Page:EB1922 - Volume 31.djvu/21

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ENGLISH LITERATURE


G. E. Buckle's completion of the Life of Disraeli; while Lytton Strachey's re-readings in biography (Eminent Victorians and Queen Victoria) have added a new interest to its study.

In tracing the contemporary developments of English poetry, it has been said that the " aesthetic " movement of the 'nine- ties came more or less definitely to fill the void caused by the ebb-tide of Tennyson, Browning, Rossetti and Morris. Swin- burne and Meredith, Bridges and William Watson, may be added to these names of poets already established by the end of the ipth century. In 1855, when Tennyson was crowned by the young men of England at the Sheldonian, poetry was " the thing," and this was due to Tennyson. Tennyson had, indeed, invented a new poetry, a new poetic English; every piece that he wrote was a conquest of a new region. The early attitude of Morris to Tennyson is described by Morris's biographer as defiant adoration. He perceived his limitations, however, in a manner remarkable for a man of twenty or so. Sir Galahad made too much noise and was not nearly mediaeval enough for him. The rise and reign of the Browningesque and the pic- turesque followed the decay of Victorianism as a purely decora- tive art. Then came the rise and decline of the aesthetic philoso- phy in the 'nineties, with the introduction of the muscular influence of Henley, Kipling, Davidson, Henry Newbolt, and, still more recently, Masefield, to whom have been added all those included among the Georgians. And yet there is no abrupt period of severance. A Shropshire Lad, written when A. E. Housman (b.iSsg) was little more than thirty, is not the most easy of modern verse, but is still the best-loved when it is most read. Rt>bert Bridges' early poems include lyrics which are among the most perfect work, in magic of cadence or in formal prosody, since Carew, Wither and Herrick.

The conspicuous poets among the Georgians are not, perhaps, of the first rank, but far more than in the last century they are poets of democracy. They are poets of a diversity of ideas, and are acclaimed, as often as not, for refusing imaginative idylls in order to write of the common sights and sounds of the everyday world in which we live. Among the new poets are included Lascelles Abercrombie, C. M. Doughty, Sturge Moore, Belloc, Chesterton, W. H. Davies, A. Noyes, L. Binyon, James E. Flecker, Edward Thomas, Rupert Brooke, W. W. Gibson, Ralph Hodgson, John Masefield, W. De La Mare, John Freeman, Siegfried Sassoon, J. C. Squire.

In 1895 the Yellow Book sought to shock the primness of the " eminent Victorians," as they came to be satirized. It scarcely needed Patience or The Green Carnation to disillusion the atti- tudinizing of A. Symons, Le Gallienne and their disciples. With the end of the century the philosophy of the aesthetes was wear- ing thin. The " Yea Man " and muscular Christian repudiated this languid aestheticism (" The first duty of life is to be artifi- cial "). But it was reinforced to some extent by the " Celtic revival " (you could hardly obtain a more artificial adjective than that), as represented by W. B. Yeats. Remarkable work in the Spenserian vein was achieved by Charles Montagu Doughty (b.i843), whose Dawn in Britain (1906) reacts against Victorian feeling as Walpole reacted against Brunswick. These constant reactions are typical of an over-studied literature. It needs the architecture of Hardy to surpass it in The Dynasts. The distant and almost planetary point of view taken in the immense poetic dramas is contradicted most exhaustively by John Masefield (b.i874), a " Shropshire Lad " in reality, who scorned the finished elegiac of Housman and the minute tedium of the novel for the Crabbe-like medium of The Everlasting Mercy (1911) and for the counterpoise to the Celtic dialect play in The Tragedy of Nan. Of Masefield's realistic novels in verse the best is probably Dauber (1912). Versatile though he is, he has never completely succeeded in developing the irony of circumstance so exactly as Hardy; but he has drawn others into it, like Lascelles Aber- crombie, who in Deborah (1913) achieves a fine approach to the Miltonic drama. The change that was foreshadowed in the. un- equal Daffodil Fields (1913) was completed by the battlefield and the great telling of Gallipoli (1916). Thence Masefield's prose and verse suffered a war change, and with it his writing gained in

poetry and true utterance. In August 1914 he reached a noble elegy:

These homes, this valley spread below me here, The rooks, the tilted stacks, the beasts in pen, Have been the heart-felt things, past speaking dear To unknown generations of dead men.

Of poets lost during the war, memories of their craftsmanship is perhaps most insistent in the case of Rupert Brooke (1887- 1915) and Edward Thomas (1878-1917).

Edward Thomas, one of the little-known but most individual of modern English poets, was born in 1878. For many years before he turned to verse, Thomas had a considerable following as a critic and author of travel books and biographies. Hating his hack-work, yet unable to get free of it, he had so repressed his creative ability that he had grown doubtful concerning his own power. It needed something foreign to stir and animate what was native in him. So when Robert Frost, the New England poet, went abroad in 1912 for two years and became an intimate friend of Thomas, the English critic began to write poetry. Loving, like Frost, the minutiae of existence, the quaint and casual turns of ordinary life, he caught the magic of the English country- side in its unpoeticized quietude. Many of his poems are full of a slow, sad contemplation of life, and reflection of its brave futility. It is not disillusion exactly; it is rather an absence of illusion. Poems (1917), dedicated to Robert Frost, is full of Thomas's fidelity to little things, as unglorified as the unfreezing of the " rock-like mud," a child's path, a list of quaint-sounding villages, birds' nests uncovered by the autumn wind, dusty nettles the lines glow with a deep and almost abject reverence for the soil.

In 1913 Rupert Brooke, of Grantchester, was elected a fellow of King's College, Cambridge, aged 36. After travel and recrea- tion he sought fresh faith and hope in the struggle. After seeing service in Belgium (1914) he spent the following winter in a training camp in Dorsetshire, and sailed with the British Medi- terranean Expeditionary Force in February 1915, to take part in the Dardanelles campaign. Brooke never reached his desti- nation. He died of blood-poisoning at Skyros, April 23 1915.

Another poet whose early death extorted a rare eulogy from a fellow writer, D. Goldring, was James E. Flecker (1884-1915), a student of Andre Chenier and later of the Parnassians, whose beatified dreams sing in the Golden Journey to Samarkand (1913) and The Old Ship. His Burial in England Ode shows noble evidence of a faith to which English witnesses were many.

Events in Ireland have emphasized the increased attention devoted of late years to the Irish literary revival (see IRISH LITERATURE). Anglo-Irish literature had its beginning in the early days of the igth century, but it was not until about 1840 that there was a definite movement for the recreation of an Irish culture in English. This movement was forwarded by Thomas Davis, and 'it took its title from Davis's newspaper, The Nation. There were many eloquent writers then in prose and verse. Carleton, the Banims and Gerald Griffin were the novelists of the time; Mangan, Ferguson, Davis, Walsh and Cullinan were the poets; Mitchell and Davis were the political and social writers. But while Davis and his group were working for the creation of a new Irish culture, the famine of 1846-7 altered the whole life of the country. Meanwhile, from the Nation period, when the poet Mangan worked with the scholar O'Dono- van to produce versions of the Irish bardic poems, there had been a close connexion between Celtic research and Anglo-Irish poetry. The most valuable poetry written in the next forty years came from Celtic originals or from suggestions in Celtic originals. Sir Samuel Ferguson, who survived from the Nation days, treated the famous " Ultonian " or " Red Branch " epic cycle (the cycle that has the hero Cuchullain for its central character) as Tennyson was treating the Round-Table cycle, writing narrative or dramatic poems about the different episodes. He translated a few of the modern folksongs, bringing into English poetry an unfamiliar rhythm in such versions as those of Cean Duv Deelish and Cashel of Munster, poems that have the beauty and the spirit of the originals. Aubrey de Vere wrote Catholic poetry, but the two poems by him that deal with