Wednesday 28 October 2020

Noyes and Rhetoric, four

Noyes and Rhetoric, four: legislation?

It seems fair to start with an unorthodox thesis about the collapse of rhetorical poetry. This is, that the new order of things put stress on facts rather than flowery language, on evidence rather than beautiful fantasies. These values were native to prose (and, as things evolved, also to photographs, or arguments based on numbers and shown by graphics, as opposed to purely verbal ones). In the theatre, actors moved to a more matter of fact, conversational, understated, delivery. This was not suited to verse, and in fact verse drama vanished from the stage (having done quite well between roughly 1900 and 1914). All of this is compatible with the eclipse of poetry. The market share of poetry books fell rapidly and decisively. It moved to the margins of the bookshop world. This applied mainly to living poetry – work by dead poets remained popular and established, and of course this work was normally in a high rhetorical style, in a language far removed from speech. The rise of fact, numbers, and empiricism did not give rise to a new kind of poetry, but to the eclipse of poetry as part of the cultural market-place.

​ So, during the 20th C we have a democratic process whereby most of the reading public migrates away from living poets. In parallel, we have various shifts of taste enacted within whatever nucleus of readers poetry retains. With these, we have to distinguish between unanimity and legitimacy. Each of the changes probably had a significant minority which opposed it, at least for a couple of decades. But, just as a 52:48 split is enough to produce a legitimate government, a consensus in the poetry world doesn't mean 100% of the interested audience (or, certainly, of the population which has no idea what is going on in poetry).
​ It is possible to see radical changes to the rules of poetry either as the product of organic changes, or of arbitrary actions by a metropolitan elite which they impose on the public more or less as a legislative coup – a moment of setting the rules without democratic assent. The de-legitimated can't legitimate or de-legitimate. This doesn't sound wholly fair.
The changes in 20th C would include these (at least):
the abandonment of a consistently rhetorical style
the preference for empirical knowledge, for concrete objects, the record of the senses, measurements, technical knowledge, etc.
the abandonment of religious-militarist-nationalist poetry
the change from regular metre to free verse
the abandonment of religion in favour of secular forms of interpreting behaviour
the jettison of the New Romantic style in favour of something more severe
the shift to hedonism and the present tense in the Sixties
the rise of a Formalist style, so metrical regularity, in association with Christian, conservative attitudes, during the Cold War
the spread of feminism, and consequent stigmatisation of anti-feminist attitudes, during the 1970s and 1980s

​ I have omitted “the shift whereby everything had to be Left-liberal and usually a protest about something”, because I am not so sure about this. I did not mention modernism, because that was always a minority thing, and cannot be said to be a consensus preference.
It will be seen that the departure from religion was incomplete.
It is arguable that all of these prevailed over only parts of the field, and that at any point there were poets who followed different paths without being excluded from the sites of visibility.

​ It seems very likely that all of these represented the wishes of some large fraction of the reading public at the time, so the idea of a “metropolitan elite” running things is not quite plausible. New ideas have a source somewhere, but these “new rules” could not have spread if the interested audience had not given their assent. The existence of a fringe of resentful people, semi-participants is undeniable – especially among poets. But it does not follow that the resentful agreed with each other (or even that they had developed a real alternative). They were more the ones who were bottom of the shortlist, as it were. It does not seem likely that people who paid to be published by a vanity press also legitimated the editors who turned them down. Most likely, they rejected the legitimacy of those editors.

​ I looked at Allott’s Penguin anthology of Contemporary Poetry (re-published as Mid-century Poetry). Date window, 1918 to 1960. This contained a 7% share of women poets and a 39.5% share of poets who had studied at Oxford University. (I apologise for quoting these figures frequently.) It is open to anyone to argue that the right to speak was given to the socially dominant groups, and that aesthetic judgement was fatally entangled with reverence for the possession of power; that is, that voices associated with power were taken as more worth listening to, their language as the authoritative kind of language. That is - that the powerless are unconvincing?
I gave up on this after looking at poets who were left out of Allott’s selection. I think it is a very good anthology, and that the strange distribution patterns we are looking at are to do with the sociology of the country, during the mid-century, and not with bias on Allott’s part. He could not anthologise poetry which had not been written.
There is a pendant to the dominance of the educated (and those successful in the education system’s rankings). I did some work on the British Library Catalogue for 1960 (the year when Allott’s anthology stops, although the publication date was 1962). I was trying to download a list of all poetry titles published in 1960 – this may not have succeeded, as there is a lack of tags by which you could identify them. All the same, I was taken aback to realise that one third of the titles came from vanity presses. This was a check on the legitimacy of the self-legitimating. The legitimate poetry world was surrounded by figures who thought their poetry was important, who had presumably been rejected by reputable publishers, who had, probably, not worked out what the modern style was, and who (probably) had a good deal of resentment for the editors and reviewers “in post” I am going to quote something from 1951 (I apologise for having quoted this before). This is the testimony of someone who had read a great deal of amateur poetry for a special purpose. I will include the comments I made myself.
“The idea of a reservoir beneath our feet was tapped into by the Festival of Britain. Along with so many other examples of the obscure, eccentric, and charming, they drilled for the wellspring of amateur poets, using the simple method of offering a prize for the unknowns. (To be exact the known were only excluded by the need for the poems to be unpublished.) The judges were an awesome battery of old-fashioned taste and connoisseurship. The scripts were either a long poem or a collection of short poems and 2,093 of them rolled in. Most of the scripts have long since been burnt and restored to the Elements. However, John Hayward’s emotive summary survives: ‘There was [...] a great deal of very bad verse, ranging in ineptitude from the expanded cracker-motto to grandiloquent failure to imitate Paradise Lost. There were the great Imperial sagas from the first week of the Creation to VE Day; the sacred oratorios and the patriotic hymns; the epics of rural life and odes to British Industry. There were the oddities which relieved the monotony of the judges’ task – poems written on cardboard, or in coloured chalks, or on scraps of paper, or in block capitals; poems engrossed on vellum with illuminated capitals, or with calligraphic title-pages, and bound with loving care, complete with leather thongs or silk ties. There were the eccentrics and the moonstruck, bemused and halting followers of Blake and Smart, with their obscure cosmic visions and their fearful prophecies of imminent damnations underscored in blood-red ink. And above all, there was the vast chorus of those content to chant in monotonous unison the joys of love and springtime, with special emphasis on bird-song at morning and starshine at night.’ Hayward sounds a bit battered. Maybe there is no wonderful reservoir of bashfully authentic naive poetry? He observes that the entries showed a remarkable lack of response to the prestige of Hopkins, Eliot and Yeats: ‘Their sources, if any, would seem to have been [...] entirely of nineteenth century origin, and principally of the Romantic period.’"
It has been said of Hayward that "He was sometimes called the most malicious man in London". Reading bad poetry makes you malicious. This body of work probably includes much of the poetry coming out from vanity presses in 1960, although I can’t confirm that by reading the texts. What struck me was that there had been a whole series of “legislative acts”, which had made poetry of the previous phase obsolete and validated the poetry of the new phase. Hayward was identifying poetry as bad for being out of date – he was not also asking why this legislation had been passed (or who had passed it). The genre of the "great Imperial sagas from the first week of the Creation to VE Day” sounds very much like something Noyes would have written. The conclusion is that there had been legislative shifts of taste several times during the 20th century, and that a large number of poets had not been sufficiently involved in new poetry publication to realise that the rules had changed. The shifts were evidently “partly a consensus”, that is, they were a consensus only for people well-informed enough to know what modern poetry (since 1940, or since 1900?) was like.
It is odd that the critics claim originality as the key for favoured poets, but the first thing that they have to do is to assimilate all the changes of the last twenty years, to become up to date. It is hard to explain how these two things coincide.
I believe that art is a very social thing, and that much of what is happening during the reading of a book of poetry, or going round an exhibition, is assimilation. If you consume a lot of culture, you assimilate to the symbols and stylistic gestures it uses. Culture is not going to work unless you do this. The start point in reading a poem is identifying with the feelings and ideas in the poem, this is temporary but as you read thousands of poems the acquisition becomes permanent, and you have moved towards where the poets are.
Painters may talk about their sources of inspiration in personal revolt, but in actual fact they are reading art magazines every week and they partake of the “language of modern art” as laid down in those magazines. So also for poets, I think.
So reading one poem gets you close to the poet. Rhythm makes your breaths coincide. You are thinking the same thing at the same time. Thousands of people reading books of poetry creates an impressive solidarity. This is the “dominant taste”. As you empathise with the poet, you get closer to the poet and to the other readers. My feeling is that “the excluded”, the ones who published with vanity presses (probably 2000 volumes over a 40-year period, sad to say), hadn't been reading modern poetry, missed the socialisation process, and just didn’t know what modern taste was. The books and magazines were freely on sale, but they didn’t have the shopping knowledge to go and get hold of them. Changes to poetry are validated by the wishes of the market (they reject some innovations and assimilate others), they are not arbitrary acts by individuals or cliques. But to get with modern taste you need to be reading modern poetry.
Let’s return to the count in Allott’s anthology. 39.5% Oxford graduates. Obviously being an insider has an effect. These people hung out with people who frequently read modern poetry and so they understood what the market wanted. They could connect the language of poems with the language of conversation – a barrier which tumbled. There are too many implications to unfold. Thinking about the insiders, about the inside itself, allows us to understand more about the outsiders. Modern poetic language is not secret – it is always being published. But you can be such an outsider that you fail as a shopper, never find it. So ‘New Signatures’, 1932, put the new poetry thing on record. It was freely on sale. But if you were cut off you wouldn’t find out that this was the new thing, or that it even existed. It had nine poets, who already knew what the “new thing” was. But you could join in. (Was it five Oxford, three Cambridge? sparing the details.) We will talk more about Michael Roberts later.
We can define the legislation of poetry more accurately by looking at the people who didn’t hear about it and whose activity was not affected by it. Everybody wants to legitimate themselves but the ones whose self-legitimation goes over control what happens next. Is this related to UKIP’s anti-metropolitan contention? it’s related but it isn’t the same thing.
Watson’s paper is “The Silent Revolution in Methods of Advocacy in English Courts", 2016.

Watson makes clear that part of the old-style courtroom was blatant unfairness. Advocates sought to polarise emotions in order to discredit the other side. This involved abusing witnesses – the goal was to make the accused, and everyone who testified somehow in his favour, seem absurd, inferior, and disgusting. This is notably similar to what tabloid newspapers do today – an archaic pattern which forces of objectivity have tried to suppress. One big change, he records, was that judges became much more forceful about preventing barristers from bullying witnesses. It became harder to show “educated man exposing uneducated witness as unreliable and mendacious” as a scene which decided a jury.
I discuss this because it might seem as if nostalgia for “great speeches” were in order. Oratory did not always have an idealistic basis. The link with melodrama in theatre is obvious. The twentieth century was just cooler in manner, more curious about the facts.
If we look at Noyes’ poem, the basis in prejudice is obvious. He writes about Trafalgar but makes the French and Spanish fleets evaporate. The link between depersonalising the French and the Spanish, and erasing any differences among the British to assert aggressive group identity, is all too obvious. The underlying structure of separating mankind into allies and enemies, and thriving on the uncontrolled forces of aggression and depersonalisation, is exactly what Watson is talking about for the criminal courts, and it is a formula for violence.
A basic part of modernity is not seeking a split between heroes and villains. This crosses many realms of human (symbolic) activity. That split worked very well for older advocates, politicians, and playwrights.

Sunday 18 October 2020

Rhetoric around 1920, part 3

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, it 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 seize 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 the court. 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). This is the "blind" bit. 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.…"

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.

Sunday 11 October 2020

Rhetoric around 1920, part two

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."
(Andrew Watson)

"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.

Rhetoric around 1920


Thomas Grant’s really terrific book on Court No 1 the Old Bailey had interesting text comparing two styles of advocacy. The specific moment for us is the 1949 memoirs of an advocate, Patrick Hastings, who denounced the older style of advocacy for ‘flatulence’. The book is Cases in Court and the remark is "There was a time when no defending counsel was worth his salt unless he could be relied on for an exhibition of rhetorical emotion. Those days are past." and "Those days of flatulent oratory are gone." The implication is that a new, unemphatic, factual style came in and found a grandiloquent, Victorian, rhetorical style mendacious and long-winded. Grant links this comment to Sir Edward Marshall Hall. But Hall (1858-1927) had won many cases, including some where he probably got guilty people acquitted. He specialised in dramatic cases, so not the regular stuff of interpreting contracts and petty crime. He had the reputation of holding the jury enthralled – which applied also to the spectators in court. If they found it exciting, they did not also find it flatulent. (The word refers to breath, but in fact as a euphemism for either belching or farting, so gas which does not come from the lungs.) Hall was a firearms expert, in his way, and large parts of his speeches were involved in rather detailed questions of fact, such as how much pressure it took to release a trigger (had the wife shot her husband by accident). He was certainly well equipped to present such issues – his rhetoric was not vague and cloudy. He had spent a lot of time examining and firing guns. Hastings was also famous and also won many cases. As he was 22 years younger than Hall, we can date the change – not to a moment, but to a couple of decades.

The implied shift between two generations of barristers has interesting parallels with shifts in political oratory, the delivery of actors, and poetry. Probably also in the manner of sermons, I have less information on that. If we see poetry in the 1930s being attracted to documentary, that must be in parallel with Patrick Hastings winning juries over with a factual and undramatic style.
I believe the shift is related to the rise of scientific and technical knowledge. This demands a factual and terse way of speaking. Politicians who were explaining government policies in which accurate and abstract knowledge was essential, were not also going to use rhetoric, in which emotions outweigh facts. Economics became central to parliamentary business, and demanded much use of numbers and of explanatory models. Classical rhetoric was not suited to that. Parliamentary sentiment came to accept business values, and to set less store by linguistic beauty and the ability to carry an audience away.

A good example of the overblown and rhetorical style of poetry is Alfred Noyes. He was actually a contemporary of Edward Thomas, and the Georgian poets, although he lived until 1958. Take this:

Hasten the Kingdom, England;
For then all nations shall be one;
One as the ordered stars are one that sing upon their way,
One with the rhythmic glories of the swinging sea and the rolling sun
One with all dreams of beauty,
One with all laws of duty;
One with the weak and helpless while the one sky burns above;
Till eyes by tears made glorious
Look up at last victorious,
And lips that starved break open in one song of life and love.
(from “Nelson’s Year”, in the 1907 volume Forty Singing Seamen)

This we could call florid (I certainly don’t want to use that word ‘flatulence’), and it is probably worth comparison with the oratorical effects of a Marshall Hall. Part of the alien part is the poem’s claim to knowledge: it describes a vision, so it simultaneously describes the fate of the planet (when Christ’s kingdom comes), and is also about something that you can't possibly see. It is unreal, hard to falsify; the details cannot be right. Noyes’ poem is an account of a hallucination – but a fictional account, so of a hallucination which the poet did not actually experience. If you ask questions like “how do you know this” “what did you actually see and hear”, “what objects did you touch or see”, it all collapses. I do wonder what makes the stars sing; this is possibly a fragment of Hellenistic cosmology, about the “music of the spheres”, by which outer space is filled with sound. You can’t actually hear it. I don’t want to get too far into Noyes, since the discussion is meant to apply to hundreds of poets, but we have to quote a bit more of his poem:

Hasten the Kingdom, England;
Look up across the narrow seas,
Across the great white nations to thy dark imperial throne
Where now three hundred million souls attend to thine august decrees;

That phrase “Kingdom” shows that Noyes is not drawing a clear line in between the kingdom of Christ and the British Empire. Are nations becoming One because they are joining in the Kingdom or because they are being subdued and dissolved in the British Empire? Noyes seems unclear about this. The cosmic scheme of the New Testament seems to include the growth of the British State. This scale serves to make the poem important, and the poet. From the perspective of today, it also seems vacuous: it’s all smoke. It is understandable that people didn’t find this a convincing account of politics, or theology, and it is fair to describe the changes of the second quarter of the 20th century as eliminating the florid style. This is a change which the poetry world has stuck with. Edward Thomas describes things you can see and hear. He uses free verse. This is the new thing in around 1912. Thomas is quite widely brought into service now as a “valid ancestor” for modern and plain British poetry. This is not totally honest, since his poetry was very good and the recent poetry in question is often very bad. But, it is a myth worth knowing. I don't think anyone claims Noyes as an ancestor. Or even Tennyson, although people still read Tennyson. If you look at poetry being published between 1920 and 1940, a lot of it is in an unreformed manner. The Georgians were popular, Housman was popular, and there were modernists (quite unpopular I suspect). But other people still wrote in a way we think of as tennysonian.
It is hard to reduce Noyes’ poem to concrete facts. Its subject is the centenary of Nelson’s death – this is a notion, not a real event. The poem is about feelings about patriotism, warfare, maritime expansion and so on, which may be important but which are no more than feelings. The poem does not involve any “things you can see and hear”.

A point where the style of elevated speech in Britain abandons traditional powers and virtues may shed a light on the contrast between British idiom and that of many other cultures, including ones whose members have migrated to Britain in significant numbers. It is hard to explain why poets lack command of the resources of language, when that is their stock in trade. Since rhetoric was designed to make formal language persuasive, it is hard to see why it should be excluded from poetry. People may expect poetry to be enthralling, copious, elaborate, and so on. Where we can trace historic bodies of poetry from other cultures, they often use rhetoric, and are more elaborate than prose or everyday speech. There are often similarities between religious language and secular poetry. This is also true of English poetry up to the first book of Georgian Poetry (1912), which was strikingly spare in language. This was only one style of several floating around at the time. Thomas was born in the same year as Patrick Hastings – whose courtroom approach was so much less high-flown than Hall’s. Hastings used the plain style and it was completely non-literary – even drab. Hastings once had a hit play in the West End and was also Attorney General in the first Labour government. He thus crossed the courtroom, Parliament, and the stage – a reminder that you can’t wholly separate these various sites of elaborate and public language. (One of his plays was made, in Hollywood, into a silent film named The Notorious Lady, in 1927.) (Another was made into The Blind Goddess, which I have a copy of on my PC, it stars my favourite actor, Eric Portman, gosh, I must watch it.)

The shift in poetry is often connected to the rise of Close Reading, a way of getting students to write about literary texts which was a new fashion in the late 1920s, and started in the universities. This may be a false point of origin – one has to explain why people founding the Cambridge English Tripos already thought the new approach was desirable, and what directed them away from a Victorian style which was still quite common in the 1920s. Every point of origin seems to be false, a result rather than an origin. The empirical and documentary style of poetry was already available around 1905. However, the steep decline of the rhetorical and non-religious style was twenty years later. Noyes made a career, with huge sales, during that transitional period.
Other sources might be that people rejected religion and wanted literature to be more scientific and factual. Or, that the overblown public emotion of the First World War set off a reaction in the Twenties, which took the form of streamlined and direct writing. Or, that the latent knowledge which had been the basis of poetry was replaced in the thinking of its readership by scientific knowledge. Or, that the Depression made poets interested in issues of economics and politics, which required less rhetoric and more facts. Possibly all these explanations are true.
Using Close Reading in the classroom could have made poetry more rhetorical and less banal. There is something about the silent rules of the classroom which meant that rhetoric got “exposed” and banality or literalness were less castigated. In general, poets find Close Reading oppressive, and associate it with being unable to write. It is fair to recall that the classics of the New Criticism did not reject high-flown writing; if you look at the choice of texts in “The Well-Wrought Urn”, they are mostly very rhetorical and literary. They are not domestic anecdote.

Modern British poetry is anti-rhetorical. It is plain and tries to rely on facts. This may correlate with a national habit of diffidence, embarrassment, verbal awkwardness. The two things may be related.

The standard book on Marshall Hall was written by someone who worked with him, and it is very much biased in his favour. It is a heroic narrative. Voices which found Hall to be theatrical and misleading, and perhaps out of date in his later years, are not represented in that book. Incidentally, it didn’t matter if other barristers found his speeches theatrical and fantastic, as long as the jury found them enthralling and convincing. That biography (I use the green Penguin edition which is abbreviated, I admit) does not comment on whether the wife who shot her Egyptian husband (more than once) in Hall’s most famous case was guilty. Grant’s narrative implies very strongly that she was. This is surely a question to raise about Hall’s courtroom rhetoric. He got the jury to acquit because the husband was Egyptian – that is pretty much what happened. Grant’s writing is impressive because anti-rhetorical. It is unimprovable – I can't get enough of it. But can you write poetry in that way?

Silent cinema was anti-verbal. Its makers had to cut the speeches in their source material and narrate everything visually. Did this influence novels and poems? I don't know. But culture is porous and subject to a thousand substances flowing in and out.
The legal historian Andrew Watson has written about the shift in courtroom styles and made the point that it was the juries who changed – the barristers followed the juries. Jurors became more educated and more critical. Also with poetry, we have to see the audience changing, not sovereign decisions by poets. More on Watson in my next post. Robert Ross wrote "The Georgian Revolt", a very interesting book about what the Georgians actually stood for

Tuesday 6 October 2020

SNP and the Scots language

New development for the Scots language

Start point for this post was wading through quite a large-scale book on Scottish politics since 2007 (edited by Hassan and Barrow) and realising that there was nothing about language policy in its 607 pages. This was disappointing. I looked more closely and found that it was an evaluation of ten years of life under the SNP – a narrower theme. If the SNP has no language policy, then such a book is not going to talk about it. The agenda is set and there is an emerging, or yawning, space of things that just aren't on the agenda. I was recalling articles in the magazine Lallans, about 20 years ago, which drew attention to the lack of a question about the Scots language in the 2001 Census and suggested that there had been such a question but it was removed because admitting the existence of Scots would oblige the Edinburgh government to spend money on it. Later probes found that there was no interest in Scots among the SNP, officially, and that they didn't even have a policy on it. The website of the Scots Language Centre confirms my memories: “In 1994 the Aberdeen University Scots Leid Quorum was formed to campaign for a question about Scots language ability in the Scottish Census. By 1996 the General Register Office for Scotland had been persuaded to discuss including a question on Scots in the 2001 census. However, in 1997 the Scottish office rejected that. In 2000 MSPs debated a motion to include a question on Scots in the 2001 census. The motion was defeated. In 2001 a campaign group 'Forgotten Folk' was formed to campaign for a question on Scots in the census.” [Lallans = 'Lowlands', so Scots as distinct from Gaelic. leid=language]

The SNP was thus the only nationalist party in Europe which had no interest in encouraging or reviving the national language. If you look at the relationship “Scotland is dominated by England” and then “Scots in Scotland is dominated by English” then you might continue to say ”a Scottish nationalist movement would reverse the English domination both politically and linguistically”. The reasons why that logic was never applied are quite interesting. A bit of checking uncovered the fact that the SNP now has a policy about the Scots language. It was developed between 2010 and 2015 and is now enshrined in a policy paper. 2011 sounds a bit late, when the party had its first breakthrough in the 1960s, but the government they run is now funding a range of Scots institutions, including the Scots Language Society – which runs Lallans and was responsible for severe criticisms of official-nationalist approaches to the local language at around Devolution time. As the Scottish government website says, “The 2011 census included a question on the Scots language for the first time. 1.5 million people reported that they could speak Scots and 1.9 million reported that they could speak, read, write or understand Scots.”
I have downloaded the Scots version of the policy paper and am very happy to see it. It starts “We wad like tae encourage ye aw tae recognise the valuable heritage we hae in the Scots leid and tae continue tae promote its popularity and recognition across sindrie aspects o Scottish life.“ Actually that is the third sentence. I put it there to show that the translation from English has gone wrong towards the end of the sentence, so it is really staying in English. The first sentence is “We are fair blythe tae be eekin on a cuttie innins tae this Scots Language Policy. We, in the Scottish Government, are continuin tae tak important steps tae heize the profile o the Scots leid.“ This has some inorganic moments, where official English turns into a register of Scots that doesn’t currently exist (although maybe it did prior to 1603). The sound is a bit stiff but it is heartily welcome because this shows the old language being extended – the creaks are the sound of new growth in an old tree. “eekin on” translates “appending”, and “cuttie innins” translates “short introduction”. (The same verb is spelt eikit later in the document.) A lot of word-creation has to happen, and Irish Gaelic is an example of how this task can be undertaken and brought to fruition, so that what had been a peasant language, around 1900, was brought to a point where complex works of scholarship could be written in it, and understood by the intellectual community. I only got one hit for a search on “SNP + language policy”, but at least they are trying. (The SNP website does not show any language policy, but actually the Scottish government, run by SNP ministers, does have one.) The Westminster government recognised the existence of Scots in 2001. A bit late, you may think.
The prevalence of Lallans follows socio-economic class – it is concentrated in income groups D and E. Within Scotland it does not signal “Scottish” but “lower class”. This may explain why the SNP did not identify itself with it. If the early SNP spokespeople had gone on stage and delivered their ideas in broad Scots, they would not have been taken seriously (i.e. even less seriously than, in 1960 or 1965, they actually were). A lot of people who spoke Scots were strong Labour voters and a lot of early SNP voters were middle class and spoke English all the time. A version where the SNP would have sold itself through the Scots language and sent out its propaganda or policies in Scots is entertaining, but counter-factual. I am on a website looking at someone holding a banner which reads “Dinnae haed yer wheish. Haed yer ain”, a great slogan, but although it is anti-English you can instantly see it isn’t an SNP banner.
Any policy directed at 1.9 million people is going to cost a lot of money. Helping Gaelic is a different question – the number of speakers is so low that almost any policy is inexpensive.

It is only fair to the Hassan/Barrow book to mention that it has a strong interest in social empowerment, the enfranchisement of the poor and ill-educated– what in England is called “social exclusion”. This is a book about politics which takes an interest in people who do not vote. After all, the problem is not really what language people speak, but whether they feel that other people are going to listen to them, and whether they feel that public space belongs to them. The issues around Scots are not to do with what kind of “u” vowel occurs in a word, but with feelings of being wrong about abstract questions, of being someone who is not going to be listened to anyway, and of being laughed at. The acquisition of autonomy by the Scottish nation would seem to translate naturally into individual Scottish people, especially those of low status, reaching for autonomy and feeling that they no longer have to remain silent and listen to other people instructing them. One of their essayists talks about “fuzzy spaces”, which seems to mean spaces where social roles do not apply (or are unclear). The chapter is "Alternative Scotlands: New Spaces and Practices and Overcoming‘Unspace’". This is part of linguistics in a particular way, that anxiety and comfort affect people’s freedom to speak, and those qualities are somehow “scorched” or “imprinted” into shared spaces, and making those spaces “fuzzy” means that everyone feels OK about speaking up when contained in them. This seems like a pretty deep aspect of linguistics, actually. The idea that Scotland ceased to be “dominated space”, or “peripheral space”, in 1999, is romantic but close to being true.
Gerry Hassan has written about “unspace” which seems to be “blocked and impassible space” or even “space impassible to language”. Maybe, too, “the domain of experience that never gets written about”. Fuzzy space is a transformation of that social geometry.
Scottish writers may have overrated the language question, for reasons inherent in the point of view of a writer. Issues of status and credibility are wider than language alone.

Imagine a child whose home speaks broad Scots encountering the school system, which is invested in English. That child is going to have difficulty dealing with English, which is a foreign dialect. Their own speech patterns will be corrected and, unavoidably, stigmatised. When they write, they have to use English. The people in charge speak English. They are being set on the route to leaving school as soon as possible, with the smallest possible number of exam passes. If they reach higher educational levels, they will give up using Scots. This issue is too obvious to be overlooked, and as a result the Lallans movement has shifted towards primary schools (and social inclusion). The trauma is happening at primary level – dealing with 11 year olds is too late. It is their right as citizens to have a school which is positive about Lallans. So the language gets funding to produce material for primary school pupils, and to promote social inclusion. I have to point out that this means a lot of product which is not of great interest to me, as an adult. Strangely, the domain restriction which meant that the language lost great areas of vocabulary is being re-enacted by the stress on writing material which is suited for young children (who also have a restricted vocabulary, with few abstractions.) This was my trouble with the magazine Lallans, that the material they printed was too oral, too simple, not literary enough. Of course the strength of Scottish oral tradition is also important, and it is a larger part of Scottish heritage than the equivalent is in England. I am sure that having affluent, articulate, attractive people go into Scottish classrooms and speak broad Scots to the pupils is a terrific idea. The idea that Scots is not a failed attempt at English, but a language without a State, is something that should be shared with every child. Primary school pupils need material which is close to the oral style, and other material has to be newly written; after all, they are not going to read William Dunbar. If you change the life of 5 to 8 year olds, you will eventually produce a new country.
I don’t think poetry in Scots is in a very good state. The most interesting poets who were involved in it 30 years ago have given it up. I have an anthology of young Scottish poets (2014) which is 189 pages long and only has 2 poems in Scots. (with Scots traces in a third.) I don’t want to guilt-trip people for not belonging to income group D, this is just an objective count.