The Unbearable Bassington by Saki (1912)

The spirit of mirthfulness…certainly ran riot in the boy, but it was a twisted wayward sort of mirth

‘Comus,’ she said quietly and wearily, ‘you are an exact reversal of the legend of Pandora’s Box. You have all the charm and advantages that a boy could want to help him on in the world, and behind it all there is the fatal damning gift of utter hopelessness.’

Saki published two novels. This is the first one, relatively short (47,720 words) and cast in 17 chapters. It has a slim plotline which I will now summarise:

Executive summary

Francesca Bassington is a member of London’s High Society. She is 40, a widow, and living in a very nice house in Blue Street, surrounded by her precious possessions. The house was left to her by her friend Sophie Chetrof when she died, but only till Sophie’s daughter, Emmeline marries, at which point it will revert to Emmeline (and her husband). Emmeline is still only 17 but that gives Francesca only 4 or five more years of possession and it makes her anxious.

Francesca has one cherished hope which is that she can persuade her only son, the difficult tearaway Comus Bassington, to marry Emmeline.

Once this is all explained, we get a chapter showing Comus at his boarding school where he is shown gleefully thrashing Emmeline Chetrof’s brother, Lancelot, thus permanently turning Emmeline against her. Oh well, so much for that plan.

Jump forward two years and Comus is now 19 and a dashing, slender, good looking addition to London society. He comes to the notice of the fabulously rich Elaine de Grey and the most of the rest of this short novel is devoted to describing the rivalry between young, selfish Comus, and twenty-something handsome Courtenay Youghal for her hand.

This basic premise is spun out via scenes depicting classic activities of the class Francesca and Comus belong to – dinner parties, society gossip, riding in Hyde Park, the opening of a new art show at a fashionable gallery and the first night of a new play, all of which give Saki ample opportunity to display his knowledge of Edwardian High Society, and its refined gossip and malice.

In the event quite a trivial argument with Comus (he asks Elaine for yet another loan to cover his gambling debts, while they’re sitting in deckchairs by the Serpentine) is the straw that snaps Elaine’s patience, and she stalks off by herself. Later she goes out for dinner with Youghal and says yes to his proposal of marriage.

News of this gets back to Francesca, who has a confrontation with her son in which she says that, since he has blown all his opportunities for advancement in London (first with Emmeline, then with Elaine) there’s nothing for it but to throw himself into the Empire. Her brother, Henry Greech, has news of an opening ‘in West Africa’. Comus accepts this meekly but with great misery. He attends the first night of a play, drinking in the sights and (bitchy) sounds of London society, knowing it is the last time he’ll ever see them.

There are three remaining scenes. In one, we see Francesca on honeymoon in Vienna, discovering that Youghal is every bit as selfish and self-centred as Comus, when he forces her to go to a masked ball and has a whale of a time, leaving her bored and disconsolate.

In the second scene, we find Comus in some God-forsaken hole in West Africa, fiercely hot, exhausted, mildly feverish, and oppressed by the pointlessness of being so utterly outside his own set of values and identities. The Africans seem to him like so many teeming ants and he hangs his head in genuine despair.

In the final, short scene, Francesca is in her lovely house in Blue Street, surrounded by her lovely belongings, when she receives a telegram saying Comus has died of illness. Everything turns to ashes. She would give all her wretched belongings just for him to walk through the door. The rest of her life will be misery and anguish.

Despair

Bleak, isn’t it? It leaves a real taste, not of mere unhappiness, but of powerful despair in the mouth. Suddenly the text felt like an echo of Joseph Conrad’s stories about white men who go to pieces in the Tropics and a harbinger of Graham Greene’s despairing novel, The Heart of the Matter. Comus’s utter abandonment reminded me of the end of Evelyn Waugh’s novel Black Mischief. In fact maybe it fits into the tidy little tradition of English fiction describing how horrible a posting to the colonies was. (Would Orwell’s Burmese Days be included?)

Room for psychology

What’s interesting about Saki’s first novel is he has taken advantage of the extra legroom provided by the form to write in a far more leisurely, expansive and descriptive style than he allowed himself in his short stories.

All of chapter 1 is devoted to a thorough description of Francesca’s home, its furnishings, how they match her personality, and then a leisurely tiffin of tea and cucumber sandwiches with her brother, Henry. Normally, his short stories are cut back to the bone, sometimes barely more than short scenes or snippets of dialogue. Some of the stories in Chronicles of Clovis contained longer descriptions, especially of the countryside. In this novel Saki is able to develop that side of his writing.

Something else happens as a result of the extra legroom, which is that it becomes considerably less funny. If you’re writing a dialogue between two characters whose sole purpose is to set up a series of one-liners, nothing hinders the quest for comedy. If you’re essaying a long paragraph describing the interior of a middle-class woman’s home, well, there’s scope from some dry remarks, but it would be self-defeating to try and do it all in a series of quips. The prose, by virtue of aiming to be descriptive, must be flatter. Not without Saki’s characteristic droll, ironic inflection. But without the quotable gags.

Same goes for description of character. Here’s a typical description of young Comus:

Gaiety and good-looks had carried Comus successfully and, on the whole, pleasantly, through schooldays and a recurring succession of holidays; the same desirable assets were still at his service to advance him along his road, but it was a disconcerting experience to find that they could not be relied on to go all distances at all times. In an animal world, and a fiercely competitive animal world at that, something more was needed than the decorative abandon of the field lily, and it was just that something more which Comus seemed unable or unwilling to provide on his own account; it was just the lack of that something more which left him sulking with Fate over the numerous breakdowns and stumbling-blocks that held him up on what he expected to be a triumphal or, at any rate, unimpeded progress.

And a comic description of the errant Comus:

In seventeen years and some odd months Francesca had had ample opportunity for forming an opinion concerning her son’s characteristics. The spirit of mirthfulness which one associates with the name certainly ran riot in the boy, but it was a twisted wayward sort of mirth of which Francesca herself could seldom see the humorous side.

The boy was one of those untameable young lords of misrule that frolic and chafe themselves through nursery and preparatory and public-school days with the utmost allowance of storm and dust and dislocation and the least possible amount of collar-work, and come somehow with a laugh through a series of catastrophes that has reduced everyone else concerned to tears or Cassandra-like forebodings. Sometimes they sober down in after-life and become uninteresting, forgetting that they were ever lords of anything; sometimes Fate plays royally into their hands, and they do great things in a spacious manner, and are thanked by Parliaments and the Press and acclaimed by gala-day crowds. But in most cases their tragedy begins when they leave school and turn themselves loose in a world that has grown too civilised and too crowded and too empty to have any place for them. And they are very many.

As you can see, that description is not only longer than we’re used to from the short stories, but also more serious. Almost a requiem for the generations of boys turned out by Britain’s public schools, who are heroes and stars at school and quite unprepared for the long disappointment of real life, a querulous note found throughout early and mid-20th century English literature.

Detailed plot synopsis

Chapter 1

Introducing Francesca Bassington and her beloved house in Blue Street, W. filled with her beloved possessions, but how the whole thing hangs be a thread because she only has the house

Chapter 2

At their public school, young Comus and colleagues thrash Lancelot Chetrof, young brother of the heiress Francesca was hoping Comus could be set up to marry.

Chapter 3

Francesca Bassington attends a high society party given by her friend Serena Golackly, and spies up and coming star, Courtenay Youghal:

a political spur-winner who seemed absurdly youthful to a generation that had never heard of Pitt. It was Youghal’s ambition—or perhaps his hobby—to infuse into the greyness of modern political life some of the colour of Disraelian dandyism, tempered with the correctness of Anglo-Saxon taste, and supplemented by the flashes of wit that were inherent from the Celtic strain in him…

She spies a politicians who has just been made governor of a Caribbean island and engages him in conversation:

Sir Julian Jull had been a member of a House of Commons distinguished for its high standard of well-informed mediocrity, and had harmonised so thoroughly with his surroundings that the most attentive observer of Parliamentary proceedings could scarcely have told even on which side of the House he sat. A baronetcy bestowed on him by the Party in power had at least removed that doubt; some weeks later he had been made Governor of some West Indian dependency, whether as a reward for having accepted the baronetcy, or as an application of a theory that West Indian islands get the Governors they deserve, it would have been hard to say. To Sir Julian the appointment was, doubtless, one of some importance; during the span of his Governorship the island might possibly be visited by a member of the Royal Family, or at the least by an earthquake, and in either case his name would get into the papers.

Her plan is to get to know him over several meetings and slowly plant the seed of the idea that her son, Comus, would make a wonderful personal secretary in his new position. Next morning this careful scheme is wrecked when, next morning at breakfast, she sees her son has written a witty letter to the Times disinterring some old speeches of Jull’s in which he is ignorant and rude about the West Indies. Once again, Comus has scuppered Francesca’s best-laid plans!

Chapter 4

A wall of ice slowly grows between the mother, trying her damnedest to get Comus a good position in life, and her son who seems hell-bent on wrecking everything. The are both invited to dinner at the home of the ageing Lady Caroline Benaresq:

She came of a family whose individual members went through life, from the nursery to the grave, with as much tact and consideration as a cactus-hedge might show in going through a crowded bathing tent.

And:

Lady Caroline was a professed Socialist in politics, chiefly, it was believed, because she was thus enabled to disagree with most of the Liberals and Conservatives, and all the Socialists of the day. She did not permit her Socialism, however, to penetrate below stairs; her cook and butler had every encouragement to be Individualists.

Hard not to love Saki’s permanent tone of wit and irony bordering on the rude. Anyway,

Chapter 5

Introduces us to the fact that, when he was 16, Courtenay Youghal was seduced by an older woman ‘some four or five years his senior’, Molly McQuade. Since then they have maintained a flirtatious friendship. Now they are meeting in their familiar trysting place of the London Zoo, where Youghal delicately breaks the news that he is planning to get married (to Elaine de Frey). They are both people of the world now, and Molly is relieved to hear the lady has money. Saddened that this phase of their relationship is coming to an end but she begs him to come visit her and her husband in the country for hunting once he’s bedded in to the new marriage. It is nowhere indicated that this is a sexual relationship, maybe we are meant to be sophisticated enough to take this as read.

Chapter 6

Elaine de Frey sits in her stately garden and lets her two suitors, the up and coming politician Courtenay Youghal and the spoilt schoolboy Comus Bassington, spar wittily for her affections. Things crystallise when Comus pettishly takes the silver bread and butter tray down to the lake to feed the swans and then refuses to give it back because he wants it, the spoilt schoolboy.

Chapter 7

In Bond Street Francesca bumps into the tiresome Merla Blathlington before shaking her off and continuing to a bridge party at Serena Golackly’s, where there is gossip and catty competition, not least with Ada Spelvexit, a tiresome do-gooder among the poor (‘Hostesses regarded her philosophically as a form of social measles which everyone had to have once’) and Lady Caroline Benaresq, an ageing Socialist and demon bridge player.

The gossip turns towards the up and coming politician Courtenay Youghal and the women speculate who would make a good wife for him when they are joined by dapper George St. Michael who tells then Youghal is pairing off with the fabulously rich Elaine de Frey

Chapter 8

Out riding in the country, Elaine is forced out of the main road because a circus is passing by and is astonished when the man who greets her turns out to be the once-famous adventurer and traveller, Tom Keriway, who was struck down by illness and retired to an obscure farm. And here he is. It is a beautifully kept place but Keriway reveals it is the seat of all kinds of Darwinian struggles and can’t conceal that he is bitterly unhappy. The countryside often brings out the really bestial (wild animals eating children) and tragic in Saki, as in the Hardyesque short story, The Hounds of Fate.

Chapter 9

Late June in Hyde Park. Courtenay Youghal is riding his ‘handsome plum-roan gelding Anne de Joyeuse’ up and down. He is buttonholed by Lady Veula Croot and they have a sly political duel, being of opposite parties, before being interrupted by a dimwit named Ernest Klopstock.

Not far away Elaine de Frey and Comus Bassington are sitting on deckchairs. She likes him but is getting bored by his selfishness and he oversteps the bounds when he asks her to lend him £5, partly to pay a £2 gambling debt. Elaine agrees but gets up rapidly and says she is leaving, for Comus not to accompany her. It is a snub.

She bumps into Courtenay and insists he takes her to luncheon, which he does, at the Corridor, with its fatherly maitre d’ who discreetly asks Courtenay whether he is engaged to the young lady. ‘Tell him yes,’ said Elaine, on impulse.

Chapter 10

At the Rutland Galleries for an exhibition of Mervyn Quentock’s collection of Society portraits. Comus regards Quentock’s portrait of his mother and sees in it an expression he hasn’t seen for years, now that he permanently irritates and mortifies her. It inspires him to be nicer and above all fulfil his mother’s plan to marry Elaine de Grey. Amid other gossip a little flurry is caused over by the doors when Courtenay arrives. Pressing closer Comus overhears others gossiping the news that Courtenay and Elaine are now engaged.

Chapter 11

After lunch with Courtenay, Elaine returns to the house in Manchester Square where she is staying with an aunt, and reflects on her decision to accept Courtenay. She feels ‘an unusual but quite overmastering hankering to visit her cousin Suzette Brankley’ who has also recently announced her engagement. She pops round the two women bitchily try to outdo each other, Elaine winning and damping her cousin’s mood, specially when her young man appears, the boring Egbert, who speaks pompously to the visible embarrassment of Suzette and her mother, who is also present.

All this time Elaine had been pondering a long and soulful letter to Comus explaining her reasons, but on returning to her aunt’s place she finds a message from him has been delivered briskly acknowledging the news and returning the fiver she’d lent him, along with the notorious bread-and-butter dish which caused the big argument in chapter 6.

Reading the letter again and again Elaine could come to no decision as to whether this was merely a courageous gibe at defeat, or whether it represented the real value that Comus set on the thing that he had lost.

Chapter 12

Francesca is desperate to know the latest about Comus and Elaine but fritters the morning away with a few female friends wittering endless gossip. And then a walk in the Park after lunch leads to her bumping into the dreaded Merla Blathington, who witters on about chickens, and then George St. Michael arrives who in a few swift words confirms Francesca’s worst fears: Comus has blown it with Elaine.

Comus himself turns up and they have an argument. Having failed to bag an heiress, Francesca can see nothing for it but for Comus to disappear off to some colony. Her brother Henry told her the other day he can get Comus a little job in West Africa. Comus says they needn’t be that drastic, he can get a job in England, at, say, a brewery. But Francesca knows that remaining in England will mean Comus is always vulnerable to the lure of the West End, of racing and gambling and sponging off her till she dies. No. West Africa it must be.

Chapter 13

That evening Comus goes to the theatre which is an opportunity for Saki to satirise the upper class types one met there in the Edwardian era, lords and ladies, an archdeacon, the ageing gossip Lady Caroline Benaresq (who is a recurring character throughout the book, as are Serena Golackly and Lady Veula), the authoress of ‘The Woman who wished it was Wednesday’ (is that a jokey reference to G.K. Chesteron’s novel, The Man Who Was Thursday (1908)?) with much chat about the church and politics. It is comically taken for granted that the play is an irritating intrusion into the true function of theatre which is to allow upper-middle-class people to meet and gossip and display themselves.

Everyone is there, but Comus sits through it all in a daze of misery, knowing that he is seeing it for the last time before being consigned to the Dark Continent. Lady Veula is the only person who acknowledges him, with her lovely smile and sad eyes.

Chapter 14

Francesca hosts a farewell dinner party for Comus. It is not a happy affair and is dominated by two show-off men, Henry Greech MP, her brother, and Stephen Thorle, brought by Serena Golackly because he is alleged to ‘know all about’ tropical Africa, but turns out to have loud opinions about everything. Lady Veula is present again, and shakes Comus’s hand goodbye. The mood is bleak, Francesca spills her champagne when she tries to make a toast, she can’t wait till everybody leaves. Comus adjusts his toilette and heads out for a night on the Town for one last time.

Chapter 15

Elaine has married Courtenay. They are on their honeymoon in Vienna, staying at the Speise Staal. Elaine is disillusioned and bored. At lunch she is irritated by three Germans talking endlessly about food, and the even worse party of Americans comparing everything unfavourably to the fabulous cherry pie they make back home. Two of Elaine’s extensive collection of aunts are staying at the hotel, a younger blameless one, and the older, shrewder Mrs. Goldbrook. They act as chorus to her obvious unhappiness.

Courtenay has arranged for them to go to a masquerade ball that night. Courtenay has a wonderful time dressed as harlequin, but Elaine is bored, ending up chatting inconsequentially with a Russian who a) tiresomely compares her to the same Leonardo painting that everyone does b) explains that Russians like culture so much because it is an escape from their real life, which is grim. (Interesting point coming from Saki who had been a foreign correspondent in Russia and, indeed, written a book about Russian history.)

The next day the aunts hear the two newly-weds sharply diverging accounts of the night before and conclude that Elaine is going to be unhappy.

Chapter 16

Cut to Comus in blisteringly hot West Africa where he is profoundly depressed by the sense that Africans are like ants and their life is the life of the teeming ant nest, going on with endless repetition, no variation, no progress, and no meaning.

The procession of water-fetchers had formed itself in a long chattering line that stretched river-wards. Comus wondered how many tens of thousands of times that procession had been formed since first the village came into existence. They had been doing it while he was playing in the cricket-fields at school, while he was spending Christmas holidays in Paris, while he was going his careless round of theatres, dances, suppers and card-parties, just as they were doing it now; they would be doing it when there was no one alive who remembered Comus Bassington. This thought recurred again and again with painful persistence, a morbid growth arising in part from his loneliness.

And:

Here a man simply made a unit in an unnumbered population, an inconsequent dot in a loosely-compiled deathroll. Even his own position as a white man exalted conspicuously above a horde of black natives did not save Comus from the depressing sense of nothingness which his first experience of fever had thrown over him. He was a lost, soulless body in this great uncaring land; if he died another would take his place, his few effects would be inventoried and sent down to the coast, someone else would finish off any tea or whisky that he left behind—that would be all.

And:

He would pass presently out of the village and his bearers’ feet would leave their indentations in the dust; that would be his most permanent memorial in this little oasis of teeming life. And that other life, in which he once moved with such confident sense of his own necessary participation in it, how completely he had passed out of it. Amid all its laughing throngs, its card parties and race-meetings and country-house gatherings, he was just a mere name, remembered or forgotten, Comus Bassington, the boy who went away.

He dreams of London where life had a meaning, where he had a place in it, where people had souls and complex personalities and purpose. Now he knows he has just become a dwindling memory, ‘Comus Bassington, the boy who went away’. He watches some native boys playing, fighting and chasing each other, then joined by some girls. He can never take part in their life, he is exiled forever. He puts his head in  his hands and sobs.

Chapter 17

A few days before Christmas Francesca receives a telegram saying Comus is severely ill. Then another one saying he is worse. She goes out for a walk round St James’s Park and dwells on her relationship with her son, all the false turnings and arguments right up to the ill-fated farewell party.

She returns home to the telegram waiting in the hall and takes it into her drawing room and, now, she hates every article in it because dashing, laughing, mocking Comus is there no more. She realises she hates it all, would give it all if only her beloved son would walk through the door.

Who does walk through the door is her irritating brother, Henry, bearing the ‘bad news’ that the big painting she’s so fond of is not in fact by the well-known artist Van der Meulen but is a good copy. He notices the anguish in her eyes and pats her hand and tells her not to be downhearted. Francesca clutches the telegram tighter in her hand in her anguish and begs for her brother’s inconsequential consolation to end.

It is an image of real, genuine, tormented anguish and a very dark, grim and upsetting note to end this light, mocking novel on.

Themes

In the middle part of the novel it is about a woman who has to decide between two lovers, a very old plot. And basing a novel on the theme of making a good marriage or marrying for money is as old as the genre, if we take the first English novel to be Pamela; or, Virtue Rewarded (1740) by Samuel Richardson.

Mother-son relationship

It is a prolonged and sometimes very insightful meditation on the intensity, the loves and hate, the Freudian ambivalence inherent in the mother-son relationship.

London high life

Plenty of scenes show off Saki’s knowledge of London high life – a gallery opening, first night at the theatre, riding in Hyde Park, dinner parties and so on, all conveyed with effortless insider knowledge, and generously spiced with malice and gossip which seemed to be the upper class’s main occupation.

Politics

Hector Munro’s first real job was writing political sketches which blossomed into a full-length satire on Westminster Alice in Westminster. This gives his mockery of British politics real authority.

It is striking to see how many of our political concerns, in 2021, were thoroughly understood and shared by the bien-pensant liberals of 1911. The aim of levelling up and increasing equality and being ‘for the many never’ goes out of fashion. It is a permanent interest of a steady proportion of the educated classes. Munro mocks and satirises gabby, well-meaning intellectuals, as is the wont of authors from his class and education.

Henry Greech had made an end of biting small sandwiches, and settled down like a dust-storm refreshed, to discuss one of the fashionably prevalent topics of the moment, the prevention of destitution.

Ah destitution, how ghastly it must be!

‘Talk is helpful, talk is needful,’ the young man was saying, ‘but what we have got to do is to lift the subject out of the furrow of indisciplined talk and place it on the threshing-floor of practical discussion.’ The young woman took advantage of the rhetorical full-stop to dash in with the remark which was already marshalled on the tip of her tongue. ‘In emancipating the serfs of poverty we must be careful to avoid the mistakes which Russian bureaucracy stumbled into when liberating the serfs of the soil.’

It’s the same kind of satire of high-minded ‘socialists’ which you find in John Buchan’s third Richard Hannay novel, Mr Standfast, which opens with extended satire on vegetarian, sandal-wearing socialists; or, later, in many passages of Aldous Huxley’s 1920s satires.

Christianity

As in all his stories, Christianity is presented as a joke, an affair of doddery old churchmen whose values the entire society pays ritual obeisance to but utterly ignores.

‘The dear Archdeacon is getting so absent-minded. He read a list of box-holders for the opera as the First Lesson the other Sunday, instead of the families and lots of the tribes of Israel that entered Canaan. Fortunately no one noticed the mistake.’

The British Empire

Saki has a pretty negative view of the British Empire.

What the woke and anti-racist and progressive commentators of our time (2021) tend to forget in their hurry to condemn all British history for its imperialism and racism is that for a lot of the time, a lot of people deprecated the Empire. The British were the first nation to ban the slave trade and then had the navy to enforce a very effective international ban on slave trading. Paradoxically, the two nations which were the last to ban slavery, Cuba and Brazil, are regularly held up as beacons of cool multiculturalism, while the earliest nation to ban it,m Britain, is held up for condemnation.

Throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries there were very vocal opponents of the British Empire – the entire Liberal Party in the 19th century, and most of the Labour Party in the 20th. For many educated people, the British Empire was a scandal and an embarrassment, as were the gung-ho public school types who went off to run it.

Whereas when the French tried to give Algeria independence in the 1950s it nearly triggered civil war, several coup and assassination attempts, Britain granted independence to India with almost no domestic opposition, and went on to grant independence to its African and Caribbean colonies with barely any comment.

Insofar as the entire novel ends with its protagonist packed off to a colonial hell-hole where he dies in utter misery, it ends with a blazing symbol of the futility and inappropriateness of ’empire’ and this retrospectively highlights the anti-imperial comments which run through the novel.

‘Courtenay Youghal said it in the House last night. Didn’t you read the debate? He was really rather in form. I disagree entirely with his point of view, of course, but some of the things he says have just enough truth behind them to redeem them from being merely smart; for instance, his summing up of the Government’s attitude towards our embarrassing Colonial Empire in the wistful phrase “happy is the country that has no geography”.’

‘West Africa,’ said Comus, reflectively; ‘it’s a sort of modern substitute for the old-fashioned oubliette, a convenient depository for tiresome people. Dear Uncle Henry may talk lugubriously about the burden of Empire, but he evidently recognises its uses as a refuse consumer.’

There was nothing individuals like Francesca or Comus could do to alter the geo-political realities of their day, but they didn’t approve of the empire. Comus and Courtenay both think it’s an embarrassing joke.


Related links

Saki’s works

Letters from Iceland by W.H. Auden and Louis MacNeice (1936)

A golden age of travel writing

We’ve spoken about the 1930s as the Age of Auden, dominated by the left-wing politics of most of the young writers and poets, who were responding to the Great Depression (1929-33) and then stricken by the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War (1936-39).

But it was also a golden age of travel writing. Posh Brits could wave their distinctive British passport and travel anywhere they wanted in what was, between the wars, the largest empire the world had ever seen, at its largest extent. There was a boom in high-end travel writing to cater for the well-heeled tourists who could travel in the new passenger planes or enjoy the new leisure concept of luxury cruises.

Almost by definition, though, the really adventurous types wanted to go beyond the usual itineraries and explore unknown parts. It’s no coincidence that they were buoyed up by the confidence of having gone to a jolly good public school, having networks of contacts and connections everywhere, and so knowing they could probably get themselves out of most scrapes with a quick phone call to cousin Algy at the Foreign Office.

Hence the ripping travel adventures of Peter Fleming (Eton and Oxford) in Brazil, Russia and China, or Robert Byron (Eton and Oxford) in Russia, China, Afghanistan and Tiber, or Patrick ‘Paddy’ Leigh Fermor (King’s School Canterbury) who, aged 18, decided to walk from London to Constantinople.

Hence the journeys Graham Greene (Berkhamsted and Oxford) undertook to Liberia and Mexico, or Evelyn Waugh (Lancing and Oxford)’s jolly journeys to Abyssinia, the Belgian Congo and British Guiana.

(Peter Fleming is actually name-checked twice in this book as the intimidating ideal of the modern travel writer who the authors are haplessly trying to live up to, p.159)

Taking the mickey

In the spring of 1936 a chance conversation with one of his former pupils at the private school where he’d taught in the early 30s revealed that he and friends and a teacher were going to Iceland that summer. Auden was instantly excited at the prospect and suggested to his publishers, Faber & Faber, that they fund him to go there and he’d write a travel book for them. Auden leapt at the chance of going to one of his childhood holy places. His family had Nordic ancestry, his father had read him all the Norse myths, and as a boy he had read lots of Icelandic sagas with their stern unforgiving heroes.

So he made his arrangements – to go by himself for a month or so, then rendezvous with the party of former schoolboys, and he persuaded one of the gang, the Ulsterman Louis MacNeice, to also make the sea voyage and meet him there. So in June 1936 he set off, and spent a little over a month travelling round Iceland, mainly by local bus with jaunts on horseback thrown in, hiring local guides and staying at whatever accommodation existed, often local farmers.

He’d been in the country for some time, fretting about how he was going to write something to repay his publishers’ advance, when he suddenly had the bright idea of making the entire book a collection of letters, letters to friends, containing appropriate content for them (‘so that each letter deals with its subject in a different and significant way’, p.140) – sending some friends straight travelogue, some jokes, some a selection of historic writing about the place, and so on.

And once MacNeice arrived (they rendezvoused in Rejkyavik on 9 August 1936), they developed the idea of poetic letters and of deliberately experimenting with different types of poetic genre (lyric, epic, eclogue etc). Once the third element, the four schoolboys and their master arrived, the party set off for a riding tour of Iceland’s central mountain range, and MacNeice had the idea of describing their rather bizarre party (two scruffy poets, a bespectacled teacher and four keen young boys) into a satirical diary of the trip as if written from one jolly upper-class girl guides leader to another (Hetty to Nancy), complaining about the bullying leader of the trip, and the other teachers and the girls, my dear, the girls! This is either very funny or revoltingly cliquey, according to taste.

Thus the idea evolved to make the book deliberately bitty and fragmented, a collage of different types of text, an anti-heroic travel book, in that it wouldn’t hold back on the realities of the trip i.e. runny noses, smelly barns, recalcitrant ponies and so on.

The original mish-mash effect was enhanced by the authors’s photos which were deliberately amateurish and scrappy, as Auden gleefully points out:

Every exciting letter has enclosures,
And so shall this – a bunch of photographs,
Some out of focus, some with wrong exposures,
Press cuttings, gossip, maps, statistics, graphs;
I don’t intend to do the thing by halves.
I’m going to be very up to date indeed.
It is a collage that you’re going to read.

There’s even a passage where Auden gives us his thoughts on photography, namely that it’s the most democratic art form, specially given all the technical advances of his day (what would he have thought of today’s camera-phones?) (p.139). Alas the authors’ photos aren’t reproduced in the rather cheap-feeling modern Faber paperback version, though you can glimpse them online.

The Letters from Iceland format allowed them to get away from the pompous smoothness of traditional travel writers, although it did tend to add fuel to the fire of the large number of critics who accused the Auden Gang of being a self-satisfied clique of insiders. This is particularly obvious in the Last Will and Testament with its references to their chums:

Next Edward Upward and Christopher Isherwood
I here appoint my joint executors
To judge my work if it be bad or good…

To our two distinguished colleagues in confidence,
To Stephen Spender and Cecil Day Lewis, we assign
Our minor talents to assist in the defence

Of the European Tradition and to carry on
The Human heritage.

For my friend Benjamin Britten, composer, I beg
That fortune send him soon a passionate affair.

Item – I leave my old friend Anthony Blunt
A copy of Marx and £1000 a year
And the picture of Love Locked Out by Holman Hunt.

Too chummy by half, it’s the one part of the book I didn’t like (and not just for this reason; it’s also just boring).

The most impressive letter, and binding the book together, are the five parts of a long poem by Auden titled Letter to Lord Byron. Again he explains his through processes in the text itself, telling us that he’d taken a copy of Byron’s immensely long rambling verse diary of his life, Don Juan, and had the inspiration of writing an updated version for his times. He liked Byron’s free and easy style, his ability to incorporate everything from thoughts about the meaning of life to the fact that he had a hangover that morning. He liked him because he was a townee i.e. urban, and heartily agreed with Byron’s dislike of the Wordsworth, nature-worshipping tradition which Auden cordially detested.

Part one of Letter to Lord Byron is the first thing you read and immediately establishes the chatty, witty tone of the book, starting by apologising to the shade of Lord Byron for bothering him.

Excuse, my lord, the liberty I take
In thus addressing you. I know that you
Will pay the price of authorship and make
The allowances an author has to do.
A poet’s fan-mail will be nothing new.
And then a lord – Good Lord, you must be peppered,
Like Gary Cooper, Coughlin, or Dick Sheppard,

With notes from perfect strangers starting, ‘Sir,
I liked your lyrics, but Childe Harold’s trash,’
‘My daughter writes, should I encourage her?’
Sometimes containing frank demands for cash,
Sometimes sly hints at a platonic pash,
And sometimes, though I think this rather crude,
The correspondent’s photo in the nude.

Light verse is difficult to bring off, but to sustain it over the 160 stanzas of the finished Letter To Lord Byron is a quite staggering achievement. Has anyone else in the entire twentieth century brought off such a sustained comic achievement in verse?

Besides this epic achievement, the book also contains quite a few other poems by Auden, including:

  • Journey to Iceland
  • a poetic letter to Richard Crossman (b.1907: head boy at Winchester then New College Oxford, went onto become a Labour MP and then cabinet member)
  • Detective Story – a sort of verse explanation of why we like and read thrillers
  • ‘O who can ever praise enough’ – a verse meditation on childhood books (note the characteristic us of ‘O’ starting a poem, a really characteristic Auden tic)
  • a free-verse letter to William Coldstream (painted, born 1908: private school, Slade Art School, met Auden at the GPO when they were making documentary films)
  • and a collaboration with MacNeice, ‘W. H. Auden and Louis MacNeice: Their Last Will and Testament’

MacNeice’s contributions include:

  • a verse letter to Graham and Anne Shepard
  • an Eclogue from Iceland which contains lines describing the bitter enmities of MacNeice’s native Ireland and why he has fled them, along with speeches by Grettir which capture the spirit of the saga hero, bloody-minded and doomed, and who tells the poets that their task is ‘the assertion of human values’ (p.134)
  • a verse Epilogue

In between all this poetry there are chunks of prose, namely:

  • a prose section ‘For Tourists’, which is quite thorough and might actually have been useful to contemporary tourists
  • a sardonic selection of writings on Iceland by other authors, ‘Sheaves from Sagaland’, addressed to John Betjeman, chosen for their odd surrealist details, the best of which is a page-long description of a huge feast endured by one William Jackson Hooker in 1809, and an eye-witness account of the eruption of an Icelandic volcano in 1727 (incidentally, we learn that the title Letters From Iceland had already been used by Joseph Banks in 1772)
  • Saga Laws, the Formula of Peacemaking, the Law of the Wager of Battle, the Viking Law
  • two prose letters from Auden to ‘E. M. Auden’ (E.M. was Erika Mann: it needs to be explained that Auden – who was gay – agreed to a marriage of convenience with Erika Mann who was the eldest daughter of novelist Thomas Mann, cabaret actress and racing driver, in order to give her a nationality when the Nazis cancelled her German nationalist because of her writings against them: they were married on 15 June 1935, the only time they ever met) – these are some of the most chatty and candid pieces Auden ever wrote, joking about the appalling food but explaining some of the Icelandic verse forms, his dislike of modern art, his fondness for caricatures
  • a prose letter to Kristian Andreirsson, Esq.;

The longest single section is a series of supposed letters sent by the fictional ‘Hetty’ to her friend ‘Nancy’. These were written by MacNeice in a lampoon of contemporary posh girls’ fiction, wherein Hetty moans endlessly about the jolly hockeysticks enthusiasm of the leader of the exhibition, Miss Greenhalge, and her tent-mate, the insufferable Maisie (a girl guide version of Auden) and makes campy comments:

The road to Kleppur suffers from ribbon development and nothing, my dear, can look worse than a corrugated iron suburb if it is not kept tidy.

Letters from Iceland is still hugely enjoyable after all these years, mainly because of the infectious good humour of both the protagonists. The advice for travellers is actually useful, albeit 84 years out of date. Auden says he paid 10 kroner for three days board and lodging and hire of horse at a farm in the north-west, but elsewhere tells us the exchange rate is 24 kroner to the pound sterling. So… did he get all that for 50p! Hiring a horse for the day costs 3 kroner i.e. 12.5p!

Last time I looked at a holiday in Iceland it was ruinously expensive, and packed with pre-arranged tours and photo opportunities by gushing geysers or bathing in hot springs i.e. it has been totally commodified.

There is a diagram of the highest mountains (we learn later that Auden pinched this postcard from an old lady who ran a home for decayed ladies, p.145); an extract from an 1805 parish register; bibliographies and suggested reading; there is a map showing new roads.

MacNeice struggles manfully to keep up with Auden’s super-abundant light verse:

So I came here to the land the Romans missed,
Left for the Irish saint and the Viking colonist.
But what am I doing here? Qu’allais-je faire
Among these volcanic rocks and this grey air?
Why go north when Cyprus and Madeira
De jure if not de facto are much nearer?
The reason for hereness is beyond conjecture,
There are no trees or trains or architecture
Fruits and greens are insufficient for health
And culture is limited by lack of wealth,
The tourist sights have nothing like stonehenge,
The literature is all about revenge.

(from Letter to Graham and Anne Shepard by Louis MacNeice)

10 out of 10 for effort, with some impressive hits:

The tourist sights have nothing like stonehenge,
The literature is all about revenge.

but Macneice can’t fully mask his more thoughtful approach which tends to make for slower reading, a slight air of puzzlement: it is Auden’s poetry which overshadows the enterprise, The Letter To Lord Byron whose five parts tie the ragbag together, but also the short but wonderful Journey to Iceland, which captures in just eleven stanzas the appeal of the cold and bleak north to some of us, so unlike the lotus-eating lure of the sunny Mediterranean where most travellers went.

And the traveller hopes: ‘Let me be far from any
Physician’; and the ports have names for the sea;
The citiless, the corroding, the sorrow;
And North means to all: ‘Reject’.

And the great plains are for ever where cold creatures are hunted,
And everywhere; the light birds flicker and flaunt;
Under a scolding flag the lover
Of islands may see at last,

Faintly, his limited hope; as he nears the glitter
Of glaciers; the sterile immature mountains intense
In the abnormal day of this world, and a river’s
Fan-like polyp of sand.

Wow! If you read my post about the monotonous diction of the poetry inspired by the Spanish Civil War, you can immediately see in these lines the use of novel vocabulary and uncannily imaginative phrasing.

In traditional poetry, birds do not ‘flicker and flaunt’; why are the mountains ‘immature’? why is the day ‘abnormal’? I don’t know, but it seems strange and true, the result of a disconcerted perception, appropriate to the cold and the bleak. And the simple statement that the bare North means to all Reject I find breath-taking.

In the short Foreword he added in 1965 Auden says:

The three months in Iceland upon which it is based stand out in my memory as among the happiest in a life which has, so far, been unusually happy, and, if something of this joy comes through the writing, I shall be content.

It does. It is a wonderful, funny, civilised book.

A few themes

In the pell-mell of poetry and comic prose it’s easy to overlook a couple of themes which emerge:

1. The He-man The concept of the ‘he-man’ was relatively new in pop culture – the muscley, Mr Universe types which came, like so much marketing bs, from America. Because they went to jolly good public schools and went on to have jolly successful careers, it’s easy to overlook how anxious these young men were, particularly about their masculinity.

Peter Fleming is referenced because he had already made a name for himself with his heroic account of his travels in Asia and his newspaper reporting for The Times, whereas Auden is all too well aware that he is short-sighted, he easily gets colds, he likes his creature comforts, and the first time he tries to mount a pony he galls right over its neck and onto the ground, in front of a party of picnickers. He is not made of heroic stuff.

The Auden Gang were, at the end of the day, bookish intellectuals, more at home chatting about Dante than building fires. They’d despised all that Officer Training Corps stuff they’d been forced to do at school and now found themselves having to take it seriously.

It can’t have helped that lots of them were gay or bisexual and so felt doubly alienated from the tough-guy, heterosexual men they saw up on cinema screens, always getting the girl. This helps explain why they couldn’t get over a permanent sense of feeling ridiculous. And then feeling anxious about feeling anxious.

It’s a small by symptomatic moment when Auden finally gets the hang of horse-riding and manages to stay on quite a frisky horse he’s been rented. ‘I was a real he-man after all,’ he says (p.142).

He says it as a joke, but it reveals an anxiety and a theme which crops up throughout his poetry of the 30s, another way in which he captured the anxiety of a generation.

(Similarly, when Auden and Isherwood travelled to China in 1938, Isherwood can’t sleep in a hotel near recently bombed ruins while he listens to Auden snoring ‘the long, calm snores of the truly strong’ – Journey To A War, p.75. The ‘truly strong’. It’s a joke, but still…)

2. Sensitivity Auden writes that traditional travel books are often boring but that there is a different thread to the genre, which consists more of essays on life prompted by things the traveller has seen. For him this is epitomised by the travel writing of D.H. Lawrence or Aldous Huxley, a style, writes Auden, which he is ‘neither clever nor sensitive enough to manage’ (p.140).

Now he’s being disingenuous when he says he’s not clever enough, he was a very clever man and he knew it. But I think he is being honest when he says that he was not sensitive enough. Sensitivity is not a word you associate with Auden. Cold, clinical detachment is his mode. He likes to categorise, he loves reeling off lists of things, from industrial equipment to types of civilian, from literary genres to psychoanalytical symptoms.

Thus it was Byron’s detached, urban and civilised irony which appealed to him, and when he deprecates Wordsworth he’s not joking.

I’m also glad to find I’ve your authority
For finding Wordsworth a most bleak old bore,
Though I’m afraid we’re in a sad minority
For every year his followers get more,
Their number must have doubled since the war.
They come in train-loads to the Lakes, and swarms
Of pupil-teachers study him in Storm’s.

For, oddly enough, although he spent three months travelling round one of Europe’s most unique landscapes, Auden doesn’t like landscapes. He likes people. He likes people and their cultures and ideas and attitudes and minds and histories and cultures. For him the landscape is just a backdrop to all this much more interesting stuff.

To me Art’s subject is the human clay,
And landscape but a background to a torso;
All Cézanne’s apples I would give away
For one small Goya or a Daumier.

It may be worth pointing out that Honoré Daumier (1808-79) was a French artists and printmaker most famous for his caricatures of urban life. The Royal Academy had an exhibition on him not so long ago:

Several other anecdotes reinforce your sense that the human subject came first, second and third with Auden. On a trivial level, he quotes a well-known clerihew in a letter to a friend he’s made on the island, to clarify his position:

The art of Biography
Is different from Geography.
Geography is about maps,
But Biography is about chaps.

Or take a longer anecdote: After quite a gruelling bus journey (Icelanders always seemed to be sick on bus journeys, Auden was told by a bus driver) he arrives at Akureyri to discover all the hotels are full. Fortunately, the young guide he’s travelling with, Ragnar, has a friend who has a brother-in-law who’s a butcher who happens to be out of town, so they’re put up at his house for the night. Next day Auden goes swimming at an open-air pool heated by geysers. So far, so touristy. But that evening, he tells us, he hunkers down for the night with two books.

Borrowed two volumes of caricatures, which are really my favourite kind of picture, and spent a very happy evening with Goya and Daumier and Max Beerbohm.

While others are trying to work themselves up into poetic visions worthy of Wordsworth, Auden doesn’t bother. He’s much more interesting in the sight of the driver of the bus struggling to change a tyre. In the evenings he doesn’t go out roistering like Ernest Hemingway, he much prefers to be snuggled up with books of entertaining cartoons. It’s very sweet and very honest.

I’ve learnt to ride, at least to ride a pony,
Taken a lot of healthy exercise,
On barren mountains and in valleys stony,
I’ve tasted a hot spring (a taste was wise),
And foods a man remembers till he dies.
All things considered, I consider Iceland,
Apart from Reykjavik, a very nice land.


Credit

Letters to Iceland by W.H. Auden and Louis MacNeice was first published by Faber and Faber in 1937. References are to the 1985 paperback edition.

Related links

1930s reviews

Reviews of Icelandic sagas

The Penguin Book of Spanish Civil War Verse edited by Valentine Cunningham (1980)

Val Cunningham was a tutor of mine at Oxford. He had a trainspotter’s enthusiasm for the poetry and prose of the 1930s and an encyclopedic knowledge of the journals, magazines, pamphlets, plays and poems and books written during and about the era, as well as an endless fascination with the letters and diaries and other texts which relate to them.

This enthusiasm comes over powerfully in this anthology which is huge and detailed and cluttered with editorial apparatus, including a preface, acknowledgments, introduction, notes, and three indexes, of authors, titles and first lines.

The ‘notes’ are, disappointingly, mostly lists of textual variants i.e. highlighting where words or phrases of a poem were different in different magazine or book versions, for example that in line 4 of Herbert Read’s Bombing casualties in Spain, ‘spatter’d’ was later changed to ‘spattered’. Fair enough, for scholarly completeness.

But God, it would have been so much better if he’d given useful factual notes about the myriads of place names and events which are mentioned in the poems and which, unannotated, have sunk into oblivion – a massive opportunity missed. For example, when Radio Burgos is mentioned in one poem (p.292) we have to guess from the context or look up on the internet to find that it was the leading propaganda station of the Nationalists. There are hundreds of occasions when decent notes would have helped the reader’s understanding and enjoyment significantly.

Preface

Cunningham claims his anthology is the first one ever to bring together all the worthwhile poems about the Spanish Civil War by British and Irish poets along with ‘supporting prose’ i.e. (some) letters, diary entries, essays and reviews. It is also a first in including quite a few translations, specially from the Spanish genre of the romancero, as well as dozens of new poems he’s dug up out of the dusty archives of, for example, the International Brigades of British communists who went and volunteered to fight in Spain.

As well as bringing to the fore ‘unfairly ignored’ poets such as Charles Donnelly, Ewart Milne, Clive Branson, Tom Wintringham and Miles Tomalin, Cunningham also wants to share his surprise at just how much Stephen Spender wrote about the conflict, in his ‘serious and sensitive, often anguished, always would-be honest’ way (p.17). Spender is represented by some 27 poems and translations, far more than anyone else (Auden 2, MacNeice 1).

Cunningham is not backward in mentioning the number of ‘personal correspondences’ he’s had with survivors of the era, who have ‘personally’ explained various events or works, or ‘kindly given permission’ for previously unpublished works to be included.

For example, he includes a passage from the Mass Declamation (i.e. a work written to be declaimed by a theatrical troupe) On Guard! sent to him by the work’s author Jack Lindsay. He mentions a letter to him which the poet Ewart Milne explains how the mood of the volunteers changed as promising writers started getting themselves killed.

The word ‘me’ occurs more often than you’d expect in a literary introduction.

Introduction

This is a weighty piece of writing, at 67 densely-written pages but, despite being packed full of facts and names and quotes and references to scores of books of memoirs and diaries and letters, it’s hard to make out any real ideas.

I think the first part addresses the ‘myth’ that the Spanish Civil War was a ‘poets’ war’ but you have to ask who would ever believe that in the first place. Only English students or fans of the poetry, presumably. Most other people surely think the Spanish Civil War was fought between the Spanish for reasons to do with Spanish history, culture and politics and that 99% of the casualties were Spanish.

Cunningham gives no explanation of the background or trigger for the war, no political analysis, nothing about Spanish history. Instead the introduction cuts straight to the response among the English, London-based literati and dives into a dense undergrowth of memoirs and memories and the literary and political arguments of the time.

We hear about the poisonous atmosphere surrounding the Communist Party of Great Britain. We read about its general secretary Harry Pollitt’s (apocryphal) advice to various leading writers, notably Stephen Spender, to go to straight to the front and get themselves killed – ‘the movement needs a Byron!’

In a roundabout way (i.e. they’re not the main focus) we learn some facts: that some 2,762 Britons volunteered and fought, of whom about 80% were working class (who on earth worked that out?), and 543 were killed. One of the really big features of the anthology is the number of poems by ‘amateurs’ who actually fought in the war and whose works are buried in fading copies of the Daily Worker or, in this case, the short-lived magazine Poetry and the People.

They had no country but the hope of a new country.
They answered the secret radio in their hearts.
From the factories, fields and workshops of all nations,
From the millions shackled by greed, made less than human…

(from International Brigade by R. Gardner)

The first English volunteer to be killed was the Communist Party member, the painter Felicia Browne. Some of the earliest volunteers were in Barcelona for the People’s Olympiad, which was intended as a protest against the 1936 Olympic Games being held in Nazi Germany.

John Cornford, later lionised for his commitment, actually fought in both his spells in Spain, for the POUM, the Anarchist militia who the Communists later suppressed during the violent May Days in Barcelona. Cunningham highlights the contortions the Communist party’s official organ, the Daily Worker had to go through in order to explain this embarrassing fact (he was young and naive, the POUM had not yet revealed itself in its Trotskyite, splittist nature etc).

Cunningham quotes from the article Spender wrote when he joined the Communist Party of Great Britain with great fanfare in February 1937 and examines in detail its textual provenance and tries to nail down exactly how long Spender was a member for (I hadn’t realised it was notoriously ‘brief’ period, a few months at most). Next to this Cunningham puts the passage from The God That Failed, published ten years later (1949), where Spender admits that both the urge to fight in Spain and to ‘unite’ with the workers were driven by personal doubts and anxieties. He was driven on:

by a sense of personal and social guilt which made me feel firstly that I must take sides, secondly that I could purge myself of an abnormal individuality by co-operating with the workers’ movement.

Cunningham has an entertaining passage on the questionnaire part-drafted by Auden and sent to 150 or so of the most eminent artists, writers & intellectuals in free i.e. non-fascist Europe, asking them which side they were on, because it was ‘impossible’ not to take sides now that fascism was knocking at the door. I’ve always admired Evelyn Waugh’s response, which was to say that suggesting there were only two sides, and that people had to choose, was ‘mischievous’. There are always more than two sides, and nobody has to choose anything: that is the essence of the ‘free’ society they claimed to be fighting for.

Cunningham doesn’t really address the issue raised by Waugh’s reply which is – what if both sides were wicked?

1. The Republican / socialist side started committing atrocities as soon as hostilities broke out, burning churches and murdering nuns and priests. Waugh is correct to say that forcing everyone to choose between murderous fascists and murderous socialists is a mischievous choice.

2. Cunningham openly sympathises with what he calls the liberal-left (p.54) but it wasn’t liberal, was it? Spender, Cornford and many less well-known figures were communists, members of a party devoted to the violent overthrow of the existing democracy in Britain, the mass arrest of all political opponents, the seizure of all private property, the state control of all means of production and distribution and the establishment of forced labour camps for anyone who stepped out of line.

The Communist Party of Great Britain rigorously followed whatever line Stalin told them to, and we can be in doubt that this is the policy Stalin would have applied to Britain as he applied it to Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Poland, East Germany, Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria, Hungary and Romania after the Second World War.

This wasn’t just theory. He quotes Franz Borkenau sauntering round revolutionary Barcelona just a month after the war started, August 1936, cheerfully pointing out that the factories have been taken over by the workers, the hotels and shops ‘expropriated’ and the churches gutted. The devastation of the churches is reinforced by a longer prose account by Sylvia Townsend Warner and the gutting of the churches famously upset Auden. Still, Borkenau goes on, young Spanish women, liberated from the patriarchy, were wearing ‘trousers’!

This is the kind of sexy politically correct detail which distracts from a harder look at the facts. What percentage of the population of Spain were devout Catholics? Well, you just alienated all of them by burning their churches (and imprisoning or beating their priests). What percentage was factory owners and their families and the cadre of suppliers and service industry professions like accountants and auditors and safety inspectors? Well, you’ve just thrown all of them into the opposing camp, too. And what percentage of the population are the owners of the hotels and shops? Well, do you think depriving them of their livelihoods is going to win them over?

This is the structural problem of the Left everywhere: it claims to speak for the masses and the majority, but its dreams of nationalisation and state ownership, expropriation, confiscation and collectivisation appeal, in practice, only to a small number of intellectuals and political activists (who are often motivated mainly by personal issues and liberal guilt, exemplified here by Stephen Spender). Meanwhile, all its policies taken together alienate the majority of any population.

3. Cunningham sympathises with the authors who made a saint and martyr of Federico García Lorca and used his appalling murder to show how fascists treat intellectuals and that is why all intellectuals must rally round the Republican. It was a disgusting murder and the fascists who did it were pigs, but Stalin. Stalin’s Russia. Stalin’s Russia’s way with liberals and intellectuals. Arrest, torture, execution, labour camps.

4. The argument goes that you can’t blame all these left-liberals because they didn’t yet really understand this about Stalin yet, that it was precisely as a result of the bitter disillusioning of the Spanish Civil War that anti-Soviet views became more commonplace afterwards, a process in which Orwell’s Homage To Catalonia holds a leading place – even though leading publishers like Gollancz turned it down because of its criticism of the Communists, and before the war it was poorly reviewed and sold badly.

Only a lot later did a really settled anti-Stalin mood take hold of the British intelligentsia, maybe not till after the war, maybe not till the communist seizure of power in Czechoslovakia in 1948 turned a generation of intellectuals away from Communism.

5. The most fundamental objection to the English poetry of the Spanish Civil War is that they were tourists. They went, they dipped their toes in the reality of war and revolution, and then they ran back to Surrey. Orwell wrote a scathing review of Auden’s poem, Spain, which nails its lack of human sympathy and its attitudinising, and drew the general conclusion:

So much of left-wing thought is a kind of playing with fire by people who don’t even know that fire is hot. (quoted page 71)

Cunningham has several pages describing how desperate all these posh, upper-middle-class public schoolboys were to be down with the workers, and how this is always an easier delusion to achieve when you are in a foreign country and your accent and use of language don’t give you away, like they immediately did back in class-ridden Blighty.

From small beginnings mighty ends,
From calling rebel generals friends,
From being taught at public schools
To think the common people fools,
Spain bleeds, and England wildly gambles
To bribe the butcher in the shambles… (Edgell Rickword)

Spain, for many of these writers, was a holiday away from the prison of their wretched class-consciousness. That is why the frank handshake with the Italian anarchist at the beginning of Homage to Catalonia is such a massive moment for Orwell; it symbolised total unquestioning acceptance by a real working man of a kind he could never dream of or find in the country where they spoke his own language and instantly spotted him for the Old Etonian he could never cease to be. It was so important for him that he not only memorialises it in Catalonia but wrote a poem about it (p.309). If you’re in one mood it is a moving testament to revolutionary solidarity. But seen from a different angle, it is an unintentionally funny testament to just how desperately Orwell wanted to be accepted by ‘the working class’ and what huge, enormous, religious, almost sexual relief it brought him for this to happen, finally, after years of trying:

The Italian soldier shook my hand
Beside the guard-room table;
The strong hand and the subtle hand
Whose palms are only able

To meet within the sounds of guns,
But oh! what peace I knew then
In gazing on his battered face
Purer than any woman’s!

Cunningham’s introduction is long but leaves many basic questions unanswered. There is no sketch of the timeline of the war (even one page would have helped).

It may be useful to remind readers that General Franco led a military coup against the democratically elected socialist government, expecting to seize key locations and power within days, but that ‘the people’ and a broad coalition of left-wing parties rallied against the soldiers, seized key cities and what was intended to be a quick coup degenerated into a long, agonising civil war between the military, who became known as the Nationalists (aided by troops and arms from Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy), and the democratic government and all its supporters, who became known as the Republicans.

The Republican government was not supported by either France or Britain, who chose a policy of neutrality but banned arms sales or exports to it, much to the disgust of workers, students and writers everywhere, who volunteered and travelled to Spain to fight in what were quickly organised and titled International Brigades.

Although it took nearly three years of bitter fighting, the support given to Franco by the fascists, and the lack of support for the Republicans – as well as serious, fratricidal conflicts among the Republicans – eventually led to the complete triumph of the fascist forces by March 1939.

None of this is explained by Cunningham. Instead his introduction goes from a long consideration of the heroic outpouring of sympathy and the rush of poets and communists to enlist right at the start, to its abrupt end and everyone coming home disillusioned three years later, with not much explanation of what happened in between.

Above all there’s surprisingly little literary criticism. Cunningham has nothing at all to say about the poetry as poetry, about the range of genres and forms, the tones of voice and registers, the different types of imagery. There is a huge amount to be said about all this and he says nothing.

Instead the introduction is a rambling exploration of the changing attitudes of poets and writers, with extended consideration given to the attitudes towards the war, the struggle, the working class and so on as demonstrated in the writings of – especially – Auden, Spender and Orwell.

Thus he has a couple of pages about the long poem, titled simply Spain, which Auden wrote for a pamphlet which was sold to raise funds for the Republicans but focuses entirely on how the poem captures Auden’s attitude to the war, not on its merits as a poem.

Cunningham considers Spain a failure because it never engages with the subject matter but keeps it at a detached, academic distance. He goes on to say how even Auden’s close friends were disappointed by this chilly lack of emotion, and his enemies leapt on it as typical of upper-class dilettantism.

I.e there is a lot about the poet’s supposed attitude and the attitudes of his friends and enemies to his attitudes… but of the unique stanza form Auden invented for it, or the use of rhetorical devices or imagery, or Auden’s deliberately varied vocabulary, there is nothing.

I took away three parting thoughts:

1. Orwell and truth George Orwell’s experience in Spain – of the Stalinists lying and deceiving everyone, and then of English left-wing magazines and publishers willingly conniving in these lies – crystallised the concern absolute truth-telling which not only underpinned the huge amount of literary journalism he poured out in the remaining ten years of his life but, more importantly, led to the central concept of Nineteen Eighty-Four:

Who controls the past controls the future: who controls the present controls the past.

2. Republican defeat in the Spanish Civil War spelled the end of English Socialist Realism. This idea is rather abruptly introduced, and it is a shame Cunningham doesn’t define anywhere what English Socialist Realism actually is – did anyone anywhere use that term at the time? He doesn’t say. He includes quite a few really long poems which are clearly to be read out loud or declaimed and so lack the subtlety of poems to be read – but nowhere relates their form or style to the tradition of agitprop poetry which developed after the Bolshevik revolution and spread across Europe in the 20s. Shame.

Anyway, you get the general idea. The entire generation of 30s poets thought poetry should be public, accessible and written in a political cause, the burningly important left-wing cause. Put simply, after Spain (General Franco declared the war over on 1 April 1939) the poets gave up. They retreated from the hundreds of manifestos and books and poems and declarations and essays about poetry’s social purpose and sank back into accepting poetry as the bourgeois activity of a pampered, educated class, and not even many of them.

3. War is war All these naive young writers had read the anti-war poetry of Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen but thought that war in a good cause would be somehow different, different from the bad imperialist First World War.

Turned out it wasn’t, and Cunningham quotes letters from English volunteers, including even the firebrand John Cornford, pointing out that war is war – ugly, unromantic, a lot of boredom then intense periods of stress and terror, unbelievable devastation and pain, and death, lots of death. In his letters home, quoted at length, Cornford itemises the deaths of individual members of his unit, each one an irreplaceable loss. International Brigader Tom Wintringham also names specific comrades lost, and there’s a moving poem by Jack Lindsay, Requiem Mass, with a paragraph each devoted to thirteen fallen comrades from the International Brigade, including Cornford (pp.179-183).

This was another disillusionment the war brought, and it helps to explain why the conflict-virgin poets were able to write so many impassioned poems about the Spanish Civil War but, having had all their illusions burned down to ashes, failed to lift a finger when the real war, the Second World War, commenced in September of the same year. As the Australian writer and communist Jack Lindsay put it:

Having felt for Spain, what further can we feel?

By that time their leader, Auden, had left the country, the movement was over, by then everyone had to accept the sad truth embodied in Day-Lewis’s glum lines, from the tellingly short and tellingly titled Where Are The War Poets? (1941):

It is the logic of our times,
No subject for immortal verse –
That we who lived by honest dreams
Defend the bad against the worse.

To the whole of the rest of the country it was obvious what the Second World War was about –  we were fighting a war of survival against an evil enemy. You had to have gone to a very expensive private school and been a member of a peculiar and insular intellectual elite, to see the war against Hitler as somehow a defeat and a failure even before it began. One by one the thirties poets abandoned all their former positions and beliefs and, in later years, were quick to disown them and, where possible, rewrote or even banned their poems from this period.


The poems

Cunningham makes a very wide selection, including 201 poems and a dozen or more prose pieces from no fewer than 85 authors! He divides them into 14 categories:

  1. The map of pain
  2. Junker angels in the sky
  3. He is dead and gone
  4. The crime was in Granada
  5. Prisoner
  6. Ballads of heroes
  7. Romanceros
  8. The internationals
  9. Heroic notes
  10. Insensible at such a time
  11. That fighting was a long way off
  12. Photogenic war
  13. Talking bronco
  14. But some remember Spain

Two sections stand out.

Prisoner consists entirely of 17 poems by Clive Branson (most of them previously unpublished) who, as the title suggests, was fighting for an International Brigade when he was captured by the Nationalists in March 1938 and held as a prisoner of war at the Nationalist camp of San Pedro de Cardeña. He had the freedom to paint and sketch the camp and many of its inmates, apparently at the request of the authorities (this is specifically mentioned in one of the poems) and some of this work survives in the Marx Memorial Library in London. His poems are so-so.

A delicate breeze sufficient to stir
Light dust, a little leaf, by an insect’s wing

Dance music on the wireless; between prisoner
And a girl dressed like a rose, a smile.

A leaf, a frog, a shadow, a piece of paper
A trickle of water, reading, writing

These things on a stillness deeper than all
Took a whole afternoon to drift with the canal.

(A Sunday Afternoon by Clive Branson, 1938)

A romancero is a type of Spanish folk ballad, whose lineage stretches back to the early Middle Ages. The form was revived during the war as a popular and accessible genre appropriate to the Republican cause. Section 7 of this anthology consists of 21 romanceros in translations by contemporary British poets.

Day of metal, day of masses,
Day of cannon, day of churchbells,
Day of shrines and day of bullets,
Strewn with fresh blood and with blossoms –
Such the day the fascists looked for
On that morrow of that nightfall
When they took Madrid.

Day of metal and of masses –
All the fascist drums foretold it,
All the parrot voices hailed it.
Not tomorrow? Well, the next day,
Wednesday, perhaps, or Thursday
(All are one to Radio Burgos).

Then the morning’s light would lighten
Under the triumphal archway
Franco stepping from the chariot;
Then the Moors would swing their sabres
And the Spanish heads go rolling;
Then the Archbishop of Burgos
Would bestow an ample blessing
On the Arabs and the Bedouins,
On the Nazis and the Ethiops,
On the frizzled and the smooth-haired
Saviours of Spain…

(from El dia que no vendra byJosé Herrera Petere translated by Sylvia Townsend Warner)

Prose It was a very good decision to include some key prose texts. Thus we have short prose works about their time in Spain by:

  • Auden in Valencia (pp.100-102)
  • Orwell in Barcelona
  • Sylvia Townsend Warner in Barcelona, particularly penetrating about the gutted churches and the commandeered villas of the rich (pp.136-141)
  • ten pages or more of the letters John Cornford wrote to his girlfriend Margot Heinemann (pp.118-128)
  • Heinemann’s own recollections of him
  • a couple of pages in which Louise MacNeice describes his flying visit just before Barcelona fell to the Nationalists
  • Spender’s review of a volume memorialising Cornford which came out during the war (pp.263-266)
  • a moving testimonial to his colleagues in the International Brigade by Tom Wintringham (pp.307-309), and a separate piece vividly describing what it is like to be bombed (pp.315-322)
  • Spender very sensitively explaining why heroising the war (they died like heroes) is a way of hiding the reality of dying alone, in great pain and terror (pp.334-338)
  • a terrifyingly intense short story by Ewart Milne describing the narrator looking after a wounded young man on a long rattling train journey, till the man gets up saying he needs to go for a pee, and simple steps out the train door, falling off cliffs to his death (pp.342-349)
  • another long passage from Ewart Milne (pp.355-364)
  • Spender, travelling as part of the International Writers Congress, being shown how carefully the Republican government was safekeeping its art treasures (pp.415-417)
  • Spender’s review of Picasso’s painting Guernica shrewdly points out that conveys the experience not of being there when the bombs exploded, but of reading about the bombs exploding; it captures the nightmare of reading about terrible experiences (pp.418-420)
  • Spender’s review of Roy Campbell’s book of poetry, Flowering Rifle (pp.440-443)
  • Roy Campbell’s bombastic ranting reply to Spender’s review (pp.443-446)

A lot of this prose is much more evocative than the often rather samey poetry. It has more range and flexibility. Here’s Tom Wintringham who saw plenty of fighting:

The loaded bombers crawling across the skies reach the senses in a faint trembling of not-yet-noise, like the trembling of a baited deep-sea line. (p.317)

It is extremely useful to have all these sources in one handy paperback volume. Very.

Women Worth pointing out, too, that even back in 1978 (when his preface is dated) Cunningham was making an effort to include more women’s voices. Thus we have poems and prose from Sylvia Townsend Warner, Kathleen Raine, Charlotte Haldane, Aileen Palmer, Valentine Ackland, Blánaid Salkeld, Elizabeth Cluer, Nancy Cunard of all people, and Cornford’s girlfriend, Margot Heinemann who, in Cunningham’s selection, emerges as a pretty impressive poet in her own right.

Here she is lamenting the death of her man and trying to address the nagging thought, spoken by friends, or in her own head, asking why why why the best and most passionate seem to be the ones who die. Up to ‘so loved’ it is the (inner) accuser and the tormentor in her head speaking. From ‘Yes’ she refutes its argument. Sidney Carton was the wastrel layabout who redeems his life by exchanging himself for the much-loved hero of Dickens’s novel A Tale of Two Cities. Carton goes willingly to the guillotine so the young hero can go free and be reunited with his true love. In this poem Heinemann dramatises that wish: if only ranks of losers and layabouts died in war instead of the pure and true, instead of her man.

In our long nights the honest tormentor speaks
And in our casual conversations:
‘He was so live and young – need he have died,
Who had the wisest head, who worked so hard,
Led by his own sheer strength; whom I so loved?’
Yes, you’d like an army all of Sidney Cartons,
The best world made conveniently by wasters, second rates,
Someone that we could spare,
And not the way it has to be made,
By the loss of our best and bravest everywhere.

(from Grieve in a New Way for New Losses by Margot Heinemann)

‘Whom I loved so’ – when you really grasp the import of that phrase, you realise how terrible her loss must have been, and how bravely she’s trying to face it in this poem.

Browsing One of the points of an anthology is you can dip and browse and notice something different each time. Ignoring the famous poets (Spender, Auden, Day-Lewis, MacNeice) there’s a lot of pleasure to be had exploring the far less well-known poets Cunningham has made a point of including.

Commitment For many of these lesser or amateur poets the pleasure is mixed in the sense that, it might not be great poetry, but you can sense the passion and the commitment, and that has a psychological interest of its own. This poem combines unashamed use of traditional stanzas and rhythm with a kind of honest statement of commitment, which I found moving.

Brave sons of liberty, fallen in battle,
Fallen that we, their successors, might live,
Bravely they faced the machine-gunner’s rattle,
Giving so bravely all they’d to give.

Hurriedly, carelessly, rudely, we buried them,
Buried them quickly, beneath the brown soil.
Hurriedly, quickly, we gave them our blessing,
Then we returned to our heart-breaking toil.

Theirs is no splendour, the fallen in action;
Theirs was no pomp, neither glory nor show,
They were the cream of the Communist fraction,
We were the reapers but they went to sow.

Shall we forget them who never forgot us,
Defending the workers, while fighting in Spain?
Shall we stay passive while fascism threatens us?
Shall their great effort be made all in vain?

Never forget them, the lesson they taught us,
Think of their travail, their suffering, pain.
Raise the red standard and help us, support us,
Lest we see in England what happened in Spain.

(For the Fallen by W.B. Keal, published in The Daily Worker, October 1937)

Conclusion

So:

  1. The Penguin Book of Spanish Civil War Verse is an unprecedentedly thorough collection of poetry and prose relating to the Spanish Civil War.
  2. Despite the lack of logic and key information in the introduction, the book as a whole is packed with new information, insights and angles on the subject.
  3. In among this huge collection there are gems and pleasure a-plenty.

It is a book to browse amid, and look up things, and refer back to, and read bits again and generally live with, participating, even at a distance, in the passion, the comradeship, the idealism and the disillusion of that now-distant time…

British volunteers in the Spanish Civil War. Members of the Tom Mann Centuria in Barcelona, 1936


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