An elegy for forgotten lines

British Poetry, 1900-50
March 1, 1996

The essential tasks in founding new literary traditions on the property of established ones are "recuperation" and "revaluation". With their selection of 13 essays, Gary Day and Brian Docherty endeavour to carry out these charges on behalf of poets kept or lost from canonical British poetry between 1900-50.

The editors' tactics are diplomatic rather than military. The objective is less to deconstruct the "established" poetic tradition as defined by W. B. Yeats, Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot than it is to allow for, or construct the coexistence of alternative, parallel, and interdependent traditions within British poetry. In need of recuperation are Hugh MacDiarmid, Edwin Muir, and the second world war poets. Up for revaluation are Georgianism, Rupert Brooke, D. H. Lawrence as poet, high modernism, and Robert Graves. Edith Sitwell and Charlotte Mew require both.

In a striking polemic, Ian Bell urges us to reconsider our received notions of 1930s left-wing literary politics as defined by the Auden generation. He argues that, contrary to established beliefs, "MacSpaunday's" so-called left-wing politics were merely "gestural and insubstantial, a matter of rhetoric and style above all". An in-depth exploration of MacDiarmid, especially "Hymns to Lenin", reveals what a genuine left-wing poet was: a devout Leninist both of and for the people, a commitment demonstrated by using simple, direct poetry as a weapon on the people's behalf.

John Pikoulis explains that the second world war poets, such as death-obsessed Keith Douglas and death-haunted Alun Lewis, are neglected because critics, tainted by the poetry of the first world war, formed "prescriptive notions of what their subject matter might be".

Edwin Muir, Alasdair Macrae explains, was ignored by the new critics because of his singular lack of wit and irony. Later, the deconstructionists rejected him because of his inextricable attachment to meaning, while solemn Christians revered him - the death blow to his precarious standing.

In their essay "Recuperating and revaluing: Edith Sitwell and Charlotte Mew", Day and Gina Wisker set out to help recuperate the neglected history of women's poetry in the first quarter of this century.

In "Loose women and lonely lambs: the rise and fall of Georgian poetry", George Walter revalues the poetic reputation of Georgianism by dissociating the truly rebellious "Georgians" (those included in Edward Marsh's Georgian poetry anthologies, 1912-15), from the "neo-Georgians" (those in the 1915-22 anthologies, chiefly the archetypal William Kerr and John Freeman).

Alistair Davies is compelling in "Deconstructing the high modernist lyric", perhaps the most contextual, thought-provoking essay in the collection. While Clive Bloom and Jeffrey Walsh make important respective arguments about the academic mismanagement of literary tradition and the significance of Robert Graves's 1926 Survey of Modernist Poetry as a modernist document, they, along with Neil Roberts, are less convincing in revaluing Brooke, Graves and Lawrence as modernist poets on a par with Eliot.

There is the occasional slippage in editorial creativity. The endings of some essays read more like amputations than conclusions, as if the editors used only one approach to shortening pieces that were too long. But there is always room in scholarship for well-organised, purposeful books on literary eras. This book encourages us to keep space available.

Gregory LeStage is researching a DPhil in 20th-century English literature at Oriel College, Oxford.

British Poetry, 1900-50: Aspects of Tradition

Editor - Gary Day and Brian Docherty
ISBN - 0 333 538 3 and 539 1
Publisher - Macmillan
Price - £40.00 and £10.99
Pages - 228

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