaft. London, Oxford University Press, 1978.

Selected Poems 1951–1974. London, Oxford University Press, 1978.

Oppositions: Debate with Mallarmé for Octavio Paz. Santa Barbara, California, Unicorn Press, n.d.

Stone Speech. Ashington, Northumberland, MidNAG, n.d.

On Water. Ashington, Northumberland, MidNAG, n.d.

Airborn/Hijos del Air, with Octavio Paz. Mexico, Martin Pescador, 1979; London, Anvil Press Poetry, 1981.

The Flood. Oxford and New York, Oxford University Press, 1981.

Notes from New York and Other Poems. Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1984.

Collected Poems 1951–1981. Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1985; revised edition, 1987.

Eden: Graphics and Poetry. Bristol, Redcliffe, 1985.

The Return. Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1987.

Annunciations. Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1989.

Selected Poems. Toronto, Exile, 1989.

The Door in the Wall. Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1992.

Jubilation. Oxford and New York, Oxford University Press, 1995.

Selected Poems 1955–1997. Oxford, Oxford University Press, and New York, New Directions, 1997.

The Vineyard above the Sea. Oxford, Carcanet, 1999.


The Poem As Initiation. Hamilton, New York, Colgate University Press, 1968.

In Black and White (graphics). Cheadle, Cheshire, Carcanet, 1976.

Some Americans: A Personal Record. Berkeley, University of California Press, 1981.

Isaac Rosenberg of Bristol (lecture). Bristol, Bristol Historical Association, 1982.

Poetry and Metamorphosis (lectures). Cambridge and New York, Cambridge University Press, 1983.

The Sense of the Past: Three Twentieth-Century Poets (lecture). Liverpool, Liverpool University Press, 1983.

Translations. Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1983.

Editor, Marianne Moore: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, Prentice Hall, 1969.

Editor, William Carlos Williams: Critical Anthology. London, Penguin, 1972.

Editor, Selected Poems, by William Carlos Williams. London, Penguin, 1976; revised edition, New York, New Directions, 1985.

Editor and Translator, Selected Poems, by Octavio Paz. London, Penguin, 1979.

Editor, The Oxford Book of Verse in English Translation. Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1980.

Editor, Poems of George Oppen. Newcastle upon Tyne, Cloud Press, 1991.

Editor, Eros English'd: Erotic poems from the Greek and Latin. Bristol, Bristol Classical Press, 1991.

Translator, Versions from Fyodor Tyutchev, 1803–1873. London, Oxford University Press, 1960.

Translator, with Henry Gifford, Castilian Ilexes: Versions from Antonio Machado. London, Oxford University Press, 1963.

Translator, with Henry Gifford, Ten Versions from Trilce, by César Vallejo. Cerillos, New Mexico, San Marcos Press, 1970.

Translator, Selected Poems of Attilio Bertolucci. Newcastle upon Tyne, Bloodaxe, 1993.


Manuscript Collections: British Library, London; State University of New York, Buffalo; Harry S. Ransom Manuscript Center at Austin, University of Texas.

Critical Studies: "Negotiation: American Scenes and Other Poems," in Essays in Criticism (Oxford), July 1967, "Philip Larkin and Charles Tomlinson: Realism and Art," in The Present Age edited by Boris Ford, London, Penguin, 1983, and Passionate Intellect: The Poetry of Charles Tomlinson, Kirkham, Liverpool University Press, 1999, all by Michael Kirkham; "The Poetry of Charles Tomlinson," in Agenda 9 (London), 1970, and "Charles Tomlinson," in Twentieth Century Poetry, Milton Keynes, Buckinghamshire, Open University Press, 1976, both by Michael Edwards; by Calvin Bedient, in Eight Contemporary Poets, London and New York, Oxford University Press, 1974; by Michael Schmidt, in PN Review 5 (Manchester), 1, 1977; interview with Alan Ross, in London Magazine, January 1981; Charles Tomlinson: Man and Artist edited by Kathleen O'Gorman, Columbia, University of Missouri Press, 1988; The World As Event: The Poetry of Charles Tomlinson by Brian John, Montreal, McGill University-Queen's University Press, 1989; Charles Tomlinson and the Objective Tradition by Richard Swigg, Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, Bucknell University Press, and London and Toronto, Associated University Presses, 1994; Escritores britanicos en Alcala, I: British Writers at Alcala edited by Ricardo J. Sola Buil and Luis Alberto Lazaro, Alcala de Henares, Spain, Universidad de Alcala de Henares, 1995; Charles Tomlinson issue of Agenda (London), 33(2), summer 1995; "Charles Tomlinson: An Eden in Arden" by Rainer Lengeler, in Poetry in the British Isles: Non-Metropolitan Perspectives, edited by Hans-Werner Ludwig and Lothar Fietz, Cardiff, University of Wales Press, 1995; "Charles Tomlinson and the Automobile: Shifting Perspectives and a Moving Frame" by Judith P. Saunders, in Sagetrieb (Orono, Maine), 14(3), winter 1995; "Louis Zukofsky, Charles Tomlinson, and the 'Objective Tradition'" by Michael Hennessy, in Contemporary Literature (Madison, Wisconsin), 37(2), summer 1996; "The Civility of Relationships: Charles Tomlinson and the Conversion of American Modernism" by Michel Delville, in Symbiosis (England), 1(1), April 1997; "Two Extremes of a Continuum: On Translating Ted Hughes and Charles Tomlinson into Spanish" by Jordi Doce, in Forum for Modern Language Studies (Scotland), 33(1), January 1997; Charles Tomlinson by Timothy Clark, Northcote House, 1999.

Charles Tomlinson comments:

My theme is relationship. The hardness of crystals, the facets of cut glass, but also the shifting of light, energizing weather that is the result of the combination of sun and frost—these are the images for a certain mental climate, components for the moral landscape of my poetry in general. One critic has described that climate as Augustan. But it is an Augustanism that has felt the impact of French poetry—Baudelaire to Valéry—and of modern American poetry. A phenomenological poetry, with roots in Wordsworth and in Ruskin, is what I take myself to be writing. Translation has been an accompanying discipline, and so have drawing and painting.

*  *  *

Charles Tomlinson is widely spoken of as one of the earliest English poets to learn from American poets, yet in his work as a whole, that is, in most of its parts, these influences get transmuted into something that is very English. In a wonderful British countertradition he is an eccentric of the normal—eccentric in his unflagging urgency and resolutely normal in the opposition to poetic inflation—as in the poem "Through Binoculars" from The Necklace:

To see thus
Is to ignore the revenge of light on shadow,
To confound both in a brittle and false union
This fictive extension into madness
Has a kind of bracing effect:
That normality is, after all, desirable
One can no longer doubt having experienced its opposite.

In three of Tomlinson's initial volumes, Relations and Contraries, The Necklace, and Seeing Is Believing, he uses generic American modernist diction, rhythms, tones, and subjects, and like American poets he is haunted by Laforgue, Mallarmé, and Valéry. There are lines, phrases, and structures that evoke Marianne Moore, Wallace Stevens, Pound, and Eliot, and yet by and large the poems are his own. This generalized modernism made Tomlinson seem like a classic very early in his career.

The borrowed style gradually disappeared during the 1950s as Tomlinson put his apprenticeship behind him, but a major trait of his mature work can be found in his earliest poetry. This is a passion for definition that in the course of his work gets less and less abstract, further from the definitions of taste and style—in the manner of young artists announced as revelations from on high—and the analysis of light, sound, and silence in the most abstract terms borrowed from physics, space, and time. He is, in fact, interested in their interaction, as if he wanted to make sense of the space-time of modern physics. What survives from this is sharp observation of nature, cities, architecture, and foreign scenes, accompanied by clearheaded analysis along with very little personal reference, rage, passion, or wild delight. The characteristic voice is that of the reliable and imaginative observer whose sense of reality and whose reasonable and farreaching conclusions can be trusted. Like Wordsworth he is an inveterate drawer of morals from what he sees, and like Herbert he is querulous, discursive, and loyally unorthodox, full of subtly persuasive redefinition.

In terms that have a bearing on his own artistic goals, Tomlinson praises the revolutionary composer Arnold Schoenberg, in exile in America:

But to redeem
both the idiom and the instrument
was reserved
to this exiled Jew—to bring
by fiat
certainty from possibility.

It is typical of Tomlinson's struggle against entrapment by his own strong drive for stability and normalcy that the circle of self and world widen with themes of exile and foreignness, and this is why we find many poems on travel, some of his best work in fact.

We also find a remarkable range of types of poems: modern ballads like "Of Lady Grange" from The Way In and Other Poems; flawless adaptions of eighteenth-century moralized narratives in a series of poems on the French Revolution in The Shaft; and a life of Denham, also from The Shaft, that does not contain a false note. Other poems, such as "Class" and "The Rich," sound like Larkin. The following lines are from the latter:

I like the rich—the way
they say 'I'm not made of money':
their favorite pastoral
is to think they're not rich at all—
poorer, perhaps, than you or me,
for they have the imagination of that fall
into the pinched decency
we take for granted.

It is characteristic that Tomlinson is not interested in the easy wisecrack that ends with the second line, and the sentence drives on for a larger, richer picture that includes the self-reflexive speaker's world. This range, along with the American poems in the style of William Carlos Williams and Robert Creeley and the international style in his collaboration on Renga, a cycle of poems with Octavio Paz, Eduardo Sanguineti, and Jacques Roubaud, gives an accurate measure of the depth of his "myriad-mindedness" and therefore of his need for diversity of form and content. There is no hunger to keep in fashion in his many changes, for he is an inventor and not a follower.

Tomlinson's carrying rhythm is a vers liberé, not quite free verse, that suggests an iambic pentameter norm as its background rhythmic ghost. It becomes closer to a regular iambic meter in the two books of the late 1980s, The Return and Annunciations. These lines from "Carrara Revisited," from the latter book, are quite regular:

Only in flight could you gather at a glance
So much of space and depth as from this height;
Yet flight would blur the unbroken separation
Of fragile sounds from solid soundless—
The chime of metal against distant stone,
The crumple and the crumble of devastation
Those quarries filter up at us.

But while this meter is his most common, Tomlinson's departures are highly significant, most notably with the use of Williams's so-called triadic line. Like Williams he can use it for searching and meditative purposes as well as for his surgically apt description. These lines are from "The Impalpabilities" in A Peopled Landscape:

It is the sense
of things that we must include
because we do not understand them
the impalpabilitiesin
the marine dark
the chords
that will not resolve themselves
but hang
in an orchestral undertow

The brilliant use of Williams's highly personal invention is full and adequate to Tomlinson's needs. (If the lines sound like anyone of the older generation, it is Marianne Moore.)

Many poets regard Tomlinson's inventive use of off-rhyme as one of his greatest gifts to the craft. An example of this brilliance is seen in the so-called analyzed rhyme in the following lines that begin "The Oaxaca Bus" from American Scenes:

Fiat Voluntas Tua:
over the head of the driver
an altar. No end to it,
the beginning seems to be
Our Lady of Solitude
blessing the crowd...

Technical questions lead to aesthetic ones, and a recurrent symbol, like stolen theology incorporated into art, is the notion of Eden that appears regularly from Seeing Is Believing to Annunciations. Despite the diversity and increasing maturity of his work, Eden remains Tomlinson's symbol for the perfection that only art can imagine and embody. It is not an idea as fully developed as Yeats's Byzantium, but it is a reminder of the extraordinary potency of art in its dual nature as the lost and the promised, that which is most to be desired and necessary to renounce.

—Barry Goldensohn