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MICHAEL KIRKHAM The Edwardian Critical Opposition 'The situation of poetry in 1909 or 1910 was stagnant to a degree difficult for any young poet today to imagine.' So wrote T.5. EHot in 1954.1 His opinion is quoted and supported with documentation by C.K. Stead in The New Poetic. As Victorian confidence weakened during the 1880s and 1890s, according to his account, a desperate conservatism took hold. The resistance that flared up in literary circles during the nineties quickly died down; the trial of Oscar Wilde combined with social and political anxiety to kill the aesthetic movement, leaving in the next decade Kipling, Henley, William Watson, Alfred Austin, Newbolt, and Noyes virtually unopposed. Although the Conservatives lost the general election in 1906, in literature - 'essentially a concern of the middle class' - conservatism continued to dominate. 'The poetry we find established in 1909 is a poetry of political retrenchment, committed to conserve political and social ideas and institutions doomed to collapse.'2 The establishment poets exactly reflected the attitudes of their middle-class readers - and, it seems, by design. Newbolt, spokesman for the status quo, was contentedly reporting in 1912 that the artist was required by them to 'express feelings such as they can understand and value. They demand that he shall chant to them, for example, their own morality, their own religion, their own patriotism.'s This gives an only too clear picture of what kind of poetry they expected and received. It propounded 'firm philosophical ideals';4 it was, in the critical language of the time, a poetry of 'message' rather than 'song.' Some remarks of a writer in the Quarterly Review are representative: for the great poet 'the ultimate standard by which his rank and his significance are to be measured is what he means as a thinker, as an observer, as an impassioned critic of life, not the manner in which he produces his notes as a singer.'5 But, as Mr Stead comments, only poetry whose 'message ' was in accordance with popular opinion would be regarded as philosophically sound. In his survey of the literary situation from 1909 to 1916 Mr Stead's case is, briefly, that the imperialists, the poets of 'political retrenchment' and their supporters, dictated the critical standards, which were not seriously challenged until about 1914, by which time the Georgian poets had captured the poetry-reading public. His contention that the Georgian movement was hardly distinguishable in its antipathies and general poetic UTQ, Volume XLV, Number 1, Fall 1975 20 MICHAEL KIRKHAM ideals from Imagism, or Modernism in its early stages, and was equally 'a revolt against the established poetry of the time/ is well supported and, I think, incontrovertible. But, concentrating on the poetry and contemporary criticism of poetry, he, perhaps inadvertently, simplifies the general literary situation. He rightly associates Georgianism with the small group of liberal intellectuals and writers whose numbers had been growing since the beginning of the century; he is mistaken, however, in thinking that they 'received little support from established journals and publishers.'6 Certainly the liberal movement found no concerted expression in poetry no concerted expression at all - until the appearance of the Georgian anthologies, but it is not true that it lacked voices to speak for it during the preceding, Edwardian decade. Mr Stead presents us with a literary establishment in absolute, uncontested power. Yet, to mention the names of two well-known critics of the period, Edward Thomas published widely in the dailies, weeklies, monthlies, and quarterlies from 1900 to 1915, and his friend and mentor Edward Garnett was both a publisher's reader and a frequent contributor to the literary magazines. Both, as I hope to show, could be called liberal intellectuals, whose opinions moreover were available to a wide readership.'Liberal' is not used here in the political sense. Many of the liberal intellectuals were no doubt -supporters of the Liberal party, but Garnett, however he voted, was a member of the Fabian Society and therefore, presumably, in theory committed to an evolutionary socialism . But both he and Thomas were 'liberal' in Mr Stead's meaning of the word: in a literary milieu dominated by a reactionary middle class they...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1712-5278
Print ISSN
0042-0247
Pages
pp. 19-34
Launched on MUSE
2015-07-01
Open Access
No
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