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The Condition of English Poetry 1918-1919

by J. Middleton Murry

Shall we, or shall we not, be serious? To be serious nowadays is to be ill-mannered, and what, murmurs the cynic, does it matter? We have our opinion; we know that there is a good deal of good poetry in the Georgian book, a little in Wheels.[13] We know that there is much bad poetry in the Georgian book, and less in Wheels. We know that there is one poem in Wheels beside the intense and sombre imagination of which even the good poetry of the Georgian book pales for a moment. We think we know more than this. What does it matter? Pick out the good things, and let the rest go.

   [Footnote 13: Georgian Poetry, 1918-1919. Edited by E.M. (The
   Poetry Bookshop.)

Wheels. Fourth Cycle. (Oxford: B.H. Blackwell.)]

And yet, somehow, this question of modern English poetry has become important for us, as important as the war, important in the same way as the war. We can even analogise. Georgian Poetryis like the Coalition Government; Wheels is like the Radical opposition. Out of the one there issues an indefinable odour of complacent sanctity, an unctuous redolence of union sacrée; out of the other, some acidulation of perversity. In the coalition poets we find the larger number of good men, and the larger number of bad ones; in the opposition poets we find no bad ones with the coalition badness, no good ones with the coalition goodness, but in a single case a touch of the apocalyptic, intransigent, passionate honesty that is the mark of the martyr of art or life.

On both sides we have the corporate and the individual flavour; on both sides we have those individuals-by-courtesy whose flavour is almost wholly corporate; on both sides the corporate flavour is one that we find intensely disagreeable. In the coalition we find it noxious, in the opposition no worse than irritating. No doubt this is because we recognise a tendency to take the coalition seriously, while the opposition is held to be ridiculous. But both the coalition and the opposition—we use both terms in their corporate sense—are unmistakably the product of the present age. In that sense they are truly representative and complementary each to the other; they are a fair sample of the goodness and badness of the literary epoch in which we live; they are still more remarkable as an index of the complete confusion of æsthetic values that prevails to-day.

The corporate flavour of the coalition is a false simplicity. Of the nineteen poets who compose it there are certain individuals whom we except absolutely from this condemnation, Mr de la Mare, Mr Davies, and Mr Lawrence; there are others who are more or less exempt from it, Mr Abercrombie, Mr Sassoon, Mrs Shove, and Mr Nichols; and among the rest there are varying degrees of saturation. This false simplicity can be quite subtle. It is compounded of worship of trees and birds and contemporary poets in about equal proportions; it is sicklied over at times with a quite perceptible varnish of modernity, and at other times with what looks to be technical skill, but generally proves to be a fairly clumsy reminiscence of somebody else's technical skill. The negative qualities of this simplesse are, however, the most obvious; the poems imbued with it are devoid of any emotional significance whatever. If they have an idea it leaves you with the queer feeling that it is not an idea at all, that it has been defaced, worn smooth by the rippling of innumerable minds. Then, spread in a luminous haze over these compounded elements, is a fundamental right-mindedness; you feel, somehow, that they might have been very wicked, and yet they are very good. There is nothing disturbing about them; ils peuvent être mis dans toutes les mains; they are kind, generous, even noble. They sympathise with animate and inanimate nature. They have shining foreheads with big bumps of benevolence, like Flora Casby's father, and one inclines to believe that their eyes must be frequently filmed with an honest tear, if only because their vision is blurred. They are fond of lists of names which never suggest things; they are sparing of similes. If they use them they are careful to see they are not too definite, for a definite simile makes havoc of their constructions, by applying to them a certain test of reality.

But it is impossible to be serious about them. The more stupid of them supply the matter for a good laugh; the more clever the stuff of a more recondite amazement. What is one to do when Mr Monro apostrophises the force of Gravity in such words as these?—

  'By leave of you man places stone on stone;
  He scatters seed: you are at once the prop
  Among the long roots of his fragile crop
  You manufacture for him, and insure
  House, harvest, implement, and furniture,
  And hold them all secure.'

We are not surprised to learn further that

  'I rest my body on your grass,
  And let my brain repose in you.'

All that remains to be said is that Mr Monro is fond of dogs ('Can you smell the rose?' he says to Dog: 'ah, no!') and inclined to fish—both of which are Georgian inclinations.

Then there is Mr Drinkwater with the enthusiasm of the just man for moonlit apples—'moon-washed apples of wonder'—and the righteous man's sense of robust rhythm in this chorus from 'Lincoln':—

    'You who know the tenderness
  Of old men at eve-tide,
    Coming from the hedgerows,
  Coming from the plough,
    And the wandering caress
  Of winds upon the woodside,
    When the crying yaffle goes
  Underneath the bough.'

Mr Drinkwater, though he cannot write good doggerel, is a very good man.
In this poem he refers to the Sermon on the Mount as 'the words of light
From the mountain-way.'

Mr Squire, who is an infinitely more able writer, would make an excellent subject for a critical investigation into false simplicity. He would repay a very close analysis, for he may deceive the elect in the same way as, we suppose, he deceives himself. His poem 'Rivers' seems to us a very curious example of the faux bon. Not only is the idea derivative, but the rhythmical treatment also. Here is Mr de la Mare:—

  'Sweet is the music of Arabia
  In my heart, when out of dreams
  I still in the thin clear murk of dawn
  Descry her gliding streams;
  Hear her strange lutes on the green banks
  Ring loud with the grief and delight
  Of the dim-silked, dark-haired musicians
  In the brooding silence of night.
  They haunt me—her lutes and her forests;
  No beauty on earth I see
  But shadowed with that dream recalls
  Her loveliness to me:
  Still eyes look coldly upon me,
  Cold voices whisper and say—
  "He is crazed with the spell of far Arabia,
  They have stolen his wits away."'

And here is a verse from Mr Squire:—

  'For whatever stream I stand by,
  And whatever river I dream of,
  There is something still in the back of my mind
    From very far away;
  There is something I saw and see not,
  A country full of rivers
  That stirs in my heart and speaks to me
    More sure, more dear than they.

  'And always I ask and wonder
  (Though often I do not know it)
  Why does this water not smell like water?…'

To leave the question of reminiscence aside, how the delicate vision of Mr de la Mare has been coarsened, how commonplace his exquisite technique has become in the hands of even a first-rate ability! It remains to be added that Mr Squire is an amateur of nature,—

  'And skimming, fork-tailed in the evening air,
  When man first was were not the martens there?'—

and a lover of dogs.

Mr Shanks, Mr W.J. Turner, and Mr Freeman belong to the same order. They have considerable technical accomplishment of the straightforward kind—and no emotional content. One can find examples of the disastrous simile in them all. They are all in their degree pseudo-naïves. Mr Turner wonders in this way:—

  'It is strange that a little mud
  Should echo with sounds, syllables, and letters,
  Should rise up and call a mountain Popocatapetl,
  And a green-leafed wood Oleander.'

Of course Mr Turner does not really wonder; those four lines are proof positive of that. But what matters is not so much the intrinsic value of the gift as the kindly thought which prompted the giver. Mr Shanks's speciality is beauty. He also is an amateur of nature. He bids us: 'Hear the loud night-jar spin his pleasant note.' Of course, Mr Shanks cannot have heard a real night-jar. His description is proof of that. But again, it was a kindly thought. Mr Freeman is, like Mr Squire, a more interesting case, deserving detailed analysis. For the moment we can only recommend a comparison of his first and second poems in this book with 'Sabrina Fair' and 'Love in a Valley' respectively.

It is only when we are confronted with the strange blend of technical skill and an emotional void that we begin to hunt for reminiscences. Reminiscences are no danger to the real poet. He is the splendid borrower who lends a new significance to that which he takes. He incorporates his borrowing in the new thing which he creates; it has its being there and there alone. One can see the process in the one fine poem in Wheels, Mr Wilfred Owen's 'Strange Meeting':—

  'It seemed that out of the battle I escaped
  Down some profound dull tunnel, long since scooped
  Through granites which Titanic wars had groined.
  Yet also there encumbered sleepers groaned,
  Too fast in thought or death to be bestirred.
  Then, as I probed them, one sprang up, and stared
  With piteous recognition in fixed eyes,
  Lifting distressful hands as if to bless.
  And by his smile, I knew that sullen hall.
  With a thousand fears that vision's face was grained;
  Yet no blood reached there from the upper ground,
  And no guns thumped, or down the flues made moan.
  "Strange, friend," I said, "Here is no cause to mourn."
  "None," said the other, "save the undone years,
  The hopelessness. Whatever hope is yours,
  Was my life also…"'

The poem which begins with these lines is, we believe, the finest in these two books, both in intention and achievement. Yet no one can mistake its source. It comes, almost bodily, from the revised Induction to 'Hyperion.' The sombre imagination, the sombre rhythm is that of the dying Keats; the creative impulse is that of Keats.

  'None can usurp this height, return'd that shade,
  But those to whom the miseries of the world
  Are misery, and will not let them rest.'

That is true, word by word, and line by line, of Wilfred Owen's 'Strange Meeting.' It touches great poetry by more than the fringe; even in its technique there is the hand of the master to be. Those monosyllabic assonances are the discovery of genius. We are persuaded that this poem by a boy like his great forerunner, who had the certainty of death in his heart, is the most magnificent expression of the emotional significance of the war that has yet been achieved by English poetry. By including it in his book, the editor of Wheels has done a great service to English letters.

Extravagant words, it may be thought. We appeal to the documents. Read Georgian Poetry and read 'Strange Meeting.' Compare Wilfred Owen's poem with the very finest things in the Georgian book—Mr Davies's 'Lovely Dames,' or Mr de la Mare's 'The Tryst,' or 'Fare Well,' or the twenty opening lines of Mr Abercrombie's disappointing poem. You will not find those beautiful poems less beautiful than they are; but you will find in 'Strange Meeting' an awe, an immensity, an adequacy to that which has been most profound in the experience of a generation. You will, finally, have the standard that has been lost, and the losing of which makes the confusion of a book like Georgian Poetry possible, restored to you. You will remember three forgotten things—that poetry is rooted in emotion, and that it grows by the mastery of emotion, and that its significance finally depends upon the quality and comprehensiveness of the emotion. You will recognise that the tricks of the trade have never been and never will be discovered by which ability can conjure emptiness into meaning.

It seems hardly worth while to return to Wheels. Once the argument has been pitched on the plane of 'Strange Meeting,' the rest of the contents of the book become irrelevant. But for the sake of symmetry we will characterise the corporate flavour of the opposition as false sophistication. There are the same contemporary reminiscences. Compare Mr Osbert Sitwell's English Gothic with Mr T.S. Eliot's Sweeney; and you will detect a simple mind persuading itself that it has to deal with the emotions of a complex one. The spectacle is almost as amusing as that of the similar process in the Georgian book. Nevertheless, in general, the affected sophistication here is, as we have said, merely irritating; while the affected simplicity of the coalition is positively noxious. Miss Edith Sitwell's deliberate painted toys are a great deal better than painted canvas trees and fields, masquerading as real ones. In the poems of Miss Iris Tree a perplexed emotion manages to make its way through a chaotic technique. She represents the solid impulse which lies behind the opposition in general. This impulse she describes, though she is very, very far from making poetry of it, in these not uninteresting verses:—

  'But since we are mere children of this age,
  And must in curious ways discover salvation
  I will not quit my muddled generation,
  But ever plead for Beauty in this rage.

  'Although I know that Nature's bounty yields
  Unto simplicity a beautiful content,
  Only when battle breaks me and my strength is spent
  Will I give back my body to the fields.'

There is the opposition. Against the righteous man, the mauvais sujet. We sympathise with the mauvais sujet. If he is persistent and laborious enough, he may achieve poetry. But he must travel alone. In order to be loyal to your age you must make up your mind what your age is. To be muddled yourself is not loyalty, but treachery, even to a muddled generation.