A. E. Coppard Coppard, A. E. - Essay


(Short Story Criticism)

Coppard, A. E. 1878-1957

(Full name Alfred Edgar Coppard) English short story writer and poet.

Coppard is recognized as an innovator of the English short story form. In an era when the norm for short fiction was the formula piece written for magazines, Coppard introduced a new model, rich in English rural traditions and poetic in mood and style. As a result of his influence, the short story was reappraised as a significant literary form.

Biographical Information

Born into a working-class family, Coppard grew accustomed to a life of hard work. When he was nine his father died, and he was removed from school and apprenticed to a London tailor. His education thereafter was self-acquired and included reading the works of such writers as Geoffrey Chaucer, William Shakespeare, John Keats, and Walt Whitman. When Coppard took a clerical position in Oxford, he befriended a number of literature students at the university, including Roy Campbell, William Butler Yeats, and Aldous Huxley; these acquaintances stimulated him to write. In 1919, having published several stories in literary journals, Coppard left his job and moved to a small cottage in the woods where he could write full time. His first collection of stories, Adam and Eve and Pinch Me, was published in 1921, with many more volumes of short fiction and poetry to follow. A collection of his works, The Collected Tales of A. E. Coppard, was published in 1948. Coppard died in 1957 at the age of seventy-nine, shortly before his autobiography, It's Me, O Lord!, was published.

Major Works of Short Fiction

Coppard's early prose style reflects the influence of Anton Chekhov and Guy de Maupassant, masters of the realistic short story, while his later works reveal a sophistication reminiscent of the stories of Henry James. His early works, which many consider his best, are particularly noted for their vivid depictions of peasant characters and rural settings, as evidenced by such acclaimed stories as "Ninepenny Flute" and "The Higgler." Coppard sought to recreate the oral tradition of the folk tale—the story heard rather than read—and his use of vernacular speech is considered deftly accurate yet lyrical. He is also noted for the air of fantasy and strangeness with which he infuses certain stories, such as "Silver Circus." The supernatural "Adam and Eve and Pinch Me" and "Dusky Ruth" have been praised as being among his best writing.

Critical Reception

Although Coppard's popular audience grew slowly and remained fairly small, his early work was enthusiastically praised by reviewers and fellow writers who credited him with revitalizing and legitimizing the English short story. Coppard's reputation began to decline in the 1930s, however, with the publication of Nixey's Harlequin, which was thought by some to be inferior to his earlier works. Critics suggested that Coppard's stories were becoming pretentious and that his tendency toward rambling, unfocused narratives was becoming more pronounced. Still, most commentators agree that Coppard made great contributions to the short story form, particularly with his development of lyrical prose. C. Henry Warren, describing the poetical nature of Coppard's tales, wrote that "they are told with all the sensitiveness of a poet's power over word and image and they evoke one's imagination to a larger scope than their immediate theme, by unobrusively widening out from the particular to the universal."

Principal Works

(Short Story Criticism)

Short Fiction

Adam and Eve and Pinch Me 1921

Clorinda Walks in Heaven 1922

The Black Dog 1923

Fishmonger's Fiddle 1925

The Field of Mustard 1926

Silver Circus 1928

Nixey's Harlequin 1931

Polly Oliver 1935

Ninepenny Flute 1937

Ugly Anna and Other Tales 1944

Fearful Pleasures 1946

The Dark-Eyed Lady: Fourteen Tales 1947

The Collected Tales of A. E. Coppard 1948

Lucy in Her Pink Jacket 1954

Selected Stories 1972

Other Major Works

Hips and Haws (poetry) 1922

Pelagea (poetry) 1926

Yokohama Garland (poetry) 1926

The Collected Poems (poetry) 1928

Cherry Ripe (poetry) 1935

It's Me, O Lord! (autobiography) 1957

Malcolm Cowley (essay date 1921)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Adam and Eve and Pinch Me, in The Dial, Chicago, Vol. LXXI, July, 1921, pp. 93-5.

[Cowley was a respected American writer, editor, and lecturer whose books of literary history and criticism include Exile's Return (1934) and The Lesson of the Masters (1971). Here, he praises Coppard's work for blending realism with fantasy and combining some of the characteristics of romance literature with a distinctly modern sensibility.]

Some of the stories [in Adam and Eve and Pinch Me] are pure fantasy. Coppard begins: "In the great days that are gone I was walking the Journey upon its easy smiling roads and came one morning of windy spring to the side of a wood." He goes on to tell how he met Monk, "the fat fellow as big as two men but with the clothes of a small one squeezing the joints of him together," and how Monk walked with him on the Journey. How they met a man committing a grave crime, and a man committing a mean crime, and a man torturing a beast, and how Monk slew them all three. How they met with Mary and walked with her till they came to a great mountain in a plain and near the top of it a lake of sweet water; there Mary told them her dream and left them very lonely in the world, and Zion still far away.

Elsewhere Coppard becomes an out-and-out realist, deriving obviously—but not entirely—from Maupassant and Chekhov. He tells the story of a little boy, the son of the village atheist, who wandered into church one Saturday after evensong because the place was cozy and beautiful. He fell asleep for an hour and when he woke the doors were locked. He put on the robe of a chorister; he ate the communion bread because he was hungry and drank great draughts of the communion wine. He uttered a rigmarole of prayer (Thirty days hath September; April, June, and November) and fell asleep on the soft carpet within the altar rail.

Evidently he is not, even here, utterly two-by-four; there is always a fourth dimension of poetry. That is the charm of his method. He is at his best when his stories, instead of marching off to an immediate blare of ghostly trumpets, begin with a matter-of-fact narration and slip quite insensibly over the borders of experience. The title story is like that; its hero comes back from a brilliant afternoon among the trees and dykes of his own fields to find that he has stepped unwittingly out of his body. "Dusky Ruth," another tale, begins with a bald and exact description of an inn parlour in the Cotswolds; one reads on listlessly to find that the whole atmosphere has become suddenly charged with violent emotion. Coppard writes well enough to carry off these tours de force; his technique consorts well with his chosen subjects.

He uses both landscapes and people in obtaining his effects, and he uses them both in the same way. They are the materials with which he builds; he shapes them skilfully and...

(The entire section is 1222 words.)

The Times Literary Supplement (essay date 1923)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of The Black Dog, in The Times Literary Supplement, No. 1119, June 28, 1923, p. 438.

[In the following review, the critic finds fault with several stories in The Black Dog, yet admires many pieces for their distinctive portrayal of rural characters.]

Among the diversely mannered tales which make up The Black Dog, the greater number will be found to develop the distinctive character of Mr. A. E. Coppard's two previous volumes. But the remainder serve no purpose more useful than a makeweight; for such stories as "Simple Simon," "Tanil," and "The Man from Kilsheelan" are excursions, admirably conducted, into regions of fantasy where...

(The entire section is 680 words.)

Hermon Child (essay date 1925)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "A. E. Coppard's Stories," in The Bookman, London, Vol. LXVIII, No. 407, August, 1925, pp. 255-56.

[In this review of Fishmonger's Fiddle, Ould notes the unusual vision of the world that is expressed in Coppard's stones and lauds the subtle craftsmanship of the author's work.]

Mr. Coppard's stories are not, like so many short stories, the by-product of a novelist. He is primarily a writer of short stories, and so far as I am aware has never written a novel. By confining himself to a single form—I leave verse out of the reckoning—he has attained [in Fishmonger's Fiddle] a sureness of touch which is in striking contrast with the tentativeness of...

(The entire section is 787 words.)

C. Henry Warren (essay date 1927)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Modern Short Story," in The Bookman, London, Vol. LXXI, No. 424, January, 1927, pp. 236-37.

[Here, Warren discusses some general misconceptions regarding modern short fiction and describes Coppard as "the one writer of to-day who is exploiting . . . the best possibilities of the short story. "]

That the prejudice of the reading public against the short story is rapidly passing is sufficiently evidenced in the recent experiments of two well-known English publishing houses. (I am not concerned here, of course, with the standardised magazine type of short story, whose only interest, apart from the speeding of an idle hour, would lie in the indication...

(The entire section is 1149 words.)

Punch (essay date 1927)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of The Field of Mustard, in Punch, Vol. CLXXII, February 23, 1927, pp. 223-24.

[In this essay, the critic praises Coppard for providing fresh interpretations of familiar themes.]

The bright art of the short story has at the moment no more talented exponent than Mr. A. E. Coppard. His tales, or contes, as we should have called them in the good old days when, having never heard of Tchehov, we all swore by Maupassant, are acceptable to the most fastidious of editors. All the stories in The Field of Mustard are well worth reading, and a good half of them are worth rereading. It is not so much what he does as the cunning and lively way...

(The entire section is 346 words.)

Ford Madox Ford (essay date 1927)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Half Pixie and Half Bird," in New York Herald Tribune Books, February 27, 1927, p. 4.

[Ford was a well-known English fiction writer and editor who published numerous novels in his career, including The Good Soldier (1915). Here, he expresses his admiration for Coppard's work and notes that the author's stories contain the same qualities found in the verse of several seventeenth-century British poets.]

Mr. Coppard has been so long for me the White Hope of British literature that I can't get out of the habit of so regarding him, though there may well be others in Great Britain to-day. I am, however, so out of touch with the writers of my own country and...

(The entire section is 1251 words.)

C. Henry Warren (essay date 1929)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "A Superb Tale Teller," in The Bookman, London, Vol. LXXVI, No. 451, April, 1929, pp. 36-7.

[In this review of Silver Circus, Warren praises Coppard's perceptive portrayal of peasant characters. The critic also finds the book to be proof of Coppard's continuing development as a writer.]

Mr. Coppard's tales made their first appearance shortly after the War. They obtained a hearing, shyly, almost furtively, in progressive periodicals with a very limited circulation. They were not proclaimed upon the housetops. A few discerning ones smiled, added the precious copies to their collections, and passed the good news on to others. Here was a man doing something...

(The entire section is 740 words.)

A. E. Coppard (essay date 1931)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: The Writings of Alfred Edgar Coppard, by Jacob Schwartz and A. E. Coppard, The Ulysses Bookshop, 1931, 73 p.

[The following excerpt is taken from a work in which Coppard provides notes to accompany Schwartz's bibliography of the author's writings. Coppard here reacts to selected reviews and criticisms of his short story collections.]

The reviews [of Clorinda Walks in Heaven] on the whole were . . . very friendly, and The Outlook began its notice with a headline, "The Critic Walks in Heaven", but there was certainly one justifiable protest from an Irish paper:

To crowd two illegitimate births, five deaths, and...

(The entire section is 1879 words.)

The New York Times Book Review (essay date 1932)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "A. E. Coppard's Tales," in The New York Times Book Review, January 10, 1932, p. 7.

[In this review, the critic arques that many of the stories in Nixey's Harlequin are inferior to Coppard's previous work because they digress from the main story line and fail to reach a satisfactory conclusion.]

The ten stories gathered into [Nixey's Harlequin] by A. E. Coppard reveal an accentuation of both the faults and virtues of this brilliant English stylist, but chiefly the faults. There are a greater refinement of phrase and a delicacy of wit and a more profound etching of character; but there is also a more circumfuse narrative, a self-indulgent refusal...

(The entire section is 576 words.)

Dorothy Brewster and Angus Burrell (essay date 1934)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Short Story and the Novelette: Anton Chekhov, Katherine Mansfield, A. E. Coppard, and Others," in Modern Fiction, Columbia University Press, 1934, pp. 348-403.

[In the following excerpt, Brewster and Burrell illustrate Coppard's versatility in depicting a wide variety of character types and life experiences.]

If one were asked what Mr. A. E. Coppard's sketches and stories and tales are about, one might for the moment be at a loss for an answer, so varied is his range of interest, and then one would say, "They're about life." That's what Mr. Coppard presents—life. This is, theoretically, what all writers do; but of many story writers one feels that their...

(The entire section is 3208 words.)

H. E. Bates (essay date 1941)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Katherine Mansfield and A. E. Coppard," in The Modern Short Story: A Critical Survey, T. Nelson and Sons Ltd., 1941, pp. 122-47.

[Bates was one of the masters of the twentieth-century English short story, and was also a respected novelist and contributor of book reviews to the Morning Post and the Spectator. His book The Modern Short Story (1941), is considered a useful introduction to the form. In the following excerpt from that title, Bates addresses conflicting elements of simplicity and sophistication in Coppard's writing style. He argues that Coppard's tendency toward the complexity associated with the writing of Henry James detracts from the earthy,...

(The entire section is 2611 words.)

Punch (essay date 1944)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Variations on an English Theme," in Punch, Vol. 206, No. 5382, March 29, 1944, p. 276.

[In the following review of the collection Ugly Anna and Other Tales, the critic admires Coppard's rendering of rural England.]

A. E. Coppard once wrote a story about a gentleman, a cook and a musical box. The musical box started to play, and for no particular reason the gentleman who had lived so staidly and respectably for years held out his hands to the cook and started waltzing round and round, down the steps and into the beyond. This story, with its troubling behaviour on the part of ordinary people, contains in miniature the genius of Coppard—freakish, tender,...

(The entire section is 388 words.)

William Peden (essay date 1948)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Ruled by Force and Fudge," in The Saturday Review of Literature, Vol. XXXI, No. 13, March 27, 1948, pp. 18, 31.

[Peden is an American critic and educator who has written extensively on the American short story and on such American historical figures as Thomas Jefferson and John Quincy Adams. In the following review of The Collected Tales of A. E. Coppard, Peden finds the collection exemplary of Coppard's best work, demonstrating "the variety of Coppard's interests and the flexibility of his technique. "]

Alfred Edgar Coppard was seventy in January last. Since 1920, his several volumes of carefully wrought tales and stories have won him a small but...

(The entire section is 905 words.)

Wilson Follett (essay date 1948)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Panoplied in Their Original Magic," in The New York Times Book Review, April 4, 1948, p. 5.

[Below, Follett offers a laudatory review of The Collected Tales of A. E. Coppard.]

Casting a ballot for A. E. Coppard always seems the combination of a manifest duty with a really acute pleasure. I cast my own first one for Adam & Eve & Pinch Me in 1921, some months before that first disclosure of a new talent was published in America. The excitement of that discovery is still vivid. Of course that title-story is in [The Collected Tales]—as it must be in any selection of its author's tales, were the number but six instead of thirty-eight....

(The entire section is 752 words.)

Frank O'Connor (essay date 1963)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Price of Freedom," in The Lonely Voice: A Study of the Short Story, The World Publishing Company, 1963, pp. 170-86.

[O'Connor was an Irish short story writer whose fiction is known for its realistic portrayal of life in Ireland and its detached yet sympathetic humor. O'Connor's critical commentary is distinguished by his insistent probing into the connections between society and individual talent as well as his attempt to analyze the creative process of the writer he is examining. In the essay below, O'Connor examines Coppard's preoccupation with personal freedom and financial security, concerns that the critic asserts affected Coppard's writing technique and inspired his...

(The entire section is 4935 words.)

Doris Lessing (essay date 1972)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Introduction to Selected Stories by A. E. Coppard, Jonathan Cape, 1972, pp. vii-xii.

[A Persian-born English novelist, short story writer, and dramatist, Lessing is known as a powerful contemporary writer working primarily in the realist tradition. Her works display a broad range of interests and focus on such specific topics as racism, communism, feminism, and mysticism. In the following excerpt from Lessing's introduction to Selected Stories, she offers a personal reminiscence of Coppard.]

[The stories in Selected Stories] are as fine as any we have. In friends' houses, on the shelves where the books stay which will be kept always, you find...

(The entire section is 713 words.)

Walter Allen (essay date 1981)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "T. F. Powys, Coppard," in The Short Story in English, Oxford at the Clarendon Press, 1981, pp. 176-80.

[Allen is an English novelist of working-class life and a distinguished popular historian and critic of the novel. Below, he discusses "The Higgler, " "Dusky Ruth, " and "The Field of Mustard," as examples of Coppard's best work.]

A late starter as a writer, Coppard did not publish his first collection of tales until he was forty-five. He was entirely self-educated, having been apprenticed to a tailor in Whitechapel at the age of nine. When he was thirty he became a clerk at an ironworks in Oxford, where he cultivated and was cultivated by a number of dons...

(The entire section is 1217 words.)

James Gindin (essay date 1985)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "A. E. Coppard and H. E. Bates," in The English Short Story 1880-1945: A Critical History, edited by Joseph M. Flora, Twayne Publishers, 1985, pp. 113-41.

[In the following essay, Gindin discusses similarities between the works of Coppard and H. E. Bates. He also details the prominent themes and techniques employed in Coppard's fiction.]

In 1971 Granada Television produced a series of dramatic adaptations entitled Country Matters from some of the stories of A. E. Coppard and H. E. Bates. Critically successful and highly popular in England, Country Matters was later exported to the United States and shown on the Public Broadcasting Service...

(The entire section is 5448 words.)

Further Reading

(Short Story Criticism)


Schwartz, Jacob and Coppard, A. E. The Writings of Alfred Edgar Coppard. London: The Ulysses Bookshop, 1931, 73 p.

Bibliography of the author's works published before 1931, with a forward and notes by Coppard.


Feinstein, Elaine. "Ghostly Gardens." London Magazine 12, No. 3 (August-September 1972): 157-60.

Review of Selected Stories which lauds Coppard's "fresh instinctive genius."

Gould, Gerald. Review of The Black Dog, by A. E. Coppard. The Saturday Review (London) CXXXVI, No. 3532 (July 7, 1923): 20.

Praises Coppard's...

(The entire section is 342 words.)