From New International, Vol.2 No.4, pp.143-144.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.
COLLECTED POEMS: 1929-1933: A Hope for Poetry
by C. Day Lewis
256 pp. New York. Random House. $2.50.
It has become more or less the rule that an infraction of literary discipline by a member of the “group”, such as an aptitude on the part of one for saying something clear, will meet with hostility from those other members who perform literary operations, major and minor, each week or each month in the literary periodicals moving toward the Left. However, in Lewis we do not have such a hardy venturer in prose; he has assembled in his essay A Hope for Poetry some badly digested scholarship on communism, many obvious truths and untruths, overstatements and nonsense. His choice has been his own. He gives advice for poetical scholarship and the following laws must be observed: the lyric is pure poetry and cannot deal with other than those elements that give to it that purity:
“The poet’s chief aim, then, is to communicate not the exact detail of an experience, but its tone and rhythm.”
“We may be insensitive to the first effect of a poem, it’s pure communication, yet be interested by something else in it.”
The implications are readily seen, the marriage of Art to Propaganda is now being granted its divorce papers and each can go its way; propaganda has been too steadily infringing and cannot be disciplined; therefore a sense of purity must be established. There has been propaganda but no art, or bad art and thus worse propaganda; now the thing to do is to grow lyrical, and in lyricism, according to Lewis, one is scot free to tickle the clouds for rain and not get wet. A further idea is developed: the sprouting buds of modern poetry, meaning none other than Auden, Spender, Lewis, MacNeice, Charles Madge, etc., were first sown into the soil by Wilfred Owen, the poet killed in France in 1918, who left as a heritage such powerful lines as:
Whose world is but the trembling of a flare
Lewis develops the following idea. Gerald Manley Hopkins, the innovator and experimentalist in poetry, a Jesuit, was the Father; to Owen’s is given the task of remaining a Holy Ghost; and to T.S. Eliot the lot of the Son. Owen was slaughtered in 1918, the year that Hopkins’ poems were first published in book form. Though Hopkins died in 1899, an affinity is established by some ardent writing. The essay contains many valuable illustrations of this affinity, the liege line being Hopkins to Eliot (for technique) and to Owen for the nerve centers of the body poetry. There is however in practise but one sad mistake; despite all the praise that has been showered on Auden as a satirist, he is rendered null and void – for all his brilliance – and Lewis is included; they seldom equal the clarity and beauty of the stirring poems that Owen wrote in the trenches. Spender is excepted, he has more of the tradition, of that irony and bitterness, and is not spoiled by the scholarly attitude of the caustic pedants. The preface that Lewis has taken as his inheritance from Owen is:
“This book is not about heroes. English poetry is not yet fit to speak of them. Nor is it about deeds or lands, nor anything about glory, honor, dominion or power, except War.”
Lewis and Auden have generally made a mockery of this testament, the power of insurrectionary images, the rising tones, the anger and emotional participation, does not exist for them, but there is a great deal of cleverness in Lewis, to wit,
Those Himalayas of the mind
The opening Transitional Poem which pursues a phantom of intellectual single-mindedness, which for definition rests on the following four phases of experience; metaphysical, ethical, psychological and the experience as a whole fused with the poetic impulse. The poem itself failing to arrive at any conclusion or definiteness is forced to include an index of references, from Deuteronomy, Spinoza, Wyndham Lewis and Sophie Tucker, her contribution being,
“There are going to be some changes made today.”
There are some fine lines, some forceful bantering and some excellent wines are served up – for headaches, but these come after the headaches:
Oh subterranean fires, break out!
There is a wealth of poetry here, a horrible confusion however exists which cannot translate its powers to the average reader, because of the preoccupation that Lewis has with the problem of technique. His search for forms endangers the merits of his poetry. Auden and Lewis could well learn from Eliot that a certain pose and nobility of line is not enough, a lofty-reaching rhythm is not to be feared, but it must be invested with no sundry digressions. The form is not essentially the poem, but the poem makes the form, and clarity above all else has its own forms.
Last updated on 31.7.2006