A portrait of genial failure

8 Apr

Samuel Hynes is perhaps better known for his influential (and controversial) A War Imagined: The First World War and English Culture (1991), but he has also produced interesting work on the wider literary culture of the time.  In Edwardian Occasions (1972), a pleasant collection of essays on the major British literary figures of 1900-1940, Hynes offers a series of meditations on the men and women who wrote the world of their time — even those who have now been largely forgotten.

Consider this amazing paragraph, which opens his appreciation of the editor and critic Alfred Orage:

Alfred Orage was a man who, as Shaw observed, ‘did not belong to the successful world’.  He was an editor who never ran a profitable paper, a socialist who backed Guild Socialism against the Fabians, an economist who preached Social Credit against the Keynesians, a literary critic who found Ulysses repellent and disliked the poems of Yeats, a mystic who expected the Second Coming.  In thirty years of public life he never supported a winning cause, or profited from a losing one; the movements that consumed his energies are dead, and so are the journals that he edited, and the books that he wrote.

A sad eulogy indeed, but there’s more:

Yet when Orage died in 1934 he was remembered, and mourned, by many men more celebrated than he.  The memorial number of the New English Weekly (of which he was the founder and first editor) included elegiac notes from Eliot, Chesterton, Shaw, A.E., Pound, Wells, Augustus John, Richard Aldington, Herbert Read, Middleton Murry, G.D.H. Cole, Frank Swinnerton, Edwin Muir, and St. John Irvine, all expressing a sense of loss, and all for different reasons.  Eliot praised the literary critic, A.E. the guru, Pound the economist; others admired Orage’s brilliance as an editor, his flair for discovering talent, his prose style, his disinterestedness, his obstinacy.

“There is no doubt,” Hynes concludes, “that to his contemporaries Orage was important; the question is, what importance, if any, remains?” (39)

This is a question well worth asking for anyone immersed in the work of examining a period’s literary culture, because the answers to the questions “was it important?” and “is it important?” are likely to be quite different.  The first printing of Sassoon’s collected poems after the war ran to roughly 1500 copies, of which about half languished unsold; Rupert Brooke’s collected poems, since their first publication and up to that same point, had sold some 200,000 copies.  Yet now Sassoon is taken — along primarily with Owen, but also sometimes with Rosenberg, Gurney or Sorley — to be the poetic voice of the war, while Brooke is typically viewed as an embarrassing footnote that everyone was eager to get over once the war had finished.  The earliest anthologies of the war’s English poetry fairly groaned under the sheer number of poems by Sir Owen Seaman that were included; you will not now see him anthologized anywhere, or even regularly listed among the number of the war’s prolific occasional poets.  Sir Henry Newbolt’s “Vitaï Lampada” (1892) burned brightly in the mind of many a young man who went off to the Front; to the extent that it now figures in much of the work done in memory of those men, it is as a sort of sick joke.

Clearly there is a difference between the then and the now, but what are we to make of it?  Is one reckoning better than the other?  Does the modern view of a bygone era benefit from hindsight, or suffer from distance?  It’s very hard to say; it may not even be a consistent thing.  What should not be controversial, however, is that understanding how the people of this time thought, and giving due regard to what they appreciated and why, will help us better understand our own reaction to their art, their literature, and their culture — and, it must be hoped, help better inform our memory of them.  It would even be better to look back upon the likes of Brooke and Seaman and Newbolt with open contempt than to look back and not even see them at all.  In the latter case — as it is with poor Alfred Orage — something very important would be lost.

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