Saturday, 19 September 2020

J.W. Mackail: Imagist

One of the minor thematic strands of this blog has been to develop a case that Morris’s official biographer J. W Mackail is a figure who demands some – perhaps not a great deal, but at least some – literary attention in his own right.  So I am glad to come across this mention of him in George Sampson’s Concise Cambridge History of English Literature (1943), one of those admirable old-fashioned histories of the subject that nobody writes any more: ‘John William Mackail has to his credit excellent biographies of William Morris (1899) and George Wyndham (1925) as well as some equally excellent critical essays, including the delightful and illuminating Latin Literature (1895), The Springs of Helicon (1909), Lectures on Poetry (1911), and Studies of English Poets (1926); but his fame is perhaps most firmly established by his translations, especially Select Epigrams from the Greek Anthology (1890).  Mackail’s classical scholarship is of the exquisite kind’. 

Used in critical parlance today, the adjective ‘exquisite’ would no doubt damn with faint praise; we want our classical scholarship to be robust rather than lapidary, Dionysian rather than Apollonian, in Nietzsche’s terms.  But for Sampson himself, it is presumably wholeheartedly positive.  And that he is right to thus use the word of Mackail is shown by the curious literary-historical fact that the Select Epigrams was a significant book for the Imagist poets of the early twentieth century.  Turning as they did to far-flung literary sources which would help them renew what they saw as the abstract verbiage of the late-Victorian poetic tradition, they found Mackail’s versions of the Greek epigram as relevant to them as that other exotic miniature form, the Japanese haiku.  So Morris’s culturally conservative biographer paradoxically plays at least some small role in enabling one of the avantgarde literary movements of the twentieth century.


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