- The New Elizabethans and the Old. A review of The New Elizabethans: A First Selection of the Lives of Young Men Who Have Fallen in the Great War, by E. B. Osborn
- The Johns Hopkins University Press and Faber & Faber Ltd
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10 ] The New Elizabethans and the Old1 A review of The New Elizabethans: A First Selection of the Lives of Young Men Who Have Fallen in the Great War, by E. B. Osborn London: John Lane, 1919. Pp. xxi + 311. The Athenaeum, 4640 (4 Apr 1919) 134-36 At the beginning of the Theaetetus Plato gives the whole effect, the tone, of youthful promise slain in battle. Theaetetus is brought home from Corinth dying of “the disease prevalent in the army.” One of the friends through whom the event is reported recalls the fact that Socrates, shortly before his death, met and conversed with the boy Theaetetus and prophesied great things of him “if he lived long enough.”2 The mood of regret over youth (untimely nipped) has been, like most of the moods of thought, perfectly expressed by Plato. It is a mood which gives pleasure to a great many people. But when it is drawn out to the length of a book, extended and repeated in some twenty figures, and elevated almost to a philosophy of life, it is a different matter. To observe that Plato has said all that there is to say, or to remark that Mr. Osborn has omitted one dead soldier who was a real poet – T. E. Hulme – is not to derogate from the memory of these young men.3 They had charm. Most of them wrote verse, quite mediocre juvenile verse; and their literary interest appears to be one of the principles of selection. But their work is hardly more than a means of exploiting their charm, and in the charm is the danger. The truth is that when one tries to work the subject beyond the point at which Plato has left it, one quickly reaches a point where further exposure becomes improper. There is a great difference of taste between memories of forward youth kept alive in the thoughts of a family and near friends, and the same memories warmed up to feed the public. It is all the difference between emotion and sentiment. One test is this, that Mr. Osborn, in his character sketches, has found himself, perhaps unconsciously, forced to maintain the tone of personal acquaintance. He makes no claim to have known all the young men personally. But his tone, in every case, is the tone suitable to a personal admirer. “I have chiefly,” he says, “relied upon the opinions, written or communicated in conversation, of the younger [ 11 The New Elizabethans and the Old generation” [xi]. Apart from quotation and reference he frequently writes like this: He preferred a few close friends to a multitude of acquaintances, having that rare genius for friendship which is a characteristic of all strong influential personalities.  Overlooking the question of the universality of the truth propounded in the last clause, we may at least complain that this sentence, written about a young Scotchman of very attractive features, is too soft and vague to give any historical impression of the hero.4 It sounds like a letter of condolence from the commanding officer. The letter might be the expression of genuine feeling; but such a sentence in a biographical study is merely sentiment. As for the subjects of these memoirs, we are quite prepared to believe that they were delightful persons, and that their loss is a public misfortune. Without question. They were not more sentimental than most young men, and they were not all of one type. Dixon Scott, for instance, who was probably a very efficient Extension lecturer and is praised as a critic, is of a very different species from Gerald and Julian Grenfell.5 Three were Americans. Some were Oxford intelligentsia. Brian Brooke, whose peculiar ambitions make him more interesting than the majority, was a settler in East Africa. He was called Kurongo (strong man) by his neighbours, who adopted him into their tribe.6 He was a genuine explorer in temperament, having (as we infer) that particular matter-of-fact romanticism which is proper to explorers and adventurers. None of the heroes, if we may judge from the verse and prose extracts from their works, was favoured with remarkable genius (unless what is called the “genius for living”). It would be unfair to expect any new revelation of life from any of these short careers. Important truth comes to the young only in rare flashes of genius. There are no flashes; some of the men had a nice honesty in detail, in accounting for their...