John Middleton Murry (essay date 1919)
SOURCE: “English Poetry, 1919,” in Poets, Critics, Mystics: A Selection of Criticisms Written Between 1919 and 1955, edited by Richard Rees, Southern Illinois University Press, 1970, pp. 59-66.
[In the following essay, initially published in the Athenaeum on December 5, 1919, Murry contrasts Marsh's Georgian Poetry anthology with other collections of English poetry.]
Shall we, or shall we not, be serious? To be serious nowadays is to be ill-mannered, and what, murmurs the cynic, does it matter? We have our opinion; we know that there is a good deal of good poetry in the Georgian book, a little in Wheels. We know that there is much bad poetry in the Georgian book, and less in Wheels. We know that there is one poem in Wheels beside the intense and sombre imagination of which even the good poetry of the Georgian book pales for a moment. We think we know more than this. What does it matter? Pick out the good things, and let the rest go.
And yet, somehow, this question of modern English poetry has become important for us, as important as the war, important in the same way as the war. We can even analogise. Georgian Poetry is like the Coalition Government; Wheels is like the Radical opposition. Out of the one there issues an indefinable odour of complacent sanctity, an unctuous redolence of union sacrée; out of the other, some acidulation of perversity. In the coalition poets we find the larger number of good men, and the larger number of bad ones; in the opposition poets we find no bad ones with the coalition badness, no good ones with the coalition goodness, but in a single case a touch of the apocalyptic, intransigent, passionate honesty that is the mark of the martyr of art or life.
On both sides we have the corporate and the individual flavour; on both sides we have those individuals-by-courtesy whose flavour is almost wholly corporate; on both sides the corporate flavour is one that we find intensely disagreeable. In the coalition we find it noxious, in the opposition no worse than irritating. No doubt this is because we recognise a tendency to take the coalition seriously, while the opposition is held to be ridiculous. But both the coalition and the opposition—we use both terms in their corporate sense—are unmistakably the product of the present age. In that sense they are truly representative and complementary each to the other; they are a fair sample of the goodness and badness of the literary epoch in which we live; they are still more remarkable as an index of the complete confusion of aesthetic values that prevails to-day.
The corporate flavour of the coalition is a false simplicity. Of the nineteen poets who compose it there are certain individuals whom we except absolutely from this condemnation, Mr. de la Mare, Mr. Davies, and Mr. Lawrence; there are others who are more or less exempt from it, Mr. Abercrombie, Mr. Sassoon, Mrs. Shove, and Mr. Nichols; and among the rest there are varying degrees of saturation. This false simplicity can be quite subtle. It is compounded of worship of trees and birds and contemporary poets in about equal proportions; it is sicklied over at times with a quite perceptible varnish of modernity, and at other times with what looks to be technical skill, but generally proves to be a fairly clumsy reminiscence of somebody else's technical skill. The negative qualities of this simplesse are, however, the most obvious; the poems imbued with it are devoid of any emotional significance whatever. If they have an idea it leaves you with the queer feeling that it is not an idea at all, that it has been defaced, worn smooth by the rippling of innumerable minds. Then, spread in a luminous haze over these compounded elements, is a fundamental right-mindedness; you feel, somehow, that they might have been very wicked, and yet they are very good. There is nothing disturbing about them; ils peuvent être mis dans toutes les mains; they are kind, generous, even noble. They sympathise with animate and inanimate nature. They have shining foreheads with big bumps of benevolence, like Flora Casby's father, and one inclines to believe that their eyes must be frequently filmed with an honest tear, if only because their vision is blurred. They are fond of lists of names which never suggest things; they are sparing of similes. If they use them they are careful to see they are not too definite, for a definite simile makes havoc of their constructions, by applying to them a certain test of reality.
But it is impossible to be serious about them. The more stupid of them supply the matter for a good laugh; the more clever the stuff of a more recondite amazement. What is one to do when Mr. Monro apostrophises the force of Gravity in such words as these?
By leave of you man places stone on stone; He scatters seed: you are at once the prop Among the long roots of his fragile crop You manufacture for him, and insure House, harvest, implement, and furniture And hold them all secure.
We are not surprised to learn further that
I rest my body on your grass, And let my brain repose in you.
All that remains to be said is that Mr. Monro is fond of dogs (‘Can you smell the rose?’ he says to Dog: ‘ah, no!’) and inclined to fish—both of which are Georgian inclinations.
Then there is Mr. Drinkwater with the enthusiasm of the just man for moonlit apples—‘moon-washed apples of wonder’—and the righteous man's sense of robust rhythm in this chorus from ‘Lincoln’:
You who know the tenderness Of old men at eve-tide, Coming from the hedgerows, Coming from the plough, And the wandering caress Of winds upon the woodside, When the crying yaffle goes Underneath the bough.
Mr. Drinkwater, though he cannot write good...
(The entire section is 2446 words.)