It’s the little things that count

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.

When I was a student at university in the 1980s there were no courses on middlebrow literature, the term given to popular novels published in English between 1900 and 1950. I studied history so I can’t say for certain how the English literature courses were structured but I shared digs with a student who was studying Beowulf and Old English. I imagine the degree would then have taken him through Chaucer, Milton, Austen, Hardy and ending at Woolf. Times have changed. The Middlebrow Network website lists 36 academics as either core members or as sitting on the advisory board. Kate Macdonald, writing in a post called Why studying middlebrow matters commented on the reasons for this change in literary studies:

The study of English literature has been enlarging its boundaries radically in the past thirty years. My private theory is that the increase in the numbers of people studying at university level in Britain since the 1990s means that we need more and new research subjects for the ever-rolling stream of PhD students. The academy’s capacity for writing dissertations on Shakespeare, Woolf and Hughes was becoming exhausted under traditional terms of scrutiny. Something happened to allow literary criticism to widen its borders. Now, we study not just what people read, but how people read, why they read, what they thought about what they read, and the marginalia printed all around the important things that people read, which they also read, and were changed by, without noticing. The traditional authors and works are still studied, but the overflow is accommodated most creatively through middlebrow studies.

Middlebrow studies is now a Thing. A Good Thing, in my opinion. From reading Dostoevsky, Camus, Sartre, Borges and Calvino in my twenties, I have returned to the reading tastes of my childhood when I read Biggles novels, the novels of Roman Britain written by Rosemary Sutcliffe, children’s classics such as Stig of the Dump and more modern children’s novels such as A Dog So Small: that is to say, popular fiction. One Thing has replaced another Thing, because this Thing is quite clearly not that Thing.

But not quite. I began reading Arnold Bennett’s Evening Standard reviews with the belief that I would quickly find myself reading the popular novels of the 1920s: those “shockers” that Buchan claimed he wrote. What have I read so far? A tragedy set in an upper class rural family emotionally-at-sea; a tragedy set in eighteenth century Germany that exposed the brutal consequences of anti-semitism and a Russian folktale. And now, I am reading Sacheverell Sitwell’s The Cyder Feast, a collection of self-published poems that link us with the rural world described lovingly in the Georgics of Virgil.

Osbert and Edith Sitwell

From left to right  Sir Osbert Sitwell (1892-1969), Dame Edith (1887-1964), Sacheverell Sitwell (1897-1988). — Image by © Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS

Of the poet, Bennett wrote in his review of the 16th of June, 1927:

I have for years maintained that Sacheverell Sitwell is one of the most original poets of his generation…His mind is not only original but lovely. He never writes anything of which you could positively assert that it was not distinguished. He experiences sensations, and he gets effects, which, so far as my knowledge goes, nobody ever experienced or got before. I derive a most exciting pleasure from his work.

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Frontspiece of The Cyder Feast

Compare Bennett’s review with the comments made by Emanuel Eisenberg in The Bookman in the November of that year. Speaking of the three Sitwells – Osbert, Edith and Sacheverell – he wrote:

They are all insufferable poets — insufferable minor poets, I mean, and minor poetry rarely becomes unbearable to me, since I can usually find a transient pleasure in efficiency of manufacture.

Or this from Louis Untermeyer in The Saturday Review in the June of 1928.

Apart from a dissonance or two, an inverted image, a strained and dislocated adjective, these horticultural verses might have been written in the eighteenth century as well as (and possibly better than) the twentieth.

And that from someone who quite liked the book.

Bennett’s talent, as far as I can make it out from these reviews, is that he looked at Everything, rather than that Thing or this Thing. Joyce, Eliot, Woolf, Sitwell (Osbert, Edith and Sacheverell), Kafka were given the same once-over he would give to Forster, Chesterton, Warner or Bates. If he did not understand what he had had read he did not hold it against the author. Eisenberg and Untermeyer’s beef was that The Cyder Feast was not modern enough. Bennett would not have dwelt on the issue. His concern was promoting the best in literature to as wide an audience as possible, be it traditional or modernist.

What did I make of The Cyder Feast. In answer I will quote this from Bennett’s review:

…when somebody comes along and says that he cannot understand Sacheverell Sitwell, I sympathise with that somebody. There is a certain amount of Sacheverell Sitwell that I do not understand, or only half understand.

I did well with the first twenty five poems, being the most Virgilian in nature, linking nature with architecture and history. After these poems, the words drifted delightfully into my mind and then delightfully out again.

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Caricature of Arnold Bennett by Oliver Herford, found on The Project Gutenberg, clearly alluding to his prodigious output.

On the 15th of June, we get a glimpse in his journal of the working day of a bestselling British novelist of the 1920s: gets up early; breakfasts on fruit; observes his street from the balcony; writes 800 words by 12.15; lunches at the Reform Club; returns by bus; continues writing; theatre in the evening.

 

 

 

Is that a floppy hat you’re wearing Mr.Donne or are you just pleased to see me?

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, Dr. Johnson’s Lives of the Poets.

John Donne

I bought a Penguin edition of the collected poems of John Donne when I was nineteen. I read the poems with all the emotional depth and maturity that a nineteen year old boy can bring to complex wordplay, classical allusions and meditations on love and death. From the two or three poems I can remember reading (being three times a fool, man being or not being an island and lovers compared to compasses – this was the age of discovery after all – are the fragments of memory that have survived), I was able to construct my mental image of seventeenth century England as a land of men in floppy hats with a penchant for being painted in their coffins. Sometime later the floppy hatted men were replaced by the Levellers, who very probably rarely bathed but knew their way around a cow, who in turn were replaced by men wearing round helmets and carrying guns. Such is the way of the world.

The floppy hatted men revival can be dated to the publication of Dr. Herbert Grierson’s Metaphysical Lyrics and Poems of the Seventeenth Century in 1921. Of Donne he wrote:

Donne’s metaphysical eulogies and elegies and epistles are a hard nut to crack for his most sympathetic admirers. And yet they have undeniable qualities

The cause of the floppy hatted men was taken up and promoted by T.S.Eliot in a review of the anthology he wrote for the Times Literary Supplement. The book, he wrote, was:

 …in itself a piece of criticism, and a provocation of criticism; and we think that he was right in including so many poems of Donne…as documents in the case for ‘metaphysical poetry’.

Although he doubted whether a school of poetry existed that could be described as metaphysical he argued that what Donne and poets such as Andrew Marvell and Abraham Cowley had in common was simple and pure language. But more than this, he placed Donne and his compatriots firmly in the mainstream of English poetry.

Dr.Johnson’s Lives of the Poets, all 66 volumes, was a critical and financial success. The eighteenth century had an itch that just had to be scratched when it came to the lives of famous and dead poets. Just like our own century but possibly with more of an eye for Beckham, Posh Spice and Prince Harry.  John Wilkes, radical, politician, journalist and serial womaniser, chanced his arm by saying in the presence of the great man at a dinner in the May of 1781 that, being only a poor patriot who could not afford the whole set, Dr. Johnson should make him a gift of it. Dr. Johnson appeared not to hear this but a complete set was sent to his lodgings. Dr. Johnson himself noted that he had written nothing else as highly commended as the Lives of the Poets.

Edmund Waller

In his chapter on the poet Edmund Waller (1606 – 1687), Johnson points out that at the death of his father he inherited a yearly income of £3,500, worth £566,000 in 2012. After attending Eton and King’s college, Cambridge, he was elected to parliament at either the age of 16 or 18. He was close to the seat of power. This is not a metaphor, he was often standing close enough to King James’ throne to overhear his private conversations. According to Johnson he had already developed his system of “metrical harmony” in his poetry and from which he never deviated. Critical of King Charles and his attempts to run roughshod over parliament, he nevertheless avoided being identified with the growing parliamentary opposition. Depending on whether you were a) King Charles or b) John Pym, puritan, parliamentarian and opponent of the king, Waller either made a last ditch attempt to to avoid civil war by appealing to moderates in the city of London, or was plotting to open the city gates to the king’s forces, who would then murder every MP they could lay their hands on. Either way, he avoided being executed, others were not so lucky (it helped that Waller confessed everything, blamed his compatriots, was a great persuader and had huge amounts of money with which to bribe officials), and settled into a comfortable exile in France. Given permission to return by Cromwell he wrote a poem praising his greatness and when Charles II returned to claim the throne, he wrote him a poem too praising him. He married twice, was returned as an MP on two more occasions, was regarded as a great speaker, famous for keeping a good table and all round great guy. He died in his bed on the 21st of October, 1687. Quite a life and not a floppy hat in sight. In my defence I can only say that it is not the first time that a nineteen year old boy has been let down by his emotional intelligence.

Apart from being a useful antidote to the floppy hatted men school of English history, has Johnson’s Live of the Poets added to my literary taste? Sadly, no. Unlike Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, which still elicits admiring raisings of eyebrows, to admit to reading Johnson’s Lives of the Poets is only ever accompanied by a piece of tumbleweed rolling silently behind you. It is not a social act. So, a sombre (2,4) and we are back over the line.

And finally…

My novel A Republic of Wolves. A City of Ghosts is now available as an ebook.

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