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New Left Review I/19, March-April 1963


Stanley Mitchell

Romanticism and Socialism

David Craig is right to challenge Gabriel Pearson where his argument most nearly touches us all, in particular those of us who are socialists, namely: is there a new public basis for poetry? [*] See Gabriel Pearson, Romanticism And Contemporary Poetry (NLR.16); David Craig, The New Poetry of Socialism (NLR.17). Yet this was a small and tardy part of Gabriel Pearson’s article, written it would seem in hurried anger after the leisurely, exploratory metaphysics of his main argument. It is a pity that David Craig gave him his thesis on Romanticism, not simply for the sake of literary history, but because Romanticism (a different kind from Gabriel Pearson’s) bears very fruitfully on socialist poetry to-day. It is not enough, for instance, to say, as Craig does, that “Brecht created a poetry in which the poet’s own ego or personality is there only in the sense that, without his mind or experience, the poem would never have been written at all.” There is a real sense in which the bourgeois socialist poet of the twentieth century does not belong to a stable community with unquestioned values. Brecht, the anarchist troubadour, spent his mature socialist years in exile. Mayakovsky was first a Futurist; Eluard, Aragon, Neruda Surrealists. What are these movements if not a twentieth century Romanticism? The poet explodes all resurrection, is apocalyptic, blares back at the bourgeoisie a metropolitan clangour, makes loud and lavish the most private fantasies. Let us take this as a metaphor for post-1914. The stance is destructive, cynically or hysterically personal; the verse momentary, wilful, inflammatory. Such a poet is faced with two choices: Fascism or Communism, the one apparently, the other truly an anti-bourgeois revolt. Those who chose Communism grounded themselves in new values, tempered in the case of Mayakovsky by the Civil War and the birth pangs of socialism, in the case of Brecht by the anti-Fascist struggle, in the case of Aragon and Eluard by the Popular Front and the Resistance. Their poetry gained in stature and dignity, but it was no easy growth. It cost Mayakovsky his life.

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