WITH A SHORT preliminary bow to Samuel Johnson's Lives of the Poets William H. Pritchard has run through nine modern poets at the rate of 30 pages each. They are Thomas Hardy, E. A. Robinson, William Butler Yeats, Robert Frost, Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot, Wallace Stevens, Hart Crane and William Carlos Williams. His detail about the lives themselves is, however, perfunctory (he gives Frost the fullest treatment), with the emphasis falling not on biography but upon the character that each poet provides himself in his poems -- that is, his distinctive voice, tone, expressive manner. Thus Hardy is a brooder, "leaning on a coppice gate at the end of the nineteenth century and wondering what it all means," while Yeats is an actor, a displayer rather than an explorer of self, and Severns is a musician, a constant reacher after the sound of a scene, a moment, a truth. Pritchard's book might have been more appropriately titled The Stances of the Poets.

Such a focus has the merit of keeping a reader attentive to the nuances of a poet's words rather than the journeying of his soul, and of course the endeavor of English teachers for some decades has been pretty steadily (and with less and less effect) in this direction. The fault of the focus is that it encourages the exclusion of many not unimportant poetic elements -- a poet's thought, beliefs, themes, for instance -- and Pritchard is a confirmed excluder. He is thus very stern about the vice of paraphrasing poems (though when he has to do it himself he does it well, and in his discussions of some of the major long poems of the century -- Eliot's Waste Land and Pound's Cantos, most conspicuously -- he manages not to say a word about them as social-cultural commentary. I am reminded of a complaint against Cardinal Newman (cited by Lytton Strachey) a century ago when he was raising a little ecclesiastical hell within the Catholic Church. The complaint was not that he was entertaing heretical or disloyal views, but that he was entertaining any views. Lurking behind the pritchard exclusions is a similar sentiment, I judge, about poets' views, and I do think that the poems (and poets too) suffer in this volume as a result.

Also, the preoccupation with tone and voice -- and the resultant exlusions -- lead to insistently referential rather than expository matter. The book's apparent broad scope suggests that it is aimed at a general audience, but in fact it leaves out so much elementary material about what poems are "about" and what the poets have on their minds aside from their stances, that I think it will be cordially received only by English teachers (and they will find little new in it). Furthermore, it is a book steadily dedicated to friendly arguments with other critics, dozens of them, including me. Pritchard's handling of the critics is marked by good taste, good sense and considerateness, but the mere fact of their continuous presence suggests again that his interest is professional and inward, toward the possible critical responses to a poem, rather than outward to the responses of the great unwashed.

What critics is he with? He has great respect for Hugh Kenner, yet things that Kenner has overdefended Pound's Cantos, surely a modest reservation. He also has respect of the Yale triumvirate of Harold Bloom, Geoffrey Hartman and J. Hillis Miller, but thinks that they, along with Helen Vendler, have probably given Stevens too "exalted" a place in the poet gallery. In other words he does not share the most extreme views of these figures, yet his orientation is essentially theirs, not that of the now old New Critics, those sometimes obsessed masters of exegesis.

Eliot may be the poet who is best served by Pritchard's approach. (He chooses Eliot and Frost as the two best poets of our century.) No doubt about it, "The Love Son of J. Alfred Prufrock" is a poem primarily of a voice, an appealing, lost, post-adolescent voice; and in two or three pages Pritchard does brilliantly with it. The Waste Land too fares well despite the large omissions, it being an exotic medley of voices from dozens of places. And Four Quartets can be read well as a medley also, but of themes perhaps more than voices. Reading Eliot's art as caricature, as a "titanic show" --Eliot's characterization of Ben Jonson's plays that Pritchard applies to Eliot himself -- does bring back immediacy and life to the poems, life withdrawn by the exegetes with their footnotes.

And Pritchard is not only good on Eliot; he is also as much indebted to him as to the current critics for his strictures against venturing into the world of the poet's ideas, convictions, private feelings. His indebtedness is, however, primarily to the early Eliot here, and I think he displays his own critical excesses when, in discussing a passage from late Eliot, he tells us not to take seriously such big statements in the passage as "the poetry does not matter." The passage, from "East Coker," seems to me wholly serious in the sense of being straight from the poet, the poet with his own aging, least-staged voice. If is a fine passage, from a poet from whom poetry had obviously always meant a great deal; and I simply believe his earnestness when he says -- as someone would speak a truth arrived at with difficulty over a long life -- that the poetry does not matter. Pritchard wants us to see the passage as yet more "show," very extravagant, daring.

Literary criticism can be deadly, I think when it does not allow the poet the privilege of just plain saying. "Literary criticism than in effect demands of poetry that it be trivial.