Hello to all this

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, Arnold Bennett, the Ministry of Information and Robert Graves.

Lord Beaverbrook, 1918 Source: www.warmuseum.ca

Lord Beaverbrook, 1918
Source: http://www.warmuseum.ca

In 1917 Arnold Bennett was invited to work in the Ministry of Information by Lord Beaverbrook. It is not clear what he did there as no records survived and Bennett was very discreet when writing about his job in his journals. We know that he worked hard and what he was working very hard at doing was making sure that everyone knew what utter bastards the Germans were.

First edition copy of Goodbye to All That. 1929.  Source: Wikipedia

First edition copy of Goodbye to All That. 1929.
Source: Wikipedia

Robert Graves, on the other hand, was trying not get killed by some of those Germans while serving in France as a young officer in the Royal Welch Fusiliers. In 1929 his book Goodbye to All That was published which detailed many of his experiences while serving in the trenches. It was reviewed by Bennett in his column in The Evening Standard:

Goodbye to All That is a very good book, both picturesque and honest, and excellently written. Robert Graves is a fine poet – none better today, in my view. All poets write good prose, and he does.

Part of Bennett’s job in the Ministry of Information would have been to ensure that the core message of Britain Good, Germany Bad was reinforced in the world’s capitals. Not too difficult a job given the Germans’ propensity for sinking unprotected ships. In 1914 he had read the accounts of the rapid German advance through Belgium, a country that he admired and liked. He would have read too of the atrocities carried out by the German army against Belgian civilians, atrocities which Graves denied having ever taken place.

Where do we begin to unpick the ironies from this little encounter of two literary greats? On the one hand, Bennett, who only visited the front as an officially approved journalist and who ensured the official line was maintained, even in the dark days of Passchendaele in 1917 and the German spring offensive of 1918. And on the other, Graves, reviewed positively by Bennett, who had experienced at first hand life in the trenches but who laughed at the authenticity of the atrocity stories intended to bolster British resolve to see this terrible war through to the end. All the more ironic given that the atrocity stories were, in many, many cases, only too true.

Next time, we are off to the South Pole with Apsley Cherry-Garrard’s The Worst Journey in the World.

Soon fades the spell, soon comes the night…

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, Lord Macaulay’s Critical and Historical Essays, published in the 1892 edition.

Does the man who wrote this of James the First of England and Sixth of Scotland, deserve to be remembered:

She [Elizabeth] died; and the kingdom passed to one who was, in his own opinion, the greatest master of king-craft that ever lived, but who was, in truth, one of those kings whom God seems to send for the express purpose of hastening revolutions?

Should we hold dear somewhere in our collective heart a man of whom it was written:

He combined so vivid an imagination with so solid a judgement, that if he had not been a great historian he might have passed down to posterity as a great poet; and whilst the amount of his intellectual welath would have overwhelmed a mind of less original power, with him it remained subordinate to the genius of the master?

Is there a place in the Zeitgeist for someone described, six years after his death,  thus:

He was a classic who had come out of romanticism, and who used the fire of the romantic school not as a fire is used by an incendiary, but as it is used in a forge?

To which, of course, the answer is a resounding ‘Aye!’ As to the question does history owe a debt of honour to a man described by The Times in October 1839, following his promotion to the post of Minister for War, as Mr. Babbletongue; or, in the words of Henry Brougham, co-founder in 1802 of  The Edinburgh Review:

…the greatest bore that ever yet appeared?

The answer is an equally resounding ‘Naw, it disnae!”

Thomas Babington Macaulay, 1st Lord Macualay 1800-1859. Source: Wikipedia

Thomas Babington Macaulay, 1st Lord Macualay 1800-1859.
Source: Wikipedia

Buried in Poet’s Corner in Westminster Abbey, at the feet of Thomas Addison, the Critical and Historical Essays of Thomas Babington Macaulay, 1st Baron Macaulay, are no longer handed out as prizes as they were to the Plymouth shipwright apprentices in July, 1884. (Rear Admiral Herbert had scathing words for those apprentices who had not used their six years in the shipyards to prepare fully for their exams – as always it seemed to be the fault of a small group of idle students leading their companions astray. G.T.Chivers was not one of these. He walked away with British Battles (3 vols),  Abbeys, Castles and Ancient Halls of England and Wales (3 vols) as well as Macaulay’s Essays)

Macaulay’s failure to stand the test of time rose, in part from being dead, but also from having written using, what was to be called by later historians, the Whig theory of history. The term was made famous by Herbert Butterfield in his 1931 essay The Whig Interpretation of History. Of the Whig historians, he wrote

It is part and parcel of the whig interpretation of history that it studies the past with reference to the present.

Macaulay is mentioned only twice in the essay but having written in his own Essays:

The history of England is emphatically the history of progress,

it is clear that from where he stood (a short, stout man he may as well have stayed sitting) in the England of first half of the nineteenth century, an unbroken line ran from the defenders of parliamentary rights in the reign of Charles 1st to, well, himself. From our viewpoint  (sitting or standing) in the 21st century, our view obscured by world wars, industrial depression and financial crises, it is difficult perhaps to accept unquestioningly the use of that word “emphatically.”

But history is nothing if not ironic. A quick search of Ngram shows how much his fame has faded:

Down, down and deeper down.

However, search for the Whig interpretation of history and hey presto:

Well, well, well.

Apart from a dip in the late 1930s when the British government’s policy of appeasement towards Hitler was emphatically not a sign of progress, the Whig interpretation of history continues to be studied and written about. But Macaulay, for all his wonderful prose, is not read. For that reason, the loneliness which comes with being among those that have read him, an equally lonely (5,8) is plotted.

The loneliness of the long distance reader.

Next time, Trollope, Framley Parsonage and interactive tithe maps. Oh yes.

What do we want? Two hours! When do we want them? Later!

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, Arnold Bennett’s How to Live on 24 Hours a Day.

As one of the most memorable but least literary of literary quotes, Arnold Bennett’s comment to his friend George Sturt that  ‘I believe I could fart sensation fiction now’ must be up there with the best of them. I do like to think James Joyce would have laughed. Virginia Woolf? A pursing of the lips perhaps. In his defence, and given his journalist background – he was a contributor to and editor of a women’s magazine – he was used to churning out words, the totals noted in the margin and shared with his friends. 100,000 words in six months was par for course; and after the success of The Old Wives’ Tale many of his subsequent books and plays were bestsellers, although now largely forgotten.

Literary Taste: How to Form It falls into his early farting phase of writing, when he was both trying to make a name for himself and earn some money. How to Live on 24 Hours was another book from this period, written quickly, selling well and, unlike many of his literary bestsellers, still hanging around today, out there in Internetland. I read it and, as always, have misunderstood it, forgetting his lengthy comments on how we waste time, which form much of the book, and concentrating, as always, on what is easy – namely, get up two hours before you usually do.

Developing this lack of understanding on my part I then downloaded the TimeLogger app and logged my time on my iPhone, looking for these extra two hours that I could use to write. And, of course, I made some graphs. 

Did you know that I spent 5.7% of my time on public transport, 0.4% of my time at the pictures and 2.3% looking at the amusing photos of animals on Buzzfeed? Well, unfortunately I do; and at the end of all this data logging I was none the wiser as to why I seemed unable to find time to get anything written, which was one of the reasons I had read the book in the first place.

There are two reasons for this, I believe (three if you count my capacity for laziness). Bennett writes of rising two hours before leaving for  work at nine o’clock. By then I have been at work for an hour having got up at a ridiculously early hour. Second, in his description of the return home he fails to mention picking up the dry cleaning, popping out for a pint of milk or leg of lamb, racking your brains as to what to cook for the family, conversation with various family members (face-to-face and via Skype) or simply staring into space as you get the mince out of your heid (as they would say in Glasgow); for the simple reason that he didn’t have to – a servant would have done it.

A British family in 1851 with an income of  £150 p.a. would have been in the position of being able to employ a servant. £150 would in 2012 be worth £12,000 (purchasing power as calculated by MeasuringWorth) so the economic and social level at which a family could employ a servant was much lower that one might think. By 1881 1.25 million British women were working as domestic servants. Despite the social changes that arose from the First World War, domestic servants were still common in British homes into the 1920s and 30s.

Virginia Woolf’s mother set up home in 1867 with a cook, housemaids, parlour maids, a nurse, nursemaid and a gardner. Virginia learned to cook but still found time to have screaming matches with the servants. Arnold Bennett’s cook drank, the chauffeur was suspected of being a German spy and another member of staff had to go off on an explosives course in London (it was World War One, after all). No wonder he moved into the Royal Yacht Club. He just wanted to get some peace. So, perhaps I shouldn’t complain too much about my missing two hours and lack of servants and try to fart sensation fiction instead.

Rome is about to fall. Alaric, king of the Visigoths, is at the gates. The blog on Gibbons’ Decline and Fall will soon be written.

Robert Bridges: a dreamer, but not tongue-tied

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, the Poet Laureate, Robert Bridges. 

On Monday, April 22nd, 1930 Robert Bridges, the poet laureate, died at his home, Chilswell House, in Oxford. The following day The Nottingham Evening Post published an appreciation of his life. “The popular conception of him was that of a silent, tongue-tied dreamer, living a hermit’s life on a lonely Berkshire hill. He was certainly a dreamer, but he was neither tongue-tied or lonely. His manner was often forbidding; he had a horror of humbug and those who asked him silly questions fled from his caustic tongue.”

Having read a number of his poems in the collected edition of 1913, the year when he was made poet laureate, I would have been one of those erring in this view of Robert Bridges. Being prone to humbug, I would doubtless also  have fled from his caustic tongue. There are in his poems many thous, thees, thys and words such as shouldst, knoweth and confest. Love is frequently described, as are clouds, seagulls and maidens display a skill in assembling before their lady which I feel would probably be lacking in young women of today. All an easy target for our cynical age. But I will not be the first to fire.

Two poems caught my eye and that stayed my hand. First Triolet:
When first we met we did not guess
That Love would prove so hard a master;
Of more than common friendliness
When first we met we did not guess
Who could foretell this sore distress,
This irretrievable disaster
When first we met?—We did not guess
That Love would prove so hard a master.

Next, Indolence:
We left the city when the summer day
Had verged already on its hot decline,
And charméd Indolence in languor lay
In her gay gardens, ‘neath her towers divine:
‘Farewell,’ we said, ‘dear city of youth and dream!’
And in our boat we stepped and took the stream.

All through that idle afternoon we strayed
Upon our proposed travel well begun,
As loitering by the woodland’s dreamy shade,
Past shallow islets floating in the sun,
Or searching down the banks for rarer flowers
We lingered out the pleasurable hours.

Till when that loveliest came, which mowers home
Turns from their longest labour, as we steered
Along a straitened channel flecked with foam,
We lost our landscape wide, and slowly neared
An ancient bridge, that like a blind wall lay
Low on its buried vaults to block the way.

Then soon the narrow tunnels broader showed,
Where with its arches three it sucked the mass
Of water, that in swirl thereunder flowed,
Or stood piled at the piers waiting to pass;
And pulling for the middle span, we drew
The tender blades aboard and floated through.

But past the bridge what change we found below!
The stream, that all day long had laughed and played
Betwixt the happy shires, ran dark and slow,
And with its easy flood no murmur made:
And weeds spread on its surface, and about
The stagnant margin reared their stout heads out.

Upon the left high elms, with giant wood
Skirting the water-meadows, interwove
Their slumbrous crowns, o’ershadowing where they stood
The floor and heavy pillars of the grove:
And in the shade, through reeds and sedges dank,
A footpath led along the moated bank.

Across, all down the right, an old brick wall,
Above and o’er the channel, red did lean;
Here buttressed up, and bulging there to fall,
Tufted with grass and plants and lichen green;
And crumbling to the flood, which at its base
Slid gently nor disturbed its mirrored face.

Sheer on the wall the houses rose, their backs
All windowless, neglected and awry,
With tottering coigns, and crooked chimney stacks;
And here and there an unused door, set high
Above the fragments of its mouldering stair,
With rail and broken step led out on air.

Beyond, deserted wharfs and vacant sheds,
With empty boats and barges moored along,
And rafts half sunken, fringed with weedy shreds,
And sodden beams, once soaked to season strong.
No sight of man, nor sight of life, no stroke,
No voice the somnolence and silence broke.

Then I who rowed leant on my oar, whose drip
Fell without sparkle, and I rowed no more ;
And he that steered moved neither hand nor lip,
But turned his wondering eye from shore to shore;
And our trim boat let her swift motion die,
Between the dim reflections floating by.

Triolet because of its completeness; Indolence because I’ve always had a soft spot for narrative poetry, particularly when expressed in the first person; of T.S.Eliot’s poetry the only one I’ve been able to understand is Journey of the Magi.

Robert Bridges was made poet laureate in July of 1913 – “Dr. Bridges’ appointment will delight all who take poetry seriously and should abash jocular gentlemen in the House of Commons,” noted Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, Professor of English Literature at Cambridge University. A year later, on the 28th of July, the Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated in Sarajevo and Britain declared war on Germany on August the 4th. In the 1915 Christmas edition of Blighty, the magazine of the British soldier, published a poem by Robert Bridges, the first verse being:

To the men of spirit unconquerable
Who battle to shield our homes from hell,
This tenderest greeting of love and pride
From those who at home must watch and abide.

You can almost hear him saying “Will this do?” But what else was he going to write? If part of the remit of the Poet Laureate  is to capture and express something of the national spirit, then the above may just have done that for many people. He was seventy years old when war broke out. When he was born Queen Victoria was still a young queen and he grew up in a Britain that avoided, after the Crimean War, any involvement in European conflicts. As a doctor he had witnessed death and had also acted decisively during an outbreak of smallpox in the Great Northern Hospital in 1876. But how would that help an elderly gentleman living in the outskirts of Oxford understand the new type of warfare then being fought?

He was not alone in this type of response to the war. In 1916 Soldier Poets: Songs of the Fighting Men was published and in 1917 More Songs by the Fighting Men was also published. Written by serving soldiers, these poems were described by the Western Daily Press in the January of 1918 as forming part of a springtime of “Georgian Verse” in which new poems were bursting into verse like trees in bud. To A Fallen Comrade, written by 2nd Lieutenant Murray McClymont, begins:

I heard the voice of Spring come softly pleading
Across the fresh and breathing wold today:
The Sun set free from cloudy bonds, was speeding
To greet the earth with each impassioned ray.

Another 2nd Lieutenant, Owen, Wilfred, of the Manchester Regiment would become, in his death, much more famous for his poetry than McClymont. Yet, like the poetry of Bridges, we would would err should we ignore him and his companions. Their voices may not be fashionable, but they are nonetheless the voices of men who served, and died, in the trenches.

In 1920, Horatio Bottomley, M.P. for South Hackney asked the Prime Minister, LLoyd George, if the Poet Laureate had written any of the hymns sung  in the recent unveiling of the Cenotaph, or indeed any of the large public events associated with the war. If not, then should “…he [the PM] consider the question of the appointment of a national poet whose muse is more attuned to the soul of the British nation?” Lloyd George answered by reminding Mr Bottomley that the post of Poet Laureate was for the lifetime of the incumbent, before being interrupted by a Colonel Lowther, demanding to know whether the post should be offered to Rudyard Kipling. Perhaps Robert Bridges was tired of the war by then. A lover of nature, what could he have found to inspire him in the desolation and mud of No-Man’s Land? Perhaps he was working on The Testament of Beauty, a philosophical poem in four books, which I shall not be reading.

It is an oddly reflective reader who considers the creation of literary taste, before deciding on a sad and lonely (7,8). We are back in Virginia Woolf territory. Next, Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.

The elephant in the living room

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 included. This week Undertones of War by Edmund Blunden, first published in 1928. 

In the December of 1916, after two years of war, the Central Powers declared they were ready to negotiate peace terms with the Allies. President Wilson, asked by the Central Powers to broker the talks, asked both sides what their peace terms were. The Allies quickly replied: a free and neutral Belgium, its rights guaranteed by self-representation. The Germans didn’t bother to reply as that was the last thing that they wanted. In the first months of the war the German leadership had stated its war aims in the secret Septemberprogramm, as “security for the German Reich in west and east for all imaginable time.” Belgium would be reduced to a vassal state, large chunks of the French coast would be annexed, an empire carved out of Central Africa and Russia pushed as far back as possible from the eastern frontier.  It makes you wonder why they bothered asking for peace negotiations in the first place.

Edmund Blunden was twenty one by the time the war ended. He had survived two years without a scratch, not physical ones anyway. Reviewing Undertones of War, his account of his time as Temporary Second Lieutenant in the 11th Royal Sussex Regiment, in the Evening Standard Bennett wrote “…The intimate horror of war has never been, and never will be, more movingly and modestly rendered than he renders it.” Blunden was brave as the cutting below from the London Gazette from the 26th January 1917 makes all too clear.

He was also a modest man, never mentioning his award of the Military Cross in the book. His poetry shines through his prose, as does his love of countryside, even the blasted wastelands in which he toiled, officered and strolled through. He witnessed the deadly and deathly consequences of the “red tab’s” tinkerings with maps and plans of attack. It was all a terrible waste. And, like the elephant in the living room that no one mentions, those German troops still occupy neutral Belgium, their masters anticipating that their stay there will be a long one.

You can see where I’m going with this, can’t you? Without that waste, call it sacrifice if you will, witnessed by Blunden, those German troops (who did commit atrocities against Belgian civilians) would not have left of their own choice. My search for literary taste here has come up against the uncomfortable truths that history sometimes deals in; also reading the work of a young man when you are in middle-age and seeing that youthful passionate belief in Right and Wrong has faded somewhat. I read his book sympathetically but with an emotional distance that surprises me. Coordinates have to be given, direction maintained and velocity pursued, therefore (10, 10) is given, leading off the graph to unknown territories.

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