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Reclaiming the Lyric

Justin Quinn

Housman Country: Into the Heart of England, by Peter Parker, Abacus, 544 pp, £12.99, ISBN: 978-0349140681

Under the Same Moon: Edward Thomas and the English Lyric, by Edna Longley, Enitharmon, 302 pp, £25.00, ISBN: 978-1911253143

John Millington Synge is known as one of the most innovative playwrights of the early twentieth century, shifting the idiom and themes of modern drama with a language that plays on the border between Irish and English, and complicating the idea of a national culture. For this latter contribution, he has been given a special place in stories of Irish cultural nationalism; in avoiding chauvinism, he helped make critique and dissent integral to the Irish idea of the writer’s job, even when that criticism and demurral is directed against the national project itself. This is the kind of nuanced nationalism that one finds in Declan Kiberd and Seamus Deane. If Synge’s poems, then, still remain relatively unknown, it is because they complicate the story too much. A handful of them are in my view some of the best poems of his era, and the problem is that they have little to do with Ireland at all.

Not only that. They fit quite comfortably into the story of the poetry of England, running from the Cavalier poets to Thomas Hardy, AE Housman, and Edward Thomas. If the plays can be easily adopted to the story of Modernist innovation from the 1910s forward, then the poems seem like throwbacks to the seventeenth century of Robert Herrick. They are brief and rhymed; they make conceits out of lovers’ quarrels and the prospect of death; they are witty and allude casually to the European poetic tradition. Irish modernism is often figured as a violent reaction to Victorian sentimentalism and literary forms. Synge’s poetry indeed avoids much of the latter, but does so by doubling down on the tradition, and not by – in Ezra Pound’s phrase – making it new.

Because they are so few and because his plays have rightly received so much attention, it has been easy to overlook Synge’s poems. Also, if only Irish nationalist criticism was in play, then his poems might have received wider attention; but Modernism was, for many decades from the mid-twentieth century, considered the only serious way of discussing Synge’s period in academic criticism, and it exceeded the bounds of literature, dominating how we understood the visual arts, music, architecture, and design. If you wrote poems in rhyme about landscape and the seasons at the beginning of the twentieth century, you were out; or if you absolutely could not be ignored then loopholes would be found to keep you in (see, for instance, the lengths to which Lionel Trilling went in order to prove Robert Frost was really a Modernist poet).

Housman’s poetry was among the first sites of the conflict. From the 1910s, A Shropshire Lad (1896) was one of the most popular books of poetry in England, also finding many admirers in the United States. Then a shift occurred and Modernism was, according to the critics, the only game in town. George Orwell captured the tone: “In 1920, when I was about seventeen, I probably knew the whole of The Shropshire Lad by heart.” After this he sets to work explaining why Housman is no longer good, remarking that his poems “might have been written expressly for adolescents”. Criticism finds different ways to persuade – adducing overlooked contexts, close reading that reveals new tones and textures, and one of its most effective instruments: the brief, casual remark that communicates to the reader that it is simply no longer fashionable to like this sort of thing. Orwell uses the last to devastating effect. After quoting two stanzas of “With Rue My Heart is Laden”, he comments: “It just tinkles. But it did not seem to tinkle in 1920.”

Orwell was as self-aware as critics come and he knew that the generational difference was one of the strongest motivators of his rejection of Housman – he is condescending as much to his teenage self as to the poet. Yet on balance he believed that his negative judgment exceeded this immediate occasion. Housman really was a closed chapter in English poetry, and to deny that was somehow to deny the brute facts of existence. By panning out from Housman to consider the ways that English poetry changed in the period, he enumerates “a group of writers of completely different tendency – Joyce, Eliot, Pound, Lawrence, Wyndham Lewis, Aldous Huxley, Lytton Strachey”. In opposition to this, “Yeats does not seem in either of his phases to belong to the twenties.” Of course, that is only because Orwell has already asserted that Modernism characterises the decade.

The title of Peter Parker’s book itself seems like a throwback to the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, when publishers’ catalogues were full of titles that wondered and wandered about England. It might also seem to gesture towards a resurgent nationalism, but throughout Parker is careful to distinguish between that political and cultural phenomenon and the “England” of his title. It is more local, more grounded in particular regions, than one might expect. He makes this point mainly by indirection, through his recapitulation of some of the aesthetic debates of the first half of the twentieth century, as some composers and writers wished to construct a national canon, while others perceived this as an oxymoron. A kind of ghostly England emerges as his story progresses, suspicious of jingoism and any erasure of local differences, in contrast to the notional England conjured by right-wing parties in our time.

At the centre of this, we find AE Housman. Parker tells the story of the life, the book, the afterlives of both, and most importantly how A Shropshire Lad has remained one of the constant controlling motifs of the culture of England. Spreading his net so wide, Parker can sometimes strain the language of evidence, but this is the grand risk that he takes, as he tracks the skeins and airs of the book as they permeate the thoughts of composers, soldiers, and other poets, not to mention the Shell Guide series and Ordnance Survey maps. Orwell saw Housman as a patriotic poet “in a harmless old-fashioned way, to the tune of red coats and ‘God save the Queen’ rather than steel helmets and ‘Hang the Kaiser’”. Certainly, he wasn’t the latter, but neither was he the former. Orwell had to make him a fusty patriot so that he would seem less modern. But the poems, over and again, question the value of fighting for Britain, even as they express profound love for particular English places.

Edward Thomas can be triangulated in much the same way, and Edna Longley’s book takes pains to emphasise this. In Irish Studies, Longley has long been a critic of Field Day and its morphs, but her service to letters has been wider. For most of her career she has advanced the critique of Modernism that I outlined above, insisting that important poets have been overlooked in our enthusiasm for the disjunctures and difficulties of Modernist poetry. In opposition to this, she has insisted that lyric poetry has enjoyed good health all the while, and we ignore its achievements at the risk of our impoverishment. “The English lyric” of her title has little to do with Empire or Britain as it is now (a point which always bears repeating), but rather has to do with the English language. By carefully linking Thomas with his Romantic forebears, by illuminating his relationship with Frost in the dialogue of the poems, and by looking forward to Larkin, Longley places Thomas at the heart of the English poetic tradition. Granted, she has forged some of these connections in her earlier criticism, but this is the first sustained and wide-ranging study of them, and it brilliantly consolidates Thomas as one of the great poets of his century.

Occasionally, perhaps Longley is too happy to remark that particular poems are about poetry or writing poetry. This is a New Critical manoeuvre of an earlier era and has never done much to recommend poems to readers. Also, there’s a prevailing sense in the book that the Romantics are a kind of origin for the tradition that Thomas wrote in. Longley does sometimes reach further back to the seventeenth century, but Keats, Shelley, and Wordsworth are the lodestars she picks out. (That Byron is not on this list is mainly the fault of Thomas himself, who disliked him. It also alerts us to another tradition in English poetry that Modernism has slighted – that of narrative satire in the style of Don Juan.)

But Romanticism is only a way station, and further along the road we encounter Robert Herrick, Ben Jonson, Francis Beaumont and other lyric poets of that time. Many of these appear in Edward Thomas’s anthology The Pocket Book of Poems and Songs for the Open Air (1907). I’ve argued elsewhere that this is a kind of counter-weight to Palgrave’s Golden Treasury (first published in 1861), as it eschews historical chronology for the span of a journey made in a single day. Thus Housman wakes us up with “Reveille”, and a few poems on Edmund Spenser is chivvying us with “Make haste, therefore, sweet love”. It also gives us a good idea of Thomas’s sense of the English lyric tradition, with many entries by Anon, and quite a few ballads printed with musical notation. The Wordsworth poems especially seem like meditations on the tradition itself (a point Longley would like), while the Herrick poems are less weighted and are pure lyric effusion. Thomas once remarked that although he had a degree in history he remembered little of it; but his anthology displays an intuitive sense of the tradition, though not as a chronological progression of centuries and styles. It is more as if the poems of a millennium are all immediately present, jostling each other with unexpected adjacencies. Or, as he puts it in the poem “February Afternoon”: “Time swims before me, making as a day / A thousand years.”

Longley is editing Thomas’s selected criticism for Oxford University Press, and the volume promises to be a revelation, not only for the way in which his early prose informed his later poetry (even as the poetry easily surpassed it), but also as a kind of lost early twentieth century ars poetica, as substantial and important as TS Eliot’s essays of the 1920s. He reviewed Synge, and, as Longley quotes him here, thought that his was “poetry of the most unquestionable kind, but poetry almost shrunk to its bones”. It is a poignant remark given the poems’ posthumous publication, but it also conveys their economy and pure lyric essence. Synge could be ferocious at times, but here he strikes another note, in “On a Birthday”:

Friend of Ronsard, Nashe, and Beaumont,
Lark of Ulster, Meath and Thomond,
Heard from Smyrna and Sahara
To the surf of Connemara,
Lark of April, June, and May,
Sing loudly this my Lady-day.

The poem might profitably be read from right to left, its rhymes suggesting likenesses between places and people far beyond the shores of Ireland. It moves through landscapes and traditions with happy ease, implicitly asserting that the true provenance and present domain of the lyric poem is nothing less than the wide world.

1/12/2017

Justin Quinn is the author of Between Two Fires: Transnationalism and Cold War Poetry (2015) and he recently translated the poetry of Bohuslav Reynek in The Well at Morning: Selected Poems, 1925-1971 (2017). He works at the University of West Bohemia.

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