Saturday, 28 November 2020

Radicalising the Troops?

What, the Times newspaper sending excerpts from a communist utopia to British frontline troops during the First World War?  One could well imagine the Bolsheviks smuggling out such extracts to Russian troops on the Eastern front in the run-up to October 1917, but that pillar of the English Establishment, the Times?

But, yes, a section from Morris’s News from Nowhere did indeed form part of Broadsheet XXVIII for the troops (who included my paternal grandfather, Henry Smith Pinkney).  These Times­-sponsored publications were, according to their historian Geoffrey Dawson, ‘printed during the autumn of the year 1915 in the form of a “broadsheet” – a single page of thin paper suitable for inclusion in a letter – and distributed in hundreds of thousands to the forces in the field or at sea’.  Broadsheet XXVIII contained both material from News from Nowhere and Morris’s poem ‘O June’ from The Earthly Paradise.

Needless to say, however, and as the attached poem indicated, it was not the most energizingly revolutionary sections of Morris’s utopia which got posted out to the troops - ‘How the Change Came’, say - but rather an excerpt entitled ‘The Upper Thames’, which thus fits into a conservative vision of settled rural Englishness promoted by other broadsheets in the series.  Broadsheet I contained ‘A Choir Practice’ from early in Thomas Hardy’s novel Two on a Tower, and Broadsheet IV featured ‘On Birds and Trouts’ from Izaak Walton’s The Compleat Angler, and so on.

Given that the later pages of News from Nowhere were seen by the Times as lending themselves to such nostalgic, politically pacifying purposes, we ought perhaps to look at these closing chapters set in the upper Thames valley and at Kelmscott Manor with a rather more sceptical eye ourselves.  My Grandad, I’m glad to say, was not pacified in this manner, but – more in the spirit of the first page of Morris’s utopia, with its Socialist League meeting – joined the Communist Party of Great Britain some years after his return from service with the Royal Artillery in France.

Wednesday, 18 November 2020

A Singing Lesson: A.C. Swinburne

Prompted partly by Thomas Hardy’s fine elegy ‘A Singer Asleep’, I’ve been seriously delving into Swinburne’s poetry for the first time.  Trained as I was in what was possibly the last Leavisite English department in the country (Bristol), I’m not a natural Swinburne reader, being still by instinct committed to those modernist poetic values – concretion, trenchancy, wit, irony, ambiguity – that Swinburne so flagrantly falls foul of. 

But none the less, for all the wearing prolixity, the sameness of imagery and predictable intoxications of rhythm, there is something compelling about the Swinburne poetic world: the powerful appeal back to a Sapphic tradition of Greek lyricism, the obsessive exploration of non-standard modes of sexuality, the vigorous republicanism, the fine evocations of cliffs and seascapes throughout the verse.  I like Harold Bloom’s description of him as ‘a Shelleyan intellectual skeptic whose polemic against Christianity is compelling’, and can see more clearly now why Hardy felt himself part of a radical poetic tradition to which Swinburne also belonged.

I don’t recall much activity over here for the centenary of Swinburne’s death in 2009 (perhaps there was more in the USA), but given his close early connections with Morris and Burne-Jones the Morris Society could and should be making more of him and his work.  As I’ve noted before in this blog Morris-as-poet is something of a blindspot for the Society, so I wonder whether, in the post-Covid epoch that is hopefully now getting close, it might run a sustained seminar on Victorian poetry culminating, say, in a symposium on Isobel Armstrong’s superb magnum opus on this topic which will be thirty years old in 2023. 

The Society certainly has to hand the talented personnel who could make this project happen, as with Journal Reviews editor Rosie Miles, whose splendid study of Victorian Poetry in Context was published just a few years back.  Till such a seminar gets under way, I shall continue immersing myself in such claustrophobic but curiously energising masterpieces as the ‘Hymn to Proserpine’, ‘Anactoria’ and ‘On the Cliffs’.