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
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 …