Mole Valley Poets - Meeting 24th September 2012
Tony Earnshaw: The Thirties' Poets
An influential generation. Left leaning, between wars, moving away from old
forms. Sometimes referred to as the Auden group, though they were never a
group. MacSpaunday - MacNeice, Spender, Auden, Day Lewis - at the core.
Inspired by T S Eliot but felt betrayed by his espousal of high Anglicanism.
Penguin published 'Poetry of the Thirties' in 1964, edited by Robin Skelton
and the notes and comments are largely his, taken from his introduction. I
have also broken up the poems into sections following the structure of that
collection. I've tried to cover not only the main poets but a broader range.
A lot of poets, and therefore poems. So the surrounding verbiage is précised.
- Define Thirties poetry
- poems published between 1.1.30 and 31.12.39; poems appearing in any book published in 1940;
- poets born between 1904 and 1916 - based in part on the central figures and designed to exclude poets writing in the thirties who were writing from a different viewpoint, with different sensitivities - eg older Victorian/Edwardian poets
- central figures Auden, Day Lewis, Spender, MacNeice but also Betjeman, Gascoyne, Todd etc. The youngest poet 'of any weight' to have a first collection published by the end of the 30s was Gascoyne, b 1916
- defining truth for this generation was no real experience of the pre war period (debatable? Some of them would have spent much of their childhood pre war)
- they were 'pitchforked into a world of intense social tension' - war, embittered peace, general strike, depression
- Skelton 'astonished by narrow range of attitudes' - partly due to dominance of Auden and friends. Dominance of war imagery
- Socialism, social communism (Michael Roberts phrase), revolution all feature - and can give the impression that the whole country (these are all British poets) was left leaning - election results do not support this hypothesis
- A common theme - the bourgeoisie must expect some pain, a penance, before they can enjoy the blessings of the new order
- Something slightly adolescent in the use of phrases like 'the Struggle', 'The Enemy' etc
- The poets themselves were pretty well all bourgeois themselves and often embarrassed about it
- All this underscored the twin obsessions of the idea of community and the notion of war. The Spanish Civil War usefully combined both these interests. Although the Republican Government was not at first Communist led the rebellion of the generals could be seen as the attack of reactionary capitalism on progressive socialism. The Sp War was a symbol become reality, the class struggle and also the struggle of the artists against the philistines (the Fascists murdered Lorca. Picasso supported the Government). Skelton suggests that for the intelligentsia the Second World War was almost an anticlimax after
- Many of their poets visited Spain, some fought, Auden went as a stretcher bearer, Spender as a broadcaster for a defunct radio station. 'Contemporary Poetry and Prose' had 'ARMS FOR SPAIN' as its back cover and closed when the editor went to Spain
- Less enthusiasm over WW II - Warning from Rupert Brooke (pg 20)
- 'the left wing writers were not happy…. But old habits reasserted themselves'…'It is characteristic of the thirties that the poets (with the rather embarrassing exception of Auden who had already begun his career as an American) entered the war against Hitler as evangelists entering, and exhorting others to enter, a somewhat purgatorial moral gymnasium'
- all these are generalisation but there was a self conscious 'group' think - eg Day Lewis writing articles propagandising for poetry in the service of
socialism and featuring his own work plus Auden, Spender and MacNeice; the concept of a 'natural leader' (p222); the way Auden featured in poems by others;
- antipathy to poets who didn't meet the groups criteria - the downfall of Eliot (p 26 parody); the feud with Edith Sitwell - 'aristocratic by birth and by assertion she could not fail to rile the left wingers'. Also she presented an image of a poet which was far more effective theatrically than anything a thirties man could dare to invent
I. 'In Our Time'
"Come then companions, this is the spring of blood,
heart's heyday, movement of masses, beginning of good", - Rex Warner, 'Hymn'
Song for the New Year - W H Auden (47)
The Magnetic Mountain - C Day Lewis (49)
II. 'The Landscape'
The Pylons - Stephen Spender (99)
III. 'To Walk With Others'
'I think continually ..' - Spender (111)
'Carol' - John Short (114)
'Death in Leamington' - John Betjeman (121)
'Public House Confidence' - Norman Cameron (127)
IV. 'And I remember Spain'
'Autumn journal' - Louis MacNeice (160)
'A moment of war' - Laurie Lee (149)
'A thousand killed' - Bernard Spencer (141)
V. 'As for ourselves'
'I have longed to move away' - Dylan Thomas (185)
'Lay your sleeping head' - Auden (191)
'Reflection from Anita Loos' - William Empson (184)
VI. 'When Logics Die'
'And death shall have no dominion' - Dylan Thomas (216)
'Animal Crackers in your croup' - Roger Roughton (239)
VII. 'Hair between the toes'
'Apotheosis of a hero' - Ruthven Todd (268)
'The progress of poetry' - Christopher Caudwell (265)
VIII. 'Farewell Chorus'
'The sunlight on the garden' - MacNeice (273)
'It was easier' - Ruthven Todd (275)
"And so Goodbye, grim Thirties. These your closing days
Have shown a new light. Motionless and far
And clear as ice, to our sore riddled eyes;
And we see certain truths now, which the fear
Aroused by earlier circumstances could but compromise,
Concerning all men's lives. Beyond despair
May we take wiser leave of you, knowing disasters' cause."
From Farewell Chorus by David Gascoyne
Tony Earnshaw September 2012