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A Late Romantic

Selected Writings Poetry and Criticism

by Herbert Read, with a Forward by Allen Tate
Horizon, 406 pp., $7.50

While others have been making criticism a logical discipline, Sir Herbert Read has been carrying on a kind of Bahai operation, freely acknowledging his pluralist methods and frankly drawing upon such incompatibles as T.E. Hulme, T.S. Eliot, Ruskin, Morris, Eric Gill, Marx, Freud, Jung, Kretschmer, Strzygowski, Worringer, Frobenius, Gestalt psychology, Whitehead, and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Yet as Allen Tate remarks in his Foreword, there is a remarkable consistency running through Read’s work in spite of its miscellaneous range (a partial bibliography here appended totals seventy-six titles). As poet, as social commentator, educator, art historian, and literary critic Read has always, like Ruskin, held certain notions that are a response rather than a coherent system. He has persistently opposed everything official, except, perhaps, in psychology, and he has confessed with disarming honesty that he would “accept ‘the rehabilitation of romanticism’ as an adequate description of my aims.” His romanticism is of a slack but generous sort, affirming “the “creative function of the personality,” and it has a crusading modernist tone because Read, like Jaspers, has always been concerned with the tension between our technology and the moral and artistic life. The two latter are, for Read, identical, and that is why he has dared to insist, again like Ruskin, upon the morality of taste—a term now generally discredited. He once stated “My philosophy is a direct product of my aesthetic experience.”

The radius of his aesthetic experience is measured in this selection, containing some of his poems along with essays on literature, art, society, and education (three essays are new). The early poems, particularly, are often marked by imagism and are, accordingly, a somewhat short-breathed succession of impressions:

a wire sings
an insulator
clings
like a wren to the wall.

There is also the very fine brief “White Isle of Leuce,” hard and dry in language and having that “exact curve” predicted by Hulme when he said that a classical revival was coming. The broadcast dialogue for three voices, “Moon’s Farm,” seems derivative from Eliot’s dramatic verse:

Third Voice: Die to the day and its trivialities Die to the sense of time.

First Voice: Or to the sense of place to the place of generation and birth.

It hardly has, nor has Eliot, the small roughness in the spoken language of Frost’s Masque of Reason or Masque of Mercy, though it is comparably thematic.

Read as a romantic is more evident in his criticism than in his verse, and he has tried to validate romanticism in literature by invoking psychoanalysis: “whilst hitherto romanticism has had to rely on subjective convictions, and has thus earned a certain disrepute in philosophy and the science of art, it can now claim a scientific basis in the findings of psychoanalysis.” The claim is perilous, for it leads him to “the case of Shelley” and the supposition that since Shelley “belonged to a definite psychological type” (“evidently narcissistic and unconsciously homosexual”) “we may more easily, more openly, appreciate the poetry.” It is perilous simply because the personality of the poet does not and cannot authenticate the poetry, and Shelley’s “organic unity with his mother” hardly proves that “there is nothing vulgar about the philosophy expounded in Epipsychidion.” Primary identification with mother notwithstanding, “Epipsychidion” is an embarrassing poem.

But there is nothing better on Swift than Read’s penetrating speculation on how Swift the man inhibited Swift the writer. Swift’s prose is “unique, an irrefrangible instrument of clear, animated, animating and effective thought,” as Read called it in English Prose Style; yet it has a sterility due to a defect in the author’s character—namely, “the vanity of his ambitions and the insistent rancour of his disappointment.” These contingencies result in the perfection of Swift’s pessimism, but also in a lack of “eloquence of ideas and sentiments.” The Swiftian economy in writing is indeed due to some want of spiritual eloquence that can be traced to policy, precaution, perhaps hatred; and Read has in this case without the aid of psychoanalysis assigned a reason for the painful frigidity which put Swift at “the mercy of his passions.”

In his discussions of painting Read reverts to his abiding belief that the primary (“eidetic”) image embodied in the artist’s work is a mode of empiricism more valuable than the empiricism of science. Indeed, one wishes Sir Herbert had included his chapter from The Forms of Things Unknown on “The Limitations of a Scientific Philosophy,” establishing “the empirical status of the work of art.” The rather dated tract on “Surrealism and the Romantic Principle” has appeared at least twice before, in 1936 and 1952, and Sir Herbert explained stubbornly upon its second printing that he was preserving it in order not to disguise the fact of his sometimes being led away by his sympathies. It is, however, a sign of his integrity and independence that this essay is a reply to Hulme, for if romanticism is to be defended, we must defend it on Sir Herbert’s thesis that classicism has been allied with forces of oppression: “Wherever the blood of martyrs stains the ground, there you will find a Doric column.”

While admitting that abstract painting has become a new academism, Sir Herbert addresses himself to the deeper problem that faced Ruskin and Morris—the opposition between art and the machine. Sir Herbert accepts the machine, and insists that it need not injure art if the factory accomodates to the designer, not the designer to the factory. He accepts the machine itself as a basis for constructivist abstraction. This principle, advanced in Art and Industry (1932), is here reaffirmed in “The Nature of Abstract Art,” which is, in effect, an extension of the Bauhaus creed he has often endorsed. In short, Sir Herbert shares Ruskin’s anxiety without seeking Ruskin’s remedy, medieval handcraft and skill fetichism.

Yet Read’s proposal to humanize our economy by putting machines under the control of workers’ guilds is as futile a program as Ruskin’s feudal socialism. Indeed, Sir Herbert confesses that the term guild seems more “euphonious” to him than terms like collective or soviet. This is a disappointing evasion.

The technological problem provokes the cluster of essays on society and education, which transvalue his aesthetic to an ethic. The great trouble, Sir Herbert says, is centralization, for “in the name of democracy we are more and more inevitably compelled to commit ourselves to the political machinery of the state—to the nationalization of industry, to the bureaucratic control of all spheres of life.” He seeks a more organic society where local politics are the real politics. His insurrection expresses itself in his non-economic “politics of the unpolitical”—a politics of art really, for technology dulls sensitivity, and the only way to save ourselves from our apparatus is by the primary experience of our fingers feeling “the clay, the crisp substance of the wood, the tension of the molten metal.” Read sees how our education culminates in abstractions, in formulas and norms in an age that has invented symbolic logic he returns to Rousseau’s creed that the child must know things, the “direct sensuous experience” offered only by art and not, ironically, by the science that now gives us theories. If our education is to preserve the “vividness of sensation” that is our birthright, we must have a “duplex civilization in which artistic experience parallels technical competence. The eidetic image of the artist is “reconciling”: it reconciles the conscious with the unconscious, and is a felt experience reconciling man with man, an empiricism more civilizing than the intellectualism that devastates our politics as well as our pedagogy. Our “blind drive towards power and affluence” has given us a culture sick with despair or apathy or violence. Art dispels our rationalist illusions: it is “the sensuous cognition of reality itself,” a form of things unknown until they are given presence in the artistic image. Thus Sir Herbert ratifies the politics of William Morris, who in 1880 wrote that without giving men a share in art they cannot be educated or civilized. What, Sir Herbert asks, is to prevent the Plastic Age from offering another avalanche of vulgarity? Only the contact with reality that enabled the Greeks to shape a pot. The pots were functional—but functionalism is not enough. In what seems to me his central essay here, Sir Herbert warns: “Do not let us make the mistake of assuming that a clvilization can be based on rationality or functionalism alone. The foundations of a civilization rest not in the mind but in the senses.” His conclusion is no mere romanticism: only a people with artistic sensitivity should be trusted with machines.

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