London Letter: April, 1922
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394 ] London Letter: April, 19221 The Dial, 72 (May 1922) 510-13 London, after three months, appeared to me quite unchanged: the same things one liked, the same things one detested, and the same things to which one was indifferent.2 I set about to hear any important news, of books, of people, of productions or events, and found nothing worthy of mention. This, of course, might happen anywhere. Nevertheless, after a separation, one is disposed to generalize about impressions; so I have been led to contemplate , for many moments, the nature of the particular torpor or deadness which strikes a denizen of London on his return. There is certainly, in the atmosphere of literary London, something which may provisionally be called a moral cowardice. It is not simply cowardice , but a caution, a sort of worldly prudence which believes implicitly that English literature is so good as it is that adventure and experiment involve only unjustified risk; lack of ambition, laziness, and refusal to recognize foreign competition; a tolerance which is no better than torpid indifference; not cowardice merely, but still a composition of inertias which is usually to be found in general cowardice. It is facilitated by conditions which are universal as well, by democracy (in the vague habitual sense of the word), by the newspapers, the reviewing of books, the journalistic life; by the actual and by every proposed economic system, which give so high a place to Security – whether in the form of gilt-edged bonds or oldage pensions – and so low a place to adventure and contemplation. But in London these poisons are either more pernicious, or their effects more manifest, than elsewhere. Other cities decay, and extend a rich odour of putrefaction; London merely shrivels, like a little bookkeeper grown old. This is the principal impression one derives from the consideration of any and every anthology of contemporary verse that appears. As the two last that I have seen are Methuen and Company’s Anthology of Modern Verse, and Mr. Untermeyer’s Modern American Poetry, I fall upon these as text-books for a comparison.3 With the merits of the anthologies I have nothing to do; only with a general impression of English and American poetry. It is very difficult, so different have the verses of the two sides of the Atlantic become, to censure the one without appearing to favour the other; [ 395 London Letter: April nevertheless, this nice feat should be attempted. Both appear to me to insult the English language, but in different ways; both appear to me conventional and timid, but in different ways. The instinct for safety it may be – as in the bird the ostrich, not always a safe instinct – or a complexity of causes, which seems to make the English poet take refuge in just those sentiments, images, and thoughts which render a man least distinguishable from the mob, the respectable mob, the decent middle-class mob. An appearance of daring, even a real daring in non-literary respects (for political courage is still respected) may do no harm, and may even please; for it makes the reader feel that he is daring too. But a truly independent way of looking at things, a point of view which cannot be sorted under any known religious or political title; in fact, the having the only thing which gives a work pretending to literary art its justification ; the having something which the public have not got: this is always detested. Sometimes it is not recognized, sometimes it can be ignored; and then a man may have a deserved immediate popularity; but when it is recognized and cannot be ignored, it is certainly feared and disliked. The popularity of certain war poems was due, I think, to the fact that they appeared to represent a revolt against something that was very unpleasant, and really paid a tribute to all the nicest feelings of the upper-middle class British public school boy. But if I had to pick out, from the Methuen anthology, some poem which more than the rest contained a dignity of the individual, it would be, I think, Lionel Johnson’s “Statue of King Charles.”4 Johnson, however, is hardly to be claimed by the present literary generation. We have, then, a large number of writers giving the public what it likes; and a large body of reviewers telling it that it is right to like what it likes; and the Morning Post to tell it that...