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?footnote＊ 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.
The mature verse of these poets remains highly individual. Brecht does not use his ballads, folk-songs, hymns in the same naive way in which, say, Bach might have done. They were not part of a warm, stable, day-to-day community life:
I, Bertolt Brecht, come from the black forests.
My mother bore me to the cities
While I lay in her womb. And the cold of the forests
Will be with me to my dying day.
Rather he fashions a new, poetic world out of the modes which
Even anger at injustice
Makes hoarse the voice.
The picture of the poet on the edge of chaos who finds faith and comradeship in the socialist revolution should recall for us the first Romantics as natural forbears. The French Revolution, with its limitless perspectives, inspired most of them however many later turned their backs on it. How many actually took part in revolutionary movements or regarded themselves as political figures: Byron, Shelley, Pushkin, Mickiewicz, Petöfi, Hugo, Manzoni, Büchner, Heine! David Craig ought to have complained of Gabriel Pearson’s parochialism here as much as in modern times. For here it is a much greater sin. With the names of Pushkin, Mickiewicz and Petöfi goes the actual creation of the literatures of modern Russia, Poland and Hungary. If the achievement of a literary language and national classics is simply the projection of the Romantic ego, then these were pretty successful cases.
The Romanticism of Russia, Poland, Hungary, Germany, Italy was primarily concerned to assert the cultural dignity of each of these nations. It was a spiritual expression of national rebirth; it fought a dominating foreign culture: in political terms an aristocracy which spoke a foreign tongue and despised the culture of its own people. In general ideological terms the cry was against the rationalising universalism of French classicism. Romanticism fought for the particular, the nation. It fought a unified culture only where it was cosmopolitan. ‘The people’ was a warm, living community. This idea runs through the work of all the Slav and German Romantics. It is no accident that Herder should have borrowed so heavily from the English pre-Romantics. The language of the people, their songs and ballads would communicate to young bourgeois writers the vigour wherewith to assail the convenient scepticism which a corrupt nobility had selected from French Enlightenment. Shakespeare and Scott exerted a similar influence in Germany, Poland and Russia.