Dr Johnson (observed by Hogarth) - see below...
This will be the first of a set of intermittent posts on a particular subject I am determined to think about, and, if possible to make some sense of. I think I'll have to begin on an uncertain autobiographical note then see where it leads.
At a certain - or uncertain - point in my early poetic career - is 'career' the word? do poets have careers? - well, let's say career anyway, I came to the realisation, or what I thought was a realisation (you can see how uncertain this is), that the reason my poems often sounded wrong was because the English language wanted to say 'English' things and I was trying to write like a translation of something else, possibly French.
This was not an easy realisation because it meant I had to change.
From 'realisation' to resolution is a short but heavy step, so I set out, in rather a conscious way, to write in English as it was written and mostly heard, that is to say in a kind of classless (or what I took to be classless) standard English. That is, as such a thing might have looked in about 1974.
In truth, I doubt whether it was quite standard English or standard anything, but there was enough of 'English' in it to push it through some barrier. It was perhaps a belated attempt at socialisation, a moving out of myself, whatever that was, into something in which language rather than self, was to be the main actor. In any case, it made a lot of difference. It was from that point on the poems began to appear in magazines and, eventually, books.
There has been a great deal written about the nature of Englishness, mostly since Britain started to break up, and I don't want to go over that ground again. Enough to say that, to me, the term 'English' implied a certain kind of relationship between the sensible world and the words that conjured or referred to it. This was not the logical conclusion of a painstaking investigation: it was an apprehension.
What I want really to think about now is what it was I thought I was hearing, how and where it was embodied, how far it was simply a product of its time, and how far it was imaginable as 'English'. I don't suppose I would have thought about it at all if I had been born English. It would have been the air I breathed, and chances are it would have been more specific, more localised, less standard. But I was without locality, without class. I had partly to imagine the air.
Nikolaus Pevsner's The Englishness of English Art was first given as a set of Reith Lectures in 1955. It was expanded and annotated for publication by the Architectural Press in 1956, and appeared in the Peregrine edition I have in 1964. Pevsner's chapter divisions, apart from introductions and conclusions, are as follows:
1. Hogarth and Observed Life
2. Reynolds and Detachment
3. Perpendicular England
4. Blake and the Flaming Line
5. Constable and the Pursuit of Nature
6. Picturesque England
I don't necessarily assume that Pevsner had got English art tabbed, but there is something in the above list, even if it isn't enough. Maybe it will help me a little with the poetry too. No doubt, I shall find out.