Rhetoric around 1920, part 2
I am going to quote the legal historian, Andrew Watson (this is the summary of a paper of his):
"George Keeton wrote, in 1943, about “a silent revolution in methods of advocacy as practiced by the English Bar over the last fifty years”. Changed standards of etiquette, professional rules and greater control exerted by judges over these years led to a vast increase in courtesy in interactions with judges and between counsel. The conduct of prosecutions had also improved. They were generally no longer carried out in a sneering hectoring manner with witnesses mercilessly browbeaten or bullied. Dramatic types of 19th Century advocacy, in which counsel was prepared to use mannerisms, tricks of speech and gestures to heighten the effects of their pleas to juries, was replaced by a conversational and matter of fact tone. The idea that to cross-examine meant to examine crossly had almost vanished. Appeals to juries were now to reason combined with a controlled, subtle and focused appeal to emotion. Jury trials in civil cases had continued to decline. Advocacy before judges was concerned with facts and the law, not oratorical flourishes. Fewer criminal trials before juries took place as the jurisdiction of the magistrates had widened further. The more restrained and conversational style of advocacy before criminal juries may have been to some extent influenced by that of the civil courts, where the leaders of the bar appeared more often and increasingly without juries. Two dominant members of the bar during the first half of the 20th Century were Patrick Hastings and Norman Birkett. Their styles, because of triumphs linked with them, were influential on those of other barristers. Hastings was a master of direct forcible speech without any embellishments or ornamentation and prized brevity. Unlike Hastings, Norman Birkett believed that the advocate ought to use the full range of English speech. Other factors lay behind the mainly conversational and matter of fact advocacy that had become established. These include a widely held suspicion of rhetoric and, very importantly, better informed and greater educated juries. Jurors were less susceptible than their predecessors to theatrical gestures and melodrama, which had largely been replaced in literature and on the stage by introspection and realism, references to God and the Bible, elegant and flowery, but empty, speech and appeals to strong emotion and prejudice. In a more scientific age jurors expected more of an appeal to reason. The success of barristers such as Hardinge Giffard, John Holker, Charles Russell and Edward Clarke, during the closing decades of the previous century, may have been because they appreciated early on the changes that were occurring to juries. Attempting to catch the eye of the press to help create a reputation, useful to generate work, was an important factor behind the emotive, vividly worded and aggressive advocacy of the early Victorian period and afterwards. The later decline of court reporting in the newspapers, removing much of the gallery from the stage, may well have contributed to the more subdued form of speech."
"Other factors lay behind the mainly conversational and matter of fact advocacy that had become established. These include a widely held suspicion of rhetoric and, very importantly, better informed and greater educated juries. Jurors were less susceptible than their predecessors to theatrical gestures and melodrama" - surely this is the history of poetry as well, and we could just replace “the courtroom” with “the poem”.
Watson talks about the start of a more factual-objective style of courtroom advocacy in the 1890s (actually he says “closing decades”). This underlines the slow nature of the changes in poetics – a simpler and anti-rhetorical style was already there in the 1890s (Housman, Kipling, Hardy), but it was decades later that other styles became decisively unfashionable and so “pompous” and “ridiculous”. If the audience is composed, at any point, of people aged 20 to 70, it is credible that any profound shift of taste takes four or five decades to become dominant, as opposed to being attached to a specific group which is surrounded by living alternatives.
I find this passage very enlightening for what happened in poetry. What he says about prejudice is enlightening – certainly if you look at Noyes and Kipling then patriotic prejudice is a big part of their message, and the neglect of fact is all tied up with that. So we would say that the collapse of the national “drug high” of World War patriotism around 1925 meant a radical change in poetry. Patriotic poetry began to sound murderous as well as false. But we have quickly to look back at Watson – barristers were shifting towards a cooler and more factual style, respecting the rational judgement of jurors, already in the 1890s.
Watson is implying that judges and jurors had completely different ways of reacting to the speeches of advocates. The factual style spread from “the civil courts”, where judges listened to arguments about contracts and the law of contracts. He is implying that judges preferred the law to gusty emotions. But, in a jury trial, everything you say is heard by both judge and jury.
Watson quotes an older source, Keating, as attaching the change to "fifty years", so starting around 1893 and still prevalent in 1943.
If you follow these posts, you will know that I began writing about Kipling and Noyes in connection with the rise of UKIP. The smash of the “portentous patriotic poem” in the 1920s was the start of the “left liberal bubble”. Reading Noyes and Kipling explains why poetry gave up on writing about big battles which killed lots of foreigners. At the same time, I read Norman Jope’s article (in Tears in the Fence) about Michael Sullivan, a xenophobic poet who was apparently in sympathy with UKIP and Farrage and who had a poem in the Plymouth Herald every week for two years (around 2013 to 2015). Sullivan has just died aged 66. Apparently he was in mid-poem. (Death was in May 2019.) Some poems are lethal. Someone thought that Plymouth needed militarist, patriotic poetry. Sullivan’s poems are pastiches of Kipling's patriotic and naval poetry (The Five Nations, etc.). The Herald reports “His knowledge of guns was so extensive he had been a Home Office consultant and edited a shooting magazine and the Tackle and Guns trade publication, and penned a book called The Rough Shooter’s Guide.” So there is at least some poetry which is outside the anti-capitalist sentiment of the majority.
While writing this someone has been on the radio telling us that 17,000 sailors of the Royal Navy died suppressing the slave trade. I think there is something suspect about this figure. Only 500 British sailors died at Trafalgar. It must refer to ships sinking while on patrol, not to sea-fights with slave-runners. But it is also incomplete – why not tell us how many British seamen died while taking part in the slave trade? Or how many Navy men died in fights for the West Indies colonies, which were profitable and totally reliant on slave labour? After the first fact, there are several others.
We have been conversing about the quasi-Biblical aspect of Noyes and Kipling – where they know what Destiny is Uttering. But Kipling’s poems were also close to music-hall recital – they had a large colloquial element and some were (in the 1970s) adapted as folk-songs. Something similar is true of Noyes. Think about the naval rivalry with Germany, the new militarist interest which marked British politics so much from 1890 to 1914. The core is British sea power, although that also means trade, access to markets, secure control of the colonies and of overseas sources of raw materials. A warship is a symbol for all that power, for nationhood. But, the vital part of the ship is sailors. Militarism has to seduce the working classes. So the militarist poet is going to look at popular song, folk music. Noyes writes fake folk material – this is a big component of his work up to 1920. The obvious solution was sea shanties, as in his ridiculous poem “Forty Singing Seamen”. I was taken aback to read in N.A. M. Rodger’s history of the Navy that the Navy banned singing – the key was silence so that commands could be heard. It was a very precise business, like running trains. So, no tradition of song in the Navy (after 1800). I was taken aback because I had seen so many fake sea shanties, in the poets of a certain era. “Drake’s Drum”, and what have you.
If you are going to write the history of the folk style in British poetry, you have to thread in the use of it by nationalists. It looks to me as if we are seeing a take-over of folkness by the Left, seizing it from the Right. Edward Thomas was close to folk-song, it was part of the Georgian thing, and this is completely different from the ‘folk style’ deployed by Noyes and Henry Newbolt. Today, we expect folk to be associated with protest songs, the authenticity of the poor, the corruption of the rich and cultured. That is not necessarily where folk came from.
The decline of sailing ships meant the death of sea shanties. Cecil Sharp went round old ex-sailors and collected a couple of hundred of them. Very impressive. Sharp was most probably in the Right current, enthused by the Nation and interested in simple songs as a response to the extension of the franchise to the working class, and the urge to co-opt the lower classes to prevent them from taking over the State and directing it to their own interests. Sharp was part of ‘Leitkultur’, middle-class guidance and avoidance of change. Bourgeois guardianship.
The history of “folk song language” in poetry is unnaturally complex.