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Old Moderns

Eight Modern Writers

by J.I.M. Stewart
Oxford, 704 pp., $11.00

Mr. Stewart’s book is, of course, by way of being the twelfth and final volume in the Oxford History of English Literature But it is only so by the way. It does have some hundred-odd pages of chronology, bibliography, and index; but it is not elsewhere furnished with the signs of scholarship, historical or otherwise. There are no footnotes and no headnotes. There is no account of bad writers and bad writing, which is to the good; but there is no account, either, of all those writers whom it would be fun to read if only we knew about them or were reminded of them. There are allusions: we hear that C. P. Snow is the Galsworthy of our time; but there is not much more. Perhaps Mr. Stewart is leaving to his alter ego, Michael Innes, the task of recovering for the avid reader all those readable writers who were ephemeral only in the instance. If not Michael Innes, then a new George Saintsbury, or anyone prejudiced by the succession of his delightsand vast in his labors.

Mr. Stewart does give us a set of eight writers to go with the period from 1880 to 1940: Hardy, James, Shaw, Conrad, Kipling, Yeats, Joyce, and D. H. Lawrence; all writers remarkable enough to deserve any amount of attention. It is interesting, as Mr. Stewart himself observes, that there are three Irishmen, one Pole, one American, and an Anglo-Indian on the list—which leaves only Hardy and Lawrence as straight British writers. There are several things to think of here, and the thoughts fall like leaves from the sibyltree. “It is a fact of literary history,” Mr. Stewart says, “of which we must make what we can.” There is the en- gaging thought that something had hap- pened to the British situation whereby the continents (European or American) could no longer be isolated by a British storm; and there is the depressing thought that though London could attract great talent she had little of her own; and there is the intriguing thought that England needed, at the expressive level, talent different from that locally provided. I would myself suppose that talent is migratory, both within a society (the same people living in the same place) and from one society to another (the same people living in different places); and I would suppose further that talent seldom expresses the right thing at the right time in the right place. When talent encounters the actual world it more often, whether in rejection or assent, takes to memory, prophecy, or escape—just as we ordinarily do in our private encounters. The violence of great talent is only seen to be good at some time other than its own. I do not think one wants conclusions on these matters. When Hardy died, poets and dramatists escorted part of his remains at Westminster Abbey; Kipling’s pall-bearers included the Prime Minister, an admiral and a general and the “congregation consisted of men of action.” Surely there is no conclusion here, but the terms rather of an endless speculation.

Hardy aged well: into a uniquely gnarled compassion not only for what he loved but also for what he detested or could not understand in the human condition: tenderness was the twisting force in him. In age there was in his life and work such a style that any Iago-writer looking after him would say of it, it makes mine ugly. It was only his words that sometimes did not come up to him. As for Kipling, he could not come up to his gift of words: the bagpipe and drum, the genuine irresistible tingle and scream in them, too often got lost in the jingle of his thought and the jangle of his, blood-stream. Brutality was the instrument of what tenderness he had, and Instead of compassion there was the monster in him of an alien and threatening patriotism, that patriotism which is the first as well as the last refuge, as Dr. Johnson thought, of the scoundrel who is in us all. Mr. Stewart gives an accurate account of this aspect of Kipling which I have here only exaggerated, and I have no objection that at the end he leaves Kipling “a dedicated artist.” We must all have loved Kipling when young, and in relapses since. But Kipling does not age well.

It is curious to remember that Eliot did not include Kipling among the heretics he considered in After Strange Gods as best representing the alarming consequences “resulting from exposure to the diabolic influence,” namely Thomas Hardy and D. H. Lawrence—the two true-born Englishmen in Mr. Stewart’s collection. Kipling would have been seen in a worse circle of hell than Hardy or Lawrence and would have suffered as fatally as Eliot makes them do by his comparison of them to Henry James and James Joyce and Joseph Conrad—an American, an Irishman, and a Pole in whom, for Eliot and at that time (1933), orthodoxy and tradition seemed to reside. Eliot was himself only recently a British subject and Kipling may have seemed to him, if he thought of him at all, a part of his American boyhood. Eliot has not reprinted his primer of modern heresy; I mention it here only because it gives rise to one more speculation about Mr. Stewart’s pair of two Englishmen among six aliens: that they might be heretics—though it might be more consoling to reflect that they are the only religious writers in the lot.

Another matter of interest is the formal education—o rather the lack of it—enjoyed by the eight writers. Hardy was apprenticed to an architect as a boy but got up early to study the classics. James was tutored widely as a child but generally mucked things up. Shaw was a junior clerk at sixteen, and Conrad was a sailor at the same age. Kipling went to a miserable public school. Yeats’s father read to him. Joyce had the beginnings of a formal Jesuit education. Lawrence had the irregular free education of his time and later taught school. In short none of them, unless it be Joyce, had what are called the “advantages” of a full education. No one knows how much education a writer needs or what it ought to consist of. Yeats and James enjoyed the benefits of their father’s doubts on these matters. Hardy and Lawrence had the bad luck of poverty, and Conrad the worse luck of exile. Shaw was obstinate, Joyce rebellious, Kipling content. If I read Mr. Stewart right, he is a little donnish on the matter; that is, he is uneasy but not specific, about his authors’ disadvantages. All I can say is that it would have been a great shame had all or any of these authors been so educated as to make them fully consenting partners in the society in which they lived—I remember some years ago hearing a late Vice-Chancellor of Oxford state that it was the duty of his university to rear servants to the Queen, God bless her! The old gentleman was thinking of his youth and of Queen Victoria. Histories lead to conceit and arrogance about those whose story is told. With as little as possible of these attributes it would be interesting to construct the right education for each of our eight neglected authors, and at what time of life each should have taken it up. (I confess I did not know till past thirty, when it was too late, what education I could myself have used.) It would be a critical venture as well as a pedagogical one to consider when, if ever, Shaw should have been made to broaden his conception of love and sex by studying Dante, Montaigne, and Freud at the same time. And so on. Perhaps a maxim will do for a curriculum: Every man does his best work a little outside the institutions to which he is expected to owe allegiance. There is no curriculum, and no maxim to substitute for it, to cover the losses and positive damage involved—I will not say in every case or in every society but certainly in every case presented in Mr. Stewart’s book. One thinks of Tolstoy’s “Every happy marriage is the same, every unhappy marriage is different.” If nothing else, there is the aging of talent, so different in rate from that of life.

Mr. Stewart is very good at this décalage; indeed it makes for the pang and dark thrill common to his eight studies. Each of his writers is shown as deeply impaired in talent and energy well before he has done writing—even D. H. Lawrence, who had the greatest energy and died the youngest, and for whom Mr. Stewart has the greatest admiration as a writer and as the figure, if not the substance, of a man. Lawrence was outside humans as well as institutions; or, to put it backwards, one could have him about the house only if one regarded him mainly as an intrusive but vital institution. (Readers of Huxley’s Point Counter Point will remember in the figure of Rampion how this is, and readers of Wyndham Lewis’s Pale Face will rush in with a clamor of support; and I hope that Max Beerbohm has somewhere left a drawing. It is only talent that recognizes the cost of talent in others.) In short, Mr. Stewart is rather grim in this matter; I think justly grim, except in the case of Hardy, for whom I should like to argue that the lyrics of his great age constitute a new form of the best, to a similar degree, though very different in substance, as in the last works of Titian, or Verdi, or Maillol. The genuinely new treatment of the early and steadfast thing is newer than any merely new thing can be. Décalage sometimes works both ways. Edwin Muir in England and Wallace Stevens in America were showing signs of this novel power in their penultimate years. Hardy, I think, made the longer music of demonstration. But, as Yeats said, “This is no country for old men.”

Mr. Stewart’s book rouses these sorts of speculation in this reviewer the more naturally, perhaps, than with others, because all the writers studied have been a part of life for forty-four years and Kipling for another ten, for the The Jungle Book came at the age of six. Mr. Stewart is not, so far as I know, normally a critic of modern literature. I wonder if his experience has not been much like mine: he knows these writers too well to be overbothered by any mere matter of liking or disliking. But I should be unfair if I stopped at this. Eight Modern Writers has two aspects that need to be named so that readers may look for them. One is professional, and has to do with the maturing of the form of the novel in England through the work of Hardy, James, and Conrad followed by a study of two products of that maturity—Joyce and Lawrence—which, I would say though I am not sure of Mr. Stewart, confute, with Joyce, and disarrange, with Lawrence, the prior ripening. Literature is like that; you come to a safe place to breathe with one set of writers, then another set (here Joyce and Lawrence) knocks you off your seat and out of breath: the one with the further possibilities of calculable form in creating new modes of imagination, the other with a fresh insistence that direct reaction will create incalculable form. In short we seem to come back to talent, where there is no safety and no breath. The other thing is of course the good things said by the way; what one’s leading ideas make it possible to say as one goes along. Here—because appetites vary so widely upon experience—I hardly know how to illustrate. Perhaps it will stand for a great deal else to remark on his notion that tragedy in James is “like Shakespeare’s, concerned less with happiness and misery than with grace.” Grace is the only possible help for authors who wrote (as their readers must still read, of people “on the edge of a great anxiety.”

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