Reed Way Dasenbrock

In this essay I have taken on a potentially infinite task. Today most critics and theorists hold that the connection between poetry and politics is not limited just to situations in which poets become politically involved in an explicit way, but instead all cultural expression is related to the social and political context — whether implicitly or explicitly — in which it is produced. In this expansive definition all poetry is political in one way or another, since even the choice to eschew explicit political involvement or references constitutes a form of political action (or perhaps more precisely inaction). To write an essay on the relation between poetry and politics in the twentieth century would in this view require discussing all poetry written in the century and virtually everything of political significance which occurred in the twentieth century. This is of course a tall order indeed.

Let me set your mind at ease immediately: such an expansive discussion — whatever its merits or demerits — is obviously impossible within the limits set for me here. In any case, the gesture of making everything political effaces a crucial distinction, perhaps not between the political and the non-political (since that depends on a notion of the aesthetic critiqued by those who hold this more expansive notion), but at the very least between the intentionally political and the intentionally non-political. In other words, some poets have aspired to write political poetry, have aspired to make a difference in the politics of their place and time. Clearly, these poets have not worked with a theory that all poetry was political, and they believed that the poetry they rejected or at least chose for the moment not to write wasn't political in the sense that the poetry they wished to write was. This distinction — whatever we might think of its ultimate validity — is an important one to understand and recognize if we wish to understand the poetry which follows from this distinction. However, this does not create a Maginot Line between poets of a political persuasion and poets of a non-political persuasion, since the same poet can in the course of his or her career adopt different stances towards this issue. For instance, William Butler Yeats expressed the argument for the ultimate irrelevance of politics with wonderful succinctness in the opening lines of his 1937 poem, 'Politics':

How can I, that girl standing there, My attention fix On Roman or on Russian Or on Spanish politics?

Yet Yeats is the central example of a twentieth-century poet whose life and work were caught up in political events from the very beginning. If politics didn't fix his attention when he wrote this poem, it did fix his attention elsewhere in many of his most important poems.

In this essay I plan to cover a few of the more significant moments in twentieth-century poetry in English in which the history of poetry and the history of society have intersected in this narrower sense and in which poets sought to have an effect on political events. Percy Bysshe Shelley, in a quotation which in some senses anticipates the contemporary view, stated famously that 'poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world'. By this, he meant something close to Ezra Pound's equally epigrammatic dictum, 'poets are the antennae of the race', that poets are somehow ahead of society in anticipating new modes of perception, new social arrangements, and ultimately new political arrangements. These views are crystallized in the metaphor of the avant-garde, that artists somehow are like soldiers in advance of the mass of the army, a metaphor which has become so familiar to us that we largely forget that it is a metaphor borrowed from the unfamiliar world of military tactics and theory.

But Shelley's phrase begs an important question, which is whether the unacknowledged character of poets' legislative status is inevitable or something to be overcome. Would poetry or society be better off if poets were widely acknowledged as carriers of a special vision, as legislators of a peculiar because unrepresentative variety? There are two different questions here, I would judge: one whether it would be good for poetry to have a more explicit acknowledgement of its influence on society and the second whether it would be good for society to recognize this influence.

One of the central aesthetic principles and themes of the Irish Renaissance is captured in Oscar Wilde's maxim, 'life imitates art'. A broad spectrum of nineteenth-century thinking, from English liberalism to Marxism, felt rather decidedly that the opposite was true, that art should realistically reflect the society around it, that to use the Marxian terms the cultural superstructures should (and do) reflect the economic base. Marx believed that the 'mode of production in material life determines the social, political and intellectual life processes in general. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but, on the contrary, their social being that determines their consciousness' (preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, 1859). If you agree with Marx that our social condition determines our being, not vice versa, then art and the imagination take on a distinctly secondary importance in society, since it leaves only a passive role - simply the task of recording - for art, for culture and for the imagination. But this view doesn't make very much sense of Irish history, which for good or for ill is full of attempts by men to determine their social being by their consciousness, to reshape the world according to their dreams about it.

Yeats was fond of quoting Berkeley's response to Locke, 'We Irish think otherwise'. Just as Berkeley reversed the earlier English empiricism of Locke, so the modern Irish writers wrought a comparable reversal of English economism, rejecting the notion that art is to be valued primarily as an imitation of life. It is not just that Irish history is full of people who did believe otherwise and acted on their beliefs; it is also that reflecting on the way life imitates art is a central theme in modern Irish literature. This can be seen in any number of ways: in the calculated verbal extravagance of Irish drama from Wilde and Shaw through Synge and O'Casey, in the extended flights of fancy of James Stephens, Flann O'Brien and many others, and throughout the work of James Joyce, especially Ulysses. But of all the Irish it is Yeats who meditated most profoundly on the complex relationship of art and life, not just in the poems on which we will concentrate but also in his drama, most clearly in The King's Threshold:

I said the poets hung

Images of the life that was in Eden

About the child-bed of the world, that it,

Looking upon those images, might bear

Triumphant children.

(<Collected Plays 111-12)

This passage announces a central - perhaps the central - theme of Yeats's final poems. According to 'The Statues', it was the forms of Phidias the sculptor - not the Greek galleys - that 'put down / All Asiatic vague immensities, / And not the banks of oars that swam upon / The many-headed foam at Salamis'.

Elsewhere, in 'The Long-Legged Fly' and more memorably in 'Under Ben Bulben', we learn that the purpose of Michelangelo's Adam on the Sistine Chapel ceiling is to disturb globe-trotting Madam Till her bowels are in heat, Proof that there's a purpose set Before the secret working mind: Profane perfection of mankind.

One of the things to be realized here is just how far we are (and Yeats has come) from Yeats's favourite phrase from Villiers de l'Isle Adam's play Axel's Castle, 'As for living, our servants will do that for us'. Rather than any sense of art being removed from life, as in the aestheticism of Yeats's early career, art is to be valued precisely for its power to form life. Moreover, life, in this view, gains a good deal from this imitation of art, at least of the right kind of art:

Poet and sculptor, do the work, Nor let the modish painter shirk What his great forefathers did, Bring the soul of man to God, Make him fill the cradles right.

Measurement began our might: Forms a stark Egyptian thought, Forms that gentler Phidias wrought.

Here, in 'Under Ben Bulben', Yeats takes the prevailing metaphor about life imitating art and takes it quite literally: look at good art and you'll have better looking babies.

This is typical of Yeats at his most extravagant, in that he pushes a good point to its totally illogical but wonderfully memorable extreme. But we don't have to accept his extreme position to take his point: what do we see art for? If we see it but do not let it influence us, it is sterile and we aren't really seeing it. Art exists for its use, for the effect it will have on life. Yeats here is also commenting on how he wants his art to be taken:

Irish poets, learn your trade, Sing whatever is well made, . . . Cast your minds on other days That we in coming days may be Still the indomitable Irishry.

Life imitates art, so it should imitate the best art it can find: implicitly here, Yeats's own poetry. The message here is essentially not to take Yeats's words as aesthetic objects to be valued for their isolated beauty, but rather to take them as forms to be imitated, as forms to form the future around.

For Yeats, all of this seemingly abstract aesthetic speculation has a direct relationship to politics. For if life should imitate art, then political life should as well or even especially. Moreover, it is largely by way of reflecting about the connection between art and politics, specifically between his art and Irish politics, that Yeats develops the themes we have just been exploring. These reflections come late in Yeats's life, in poems such as 'The Man and the Echo' and 'The Statues'. The key line from 'The Man and the Echo' is of course the famous one, 'Did that play of mine send out / Certain men the English shot?' That play is Cathleen Ni Houlihan, Yeats's 1902 play that with Maud Gonne in the title role was a powerful and influential piece of nationalist propaganda, and the certain men the English shot are of course the Easter 1916 rebels, Padraic Pearse and others. So Yeats is asking if — or is he obliquely telling us that —

the 1916 rebels were so moved by Yeats's art, specifically by the portrayal of revolutionary heroism in Cathleen Ni Houlihan, that they went out and imitated that art in life. Elsewhere, in 'The Statues', he refers to the same complex of events less egocen-trically and probably more acceptably: 'When Pearse summoned Cuchulain to his side, / What stalked through the Post Office?' Pearse was himself a poet, of course, though hardly one of Yeats's calibre, and he and some of the other 1916 rebels made a virtual cult of Cuchulain, inspired in their revolutionary dreams by Cuchulain's energy and warlike nature. Here was a Celt who did not always go forth to battle and fall; here was a figure to be imitated by anyone wishing a resurgent Ireland. But here is also another example of life imitating art: what Pearse knew of Cuchulain came from the Tain and, more immediately, through Yeats's plays and the translations of Lady Gregory and others.

Yeats's question in 'The Statues' is both perfectly serious and quite precise: what stalked through the Post Office to help the 1916 rebels in their doomed stand in the Dublin PO? Yeats does not ask, 'did something stalk?', for he is perfectly sure that something did. Cuchulain was a real presence for Pearse, real in the sense that Pearse accomplished more in imitation of the story of Cuchulain than he ever could have on his own without the story to guide his actions. Life did imitate art here, and it seems to be Yeats's contention that life was the better for it. This moment is one Yeats wants to celebrate and pass on to us. This passage appears in the same poem as the claim that Phidias was more important than the galleys at Salamis, and the connection Yeats is drawing should be crystal clear: Pearse summoning Cuchulain to his side is juxtaposed with and clearly to be compared to this seminal event in Western civilization. The 1916 rebellion, I take it, is comparable to the defeat of the Persians at Salamis, the birth of a nation through the defeat of an Empire. But the implicit parallel also suggests that as Phidias's work in defining the ideal forms of Greek civilization was more important than Salamis, so too Yeats's work in defining the forms of the Irish Renaissance was more important than the Easter Rebellion.

The Irish Revolution and the cultural revival which preceded it constituted the first important moment in the twentieth century in which poetry and politics are in significant relation and in which the work of a great poet responds to and actively shapes important political events. For after one cuts through some of the self-absorption in Yeats's poems, one does have to concede that in crucial respects Yeats was right. No material, economic or political facts about the relation between the British Empire and Ireland made the success of the Irish Revolution probable or even conceivable. The political struggle of 1916 to 1923 which won Ireland independence was unthinkable without the cultural revival which came before. In this respect, these poets were legislators of this particular world, nor were they entirely unacknowledged: when one walks into the Dublin Post Office today, there is a statue of Cuchulain. Life imitated art, and now on a smaller scale life is imitating art about how life imitated art.

This story — in which a group of cultural nationalists recover folk-cultural traditions, repudiate metropolitan norms of the Empire in which they live, produce nation-

alistically inspired work and help create a sense of national identity which helps create a nation-state — is not unique. The map of Europe carved at Versailles, Woodrow Wilson's Europe, was full of new countries made up of nations who had had a linguistic and cultural but no political existence for centuries, if not forever. As the Russian, Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman Empires collapsed, nations became nation-states and Poland, Finland, Latvia, Estonia et al. re-emerged or emerged for the first time from the ashes. There are many comparisons to be drawn between the Irish Literary Revival and developments in these countries in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, though of course in other countries other forms of artistic expression such as music or painting took the pride of place assigned to literature in Ireland. Yet Ireland is unique in one crucial respect: the other states created in Europe after 1918 had viable national languages to return to. Despite some fascinating counterexamples (Kafka and Rilke above all), for the most part the importance of the former imperial languages quickly receded, and the rich cultural life of these new nations took place in their native languages, newly restored to a governmental as well as cultural role.

The English, always more efficient in these matters than anyone else (in a way which renders the generally more favourable impression of British Imperialism all the more incomprehensible), had virtually eradicated Irish as a spoken language in Ireland. This meant that the Irish literature which created the Irish Renaissance was written in English and Irish was not — despite great efforts which continue today — restored as the actual functional national language. This has had crucial if unforeseen consequences for all of literature in English: even if the Irish of the Literary Revival considered themselves primarily writing to an Irish audience, they weren't read exclusively or even primarily by themselves. They wrote in the emerging world language of English, by now the official language of countries located on every inhabited continent, spread around the globe in the first instance by the very Imperial power they opposed in their work. There are long-term consequences here we will consider at the end of this essay, but the short-term consequence was that the Irish literature of the early twentieth century — as the most powerful and influential body of writing in English — became central to the movement we now know as modernism.

One reason why this matters is that Anglo-American modernism is the second key moment in the literary history of the twentieth century when poetry and politics intersect fatefully. But this is an intersection which is considerably more troubling than the link between the Irish Literary Revival and the Irish Revolution. At once one of the best-known and yet least understood facts about modernist literature in English is that many of the major modernist writers displayed considerable sympathy — even support — for fascism. Just to review the major cases: Yeats, well after the period of the Irish Revolution, supported the closest thing Ireland ever had to a fascist movement, O'Duffy's Blue Shirts, and though Yeats, too, died before the war, in 1939, some of his final poems and prose works seem to welcome a Nazi victory and in their support of eugenics are unpleasantly close to Nazi thought in some crucial respects. D. H. Lawrence's poetry, fiction and essays after the war are consistently anti democratic, and although his explicit references to fascism are negative, many commentators have followed Bertrand Russell in accusing him of fascist leanings. T. S. Eliot moved from the received anti-semitism of his early poetry to an endorsement of Charles Maurras' Action Française in the 1920s, before adopting the Christian traditionalism in the 1930s that led to the powerful evocations of the British experience of the Second World War in Four Quartets. Wyndham Lewis wrote a book in praise of Hitler in 1930, Hitler, and though he backed away from that position as the 1930s went on, he contributed to the British Union Quarterly as late as 1937, and Auden's description of him in this period as a 'lonely old volcano of the right' seems apt enough. But Lewis, like Eliot, chose the Allied side firmly enough once war was declared. It was left to Ezra Pound to carry the modernist flirtation with fascism to its logical extreme: Pound, by far the most fervent supporter of fascism of all these writers before the war, broadcast from Rome Radio throughout the war until the fall of Rome to the Allies, continued propaganda work in favour of the Axis until his capture in 1945, and spent the next thirteen years in an insane asylum as the only alternative to being tried and possibly executed for treason.

Pound obviously poses the question of the relation between fascism and modernism most sharply, but given the larger context just sketched, the relation seems to be a real one not just because of Pound. However, it should also be understood that there is nothing in the least necessary about this connection between modernism and fascism, for James Joyce — as central to any definition of modern Irish literature as Yeats and to modernism as Ezra Pound — had impeccable anti-fascist credentials and composed in Ulysses the most prescient analysis in literature in English of how anti-semitism and nationalism could lead to something like the Holocaust. However, this is not to argue for a disconnection between the Irish cultural revival and the intersection of modernism with fascism. The two most significant moments where poetry and politics intersected themselves intersect in significant ways.

Modernist writers became distinctly more interested in politics after the First World War, as should occasion little surprise, since it seemed only a matter of self-interest to analyse the causes of the war and see what could prevent its reoccurrence. The response of writers to the actual war is outside the scope of this essay, given the 'Poetry and War' essay also included in this volume (chapter 5), but suffice it to say that most modernists who survived the war were left convinced that substantial changes in the structure of European society were desirable, probably essential. In Kangaroo Lawrence wrote of the war-atmosphere in England, 'No man who has really consciously lived through this can believe again absolutely in democracy'.

Inspired by the Irish example which showed that poets could have an effect on society, modernist writers sought to align themselves with forces of social change which left an important place for art and the artist. The Marxist tradition — as we have already seen — left no such place, and although modernist art flourished in the early period of the Russian Revolution, few modernists in English-speaking countries were convinced (or remained convinced for more than a moment) that the Soviet example was one to follow. Thus, when modernist writers turned to politics, they looked therefore to a political theory and movement that shared their rejection of economism. They were therefore by and large hostile to the values and beliefs of orthodox liberalism as well as to Marxism. The only political movement with any viability in their youth before the First World War that assigned anything like the place to art and ideology they did was the political tradition of anarcho-syndicalism, in particular the work of the heterodox French socialist Georges Sorel. Sorel broke sharply with orthodox (what we now call 'vulgar') Marxism over the base—superstructure model and the secondary role for culture that this model entailed. For Sorel, ideas were not simply determined by the base but had a vital effect on it. People in their actions were powerfully directed and motivated by the ideas they had about what would happen, by the myths — to use Sorel's phrase — that they held to be true. Ideas literally made things happen, and the figures who best showed how ideas influence events were the inventor and the artist. Sorel nicely turned Marxism on its head when he suggested that the Marxist notion of the inevitability of the revolution was just such a Sorelian myth, not an objective truth but a construct designed to direct future action, though — as Sorel suggested — it wasn't a very good myth since it was likely to induce passivity in the proletariat: if the revolution was inevitable, why fight for it?

Syndicalism as an organized movement flourished before the war, primarily in France and Italy, not in English-speaking countries, although Guild Socialism was a variant of anti-statist socialism in Britain with links to syndicalism. What happened to the syndicalists after the war? Syndicalism remained an important element of the anti-Marxist left, but after the success of the Russian Revolution in 1917, the antiMarxist left sharply diminished in importance compared to the Marxist tradition. Many syndicalists — following some swerves of Sorel himself just before the war — switched from the left to the right of the political spectrum and became fascists as fascism became a coherent political force first in Italy and then in other countries in the 1920s and 1930s. Benito Mussolini himself is, of course, the most famous example of this: he was the editor of Avanti! and a leading if somewhat heterodox Italian socialist before the war, but he discovered the power of both nationalism and violence during the war and became the founder of fascism. But he is far from the only such figure, and Sorel's influence was felt at both ends of the political spectrum in the postwar years. It must be said that the precise relationship between syndicalism and fascism remains controversial. On the one hand, it has been argued that Sorel's stress on violence and on action is a close prefiguration of fascism and that much of the irrationality of fascism can be traced back to Sorel. Clearly, Mussolini and other leading Italian fascist ideologues liked to trace their intellectual ancestry back to Sorel and even to claim that fascism was the true heir of nineteenth-century socialism. But it has also been argued that these claims were largely intellectual camouflage, that fascist practice owed little or nothing to syndicalism, that syndicalism was only window-dressing to make the regime appeal to a broader spectrum of Italian society and world opinion.

But the precise relation of Sorel's ideas to fascist practice is less important for our purposes than the fact that the politics of Anglo-American modernism — as difficult to summarize as it is — is best summarized as a kind of Sorelian politics, which like Sorel's own influence retained leftist affinities but after 1918 was largely of the right. James Joyce and Wyndham Lewis — both off to one side here, given our focus on poetry — are Sorelian in their politics, in Joyce's case influenced by the Italian syndicalism of his youth, in Lewis's case more directly by Sorel himself and by T. E. Hulme. If I may oversimplify a little in the interests of space, I regard Joyce as a classic Sore-lian of the left, Lewis as close to Sorel himself in oscillating between the left and the right, while Ezra Pound is the classic type of the Sorelian intellectual who began on the left but moved most emphatically to the right. Pound's initial political socialization was as a contributor to the Guild Socialist periodical The New Age, and any reader of The New Age, let alone a regular contributor, would have been introduced to the full anti-statist left's critique of Marxism, Fabianism and economistic leftism. T. E. Hulme was of course a central figure in this group as well, and he was an ardent Sorelian, translating Sorel's Reflections on Violence into English. (Through Hulme, Sorel had a strong influence on T. S. Eliot, who listed Reflections on Violence and Hulme's own collection of essays, Speculations, as two of the six exemplifications of the neo-classicism he advocated in Criterion in 1924.) As The New Age shifted to the right after the First World War, so did Pound, first to the theories of Social Credit (discovered by Pound in The New Age) and other theories of monetary reform, and then after his move to Italy in 1924, increasingly to Italian fascism.

Throughout his support of Italian fascism, moreover, the themes of Pound's economics remained deeply syndicalist, in his preference for the industrialist or active capitalist over the banker or passive capitalist, in his fascination with inventions and with technical progress and in his stress on the need for action. Although Pound was enthralled by the personality of Mussolini, and this was a major factor in his support of Italian fascism, his closest political affinities in Italian politics were with forms of 'left fascism' at some remove from the official politics of the regime, such as those advocated by his friend and former syndicalist Odon Por. However, it was comparatively easy to imagine Italian fascism (Nazi Germany offers a stark contrast here) as Sorelian in one respect at least, in the key roles in fascism played by artists and intellectuals. The novelist Gabriele D'Annunzio has been called the 'John the Baptist' of fascism, the philosopher Giovanni Gentile served as the Minister of Education, and the founder of futurism and Pound's friend F. T. Marinetti was a key supporter of the regime. Fascism, in short, was aligned with forces of artistic modernity in a way no other political regime in the 1930s was. Pound, at least, returned the compliment, coming close to losing his life and certainly wrecking it by his fanatical and life-long support of Il Duce.

If Yeats is unquestionably the greatest and most influential Irish poet of the twentieth century and Pound is arguably the greatest and unquestionably the most influential American poet of the twentieth century, then one can certainly draw the conclusion that some of the century's most important poetry stands in close relation to the politics of its time. Yet the conclusions one might want to draw from these two important examples would be very different. Surely, if poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world and the antennae of the race, the generally optimistic view one might draw from this relation in the case of Yeats and Irish politics does not survive the example of Pound and fascism. Some antennae point in the wrong direction, and some legislators are better off unacknowledged.

It is at least fortunate that Pound was substantially unacknowledged, and no one has claimed or can claim for Pound the kind of generative role vis-a-vis fascism (in Italy or in the English-speaking world) which Yeats had in Ireland. Life emphatically did not imitate the art of Ezra Pound. This was not for lack of trying, but the circle around Mussolini had grave reservations about Pound's sanity even while giving him the forum of Rome Radio, and though he had a few followers in the United States, he had essentially no influence on the events he sought so desperately to influence. There are two conclusions to draw from this, and both would certainly be correct. First, the kind of role Yeats played in Ireland is much easier to play in a small, emerging country than on a world stage. Second, it was Cathleen Ni-Houlihan, not A Vision or 'The Statues', which had the effect on Irish society Yeats sought, at least at moments in his career. Aesthetically complex art of the kind produced in modernism is much less likely to influence political events than works written in simpler, more popular modes. Although I would argue that Pound's Cantos is a deeply fascist poem, it was also too complex to have significant influence as it was being written, an altogether unintended but desirable consequence of Pound's commitment to modernist aesthetics.

The English reader of this essay will have noted the almost complete absence of English poets in my discussion so far. But England's turn now comes, in the work of the first generation of poets after modernism, the 'Auden generation', who constitute the third and in an important sense the last moment in which a central movement in the literary history of the twentieth century intersects with a central movement in political history. The Auden generation (or even the 'Auden gang' in some accounts) — W. H. Auden, C. Day Lewis, Stephen Spender, Louis MacNeice, with the novelist Christopher Isherwood as a crucial component — was born between 1904 and 1909. This means that they came to maturity after the war but were deeply marked by it; they also came to maturity after the flowering of modernism but were also deeply marked by it. I think it is fair to say that they understood and absorbed only one of the differences between Yeats and Pound which accounted for the differences in the effectualness of the two poets. The poets in the 1930s understood that if they were to have any influence on political events, they needed to work with aesthetic models which were less complex than the High Modernism of Eliot and Pound, even though Eliot was a crucial mentor for the group. However, they failed to develop anything like Yeats's productive relationship to the forces of nationalism, as Auden implicitly acknowledged in his elegy, 'In Memory of W. B. Yeats', when he wrote 'mad Ireland hurt you into poetry'. Clearly situated on the left and part of the Marxist left, the Auden group were not in a position where nationalism and a revolutionary politics were compatible. Ever since 1917, Marxism was synonymous with a sympathetic attitude towards the Soviet Union, the only living example of a socialist state, and in the crucial years of 1936 to 1939, it was even more closely identified with a sympathetic attitude towards the Spanish Republic. This constitutes a crucial break with the internationalism of pre-1914 socialism, but these particular commitments to specific nation-states incumbent on any Marxist between the two world wars were not compatible with English or British cultural or political nationalism. In other words, there were countries you were supposed to care about, but they didn't include your own. The widespread sardonic commentary on Auden and Isherwood's emigration to the United States at the onset of the Second World War represented these particular chickens coming home to roost, and the fact that the Christopher Isherwood figure of Goodbye to Berlin is transformed into an American in the musical adaptation Cabaret without this feeling like a significant change makes this point in another way. It was George Orwell who showed how one could amalgamate leftist politics with cultural nationalism in the 1930s, even if this alliance didn't survive 1945, and not surprisingly his alliances among the left were with the syndicalist tradition.

It is the orientation towards Marxism, however, which most sharply differentiates the Auden generation from their modernist predecessors. The question of how genuine their commitment to the Communist Party ever was has been the subject of considerable debate in the subsequent years, and certainly one is not to imagine that these young men had a thorough command of Marxist political thinking. But to use some of the jargon of the time, they were clearly identified as 'pink' if not deep 'red', and this commitment strengthened until the Spanish Civil War and Auden's catastrophic and disillusioning experiences there. I can't say, however, that their work represented any solution to the problems posed by the dominant economism of Marxism. Not well read enough in the socialist tradition to have discovered some of the alternatives to the base-superstructure reflection model proposed in the 1920s by such thinkers as Antonio Gramsci or Hendrik de Man, they did not successfully imagine a productive role for a Marxist poetry in the absence of a role for poetry in Marxism. Auden - clearly the most significant poet of the group - came to regard his politically engaged work of the 1930s as a profound aesthetic embarrassment, and he did his level best to excise that work from his canon. 'September 1, 1939' describes the 1930s as 'a low dishonest decade', and Auden came to see much of his own work written in the 1930s as contained in that description. The contrast between Yeats's willingness to dwell on his own earlier work at the end of his life with a complex mixture of fondness and detachment, and Auden's excision of 'September 1, 1939', 'Spain 1937' and other of his most influential poems of the period from his Collected Shorter Poems, is instructive. Although it is certainly to Auden's credit that he came to view phrases like 'The conscious acceptance of guilt in the necessary murder' from 'Spain 1937' with distaste, even revulsion, it is probably not to his credit that he wrote such lines in the first place. There are turns in all writers' careers, but the turn of the Auden generation away from politics was a recognition that their political poetry failed as poetry and also failed as politics. Yeats could dwell with some satisfaction on his success, but to the degree that Auden's political poetry succeeded in having an effect on its time, this was not a source of comfort for Auden after the war.

There are certainly critics who are more sympathetic to the Popular Front aesthetics of the 1930s than I am, and they would certainly see more enduring value in the poetry of the 1930s than I can see. However, it is certainly fair to say that the work of the 'Auden gang' of the 1930s hasn't fared particularly well in the literary 'stock market' of the last generation, although I leave it up to you whether to judge that decline to be a fair estimation of a movement which hasn't translated well or an evaluation ripe to be overturned and challenged. Nonetheless, the work of this group of poets did have an enormous effect on the life and society of its times, shaping perhaps not a whole nation but certainly decisively influential for a whole generation's investment in the anti-fascist struggles of the 1930s. But as the overture of Spain gave way to the much larger conflict of 1939 to 1945, neither Auden — newly denizened in the United States — nor his contemporaries successfully responded to the war in their poetry. It was that cosmopolitan High Modernist transformed into a pillar of the English establishment, T. S. Eliot, who in Four Quartets composed the enduring poetic English response to the event of the war.

After 1945, I cannot claim that any of the major poets in Anglo-American culture have written poetry which has substantively engaged with the major political events of their time. Robert Lowell opposed the war in Vietnam and was widely known for that opposition, but it was not in or through his poetry that he opposed the war. Despite the theoretical perspective I began by sketching which denies that one can separate poetry from the political, it must be said that the poets writing at the same time as these theorists have certainly thought they could and have not for the most part sought to engage directly in their work with political events.

The exception is Ireland, but it isn't just Ireland. In 1900, English was spoken all over the world, but it was spoken in just two political entities, the British Empire and the United States. English is spoken even more widely today, but the British Empire has gone the way of the Austro-Hungarian, the Russian and the Turkish, so that the territory which formerly constituted the Empire is now something upwards of forty distinct nations. The sun may have set on the British Empire, but the proud boast can be recast: the sun never sets on countries where they speak and write English as a result of the British Empire. A few of these are the former Dominions, with a population comprised mostly of European immigrants, but the vast majority are former colonies, with a population mostly made up of the people who were there before the British arrived and started to issue imperatives to them in English. These countries are therefore more like Yeats's Ireland than they are like Auden's England: although most of them retain indigenous languages like the former colonies of Austria, Russia and Turkey, nonetheless given English's role as a world language, most have kept an official place for English as well. These nations have rivalled the Irish in using the English language more brilliantly in literature than the English or the Americans, and the 'post-colonial' literature which has emerged — represented by such writers as Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka, Nuruddin Farah, R. K. Narayan, Salman

Rushdie, V. S. Naipaul, Derek Walcott, just to name a few — constitutes the significant literature in English of our time and of the past half-century. Writing literally in medias res, I cannot cull out of this complex literature, made up of writers born on and resident in every continent, with many different languages, religions and cultures, a literary history composed of organized groups with anything like the cohe-siveness of the Irish Literary Revival or the Auden generation. However, it is among these writers that we find the writers significantly engaged with the politics of their place and time. The novel has been the dominant genre of post-colonial literature, not poetry, but Seamus Heaney in Northern Ireland, Wole Soyinka in Nigeria, Kamau Brathwaite in the Caribbean — to name a prominent few — have composed bodies of poetry which intersect profoundly with the political trajectories of their society. Of the movements of work discussed in this essay, it has been the Irish of the Literary Revival who have had the most profound influence on these writers, since they find themselves in situations not unlike the Irish one of the first quarter of the twentieth century. However, Wole Soyinka writing in A Shuttle in the Crypt about his imprisonment for questioning the military junta in Nigeria and the Biafran War takes us into dimensions of the human experience not found previously in poetry in English. This is where poetry and politics continue to intersect most profoundly, often because most tragically: stay tuned in the twenty-first century for what happens next.

Bibliography

Auden, W. H. (1966), Collected Shorter Poems: 1927-1957. London: Faber & Faber.

Casillo, Robert (1988), The Genealogy of Demons: Anti-Semitism, Fascism, and the Myths of Ezra Pound. Evanston: Northwestern University Press.

Chace, William (1973), The Political Identities of Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Cullingford, Elizabeth (1981), Yeats, Ireland and Fascism. New York: NYU Press.

De Man, Henry (1929), The Psychology of Socialism. Trans. Eden & Cedar Paul. London: Allen & Unwin.

Eliot, T. S. (1971), The Complete Poems and Plays: 1909-1950. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World.

Howarth, Herbert (1958), The Irish Writers, 1880-1940: Literature under Parnell's Star. London: Rockliff.

Hulme, T. E. (1924), Speculations: Essays on Humanism and the Philosophy of Art. Herbert Read (ed.). London: Routledge & Kegan Paul. Lawrence, D. H. (1964). Kangaroo. New York: Viking.

Lewis, Wyndham (1989), The Art of Being Ruled. Reed Way Dasenbrock (ed.). Santa Rosa: Black Sparrow Press. Pound, Ezra (1975), The Cantos. London: Faber & Faber.

Sorel, Georges (1950), Reflections on Violence. Trans. T. E. Hulme & J. Roth. Glencoe: Free Press.

Soyinka, Wole (1972), A Shuttle in the Crypt. New

York: Hill and Wang. Yeats, William Butler (1972), Collected Plays.

London: Macmillan. Yeats, William Butler (1953), The Collected Poems. London: Macmillan.

Was this article helpful?

0 0

Post a comment