London Letter: March, 1921
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[ 333 London Letter: March, 19211 The Dial, 70 (Apr 1921) 448-53 The Two Stupidities I take up this task of writing a London letter with an overwhelming sense of difficulty. As I first proposed it to myself, there was no difficulty at all: it was to mention any work, or any momentary appearance of intellect or feeling, which seemed to deserve mention, to use any opportunity to consider the writing of living authors whom I respect, and to construct such a portrait of the time as might be in my power. Then I reflected that there is in contemporary English literature a very great deal which I cordially detest; and that I could not make an honest portrait without calling attention to these things. Yet I recognized that by so doing I might arouse the glee, and draw upon myself the approval, of exactly that part of American opinion which I abominate. One must face the fact that the imbeciles on either side of the water are very glad and quite able to perceive, by that sort of hostile sympathy which exists only among members of the same family, the imbecilities of the great fraternity on the other side; and that this perception only confirms them in their own variety of stupidity. I can claim no great originality in diagnosing either of the two stupidities; the only possible originality is in their collocation. There is Mr. Mencken, a brilliant specialist in American depravity, whose last book I have read with strong admiration.2 Andonlyrecently,whenImentioned,rathergentlyasIthought, a very conspicuous feature of English stupidity, I was gaped at by one of the smaller English reviewers, for my words of “elegant anguish.”3 It pleased me to reflect that a critic of the same stripe had once referred to Matthew Arnold as an “elegant Jeremiah”;4 although this coincidence merely proved the immortality of the English reviewer, and not any similarity between Matthew Arnold and myself. However, if these letters succeed in being written with any competence, I am almost certain to become an object of international execration; a disaster in which I pray very vigorously that The Dial may not share. 1921 334 ] Prolegomena to Poetry Mr. Harold Monro has just produced a book entitled Some Contemporary Poets: 1920, which is a particularly useful book for my horrid purpose.5 It is, I hope, no injustice to Mr. Monro to say that his book has every appearance of having been written to order. We have all written books to order, or we have conceived the desire, at times of penury, of being asked to write a book to order, and some moralists tell us that desire is as sinful as commission. But the peculiar effect of Mr. Monro’s labours appears to be, that everything in contemporary poetry (1920) is reduced to a precise level of flatness . Our judgement is thus left free, if unguided. It is to be wondered what the “general reading public,” to whom its publishers say it should appeal, and who can hardly be other than a small section of what Arnold called the Philistines, will make of it.6 Some of the poets whom Mr. Monro chats about are dull, some are immature, some are slight, some are downright bad: Mr. Monro’s effect is to make them all seem dull, immature, slight, and bad. And some are good, but we do not get that impression from the book. The first suggestion which this book gives me is that what I may call the centre of gravity of dulness lies, in America and England, at different points. Nearly the whole body of the Established Church of contemporary literature in America must appear a little ridiculous, if no worse, to even the most latitudinarian littérateurs of Established contemporary literature in England. I cannot conceive Mr. Edmund Gosse, for example, really being taken in by the effusions of Miss Repplier or the Reverend Mr. Crothers, although I can conceive of his commending them with a kindly Olympian patronage which might take in the recipients.7 The Polite Essay is, in fact, done rather better in England, and this truth is not reserved for a few profound minds. Nevertheless the Established Church of Literature does occasionally patronize, with the semblance of enthusiasm, American literature which happens to amuse it. It is creditable that Spoon River should for a time have aroused interest here; unfortunately, its success has been more lately duplicated by the poetry of Mr. Vachel...