- A Preface to Modern Literature: Being a Conspectus, Chiefly of English Poetry, Addressed to an Intelligent and Inquiring Foreigner
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482 ] A Preface to Modern Literature:1 Being a Conspectus, Chiefly of English Poetry, Addressed to an Intelligent and Inquiring Foreigner Vanity Fair, 21 (Nov 1923) 44, 118 As a preamble to the examination of English literature at the present time it is necessary, for the sake of the reader, to risk some generalizations; to expose frankly a point of view – inevitably contestable – so that the reader may judge for himself of the reliability of the chronicler, and of his peculiar limitations and prejudices. To discuss the “present” is not a matter only of judgment and taste; it requires also a faith and a foresight which vary with the individual. For the present consists of a great deal of the past and a little of the future; it contains a majority of people who are echoing the past, and a very small number of writers who will represent this time fifty years hence, but who are, at the moment, rather a part of the future. To give a fair view of the present, as it appears to a contemporary, it is necessary to begin with the dreariest part of the subject, the vast background of death against which the solitary figures of the future are relieved. It is necessary to begin about the date of the trial of Oscar Wilde.2 The effect of this trial upon English literary society was fatal.3† Here was asmallgroupofEnglishpeople,whohadsucceeded,inthemidstofVictorian society, in acquiring a high degree of emancipation from the worst English vices; which was neither insular, nor puritanical, nor cautious; a public scandal disposed of its social leader for ever; the broken group lost all influence upon English civilization. Wilde and his circle stood for something much more important than any of the individual members: they stood for the end of a type of culture. In general, they represented urbanity, Oxford education, the tradition of good writing, cosmopolitanism; they were in contact with the continent, and some of their most important members were Irish.4 They had, of course, as writers, weaknesses which today are painfully apparent; and I am much deceived if Dorian Gray be not perfect rubbish, and if the best of Wilde be not in Intentions.5 [ 483 A Preface to Modern Literature The greatest merit of this group of people is, to my mind, not to be found in their writings, but is rather a moral quality apparent in the group as a whole: it had a curiosity, an audacity, a recklessness which are in violent contrast with that part of the present which I denominate as the already dead. In a recent anthology which I should call not so bad as meaningless, is a poem by Ernest Dowson.6† This is not one of his best poems; Dowson, at best, moreover, was not a very intellectual poet; nevertheless, it is distinguished from the verse of our contemporaries, which surrounds it, precisely by an intellectual dignity. It is followed by a poem by our contemporary, Mr. John Drinkwater, the emptiness of which is perfected by the final couplet: I turn to sleep, content that from my sires I draw the blood of England’s midmost shires.7 To turn to sleep, contented in the possession of such a humble merit, is characteristic of the school of versifiers which Mr. Drinkwater represents. Oscar Wilde and his confrères were not so easily satisfied. Unfortunately, several others of the most brilliant met with a variety of disastrous ends; the society disappeared.8 The few serious writers who survived or appeared during the next vacant years appear suddenly in great isolation. Thomas Hardy was already a survivor of a still earlier period; Henry James and Joseph Conrad are solitary figures. The most notable characteristic of the period from 1896 was an industrious, popular and rather vulgar super-journalism. This term of reproach, however, cannot be applied without qualification to any of the most conspicuous writers of the time. Wells and Bennett have each a kind of genius which has enabled them to produce a few very remarkable books, and a few remarkable passages in inferior books. Shaw, who is an Irishman and also had the benefit of an acquaintance with Wilde’s circle, is journalistic only in method, intensely serious in motive; though his seriousness is not often the seriousness of a literary artist. The most dubious of them is probably Chesterton, and even he has occasional insight. Yet, in spite of individual merit, and the very great diversity between...