Gabriel Pearson’s recent articlefootnote1 on present-day poetry and the trend poetry has followed since the rise of romanticism contained some striking new formulations of a thesis familiar enough from Plekhanov’s analysis of the French Romantics in his Art and Social Life, T. S. Eliot’s essay on Blake, or Marshall McLuhan’s essay (in an early number of Essays in Criticism) on Tennyson and “picturesque poetry”. It seems to be a fact of literary history that romanticism developed out of the breakdown of any culture in Western Europe that felt itself to be (in Pearson’s words) “sustained either by unified social or by religious sanctions”.

Pearson, however, goes much further than the Twenties or Thirties critics who were preoccupied with this “dissociation of sensibility”. He thinks that this split, with its effect of laying an acute stress on the most private emotions, is still the major factor in making our poetry what it is. And he will not have it that any other valid basis for poetry has yet emerged. Here the challenge to socialism arises. For if socialism, Marxism, communism have not yet brought into being any distinctive forms of literature, in the several generations that have elapsed since the First International or the October Revolution, then indeed we would have to search the heart of our ideology (I say “our” on the assumption that I have a good deal in common with the New Left) and see whether there is something acking in our beliefs and our practice.

One of Pearson’s key formulations of what romanticism consists of is this: “[The romantic poem] does not consist in a series of observations about the world. Instead, the poet tries to watch himself observing the world, tries to catch himself in the act of experiencing. This is why so much romantic poetry appears not only entirely egocentric, but also reflexive, as though the poems always wanted to be experiences of experiences, or poems about poems.” He also asserts that “all worthwhile modern poetry is romantic.” When I read this, I at once thought of Bertolt Brecht, and then of Hugh MacDiarmid. Brecht is known for his “alienation effect”, his effort to make an art which did not invite the identification of the reader or viewer, or tempt him with any emotional luxury, but tried rather to show—to demonstrate life as it is, and deliberately to provoke him to form an opinion of the “case” before him. Brecht wanted the audience to say: “I wouldn’t have thought that—People shouldn’t do things like that—That’s extremely odd, almost unbelievable— This has to stop—This person’s suffering shocks me, because there might be a way out for him.”footnote2 And MacDiarmid is known for his effort to stretch and transform poetry so that it could take in the complete range of modern knowledge, including Marxism.

The poetry these outstanding writers produced was as different as could be from what Pearson regards, not only as the finest and most typically modern poetry, but almost as the supreme art. “The romantic lyric,” he says, “is superbly fitted for a fully authentic rendering of experience.” As though this weren’t claim enough, he then dismisses in a few sentences the ability of the film, the drama, the novel to do any such thing. And near the end he once again links his touchstone of “authenticity”—”Such an intensely personal, intimately autobiographical poetry is unimaginable before our century”—with his assertion that this is the modern literature, “the really unique contribution of our century.” The poetry of MacDiarmid and Brecht is not at all intensely personal (in Pearson’s sense), they don’t offer us their intimate autobiographies, and both were Communists who found their way to a truly Communist poetry. In their work, if anywhere, is the evidence that overturns Pearson’s claim for romanticism along with his joint assertion that socialist realism has been, poetically, sterile.

One of the vital factors common to Brecht and MacDiarmid may be approached like this:—F. R. Leavis has published several essays analyzing poems for their “reality”, “sincerity”, and “emotional quality”—qualities closely akin to Pearson’s “authenticity”. In the essay “ ‘Thought’ and Emotional Quality” (Scrutiny, XIII, 1) one of Leavis’s prime examples of a sound emotional quality is Scott’s little poem “Proud Maisie”. He argues that one excellence of this poem (in comparison with Tennyson’s “Break, break, break”) is that it presents distinct particulars. These generate between them a strong effect, in which emotion plays a part. But the emotion is not injected or larded-on from some unrealized inner feelings of the poet’s; it belongs in and to the life that the poet has grasped and presented.

It is significant that it should have been a poem in a folk mode that exemplified this soundness. For MacDiarmid and Brecht were both masters of folk modes. They needed them to get beyond the postromantic impasse in poetry. The romantic lyric, in the hands of Tennyson, Rossetti, Dowson, the early Yeats, had thinned down into the vehicle for a few dim moods. The folk modes had originated in medieval and even earlier times: that is, in an age before the rise of capitalism had brought about that split in the old “unity of social and religious sanctions”. The ballad, folk-song, and impersonal narrative not only offered a stylistic means of getting beyond the late-romantic “slush” (as Pound called it); they also had the special function for Left writers that they could form a fresh link between literature and the people with their still semi-oral culture.footnote3

Hugh MacDiarmid came into his own as a poet via something close to pastiche. Folk-songs, ballads, flytings, the Burnsian domestic poem—he put all these to use in a lyric verse which is modern in that it is more idiosyncratic or “original” than the typical folk-poem and yet is much less “autobiographical” than the Keatsian type that Pearson has in mind. In a poem such as “Focherty” (from Penny Wheep, 1926), about a red-faced brute of a farmer who steals the narrator’s girl, we don’t sense the least projection of some experience of the poet’s. The stress is on the creation of outward character—