Anarchy 62/Some libertarian aspects of English poetry

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Some libertarian aspects of English poetry


Probably the best known English poetic rebel is Lord Byron, romantic revolutionary, hater of conventional social mores and of whom it was said that he had three interests in life—poetry, adultery and insurrection. The depth of Byron's revolutionary ideas can be summed up from this extract from his “The Isles of Greece”.

    “—He served—but served Polycrates— 
    A tyrant; but our masters then 
    Were still, at least, our countrymen. 
    The tyrant of the Chersonese
    Was freedom's best and bravest friend; 
    That tyrant was Miltiades! 
    Oh, that the present hour would lend 
    Another despot of the kind! 
    Such chains as his were sure to bind.—” 

In other words Byron believed that home-grown tyrants like Polycrates, the fraticide and pirate, and the warmaker, Miltiades, are in some way preferable to the imported variety. Byron never said what the difference was to their victims. But just as the most celebrated poetic rebel never broke through the thought barriers and arrived at anarchism, so the declared anarchists among poets—John Henry Mackay, Oscar Wilde, Herbert Read — have never produced detailed expositions, in poetry, of their libertarian beliefs. For anarchism is a social theory, and any attempt to explain it, as a theory, through the medium of poetry would result in muddled verse of a pronounced dullness and badness.

But if the actual philosophy of anarchism cannot be expressed through poetry, the form has three aspects of a decidedly libertarian nature; it can be an assertion of individuality, a vehicle for the disgust with and opposition to the society in which the poet finds himself; it can serve as a mirror of reality, not just the passing social scene but the whole backcloth against which human life is lived; and, lastly, the very act of writing poetry is libertarian because it is spontaneous. The act of poetic creation is one of the most anarchic things imaginable. Never self-consciously, usually at some quite unexpected moment, ideas and images, sometimes phrases and whole lines, well into the mind of the poet. All poetry worthy of the name is such a spontaneous product.

It may be that the poet has deliberately sought a mood, perhaps a place or a memory hoping to kindle his poetic fire but the actual act of creation, when it does occur, is completely spontaneous. Some contemporary poets simply write it down as it comes and publish it to the world in that form. While such work is doubtless of great meaning and significance to the poet, it rarely means much to others. Only especially gifted poets can communicate by simply writing down their thoughts without later polishing them, perhaps into some formal pattern of metre, rhyme, etc.

One sometimes reads that Shelley and Blake outlined anarchism as a philosophy in their poems. In his Modern Symposium which includes what remains, after fifty years, one of the best ever expositions of anarchism as a philosophy for the heart rather than the head, G. Lowes Dickinson puts into the mouth of the anarchist revolutionary Angus MacCarthy the words ‘There are anarchists who never made a speech and never carried a rifle whom we know as our brothers, though perhaps they know not us. Two I will name who live for ever, Shelley, the first of poets, were it not that there is one greater than he, the mystic William Blake.’ Blake's poetry is largely obscure and apocalyptic, ...


Yet because he described a type of anarchy does not mean that he regarded it as a practical proposition. He admitted in his prose writing that he set up his flowery, beautiful ideal not because he believed it to be attainable but to instil in the better educated, more sensitive of his readers a desire for something better than a country with its "old, mad, blind, despised and dying king" and its "people starved and stabbed in the untilled field". In other words Shelley described anarchy only as a spur to liberal reform. He didn't seriously believe that a Godwinian garden of reason and justice could be brought about either as a result of his poetry or anything else.

Noticeable, too, in Shelley's poetry, is the fact that he produced much better work in his more personal poems than in his "world changing" epics. Compare the introspective and beautiful "Lines Written Among the Euganean Hills" of 1818 with the inflated ‘Ode to Liberty’ of 1820. In his quieter, more melancholy poems, which always coincided with periods of domestic stress, he saw the world and men more as they really are. Thus in ‘Julian and Maddalo’ he lets the pessimistic Maddalo (based on Byron) get the better of the argument and in the ‘Euganean Hills’ he writes thus of the landlords of Lombardy who exploit their peasants: —

    ‘ — Sheaves of whom are ripe to come
    To destruction's harvest-home:
    Men must reap the things they sow,
    Force from force must ever flow,
    Or worse; but 'tis a bitter woe 
    That love or reason cannot change
    The despot's rage, the slave's revenge.’

The ‘force from force must ever flow’ seems to mean that class and group conflict will go on for ever which is the view of modern permanent protesters; certainly Shelley denies in the above lines that a better world can come about through reason which is the heart of the Godwinian thesis.

  • * * *

Although there have been no actual statements of anarchism in English poetry, the medium abounds with poems of protest and assertions of individuality. Pamphleteering and lampooning in verse form were much used forms of protest and ridicule in past centuries. Anti- nuclear and Civil Rights movements have recently brought about a large scale revival of protest songs and verse. Whether he be ‘left’, ‘right’ or completely a-political, as many of them are, the poet, being above all a person of sensitivity, can never be happy with the times he lives in for all times are, at least to some extent, bad. Thus, on what can be described as the ‘right,’ we find Tennyson, a staunch believer in Victorian progress, suddenly taking fright when he sees the gathering impetus of democracy and industrialism threatening the England he loves and yearned for a society of enlightened aristocrats and happy peasants and even flirted sentimentally with Irish fascism which he thought shared similar ends as himself. John Betjeman's poetry consists mainly of nostalgia for rural quietness and Edwardian security, things completely outside the experience of most of the suburbanites who form his main audience. Poets who have been clergymen have usually been bad ones and even jingo poets (proportionally minute compared with the extent of jingo feeling among society at large) have had reservations. Kipling's well-known 'Recessional', the content of which at first sight seems a typical outpouring of the heyday of empire, contains a warning against power and a subtle note of irony not found in imperialist prose.

Poets of what can be described as the left have not been too successful when writing on "left" themes and, like Shelley, many of them have produced their best work on more personal subjects. "Left" themes, like out and out "right" themes, are in some sense propaganda which is best suited to the medium of prose because of its air of earnestness and contrivance. The Marxist intellectuals of the thirties, Auden, Spender and Co., produced many semi-political tracts which are almost wholly without poetic merit and have had no lasting effect as propaganda either. When Auden went to America he gradually found his metier which is for light verse. Marx makes a poor muse. In Anarchy 16, Harold Drasdo discusses some contemporary poems written from a generally "left" protest point of view. It will be seen that their standard is higher than that of the thirties although the poets are not so well-known as Auden and Co. were in their day — this is because leftism is not fashionable among snob literary magazines, as it was thirty years ago.

It is as a medium for assertions of individuality and disgust with specific evils often totally_ unconnected with the left-right axis that poetry is well suited. Housman's “The Laws of God the Laws of Man” (Let him keep who will and can) is a fine statement of individualist anarchism while Clare's “I Am” and Arnold's “The Scholar Gipsy”, which combines sensuous descriptions of the Oxford countryside with an outline of the life and philosophy of a real life seventeenth century “beat”, are statements of individuality. Here is Thomas Hardy's "In Time of the Breaking of Nations" written in 1915 when the world was at war. It is a lucid and beautiful statement of the continuity of human life and endeavour in spite of governments and war.

    "Only a man harrowing clods 
    In a slow silent walk 
    With an old horse that stumbles and nods 
    Half asleep as they stalk. 
    Only thin smoke without flame 
    From the heaps of couch-grass; 
    Yet this will go onward the same 
    Though Dynasties pass. 
    Yonder a maid and her wight 
    Come whispering by; 
    War's annals will fade into night 
    Ere their story die.” 

In his Inside the Whale George Orwell deplores what he calls the “irresponsibility” of the literary attitude of rebellion and escape which he considers very prevalent in the last hundred years. He writes “As a rule, writers who do not wish to identify themselves with the historical process at the moment either ignore it or fight against it. If they can ignore it, they are probably fools. If they can understand it well enough to want to fight against it, they probably have enough vision to realize that they cannot win”. What then D0 you do if, like Orwell, you don't like the historical process, i.e. the way the world's going? Orwell for all his shrewdness has no real answer. He advocates socialism as a solution yet his writings contain some of the most damning indictments of socialism in all its various shapes and forms ever written. Elsewhere he praises the “ordinary man” but are not they the people who, in their tens of millions, make possible the capitalism and pseudo-socialism that Orwell hated so much? Elsewhere Orwell wrote that the quickest way of clearing a gathering of English people, quicker than shouting “Fire” or talking about God, is to start reading poetry aloud. The situation is supposed to be worse in some foreign lands although in Wales and Ireland, where faint lingerings of the Celtic heritage survive, there is still a fair amount of interest in poetry. Quite apart from poems of rebellion the very act of writing poetry, on whatever subject, is in a sense an act of rebellion against the materialistic world which anarchism is too. Probably the writing of poetry, as distinct from mere academic interest in its mechanics, will survive as long as anarchism survives. Robert Graves has declared himself amused at the paradox of poetry's 'obstinate continuance in the present phase of civilisation'. Graves partly explains the paradox by pointing out that there is a feeling that poetry, since it defies scientific analysis (in spite of many attempts to do so) must be rooted in some sort of magic and magic is disreputable. Here again is the idea of an esoteric undercurrent in society, its 'membership' based on temperament rather than class or upbringing and attracting sensitive and rebellious individuals from all walks of life -- as anarchism does. It is no coincidence that poetry is so popular among anarchists while the Marxist East contents itself with 'socialist realism' and the capitalist West produces advertising jingles. Contrary views to all this are possible, verse of a certain technical competence yet poetically dead can be, and is, written by machines, similarly there are anarchists whose idea of anarchy is the opposite of poetry, a smug super consumer, spindly limbed and big bottomed, sitting in a skyscraper city before a row of push buttons that cater for every whim.

There is more than one way in which poetry can be a mirror of reality. It can be used to describe events in the public world, not usually good subjects for poetry, which can result in Yeats's sublime poems of Irish rebellion or the bathos of William McGonagall's stirring chronicles of Victorian progress. But it is reality in the sense of the nature of human life and the background against which it is lived that is so often reflected by poets. Nowadays due to the almost mystical belief that science has or is about to ‘come up with all the answers’ and the torrent of rubbish that pours from press and television, a climate has been created which has caused serious reflections on human life to wane, the very vulgarity and irrationality of this climate has made extremist cults like Jehovah's Witnesses popular to the minority that are still interested. Death is now the big taboo subject as sex was in the past. Where is the Krafft-Ebing of death or the novelist who will write on the theme of Emily Dickinson’s:

    ‘One dignity delays for all, 
    One mitred afternoon. 
    None can avoid this purple, 
    None evade this crown. — ’

The crowds flocking to James Bond films where homicides happen by the score show that death is only interesting when it is frivolous and with sado-masochistic overtones. Death is an aspect of reality, as the CND and Committee of 100 have discovered, that the great mass of people just don't want to know about.

The Erewhonian named city of Diaspar occurs in Arthur C. Clarke's science fiction novel The City and the Stars. Cocooned Diaspar glows like a jewel in a desert waste, a self-contained, self-perpetuating marvel of technology. Its temperature is constant, venti-[125] lation perfect, transportation faultless, architecture and layout aesthetic triumphs. Its myriad citizens are superbly fed, clothed and housed by the foolproof machinery installed by the city's founders. Yet in what sense are the citizens of Diaspar free when they merely live within the framework permitted by the automatic machinery which, in turn, was planned by the city's long dead designers to eternally protect the citizens from the outside world? The citizens of Diaspar are perfect in beauty and physical and mental health so presumably they have perfect orgasms (the planners allowed sex for non- procreative purposes) yet to people who have never experienced the inferior, who are used to a constant standard however high in today's terms, would not familiarity simply breed contempt? Living as others want you to live is slavery, and if they are humanistic scientists with only your welfare and comfort at heart it is paternalism which is a subtle form of slavery. Freedom consists of personal choice which is usually coupled with some degree of effort. In the Middle Ages the sheer drudgery of lfie left no room for choice of anything but drudgery, the fine flavour called freedom was unattainable; in Diaspar, by contrast, the habit of perfection causes mental and spiritual constipation and there would be no consciousness at all of the idea of choice, and concepts like freedom would be meaningless. Yet the whole unstated aim of modern science is to conquer nature completely, to reduce the world to one gray, featureless, conformist suburb where, under the benevolent guidance of psychologists and sociologists, everyone will be happy (their definition of happy that is). Later still, possibly, Diaspar will arise. The dream of generations of progressives that once man had unlimited power he would return to the land to live there in simplicity and dignity is nowhere being realised. When modern man returns to the country he takes part of the town with him. He doesn't, as Herbert Read advocated in his Poetry and Anarchism, with electric power at his finger tips to take the drudgery from life, return to the land “not as a peasant but as a lord”. Instead he commutes daily back to the town or works in one of the new factories that the planners have established in the country.

More likely, as science strives to completely conquer and subdue nature, nature will fight back in zanier and zanier ways. Typhoid and diphtheria are practically beaten in this country yet other applications of the same science that has produced the drugs to beat the germs has made life so hectic and unnatural that cancer and mental illness are much more prevalent. Robert Graves, as a result of his researches into the origins of poetry, claims it originated in the religious rites surrounding the Goddess worshipped in Europe and the Middle East in prehistoric times and claims that poetry, in the sense of being able to communicate as a result of an almost magical potency (as distinct from mere verse which Graves terms gleemanship), confines poetry to a few great themes and necessitates in poets a degree of sincerity and devotion to their personal muses that causes most of them to be burnt out before they're thirty.”

If birth, love, mutability and death are the great themes, to be sincerely described by the poet according to his individual experience, then the scope of poetry must be diminishing because death has recently become unmentionable, sex is becoming clinical, love (in any sense other than clinical sex) is becoming forgotten and test tube births are the thing of the future. As poets can hardly write about what they haven't experienced and if Graves is right in his estimation of the role of the poet then the poet of the future, if he is to remain true to his calling, must stand aside from the whole trend of the times as anarchists must too if they don't want to be smothered in 'progress' and paternalism.

Whether science is successful on its own terms, and Diaspar arises and Blake's Jerusalem becomes forgotten, or whether the solving of old problems simply causes new ones to arise and be thrust into prominence, it means that a new threat is posed to both poet and anarchist alike——staying out of the way of bureaucratic paternalism, the super-welfare state. Communities of anarchists are one way this could be done, they are often proposed but little seems to come of the idea. Yet communities, either economically self-supporting or at least sharing some of the chores and expenses of life while retaining respect for individual privacy, were more numerous sixty years ago when social revolution seemed possible than today when it looks hopeless. A community of poets hardly seems feasible, poets being arch individualists. Some young poets take to the beat life and there is at least one middle-aged poet in Wales who has spent, like WH Davies before him, years on the road. Poets who are unable to produce poetry unless they can see at least three meals ahead have to find work compatible with poetry. If one has money a niche can easily be found – as Robert Graves has made in sunny Majorca from the income from his prose writings. Employment in a modern factory or office with its inane chatter and noise spells death to the poetic faculties. Mention of culture, in any shape or form, is taboo while as for social theories, anarcho-syndicalism and the like, I have worked some years in commerce or industry and never detected the slightest whisper of interest in any such thing. Reality is something that anarchists above all must heed. If. for instance, an anarchist with dreams of a world-wide free society finds a factor such as the population explosion threatening his aims, then there is no earthly point in trying to deny or hide the fact. Probably the only time an anarchist would be justified in hoodwinking others (on the subject of anarchism, that is) would be if telling the truth played into the hands of the police or other authorities. With a political party things are different. The whole aim of politics is the gaining and retention of power and to this end any bamboozling of rank and file supporters is justified. The function of a rank and file party supporter is to vote at elections and therefore it's OK for the party bosses to tell him anything that keeps him loyal. An anarchist movement or milieu, by contrast, requires a high degree of openness between individuals unless, as is highly unlikely, they are all hermit inclined. There are no leaders and no rank and file. Deceit is utterly pointless. Therefore if the movement or milieu is tiny and shows no signs at all of getting bigger, if the whole trend of the world is against it, if it only exists on sufferance of the state, why not admit it?