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


Related links

The Auden Generation

Rex Warner was one of the generation of English schoolboys born in the Edwardian decade who went to public schools during the war, then onto Oxford and Cambridge in the 1920s, where they met, mingled and often had affairs (many of them were gay or bisexual), before going on to start their writing careers at the very start of the 1930s.

They were the generation which gave literature in England in the 1930s its distinctive tone, its schoolboy enthusiasms – for the shiny Art Deco world, for a glamorised black-and-white movie view of spies and fighting, and (since so many of them dabbled with left-wing politics) for sixth-form disapproval of unemployment and a simple-minded sort of communism.

At the time, this cohort of poets and novelists was often referred to as ‘the Auden Group’ and in hindsight is often called ‘the Auden Generation’ because of the enormously influence of the poetry and criticism of W.H. Auden. It includes:

  • Edward Upward b.1903 Repton School, Cambridge, joined the Communist Party of Great Britain 1934
  • Christopher Isherwood b.1904, Repton School, Kings College London
  • Cecil Day-Lewis b.1904, Sherborne School, Oxford, joined the Communist Party of Great Britain 1935
  • Rex Warner b.1905 St George’s School Harpenden, Oxford
  • W.H. Auden b.1907 Greshams School, Oxford
  • Louis MacNeice b.1907, Marlborough, Oxford
  • Stephen Spender b.1909 Greshams School, Oxford, joined the Communist Party of Great Britain 1936
  • Benjamin Britten b.1913 Greshams School, Royal College of Music

All the guys on this list knew each other well from public school or Oxbridge, and collaborated on poems and plays and travel books which brought a new feel to English literature. They were modern and unstuffy, they rejected the values of their fuddy-duddy Edwardian parents. They were unashamed of their homosexuality or bisexuality, and rejected hypocritical old sexual morality.

They rebelled against their parents’ timid Anglican Christianity (‘nothing but vague uplift, as flat as an old bottle of soda’ as Auden put it). Many of them e.g. Rex Warner and Louis MacNeice, were actually the sons of clergymen and (with a kind of inevitability which tends to disillusion you with human nature) quite a few ended up many years later reverting to the Anglican faith of their boyhoods (e.g. Rex Warner and, surprisingly, Auden himself).

They revelled in the new 1920s world of fast cars and speedboats, the excitement of air travel and the sheer glamour of steam trains with names like The Flying Scotsman. They were totally at home in the new media of radio and film, typified by Auden’s poetic commentary for a documentary about the London to Glasgow night train in 1936.

Auden’s poetry is significant because it is, arguably, the first in English literature which doesn’t reject the city and fetishise the countryside as most previous poets had. It’s true some English poets had conveyed the squalor of the late-Victorian metropolis, and T.S. Eliot had described 1920s urban crowds seen through the eyes of someone having a nervous breakdown:

Unreal City
Under the brown fog of a winter dawn,
A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many,
I had not thought death had undone so many.
Sighs, short and infrequent, were exhaled,
And each man fixed his eyes before his feet. (The Waste Land lines 60 to 65)

But instead of horror or revulsion at the modern world, Auden conveys a tremendous excitement and enthusiasm for a world of factories, mine workings, racing cars, air speed records, ocean liners, electricity pylons. (Spender wrote a poem entirely about electricity pylons striding across the landscape, which led some critics to nickname the group the ‘pylon poets’).

And Auden does it in poetic forms which are popular and accessible. If Eliot’s poetry represents a crisis of Modernity in which sensitive, highly cultivated minds break down before the assault of the modern world and convey this in fragmented works packed with recondite references to the highest of European high culture (Dante, St John of the Cross), then Auden is the opposite.

Totally at home in the 20th century with its crowds and trains and trams and advertising hoardings and jazz bands and radio programmes, Auden knocks off ballads and limericks and lyrics and songs with a devil-may-care insouciance, a slapdash brilliance which a whole generation found inspiring and liberating after the psychologically intense, cramped and unhappy poetry of Modernism with its daunting battery of obscure references. Now poetry could be silly, inconsequential, as wittily throwaway as a Cole Porter lyric.

You were a great Cunarder, I
Was only a fishing smack.
Once you passed across my bows
And of course you did not look back.

It was only a single moment yet
I watch the sea and sigh,
Because my heart can never forget
The day you passed me by.

The Auden Group had all been too young to take part in or even understand, the First World War but, as impressionable teens, were exposed by their schoolmasters to endless stories of British pluck and heroism. They had all taken part in the Officer Training Corps at school and were used to playing at soldiers, wearing schoolboy soldier outfits, using schoolboy compasses and schoolboy maps to take part in pretend battles and missions.

It was this bright-eyed, schoolboy innocence they brought to the world as they found it in the late 1920s and 1930s. On the one hand it was a world of thrilling opportunities, with its hot jazz and dance halls, and radio just one of the new technologies opening the horizons of millions, its fast cars and sleek trains.

But on other hand, these boys were just leaving university and looking for their first jobs as the world was plunged into the economic collapse of the Depression, a world in which something had obviously gone badly wrong if millions were unemployed, factories and mines were shut down, and the destitute of Jarrow had to march on London to beg for work.

This exciting, thrilling modern world with all its cocktails and gizmos was at the same time somehow compromised, wrong, in error, needed to be rejected, rejuvenated, overthrown. Beneath the smouldering heaps of slag which disfigured the landscapes of the Black Country and the industrial North, slumbered the dragon of change, impatient to overthrow the old regime, the Old Gang.

Auden, again, vividly captured the feeling of an entire generation of impatient, upper-middle-class young men that they’d been sold a pup, that something was badly wrong, that society was poised on the brink of some terrible catastrophic change.

It is time for the destruction of error.
The chairs are being brought in from the garden,
The summer talk stopped on that savage coast
Before the storms, after the guests and birds:
In sanatoriums they laugh less and less,
Less certain of cure; and the loud madman
Sinks now into a more terrible calm.
The falling leaves know it, the children,
At play on the fuming alkali-tip
Or by the flooded football ground, know it–
This is the dragon’s day, the devourer’s:

Orders are given to the enemy for a time
With underground proliferation of mould,
With constant whisper and the casual question,
To haunt the poisoned in his shunned house,
To destroy the efflorescence of the flesh,
To censor the play of the mind, to enforce
Conformity with the orthodox bone,
With organised fear, the articulated skeleton.

You whom I gladly walk with, touch,
Or wait for as one certain of good,
We know it, we know that love
Needs more than the admiring excitement of union,
More than the abrupt self-confident farewell,
The heel on the finishing blade of grass,
The self-confidence of the falling root,
Needs death, death of the grain, our death.
Death of the old gang; would leave them
In sullen valley where is made no friend,
The old gang to be forgotten in the spring,
The hard bitch and the riding-master,
Stiff underground; deep in clear lake
The lolling bridegroom, beautiful, there.

Some of this is, admittedly, pretty obscure, but other bits leap out as wonderfully expressive:

In sanatoriums they laugh less and less,
Less certain of cure; and the loud madman
Sinks now into a more terrible calm.

And the whole things conveys the sense of crisis, through a heady mix of 1. details picked out like close-ups in a movie:

…the abrupt self-confident farewell,
The heel on the finishing blade of grass,

2. Invocations of northern mythology, not the sunlit references poets usually made to Greek mythology, but something northern, darker, more sinister:

This is the dragon’s day, the devourer’s…

3. Snapshots of the real derelict industrial England:

… the children,
At play on the fuming alkali-tip
Or by the flooded football ground…

It was a heady mixture of technical brilliance (Auden could and did write in almost every form known to English poetry, as well as inventing a few), brilliant details which leap out at you, great phrase-making, and confident mastery of modern psychology:

… love
Needs more than the admiring excitement of union

References to kinky sex:

The hard bitch and the riding-master,

And ominous threat, the vague but powerfully expressed sense that there needs to be sweeping social change if anything is to be fixed, the solution to society’s problems, it:

Needs death, death of the grain, our death.
Death of the old gang.

The confidence of his voice influenced an entire generation away from the crabbed, fractured obscurities of Modernism (epitomised by Eliot’s Waste Land and Pound’s Cantos) towards this lighter, more open, confident and often funny tone, oddly combined with its schoolboy enthusiasm for ‘revolution’, for ‘radical’ change – something which, of course, none of them really understood.

(It was this political naivety, this ‘playing’ with radical politics which led George Orwell [b.1903, educated at Eton] to despise Auden, who he described as ‘a kind of gutless Kipling’. He really hated the whole gang. In reviews of their books, Orwell frequently referred to them as ‘the pansy poets’. Two other big names of the Thirties also stood apart from the gang, Graham Greene and Evelyn Waugh, although both were Edwardian-born chaps who attended pukka schools – Greene b.1904, Berkhamsted school, Oxford; Waugh b.1903, Lancing school, Oxford.)

Spain

This sense of Auden’s omnicompetence and omniscience is exemplified in the first half dozen stanzas of the long poem Auden wrote after visiting Spain early in the civil war, titled simply Spain, which was published as a pamphlet in order to raise money for the Republican side.

Spain opens with a succession of stanzas each of which start with the word ‘Yesterday’ and give a visionary review of early Spanish history, building up a sense of the country’s pagan primeval past, before the poem arrives at the plight of the present.

Yesterday all the past. The language of size
Spreading to China along the trade-routes; the diffusion
Of the counting-frame and the cromlech;
Yesterday the shadow-reckoning in the sunny climates.

Yesterday the assessment of insurance by cards,
The divination of water; yesterday the invention
Of cartwheels and clocks, the taming of
Horses. Yesterday the bustling world of the navigators.

Yesterday the abolition of fairies and giants,
the fortress like a motionless eagle eyeing the valley,
the chapel built in the forest;
Yesterday the carving of angels and alarming gargoyles;

The trial of heretics among the columns of stone;
Yesterday the theological feuds in the taverns
And the miraculous cure at the fountain;
Yesterday the Sabbath of witches; but to-day the struggle.

Yesterday the installation of dynamos and turbines,
The construction of railways in the colonial desert;
Yesterday the classic lecture
On the origin of Mankind. But to-day the struggle.

It’s the confident tone, and the breadth of knowledge, and the fluent technique which allows him to include all these references in such powerful striding rhythms, which thrilled and influenced all the writers, especially the poets, of the 1930s. Only a few managed to resist, to establish a voice of their own.

Stephen Spender

Spender was a key figure of the group, went to the same private school as Auden, on to Oxford, then to bohemian Germany, was bisexual, political, published his first poems in 1933, joined the Communist Party of Great Britain in 1936, travelled to Spain and wrote extensively about it during the civil war. Over the years he developed extraordinary connections with writers across Europe and became a leading literary figure in post-war Britain, not least as literary editor of Encounter magazine from 1953 to 1967. He was made a CBE in 1962 and knighted in 1983.

But I’ve always his poetry Stephen Spender wet and weedy. He’s too nice. He lacks the peculiar obscurity and the threat which lies behind even the most apparently accessible Auden. And he generally delivers one good phrase per poem and then the rest feels like padding. Here’s his famous pylon poem.

The secret of these hills was stone, and cottages
Of that stone made,
And crumbling roads
That turned on sudden hidden villages

Now over these small hills, they have built the concrete
That trails black wire
Pylons, those pillars
Bare like nude giant girls that have no secret.

The valley with its gilt and evening look
And the green chestnut
Of customary root,
Are mocked dry like the parched bed of a brook.

But far above and far as sight endures
Like whips of anger
With lightning’s danger
There runs the quick perspective of the future.

This dwarfs our emerald country by its trek
So tall with prophecy
Dreaming of cities
Where often clouds shall lean their swan-white neck.

It’s a copy, a pastiche, the work of a devotee. Much of it is poor, like the opening line:

The secret of these hills was stone, and cottages
Of that stone made…

The line about the electricity pylons being ‘Bare like nude giant girls that have no secret’ catches most people’s eyes, specially if they’re men. This is the best stanza:

But far above and far as sight endures
Like whips of anger
With lightning’s danger
There runs the quick perspective of the future.

This has the Auden touch with its explicit reference to threat and danger and sense of the future as being ominous. ‘Whips of anger’ is good. But overall, it is (in my opinion) second rate.

Louis MacNeice

One of the contemporaries who was influenced by Auden (they all were) but maintained his independence was the car-loving, heterosexual Louis MacNiece.

MacNeice wrote funny, stylish poems which took a more mordant, sceptical look at the contemporary world than Auden’s. All Auden’s poems, when you look closely, contain a lot about his own personal unease and psychological issues. For the decade of the 1930s his inclusion of these neuroses (generally the parts of his poems which are most obscure in syntax and imagery) seemed to express the anxieties of the times.

MacNeice was a much more frank and forthright personality and so a lot of his verse has a more objective, external, sometimes journalistic vibe. Even when he starts off writing about workers in a factory, Auden ends up dragging in his own uncertainty and anxiety. MacNeice stays far more impersonal or, when he does express himself, that self is far more straightforward (maybe because he was far more straightforwardly heterosexual).

Possibly his most famous short poem or lyric is Snow.

The room was suddenly rich and the great bay-window was
Spawning snow and pink roses against it
Soundlessly collateral and incompatible:
World is suddener than we fancy it.

World is crazier and more of it than we think,
Incorrigibly plural. I peel and portion
A tangerine and spit the pips and feel
The drunkenness of things being various.

And the fire flames with a bubbling sound for world
Is more spiteful and gay than one supposes—
On the tongue on the eyes on the ears in the palms of one’s hands—
There is more than glass between the snow and the huge roses.

It isn’t neurotic or nostalgic or sentimental or depressed as so much poetry can be. It is vigorous and positive. It isn’t dressed in old-fashioned Victorian poetic rhetoric: its vocabulary and speech rhythms are absolutely modern:

… I peel and portion
A tangerine and spit the pips

What could be more prosaic and mundane? Except that, into this banal scene, MacNeice has inserted a world of wonder and, for the purpose, invented a register which allows wonder without any recourse to old-fashioned phraseology or imagery.

World is crazier and more of it than we think

No classical myths or historical figures or lady loves are invoked. Just one man in a room, sitting by a snug fire, peeling a tangerine as it starts to snow outside and suddenly he is struck by how weird and varied the world is. And how wonderful it is to be alive.

Autumn Journal

MacNeice is far more at home in his own skin than Auden. His most famous longer poem, Autumn Journal, is a wonderfully flowing verse diary he kept of the 1938 autumn of the Munich Crisis, recording day-to-day impressions of what he read and felt and saw in the London around him as everyone held their breath while British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain flew three times to Germany to negotiate with Hitler in a bid to resolve the crisis over Czechoslovakia and prevent a world war.

It opens with a vivid depiction of the fuddy-duddy world of Edwardian colonels and village fairs which Auden, also, often satirised. But whereas Auden shoots out scattergun pellets, flying impatiently from one cinematic detail to another, note how MacNeice is much slower, more patient, describes the scene thoroughly, more like a novel.

Close and slow, summer is ending in Hampshire,
Ebbing away down ramps of shaven lawn where close-clipped yew
Insulates the lives of retired generals and admirals
And the spyglasses hung in the hall and the prayer-books ready in the pew
And August going out to the tin trumpets of nasturtiums
And the sunflowers’ Salvation Army blare of brass
And the spinster sitting in a deck-chair picking up stitches
Not raising her eyes to the noise of the ’planes that pass
Northward from Lee-on-Solent. Macrocarpa and cypress
And roses on a rustic trellis and mulberry trees
And bacon and eggs in a silver dish for breakfast
And all the inherited assets of bodily ease
And all the inherited worries, rheumatism and taxes…

(The poem is laid out with more visual inventiveness than above, with successive lines indented to give visual variety. This doesn’t seem to be possible in WordPress.)

Actually, rereading this opening section makes me realise how much this passage depends on the word ‘and’ to create what is, in some ways, a rather simple accretion of detail. Auden leaps from detail to detail giving you a dizzy sense of a master film director; MacNeice says: ‘and another thing…’, giving you the sense of someone leading you into an interesting story.

Whether because of the fear and censorship surrounding homosexual love, or because Auden was so much the intellectual in whatever he wrote whereas MacNeice is much closer to the pie-and-a-pint, ordinary man-in-the-street, MacNeice’s heterosexual love lyrics are simpler and more immediate that Auden’s. Less troubled. Here’s a later passage from Autumn Journal where he’s thinking about his wife:

September has come, it is hers
Whose vitality leaps in the autumn,
Whose nature prefers
Trees without leaves and a fire in the fireplace.
So I give her this month and the next
Though the whole of my year should be hers who has rendered already
So many of its days intolerable or perplexed
But so many more so happy.
Who has left a scent on my life, and left my walls
Dancing over and over with her shadow
Whose hair is twined in all my waterfalls
And all of London littered with remembered kisses.

Beautiful, non? In its simplicity of diction, flow and candour.

Afterlife of the Auden Group

The arts in the 1930s were a bit like the 1960s. Caught up in fast-moving turbulent times a new generation of writers, poets and artists spearheaded new forms and media and subjects, determined to overthrow the conservative certainties of their parents, especially when it came to sexual freedom and artistic experimentation – many getting mixed up with heady declarations of political and social revolution, which they spent the rest of their lives trying to live down (Day Lewis left the Communist Party in 1938, Spender in fact only lasted a few months as a member and a decade later he was one of the six leading European writers who recorded their disillusionment with communism in the seminal essay collection The God That Failed, 1949.)

And then it all suddenly ground to a halt. The abject failure of the Republican cause in the Spanish Civil War – ground down to defeat amid internecine conflict and bitter recriminations – broke their boyish idealistic spirit (the Spanish Civil War ended on 1 April 1939). A few months later (September 1939) the Second World War broke out and was not at all the glamorous struggle these public schoolboys had spent a decade anticipating. Literary movements collapsed, people moved away (to America, generally, where Auden and Isherwood fled in 1939).

[Auden’s] departure with Isherwood for America in late 1939 dramatised the end of a decade. (The Thirties and After by Stephen Spender, p.276)

The dust settled and a lot of people spent the rest of their lives writing memoirs and essays and documentaries trying to figure out what it had all meant.

Over the 80 or so years since, a small industry has developed of people who claimed to have been there at decisive moments, eye-witnesses to artistic revolutions, friends of the great – magazine editors and critics who were already lionising and mythologising Auden and his mates in the 30s and spent the rest of their lives carrying the torch (or, alternately, expressing the same animosity towards these flashy and over-successful young whippersnappers).

There are now hundreds of books and thousands of academic papers about The Auden Generation, essays galore which pore and pick to pieces every work by every member of ‘the movement’, major or minor.  What started as in-jokes and fooling between friends have been blown up into dissertations which academics have built entire careers upon.

In this respect the Auden Generation are comparable to the Bloomsbury Group which preceded them: at the core were one or two writers or artists of real note (Virginia Woolf in Bloomsbury, Auden in his group) and surrounding them concentric circles of steadily less and less interesting or talented figures, often their friends or family or lovers.

They all wrote memoirs explaining how brilliant they all were, and recording every conversation, letter, diary entry and in-joke for posterity, and biographers coming afterwards have added to the pile and the complexity, dwelling at length on who said what to whom or who slept with whom and what every reference in every letter and diary really means — until it becomes difficult to penetrate the sea of obfuscation and really grasp what was important and lasting.

Auden emigrates to America

When you look at the sea of highly professional and deadening commentary which mythologised the group and the era, you can appreciate why Auden just walked away from it all, from England’s small, incestuous and parochial literary scene, and why he took ship to New York in January 1939, with sometime lover and literary collaborator, Christopher Isherwood. Years later he said in an interview:

The Ascent of F6 was the end. I knew I had to leave England when I wrote it…I knew it because I knew then that if I stayed, I would inevitably become a part of the British establishment. (quoted in Humphrey Carpenter’s biography, page 195)

A member of the Establishment like Cecil Day-Lewis, appointed poet laureate in 1968.

(Mind you, the main, practical reason for moving to America was that there was more work there for a freelance poet, playwright and critic, and a man’s got to eat. One of their literary enemies, Evelyn Waugh, was particularly scathing about the way Auden and Isherwood abandoned their native country just as the Second World War broke out, putting them into his hilarious 1940 novel Put Out More Flags as the characters Parsnip and Pimpernel).

The left-behind

Relocating to America allowed Auden to carry on developing and evolving (generally in a way his early English fans disapproved of) while the group members and hangers-on left back in England often struggled to adapt their youthfully exuberant style to the realities of post-war, austerity England, and then to the grimly conformist 1950s. None of them were ever so young again or able to recapture the first fine careless rapture of being alive in the exciting, terrible, scary and thrilling decade of the 1930s. Spender became an anti-communist, a reliable stalwart of the Cold War literary scene, eventually knighted for his services to blah blah. MacNeice wrote long boring radio plays. Reading any of them in the 1970s was like reading a sustained lament for a lost world.

The Mendelson revival

Even the American Auden became sometimes intolerably boring. In later life he suppressed a lot of his best work from the 1930s – he came to believe it was meretricious, flashy and immoral – or tinkered, rewrote and generally watered down what he did allow to be reprinted, so that for a long time it was impossible to find or read.

Only after Auden’s death in 1973, when his literary executor Edward Mendelson published a comprehensive volume of everything Auden wrote in the 1930s – The English Auden – were we able to read a) the poems Auden had banned from being reprinted for 30 years or more; b) the original, generally far more dynamic versions of his poems; c) lots of surprisingly attractive ephemera, lyrics from plays or literary magazines which had slipped through the cracks.

Which is why The English Auden isn’t just a handy collection of all Auden’s writing from the period, but 1. an incredible collection of poetry of genius, as well as 2. explaining at a stroke why Auden so dominated the period, creating a voice and style and persona and rhetoric for modern moods and feelings, in an enormous range of formats and genres, which captured a decade as few writers before or since ever have.

And even made it into a Richard Curtis movie:

Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,
Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone,
Silence the pianos and with muffled drum
Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come.

Let aeroplanes circle moaning overhead
Scribbling on the sky the message He Is Dead,
Put crepe bows round the white necks of the public doves,
Let the traffic policemen wear black cotton gloves.

He was my North, my South, my East and West,
My working week and my Sunday rest,
My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song;
I thought that love would last for ever: I was wrong.

The stars are not wanted now: put out every one;
Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun;
Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood;
For nothing now can ever come to any good.


Related links

William Blake @ Tate Britain

This is the largest survey of work by William Blake to be held in the UK for a generation. It brings together over 300 famous and rarely seen works, from the whole of his career, from all of his publications and projects, and sets them alongside works by contemporaries, friends and influences, in a blockbuster exhibition which spreads over 13 rooms.

Engraving

Blake was born in 1757 into a poor family in London’s Soho – his father was a hosier – who, nonetheless, supported his ambitions to be an artist. Aged 15 he got an apprenticeship to an engraver. At the age of 21 he became a student at the Royal Academy. He appears to have been studious, the exhibition contains a typical plaster cast classical statue which students had to sketch along with Blake’s drawings of it.

Distinctive style

Muscles But from early on Blake developed an idiosyncratic and eccentric way of depicting the human body. Most of his work is depictions of the human body. Most of the bodies in question are naked or draped in simple Biblical robes, and all of them are extremely muscley, with a heavy, musclebound weight which is reminiscent of Michelangelo. Although the curators don’t mention it I’ve read somewhere that this striking musculature is in fact anatomically inaccurate, and designed purely for expressive purposes.

Capaneus the Blasphemer (1824-1827) by William Blake © National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne

Flat and close Other elements of his style include the lack of perspective. Figures almost always appear in a flat space. This gives them dramatic immediacy and directness, as in this striking image.

The Great Red Dragon and the Beast from the Sea by William Blake (1805)

Noses In both these images note the strikingly aquiline noses of his figures. Sounds trivial but its a trademark of his style.

Anti-commercial art Blake rejected much of the commercial art of his day, came to despise the Royal Academy, hated the way late 18th century art was dominated by society portraits or landscapes of rich people’s properties.

Visual purity He wanted to forge something much more visionary and pure. This search for a kind of revolutionary purity reminds me of the Republican phase of the art of the French painter Jacques-Louis David, which also features: legendary, classical or mythical subject matter; half naked men showing off their six-packs; in striking poses; flowing robes and togas.

Death of Socrates by Jacques-Louis David (1787)

Drawings not paintings

But a comparison with David vividly brings out the difference: Blake was never an oil painter. None of his works evince the kind of lavish, luxurious depth and perspective and colour and light and shade of an oil painter like David.

Most of Blake’s images are engravings, of which he produced over a thousand, and a central quality of an engraving is its flatness.

There are also watercolours but, as the curators point out, these have the clarity of line, formality and flatness of engravings which have simply been coloured in.

There is rarely any perspective or depth. The backgrounds are generally sketchy. All the focus is on the (generally melodramatic postures) of the foreground figures.

Cain Fleeing from the Wrath of God by William Blake (1799-1809) © The Fogg Art Museum, Harvard University

Illustrations

Cain Fleeing exemplifies a major fact about Blake’s visual work, which is that the majority of was illustrations for classic works. Over his life he was commissioned to produce illustrations for:

  • Mary Wollstonecraft – Original Stories from Real Life (1791)
  • John Gay – Fables by John Gay with a Life of the Author, John Stockdale, Picadilly (1793)
  • Edward Young – Night-Thoughts (1797)
  • Thomas Gray – Poems (1798)
  • Robert Blair – The Grave (1805–1808)
  • John Milton – Paradise Lost (1808)
  • John Varley – Visionary Heads (1819–1820)
  • Robert John Thornton – Virgil (1821)
  • The Book of Job (1823–1826)
  • John Bunyan – The Pilgrim’s Progress (1824–1827, unfinished)
  • Dante – Divine Comedy (1825–1827)

The exhibition features generous selections from most of these works, for example ten or more of Blake’s illustrations for the Grave or Gray’s Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard, etc.

Bad pictures

What comes over from many of these obscure and little exhibited illustrations is how bad they are. Milky, washed out, strangely lacking in the dynamism which Blake, in his written works, claimed for his art.

Elegy Written in a Country Church-Yard, Design 113 by William Blake (1797-8)

Bad, isn’t it? All the illustrations for the Elegy are like this.

Towards the end of his life Blake made 29 watercolour illustrations of the Pilgrim’s Progress which are similarly not much mentioned in his oeuvre. Being woke, the curators suggest this might be because his loyal, hard-working and artistic wife, Catherine, is said to have had a say in designing and colouring them, so their neglect is a sexist conspiracy. Maybe. Or maybe it’s just because they’re not very good. Here’s an example.

Illustration four for the Pilgrim’s Progress by William Blake

The composition, the use of perspective, the crappy buildings, the ludicrous posture of the figures, and the badness of their faces – everything conspires to make this picture, in my opinion, poor. And there are lots more of this low standard in the exhibition.

Good pictures

But what makes it impossible to dismiss and hard to evaluate is that Blake was also capable of coming up with images which turned his manifold weaknesses – the lack of depth, the odd stylised postures, the inaccurate anatomy – into strengths. This is true of many of the illustrations for Dante’s Divine Comedy. Take this depiction of the fate of the corrupt pope – the very unnaturalness of the postures and the weirdness of the setting work in its favour. To make it a deeply strange and troubling image.

The Simoniac Pope’ by William Blake (1824-7) Tate

Take another of his archetypal images, Newton. The closer you look, the weirder it becomes – not least his musculature which makes him look more like an insect with a segmented back than a human being – and yet, and yet… it’s so weird that it’s true – true not to lived life or anything anyone’s ever seen, but to something stranger, more mysterious and more visionary.

Newton by William Blake (1795-1805) Tate

The illustrated books

Of course Blake was also a poet, an epic poet, a writer of immense long epics featuring a mythology and mythological characters he made up out of a strange mishmash of the Bible, the classics and Milton. Not many people read these long poems nowadays although, as it happens, as a schoolboy I read all of them cover to cover in the Penguin Complete Blake edition, so I have a feel for the vastness and strangeness of his imaginary world.

Blake produced the poems in books which featured his own line illustrations and decorations of the handwritten texts.

  • Songs of Innocence and of Experience (edited 1794)
  • Songs of Innocence (edited 1789)
  • The Book of Thel (written 1788–1790, edited 1789–1793)
  • The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (written 1790–1793)
  • Visions of the Daughters of Albion (edited 1793)
  • Continental prophecies
  • America a Prophecy (edited 1793)
  • Europe a Prophecy (edited 1794–1821)
  • The Song of Los (edited 1795)
  • There is No Natural Religion (written 1788, possible edited 1794–1795)
  • The First Book of Urizen (edited 1794–1818)
  • All Religions are One (written 1788, possible edited 1795)
  • The Book of Los (edited 1795)
  • The Book of Ahania (edited 1795)
  • Milton (written 1804–1810)
  • Jerusalem The Emanation of the Giant Albion (written 1804–1820, edited 1820–1827 and 1832)

The exhibition features many of these illustrations to his own verse. There is, for example, half a room devoted to individual pages from America a Prophecy, which have been removed from the book and framed as prints. Some of them are displayed in doublesided cases set up on plinths so that visitors can walk around and see both sides. The most immediate thing you notice is how very small they are, old-fashioned paperback book size, which makes much of the writing very hard to read without a maginifying glass.

Title page of America a Prophecy, copy A (printed 1795) by William Blake © The Morgan Library

The shorter works

Even his contemporaries struggled with the obscure mythology, strangely named characters (Los, Urizen) and difficult-to-make-out plots of the longer poems. By contrast, two of the shorter works have always been popular, namely the pithy proverbs gathered in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell:

  • “Those who restrain desire do so because theirs is weak enough to be restrained.”
  • “The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom.”

and the short and simple poems in Songs of Innocence and of Experience, which contain his best-known and most anthologised poems. Of these probably the most famous is 

Tyger Tyger, burning bright,
In the forests of the night;
What immortal hand or eye,
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

It is undoubtedly a classic, but there is an odd and telling thing about it, which is that has become, over time, essentially, a children’s poem.

And this is emphasised by the illustration Blake did for it, which often comes as a shock to people who are familiar with it as an isolated text before they come to it in Blake’s illustrated version. It’s not just a children’s book illustration. It’s almost a baby‘s book illustration.

Tyger Tyger from Songs of Experience (designed after 1789, printed in 1794) by William Blake

Extremely hit and miss

And I think at some stage during the exhibition, it struck me that at some level, Blake is not a serious artist. He took himself very seriously, the small group of acolytes who gathered round him in his last years – the self-styled Ancients – took him very seriously, and critics and curators ditto, but… his long poems are all but incomprehensible and his own illustrations to his books are strange but often curiously childish and amateurish. His illustrations for Pilgrims Progress or the Elegy are deeply damaging to your sense of him as an artist. Some of the illustrations of Paradise Lost or Dante have a peculiar power, but many feel weak or half-finished. And strange random images throughout the exhibition leap out as expressing something no-one else had conceived or tried.

The Ancient of Days

Because every now and then, his peculiarities of style and technique (he pioneered new methods of acid engraving which the exhibition explains) come together to create something magical and genuinely visionary, something of depth and maturity.

‘Europe’ Plate i Frontispiece, ‘The Ancient of Days’ (1827) by William Blake (1757-1827) The Whitworth, The University of Manchester

The curators end the exhibition with this painting, which Blake was working on right up to his final days, at his house overlooking the Thames. Who is it, what is he doing, nobody is sure, although the hand gesture which seems to be creating a sort of compass is, unexpectedly, a negative gesture in Blake’s symbolism, because mathematics and science are the enemies of the liberated and revolutionary imagination which Blake defended and praised.

Still, as with so much of the rest of his ‘thought’ and personal opinions, it doesn’t matter. Again and again the curators have had to admit that nobody knows what this or that picture really means or whether it is illustrating this or that scene from one of his vast mythological books – so much about Blake’s output is scattered, broken up and mysterious, that one more mystery doesn’t make any difference.

At his best, Blake created images of startling power and resonance which, even if we don’t understand their intention or meaning, have stood the test of time. But the high risk this exhibition has taken is placing that dozen or so brilliant imagines amid a sea of ok, so-so, mediocre and downright poor images which do a lot to dilute their impact.

Two gaps

No explanation of Blake’s politics The curators mention in several places that Blake was a revolutionary thinker who engaged with the Great Issues of his day, and list those Great Issues as political revolution, sexual politics, and slavery, and he certainly did, in his long radical poems and his notes and essays.

The odd thing is you’d expect there to be, in such a big exhibition, some sections devoted to Blake the Revolutionary, explaining his revolutionary  views, his support of the American and French revolutions, his ideas of the power of the unfettered Imagination, sexual liberty and his violent anti-slavery sentiments.

But panels or sections devoted to Blake’s beliefs are strangely absent. His views are mentioned in passing, in the context of t his or that work, but you can’t make sense of a work like America A Prophecy without some explanation of the attitude English radicals took to the war their own government was fighting to put down men committed to freedom & Liberty.

No explanation of Blake’s mythology More importantly you can’t understand a lot of his images without delving into Blake’s own mythology, which was built around praising the power of the unfettered Imagination, in the arts and politics and private life, and which he elaborated out inventing a whole cast of pseudo-Biblical gods and goddesses.

This also was strangely absent – I mean all it would have taken was a panel explaining the symbolic roles of the characters he invented for the epic poems:

  • Urizen is the embodiment of conventional reason and law
  • his daughters Eleth, Uveth and Ona represent the three parts of the human body
  • his sons Thiriel, Utha, Grodna, Fuzon match the four elements but are also aligned with the signs of the Zodiac
  • Los is the fallen (earthly or human) form of Urthona, one of the four Zoas

and so on, to at least give you a flavour of how strange, eccentric, but oddly beguiling his personal mythology could be.

Maybe – I’m guessing – the curators wanted to focus narrowly on his art, and on the technical ways in which he experimented with techniques of engraving, and with the immediate facts of his biography. That would explain why there were rooms devoted to particular patrons such as John and Ann Flaxman, Thomas Stothard and George Cumberland, Thomas Butts and the Reverend Joseph Thomas.

I bought the audioguide. At the end of several sections on specific series of works, it said; ‘If you want to know more about the relationship between Blake and John Flaxman, press the green button’. My point being that all the additional information was biographical. Not one of them said: ‘If you want to hear more about Blake and the French Revolution, Blake and slavery, Blake and sexual Liberty, Blake’s theories of the imagination’ – all topics I’d love to have heard given a modern summary.

This biographical approach also explains why there is a big reproduction of a period map of London with markers indicating where Blake lived over the years. And even an entire room recreating the room in the family home in Broad Street where Blake staged a quirky one-man show in 1809, a show which was a disaster as hardly anyone showed up and the one critic who wrote about it dismissed Blake as ‘an unfortunate lunatic’.

I may be wrong but it seems to me that the curators have opted for a heavily biographical approach to Blake’s work, placing the works in the context of his real life career and biography, his houses and wife and friends and champions and critics. This is all interesting in its way, but not as interesting as Blake’s imaginative universe.

At the age of eight William Blake saw the prophet Ezekiel under a bush in Peckham Rye, then a rural backwater south of London. A few years later he had a vision of a tree full of angels nearby and, a month after that, a third vision of angels, walking towards him through the rye.

Blake really meant it. All through is life he claimed to have visions of angels and other divine beings, dancing and cavorting in London fields and streets. He was a visionary in the most literal sense of the word.

Although – with over 300 images – this exhibition is thoroughly documented and copiously illustrated, maybe the reason I left feeling so frustrated and dissatisfied was because I felt that Blake’s weird, peculiar and compelling imaginative universe had been almost completely left out of it.

There were plenty of framed pages taken from the illustrated versions of his ‘prophetic books’ covered with verse. But the verse itself wasn’t printed out on a label on the wall for us to actually read. There was an introduction to the subject matter of each one, but little explanation of what they meant or what he was trying to achieve.

This exhibition feels like a big, elaborately assembled, beautifully curated and presented catalogue of all Blake’s visual works. A list. A documentation of his works. But somehow, with all the fiery life, rebellion and pride of the Imagination taken out.

Blake’s life is presented as a story of professional frustration – rather than as a life of extraordinary imaginative triumph.


Related links

Reviews of other Tate exhibitions

Barrack Room Ballads by Rudyard Kipling (1892)

Kipling’s reputation leapt even higher on the publication in 1892 of the Barrack Room Ballads (known as ‘series 1’, since he ended up publishing a further set or ‘series 2’ in 1896).

It took me just over 40 minutes to read the 21 short poems in this book and, wow, what a punch they still pack! I love music hall songs, and so I love the voice and ballad form of these poems. I love the Cockney spelling, I love the humour which shines out of every line, the cheekiness of the soldier, and the cheekiness of Kipling’s romanticising the soldier. My favourite is Fuzzy Wuzzy, which I’ve read out numerous times to the kids (these poems being designed to recite, boom or chant out loud). There is energy and enthusiasm and verbal felicity, there is something to entertain, in every poem.

‘E rushes at the smoke when we let drive,
An’, before we know, ‘e’s ‘ackin’ at our ‘ead;
‘E’s all ‘ot sand an’ ginger when alive,
An’ ‘e’s generally shammin’ when ‘e’s dead.
‘E’s a daisy, ‘e’s a ducky, ‘e’s a lamb!
‘E’s a injia-rubber idiot on the spree,
‘E’s the on’y thing that doesn’t give a damn
For a Regiment o’ British Infantree!

For their late-Victorian audience, they also made their mark by giving ‘official’, published voice to the little-heard-from Tommy, the ordinary soldier, the backbone of the Army which policed the greatest Empire the world has ever seen. Their boisterous confidence of form and tone, their geographic sweep, their underdogs’ point of view, combined to make a great hit and Kipling into a literary sensation.

Contemporary relevance

These poems from the late 1880s refer to Britain’s ongoing wars in the Sudan, in Afghanistan and in Burma where we were attempting to bring Peace and Civilisation. I open today’s paper (May 2012) and read that civil war is once again threatening in Sudan, the Americans are finally considering ending their 10 year occupation of Afghamistan, and the Burmese military have only just allowed the first fair elections in a generation to their oppressed population. Kipling may seem like a buffoon to us now, but we’re not doing an exactly brilliant job of solving the problems his generation struggled with.

A video

I’ve found musical versions of some of the ballads, sung by the (then) world-famous Australian bass-baritone, Peter Dawson. I defy you not to smile!

Other Kipling reviews

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