writing in NLR 5, Raymond Williams proposed a solution to an old problem, “the plight of the Little Magazines”. He suggests that positive intervention (to replace jaded liberal passive lamentation) into the publishing and distribution of books and magazines is the only effective way to counter “the pressure to reduce publications to a limited number of standard items, easily sold in quantity” i.e. to widen the channels of communication, multiply the number of genuine, as distinct from marginal, variant voices in our culture. The current issue of the literary magazine Stand (IV-3), edited from Leeds by Jon Silkin, is a case in point. Here is an independent “little magazine”, pleasant in appearance and layout, without subsidy of any kind, edited, administered, and distributed by volunteer enthusiasts, carrying very little advertising, and yet still able to pay its contributors. Founded in 1952, the editor intends the journal to contribute to the contemporary discussion and definition of humanist values. It deserves very general support, and in a proper state of affairs would certainly get it without special plugging here.
The current number prints a group of short essays on the War Poets of the 1914–18 period. Independent pieces of criticism in themselves, the essays also share the excellent intention of dislodging the poets from their dusty niches in the Official War Museum For (Suitable) Literature. Joseph Cohen writes on the social pressures which supply “War Poet” with its official meaning. Essentially, the word “Poet” changes the meaning of the word “War”. Its primitive magic invests War with a romantic brilliance. War is not killing and maiming, not “the continuation of diplomacy by other means”, but an Absolute Idea, whose mysteries are only perceived by the sacrifical figure of the Poet, and are certainly not to be questioned by the reader, civilian, or soldier. The massacres of Passchaendale created—as we might say today—“a deeply-felt need for War Poets”.
Geoffrey Matthews contrasts the poetry of Brooke and Owen in a way that suggests that if Brooke’s naive and woolly idealising does, in fact, deserve the name of War Poetry, then we must call Owen’s Peace Poetry. To describe Owen as a War Poet is perfect doublethink (“War is Peace”). You might as well call Eliot a Joy Poet. Jon Silkin’s contribution points out an important difference between Owen and Rosenberg, which gives one a firmly defined sense of Owen’s main limitation. Within Owen’s compassionate concern for the victims of war, there sometimes lurks a transferred self-pity, producing a certain lugubriousness of tone, a slight luxuriating in the hopelessness of everything, from which Rosenberg’s verse is entirely free. It seems only fair to add the biographical distinction here: Owen, the officer, had illusions to overcome and ambitions to outgrow; while Rosenberg, the only private in the whole group, joined up without any dulling or confusing romantic fancies about what he was doing. He was in fact so poor that even Kitchener’s Army offered a comparatively secure living. (The biographical irony at the other end of the scale is Brooke’s death from a mosquito-bite while at sea in the Aegean. cf “If I should die . . .”.)
Alan Page writes perceptively on Sassoon without wholly, I think, making a necessary distinction between him and Owen—necessary, not only to a sharper definition of each poet’s achievement, but to help explain Sassoon’s retreat from the wartime satirical astringency of his best-known poems (“But he did for them both with his plan of attack”, and “There’s such splendid work for the blind”) into the postwar nostalgic revocation of his fox-hunting days. You feel that Sassoon never quite broke out of the charmed circle of which Brooke was the central magician. C. Day Lewis writes on Edward Thomas without, however, considering his relation to the rest. Not that this would be easy. Thomas is certainly the odd man out; but the whys and wherefores need looking at. Robert Frost’s influence on Thomas is perfectly well-known, but poets do not write at Thomas’ best level simply because other poets encourage them. What of the pressure of the war, which may very well have institutionalised and so liberated for full expression Thomas’ temperamental isolation from social life? The significant thing about Thomas’ work is, that with few exceptions—and none for his best poems—war never enters his writing. Yet he fought and died with the rest.
Ian Carr and Alun Jones write well on the two survivors, Edmund Blunden and Robert Graves. Jones makes the point about the strange withdrawal of feeling that accompanies so many detailed accounts of suffering and misery in Graves’ autobiography Goodbye To All That. He also mentions the part Graves played in deflecting the consequences of Sassoon’s pacifist letter. Is it possible to take the two together? to relate what is Graves’ most fully-documented political act to his moral ambiguity about war—one
In sum, then, one’s main criticism of these valuable essays is their length. The ground they do cover in the available space—Alan Page for example had only one-and-a-half pages—is very remarkable, but it means that one is left with a rich collection of clues and suggestions, rather than a series of completed definitions.
Of course, one can hear the familiar mutter: “why bother? what is the point of chewing over the past? These little magazines should print “creative” writing (Stand does, incidentally: three poems and a short story in this issue)—these merely critical pieces are so much waste paper.” There is a general answer to this: continuous appraisal of past writers is the essential stuff of a living literary culture. Literary (like any other), exist insofar as they are standards practised, and as long as they are practised, the problem of the great contemporary poems and novels can be left to the great contemporary poets and novelists—when they appear. The main responsibility that we have is surely to make certain that there will be an audience who will want good literature, will know it for what it is, and will not have to have it thrust at them (and in justifiable exasperation start thrusting it back again) by “prestige” publisher’s lists, and “prestige” reviewing. The kind of criticism in Stand is the necessary soil in which good contemporary literature will flourish.