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Early Modern British Literature Essay

The period of British cultural history which saw the brittle gaiety of the 1920s, the social consciousness of the 1930s, the world war followed by the welfare state of the 1940s and the chastened readjustments of the 1950s, is not easy to describe in general terms. The Second World War does not appear in retrospect to have been the cultural watershed that in some respects the First was.

The increasing tempo of the reaction against Victorianism in the 1920s did not precipitate the revolution in values which was at one time predicted, nor did the pattern of Left-wing thought which emerged in the next decade as a result of the depression turn out to be an accurate prediction of the mood and method of the great social changes that took place during and immediately after the second war. In the matter of literary techniques, the 1920s proved to be one of the most fruitful periods in the whole history of English literature.

In fiction, the so-called ‘stream of consciousness’ method was born, matured and moved to its decline within this single decade. In poetry, the revolution wrought by Pound and Eliot and the later Yeats, by the new influence of the seventeenth century metaphysicals and of Hopkins, changed the poetic map of the country. As far as technique goes, the period since has been one of consolidation. Nothing so radically new in technique as Eliot Waste Land has appeared since, nor have later novelists ventured as far in technical innovation as Joyce did in Ulysses and Finnegans Wake.

The sense of excitement which all this experimentation produced, the battles, the mutual abuse, the innovating exaltation of the little magazines, seem very far away now in the 1950s; and were already lost by the end of the 1930s. A period of consolidation is not exciting, nor is it easy to describe with the literary historian’s eye. (Christopher Ivic, Grant Williams, 2004) It might perhaps be said that in the 1920s the most important writers were more serious as artists than as men, while in more recent years they have been more serious as men than as artists.

The Second World War forced a new kind of reflectiveness about human affairs on many British people. This was nothing spectacular, nothing like the dramatic shift from the patriotic idealism of Rupert Brooke to the bitterly disillusioned satire of Siegfried Sassoon or Richard Aldington that took place during the earlier war. It was marked by such things as a sign in a London bookshop in 1942 reading ‘Sorry, no Shakespeare or “War and Peace”.

‘ There was a surprising amount of re-reading of the classics–partly attributable, it is true, to the paper shortage which resulted in a reduction of the number of new books published–and a great demand for historical works and discussions of general human problems in what might be called semi-popular form; such phenomena as the ‘ Pelican’ books in the Penguin library are indicative of this demand. Even the most sophisticated tended to look for books with something to say rather than for new methods of expression.

The problem of the artist in modern society-his ‘alienation’, his inevitable bohemianism–which had so agitated writers in the preceding two decades, suddenly lost much of its interest, and when some interest revived again after the war it was more often than not concerned with the sober question of how the writer was to make a living. The shift in emphasis from technique to content, if one can describe it thus crudely, did not represent a clear-cut movement.

Indeed, at times it looked as though the first response of writers and critics to the Second World War was to emphasize their status and integrity as men of letters rather than as citizens concerned with the immediate problems posed by the war. The tone of Horizon, the literary periodical founded early in the war by Cyril Connolly as an assertion of the claims of current literature in the midst of international conflict, was from the beginning more aesthetic, more removed from the immediate pressure of events, even than T.

S. Eliot’s Criterion which it can be said to have succeeded. And if we compare the tone of Horizon with that of John Lehmann New Writing the difference between the deliberate aloofness of the writer in the 1940s and his strenuous commitment to the issues of the day in the 1930s is even more striking. New Writing really represented the mid-1930s, even in its war-time forms. Though it proclaimed its devotion to imaginative literature it continued the documentary reporting and social interests of the 1930s into the 1940s.

And documentary writing of all kinds flourished during the war. But Horizon represented more fully the tone of literary London in the war days. It did not last, however; Horizon itself closed down a few years after the war ended, and Cyril Connolly’s elegant prose and uncommitted sophistication was suddenly seen to be old-fashioned. A general air of tired seriousness seemed to spread over the face of English letters; writers were no longer mandarins, but people trying to earn a living by their pen.

When the London Magazine was founded in 1954, edited by John Lehmann, it was with no clear-cut programme or new artistic creed. From the first its general air was one of mild competence; it was as though the magazine were standing by to transmit any new creative impulse when it came. (Joshua Scodel, 2002). Though ‘little magazines’ continued to spring up sporadically after the Second World War, they no longer played the important part they had done between roughly 1914 and 1935, the great experimental period of modern English literature.

These magazines reflected the fragmentation of the audience for literature, so characteristic of our period, in that they were produced by coteries and appealed to particular sectional interests. Perhaps Rossetti Germ was really the first of the little magazines in England; but it was an exception in the Victorian period in its deliberately limited appeal. The Yellow Book, which ran from April 1894 until April 1897, was in a sense the second English little magazine; but it was much more popular than either the Germ or its own twentieth century successors.

Arthur Symons’ Savoy, founded in January 1896 to continue and surpass The Yellow Book, was less popular, and barely survived a year. When we come to the Egoist, founded at the beginning of 1914, we are in the true modern tradition of the little magazine. The Egoist was started as a feminist magazine, but under the influence of Ezra Pound and others it became for a time the unofficial organ of the Imagist movement, printing poetry by Pound, Aldington, ‘H. D. ‘, F. S.

Flint, John Gould Fletcher, Amy Lowell and D. H. Lawrence. T. S. Eliot also contributed, and in 1917 he became editor, continuing until the demise of the magazine in December 1919. Parts of Joyce’s Ulysses first appeared in The Egoist. The political and literary weekly The New Age, under the editorship of A. R. Orage, printed T. E. Hulme’s series of articles on Bergson in October and November 1911 and, in the course of the next few years, most of Hulme’s important critical pronouncements.

The political and literary influence of The New Age on some important critical and creative minds is seen clearly in Edwin Muir’s autobiography. The Little Review, published in New York by Margaret Anderson, was well known in that small group of English avant garde writers and critics who followed its serialization of Joyce’s Ulysses in twenty-three parts from March 1918 to December 1920, when the serialization abruptly stopped as a result of a charge of obscenity brought against the magazine by the U. S. Post Office.

(Nicholas Mcdowell, 2004) T. S. Eliot Criterion ran from 1922 to 1939, acting in general as the organ of the new classical revolution. Wheels, an annual anthology edited by Edith Sitwell from 1916 until 1921, published the Sitwells and some prose-poems by Aldous Huxley, and engaged in a species of brilliant verbal clowning which combined virtuosity with weariness. Wyndham Lewis Blast, Review of the Great English Vortex, appeared first in 1914 and once more in 1915; it preached Lewis’s views on art and letters and printed also Eliot and Pound.

Far less of a ‘little’ magazine was J. C. Squire’s London Mercury (he edited it from 1919- 1934) which represented the uncommitted traditionalists, reflecting a point of view which its holders would have considered central and its opponents middlebrow. Middleton Murry edited The Athenaeum from 1919 to 1921 and The Adelphi from 1923 to 1930. In the 1930s there were little magazines which responded to the tastes and ideals of the post-Eliot generation.

New Verse, edited by Geoffrey Grigson, ran from 1933 to 1939: it was one of the most Catholic of the avant garde anthologies printing new poetry that was original and interesting whether it was by Auden or by Dylan Thomas. More limited in scope and interest were Twentieth-Century Verse, edited by Julian Symons from 1937 to 1939, and Poetry ( London), started just before the Second World War by Tambimuttu to reflect what for a short time appeared to be a ‘new romanticism’. Looking back on all this from the middle 1950s one is aware of a loss of excitement and experiment.

There is today in England no literary avant garde. The quiet social revolution brought about by such innovations as the national health service, the Education Act of 1944, high taxation of the middle classes and full employment, produced an inevitable though not always a clearly discernible change in the patterns of English culture. The aristocratic implications, or at least the overtones of expansive middle-class leisure, that could be seen in different ways in the work of Eliot, the later Yeats and Virginia Woolf, had no meaning in the welfare state.

Some recent novels show the post-war intellectual as a precarious provincial moving with a combination of bewilderment and sardonic observation in a world which lacks any sort of tradition, a world where the older patterns of behaviour–aristocratic or genteel-are parodied by vulgar and opportunistic pragmatists who get what they can out of each situation in which they find themselves. Social class, the theme which had been the background pattern of the English novel since its beginnings, now for the first time ceases to have meaning in a world where education and income bear no necessary relation to each other.

Virginia Woolf had been accused by some critics of developing a kind of sensibility dependent on a certain degree of wealth and leisure; now it seemed that a society of working class prosperity, business ‘fiddles’ to minimize income tax, and a sharp drop in the relative standard of living of the professional classes and ‘intellectuals’, left no room for sensibility. Was this a crisis of middle-class culture? We are too close to it all to be able to say.

But we can point to some interesting facts. For example, the London Magazine was originally subsidized by the Daily Mirror, a popular tabloid newspaper, which thus employed some of the profits made out of vulgarity and sensationalism to support ‘culture’. And then there is the influence of radio and television. The BBC recognized the distinction between lowbrow, middlebrow and highbrow in their three programmes, the Light, the Home and the Third.

One of the aims was apparently to introduce a few good serious works, in music and drama, on the Light programme, in the hope that some listeners to it might be attracted to the Home, and to introduce on occasion a really highbrow feature on the Home Service in the hope of making a few converts to the Third Programme. The BBC has thus thought of its function as educational and cultural, not merely as the provision of light entertainment. This artificial separation of the different ‘brows’, however, reflects something not altogether healthy in the state of a culture.

The Elizabethan groundlings saw Hamlet as a blood and-thunder murder mystery, while the better educated saw it as a profound tragedy–but each saw the same work. In our present culture, the murder mystery and the serious tragedy are represented by different works, the former trivial and merely entertaining, the latter self-consciously highbrow and probably appealing to only a tiny minority of sophisticates. This is one aspect of the problem of the fragmentation of the audience for works of literature which has long been a feature of our civilization.

It is significant, for example, that the BBC programme which introduces new poetry is a regular Third Programme feature: interest in new poetry is the mark of the extreme highbrow. (Constance C. Relihan, 1996) The BBC is a force, however, and is probably responsible for the remarkable increase of musical knowledge and musical taste in the country. It is in the more popular forms of art that radio and television most seriously threaten standards, by the very fact that they are catering to the same audience every night.

The old music-hall entertainer perfected his act in months of playing it over and over at the same theatre, with a different audience each night, and then took it on tour in the provinces. He had time to develop an art-form of his own, however popular or crude it might be. But with a show going on the air every week, and the same audience listening each time, the situation is radically changed. The standard is bound to fall when there is the necessity of a weekly change of programme, no matter how talented the authors and performers–and the same is true of television and of the cinema.

All this has its effect in due course on literature and on the public for literature. Commercial television, which purveys merely entertainment and aims at the largest possible audience, can obviously take no chances and is bound to appeal to the lowest common denominator. It cannot afford to risk losing part of its audience by trying out something difficult. It must entertain first and foremost, and entertainment must be directed at a wholly relaxed and passive audience. Is entertainment as such an important part of the life of a civilization?

Few would deny that in some sense it is. But the relation between art and entertainment has always been a shifting and a complex one, whereas the selling of guaranteed mass audiences to advertisers means immediate superficial entertainment at the most popular level at all costs. Is popular art bad art? The answer to that depends on the kind of society that fosters it. Today the answer is often but not always ‘yes’. In the past art has had its own complex relationship with entertainment on the one hand and with religion or at least with ritual on the other.

Modern commercial entertainment has re-established contacts with ritual–a strange and frenzied ritual of herostars and ‘personalities’. (Theresa Krier, Elizabeth D. Harvey, 2004) It is not surprising, therefore, if the writer who is concerned with the problem of maintaining a discriminating audience for serious literature does not welcome commercial television even if he sees in it opportunity for improving his economic status. Noncommercial television has its own problems, but there can be no doubt that, like sound radio, it has played a part in the diffusion of culture.

Nobody who has seen farm laborers watching television at a rustic public house and observed the thrill with which they have responded to Swan Lake and the half comprehending fascination with which they have watched King Lear (these are two real instances) can deny that television can act, and in some respects in this country has acted, as a remarkable educational and cultural force. There seem to be two quite contradictory forces at work in our culture.

When we consider the exploitation of literacy by the ‘yellow’ Press and all the stereotyped vulgarities of, say, the stories in some of the more popular women’s magazines, to go no lower; when we think of mass production ousting individual craftsmanship, the prevalence of bad films, the complete unawareness of even the existence of any such thing as artistic integrity or literary value among so many people; when we think of the loss of that simple but genuine folk lore which the total illiterate possessed, for the sake of a minimal literacy which merely exposes its possessor to exploitation and corruption–when we think of all this, we are in despair about modern civilization.

On the other hand, when we see the enormous numbers of relatively cheap paper-bound editions of the classics, as well as of serious works of history and biography, selling daily, or observe the unprecedented numbers of people who appreciate good music and ballet, or reflect that an industrial worker or farm labourer whose grandfather may well have led an almost animal existence has now the opportunity of reading and hearing and viewing works of art of various kinds to a degree hitherto impossible, then one takes a much more rosy view. Which is the true picture? Both are true, and, paradoxically enough, both are sometimes true for the same people. The diffusion of culture is a sociological fact, and, further, diffusion does not always imply adulteration. The real problem seems to be an utter lack of discrimination, a lack of awareness of the absolute difference between the genuine and the ‘phoney’.

Where so much in the form of art and of pseudo-art is thrown at people, where the cultural centre of the nation is itself non-existent or at least problematical, discrimination on the part of the individual is most necessary, and lack of it most dangerous. The ordinary reader in Pope’s day, though he belonged to a tiny minority when compared with his modern equivalent, was probably no better able to discriminate between, say, real poetry and imitative sentimental rubbish which followed the conventional forms of the day; but the coherence and stability of his culture and the critical tradition of his time made individual discrimination less necessary. The paradox is that individual discrimination is most necessary when it is least possible. (Cynthia Lowenthal, 2003) References: Christopher Ivic, Grant Williams.

Forgetting in Early Modern English Literature and Culture: Lethe’s Legacies; Routledge, 2004 Constance C. Relihan. Framing Elizabethan Fictions: Contemporary Approaches to Early Modern Narrative Prose; Kent State University Press, 1996 Cynthia Lowenthal. Performing Identities on the Restoration Stage; Southern Illinois University Press, 2003 Joshua Scodel. Excess and the Mean in Early Modern English Literature; Princeton University Press, 2002 Nicholas Mcdowell. Interpreting Communities: Private Acts and Public Culture in Early Modern England; Criticism, Vol. 46, 2004 Theresa Krier, Elizabeth D. Harvey. Luce Irigaray and Premodern Culture: Thresholds of History; Routledge, 2004


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