From Ancient Greece to the man on the Clapham omnibus

For over two years I used Arnold Bennett’s self-help book Literary Taste to find out if, a century after the book’s publication, it was possible to create my own literary taste. To carry on the experiment, I will now read the books reviewed by Arnold Bennett in the Evening Standard from 1926 to 1931 in his weekly column, Books and Persons. To bring a little personal perspective I will, where possible, draw on entries from his personal journals. This week, Gilbert Murray’s The Classical Tradition in Poetry. 

Can you imagine a contemporary newspaper, whose daily readership is measured in millions, publishing as its weekly book review a piece on the importance of classical traditions in the writing of poetry? Neither can I. That is what The Evening Standard did on the 19th of January 1928 when it published Arnold Bennett’s review of Gilbert Murray’s The Classical Tradition in Poetry. In the review, Bennett bemoans his own lack of Greek and his tendency to doze off while watching stage productions of Greek plays. However, this does not stop him declaring emphatically:

Here is a book I can recommend.

Frontispiece

What book was it that he was recommending? Gilbert Murray, Professor of Greek at Oxford University, had given the first lectures on poetry as the incumbent of the newly established Charles Eliot Norton Chair of Poetry at Harvard University in the autumn of 1926. These were then republished by the Oxford University Press. Murray’s thesis was that all poetry could be firmly put into the Greek tradition of mimesis, a combination of mimicry and immersion that, like the Greek dancers of the molpe, allowed the poem to become that which it is describing. “The world is born. Homer sings” as Victor Hugo wrote and Murray quotes more than once, each time pointing out Hugo’s error: Homer too had models that he drew from, and these models too had their own models.

What did the  readers (as much as 2 million daily) of The Evening Standard make of it all? Any answer to that question will, I suppose, depend on your opinion of Arnold Bennett, literary taste in 1920s Britain and who could afford a book costing five shillings (as much as £40 if you link it to relative wages in 1928)? My own feeling is that readers of The Evening Standard did not simply turn the page or skim through the review. Gilbert Murray is not well known today, as this Google Book Ngram make only too clear:

The numbers don't lie.

It was a different story back in the 1920s and 30s. Gilbert Murray was not simply a Greek scholar he was also a bit of personality. His work on behalf of the League of Nations, his speeches in favour of disarmament and free trade were reported at length in the Burnley News, the Hull Daily Mail and the Yorkshire Post and Leeds Intelligencer. He was not solely of interest to the metropolitan press. Bennett wrote:

…the Professor has been and is a great civilising influence on the present age. I immensely admire his taste, his moral bases and his achievement. And he emphatically is not narrow-minded. His sympathetic vision can and does embrace many varied manifestations of life, including the modern; he constantly shows this by his allusions and his comparisons.

It is this emphasis on the personal qualities of Gilbert Murray that would, I think, catch the eye of the reader on the London omnibus or underground.

Gilbert Murray National Library of Australia

What did I make of it? I found the chapters on Milton and Shakespeare a challenge; almost overwhelmed by the talk of dochmiacs and dactyl-spondees in the chapter on Metre and sceptical of his links between Hamlet and Orestes. All, I should point out, based on the same knowledge of Greek as had Bennett. Am I glad I read it? Yes I am. His style is clear and limpid. His passion for his subject shines through. He is academic without being exclusive.

On the 24th of January, Bennett saw Noel Coward in comedy The Second Man and declared him “admirable.”

 

There is no ism in review

I am reading the books recommended by Arnold Bennett in his self-help guide Literary Taste: How To Form It, first published in 1909 and reissued in 1938. Can following a prescribed reading list from over a hundred years ago lead to forming a literary taste? A graph is normally included. This week, a review by Arnold Bennett of Laura Riding’s book:

Spanish literary reviews, like the landscape, tend to be somewhat flat. Worthy, serious, detailed they may be, they are also a bit dull. In this week’s literary supplement in El Pais, Babelia, there are five pages on the Spanish literary exiles of the Civil War, a dissection of Picasso’s genius, an Italian writer called Luigi Pintor, an interview with Yasmin Reza, two pages on Edward Hopper, reviews of books about the vanguardista Maruja Mallo, translations of Danish poetry, Spinoza and his century, an anthology of ultraist poetry and two books on slavery; there’s also an article on the novel and masturbation. Take a look at the Saturday Review of The Guardian and there’s an article entitled Amis – national treasure or national embarrassment. The Spanish equivalent would be an article entitled Antonio Muñoz Molina – he’s a bit mental isn’t he?

It’s not going to happen and I think it’s not going to happen because the Spanish literary world, apart from being from being small, is a comfortable one with frequent conferences for the successful writers and respectful reviews for the newcomers. Nobody wants to rock the boat. British literary culture, on the other hand, sometimes appears to be built on the premise of not just rocking the boat but sinking it with heavy naval gunfire. From Wordsworth’s dismissal of Coleridge as a drunkard, Thackeray’s accusations of Dicken’s infidelity to Zadie Smith’s spat with the critic James Wood about contemporary literary theory, the British literary world has been characterised by snide, bitchy, funny and untrue comments. But as Orson Welles pointed out in The Third Man, centuries of peace in Switzerland had led to the invention of the cuckoo clock, whereas thirty years of the Borgias had led to murder, warfare, terror and, of course, Michaelangelo. You can see where that metaphor is leading to, can’t you?

Our man Bennett had his fair share of literary feuds, the one with Virginia Woolf being possibly the most famous and the one with his neighbour’s cat that shat in his beetroot being less well-known (the beetroot was in the jar, not in the garden). Considering that he had a regular review column in the The Evening Standard from 1926 to 1931 and was one of Britain’s most influential book critics (if not the most influential critic) it is surprising that he did not have more. I think he largely escaped the backbiting gossip because his reviews drew on his love of reading and he wrote without rancor. They are in a word disarming, Consider this from the first of March, 1928. Reviewing Laura Riding’s Contemporaries and Snobs (Cape, 7s 6d), he wrote:

…Miss Riding possesses intellectual power; also some intelligence. Also various defects. I shall not attempt to state her theory of modernist poetry. In order to do so, I should have to read the book again, and I would not read it again for £100. The book is metaphysics. I think it would interest Mr. Bertrand Russell, who probably alone in England is capable of grappling with it effectively.

I am sure Miss Riding gained extra readers from this review, probably declaring “What is good for Mr. Russell is good enough for me.”

I could read a book of these reviews, which is what I am doing. Arnold Bennett: The Evening Standard Years, edited by Andrew Mylett (Chatto and Windus, ). Long out of print, it is well worth tracking down on Alibris or Abebooks. The voice of the intelligent middlebrow, Bennett is never less than chatty in tone and engaging in content. He is a raconteur of literary anecdotes which are at odd with the stammer he suffered from. The gods, being Greek, have, if nothing else, a keen sense of irony.

The cat, I’m afraid, is an invention. But in the alternative universe which skips behind our own, that cat marvels at his ability to open a jar of beetroot and shit in it.

Laura Riding was, on the other hand, very real. Poet (although she later renounced her poetry), critic, partner of Robert Graves, she lived until the ripe old age of 90, dying in Florida in 1991.

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