Note. There is a chapter or so on the 1940s in 'Origins of the Underground'. This, below, is extra material about the poetry of this lost decade.
2nd edit July 2007
Metakaluptical: The shared 40s project
or, The neo-Romantic Agony(version 1, January 2002, was released on the Pinko site)
(status: eager & scruffy research notes)
This area is meant really as an hommage to James Keery, after I got to understand his point about the continuity between the 1940s and the 1960s – especially through his wonderful essay ‘Schonheit Apocalyptica’, which I read in 1999. I hope to get James to release some material here. “Schonheit” is available on the Internet in the symposium on Prynne which Kevin Nolan has edited for JACKET. (http://jacketmagazine.com).
My book ORIGINS OF THE UNDERGROUND (published by Salt in November 2008) is about the 1940s and the 1960s, and the origins of the underground. A shift towards the 1940s really meant the end of my contemporary poetry project, towards history and, inevitably, politics and ideology (both historical only). I wrote the 1940s chapter of ORIGINS in 2000. My ability to read this kind of poetry, and my knowledge of the range of poetry of that time, have increased greatly since that time. The kind of rethinking of the long duration which Keery is proposing is not going to complete in a short time. The pressure of new material has been wonderfully exciting but has not permitted a complete rethink so far.
Addendum. Salt keep moving the publication date, but they have now sworn that they will get me proofs in November 2007, so we can expect publication in the first half of 2008. High time, given that it was nearly in a finished state in 2000.
Metakaluptical brouhaha: Wonderment at the fate of the New Romantic poets
Apocalypse reverses apokrupsis: what was hidden shall be revealed – and, apparently, vice versa. One of the phenomena of the new decade (and of the later nineties) is the recovery of the poetry of the 1940s from under carefully-supervised Movement debris. The equation was easy to make, in the 1960s: the 1950s literary commissars (the interpenetrative elite) had risen to prominence by destroying the careers of the 40s poets (New Romantics or Apocalyptics), were busy destroying the nascent careers of the 60s radicals, and the conclusion followed (wrongly) that there was an occult link between the 40s and the 60s. There was this incentive to dig out the works and persons of the Encrypted Generation, and to use them as ammunition. I believe this is the background to the wave of revisionist readings of the 1940s which is now destabilising literary history. James Keery’s edition of the poems of Burns Singer, republication of Lynette Roberts, the announced publication of a Selected Poems of Joseph Macleod by Waterloo Press, the new volume of WS Graham’s Letters, point to a disturbing re-arrangement of the past.
Joyce Cary supplies this perfect description of the Apocalyptor: “But how much more fearfully ghostly was this apparition that shook in every joint, whose enormous pale eyes were full of an excitement equally extravagant – whose very words sounded like the language of a world where meanings defied any common syntax.” (description of Gerald Wilde, in Nimbus) Let’s get this joint shaking! Wilde was the Screamin’ Jay Hawkins of 40s painters, wires jittering with the conduction of chaos.
One of the appeals of 40s revisionism is as a shopping project. An increase of prices is probably a symptom of the legitimation of a weird retro-ist subculture, alas. I remain irritated at various record-breaking claims by other people “I bought a complete run of Nimbus for 15p from a car boot sale in Wigan in between collecting the kids from Sunday School”, etc. But shopping drove the whole engine – once you’ve bought Hendry’s the orchestral mountain for £3, you want to develop a device for reading it. Reading is a purposeful distortion of the receptive organs. This was the source of the delay – but is proving productive now there are some people who can read the further reaches of 40s excess. Deform without breaking. I admit that I bought a copy of the 1949 New Romantic Anthology for 55p. Keery’s bulimic recuperative-bibliophile raids on junkshops, library sales, the cellars of Warrington Town Hall, a disused Police Store in Southport, municipal dumps outside Lewes, the fishdocks at Peterhead, and a sunken wreck somewhere off Spitsbergen, defy description. When competing with James, it’s time to pull out the cards of doubtful legality – Peter Yates, TS Law, Macleod’s Choric Scenas. The search for ever more marginal NR poets goes on apace in the pages of Poetry London, Kingdom Come, Folios of New Writing, White Crow, Cormorant & Cicada, Poetry Scotland, Phoenix, Ore, Cambridge Front, Counterpoint, Poetry Quarterly, Cahiers Apoplax. Attempts to revive Randall Swingler, David Gascoyne, or Nicholas Moore have met with incredulity on the part of the decryptic community.
The craze starts as a reaction against Tolley’s version of events. Really, it’s only people ignored or knocked about by Tolley who score you points in this game. Bouncing a ball off Ian Hamilton’s head also scores – he wrote a haughty essay denouncing the Apocalyptics for not being soldiers and for not being Real Men like Keith Douglas, so James finding an original copy of Douglas’ first book with a Horseman of the Apocalypse on the dust-jacket was a moment of restitution. Karlien van den Beukel’s discovery of translations of Dunstan Thompson into Spanish by Jorge Luis Borges also invites envy.
The three-dimensional insight that a whole scene was essential produced light from various angles. James Keery has undertaken a stunning revision of the whole modern history of British poetry. “Schönheit apocalyptica”, his new essay, methodically demonstrates the links between Apocalypse, religious language, and Prynne – a dizzying step forward. Simon Jenner has adopted a group of “second string” 40s Oxford poets, as expounded in a recent issue of Eratica, while remaining agnostic on the subject of the New Romantics. Nigel Wheale has written on Lynette Roberts in connection with the Romantic films of the 40s, especially ‘A Matter of Life and Death’, opening up fascinating perspectives on the use by poetry of the cinematic imagination, its new landscapes and ways of seeing. David Mellor’s ground-breaking 1987 Barbican exhibition on the Romantic 40s, 'A Paradise Lost?', put the New Romantic painters back on the agenda. Malcolm Yorke’s subsequent book Spirit of Place: 9 neo-romantic painters and their times is of great value for these artists, directly illuminating the poetic universe of the time. Andrew Crozier wrote the section on poetry for the catalogue of the exhibition, republished some key poems of Hendry for the Conductors of Chaos anthology, and has written (allegedly) a book covering 20 years of mid-century poetry (possibly 1930-56?), which will transform our understanding of the whole period. I have been trying to rehabilitate Dunstan Thompson and George Barker.
All this is more than just a historical metaphor for the resurrection of poetry of the 1970s from under a flooring of cultural lies. However, just as the unspoken question was whether the poets of the 70s were ever going to blow their way out of the crypt, the unspoken problem with the NRs was why they had fallen silent under hostile pressure, and, researchably, had there been a “second generation” of this poetry, “extravagant excitement” in some lost valley of the 1950s proto-underground. James claims that there is a goldmine of 40s poetry composed in the 1950s, which I remain sceptical of. Ore magazine (1953-96) did actually claim to be a “second generation” of the New Romantics.
Let us imagine a separation of rational and irrational faculties, into right hand and left. This separation runs through religion and art. The replacement of (most of?) the temporal functions of the Church, over the stretch roughly 1850-1950, by the secular State (charity, schooling, writing of books) has led to a revaluation by Christians of the irrational, of primitive religion, and of the apocalyptic books. The Apocalyptic formula was "Blake plus Lawrence", and the group were immediately dependent on Lawrence’s book Apocalypse. The literary or spiritual sources of this were in Ascona, an arty community into the natural life, expressive dancing, and (especially) non-European religion – notably via the Eranos gathering. Martin Green’s book on Ascona is called The Counter-Culture Begins, and he is right – this was a source of the Counter Culture. The Ascona/ Jung/ Eliade connection was rather important for the new poetic imagery of the 1960s and 1970s, the “New Age” groove. The English translation of Jung leads us to Nimbus, one of the last New Romantic magazines, flourishing in the 1950s (and dug up by Keery).
The release of a book by Charles Madge (only fifty-three years after his previous one!) brought up questions of documentary and sociology which lie slumbering beneath the modern pattern. For example, could we see the urge to phenomenological accuracy in describing mental experience as a derivation of documentary and Mass Observation, an optical analysis taken one stage further. Madge is the obvious forerunner of certain attempts at philosophical precision of recent decades, but the new (1949) work in the Anvil volume, Poem by Stages, includes a lot of religious imagery – bringing it close to the Apocalyptics. Madge planned to write a book on dreams at one point. Poems by Madge and Terence Tiller show a distinctly non-romantic view of poetry, preoccupied with optics, reflexivity, the insight given by tiny flaws.
The 1949 collection (A New Romantic Anthology) reveals the prominence of Welsh and Scottish writers in this uproar, offering a new angle on the cultural coup of the Movement gangsters in the early 1950s; their vision was not only stylistically narrow but also geographically confined to Southern England and to Oxford and Cambridge. The Welsh angle points to a connection between the anarchist-pacifist strain of politics, the political burden of the NR style (as shedding reason and the State and war), and Welsh Christian sensibilities asking for an ethical community which was not “a State” and did not make war. Plaid Cymru is now questioning the polythanatic American alliance against the Taliban in a way no English politician, seemingly, dares to do. That weird moment of Modern Welsh Poetry (1944), a whole anthology which works, remains a beacon. Jones remarks in an unpublished interview that 2/3 of those poets stopped writing. Daring in the 1940s paved the way for 50 years of cheerful banality. So far no-one has breathed a kind word about Vernon Watkins and Henry Treece – crow scarers, a step too far for the resurrection men. But Glyn Jones and Roland Mathias were perhaps the most significant survivors of the heady days of the 40s.
The cultural critic Peter Fuller responded to the "A Paradise Lost?" exhibition with a campaign in favour of the sublime (and against the ayatollah-like barrenness of conceptual art), using the New Romantic painters as infantry in his onslaught. The result was that conceptual PR people adopted the language of “depth… landscape… painterly heroism… mystery… the sublime… transcendent” as part of the brand blather for the people Fuller had been attacking. However, Modern Painters covered the 40s sympathetically, and functioned as a “neo-40s” magazine complementing Temenos, edited by a genuine survivor of the 40s (Kathleen Raine), and peddling a line which can be taken on as a legitimate descendant of New Romantic dislike of the object-machine and realism in art. A figure like Peter Abbs is pursuing this line. Temenos was deathly boring, to be honest, but Fuller’s probing into the links between objective and subjective knowledge in art, and how the transcendental disappears from art to leave merely “dead objects”, is of the first interest and likely contains a great part of the truth. Fuller’s recovery of Protestant mysticism gave an iconic position to Rudolf Otto, author of The Idea of the Holy – and founder of the Eranos.
The American connection was briefly exciting, but eluded us in the end. We did decide that Lowell and Berryman, eminent products of the poetic 1940s, had bought into the belief in the legitimating role of the unconscious, typical of the period, and that their idea that mental illness gave them status as poets is a reflex of the apocalyptic mantle of the time. The Welsh connection is more exciting. Recognizing “the authority of illness” as a distortion of “prophetic authority” allows us to recognise Al Alvarez, in his 1962 Introduction to The New Poetry, as a reflex of the Apocalyptics.
The reliance of MacCaig and Hendry (at the time) on improvisations which excluded the rational mind points to a faculty exploited by abstract painters and by jazzmen. The space without geometry, the space without reference, the space radiated by the body and reflecting the inside of the body, is where New Romantic poetry elapses, and shapes its curious lack of bones, its feverish quality, its reverberation without distance. This capacity to tap the unconscious and become the eyes of the abyss later (post Eliade) sustained the fantasy of being a “Western shaman”, and would have been more productive with more practice and time.
I can’t draw any conclusions, since all is contrast, mystery, and confusion. I think the “standard model” of the collective history of poetry in the past 60 years is more holes than hull by now. New information is rolling in month by month. I would like to underline that the “blakean” strain may not have been the most productive in the long run, and that analysing experience to produce a sharper and more surprising picture may have been artistically more productive. Philosophy may have shed more light than psychoanalysis.
Other exciting work on the 1940s issues is by Andrew Crozier and Nigel Wheale. Tony Frazer is also reading through the back stacks of neglected books. No-one in this field is not grateful to John Pikoulis for his work on Lynette Roberts, culminating in an edition which was injuncted for rather extraneous reasons. Because so much new work is being done in this area, I am sure that there will be a symposium or a book to exhibit it – but I don’t know what form this will take. I think Keery’s work will culminate in a book, and Crozier has apparently written a book (perhaps on the whole period 1930-56). It seems inevitable that there will be a revisionist anthology – since the suppression of the New Romantics took place half a century ago, and there has been no dissident anthology since that time.
This area was opened up partly as a search for historical alliances against the hegemony of the Movement (as it was in say 1975), partly as an ancillary to radical shopping activities which discovered and captured incomprehensible artefacts from the 1940s. We learnt how to read these books. This gives us two issues: how to read 1940s poetry correctly, and where the “retrieval project” ends. I am afraid that this means a “double rejection” for some poets – turned down by the Resurrection men as well as by the Movement assassins. There is something obscene about this, but no-one could revive these poets wholesale without violating basic aesthetic principles.
GeneralisationThe New Romantic style was adopted by a large proportion of the poets born between 1910 and 1920 who had literary ambition.
Other poets wrote simple documentary poems about their war experiences - interesting (as collected by modern anthologists) and in a separate domain.
The movement affected Wales, Scotland, and England in equal shares.
A list of 40s poets would have to include:
Francis Berry George Barker Dunstan Thompson Terence Tiller Hamish Henderson
Charles Madge JF Hendry Roy Fuller Lynette Roberts WS Graham Joseph Macleod Douglas Young David Jones Henry Treece Vernon Watkins Sidney Keyes Alan Ross GS Fraser Norman MacCaig Dorian Cooke Dylan Thomas Edith Sitwell Edwin Muir Roland Mathias Edwin Morgan Christopher Middleton FT Prince George Campbell Hay Sydney Goodsir Smith Nigel Heseltine Glyn Jones Nicholas Moore Peter Russell Burns Singer Michael Hamburger Randall Swingler DS Savage TS Law Alex Comfort James Kirkup Kathleen Raine Lawrence Durrell Philip O’Connor David Gascoyne Ruth Pitter Peter Yates Patrick Anderson Davies Aberpennar Terence Tiller
And I suppose the basis for entering the game is just to read these poets. However marginal some of these figures, there is an “outer margin” of poets even more obscure (and, possibly, more extreme).
I would think ten of these names are significant and worth resurrecting. Another group wrote significant poetry after the 1940s (after a premature start in the 40s style). However, no-one in the project wants to have anything to do with Vernon Watkins or Henry Treece. Peter Russell has some claim to be the worst modern English poet (evoking usually the retort, “What, worse than Nicholas Moore?”). Andy Croft has developed an interest in the Communist Randall Swingler, has even written a book about him – but, if anything should be consigned to the archive room with no door, it is surely the work of R Swingler. I freely admit that a lot of New Romantic poetry published in the 40s justifies the attacks of its enemies. But, let’s be careful. I find the very existence of Nicholas Moore embarrassing, and digging up a whole book of his stuff was surely a blunder, but he wrote two excellent poems. These alone would justify a reconnaissance in depth.
Simon Jenner’s magazine Eratica did a special issue on the 40s, which included material (based on his PhD) on Drummond Allison, Philip Larkin, and Keyes. I don’t find these poets at all interesting. The issue also includes an interview with Martin Seymour-Smith, who was involved with these poets, back in the 1940s, as a schoolboy - his thing was to hang around in pubs listening to them. (He edited a couple of books of Poetry from Oxford for the Fortune Press, a few years later.) It’s a good interview.
Missing biographical resources, or, the neo-Romantic agony
This appears here on the Internet partly because the information isn’t available. What happened to all those New Romantics who were banned from publishing in around 1952? This is really a blank space – a hint that I would like someone to do the research and write a book on this.
Patrick Anderson (1915-79) lived in England till 1938 and moved to Canada in 1940. Somewhat later, lived in Malaya and near the Mediterranean. Became a travel writer. Books: The Colour as Naked, New and Selected Poems. (2 more vols as well) edited a magazine, Preview, in Toronto, which might contain Canadian parallels to the New Romantic style. Wrote some terrific poems.
George Barker (1913-88) I think everyone knows the story here. There is a biography of him. Went on writing prolifically until his death. A forerunner of the New Romantics, and more gifted than most of them. The period 1933-4 saw the debuts of Barker, Berry, and Thomas - arguably, the essential poets of the New Romantic style. This is several years before the codification of the style (which may have been irrelevant?).
Beecham, Audrey (1915-89) I know very little about her. Catalogued as V.A. Beecham in the British Library. published a volume in the 1950s, (The Coast of Barbary, 1957), which is unusual for these poets. It was on astrological themes and is notable for its dark, negative, Gothic qualities. The style is Fifties formalism. Another 1980 book is by the same poet. She lived in Nottingham.
Jack Beeching 1922-2000 his collected poems did come out a while ago. I haven't read them. He is hugely admired in some quarters. Left-leaning. He was one of the poets published in the Key Poets series in 1951. Finally something I haven't read. My impression is this is in no way neo-romantic but terse, politicaly sophisticated, world-weary.
Francis Berry continued writing throughout. published a Collected Poems in 1994. One of the best New Romantic poets. See my article in ORIGINS
Gerard Casey This may be a case outside our jurisdiction. I can find no trace of Casey publishing anything before 1973. However, consider this. His work forms a logical unit of study with the work of Kathleen Raine and Vernon Watkins. He was born in 1918, in the right decade for our postulated ‘New Romantic generation’. His poetry (‘South Wales Echo’ available for purchase in an issue of Fire magazine, edited by Jeremy Hilton) is very interesting. There is at least a case for assessing him as part of the New Romantic generation. His career is a little obscure, but his book 'Echoes' contains no original verse besides SWE. He was interested in theosophy and occultism.
Alex Comfort career as a poet vanished after 1950, although he went on publishing. Not really a New Romantic in style. Not at all a good poet. Much better as a novelist. Influential pacifist and anarchist.
Dorian Cooke student member of the first Apocalyptic group and friend of Hendry, Moore, etc. He had become a much better writer by the time of 'Fugue for Our Time', written in 1949 but published in 1951 by the brilliant Key Poets series. Vanished from literature, so far as we know, with the 1950s. Peter Riley rediscovered him to publish one poem, as a pamphlet, in about 1990.
Davies Aberpennar (William Thomas Davies, 1911-) co-editor of Wales. Pacifist, nationalist, minister of religion. He published poems in 'Wales', in English, which have never been collected. He later wrote poetry in Welsh, which I have only seen in anthologies. It seems to me much less ambitious and interesting. He became a professor of Church History, which in Wales means something highly national, political, of mass interest, and tied up with the language issue.
'His membership of the Cadwgan Circle of writers during the Second World War had a major influence on him. This was a group of avant-garde intellectuals which met in the home in the Rhondda of J Gwyn Griffiths and Kaethe Bosse-Griffiths, two Welsh-language writers, husband and wife (...) Art for these people was almost a crusade. They discussed it - along with politics and related subjects - with high seriousness. In their search for complete honesty they held confessional sessions (...) Indeed they sought to revolutionize Welsh literature both in subject-matter and technique... Not surprisingly they were regarded as enfants terribles by outsiders." In Welsh, he used the name Pennar Davies. "His poetry makes no concessions to cultural Philistines. Indeed, its allusiveness is almost frighteningly wide-ranging." (Profiles) He published a novel in 1968 which is in some ways a portrait of this circle. Confusingly, there is one volume in Welsh as by 'Davies Aberpennar', which I have just bought on the Internet (Cinio'r cythraul, 1946).
Lawrence Durrell not really one of our team, but he did write poems in the New Apocalyptic style. The first collected poems neatly excises all these, but the second one, with more comfort and historical loyalty, includes them. A gifted writer but not an important poet. The best poems are prose pieces about fictional Greek painters, which so obviously point the way towards writing novels.
HRL Edwards brilliant poet in 'Wales'
Simon Evans brilliant poet in 'Wales'
GS Fraser complex career for which I lack the details. as an editor, he once published a poem by my father. and several by Veronica Forrest-Thomson. He only wrote a few New Romantic poems.
Christopher Fry (1907-2005) We could debate whether he belongs here at all. My perception is that he came out of the terrific verbal brilliance of the 40s, the willingness to fly and to risk everything on cascades of glinting and paradoxical phrases. His originality was to be perfectly lucid. He also got away from the personality cult, since he was writing for actors. Perhaps this was the way in which New Romanticism was evolving, its true direction. Arguably, you can understand Barker and Dylan Thomas much better if you set them beside Fry. In around 1953, poetry was truly popular - with the thrilling rodomontades of Fry and Thomas. Points to a branch of 40s poetry which is identifiably Romantic but cannot be identified with Apocalypse. Sweet & sociable. Also includes Keyes. Possibly Peter Yates.
Had 3 years as a schoolmaster at a prep school (and this was the one where Tippett taught – so in Oxted, Surrey?) but otherwise was employed in the theatre from 1927 on, actor then producer. So had a real grasp of the audience. His first poetic drama, for the Church, was in the 1930s; the Bishop of Chichester re-inventing verse drama, good for him! Devised pageants? so in touch with a stratum of performance other than realism. Where the aesthetic takes over. Was in Pioneer Corps for 4 years (the battalion where Derek Stanford served) so circa 1940-4; and this indicates pacifist beliefs. Stanford wrote a book about Fry, pretty cover and design, almost too gushing.
1st professional production was 1946 at the Lyric Theatre. The hit was the 1950 production by Olivier. He became very unfashionable after 1957. Frothy and cheerful, related to other “timeless” works of the 40s, or culture about culture, cf. Sacheverell Sitwell. Especially to a strand in the theatre which was aesthetic and artificial rather than documentary. Fry also wrote words for Tippett’s music for the Coronation. Strange to find two pacifists engaged in this. But so it was. I think the negativity (of e.g. an Allott) towards him was unbalanced and based on a possessive view of what was allowed to be poetry.
Venus Observed is kind of ridiculous. Cosy, English, whimsical, a fantasy, timeless, secure. Vaguely related to Shakespeare productions (but also to drawing-room comedy). No excesses – Fry has complete tact. Knows what will play. But there are also moments of real poetry.
Roy Fuller nothing to do with New Romanticism. wrote very finished poetry about dissociation, political distrust, selfconsciousness, the expectation of a completely new society emerging in the near future. Marxist, of course. His 40s poetry does not offer intense psychological rewards. It is certainly persuasive. Reading alienated poetry is sort of alienating.
David Gascoyne pedestrian and hysterical at the same time? What a combination. I have written a long essay on Gascoyne which is now included in Origins of the Underground. He did write some excellent surrealist poems.
Kenneth Gee born 1908. published one brilliant poem in Poetry Quarterly. Am trying to find out if I like the others. He did get a book out, with the inevitable Fortune Press.
WS Graham The quality of his New Romantic work needs to be underlined, in the face of revisionist historians with positions to defend. Obviously he is a New Romantic poet. His later evolution is wonderful in its scope. But 'The Nightfishing' is already a great work.
Michael Hamburger I have not read the poems Hamburger wrote in the 1940s
George Campbell Hay his collected poems have recently been published by the WL Lorimer Trust. Most of them are in Gaelic. His one book of the 1940s was in Scots and English, and is remarkable - if linguistically eccentric and highly keyed-up. In about 1940, he resisted his call-up and took to the hills – in Argyllshire. This is the peak of romantic Scottish anti-britishness. It was going well, but the local authorities put pressure on his family, and he gave himself up. He then served in the Ambulance Corps. After a nervous breakdown in Greece while serving, he was basically a medical case for the rest of his life. Spent long periods in hospital. The traumatic incident is slightly obscure, or overloaded, but it was a confrontation between Hay and some right-wing Greek partisans who thought he was too Left, so he wasn’t strictly a victim of the anti-German war, or a soldier. Still, he was one of the long-term victims of the war.
Hamish Henderson wrote a great book, Elegies for the Dead in Cyrenaica, one of the very best books of the whole decade. Certainly Romantic, but quite different in its focus and ideals from the New Apocalypse group. Marxist and nationalist. gave up poetry to become a folklorist.
JF Hendry exactly how good he was is an issue now. There is also an issue about unpublished poetry (and poetry in magazines). 36 year publication gap broken by ‘Marimarusa’ (composed circa 1947, published 1978), which I think is a very fine poem. Its relationship to “Malcolm Mooney’s Land’ (and Seven Journeys) is an undetermined issue. Discussed in ORIGINS.
Nigel Heseltine (1916-) He published a book, The Four-Walled Dream, with Fortune Press (in 1941) which I rather like. Participated in the anthology Modern Welsh Poetry, and was one of the highlights of that book. Was the son of the composer Peter Heseltine. Spent much of his later life in Africa (acc. to Peter Finch's Companion). Published translations of Dafydd ap Gwilym in 1944. Published in 1946 Tales of the Squirearchy, stories about 'the decayed and anglicised land-owning class'. Wrote several travel books about Africa.
David Jones Jones is possibly the most striking realisation of the New Apocalyptic ideal, writing personal myth which narrates Man's historical and religious destiny. It would seem a lot of his poetry was written in the 1940s (although dating is difficult).
Glyn Jones (1905-95) major poet, one of the significant survivors of the 1940s. collected poems published recently. edited the 1949 New Romantic Anthology. influenced by DH Lawrence, in the beginning. first volume published by Fortune Press.
James Kirkup (1918-2009) perhaps the most prolific poet of the 20th C. Not really a New Romantic. His career has been obscured by his sheer prolificness, a complete turn-off for the curious. Was an anarchist and pacifist during the war, according to some accounts.
Sidney Keyes killed at 22. Was posthumously very famous, and then mysteriously written out of the story. The poems are unbelievably good for someone of his age. It's hard not to believe he would not have dominated his generation. While his poems obviously fit within the New Romantic realm, we need to reconsider and extend the concept to fit his work.
TS Law (1916-96?) Communist of working-class origins from east Fife. Wrote in Scots. Published a pamphlet, Whit time i the day in 1948, connected I think with a Communist group and the magazine Our Time (edited by Henderson?). This was followed by a 30 year publication ban. He just didn’t get on with the people who ran Scottish poetry. It may be he didn’t get on with anybody. I like Whit time i the day (which I was given a photocopy of by the Scottish Poetry Library, hurrah) and see Law as yet another victim of an era of conservatism and intolerance. He began self-publishing in the late 70s, still very political. I am reasonably sure there is still a lot of unpublished poetry. Not a New Romantic. After the first issue of these notes his son wrote to me and said his father had been highly published all his life. All the same it was 30 years between his first pamphlet and his first book. This may not have been his game plan.
Emmanuel Litvinov some of his poems have impressed me very much. Nothing to do with New Romanticism at all, but has the weight of sombre moral integrity and vision. His poem reproaching Eliot's anti-Semitism is tough enough to punch a hole in the wall. There is some story of him reading it in public circa 1945, and Spender trying to beat him up. Litvinov was right.
Joseph Macleod (1903-84) subject of a Selected Poems, edited by Andrew Duncan, and published by Waterloo Press in 2009. Not a New Romantic, but published books with Fortune Press and Maclellan. He wrote prolifically up till the end of his life; one of the peaks is around 1949-53.
Charles Madge there was a 53 year gap between his second book (of poems) and his third. Is this a record? Although a rational poet, he liked to base poems on dreams, and planned to write a book on dreams (according to notes in an obscure anthology I found a copy of). Mass Observation had a strong surrealist element, and differed distinctively from, say, governmental surveys, by paying attention to people’s wishes and fantasies. That is, they had a transitional position between Marxism and surrealism. Madge’s later work shows a sharp movement away from audenesque social details to religion –‘Poem By Stages’ is really an eschatological poem. This is parallel to the New Romantics – a typical shift from the 30s to the 40s. He went from Marxism to personal myth. Another long poem, The Storming of the Brain, was published by The Cambridge Review in 2009.
Roland Mathias (1915-2007) published one brilliant volume during the 40s, Break in Harvest. His later work represents a subtle evolution of the 40s style.
Christopher Middleton published two books in a high New Romantic style while still a teenager. There followed a pause before his mature work (starting with torse 3, 1963).
Norman MacCaig One of the New Apocalyptics who radically forswore the style and denounced it in interviews forever after.
Nicholas Moore published six volumes, I think, during the 1940s. widely regarded as the worst poet of the era. Could not get published in subsequent decades but went on writing. Rediscovered by Peter Riley in the 1980s (dates?). was not really a Romantic, and his best poems are imitations of Wallace Stevens.
Edwin Morgan (1921-) became Scotland’s greatest modern poet. Although he wrote some pure Apocalyptic poems, the style did not suit him.
Edwin Muir If we revisit the 1930s, we find a configuration which anticipates the New Romantics, and in which Muir is vital. 'Variations on a Time Theme', a 1934 long poem, is remarkable. His openness to myth and the transcendental is exciting.
Hubert Nicholson I did find some people who had known him. As usual, they didn't recall anything of interest. He was a journalist. He must have been involved in Marxist politics during the 1940s. New Spring Song (1943) was published by Fortune Press and is so stylized it almost falls over. But not quite! Sort of modernist agitprop. Dig 'Logic of fascism' 'Where is Jean Cocteau' 'Catechism for dead flowers' (preceding the Rolling Stones?). It includes the famous 'Nero': 'In my wreath and purple/ walking down the Strand/ looking for a pansy/ to paddle by the hand'. Obviously this is an exposé of the decadence of late bourgeois society, and you aren't meant to enjoy it. Oh No. Not a bit.
Ruth Pitter (1897-92) began publishing poetry in the 1930s. 'Garland for a Mad Lady'. is either not New Romantic or a marginal New Romantic with a quieter style.
FT Prince cannot be defined as a New Romantic poet. he was just one of the truly admirable poets to be active in the 1940s.
Kathleen Raine (1908-2003) peaked after the 40s. She opined that she hadn't really mastered poetry until her 1953 volume. Then, the poetry she published after the age of 65 is wanting. This leaves a prime period in which she wrote really terrific poetry, exciting even if you aren't a neo-Platonist. Built up vague mystical feelings into an authoritative system, which was a big mistake. Shared a house with Cecil Collins. Edited an 80s magazine called Temenos (1981-92), which is the legitimate heir of New Romanticism – everything has been transformed but the links are clear. Temenos evolved into the Temenos Academy, which is part of the Prince of Wales’ Institute of Architecture, whose director of research is an ex-co-editor of Temenos. I could not read her poetry while she was alive because I found her personality so overpowering.
Herbert Read the basic story is that Read published (for Routledge) many New Romantic books, inspired them as an anarchist of stature, was a fan of 'the first hour', but did not also write Apocalyptic poetry. This is something we shall have to revisit. My brief foray into Read suggested to me that he had a great influence on Stephen Spender, and perhaps on the Auden clique in general, in writing poetry about politics.
Lynette Roberts I think everyone knows the story (see John Pikoulis’ edition of her work, and the issue of Poetry Wales on her which he edited). It seems she didn’t write any poetry after about 1953. Her two volumes (Poems and Gods with Stainless Ears) are indispensable, soaring high above the other poetry of this period. Patrick McGuinness has now collected and published all this poetry, with a masterly introduction. A wonderful book.
Alan Ross not a New Romantic. Published some not especially good poetry during the 40s but also wrote some terrific poetry in the 50s and, much later, reflected on his traumatic wartime experiences to produce wonderful poetry about battle. Was a destroyer officer during the war. Seriously underrated as a poet. Wrote some of the poems which redeem the 1950s as an era. The long delay was because of the traumatic nature of his experiences – that is, he was a war victim even though he went on leading a normal life and was a brilliant editor. He was much influenced by Lawrence Durrell.
Peter Russell published with Fortune Press under another name (Gwyther Irwin?). Went to live in Italy and write amazingly bad poetry. Was published a lot in the 1980s in Temenos, another scrap of evidence for Temenos as a continuation and transformation of the 1940s.
DS Savage not really much of a poet. Wrote a prose memoir of his experiences as a pacifist during the war (published in a collective book of memoirs of pacifism).
Tom Scott. I would rather be beaten around the head with a brick than read any more Tom Scott.
Burns Singer lived as a journalist in London and died young. Big fan of WS Graham. Trained as marine biologist. see the new edition of his poetry by James Keery.
Edith Sitwell One of the older poets who wholeheartedly took on the Apocalyptic style. Frankly, it isn't her best work. Her enthusiasm and willingness to develop are most impressive.
Sidney Goodsir Smith ‘Under the Eildon-tree’ is an ‘archetypal’ work, heavily influenced by Robert Graves. This is romantic rather than apocalyptic.
Randall Swingler famous as a librettist for Britten and for Alan Bush. Communist. Wrote public poetry for political festivals, I think. Edited a poetry series for the Communist Party (Key Poets) in 1951. Almost totally uninteresting as a poet – ideology crushes the poetry, the “personal” parts are deadeningly conventional, imported from religious poetry. Left-wing poetry began from scratch in the 1960s because the local Communist poets were so bad that nobody read them. It seems to be the fate of Blake that stupid people think they can just copy in his imagery & rhythms and the result will prove them to be “visionaries”. The transcendental is not susceptible to these essentially bureaucratic methods.
Dylan Thomas I don't suppose there is anyone who hasn't read D Thomas. The New Apocalypse school is largely to be understood as the first wave of admiring response to Thomas. The original group went to great lengths to get Thomas to join them - and he did contribute to the first anthology. There is a case to be made that the style elements pre-existed Thomas and were synthesized by him. Certainly George Barker, the other most significant debut of the 1930s, developed his style before Dylan had published. It would follow that the 40s style was already there in 1933. Surrealism was certainly a key stimulus. I believe John Goodby is now working on this moment of origin.
Dunstan Thompson (1918-75) American copyist of George Barker. It has to be said that he did it better than Barker, in general. A Roman Catholic, like Barker; tinged by Francis Thompson. Produced two terrific books (Poems, Lament for the Sleepwalker) and then fell silent. A posthumous book (Poems 1950-74) collects his later poetry, which I don’t like very much (a kind of travel or antiquarian style, concerned with ecclesiastical history). It seems none of these peosm after about 1954 were published in his lfietime. He was stationed in London during the war, but had developed his style while still in New York. Later, he lived in Norfolk. You can get his books through the Internet quite easily. This is just about my favourite 40s poetry. (I guess the books sold very well on publication; they're cheap now because his name was forgotten.) I wrote about him in ORIGINS.
Terence Tiller (1916-87) nothing to do with New Romantics and in fact attacked their style at the time. Spent the war in Egypt. I really like his poetry, which has been written out of history by various people. He belonged to the “wrong faction” of English poets in Egypt. Worked for BBC radio as a producer. Why do I mention him? Er. It's because I really like his work, because it has never been reprinted, because I like those 40s books as physical objects.
Henry Treece lamentably bad poet in a “high” New Romantic style. Lived all his life in England, had a Welsh mother, defined himself as Welsh. Wrote about Wales as if he'd never been there. Wrote essays defining the style (‘How I See Apocalypse‘, etc.) and edited a flagship magazine called Transformation.
Douglas Young pretty much gave up writing poetry after 1950. Wrote a few very significant poems in a deep Scots. A professor of Greek, took time off for Scottish Nationalist activities and resisted call-up during the war. Despite this, became chairman of the Scottish Labour Party.
Eithne Wilkins had a whole string of amazing poems published in Kenneth Rexroth's 1948 anthology. Heaven only knows what happened to her after that. She certainly translated many books from German and French. A long poem appeared in Botteghe oscure in 1953, rather Under Milk Wood tinged. She was Welsh according to a remark in Poetry Quarterly.
Meurig Walter brilliant poet in 'Wales'. I think he wrote in Welsh after that. Essays in Ysgrifau beirniadol, that sort of thing.
Vernon Watkins went recklessly on publishing extremely bad poetry with Faber.
Peter Yates half William Empson, half George Barker. born 1911. not sure what happened to him after 1950. Wrote some good poems in a distinctive style, appreciated by fans of the period. Cleaner and more effective than many of the well-known poets of the time. I like his book ‘The Expanding Mirror’, of which I have a copy. It is not as prone to autosuggestion as most NRs and also lacks the tone of religious angst. Actually, not a million miles away from Terence Tiller. It's more like John Donne than Dylan Thomas, to be perfectly honest. One Internet site claims he was born in 1914 and was the pseudonym of William Long; the London Library catalogue says he was born in 1911, as does the jacket of 'Petal and Thorn'. I think there may have been confusion here. I think he published 3 books of poems (further The Unmoving Dancer, Dark and Light) and wrote verse plays. There was a selected poems in 1983 ('Petal and Thorn'), it doesn't have all the good poems but does have a lot of hitherto unseen ones. You have to go back to the original books, unfortunately.
The truly marginal
Paul Dienes published one book with Fortune Press, The Maiden and the Unicorn, undated. One of the most extreme poets of the century, to the point of delirium. Interesting for a mixture of Gnosticism, Hinduism, and synaesthesia. Could be considered as proto-psychedelic or late Symboliste.
J. Redwood Anderson also published several volumes with Fortune Press, to the excitement of those who are turned on by the distinctive Fortune design style. A trilogy on Iranian cosmology (or a synthesis of several religions), they fit in with the New Romantics only by extravagance and lack of realism. Actually they remind me of William Watson (who also turned to epic poems about Iranian cosmology when it was too late for anything else). I haven’t read them – I just skimmed through them. Anderson was a hangover from the First World War era. He was leaning away from poetry and towards esoteric religion – cf. Kathleen Raine. He (and Watson) can be seen as forerunners of Temenos. He was the kind of illuminated crackpot who turns up in Anthony Powell novels. An index shows him as publishing a poem in The Quest magazine (the successor to the Theosophical Review, and with the same editor) even in 1909. Fortune Press didn’t have a policy – they published anyone who paid them (which is fairly obvious if you get a bunch of their books together). However, because Nicholas Moore did work for them sometimes, his friends tended to publish there – a cluster of which Anderson is obviously not a part.
Geoffrey Matthews wrote war poems which by a publishing freak were published recently (in 1999?) for the first time (as “War Poems”). I think he wrote very few poems after the war. These are finished poems but not highly rewarding – he was a Marxist and had got that alienated quality, that Roy Fuller has, off perfectly. An atmosphere of anxiety and detachment from “shared goals” points to sudden changes of behaviour in the offing; it could have tipped over into something more expressive if he had gone on. The poems don’t deliver any experience the poet truly participates in and it is hard to participate in the poems. We feel detached and uneasy. He went to live in Norway, which probably didn’t reduce his alienation very much. Academic life probably didn’t encourage the writing of expressive poems. It’s certainly interesting to see these poems emerge after half a century in the drawer. I think Fuller’s poetry suffers from the same problem.
Underground survival in the 1950s
This remains an open issue. James is very sanguine about an underground stream of brilliant poetry, continuing 1940s ideas. The magazine Ore seems to be a source for this kind of material – Eric Ratcliffe (editor) is keen on Druidism and Arthurian poetry, amongst other things. Ore ran from 1954 to 1996, which is pretty amazing. I haven’t seen the 1950s issues, but I did see an editorial in which Ratcliffe claimed to have been a second generation of New Romanticism. I think Ore was also a low-profile magazine which lacked any contacts with the original NRs. I did find poems by Ithell Colquhoun (in issues from the 1980s?) (and an Ore pamphlet, “Grimoire of the entangled thicket”) which seem like a direct continuation of the 1940s; Colquhoun was a contributor to The Quest, then a Surrealist visual artist in the 1930s. Her Surrealism led her to Celtic religious revivalism and to spiritualism. I think we would look to the organs of spiritualism, Jungianism, neo-paganism, etc. for the current of changes which neo-Romantic poets of the later period absorbed, and which their readers were quite familiar with. That is, once we accept that the poetry is not primary, there is a huge corpus of evidence which we can draw on to uncover the later history of New Romantic ideas. (There is good material on Colquhoun in Michel Remy's The English Surrealist Movement.)
What seems to be the last gasp of the 1940s is Savage’s republication of EFF Hill’s prose writings during the 1980s. I remember going to Small Press Fairs (around 1990?) and seeing these things and being incredulous. It’s possible that DS Savage was behind the stall, selling them (to a sceptical audience). Hill died in 1955, but Savage was his literary executor, and printed his works (although only after 20 or 30 years). Hill wrote about the Apocalypse – no interest in poetry, this is just a mixture of Christian mysticism and politics. Poetry was not essential to this streak of apocalypticism.
David Wright’s anthology of Contemporary Poetry (1965), for Penguin, is a striking example of an alternative taste – in violent contrast with the Movement hegemony. This is a valuable document of the sort of Fifties poetry which is still artistically retrievable today. Wright deserves whatever medals can go to an editor who obstinately explores outside the territory which the bien-pensants have decreed to be acceptable, without being paranoid or depressingly factional. He excludes all the Movement pets – but doesn’t this explain so much of the mutual hostility which has smouldered over the last 40 years, that the most influential people weren’t even going to get printed if someone concerned for artistic values was at the helm. They had to be good at discrediting people, didn’t they?
The Movement hegemony
Because I spent 20 years thinking about this every day, I now find it an utterly tedious subject. All the same it is the salient fact about British poetry from 1955 to 1980, if not longer. There now seems to be a very wide consensus that it was a bad thing, and that Movement poems are tedious, shallow, smug, sententious, emotionally dead, etc. Their successors in the mainstream retain most of these characteristics.
Wolfgang Görtschacher’s book on Little Magazine Profiles 1949-93 has essential information on the economics of magazines during the period. What his quantitative evidence shows is that there was a terrific dearth of magazines during the 50s – an impoverishment of openings which correlates with rigid and conservative poetry, and with the hegemony of a few people determined to exclude dissidents. Wolfgang’s definition of poets like Craig Raine and Andrew Motion as a continuation of The Movement deserves serious consideration, but perhaps needs to be nuanced slightly.
Connections with the Continent
"Time for black prophecies is over: the Winter of History is whistling around us.
Man, with suicidal power in his limbs, poison in his blood, craziness in his head like a mad dog: nobody can see his destiny.
If he wants to scarify people to the bone with his new instruments of devastation: his only attainments are loss of the wheel and of fire, forgetfulness of speech, life on all fours.
But let him extricate himself: let him give up his myriad maggot-teeming acts of idiot self-will, his termite provision-activities for the outer world: first let him measure and order the inner world."
Henry Treece? no, this is a 1960 poem by Sándor Weöres. He was writing prolifically already in the 40s (born 1913), and wrote a number of perfect Apocalyptic poems.
I think the comparative side of New Romanticism could get right out of hand; quite clearly there was a big wave of New Romanticism right across Europe in the 40s, and in most countries it didn't stop as it did, by administrative coup, in England. Gascoyne cannot be understood except in a European context, and this is asking us to use what has yet to be invented — a synoptic view of "europistics".
Connections with painting and cinema
I tend to forget that there was a 1940s outside poetry, and that there was a whole world of style which throve outside the poetic groups, and which was much more publicly visible than they. What we remember about the period is that it came just before the arrival of a “new class” of educated people (of “nether origins”) brought along by the 1944 Education Act. This has no bearing on New Romanticism at all – quite unrelated to any strata of antique privilege.
We can name four strands of cinema as the melodrama of Gainsborough Pictures, the unique artistic style of Powell and Pressburger, the documentary line, now merged with wartime propaganda, and the war film. The Powell and Pressburger films (Michael Powell’s memoirs give a fascinating portrait of the times, where he emphasizes the team nature of the enterprise, and credits their two German art designers, Junge and Heckroth) can easily be classified as New Romantic, and lend themselves to comparison with the poetry. The Gainsborough films, on a much lower artistic level, equally lend themselves to a New Romantic rubric: their formula, once they’d worked it out, involved the clash of sexual urges (mainly) with the rules of the class system, full-blooded characters played by glamorous actresses, passionate conflict, and an aristocratic milieu under pressure from basic instincts. The saleable aspect was individualist freedom appealing to an audience living in considerable hardship because of the war effort. It is hard to watch these films without being reminded of the melodramatic nature of 40s poetry.
“Gone to Earth” is a Powell/Pressburger film which steals most of the Gainsborough formula.
The films can easily be connected to the “aristocracy in heroic decline” theme described below.
James came up with some really interesting stuff on this (which see). Tantalising. We didn’t find very much in the end. Dunstan Thompson edited a magazine called Vice Versa, which I haven’t seen. Shipping and currency problems in the 1940s mean British libraries are not strong on little American magazines of this period. I did find an essay by Berryman in Partisan Review where he denounces the whole New Romantic thing as being sloppily written and out of touch with academic standards – which is fair enough, really. Probably the American end of “romanticism” (post Hart Crane) was more disciplined, closer to New Critical standards, and so looks very different from New Romanticism – and less exceptional. There was certainly a wave of anarcho-pacifism (and perhaps especially in Northern California?), but it had different results – the USA wasn’t really subject to wartime totalitarianism in the way that Britain was. Robert Duncan certainly had a crisis when conscripted, which led to his discharge from the Army on psychiatric grounds. It is fair to describe Duncan as influenced by British New Romanticism, it’s fair to describe him as a 40s New Romantic poet, but he was a cultured man who picked up and synthesized many influences. If he believed in esoteric symbolism, it is because he was raised as a Theosophist, with the usual cultural trappings of the Occult Revival as part of the household goods. He didn’t have the same publication ban that his British colleagues suffered. Rexroth was a classical Californian anarchist, visited Britain during the war to get in touch with anarchists and New Romantics, sponsored these poets in America, broadcast on the radio about them, but was very critical of their style. (see Rexroth interview in Melzer's book on The San Francisco poets) Actually, the political links were probably more important than the poetic ones. We did uncover a magazine called Phoenix, which was dedicated to the work of DH Lawrence and had as co-editor the English poet DS Savage. This is not “New Romantic”, and the bond with Savage was through pacifism and a wish to return to self-sufficient organic farming. Robert Symmes was living at the farm (in upstate New York) where the Phoenix group lived, and helping to print Phoenix – this is before he changed his name to Robert Duncan. This is a fact, but not a literary-historical one – Duncan’s style takes nothing from Phoenix, or Savage, or even Lawrence. Symmes edited an offshoot magazine called Ritual (advertised in Phoenix) –it sounds very interesting, from the ad, but we haven't seen any copies.
Rexroth edited the classic anthology of the 1940s, The New British Poets (1948). Oscar Williams also anthologised the period very sensitively.
New Romantic prose
This is a blank for me. However, reading Gwyn Thomas’ All Things Betray Thee was a landmark in my path towards accepting that New Romanticism might be of interest. This is simply a great novel.
Sacheverell Sitwell’s Splendours and Chagrins seems at this date like the masterpiece of New Romantic prose. It is a great deal more realised than most of the poetry of the period.
I am pondering whether we could sneak in Northrop Frye's book on Blake (Fearful Symmetry), and certain works of G Wilson Knight, as works that shed light on New Romantic poetry and mythical thinking.
Theatrical romanticism and a school of stage painters
New Romantic painting was much influenced by a school of stage painting led by Tchelitchew and Christian Bérard (and Eugene Berman). This combination of imaginative freedom and uncynical reliance on the characters established by an older European court art produced something altogether more light-hearted than New Romantic poetry, which had a typical burden of anxiety and despair. It is a question why the poetry turned out this way – and it is worth searching for an alternative strand, theatrical and emotionally buoyant. Liberation from realism does not have to be pessimistic in flavour.
Sacheverell Sitwell is the literary equivalent of this dedication to the art of the past. He published no poetry in the 1940s at all.
To think of New Romanticism we must also think of the Sadler’s Wells ballet, Frederick Ashton, Leslie Hurry, and the origins of English ballet –or “music theatre”. Some of these designs were by Ayrton and Minton, significant New Romantic painters, who had got their painting style initially from the Parisian stage designers, on a trip to Paris when they were both still schoolboys. (Tch. was also E. Sitwell’s great love, chosen perhaps because he was gay.) If we stick to the theme of “non realism” manipulating “timeless figures”, perhaps we can see the myths of the poets as partly equivalent to the theatrical figures (Harlequin, the rake, Aphrodite, etc.) in the ballets. When a poem refers to a “marble statue”, we can see this as the injection of a piece of visual art into the verbal domain, and directly similar to the Classical figures which appeared in so many surrealist paintings (Delvaux and Di Chirico, for example).
If we go back to Tchelitchew, we find him as a continuation of the Saint Petersburg stage designers. That is, a milieu of court art, the last great court art of European history. So perhaps there is a link, after all, between his Parisian circle in the 1920s and the English culture of the 1940s.
Hans-Werner Henze wrote a volume of memoirs called Bohemian Fifths. I mention this partly because I thought this was an utterly wonderful book, partly because it does shed a light on English culture of the 40s. Henze has mainly worked in a kind of “music theatre” which didn’t exist in Germany before the war, and which reflects what he was exposed to in the British Occupied Zone, in the 40s, where he saw English ballet, met Ashton, and was commissioned by him. Henze has been a lifelong anglophile, and the kind of England he is in love with is precisely the aestheticism of the 40s. One of the strands which runs right through New Romanticism is producing a culture which rises above war and provides consolation for its griefs, and this musical culture clearly supplied exactly that for northwest Germany when hungry, deprived, and exhausted by war.
Prose again; The Disappearing Castle
When I think of the prose of the 40s, I think of Brideshead Revisited, of Osbert Sitwell’s four volumes of memoirs, and of James Lees-Milne’s diaries (Caves of Ice, etc.) What seems to link these is the theme of aristocratic classicism in heroic decay – a gigantic exploration of anxiety in the face of the conversion of the electorate to Labour. The architecture which features so prominently in these books is the equivalent of the classical figures which appear in the painting and ballet of the time; a classical, Italianate, and aristocratic past, seen as it were back-lit by the flames which are about to engulf it. The architecture of the 40s was ruins – especially the ruins of great and ancient buildings, which were the most impressive.
The authors mentioned either belonged to the landed gentry or profoundly identified with it. The poets did not – they were like fish out of water, aware that the old European culture had died but uncertain about a new life-space which could shelter them. This explains their insistence on deciding things for themselves, and their deep anxiety.
One aspect of the 40s is the crisis of the European aristocracy – not something which occupies centre stage when the threat of physical destruction was so universal. But perhaps it is something important which we miss when we look back. Because the audience for painting, ballet, etc., was so small, these art forms were closely associated with the nobility, for whom it was part of tradition. Their international nature was related to the international sense of the nobility, their aspirations to French and Italian standards. The 1940s saw the destruction of the eastern European landowners as a class. In Germany, they lost their status under the strain of war – the rise of the Waffen SS was a symbolic move away from the aristocratic officer class of tradition. The British aristocracy lost financial and social power on a grand scale. The Italian peasants saw major advances in their status, a move away from feudalism despite fierce resistance. Survivals of aristocrats with their estates and influence in places like Sweden, Spain, and Portugal seem archaic. In this context (little less than a farewell to traditional European culture), the angst of the New Romantics can be interpreted as a sense of being pressed between the old noble cultural rules and the new, aggressive, communist ones. The third possibility was an educated bourgeois culture which has been growing at several per cent a year ever since.
We are thinking less of the culture enjoyed by the nobility than of the nobility as an object of fantasy – the subject of popular art on a mass scale. The change would involve the shift for actors from a mandatory West End accent to a far wider range of voices, approximating to the real country. Something similar happened across Europe at this time – perhaps everywhere. In Britain, the shift would be from noble subjects (or living, at least, in the West End) to American film stars with classless “democratic” appeal. The influence of aristocratic salons (classically, those of Sybil Colefax and Lady Cunard) on artistic taste is hard to measure at best, but one should investigate the ascent, at this time, of groups of painters, composers, and concert musicians who achieved prestige without aristocratic sponsorship. Perhaps we need to take a look at the grim factors of economics to grasp why cliques that could deliver people with spare cash, who actually bought tickets, bought paintings, etc., were so significant for emerging new artists. Even symphony orchestras were bound by economics to fashionable hostesses. Painters do need to sell paintings occasionally. Patronage remains the basic question.
Perhaps there is a connection between John Piper and Madge’s The Disappearing Castle after all – Madge’s brilliant definition of the loss of a noble background for culture and Piper’s serial illustration of the scenery in which it had taken place. Piper’s interest in cataloguing and recording beautiful buildings exactly resembles Lees-Milne’s activity as an officer of the National Trust, preserving stately homes – with the precondition that the owners were going to die and that the families no longer had surplus wealth. The cataloguing was a preoccupation of the period, an act of loyalty to a way of life threatened by Communism and Fascism. As a rational and didactic activity, we can see it as the forerunner of the takeover of culture by academics. We can also see it as the successor to the Shell County Books, symptoms of a redefinition of the countryside and its precious objects as a leisure park for the “common man” as liberated by the motor-car. Aristocratic culture was thus drowned by a new psychological perspective changing all the tonal values of its battered objects.
Back to the land
This is something I failed to find anything out about. (In 2002 – I have since found a whole string of sources.) Savage spent the war on a smallholding (maybe two successive ones), the Phoenix group were into self-sufficiency, this correlates with anarchism because it rejects the commercial system. Bringing it all back to the body (you work with your body to produce food, the product of the bodies of plants and animals, it’s all visible and tangible) seems to correlate with Apocalyptic rejection of the “object-machine”. Non-mechanised farming seems to connect with organic imagery in poems.
There must also be a link with the arts and crafts movement, or its descendants of the 1940s.
Horizon; fantasies of the Mediterranean
My image of the 40s was dominated by Horizon for many years before I developed any serious interest in the New Romantics. The volumes of selections from Horizon retain classic status for me.
One of their lines was nostalgia for the Mediterranean – nourished by despatches from people serving in the Middle Eastern theatre and trying to lead a cultural life. Cecil Beaton picnicked in the Western Desert and found a notice for picnickers saying Please leave the desert as you found it.
The cultural assets (architecture, paintings, sculpture) associated with nobility were largely of Italian origin. This combined with a hot, dry climate to produce a specific image of the Mediterranean, and a craving for the favours of that image. Poets writing about the Mediterranean in wartime include Lawrence Durrell, Terence Tiller, and Hamish Henderson.
Horizon’s reception of the NRs was very selective, and is a guide for us. They ran articles on English Romantic painters by Geoffrey Grigson, who was very much against New Romantic poetry. The rediscovery of Danby, Martin, etc., and indeed of Blake, contributed to the atmosphere of the time. Martin’s use of apocalyptic scenes from the Bible reminds us of the roots of “apocalypticism” - in popular religion. If we look at the Biblical epics which Hollywood was still producing in the 1940s and 1950s, we see something occultly related to the Apocalyptics – the set designs for the prototype Towelhead Picture (the first “Ben-Hur” etc.) were based on Victorian Bible paintings which were generic descendants of John Martin’s canvases.
Continuity in Wales
A high proportion of the New Romantic poets were Welsh, and there was a classic anthology, Modern Welsh Poetry, edited by Keidrych Rhys, 1944, exhibiting a whole school. There was more continuity of the style in Wales than elsewhere. However, later currents proved much more influential on Anglo-Welsh poetry in general. The Rhys anthology is, distressingly, much better than later Welsh anthologies, in the era of grants.
Roland Mathias is, for me, one of the most interesting poets to emerge in the 1940s. His style, too, evolved. Note a “recovery issue” – there are a lot of poems in his early volumes which didn’t get picked up in his eventual Selected Poems. The Roses of Tretower (1952) can be considered as a variant of the Heroic Nobility theme – Tretower was the residence of the Vaughan family (as in Henry Vaughan), and is a classic building. Mathias’ ability to think about the past, rather than merely recount legends, is quite admirable. (His recent collected poems may be really complete, but I haven’t seen it.)
One assessment of the 1960s would be that, whatever currents of “alternative” thought it picked up, it swept them all away and changed them irrevocably. So, it would be extremely stupid to look at recent years and expect to find elements of the New Romantic style original and untransformed. Their ability to transform is – what, a sign of life?
A magazine of the 50s (1951-8?) which James came up with. It is of high literary quality. Because the editor was Tristram Hull, and because RFC Hull appears in the magazine, I conjectured they were related. RFCH was the translator of Jung into English. The name of Tristram Hull just vanished from the scene, but this is a very good magazine. There is some information about it in Christopher Logue’s memoirs. Martin Green claims to have founded it (in an essay appearing in the Aquarius issue about Graham and Barker – an issue of astonishing tedium, I’m afraid).
(Peter Riley claims in an email that RFCH was the father of Tristram Hull. Riley must be the most unpleasant emailer in the whole planet. Please, please don’t send me any more whinging emails.)
Enthusiasts of the NR style should turn up Christopher Logue’s work prior to his 1959 book – poems which he has rigorously excluded from his volumes of Selected. He published in Nimbus, and is probably the most interesting New Romantic to emerge after 1950. It was not mainly a poetry magazine; and had a strong left-wing element, liking Brecht and Neruda. Later issues show “New English Review” as a secondary title – the mag may have evolved into something no longer called Nimbus? Ominously, it also stopped showing an editor’s name – just a publisher (John Trafford).
What Nimbus shows us is the ideas of the 40s evolving – the discourse was changing without losing its basic direction. This is significant, because it means that if you are looking in the 1970s the succession to the 1940s is not going to look exactly like the 1940s. That is – poetry based on archetypes is itself subject to vagaries of fashion. The White Goddess changed everything which came after it (in that line).
The poetry editor was David Wright – an intriguing figure whose tastes we should investigate to track the flow of underground, anti-Movement currents in a time of apparent literary dictatorship.
The rise of academicism; the New Criticism
One of the images thrown up by older literati (by the old cultured class under threat?) was of people coming along and working very hard at culture and deriving no pleasure from it whatsoever – crossing a line between “work” and “pleasure” which has proved a problem ever since. If we look at Horizon, all the articles are quite short – raising the possibility that producing massive books quite literally missed the point of culture, burying it under tons of essentially tedious information. It would be nice if this wasn’t true, but the atrophy of poets who went into academic life seems to say it was – literature became work for them and ceased to be literature. They stopped writing poems. Wherever sensibility flees to, is where we have to go.
The eclipse of New Romantic poets by talentless academic critics is thus part of a larger and tragic story in which literati became unable to write poetry and new poetry ceased to play a role in the life of the reading public.
Academic life doesn’t have to be drudgery. I would like figures for how many academics were bored and exhausted and how many were having a good time. Otherwise I think these issues will remain open.
Lees-Milne disliked the advent of intellectuals in the life of the arts; but what his diary records is his own heroic efforts to get around the country to visit potential National Trust acquisitions, heroic because of the appalling weather, the breakdowns of his car, the rundown of the infrastructure while all resources were going to the war effort. Art had become a job for him even though his great terror was of art being reduced to a form of work. In sober fact he was immersed in paperwork, petty vexations, the management of repairs to the fabric, etc. – not in designing beautiful buildings or even living in them.
The relationship of the new bad poetry of the 1950s to the New Criticism is obscure. Essentially, I see it as a piece of crooked political asset-grabbing – you justify your bad poetry by “contamination”, linking it to an obvious classic. I don’t see how Cleanth Brooks’ criticism adds lustre to dismal Movement poetry. This was a hallucination. Meanwhile, relating the classic works of the New Criticism to mass classroom practice is too difficult, because the evidence is lost and would have to be available on a mass scale. I would like to cut my losses by observing, merely, that the New Criticism could justify any kind of poetry, and that the route from serious academic study to writing bad Movement poetry is opaque and obscure.
If I look at Northrop Frye, I find a strong interest in archetypes, myth, and religious experience – all of which would form an outstanding theoretical foundation for the New Romantics. I suspect the other classic New Critics mostly show a similar enthusiasm for myth and religion as the most privileged subjects of poetry. What comes next is the opaque and obscure bit.
Little has been written about the poetry we are interested in since 1950.
Nigel Wheale wrote about Lynette Roberts and cinema (where was this?). James Keery has written a continuing series about the 40s in issues of PN Review.
Fundamental information on the Anglo-Welsh scene is in Glyn Jones’ The dragon has two tongues.
The sources I used most are the original books and the poetry magazines of the era, Poetry London and Poetry Quarterly at the forefront.
Rob Jackaman, The course of Surrealist poetry in English, has probably the most serious account of the New Romantics currently in print.
MP Ryan, Career patterns in modern British Poetry, (1982 doctoral thesis), has a wonderful collection of interviews with poets, including many of interest to us. There is a copy of this in the Poetry Library. I don’t know of any more worthwhile books on the subject.
Derek Stanford’s Inside the 40s is an invigorating book of memoirs.