Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1134

“I am,” said A. E. Coppard, “a writer about people who live, talk, do, without anything at the back of my mind than what I conceive to be fitting for their presentation as interesting human beings.” This direct and modest statement was characteristic of the author, an expression of deceptive innocence, neither denying nor emphasizing his quality of art, which was strongly individual and notably self-contained. A master of the modern short story, his long career began in 1921 with his first publication, ADAM AND EVE AND PINCH ME, and lasted until his death in 1957 with the printing the same year of an autobiography, IT’S ME, O LORD! Coppard was one of the few whose position can be described as maverick. The irony is that he always alluded to his work as part of the continuing English tradition and declined in fact to call what he wrote “stories.” They were more precisely, he said, “tales,” offspring of an ancient art, which was “a thing of joy even before writing, not to mention printing, was invented.”

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Considering his remarkable range, psychological subtlety, and penetration, it seems at first glance hard to understand why he did not promote himself more as modern. In an age of literary experimentation, of publicly devaluating values and making rampant symbolism, Coppard maintained that he was pursuing an ordinary course, telling stories merely because that was what he liked to do.

The key to this evasion—of not making a little more histrionic bid for fame—may have been suggested by Frank O’Connor, who notes in Coppard a deep concern for personal freedom. It also is pointed out that, in his plots, Coppard was fascinated by the “secretiveness” of women. This observation might be carried further to see that with many of Coppard’s main characters, not only women but also men and children, there is often some vital inner judgment concealed. The hero may never explain his actions to others. The revelations are left implicit. In the web of his own enigmas, the protagonist is either trapped (as in the powerful and nearly too frustrating love story “Judith”) or triumphant; or more usually, as in the mysterious and sensual “Dusky Ruth” and the circumspect “Black Dog,” he falls into a silence that is both comprehension and wonder, before the rich, incommunicable sense of the world. In “Black Dog,” the hero is laconic because he believes it useless to try to analyze a person’s deficiencies or failings. Others see people at different angles, in different ways, and one is both lucky and wise if he can maintain the particular angle of vision from which he views himself.

Such a vision is, by its nature, solitary. There is an odd restiveness about Coppard’s people. They exist, however, not in preachments of shared rebellion. Each is fighting convention in his own way. Sometimes he goes by ridiculous or tragic routes, as in “Ring the Bells of Heaven,” the saga of a man who wants to be an actor but turns out to be a tramp evangelist. All, however, have a unique flavor; the realism is uncompromising. Against the mores of poverty, sentimental sex, tyrannies of religious belief, domestic moralities, Coppard’s characters all search for the individual way. If, then, this tendency toward the individualistic was also carried, as it is, to the kinds of characters he selected, and of necessity as a writer he was seeking his own stride, in keeping with this need he must avoid the pace of other writers—even though forgoing the eminence of the contemporary.

Coppard’s output included several volumes of poems, a collection of stories concerning the supernatural, some tales of allegorical fantasy (among these are “The Green Drake,” “Father Raven,” and “The Fair Young Willowy Tree,” of an ascorbic wit and lightness akin to Hans Christian Andersen), the latter interspersed with his own stream which was regional and naturalistic. He wrote about laborers, publicans, farming people, village craftsmen, poachers, country folk; the dialogue is colloquial, a just rendering and precise. His reputation is based on the rural. Nevertheless, in the language style, having to do with narrative sequence, background descriptions, there is an impressive music, philosophic scope, and sensitivity to variation that can only be likened in English letters to Shakespeare and Dickens. In the use of rough syllabics, robust metaphors, apt or humorous plays on words, he may have his equal in the twentieth century, but no one is better. “The Higgler,” “Fishmonger’s Fiddle,” “Arabesque—the Mouse,” “The Cherry Tree” have been regarded by critics and writers, who still apologize for, or boast of, being among Coppard’s few but faithful readers, as masterpieces. “The Field of Mustard” is a special example of Coppard’s double-barreled gift for the poetic and naturalistic. The subject is the meeting of three women, in a mustard field, who are all past their prime and broken by life. In conversation, they reveal the truth of love, physical experience, and mortal loss. Their speech has the elegiac authority of the poor: it is at once expansive and withdrawn. Meanwhile, in the descriptions of nature, there is communicated an atmosphere that combines the kind of weather it is and the profundity of life. Coppard’s description of their silence is telling as they went to their homes, in the light of fading day, while the earth itself seemed to sigh in the deep knowledge of ome sadness or calamity beyond the knowledge of man.

In theme, Coppard is neither overly pessimistic nor hopeful. From the reality of each story, he extracts a natural essence. Ford Madox Ford called him, as a prose writer, a lyricist and likened him to Herrick and Donne. The comparison is appropriate, although at times the opposite could be said. There is a farcical element and recklessness to his talent. A perfectly straightforward sentence may suddenly vault into Joyce-like elaborations—as in the reminiscence (from Coppard’s autobiography) of how he bought at a library sale Henry James’s THE LESSON OF THE MASTER for fourpence three farthing. Furthermore, the verbal exuberance of his language reaches such high points that sometimes it turns into a verbal mockery. Those who have criticized Coppard have been offended by the saturnine. His conceits, jocosity, flamboyance, “prankiness” are the other, if not the reasonably balanced, side of his passions.

What Coppard had to say is nevertheless a canvas for all this. Whether he felt his craft to be so total that he did not want to explain or that he was merely a workman given to his trade, he was determined not to play a part in the pattern of his age. Coppard did not say he was experimenting in order to be original. Such an attitude is unstated science, not to mention unadvertised art.

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