The history of the twentieth century as seen through the eyes of the greatest poets of our time.
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The 20th Century in Poetry
By Michael Hulse, Simon Rae
PEGASUS BOOKSCopyright © 2011 Michael Hulse and Simon Rae
All rights reserved.
Never such innocence again
Retired novelist Thomas Hardy greeted the twentieth century with characteristic pessimism, and indeed there might seem 'little cause for carolings' to anyone taking a dispassionate view. Britain was embroiled in an increasingly frustrating war in South Africa, in which its professional army was regularly outwitted and humiliated by the Afrikaaners' resourceful guerrilla forces, and public impatience was growing at military incompetence and the mounting death toll with its 'hourly posted sheets of scheduled slaughter', as Hardy put it in another poem. The Boer War produced a plethora of patriotic verse, notably A. C. Benson's 'Land of Hope and Glory', to many even now the unofficial national anthem of England. But less strident voices could be heard through the bellicose din, as William Watson gently reminded his readers of uncomfortable parallels in 'Rome and Another', and Rudyard Kipling, who controversially canonised the imperialist project as 'the White man's burden', confronted the costs, especially those borne by the empire's humblest servants.
The war ended in 1902, with might winning, though many remained unconvinced that it was right. The year before, Queen Victoria had died (after a reign of sixty-four years), bringing to an end the age to which she gave her name. The sense of loss was genuine, but as the more than middle-aged Prince of Wales mounted the throne after his marathon wait to succeed, his subjects hoped for a breath of fresh air. The great glacier of Victorian social attitudes had been showing cracks for some years. The Labour Party, struggling into existence, had won its first two seats in the 1900 general election, and, while the Conservatives doggedly held on to age-old privileges, the Liberals fought to introduce the rudiments of a welfare system. Though Thomas Hardy had given up fiction after the outraged response to the emotional and sexual honesty of Jude the Obscure (1895), the 1890s had in fact seen a mounting challenge to stultifying conventions, especially in regard to relations between the sexes. Frances Cornford's 'Autumn Morning at Cambridge' captures the mood of optimism that assumed superiorities and ingrained inequalities could be challenged.
The road to equality for women was of course a long one. Dorothy Sayers, later famous as a crime writer, won a scholarship to Somerville College, Oxford, in 1912, but in spite of achieving a first class result (in 1915) could not yet be awarded a degree at the time, and had to wait. Today it requires a real effort of the imagination to comprehend the brutally repressive reaction to the suffragette movement. Protesters were dragged off to prison, where those who went on hunger strike were subjected to the painful indignities of force- feeding—all to deny women the simple right to vote (ceded almost without a murmur after they had kept the home fires burning, and the munitions factories going, during the First World War).
In Ireland, poetry was in robust shape. The leading figure was William Butler Yeats, who declared in 1909, following the deaths of Swinburne and George Meredith, 'And now I am king of the cats.' After years devoted to the heroes of Irish folklore, Yeats was forced into engagement with contemporary events by his involvement with (and unrequited love for) the beautiful and headstrong nationalist, Maude Gonne, whom he mythologised as a modern-day Helen of Troy while disapproving of her revolutionary agenda. Brilliant younger writers included James Joyce and the playwright J. M. Synge, who led the way in challenging the grip of the Roman Catholic Church on all aspects of life. Synge's play The Playboy of the Western World provoked a riot in Dublin, and Joyce opted for exile to escape censorship, but the heat of controversy forged an Irish literature of such quality that it achieved global recognition and influence.
Elsewhere in the English-speaking world, poetry was in the doldrums in the opening years of the century. The six Australian colonies had been federated into the Commonwealth of Australia in 1901, but no burst of poetic energy accompanied the new charge of socio-political life. The poetic achievements of Henry Lawson and A. B. 'Banjo' Paterson belonged chiefly to the 1890s, and in the pre-1914 years the lone figures of Christopher Brennan and Shaw Neilson stand out as writers engaged in the profound endeavour to forge their own voices in a land still imagined to be 'new'. In the United States of war veteran and hunter Theodore Roosevelt, poetry found no immediate succession either to the line of Walt Whitman (who had died in 1892) or to that of Emily Dickinson (whose posthumously published poems had proved a sensational success in the 1890s), and first Ezra Pound and then T. S. Eliot made their homes on the European side of the Atlantic. For many of the extraordinary events, on a larger or smaller scale, that have captured the imaginations of later generations—from the loss of the Titanic to the racism behind the stories of an aboriginal outlaw hanged for murder in Australia or a black victim lynched in Kentucky—poetry did not as yet have a language or vision. The long shadow cast across the twentieth century by the scientific work of Ernest Rutherford attracted no response from poets at the time, and William Watson's prophetic sonnet seemingly previsioning the spectre of destruction under which mankind has lived since 1945 was the exception, not the rule.
If the old dispensation was gradually giving way, it did not always seem to know it, not even when the great Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy died at a railway station, inspiring a wave of mourning that washed across the world and affected many with the sense that an era had ended. Despite individual horrors, the mass enslavements of mass production, and the growing awareness that social and political life was beginning to change, there was still, in the pre-war period, a deep and rich sense of untrammelled space. The train was a fact of life (and for many, a blessed escape from the towns), and the motor car was still the preserve of the tiny minority, and had yet to dominate the countryside. 'Driving' in Hardy's pre-war poems meant being drawn by horse; the open road was still a place where all might wander at will, as it had been throughout human history. Both W. H. Davies, the self-proclaimed Super Tramp, and John Masefield, in very early youth, spent years on the road in America. Shaw Neilson celebrated the peripatetic life of the 'sundowner' along Australia's 'Tucker Track', while Ezra Pound tramped the roads of southern France in his quest for a cultural continuum that would fuel a lifetime's literary labour. G. K. Chesterton, Pound's opposite in almost every regard, put his trust in the rolling English road, and the rolling English drunkard (and, with his friend and fellow satirist Hilaire Belloc, made many a convivial journey from pub to pub down Sussex lanes). The walkers perhaps overlooked the fearful isolation of rural living. The American Robert Frost might be seen, amongst much else, as the laureate of loneliness, and in poem after poem he focused on slow lives lived in an unrelieved obscurity that was in sharp contrast to the increasingly hectic pace of the lives led by the majority.
So when Philip Larkin, in later times, wrote of the 'innocence' of the years before 1914, it was of that opportunity to walk blithely out among the 'flowering grasses' that he was thinking, among other things. His poem 'MCMXIV' knows of the hierarchy that stretched from kings and queens to servants, but its foregrounding of 'innocence' does not mean by that word the self-interested manoeuvres of the great powers, as they positioned themselves for advantage while maintaining the ball-room niceties of diplomacy, nor does it mean the Anglo-German arms race. From the forging of alliances and the drawing-up of war plans to the whipping-up of jingoistic sentiment by the popular press, the pre- 1914 years were of course anything but innocent. But Britain had fought its wars as imperial sideshows for so long, in faraway places with faraway names like Afghanistan, Egypt or South Africa, that it imagined it had been at peace, and war, when it came, could seem rather an exciting prospect—an attitude Larkin captures brilliantly in his reference to the lines of young men queuing to volunteer as though waiting to get into a football or cricket match. The eager anticipation was such that many boys lied about their age to get a uniform. Cambridge golden boy Rupert Brooke rose to national prominence with a series of sonnets embracing the conflict, claiming his generation were as 'swimmers into cleanness leaping', and imagining a patriotic hero's death for himself in 'The Soldier'. The terrible unheroic truths about the First World War were left to an Owen, a Rosenberg or a Sassoon to write.
The Darkling Thrush
I leant upon a coppice gate
When Frost was spectre-gray,
And Winter's dregs made desolate
The weakening eye of day.
The tangled bine-stems scored the sky
Like strings of broken lyres,
And all mankind that haunted nigh
Had sought their household fires.
The land's sharp features seemed to be
The Century's corpse outleant,
His crypt the cloudy canopy,
The wind his death-lament.
The ancient pulse of germ and birth
Was shrunken hard and dry,
And every spirit upon earth
Seemed fervourless as I.
At once a voice arose among
The bleak twigs overhead
In a full-hearted evensong
Of joy illimited;
An aged thrush, frail, gaunt, and small,
In blast-beruffled plume,
Had chosen thus to fling his soul
Upon the growing gloom.
So little cause for carolings
Of such ecstatic sound
Was written on terrestrial things
Afar or nigh around,
That I could think there trembled through
His happy good-night air
Some blessed Hope, whereof he knew
And I was unaware.
31 December 1900
Wilfrid Wilson Gibson
Though three men dwell on Flannan Isle
To keep the lamp alight,
As we steer'd under the lee, we caught
No glimmer through the night!
A passing ship at dawn had brought
The news; and quickly we set sail,
To find out what strange thing might ail
The keepers of the deep-sea light.
The winter day broke blue and bright,
With glancing sun and glancing spray,
As o'er the swell our boat made way,
As gallant as a gull in flight.
But, as we near'd the lonely Isle;
And look'd up at the naked height;
And saw the lighthouse towering white,
With blinded lantern, that all night
Had never shot a spark
Of comfort through the dark,
So ghastly in the cold sunlight
It seem'd, that we were struck the while
With wonder all too dread for words.
And, as into the tiny creek
We stole beneath the hanging crag,
We saw three queer, black, ugly, birds—
Too big, by far, in my belief,
For guillemot or shag—
Like seamen sitting bold upright
Upon a half-tide reef:
But, as we near'd, they plunged from sight,
Without a sound, or spurt of white.
And still too mazed to speak,
We landed; and made fast the boat;
And climb'd the track in single file,
Each wishing he was safe afloat,
On any sea, however far,
So it be far from Flannan Isle:
And still we seem'd to climb, and climb,
As though we'd lost all count of time,
And so must climb for evermore.
Yet, all too soon, we reached the door—
The black, sun-blister'd lighthouse door,
That gaped for us ajar.
As, on the threshold, for a spell,
We paused, we seem'd to breathe the smell
Of limewash and of tar,
Familiar as our daily breath,
As though 'twere some strange scent of death:
And so, yet wondering, side by side,
We stood a moment, still tongue-tied:
And each with black foreboding eyed
The door, ere we should fling it wide,
To leave the sunlight for the gloom:
Till, plucking courage up, at last,
Hard on each other's heels we pass'd
Into the living-room.
Yet, as we crowded through the door,
We only saw a table, spread
For dinner, meat and cheese and bread;
But all untouch'd; and no one there:
As though, when they sat down to eat,
Ere they could even taste,
Alarm had come; and they in haste
Had risen and left the bread and meat:
For on the table-head a chair
Lay tumbled on the floor.
We listen'd; but we only heard
The feeble cheeping of a bird
That starved upon its perch:
And, listening still, without a word,
We set about our hopeless search.
We hunted high, we hunted low,
And soon ransack'd the empty house;
Then o'er the Island, to and fro,
We ranged, to listen and to look
In every cranny, cleft or nook
That might have hid a bird or mouse:
But, though we searched from shore to shore,
We found no sign in any place:
And soon again stood face to face
Before the gaping door:
And stole into the room once more
As frighten'd children steal.
Aye: though we hunted high and low,
And hunted everywhere,
Of the three men's fate we found no trace
Of any kind in any place,
But a door ajar, and an untouch'd meal,
And an overtoppled chair.
And, as we listen'd in the gloom
Of that forsaken living-room—
O chill clutch on our breath—
We thought how ill-chance came to all
Who kept the Flannan Light:
And how the rock had been the death
Of many a likely lad:
How six had come to a sudden end
And three had gone stark mad:
And one whom we'd all known as friend
Had leapt from the lantern one still night,
And fallen dead by the lighthouse wall:
And long we thought
On the three we sought,
And of what might yet befall.
Like curs a glance has brought to heel,
We listen'd, flinching there:
And look'd, and look'd, on the untouch'd meal
And the overtoppled chair.
We seem'd to stand for an endless while,
Though still no word was said,
Three men alive on Flannan Isle,
Who thought on three men dead.
Excerpted from The 20th Century in Poetry by Michael Hulse, Simon Rae. Copyright © 2011 Michael Hulse and Simon Rae. Excerpted by permission of PEGASUS BOOKS.
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