Views and Reviews [III]
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268 ] Views and Reviews [III] The New English Weekly, 7 (12 Sept 1935) 351-52 Some remarks made not long ago by the Poet Laureate, in awarding a prize, have recurred to my mind in another context. I have not the newspaper report by me, but I think that his words were to this effect. When he was young, he said, he believed that the elder and established poets were either indifferent or hostile to the efforts of younger men, and he accordingly returned the appropriate feelings. Now that he is an elder poet himself, he knows that this is not true, and that older men wish only to encourage, advance and applaud the best work of their juniors. I believe this to have been the sense of his words.1 Such a general statement can bear with a little qualification and analysis. It may be more true at one period than at another, according to the general state of poetry and the personalities involved. I am now old enough to recognise a qualified truth in what Mr. Masefield said: that is, I am sure that all elder poets believe that they wish to encourage and help younger ones, they believe that they really care for poetry, and not merely for what they write themselves. And they can really crave the pleasure of being able to enjoy and applaud work of younger men. Only, their capacity for appreciation of anything new is apt to be very limited. Unless they are highly self-critical, unless they have kept their minds very conscious and supple, they are likely to be able to enjoy nothing but imitation of their own work. They do not know that it is imitation. It is easy enough to detect imitation of other men’s work: it is extremely difficult to detect imitation of one’s own. On the one hand, a man is anxious to find something to like; and on the other hand he dislikes the difficult and unfamiliar; and the two motives conspire. No poet can enjoy what he knows to be an imitation of his own work, or can take any kind of pleasure from this flattery. But he is liable to have settled himself in a state in which he can enjoy nothing but his own work, and nobody wants to realise this fact about himself. Hence an imitation of one’s own work, which one enjoys because it reminds one of one’s own work, but which one fancies to be highly original, is what gives the maximum of pleasure at the slightest cost of pain and effort and humility. Moral obliquity and intellectual sloth make a happy union. There is almost no escape from [ 269 Views and Reviews [III] this darkness if a poet has got to a stage in which he merely imitates himself ; he has a better chance of clear vision if he is perpetually rejecting his own work, passing through the phase of being embarrassed and ashamed, to become able to regard it almost as detachedly as if it were not his, and to interest himself solely in that part of his work which he has not yet written. Inanycase,totakeanintelligentandhelpfulinterestintheworkofyounger men is not the simple operation of benevolence that Mr. Masefield might lead us to suppose. No simple amiability will avail. To be interested in one’s art, instead of being merely interested in one’s own success – even in the best meaning of the word “success” – is no innate faculty which one either possesses in some degree or does not possess. It is a faculty which, however endowed with it one may be in the fresh years, must be cultivated to the end. To an age not much occupied with moral askesis, which is taught that it is more important that the growing plant should not be warped than that it should be trained, and which is not even taught that growth itself should be the activity of a lifetime, and not merely of arbitrarily restricted “formative years,” this suggestion of the profound moral problem involved in what appears such a simple manifestation of good-nature as being kind to young poets, may appear fantastic. And even when I say “moral problem” I suppose I must say what one ought to be able to take for granted, that the moral and the intellectual cannot be separated, and that mental sloth is sin. At different periods, of course, there may be greater or less sympathy between the...