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Literary Patterns and Prophecies


ISSUE:  Summer 1936

Reactionary Essays on Poetry and Ideas, By Allen Tate. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons. $2.50. The Destructive Element. By Stephen Spender. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company. $2.00. The Arts Today. By W. H. Auden, Louis MacNeice, Geoffrey Grigson, Arthur Calder-Marshall, Edward Crankshaw, Humphrey Jennings, John Grierson, John Summerson. London: The Bodley Head. 8s. 6d. A Time to Dance. By C Day Lewis. New York: Random House. $1.75.

Not appraisal of specific poets, not elucidation of specific poems, so much as investigation of the ties between poetry and experience, is the fundamental purpose of recent volumes by Allen Tate and by the young British poets, Spender, Auden, MacNeice, and Day Lewis.

Should economic or moral belief be the litmus for testing art? What should the English poetic tradition mean to modern poets? What should be the poet’s position in existing society, or in improved society? Such are the questions which trouble these poets.

Mr. Tate’s answers, embodied in “Reactionary Essays on Poetry and Ideas,” are the best supported rationally and empirically. His analyses, unlike those of many recent critics, demand neither gullibility nor partisanship to win the reader’s respect. I am prevented from saying “the reader’s accord” by Mr. Tate’s strongly negative critical method (and Mr. MacNeice observes that all good literary criticism is negative), which compels him to storm the bulwarks of humanism, romanticism, dialectical materialism, and other systems of thought which are degrading aesthetics by making it servant to ethics or economics. “Poetry finds its true usefulness in its perfect inutility,” he contends. He even advises the poet to “write his poetry first; examine it; then decide what he thinks.” What most is needed is “a belief in the past,” which “keeps poetry a criticism of life.” Mr. Tate’s provocative precepts are imbedded in such resourceful essays as “Emily Dickinson,” “Three Types of Poetry,” and “The Profession of Letters in the South,”—to name three which most quickly establish his ability and range.

In “The Destructive Element,” Stephen Spender likewise is concerned with interrelating the past and the present in literature. Henry James he fixes, comprehensibly, at the center of his pattern; then Yeats, Eliot, Joyce, and Lawrence are allowed to fall into place—or sometimes made to. Anxiety about design causes Mr. Spender to join the broken lines and to make precise the blurred ones. James can be associated with these later writers by their mutual immersion in what Conrad called “the destructive element”—that is, a readiness to indict decadent European society, sometimes by direct ridicule, but more often by search for a legend or tradition quite apart from the chaotic present. As James’ novels are chronologically analysed, we see his material gradually shift from what is observed to what is invented, increasingly shrink from life that is not spelled A-r-t. Mr. Spender’s appreciation is not blind idolatry. He sees James’ failings: his inconsistent treatment of sex, his reverence of trivial social conventions, his kowtowing to aristocratic mannerism. He tries to explain, though not to excuse, some of them. If James derived his characters from a parasitic, already-moneyed class, they were at least more examinable psychologically, unhampered by dull, corrupting pursuit of wealth. And if James is hard reading at first, it is because he drew, with more success than anyone before him, upon the techniques of drama and music in constructing his prose. His weaknesses, being not artistic ones, do not, in Mr. Spender’s judgment, impair his stature as an artist. He transcended his own contemporaries and actually seems more at home among ours.

It is to Eliot, of later writers, that the most space is devoted. Eliotic orthodoxy exasperates Mr. Spender. He feels that Eliot’s poetry and criticism are turning to rejection of all beliefs but one: a narrow religious belief. Yeats fares both better and worse than Eliot. Better, because his humanity and strength and technical mastery are recorded. Worse, because they are recorded flatly, without conviction. For over thirty years Yeats has been named the greatest modern poet by innumerable critics—but is still without a critical analysis at once thorough and astute. But in general Mr. Spender’s discussions are frank and awake, like his poems. They have thought and spirit behind them, if by no means the erudition of Mr. Tate’s essays.

Before taking up the contributions of W. II. Auden and Louis MacNeice to “The Arts Today,” I think a few broad comments on the symposium might be profitable. Geoffrey Grigson (of “New Verse”), acting as editor of the survey, allowed his fellow-writers too loose a rein, at least if the volume is to be titled so pretentiously. However roundly the individual essays can be recommended, “The Arts Today” suggests a uniform, inclusive review of major contemporary theories, trends, and achievements in the arts—and fails to be that. The Dance is entirely disregarded. Painting and Sculpture are crammed into a single chapter, while the unorthodox Cinema and Fiction are given long separate consideration (not quite warrantably, since both fields are found to be yielding stingy harvest). There has been no agreement as to tone, or scope. Sometimes estimation is limited to England, or to certain cliques in England; at other times the Continent and America are included. But, forgetting what the book is not, we find it exceptionally full of information for the novice and of reinterpretation for the instructed. Mr. Auden’s “Ant and Psychology” does a priceless job of simplifying the ism-atic jumble of psychological approaches to art. His special intent is to demonstrate the links between Freudianism and the creation and appreciation of recent art. Freud has indelibly influenced both kinds of art: escape-art (like surrealism or like Lawrence and Joyce fiction) and parable-art, “which shall teach man to j unlearn hatred and learn love.” Marxism is treated, not as discordant with Freudian psychology, but as co-operative with it. “As long as civilization remains as it is, the number of patients the psychologist can cure is very few, and as soon as socialism attains power, it must learn to direct its own interior energy and will need the psychologist.”

Louis MacNeice makes Mr. Auden’s own psychologically tempered verse the core of his article, “Poetry.” He goes astray in trying to reduce Mr. Auden’s success to a formula with a list of fourteen “tricks” which Mr. Auden employs. But there is some pith in the article, which valuably supplements the longer works we have before us.

“A Time to Dance” contains C. Day Lewis’ writing of the past two years: the verse sequence which gives the volume its title, some miscellaneous lyrics, a morality play called “Noah and the Waters,” the revision of a radio address, and two other critical papers. Unlike Mr. Tate and Mr. Spender, he thinks of literature of the past only when it may suggest improvements for his craft and the craft of poets to come. He embodies what E. E. Cummings meant by saying that the poet should be concerned, not with things made, but always with the making. C. Day Lewis is fond of speculating about the writer’s position in a perfected (socialized) state. The writer will be a Freudian (compare Mr. Auden), a moralist or an inventor of fairy tales (but not a realist), a continual revolutionary (“Ant, because it speaks directly to the emotions, has always been potentially a revolutionary force”), a priest in the religion of enlightened love (again compare Auden), and both an individualist and a spokesman of his fellows. Literature will become in a broad sense “a guide for living.”

Most of the poetry in “A Time to Dance” reaches the high standard of C. Day Lewis’ “Collected Poems”; only in the verse play, “Noah and the Waters,” does he rise above it. The play is not actable, but for reading competes with “Murder in the Cathedral” for top place in post-war poetic drama.

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