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Poetry Between Two Wars

ISSUE:  Summer 1942

As the recent quarter-century between the outbreaks of two world wars falls into a dismal perspective, its artistic phenomena become subject to further estimates; and although the delineation of periods in literary history is at best very inexact, perhaps a fairly serviceable assay may soon be made of poetry in English during this glittering and ominous era. Possibly future judgments will declare that much of this poetry, like much of the politics contemporary with it, arrived at dead ends. Perhaps the fate of this poetry, a frustration all the more conspicuous because it occurred in conjunction with great creativity supplemented by considerable learning, will one day be attributed not only to external events but partly to the addiction of poets themselves and critics to a modern sin, a superstitious and crippling deference to specializations of psychology and the social sciences.

This span of poetry had a typical origin in an artistic renaissance with revolutionary overtones—the Georgians’ late but considerable second harvest of the nineteenth century tradition impinged upon by the Imagists’ renewal of charges against the old reprobate, poetic diction, and by a continued shake-up of versification. Once more English literature in an hour of growth learned a further refinement from France, this time through the symbolist movement. The period unfolded in plenitude and variety on both sides of the Atlantic, including sound achievement and spectacular eccentricity. Its primary ferments spent themselves— “(Who recalls the address now of the Imagists?)”—but their effects remained, in a more highly cultivated employment of suggestion, a freer and at the same time more incisive diction, a greater range of subject matter, and the most extensive liberalizing which English prosody had ever experienced. Finally, true to the standard pattern of such movements, the period has rounded itself out toward its own conservatisms, of two fairly distinct and often intolerant sects, the one deriving more or less from Marx and Whitman, the other from John Donne and the French symbolists.

These consolidations are not the only apparent boundaries of a period. Movements have lost their momentum, and leadership seems to have disappeared. The many very talented younger poets of America can scarcely secure publication, much less a considerable audience, and to a degree the fault is in the uncertainty, if not the affectation, of their own voices. In the first years of the period America (dynamically impersonated by Amy Lowell) took over the vers libre movement; this country also sent abroad (influentially, even if more by adverse pressure than by appointment) such various ministers as Frost, Pound, and Eliot. In the ‘twenties there was a lively, stimulating exchange of poetic imports and exports across the ocean. In the ‘thirties England increasingly dominated through Auden and his school, who turned poetry further toward political criticism and propaganda and evolved a somewhat more didactic style. Now none of these influences remains broadly effective.

Yeats and Robinson, who epitomized respectively the Gaelic and the Yankee temperaments as they have so potently expressed themselves in recent times, both died in the last decade, and the latter works of each showed a discontinuity from their earlier bents that suggested an almost excessive pressure of events and theories on both men. The aged poet laureate, once widely read and influential, settled into a dignified, reliable English public voice. Sandburg, rounding out an expanding career with “The People, Yes,” still bespoke the common cause more fully than any of the younger men, and finds no hand strong enough to take the torch he has carried so honorably. Frost gazes across the further ranges of our future with increasing skepticism, resolving in a diminuendo a talent that, even if exquisite and conscientious, has sometimes been judged minor in both its concepts and its techniques. It should be remembered, however, that Frost’s juniors might not be so critical of him if any of their contemporaries had risen in due time to take his dominating place. As it is, grandfather is blamed for not bringing the business up to date, while the grown sons work but irregularly and even capriciously. Eliot, in the ‘twenties the most widely influential and one of the most brilliant poets writing in English, has since demonstrated that while a religion faithfully embraced may on occasion have mothered poetry, a convenient alliance with ecclesiasticism to cloister a wearied intellect is artistically penurious. Finally, in the United States not only was the Imagists’ address forgotten, their flamboyant prospectus for poetry having been eroded by post-war storms into the barest platitude, but America’s most vigorous, catholic, and promisingly indigenous poet of the middle generation turned from creation to the custody of books, a surrender which to many of his admirers seemed irresponsible, in view of the parable of talents, but which may really indicate a present frustration of poetry on its own salient.

After the imagist, free-verse flurry, symbolism had been the primary innovation and stimulus of the period. The secondary novelty was Marxism. However, the apparently increasing harshness of Stalin’s regime and his enigmatic rapprochement with Hitler subjected the literary pink decade in England and America to a progressive bleach that left many of the disciples in a state of unmitigated agnosticism, with in addition a disturbing sense of an errant past. Thus Auden, for example, in whose most successful work the best elements of both Marxian and symbolist schools had approached fusion, seems lately to be seeking a new country of the mind in which to take out first papers, with his glance straying now and then to the Rock of Ages, or some reasonably accurate facsimile thereof. Perhaps one of the most conspicuous signs that this period in poetry has come full circle is that Auden has begun to sound more and more like Eliot. Finally, the dominant stream in American criticism of the period may have come to a dead end in ex cathedra pronouncements linking some of the more esoteric aspects of modern poetry to a tradition educed almost solely from the Elizabethan metaphysicals, and seemingly prescriptive of wit as a way of life. Under such conditions it is not surprising that the outbreak at last of the long-dreaded war has almost shut off poetry in England and seems to be hastening its paralysis in America.

The confusion of contemporary poetry in English, as of its critics, is easily discerned. More difficult, but much more serviceable, would be a reidentification of the poetic tradition in terms more broadly comprehensive of all modern practice, and a fuller description of the contemporary climate that would explain past pressures and predict future ones. Such syntheses seem of unprecedented difficulty, however, and at present lack a commanding philosophy. The intellectuals, for all their busyness, have not been able to keep up with the times; they have not gauged the main issues, much less taken a stance to cope with them. Yet the Western World would seem to have arrived, by an evolution at once mechanical, social, and intellectual, at a moral crisis, when it must reassess its lore and recalculate its attitudes, to avoid disastrous confusions and in preparation for an attempted trek to higher ground.

Unfortunately such crises often beget preoccupation and partisanship, rationalizations substituted for a practical facing of the human problem as a whole. Thus in the last two decades literary artists, despite their habitual protestations against science, have discovered the use of its newer forms as ivory towers of a kind. Because science must limit itself to material phenomena objectively considered, scientists themselves often stand aloof from humane speculation; and this personal attitude of theirs, as well as their professional technique, has been accorded a reverence which is one of the most binding superstitions of the times. Perhaps its nadir was reached early, in a Nobel Prize winner’s apotheosis of his lubberly offspring Arrowsmith, but only in its extremity has that been exceptional. There has been generally cultivated an intellectual escapism which encourages over-specialization, condones triviality and irrelevance as long as they parade in the aseptic garb of scientific method, and disparages the sympathetic impulses and intuitive powers by which men have so often hitherto found their way forward, not only in art and in politics, but in science as well. In short, the present-day poet who would assume his proper role, the really traditional role as seer and maker of persuasively beautiful songs, must go beyond present-day psychology and the so-called social sciences, judging their hesitancy fully as enervating and confining for him as their opposites, rigid dogmatisms in metaphysics and politics. And critics who would engineer for the poets must go along in this.

To mention psychology’s Freudian specializations and be-havioristic fatalism and the social sciences’ fixed inclination toward determinism in a discussion of restrictive influences on poetry is not to imply that poetry today has been craftily betrayed by a little group of willful scholars. If few of our psychologists or social scientists show much interest in modern poetry as such or much acquaintance with it, neither have they presumed to dictate to it. They have their hands full with their own affairs. The distracting specializations in their fields seem to have been occasioned in part by the vast drift away from theological and political moorings. It is a mistake to assume that science has caused that drift, which has set in as such drifts periodically do, because the minds of men move by nature through cycles of conventional consolidations and restless experiment. Social sciences and psychology may have expedited the twentieth century’s movement away from established faiths, but the actual drift began before these scholars described and assisted it, and much recent scientific activity is its result, not its cause. Poetry too has felt the tug of that same drift; poetry’s present specializations in symbolism and social satire may be seen as outgrowths of an epidemic dissatisfaction and skepticism, and as part of a search for new realities. The fault here is that many of poetry’s social satirists, in deference to the dogmatism of a monolithic society, have abandoned the poet’s responsibility and privilege of using his own intuitive imagination in apprehending human nature’s needs and prophesying its destiny, while the symbolists sometimes have failed to embrace the realities of human consciousness, by their very preoccupation with its most fortuitously associative phases.

To indicate as undue the recent deference of poetry to psychology and the social sciences is only one way of suggesting an issue of much larger dimensions—science is materialistic and analytical; poetry, if it is to be greatly useful, must discover a unity of experience in the light of humane intuitions, thereby assisting in the attainment of mental poise and wholesomeness by modern man. Undoubtedly the decline and diversion of momentum in present-day English poetry are chiefly conditioned by the disconcerting alarums of this century’s dreadful third decade and its monstrous issue of war. Poetry, like every other good thing, must await the outcome of battle, and beyond victory must be relative to the peace and the new world politics. But meanwhile there exists a more specific, more technical problem for poets and especially for critics—the reorganization of their own concepts of psychology, the correction of their own eccentricities imitative of recent specializations in the social sciences, and the consolidation of their own practical views about human nature and experience that will allow progress straight ahead on the main road instead of making for deviations into bypaths. In short, the poet must recapture the full and free use of his imagination, and must accept his responsibility to exercise it. By no immutable law has psychology been given sole guardianship of the psyche, and conversely it is under no obligation to guide the whole process of an intellectual and emotional realignment. For generations poets have labored with the very problem now confronting psychology—the further identification and evaluation of an organic unity in human consciousness. And while its profession restricts psychology to scientific method, the poet is allowed exercise of intuition; in fact, such an activity is his calling. Perhaps the critics should be devoting more effort toward encouraging poets in this direction. But first some of the critics would have to get the idea themselves.

Whatever the contemporary critic’s philosophical position, whether dualistic or monistic, he will no doubt go along with the established scientific tendency to reject structural psychology. It is most important that the critic’s assent be supported by consistent action. He may formally agree that mental states are not complicated of elements but are configurations expressive of the mind’s organic nature, and still he may drop back on something very like the old faculty categories in speaking of feeling and reason, with a resultant separation of sensation, image, emotion, and idea that makes for artificial issues and partisanship in the criticism of poetry. The difficulty here is not simply one of scholarly definition, however; it is a practical problem in human conduct. Like cross-currents and eddies in a river’s main drift, various tendencies in consciousness are observable; and if they are not separable in essence, their special results are constantly sought out as men try to visualize, to compare, to enjoy, to judge, to sympathize, to calculate, and to reason. Then comes awareness of antagonisms, especially between rational and emotional tendencies. Such oppositions, it will be realized, are not merely nominal but actual. The old faculty psychology may have failed to describe the intermeshing and mutual leverage between component mental factors, but it certainly is not responsible for the very real faults and frictions in that actual adjustment. Those imperfections seem to inhere in human mentation at its present level of development and adaptation. If reason and passion seem dichoto-mous, it is only in part because psychology has thus far failed to describe mind, except in terms of its special and secondary aspects; it is also because man’s mental life, though organic, is fluctuantly erratic and self-embroiled. E. E. Cummings has described it thus:

along the treacherous bright streets of memory comes my heart, singing like an idiot, whispering like a drunken man

who (at a certain corner, suddenly) meets the tall policeman of my mind.

For mind we must read the rational, heart being emotional consciousness; but the telling thing in this allegory is the inescapable relation and tension between the two figures—they both inhabit the treacherous bright streets of memory, there they do meet suddenly, as their paths do intersect, and it is the position of each in the whole scene that gives to each its character. The most reliable psychologists know this, of course, as well as the best poets; many readers and critics, and their coterie poets, seem most prone to forget it, and even to suggest, in denial of plain fact and necessity, that either the policeman or the free citizen be discounted.

Psychology, despite its own fads and feuds, allows the literary critic a partial synthesis which can be useful if he will take it for what it is worth and go on about his own business instead of indulging in the excitement of science’s domestic quarrels. It is known that unconscious factors underlie all consciousness, that while there is no knowing without consciousness, awareness has active roots in the unconscious. It is seen that inspiration, a sudden creative consolidating of an original and significant pattern of mentation, seems to rise spontaneously through subconscious levels and reveals the marks of ordering processes at those levels. The battered word intuition can be rescued and re-established and, with psychology’s consent, used to define acts of judgment whose logical processes and essential date are (at least partially and momentarily) beyond the area of consciousness. If it is known that a man’s professed opinions and purposes are often the naive agents of his concealed passions, it is also known that his most spontaneous impulses defer to the chid-ings and bribery of his cool calculations and most particular plans. It is known that while the textures of thought may involve imagery, thought seems to go beyond that instrumentality, in a function inscrutable either to introspection or experiment. Therefore we do not really understand how we think or feel, how we relate details to logical conclusions, how we evolve and empower preferences, how we conceive the patterns of evaluation which underlie the esthetic and the ethical.

Seeing that the phenomena of conscious mind in its more rational functions are as mysterious as those of the subconscious, we may come closer to a serviceable concept of both conscious and unconscious, instinct and calculation, emotion and reason, as aspects of the same vital mystery. The mind will thus be seen as having authority and polity which can be usefully invoked even while remaining veiled. Just because psychology, in its Freudian phase and in developments therefrom, has considered its professional duty to be a specialization with the subconscious and the irrationally associative, literary artists and critics need not have followed deferentially, forgetting their main concern with the inclusive organic whole which is greater than its components. Fortuitous and regressive peculiarities of mind are often an aspect of its being, but in attempting to record this aspect, art should not neglect relations to the whole personality, and to the mental constructions most distinctive of human consciousness, in which repressions may have significant complementary purposes and in which casual association is often reorganized and utilized toward rational ends. Some persons’ minds are no doubt in a constant retreat from reality, but if literature becomes so preoccupied with such phases of psychology as to fail to be representative and comprehensive, then its supposed incisiveness is actually an evasion, and it falls short of expressing its subject, the dynamics of human mind. Discoveries about the unconscious should not obscure the fact that significant creative imagination is always a thrust upward into the highest ranges of consciousness, that association operates throughout the mind in rational as well as irrational processes, that reason and emotion are not only reciprocal but apparently confluent, and that the mind shows initiative in satisfying its own mysterious needs, sometimes for escape but sometimes for exploitation—the mind is its own place, does metabolize experience according to its own vital system, apparently aiming at a conscious adaptation and poise.

Such a perspective should aid poets and critics to re-evaluate much contemporary social science and to pass from under its domination too, since it in turn has been dominated by the specializations of psychology. The relations of man and society, like the configurations of man’s mind, are as yet imperfectly understood, and the more specialized descriptions often obscure the whole truth. If society is said to form man, it must be remembered also that society is man’s creation; and if man’s use of materials is said to be stimulated by his basic instincts, it must be understood that these instincts confront environment effectively only when they are assisted by reason. If for instance there were such a thing as a pure instinct, its first response to stimulation would give it a new complexion, involving it in a process greater than itself, and subjecting it to rational-emotional modifications. Thus social-scientific analysis, if pursued far enough, may carry one into a blind alley of the less-than-true. Nevertheless such a humbug as the economic man, though scotched again and again, lives on in sophistical fancy, and for some time now has been popularly what the unicorn was to the ancients, a source of pretty fables although no single specimen could be captured. Real man may be almost as hard to discover and to view steadily and whole, but that is art’s vocation, whatever may be the social sciences’ self-imposed regime.

A problem presently confronting poetry, and therefore criticism, is to move toward an expression of struggling human consciousness in a way that will aid its further integration, rather than fatalistically consenting to its disruption under stress and contributing to that defeat by exclusive preoccupation with phases of experience. Poetry, as its tradition shows, can project descriptions of mind transcending those dichotomies such as antagonistic policemen-citizens which even as they force themselves forward are felt to be artificial, ugly, and essentially false—at least to man’s potentialities and purposes. To speak of potentialities, however, and to project an upward-curving arc of man’s future development is to leave psychology, as a self-respecting science, behind. But it is to follow the real poets themselves, and that is the critics’ business. Great poets have often risked such prophecy, have often envisaged a fuller concerting and expression of man’s personality. This large and hopeful view now necessitates rejecting categorical separations of feeling and thought, instinct and reason, man and society, and recognizing that their present disharmonies are perhaps reconcilable in an organic unity of liberated and cultivated imagination, which is humanity’s goal.

The achievement of this goal by significant numbers of men and by efficient groups of men will not be simply a matter of psychological culture, nor can the psychologists and social scientists, within their professional bounds, do much more than supply certain data. Approaches to the humane ideal must have a philosophical direction, will almost certainly be in terms of a moral advancement, based in the conscious attitudes and practices of men and reciprocally effective in both social behavior and the individual’s most subjective and personal life. Perfection will not be attained by day after tomorrow, nor all at once. So meanwhile critics who try to organize cliques of poets on the special basis of certain psychological or political criteria would do better to look for common elements in all our contemporary poetry and to seek out its relation to the continuous tradition of the art and to the whole mind of man, for we need not yet conclude that we are all wrong all the time, and it is probable that we are nearest being right when we approach each other most closely.

A chief service by such an integrating criticism today would be a declaration that in the art of poetry a choice is not required between suggestion and definition, aphorism or symbol. To enforce such a choice in favor of the merely adumbrative is to glorify romantically the semi-automatic responses of association, as the mind’s central reality, and to deprecate rational pattern, as an artificial imposition. Yet certainly the clear definition of idea, being functional, can be exhilarating; and gratification can sustain itself in a quest for a logical whole. On the other hand, bodying forth in-definables can be the epitome of the poetic, and should not be judged less significant per se than aphorism. Both tendencies should be seen as components of consciousness, and the emphasis of either in poetry should be allowed in accordance with the bent of a poet’s mind and the nature of his subject matter, concerning which he should have free and wide choice. The critic’s duty includes a defense of such variations, while at the same time he must instantly warn against either extreme when by neglect of factors the total configuration of dynamic human consciousness is falsified, or when any separate factor of consciousness is distorted by a morbid cultivation. These criteria in turn can support the more technical phases of criticism, which should demand intensity, quality, memorability in poetic expression and which should detect and condemn any idolatrous exaltation of artistic device.

If the merit of poetry is taken to be its approach to an organic unity comprehending the realities of human consciousness from any aspect and expediting the forward movement of mind in the creation of its own future, then criticism will be at once more catholic in accepting varieties of poets and poetry and more exacting in its demands upon them all. It will note how the poetry of social propaganda often fails not just by didacticism, but by subjecting itself to the formulae of an artificial dialectic which do not fully express the individual human consciousness or really confront its current problems. Probably any gifted poet who got a grip on mankind’s present difficulty and saw through to a solution of the great dilemma between liberty and law, showing modern man how to find his personal peace and his inmost self in a collective purpose that still fostered normal impulses, creativity of mind, and responsibility to conscience, could be as didactic as all the prophets and still write great poetry. Comprehensive criticism would also note how the least definitive, the most suggestive poetry can fail to achieve organic vitality by separating out the components of experience until they become dessicated and by cultivating a manner to the point of affectation.

Specifically, these considerations should warn some contemporary poets and their abetting critics that economic determinism isn’t the one and only ineffable last Word. When two writers’ versified testament left to Yeats “the phases of the moon . . . to rock his bardic sleep,” the bequest intended as an ironic reproof was more nearly a statement of inalterable fact, for not ten thousand theoretical proletarians presuming to bequeath what is not theirs to give will take the moon away from other poets and people, and the reason lies deeper in the human mind than either Marx or Freud, or anyone else, has yet plumbed. Conversely, when some moderns exalt into a code their cultivated taste for exquisitely minute, oblique, and evanescent associative images, they are mistaking their own special memories and moods for the mind of man, the average sensual man indeed, who is also of average rationality, but who doesn’t often pick his own consciousness apart, and who won’t care a lot if some poets and critics do form a club of the intellectual but slightly neurotic genteel and leave him out. The risk of such separations is altogether on the part of the eccentric poets and critics; the more nearly representative minds of men more concerned with the joy in widest commonalty spread, and still intent upon the imaginative synthesis of wisdom, will still be a chief source and subject of poetry, for the basic reason that such minds have perpetuated themselves and have got a lot of the world’s work done in spite of troublesome confusions in their own awareness and intentions. Indeed, poetry must periodically relearn this practical human tactic, this way of making out by tolerating approximation and by concerting any variations that, however elliptical, still turn upon and thus elucidate the center of human life rather than break away tan-gentially from it. Thus in the tendency of yesterday’s poetry toward division between a school deriving from Communism and a school based on symbolism, at the dead-end of a literary period bounded by two world wars, criticism must discover and reprove errors at both extremes.

In the post-war world to come it is to be hoped there will be found room for all kinds of poets, on the simple proviso that they and their attendant critics do not put on particular airs and do not anathematize each other, in the name of either psychology or social science or any other partiality. Since the humane consciousness which poetry should seek to express must still be accepted as a mystery, and as a changing and developing organism, poets and critics should reverence the mind’s tentative unity even if they cannot fully understand it; and their attempts to discover it, while perhaps special in their approach, should in no way be separatist in intention. For the true tradition of poetry in English embraces Chaucer, Shakespeare, Donne, Milton, Pope, Wordsworth, Keats, Browning, Whitman, Emerson, Hopkins, Yeats, Sandburg, Frost, Eliot, MacLeish, Auden, and many hundreds more. Any criticism which proposes fundamental principles for the exclusion of any of these is a narrowing dogmatism, as criticism which excuses any of these for aberrations or artificialities is a narrowly partisan one.

Certainly out of this most recent period in English and American poetry, seen in right perspective against its whole historical background, could be constructed a comprehensive platform and program. The rich variations of this poetry between two wars should have demonstrated once more the poet’s right to his individual point of view and his chosen technique, corollary to the facts that men do not comprehend their own minds, cannot express them adequately, have not yet achieved satisfying mental equilibrium, as they have not yet subjected their environment to the most fruitful and economical control, All we need ask is that the poet use his specialization, if not to create the most widely representative, at least without obscuring or contradicting it. Ex pede Herculem is perhaps the highest possible ideal of art—that the “fragment” of experience which the artist “rescues” (in Conrad’s stirring terms) should imply by connection, relation, and proportion the whole of life, an implication dependent upon the artist’s profundity of imaginative insight. In the present confusion such profundity is rare; man scarcely can see where he is and knows not what he shall be, and meanwhile poets have allowed the new sciences a distorting and inhibiting influence beyond their proper ranges. But after long despair and inaction, and after art’s escape into a pseudo-scientific over-specialization, there may come out of the present crisis a resumption of movement toward unity, among men and in the mind of man.

In the approach toward that unity why should not poetry, with its traditional function of crystallizing wisdom and conveying mystery, play a part justifying Arnold’s prediction that its future was to be immense? Would it not be immense if poetry, forgetting its feuds and laying aside its affectations, and ignoring the incitations of the more partisan critics, would proceed to its great task, each poet honestly celebrating himself and his fellowmen from whatever relative vantage point he had found, with passion for his own vision yet with a sense of the great humane circle of which his poetry can be but a tiny arc, and with constant humble awareness of the evolving miracle of mind, so that new poets would fulfill the poet’s traditional function with a new skill, bringing to the arduous work of unifying society and of harmonizing man’s inner life the ancient magical aid of song? If such an ideal seems too remote for acceptance, let it be remembered that our dominant schools of poets have themselves tried to embrace something of it, the political propagandist seeking a core of reality in man’s social existence, the neo-metaphysical poet seeking a core of reality in mentation itself. Realities do exist within these ranges, but these realities are presumably components of a greater reality, and there are indications that men will not rest until they have come closer to comprehending it.

THE hearth-flame’s lean and groping wrist Climbs through the logs with sinewy twist, The wood that it will soon bring low With heat devotional and slow. Erratic colonies of spark Lodge in the soot like creeping stars. Each point by point across the dark Limps through the sky like crippled Mars. We say that we have watched a death When autumn puts the leaves to flight, But on the hearth this winter night We feel the deadlier dragon-breath That heat and filmy coals can throw. Marriage in spring, death in the fall, Birth in the green leaf, sleep in snow, Cleanness in fire; and in them all What some have learned the art to call By the one name of sacrament. But what of all that nameless round, The main estate of human ground That is not birth nor marriage bed Nor supper mindful of the dead Nor death itself, but only waste, An interlife without a taste? The fire’s first bud, the stripling blaze, The masculine flame that spreads its palm To wrap the hearth in hot control, The aging heat that spends in calm And quietly consumes to coal Should give us sacraments enough To fill a calendar of days. But when we see them all file past, When for some child of snow and sun Both life and interlife are done, Often we think the last is best, The sacrament that ends the rest.


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