Walford Morgan (essay date 1949)
SOURCE: “Notes on Contemporary Tendencies,” in A New Romantic Anthology, edited by Stefan Schimanski and Henry Treece, The Grey Walls Press Ltd., 1949, pp. 51-8.
[In the following excerpt, Morgan differentiates the social activism of 1930s poetry with the poetry of the 1940s, which he perceives as more inclined to reflect current events than attempting to shape them.]
In our time there are so many factors in one's consciousness of which one is not fully aware, so many factors which will emerge into the full light of reason only when they have begun to lose their real potency, so many intuitive needs which will be adequately expressed only when they have been resolved, that when one finds oneself face to face with the increasing stream of modern verse, one hesitates to embark upon definite conjecture, or to make any immediate prophecy about the qualities it will display in the future.
Some observations however can be made. For we have seen within the last few years in poetry a complete volte-face both in manner of treatment and in objective. The mood of inspiration too has largely changed. The 1930's thought that poetry and art could revolutionize life. It is recognized now that it is much truer to say that it is life that changes art; and that each decade evokes its own particular qualities and vices. The moods of Picasso, for instance, it can be seen, and the vigorous disharmonies of Bartok are so much an expression of our Zeitgeist that they resume more effectively than any philosophy the underlying spirit and temper of the day; and have in a sense the defects of their era. To change the ‘Portrait d’une dame, 5 mars 1940’ of Picasso or his ‘Femme au costume vert, février 1940’, one would need to alter the underlying circumstances and troubles of the age—the broken ties, the uprooted friendships and marriages, and the faulty values which have found their outlet in the chaos of two wars. For it is through the broken facets of modern life, of disharmony and discord, that the acute vision of Picasso finds visual expression. The price the poet has to pay for real activity is that of contemporaneity and awareness. Poetry in order to be created has to be created out of the complex of direct or intuitive perceptions and apprehensions which form the poet's consciousness, and which come to him as an active member of a living community. That is why the artist has often been called the flickering gauge-reading of the thoughts and minds of his time. And if the outward world is sick and disordered, the community diseased, the poet suffers from an acute form of anguish and is set with problems of expression and adjustment. Often it is imperative that he be a revolutionary.
Each decade has constantly to find the satisfaction of newly felt and inherent needs which were probably subordinated and only half-realized in previous modes of expression—has to find new orientations and new directions. In the unsatisfactory world of today it is natural that such should be the case; and that movements should lead poetry through many different phases. Just as painting has passed through Post-impressionism, Cubism, and Surrealism (to mention but a few phases which could be multiplied were we to cast our mind over the movements in different countries), so too, modern poetry has developed a highly sensitive consciousness not only of progress in the other visual arts but of the whole trends and movements in European thought in our time. That perhaps will prove to be one of the outstanding characteristics of the poetry of our day. It is true to say in a special sense that English verse has never been the same since the advent of Hofmannsthal and Rilke (to a lesser degree one might add George) and since Baudelaire, Mallarmé, and Rimbaud; all poets who can roughly be classified (Baudelaire alone excepted) under the general trends of symbolism. For tendencies now appear to be internationally rather than nationally traditional; the cross-fertilization of the cultures of various countries being a factor of the utmost significance for literature in our time.
That is not quite the same thing as saying that regional or national movements will be subordinated beneath general international trends; but rather that regional and national cultures which find their expression in poetry—Welsh, Spanish, Chinese, German, etc.—while retaining their inherent qualities, will now feel themselves increasingly enriched by a consciousness of a similar inward struggle that goes on everywhere else under the diverse operations of the Spirit, throughout all mankind; and will find themselves in the forefront of man's battle for freedom. Differences of race and nationality, of religion and culture, will give each language its own tonalities, naturally, and its own peculiar texture, its own particular emotional and metaphysical range; differences which in ultimate essence will always be untranslatable; but there will often be an identity of aims.
These factors being predominantly operative, within this complex of influences one can discern two distinctive phases in recent English poetry; both aiming at different qualities and achieving different ends; apparent in two decades.
In Auden, Day Lewis, and Spender—and more particularly in their followers in the 30's—a new proletarian consciousness came into being; one saw the current of modern verse nourished by the effluvia of many a factory; the downward reaches tinged by the tainted by-products of a predominantly materialistic age; the swans of poetry swimming in an iridescence of oil. The meticulous accuracy of the technologist acquired such a prestige value that it turned the poetry of the decade into the photographic reportage of the journalist. And brilliant though these chief protagonists were, it was undoubtedly a phase in which the spirit was fettered. In spite of many an inward conflict and the desire to show the supremacy of human values, it was the outward and mechanical creation of man that was honoured. Salvation was to come, according to the trite formula—a formula soon to be overdone and refuted—through the triumph of technology. It was a movement which...
(The entire section is 2545 words.)