Militarist poetry and Alfred Noyes- part 3
This is a third post in a series about Alfred Noyes and the militarist-imperialist poetry which ruled the roost from some point in the 1890s until some undefined point in the 1920s. The core message is that the left-liberal climate of poetry has lasted for a hundred years and has a right to dominate proceedings. This post is about Noyes but the realm also involves William Watson, Kipling, Henry Newbolt, and no doubt others.
Noyes was half-way between Kipling and Swinburne. Does this sound like kitsch? yes, its sounds like kitsch. But, be fair. “The Torch-Bearers” (poem in three volumes) is not kitsch. He grew up.
If you look at “Nelson’s Year”, the point is really the Battle of Trafalgar, his greatest victory and the moment which the poem celebrates the centenary of. The poem does not describe any concrete aspects of the engagement. If you imagine it as a physical event, it is obvious that the core is homicidal. 2500 Spanish and French sailors were killed. Secondly, the Spanish and French were equal to the British. There was no certainty of victory and the three fleets were rather similar in the technology they were using. Nelson won by using better gunnery tactics – his enemies were aiming high, to shoot masts and yards away and make their enemy immobile, and they fired from a long distance, inaccurately; Nelson's captains held their fire until very close in, fired accurately, and aimed at the hulls – to kill the enemy crew. The homicidal quality is what brought victory. The other side had more ships and probably fired more shots. The patriotic remembrance, like Noyes’ poem, leaves out all the facts. This act of memory forgets everything. This is like the process of abstraction, where you take too many concrete facts and deal with ideas, but is really the dissolution of all contact with reality – you end up with a sort of sugary vapour. It is obvious that any element of facts and empiricism (examining ideas) would strengthen the narrative and just erase most of what Noyes has written.
My guess is that the bullshit quality of naval propaganda and the anti-realist quality of highly rhetorical poetry are two different things. Highly wrought poetry does not have to be nationalist propaganda.
Part of the process which both Noyes and Kipling have gone through, on the way to their poetry, is the injection of religious language into secular, militarist contexts. I find this exceptionally nauseating. Secularisation does not give you the right to redefine war and territorial aggression as divinely ordained.
Another part is simply silencing. You can't re-shoot the Battle of Trafalgar to make the French and Spanish disappear, and replace them with a kind of Spirit of History, sent from God, who decrees that England would dominate the oceans and occupy the less well defended territories of the world. It is too obvious that the spiritual and vaporous stuff has arrived to replace the facts which have been made to vanish.
To avoid me drifting off into abstraction and misrepresentation, let me quote Noyes:
And there were all those others, Drake and Blake,
Rodney and Howard, Byron, Collingwood;
With deathless eyes aflame for England’s sake,
As on their ancient decks they proudly stood, –
Decks washed of old with England’s purplest blood;
And there, once more, each rushing oaken side
Bared its dark-throated, thirsty gleaming brood
Of cannon, watched by laughing lads who died
Long, long ago for England and her ancient pride.
(from ‘The Phantom Fleet’)
(That is Byron the admiral, not the poet.) I can’t find any record of John Byron actually winning a battle – and he served in the American Revolutionary War, which Britain lost. My information is that at the Pageant of Empire, in London in 1924, there was a series of songs set to music by Elgar, and reaching a huge audience during the course of the Pageant performances. At least one of these ("The Immortal Legions") had a text by Noyes. The pageant seems to have been a completely unrealistic, sentimental, and imperialist act of group illusion, stripped of any element of fact but with lavish theatrical means. This was the natural home of Noyes’ poetry, and my impression is that he was a very talented hack who would do anything for money and acclaim. I say talented– his poetry is like film music, capable of endless emotional climaxes, flowing through inexhaustible tonal variations, but unlistenable outside the overheated drama it is nailed to. He wrote very talented, very bad, poetry.
At the risk of repetition, let me supply two quotes from the wikipedia article on Noyes:
"Noyes first visited America in February 1913, partly to lecture on world peace and disarmament and partly to satisfy his wife's desire that he should gather fresh experiences in her homeland. His first lecture tour lasted six weeks, extending as far west as Chicago. "
"In 1913, when it seemed that war might yet be avoided, he published a long anti-war poem called The Wine Press. One American reviewer wrote that Noyes was "inspired by a fervent hatred of war and all that war means", and had used "all the resources of his varied art" to depict its "ultimate horror". The poet and critic Helen Bullis found Noyes' "anti-militarist" poem "remarkable", "passionate and inspiring", but, in its "unsparing realism", lacking in "the large vision, which sees the ultimate truth rather than the immediate details"." (Bullis thought that war healed most ills.)
This is why I think Noyes was a hack – he had clearly understood, in 1913, how awful modern war was, but all the same he took a propaganda job when war came and spent all day producing propaganda. It is only fair to say that he stopped writing patriotic poetry in the 1920s, and avoided it for the next 30 years. This is part of the argument which says that poetry had learnt from the factual evidence about the Great War and had fundamentally moved away from nationalism. Poets learnt that you could not do a merger of religion and nationalism, to put it simply. People stopped believing that any poem which has the Destiny of the Nation inside it was more important, more large-scale. than any poem which was about a few ordinary people.
Also, some idle talk about ‘The Blind Goddess’, the 1948 film of Patrick Hastings’ play. The plot is that there is, around 1946, a refugee relief organisation in Central Europe. The money is being filtered away by the prominent people in charge, including an English lord, who has siphoned off £500,000 for personal use. The refugees are freezing or starving, whichever. An idealistic administrator, secretary to the noble lord, tries to blow the whistle. He is informed by a Czech administrator, who is murdered in the opening scene (but this is made to look like suicide). The noble lord sues the idealistic but wet young chap for libel. His lawyer is Eric Portman, also the star of the film, also the father of the young chap’s girlfriend. In a courtroom scene which lasts an hour (possibly more than that), he demolishes the young chap. However, he is relying information supplied by the lord and his solicitor, and is persuasively arguing a completely false case. He wins. The same day as the verdict, information arrives (partly from his daughter) which shows him that he has misled everybody. He reverses the injustice. The plot winds up, the lord jumps under a car, the young people marry. We never get to see any of the refugees – it is a very stagy film.
The real theme of the film is how a barrister can bring about a miscarriage of justice by accepting the information in the brief given to him (which the conventions say he should do). The contrast of oratorical styles does not come up – Portman argues in the modern style, being very courteous, never raising his voice, avoiding emotion. It is interesting that this factual style is shown, in the film, as persuading a jury of a false conclusion. It is the style which Hastings was famous for.
This is a good film – perhaps one has to have watched infeasible numbers of bad English Forties films to appreciate how good it is.
A useful website about Pageants has this quote from pageant master Frank Benson: "In a 1920 volume, Rejoice Greatly: How to Organise Public Ceremonies, Benson argued that pageantry was ‘Not only… the festal garb of Nations, their “robe of glory”’, but also
the expression of their inmost natures… Pageantry shows the nation in its mating plumage. It marks the tides of National life. It shows us a people romancing about itself, striving to make the reality fit the dream or to materialise the vision. Because it is all this and much more, Pageantry enables us to appraise the degree of National vitality, estimate the quality, nature and intensity of National culture. It shows us a people romancing about itself, striving to make the reality fit the dream or to materialise the vision. Because it is all this and much more, Pageantry enables us to appraise the degree of National vitality, estimate the quality, nature and intensity of National culture…"
This is quite explicit about falsification. Benson was aware that what he was setting up was false – quite unlike the real national past. This is the natural home of Noyes’ poetry – whether the pageants followed him, or he followed them, the phony scenes and fake collective emotion which the pageants staged for (possibly) a million people are exactly matched to his poems. These fantasies shed light on the term ‘ideology’. This word is used in different senses, for example someone can say “I have an ideology and it is Marxist” and this is something they own and assert, or elsewhere ‘ideology’ can mean any view which is dogmatic and resists evidence. The nationalist fantasy of the pageants shows us what was later called ‘ideology’ – a rewrite of history in which the other side vanishes and the record only shows victories. Someone who spends hours or days in this fantasy state is less capable of rational thought. It really isn't so hard to see why poetry moved away from this realm of feeling.
The collapse of nationalist/fake-religious poetry led to two possible outcomes. One was poetry which dealt with history, but from a Left angle, dissolving invested and frozen blocs of power in favour of the mass of humanity. Moments of history were bars in a larger score, this movement of history outwards and downwards. Or, you could have mere privatisation, poems dealing with domestic relationships, and factual matters within the reach of the sense organs, as carried around by a single person. These outcomes were radically different from each other.
The original claims about “metropolitan taste”, as part of the UKIP set of theories, challenged the right of the people in charge of culture to legislate about taste. Given how much income from the market influences culture, these claims are problematic. I must admit that I find it hard to show why tastes change, which is obviously a big step beyond tracing where these changes occurred. If Watson suggests that the growing education of jurors affected courtroom rhetoric, that suggests that the move away from the older style was an attempt to reach ordinary people, since they supplied the juries. If it is true that the changes affected barristers in jury trials, actors, politicians and poets, in more or less the same way, then the people who run poetry did not have any choice in the matter, public taste was changing altogether and we can't find what legislature ordained that the rules should change. If you can’t locate the legislature, you can’t demand reform or submit a claim for judicial review. But perhaps we can change these rules almost on a household basis. If we can’t locate them, we are entitled to break them – to resist signing the contract.
We will pursue this "legislature" in a future post.