No 4 - 1975
English Poetry and the Dadists
FIFTY YEARS ago Surrealist activity in Paris, especially in the plastic arts and poetry, was at its most intense. Later in the decade Salvador Dali, Luis Buñuel, and Tristan Tzara were to give fresh radical impetus to the movement, but by the mid-twenties Surrealism had moved only a short way from its Dada origins. Dadaism sprang up in Zurich, New York, and Barcelona during the First World War and had a wild year or so in nearly every other European country immediately after the war. Some of the Germans of the Zürich group had returned to Berlin during the last year of the war to help to promote political anarchy and violent revolution. A few others, including Hans Arp and Kurt Schwitters, had gone home to try to create new art out of the possibilities offered by spontaneity, chance, and deliberate ‘bad taste’ — all those qualities developed to high degree in the multi-media and abstract productions of wartime Dadaism.
The movement reached Paris in 1919 when Tzara and Francis Picabia joined the young writers of the periodical Littérature who were led, even at that time, by André Breton. For the next four or five years this enlarged group created a frenzied stir in the French capital, though much of this was a consequence of fierce wrangling inside the group, an inevitable result of the coming together of such egocentrically wilful and energetic personalities. However, there was sufficient unity for the Dadaists to rampage effectively and notoriously through Paris, denouncing all tradition and order, all the art of the past, and proclaiming the need for a totally new start. The only foundation for any new art was to be complete anarchism combined with a nihilist world-view, and such art certainly appeared in enormous quantity and imaginative variety. Between 1919 and 1925 thousands of poems, paintings, and other manifestations of the Dada spirit were created, and this stream of art and polemic continued to flow as Breton ruthlessly forced his way to permanent leadership of the Surrealist movement. By 1925 he had transformed the young French Dadaists into his, unswervingly loyal Surrealist disciples and most of the old-guard Dadaists had withdrawn from the scene. Although Surrealism proclaimed the sacred worth of the uncensored subconscious and the revelatory power of trance and dream states, automatism, and even madness, it also shared Dadaism’s attitudes of anarchic destructiveness and the complete rejection of rational values, including the ‘bourgeois’ concepts of order, tradition, balance, good sense and decency.
During the past thirty years or so — the years of Abstract Expressionism, Op-art and Pop-art, concrete and phonic poetry, and various other consciously or unconsciously neo-dada activities — some cultural historians and critics have asked why English art, until the brief and comparatively tame Surrealist phase in London during the mid-1930s, remained totally immune from the fruitful if extreme goings-on of Dadaism. There have been several ready-made answers to their question from some of these critics, the condition of the arts in England in the period immediately following the First World War being, for them, simple and self-evident. The naturalness and inevitability of Dadaist and neo-dada developments in modernist art having been assumed, the English failure to respond immediately to such processes is ascribed to the negative workings of those well-known and permanent weaknesses in English cultural life — dullness, emotional coldness, gentility, timidity, failure of artistic nerve, distrust of intelligence, distrust of theory, distrust of foreigners, sheer provincial, philistine ignorance, etc. In short, the chronic English disease is a fundamental distrust of art itself.
Diagnosis of such basic insular weaknesses in English art is not merely a recent phenomenon. At the time of the International Surrealist Exhibition held in London in June 1936, the Surrealist Group’s Bulletin suggested that English individualism would be the main obstacle in the path of any attempt to form an English Surrealist group:
Among artists and intellectuals especially, there is a tradition of individualism. There is an idea that this is the proper way to work; that cranky ideas, confused ideas, lonely ideas, form the best background for artistic creation. Communal activity, group activity, would limit this crankiness, and so it is assumed it would cramp creative work. Moral, ideological, and political irresponsibility is assumed to be the proper basis of English art.(1)
And long after Surrealism had vanished from the English scene, George Melly, a friend of the only Surrealist to settle in England, E. L. T. Mesens, was to suggest that English amateurism and commercialism — a curious mixture this — finally put paid to Surrealism in this country:
Surrealism in England failed as a movement because the English always hope to remain gentlemen. Therefore they found it possible for a short time to espouse surrealism, as a hobby, but not as a way of life. The moment a commission for a Madonna and Child, or the chance of a government appointment presented itself, they softly and silently vanished away. (2)
Both the Surrealists and George Melly assumed the rightness of Surrealism, and accounted for the weakness of its hold here by faulting the soil rather than the quality of the seed. This assumption has been shared, understandably perhaps, by several historians of Surrealism, especially in the U.S.A. (3) where neo-dada and Surrealism have had such powerful influence on the visual arts since 1945. It is more puzzling to find knowledgeable English critics repeating such charges against literary life in this country.
An instance of this is to be found in an article written by Edward Lucie-Smith in 1969. In ‘The Other Poets of the First World War’, (4) Lucie-Smith argued that a comparison of ‘the poetry written in Europe by Europeans in the years 1914-18, and that produced by the English soldiers who went there to fight in the trenches' reveals some similarities but more striking differences. The similarities (‘confined to a few poets on each side’) may be found in such an Expressionist poet as the German, Georg Trakl and the Italian, Ungaretti, on the one hand, and Wilfred Owen and Isaac Rosenberg on the other. Indeed, according to Lucie-Smith, Owen and Rosenberg had probably unknowingly placed themselves ‘on a footing with the Expressionist movement, and Expressionism . . . can be regarded as a component of the first phase of European modernism’. For Lucie-Smith, Owen and Rosenberg, rather than Eliot and Pound are the ‘genuine pioneer modernists to whom the tradition now leads back’.
However, he continued, there is no real parallel in English war-poetry for the work of Apollinaire, Cocteau and Marinetti, all of whom had been exposed to (and - it may be added - had helped to create) the prewar explosion in the arts from which their war
poetry developed. A comparison of poems by Sassoon and Tzara reveals fundamental differences in their outlook on the world:
Though the two sets of lines are very nearly contemporary, the assumptions which inform them are quite different. Sassoon protests within the established order of things: Tzara is out to overturn that order and to make us apprehend reality in a different way.
Finally, from this evidence of the inability of the English poetic medium to cope adequately with the experience of the First World War, Lucie-Smith was able to foresee a relatively lean future for English poetry in the nineteen-twenties:
The different fates of English and European poetry during the twenties can already be deduced from what was happening during the war. The decorative modernism of the Sitwells, the more radical modernism of Eliot, were mild indeed compared to the way in which literature was to go on the continent. Eliot’s The Hollow Men (1925) and Edith Sitwell’s Gold Coast Customs (1929) are mild echoes indeed, and belated ones, of the successive explosions which had taken place in Zürich, in Berlin, and in Paris. Many of the more outstanding oddities of English modernism can, I think, be related to the belated and provincial character of the movement in England.
This article repeats many of the charges made against English modernism, suggesting, again, that the dadaist ‘explosion’ itself was a necessary and needful development of the genuinely modernist sensibility of European literature: this comes dangerously near to asserting both that the world is basically absurd in the deepest nihilistic (and metaphysical) sense, and that Dadaism is therefore the artist’s only adequate or true response. That this is not completely distorting Lucie-Smith’s actual viewpoint may be verified by considering the implications of his comparison of lines from poems by Owen and Rosenberg with others by Jean Cocteau:
It may seem almost blasphemous to compare Rosenberg and Owen, those deeply serious, deeply compassionate men, unfavourably with Cocteau, whose mondain reputation currently serves to obscure from us the full extent of his gift. If I do so here, it is for the purpose of pointing out, not a difference of talent, so much as one of centrality.
This ‘centrality’, it seems to me, begs the whole question (as does the word ‘oddities’ in the earlier passage which I have quoted from Lucie-Smith’s article), since what is being claimed throughout is the eccentricity of English modernism. Lucie-Smith’s examples — ranging from Trakl to Tzara, and from Cocteau to Brecht — do not suggest for me anything like a superior apprehension of reality, or even a more fully human response to the horrors of the First World War, than one finds in the war poetry of Owen, Rosenberg and Sassoon.
The all-important possibility that Lucie-Smith and other critics of modern English poetry have failed to consider is that far from being simply the result of a narrow-minded and bigoted ignorance on the part of the English, the rejection of both an extremist sensibility and what have been regarded as the appropriate techniques could be an informed and thoroughly cogent act. That it may also be sometimes wrong-headed and mistaken is a different possibility, one which should not be assumed to be the case without careful consideration of how the English responded in a particular situation. The response to Dadaism in English literary circles during the early nineteen-twenties provides an example of the complexity of our artistic life, of some of its weaknesses and a number of its real strengths.
Many of the coterie issues which had characterised the English literary scene after 1908 were still being debated ten years later and, of course, a few ultra-conservative literary institutions had managed to survive the two-pronged attacks of the Georgians and the British-American shock troops of English modernism. But the decade before the Armistice had been a revolutionary one, and by 1918 the rightwing Establishment no longer dominated so completely the London publishing houses or the literary journals. Some periodicals could be relied upon to react in blimpish fashion against anything new, experimental or foreign in the arts. The once powerful English Review, J. C. Squire’s London Mercury, and more popular vehicles of middle-class taste such as Punch printed regular attacks on modern art, international Socialism, American jazz, and all young persons, especially young literary persons. Only Punch managed to be sometimes both amusing and critically intelligent, as in E. V. Knox’s satire on Edith Sitwell and her periodical Wheels which, from its first issue in 1916, had kept up shrill and often personal abuse of both the ‘Squirearchy’ and the Georgians:
Spokes: or an Ode on Ebullitions of Eccentricity That
Ought to Have Been Overcome in Early Childhood
I have a mind where meadow, grove and stream
And common things like cats and bricks
To me do seem
Much as they might to lunatics,
The strange hallucinations of a dream,
Think whatso’er they may
I see and say
That is a pea-green monkey climbing up the door.
The conclusion of this parody makes it clear that it was Knox’s impression that Futurism — a movement which had expired at the beginning of the First World War — was to some extent responsible for Miss Sitwell’s fairly tame and far from Futuristic periodical:
And publish me at once, and publish soon.
Thanks to the Vogue of Futuristic things
And constant tumult of a negroid band,
To me a chocolate eclair often brings
Thoughts that not even nurse can understand. (5)
Usually, conservative criticism was less good-humoured and more indiscriminate than this, as in J. C. Squire’s comments about experimental poetry (including poems by Cocteau and Pierre Albert-Birot) in the London Mercury in February 1920:
Let rhythm go, let sense go; put down in barbarous sequence any incongruous images that come into your head: even, if you like, put down sheer gibberish; if possible, deceive yourself, and you will deceive others. Produce a work so opaque that it cannot be seen through. The innocents will either wildly protest against these dangerous revolutionaries — a much more pleasing role to find oneself in than that of harmless mediocrity or else they will knit their brows with the reflection ‘if this young man expresses himself in thoughts too deep for me, why what a very, very, very deep young man this deep young man must be.’ But we have noticed that most of these dealers in chaos soon tire. (6)
In postwar Britain, the Sitwells, Osbert, Sacheverell and Edith, were certainly included among the contemporary ‘dealers in chaos’; even Edith’s friend, Robert Graves, accused her of exhibiting nihilist tendencies in her poetry.(7) With their flair for publicity, their always larger-than-life gestures, their fierce hatred of both the Squirearchy and the Georgians, and their vociferous support for the latest art — especially, in 1919 and 1920, the Russian Ballet which had several seasons in London before and immediately after the war — perhaps the Sitwells came closest to creating Dadaist-style uproar in London during the postwar years. The ballet Parade with sets and costumes by Picasso, music by Satie, and scenario by Cocteau clearly had some influence on the ‘entertainment’ Façade which Edith Sitwell created in collaboration with William Walton. Parade had created notorious riots in Paris at its first performance in May 1917, and neo-dadaists have always given it an honourable mention, especially since Apollinaire coined the word ‘surréalisme’ to describe the new spirit of the work. It received its first London performance on 14 November 1919. The Sitwells always claimed that Parisian-style hullabaloo also attended the first public performance of Façade on 12 June 1923, though none of the accounts of the ‘riots’ are really very convincing.
It is probable that the Sitwells knew about French Dadaism at the time, though they expressed little active interest in it. No mention of the movement was ever made in the wartime and postwar ‘avantgarde’ periodicals Wheels and Art and Letters over which the Sitwells had some editorial influence. Nevertheless, there are some grounds for Jack Lindsay’s recent attempt in his Meetings with Poets (8) to see similarities between the activities of the Sitwells and those of Tzara and the Dadaists in Paris. The crucial difference, however, is the total absence of anti-art attitudes in the Sitwells’ usually good-natured bourgeois-baiting. Edith Sitwell herself rejected both the Dadaist and the Surrealist labels in her Northcliffe Lecture in 1937:
My poems in especially were singled out as Dadaist, and this was, I imagine, because I was writing exceedingly difficult technical exercises . . . The fact that the surrealists for the most part have not even a rudimentary technique . . . indeed boast that they have no technique, made no difference to these critics. (9)
The first direct references in England to the Dadaists appeared in periodicals more to the literary centre. Aldous Huxley provided one of ‘Three Critical Essays on Modern English Poetry’ (the others being by F. S. Flint and T. S. Eliot) for Harold Monro’s Chapbook for March 1920. In this short piece, called ‘The Subject-Matter of Poetry’,(10) Huxley belaboured both the ‘traditionalists’ for their employment of conventionally false subject matter in their poems, and also consciously ‘modernist’ writers like Edith Sitwell for a sensationalism which, Huxley argued, made use of an equally false technique of ‘dissociation’ to make quite unimportant material seem somehow horribly significant’. These false attitudes in contemporary English poetry were responsible for the development of extreme reactions such as Futurism and Dadaism: ‘. . . we are astonished at the appearance of Marinetti and “Dada”. We have brought them on ourselves.’ Huxley revealed that he had been present at the famous dada manifestation, the Première Vendredi de Littérature, in Paris on 23 January 1920 when, among other zany performances, Tristan Tzara had recited phonic poems to the accompaniment of an eight-inch electric bell which had completely drowned his voice. Huxley’s correspondence during 1920 shows that he had seen a good deal of Dadaist literature in Paris and that he understood the essential differences between creative Futurism and nihilistic Dadaism, but though he thought Dadaist satire was healthy he could see no point in destroying literature, and he found their utterances boring. (11)
Huxley was a regular contributor to J. Middleton Murry’s Athenaeum where other references to Dadaism also appeared during 1920. In August, Rollo Myers, the music critic, gave examples of Dadaist literature from Picabia’s Cannibale, the two issues of which had appeared in April and May 1920. One specimen was Louis Aragon’s ‘Suicide’:
The next issue of the Athenaeum carried a typical piece of ‘Marginalia’ by Aldous Huxley. This short article, called ‘Water Music’ (13) was probably one of the earliest theoretical considerations of aleatory principles in art by any English critic and, again, Huxley had the Dadaists very much in mind. A dripping tap which had kept him awake at night sounded a kind of formless music, annoying most because it was ‘asymptotic to sense’. Perhaps, Huxley suggested, Dadaist literature would also ultimately prove to have meaning: ‘Suppose, after all, that this apparently accidental sequence of words should contain the secret of art and life and the universe. It may, who knows? And here I am, left out in the cold of total incomprehension.’ Of course, Huxley was writing with tongue in cheek. For him, Dadaism had little interest, not only because he found it boring and destructive but also because the ‘art’ which it produced was too easy, the listener having to do all the work. It is interesting that Huxley made use of the foreign phenomenon of Dadaism in order to make trenchant critical points about the state of contemporary English poetry, for this was also to be the typical reaction to Dadaism among those writers and critics who had led the modernist revolution in England before the First World War.
The fullest account of Dadaism to be published in England during the 1920s appeared in Monro’s Chapbook in November 1920. The entire issue, some thirty pages, was devoted to F. S. Flint’s study ‘The Younger French Poets’. It was in three sections: a general survey of Dadaism, short critiques (illustrated by original translations) of selected Dadaist poets — Tzara, Picabia, Eluard, Breton, Soupault and Aragon — and the original French texts of the poems chosen to illustrate the critiques. Two drawings by Picabia and a woodcut by Arp were also reproduced.
Flint, who had been responsible for introducing much new French poetry to English readers before the war, had produced a most sympathetic study of ‘Some French Poets of Today’ in the Chapbook for October 1919. He had introduced poems by Apollinaire, Cocteau and Albert-Birot to English readers, and he had included Guillaume Apollinaire’s beautiful hymn to the finer hopes of prewar modernism, ‘La jolie rousse’. A year later, in ‘The Younger French Poets’, Flint was noticeably less sympathetic than ever before to the latest products of the Parisian scene. Like Huxley, he could not accept the destructiveness of Dadaism even if the world indeed made as little sense as Tzara’s 1918 Manifesto proclaimed. Flint found little originality in the manifestos of the Dadaists whose ideas could be found in Carlyle and Nietzsche, the style in Marinetti: ‘. . . everybody, at some time or another, has made the reflection that the ratio of the works of man to eternity is equal to zero; but that does not drive us out with intent to tomahawk the decoration of our nullity.’ Flint noted that some distinguished French critics, including André Gide and Jacques Rivière, had shown sympathetic understanding for the Dadaists, but he felt that they had been too tolerant. Dadaism was too dogmatic and immature, and there could be no sympathy for a movement which produced bad art to a formula of any kind:
‘Nothing’ one of them has said, ‘can compromise the integrity of the mind’. And that may be true. But you are not doing any homage to the integrity of the mind by putting into words every idea that passes through your head, and offering that as a true image of your mind. It is like skimming the scum off the refining cauldron and offering it as a sample of purity and sweetness.
As usual, Flint’s assessment was based on a patient and thorough reading of a large amount of the available literature including, here, most of the periodicals published in Zurich and Paris by the Dadaists, and many of the volumes published in the Collection Dada in Zürich and by Au Sans Pareil in Paris. Flint ended his review with a poem by Paul Morand, a non-Dadaist whose metaphysical vision was similar to that of the Dadaists but who showed a much more responsible and humane artistic response:
M. Morand’s poetry presents both a picture and a criticism of the life of to-day — the swirl and fever of its anarchy, its flaunting baseness, its crawliness, its stupidity. His view of life is probably no different from that of the Dadas; but while he expresses it, and thereby sharpens our sense of wrong, they fling a new confusion into the general anarchy, and merely add to our hopelessness.
Most important of all, and implicit throughout Flint’s survey, was an unshakeable faith in artistic tradition. This was a position which Flint shared with all other major English artists and critics during this decisive period, and it was one which had also led to the total rejection of Futurism in England in 1913. At that time Harold Monro had proclaimed his belief in the general health of the English tradition-root:
Against Signior Marinetti we claim only what none will deny, that English poetry has not stood still since the days of the Elizabethans, and what some at least will admit, that its development continues, however humbly, to-day as ever. (14)
Even English writers — such as F. S. Flint and D. H. Lawrence — who had some sympathy with the young Italians of the Futurist movement saw their problem as basically an Italian one, and they rejected completely the Futurists’ call for the destruction of all artistic tradition.
A belief similar to Monro’s in the necessity for English poetry to maintain and develop vital connections with its own past — one which had been squandered by late-Victorians and Georgians alike — found strongest and most articulate support from those writers who, in the years before the First World War, had fought with most determination for a truly modern and original poetic. Like Flint, other survivors of the prewar Imagist and Vorticist groups continued to stress the necessity, in the process of continual renewal that art demands, for awareness of whatever could be profitably absorbed from other cultural traditions. Which other cultures — past, present, exotic, or indigenous — would most successfully graft on to the root-stock had often been the cause of both strange poetic enterprises and fierce controversy in the prewar period: but nobody had doubted then (and few wavered in that belief after 1918) that the Anglo-European past constituted the only sound basic root-stock for English poetry.
Ezra Pound, who abandoned London for Paris in 1920, might seem to have been one of the waverers, especially since under his influence during the twenties The Little Review published much work by several Dadaists or former Dadaists. But Pound was able to regard Dadaism and, later, Surrealism, as necessary stages in certain cyclic changes which always occurred in the arts. Where he supported the Dadaists he did so because, like Huxley in England, he thought of their immature satire as a healthy corrective to the staider literary elders. Pound stated his basic position clearly in The Egoist for September 1917: ‘. . . only the mediocrity of a given time can drive the more intelligent men of that time to “break with tradition”’, and in the same essay he pointed out that the so-called tradition of one’s elders might be a false one: ‘Only the careful and critical mind will seek to know how much tradition inhered in the immediate elders.’ (15)
The enthusiastic postwar articles about the Paris avant-garde written by Pound for the long-established and conservative American literary journal The Dial (which he was hoping to modernise) showed that he regarded the spontaneous vitality of the younger French writers as ‘a poetic serum to save English letters from post-mature and American letters from premature suicide and decomposition’.(16) Though Pound looked with unaffected enthusiasm at such new art for signs of genuine originality without paying too much critical attention to underlying philosophical principles, he never published work which was merely mindlessly destructive and, of course, none of his own work showed traces of any Dadaist or Surrealist influence.
One critic who never took such a lenient view of Dadaism or Surrealism was Pound’s friend, Percy Wyndham Lewis. In the immediate postwar period he paid little attention to the wilder activities of the Parisian scene, believing them to be a temporary obstacle to the consolidation of the prewar victories of modernism about which his enthusiasm continued apparently unabated for a short time after the war. His lifelong attitude towards fashionable and stupidly destructive innovation was made clear in an article written for the English Review in April 1919:
Artists do not experiment to give old Breughel one in the eye, or to go one better than Monsieur Tel et Tel, or to improve on this creation or on that. The particular attitude of mind and speech we have just dealt with is confined to the unproductive café-haunting microbe, many of whose attitudes and imbecilities are attributed to artists. (17)
Like F. S. Flint, however, Lewis became increasingly angered and deeply depressed by the activities of the Dadaists, Surrealists, and ‘quasi-surrealists’ of the French and Franco-American art-scene for failing in their responsibilities to modern art and to the general public who needed such art. The postwar stupidities in Paris had betrayed the whole tradition from Van Gogh to Picasso:
It was then that Dada got busy. The raree-shows labelled ‘super-real’ (in which the public were solemnly shown a lot of uproariously assorted junk) the final effort of Dada, was like an answer to their prayer to be quit of all this ‘modern’ nonsense. As if the public had not enough to worry about as it was! (18)
In his review The Enemy and indeed in nearly all his critical writings during the late 1920s and throughout the 1930s, Lewis harangued the enemies of modern art, especially the ‘irresponsible journalism of the “super-real” that came of out Dada’.
For all his close collaboration with Pound and Lewis, T. S. Eliot possessed qualities of sympathy and tact which they generally lacked, and these qualities contributed to his slow but finally complete adoption by English critics, writers and readers as a personality whose views deserved the greatest respect. Every student of modern literature knows that Eliot’s constant theme throughout the nineteen-twenties and even before the war was the importance for English literature of a renewed sense of the vitality and richness of the literature of the past. His own studies of English literature, particularly the poetry and drama of the Elizabethans and Jacobeans, convinced many of his English contemporaries of the direct relevance of their own literary heritage. On the other hand, Eliot’s criticism (like his poetry) never allowed scope for mere indulgence or narrow-minded complacency and parochial self-congratulation. For all his tact and prudence he did not spare certain English romantics, for example, or the Georgians, or the contributors to Wheels for what he considered to be their bad example and influence.
The Criterion, the consciously European review which Eliot founded in 1922, made several references to French and German Dadaism and later to Surrealism in its pages. Such references in the 1920s were invariably hostile. As we might have expected from the subtle ordered complexity of his general position, as much as from his belief in the essentiality of a sense of tradition, Eliot gave Dadaism little more than a passing glance, regarding it as a foreign irrelevance. In doing so, however, he too managed to use it as a stick with which to beat many of the literary foes of serious art in England. In the first issue of The Tyro (1921), Eliot wrote a short piece called ‘The Lesson of Baudelaire’ in which he stressed, first, that Dadaism was essentially a symptom of a French sickness with little to offer an English readership:
With regard to certain intellectual activities across the Channel which at the present moment appear to take the place of poetry in the life of Paris, some effort ought to be made to arrive at an intelligent point of view, on this side. It is probable that this French performance is of value almost exclusively for the local audience; I do not here assert that it has any value at all, only that its pertinence, if it has any, is to a small public formidably well instructed in its own literary history, erudite and stuffed with tradition to the point of bursting. Undoubtedly the French man of letters is much better read in French literature than the English man of letters is in any literature and the educated English poet of our day must be too conscious, by his singularity in that respect, of what he knows, to form a parallel to the Frenchman. If French culture is too uniform, monotonous, English culture, when it is found, is too freakish and odd. Dadaism is a diagnosis of a disease of the French mind; whatever lesson we extract from it will not be directly applicable in London. (19)
However, as I have said, Eliot went on to attack English poetry for its failure to be serious, especially contemporary poetry of the Sitwellian kind:
the poets who consider themselves most opposed to Georgianism, and who know a little French, are mostly such as could imagine the Last Judgement only as a lavish display of Bengal lights, Roman candles, catherine wheels, and inflammable fire-balloons, Vous, hypocrite lecteur . . .
The critical seriousness of Eliot had a strong steadying effect on the minds of the younger generation of writers who returned from the war quite often shattered in spirit. Moving confirmation of this has been given by Richard Aldington, a former member of both the Imagist and Vorticist groups. In his autobiography, Life for Life’s Sake (1941), Aldington recalled vividly the feelings of hatred, horror, and despair which haunted him in the period after the war, and many of his postwar poems reveal the nightmarish state of his mind. It is in such a context that we have to assess Aldington’s testimony that Eliot’s example had been crucial in supporting his saner instincts. The passage (again from Life for Life’s Sake) is worth quoting in full:
I believe personally that Eliot’s greatest service to English literature at that time was his insistence that writers could not afford to throw over the European tradition. Just after the war, in the confusion and reaction against everything prewar and war, there was an almost unanimous belief among artists of the vanguard that all the art of the past was so much dead stuff to be scrapped. They were wilfully trying to make themselves barbarians. I felt unhappy about this, for my instinct was to do just the opposite. After the long hiatus of the war I thought we should for a time at least steep ourselves in the work of the masters; but nobody would agree with me. I was delighted, therefore, when I came across a sensitive and well-written article by Eliot on Marivaux in one of the small arty periodicals which sprang up in 1919. Evidently here was somebody who did not believe that illiteracy was a symbol of originality. (20)
Aldington’s major reviews and studies during this period followed the example of Eliot, though frequently in the pages of The Times Literary Supplement, The Anglo-French Review, and The Criterion he expressed disappointment that so much energy and intelligence as undoubtedly existed in postwar France and Germany should be wasted on what was not art. Where German and French writing was incoherent and lacking in ordonnance, English poetry was too often stagnant. Again, the rejection of Dadaism was not attended with glib and insular smugness, and, of course, the period in English literature which produced James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916) and Ulysses (1922), Ezra Pound’s Lustra (1916) and Hugh Selwyn Mauberley (1920), T. S. Eliot’s Prufrock and Other Observations (1917) and The Waste Land (1922), Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier (1915) and Parade’s End (1924-6), W. B. Yeats’s Responsibilities (1914-16) and Michael Robartes and the Dancer (1920), D. H. Lawrence’s The Rainbow (1915) and Women in Love (1920), as well as Thomas Hardy’s later poems, Percy Wyndham Lewis’s Tarr (1918), Lytton Strachey’s Eminent Victorians (1918), the poems of Edward Thomas, Wilfred Owen and Isaac Rosenberg, Katherine Mansfield’s The Garden Party (1922), and Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway (1925) — to mention only some of its acknowledged finest achievements — such a period can hardly be regarded as ‘provincial’, ‘dull’, ‘genteel’, ‘eccentric’ or, indeed, any of the other perjorative labels concocted for English writing.
The more interesting truth is that there was a well-informed and responsible English opinion in the postwar period, and that the influential writers and critics of the period demonstrated a sensitive, intelligent, and fairly-balanced awareness of new developments in foreign literature while often expressing a strong distrust of some of these developments. Such men decisively and responsibly rejected extremist nihilist and destructive attitudes, from whatever source, without any relaxation of their constant attack on what they considered to be moribund English literary attitudes and inadequate critical standards.
1. Issued by the Surrealist Group in England, International Surrealist Bulletin, 4, A. Zwemmer, London (September 1936), p. 6.
2. George Melly, quoted in J. H. Matthews, ‘Surrealism and England’, Comparative Literature Studies, I, 1, Univ. of Maryland, 1964, p. 71.
3. See, especially, Paul C. Ray, The Surrealist Movement in England, Cornell Univ. Press, 1971, and J. H. Matthews op. cit., note 2.
4. Edward Lucie-Smith, ‘The Other Poets of the First World War’, The Critical Survey, IV, 2 (Summer 1969), pp. 101-6.
5. E. V. Knox (of Punch), Parodies Regained, London, 1921, pp. 31-4.
6. J. C. Squire, ‘Editorial Notes’, The London Mercury, I, 4 (February 1920), pp. 385-8.
7. Robert Graves, Contemporary Techniques of Poetry, A Political Analogy (The Hogarth Essays, No. VIII), London, 1925, p. 35.
8. Jack Lindsay, Meetings with Poets, London, 1968, p. 57.
9. Edith Sitwell ‘Three Eras of Modern Poetry’, in Trio: Dissertations on Some Aspects of National Genius, London, 1938, pp. 162-3.
10. Aldous Huxley, ‘The Subject-Matter of Poetry’, The Chapbook, III, 9 (March 1920), pp. 11-16.
11. Letters of Aldous Huxley, ed. Grover Smith, London, 1969.
12. In The Athenaeum, 4711 (13 August 1920), p. 221.
N.B. There are interesting discussions about Dadaism in relation to music in Rollo Myers’s Modern Music; Its Aims and Tendencies, London, 1923.
13. Aldous Huxley (‘Autolycus’), ‘Water Music’, The Athenaeum, 4712 (20 August 1920).
14. Harold Monro, Poetry and Drama, December 1913, p. 390.
15. Ezra Pound, ‘Elizabethan Classicists’, The Egoist, IV, 8 (September
1917), p. 120.
16. Ezra Pound, ‘The Island of Paris. A Letter’, The Dial, LXIX, (October
1920), p. 406.
17. Wyndham Lewis, ‘What Art Now?‘, The English Review, April 1919, p. 337.
18. Wyndham Lewis, Wyndham Lewis the Artist, from ‘Blast’ to Burlington House, London, 1939, pp. 47-8.
19. T. S. Eliot, ‘Notes on Current Letters: The Lesson of Baudelaire’, The Tyro, 1, 1921, p. 4.
20. Richard Aldington, Life for Life’s Sake, London, 1968, p. 199.
N.B. Eliot’s essay on Marivaux appeared in Art and Letters, II, 2. The periodical began life in 1917.
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