Tuesday, 12 August 2008

The Englishness of English Poetry 2

That's three posts today which might indicate far too much time on my hands but I am in fact translating fiction. It's going very well. I am moving fast through gorgeous, apparently simple prose, but I do need to take the odd break so, in between Márai and heavy showers alternating with flashes of bright sunshine, I have been coming back to this question, particularly via Pevsner.

One useful way to go about this might be to take Pevsner's categories one by one, quote a few key excerpts from him as a description, then see if that makes sense in poetry. It should do so, shouldn't it? But even if it does, will the case hold with twentieth century and contemporary work.

So to Pevsner and his first chapter:

Hogarth and Observed Life

Now this decision of Hogarth [to produce his great series of paintings and engravings of social life] has several aspects specially significant in relation to his Englishness. One is his resolution to turn away from the Grand Manner and the subjects connected with it. It was a wise resolution; for England has indeed never been happy with the Grand Manner… the character of the English was against it too; that quality perhaps which shows in understatement and reticence, and certainly another and apparently more permanent quality: common sense or reason.

Hogarth agreed with Dr Johnson, who once said: “I had rather see the portrait of a dog I know than all the allegories you can show me.”

“…to Hogarth art is a medium for preaching … the most effective sermon is the recounting of what the observant eye sees around.”

Pevsner then picks Gillray, Rowlandson, Millais, Holman Hunt, Ford Madox Brown as preachers.

He has a separate list of observers: Constable, Turner, Cozens, Cotman, Frith, Joseph Wright of Derby, (but where is Stubbs?)

He talks about “the English interest in the everyday world observed” in psalteries and misericords.

Finally he moves from these to the rationalism and plainness of the industrial revolution, such as Paxton’s Crystal Palace.

So the question is: if this is a valid grouping how do the poets fit in? Who would go in this category?

Would Chaucer be at home here? Would, say, Pope and Dryden? Would John Clare? Or Robert Browning? The territory lies somewhere between reportage and social critique. Who represents this in our time? Auden? Peter Porter? (But he's really Australian). Philip Larkin? Peter Reading? Sean O'Brien?... I'll think this over. Any thoughts welcome.


Anonymous said...

The first person to spring to mind is Defoe, of course...

Poets may be a slightly different thing, somehow. Yes, Larkin, Auden. Betjeman. Shakespeare, of course. And Dickens. I think Chaucer certainly, though as has been discussed elsewhere this week, he would probably have been a novelist if there had been novels in his day. Graham Greene. Stevie Smith.

But the very Englishness of this trait may lie in its pervasiveness: even English writers with much more mystical tendencies, Hughes, Lawrence, root their mystical observations in a very earthen set of observations. It's a mysticism that brings you BACK to observed, or even observable, life, rather than taking you away from it.

All this off the top of my still rather dizzy head, of course!

George S said...

I think D H Lawrence and Stevie Smith belong to a fascinating English line of eccentrics, visionaries, small world- and system-makers, partly religious figures, who would include Blake and Peter Redgrove and Penny Shuttle. Smith has a mode of social satire of course but my hunch is, that under it all, she was primarily a religious poet. Earlier examples: Traherne, Langland, Christopher Smart...

No category is clear cut, of course, but to tell the truth this group, which should go under Blake and the Flaming Line, but could be Perpendicular too, is, in many ways, the group that interests me most because I suspect there is an alternative, part suppressed English tradition somewhere along this line.

Elizabeth Jennings here? Maybe Alice Oswald, though she could belong to the Constable chapter.

It is also possible that poets over a lifetime of writing shift categories.

Thank you for the thoughts. Always welcome. Off to Liverpool today where there will be other writers to discuss this with.