Yalden, Hammond, Stepney, Fenton (Elijah) and Hughes (John): where are you now? Ten of the 52 poets represented in Samuel Johnson’s Lives of the Poets fail to make an appearance in the Oxford Companion to English Literature. On its own, of course, this doesn’t prove a thing. At the same time I would guess that these poets are known about today – if they are known about today – simply because they were once biographised by Dr Johnson. Thanks to Johnson, and thanks also to the Dunciad, it has not been easy for minor figures of the 18th century to achieve absolute literary-historical oblivion. Fenton, Hughes et al do seem to have got closer to the final darkness than most other dunces of their day. Let us remember them for that.
Did Johnson, I wonder, know how little lay in store, historically, for his biographers? If he did, it is quite likely that such knowledge would have sharpened his curiosity as to their lives and personalities. Literary failure, after all, was one of his chief fascinations. He knew dudness when he saw it and over the years he was regularly drawn to contemplate the gulf – the yawning, tragi-comic gulf – between authorial achievement and authorial self-ranking. The ‘little lives and little prefaces’ he was asked to provide for a new, multi-volume edition of ‘the English poets’ was sure to offer abundant scope for such a study; abundant freedom, also, since none of the poets under scrutiny was still alive at the time of Johnson’s writing.
Michael Schmidt’s lives of the Poets is not at all like Johnson’s. Indeed, it is by no means certain that Schmidt has taken the trouble to investigate the famous works of his precursor. He seems to think that Johnson’s poets wrote in the 18th century (some did; some didn’t) and that Johnson himself chose his subjects (only four of them, including Yalden, were his choice). So we can pretty much forget about Schmidt’s eye-catching and presumptuous title. What we actually have here is a 900-plus page guidebook to English poetry (or poetry in English) from Langland to the present day: tamely helpful most of the time but spiked here and there with sometimes annoying interjections from our guide. It’s more a book to look things up in than to live with, A to Z. Schmidt talks a lot about continuities but he has no gift for history’s great sweeps and swoops. And as a layer-down of laws, he rarely inspires confidence: he is forever shuttling between received opinion (received, mostly, from his hero, Donald Davie), and ill-balanced subjectivity. Admittedly, Johnson himself was unreliable, but with him we are usually more interested in the judge than we are in those he’s judging. Johnson is a companion we want to see more of; he’s crusty and he makes us laugh. Schmidt, on the other hand, is either gushing or sniping, and when he comes on as a joker we simply want to look the other way. ‘Speke Parrot’, he says, is Skelton’s
masterpiece. The years of learnedness laugh at themselves in obscure references and allusions. He shifts attention from immediate effects to a more integrated poetic language that reflects a mind which, to begin with, seems abandoned to eloquent mania. The parrot who speaks is a polly-glot, stuffed with knowledge.
Is ‘polly-glot’ a misprint? I fear not.
With Johnson, there is a steady vein of what one might call ‘biographical compassion’ as he goes about his critic’s business, and it can temper his dismissals with a strange reluctance. In certain cases, he really would rather praise than read some of the hapless stuff he has been lumbered with. Hence we get, in A, ‘more pomp than use’. Or in B, ‘more elegance than vigour’. ‘There was in his few productions no want of conceits as he thought excellent,’ we learn of Y. And as for X: his verses do not ‘often surprise with unexpected excellence’. Without some notion of, or interest in, the man behind the work, a critic has no need to mind his manners. Johnson’s downgradings are lethal, to be sure, but some of them are administered with what seems to be authentic sorrow: how could this poor wretch have thought so highly of his wretched verse?
Although several of Michael Schmidt’s 20th-century favourites (with whom his book is overloaded) will more than likely go the way of Johnson’s Ten, Schmidt the critic is not at all interested in poets’ lives and personalities. Less still is he attracted by narratives of literary self-delusion. For him, literary biography can largely be dismissed as ‘higher gossip’. (I say ‘largely’ because when it comes to poets Schmidt wants to attack biography does come in handy: see his paragraphs on Byron.) Poems, this critic modishly requires us to believe, are born not of individual poets but of other poems. Or, rather, they are born of the interaction between texts and readers – ‘good readers’, as Schmidt calls them. A good reader is one who, faced with a poetic-seeming text, can instantly sniff out the presence of a parent-text, or – better still – the presence of several parent-texts. Thus: ‘if in a 20th-century poem about social and psychological disruption a sudden line of 18th-century construction irrupts, the reader who is not alert to the irony in diction and cadence is not alert to the poem.’
And hence, we are at first led to suppose, this mammoth volume. Michael Schmidt will teach us to be better readers. And our skills, should we attend to him, will be akin to those of an ‘anthologist’. We will come to read poems as though they were themselves anthologies (and this does not mean that we’ll skim through them to see who has been excluded). We will, moreover, learn to view the so-called authors of these so-called poems as possessing anthologising skills just like the ones we have. These skills, though, in the hands of poets, will be ‘inadvertent’, as Schmidt somewhat bemusingly explains:
A poet is an inadvertent anthologist working at a different intensity. There is a tingling in the nerves. A poem starts to happen. Selection of language begins in the dark-room of the imagination, the critical intelligence locked out, coming into play only after a print is lifted out of the tray and hung on a wire to dry, the light switched on revealing what is there. The critical intelligence discards blurred, dark or over-exposed prints at this stage. Those that survive become subject to adjustment and refinement, unless the poet is one of those who insist on the sacredness of the first take. Pre-processing has occurred: the Polaroid principle.
You are perhaps wondering about those Polaroids. Well, so am I. Is Schmidt actually thinking of X-rays? Who can tell?
As things turn out, Schmidt rather loses the thread of his initial ‘argument’. After a few chapters, he begins to slump into surveyist-automatic (‘In the new dawn the great eagle of English poetry is fit, sleek and well fed’). And this losing of the thread might seem a pity. In a shorter book, Schmidt might have emerged as interestingly bee-in-bonnet. As it is, though, the poets swarm towards him, one by one, and century by century, so that in the end he is forced back into conventional, if mildly colourful, textbook summations.
An own-man punchiness does struggle through from time to time and on the whole, it’s pretty evident, Schmidt wishes to be thought of as impulsively off-beat. The trouble is that, whenever he does make one of his attempts for, shall we say, self-individuation, he tends to come across as merely cranky:
The best reader needs the Seven Deadly Sins in double measure. Pride makes us equal with specialists and professional critics and impervious to their attacks. Lechery puts us in tune with the various passions and loves that we encounter. We feel Envy when a reader who has gone before pre-empts our response; this only spurs us on to fresh readings. Anger overwhelms us when injustices occur, and it should be disproportionate: when a poet dies in destitution or is lost for a generation or a century. We experience Covetousness when we encounter poets we are prepared to love but their books are unavailable in the shops, so we covet our friends’ libraries or the great private collections. Gluttony means we will not be satisfied even by a full helping of Spenser or the whole mess of The Excursion; we feed and feed and still ask for more. Finally, dear old Sloth has us curled up on a sofa or swinging in a hammock with our books piled around, avoiding the day job and the lover’s complaint. These are necessary vices.
And it’s a good thing that there are only seven.
Michael Schmidt here and there complains of ‘vulgarity’ in poets of whom he disapproves but his own prose is scarcely the most delicate of instruments. Thus, the mini-biographies he grants us are delivered in a strutting shorthand, or offhand; hardly ever do we get the sense that this or that stretch of someone else’s life has been seriously pondered (‘this Edmund Hillary of social climbing’; ‘In 1594, to lessen his solitude, he married’). And in Schmidt’s critical encapsulations there is a recurrent weakness for blurbese. As well as being a lecturer in poetry (at Manchester University), he is also a publisher of some diligence (he runs the poetry-loving Carcanet Press): indeed, there is much griping in this book about the unapplauded travails of the publisher – the ‘good publisher’, that is to say. For all we know, Schmidt has to prepare jacket-copy as often as he has to prepare attractive lectures for his students. And altogether this workload might account for the impression we so often get in the course of this book of someone in a tearing hurry. But, alas, tight deadlines are not always humbling.
Talking of deadlines, Schmidt (I should mention) also edits a small magazine, which was once, I think, called Poetry Nation (and is now called PN Review). And I should also mention – I mean, really mention – that during this magazine’s formative years Schmidt was, as I now know, no friend of mine. At the outset of his venture, editor Schmidt received several letters from his hero/mentor/conscience Donald Davie: letters which were eventually collected in a 1989 volume called Letters to an Editor, and published by – yes – Carcanet. Browsing through this deeply dotty book the other day, as part of my Schmidt studies, I came across the following from DD to MS: ‘Death to Ian Hamilton and all his works.’
And there is more. I too, you see, was editing a magazine back then, the New Review (this was the early Seventies), and Davie, it seems, didn’t like it. ‘We have a patriotic duty,’ he thundered to poor Schmidt, ‘to drive the New Review out of existence.’ And, in Letters to an Editor, there are quite a few other missives of this sort. Schmidt’s replies to Davie’s exhortations, I should say, are not recorded, so maybe he attempted to restrain his friend. I somehow doubt it, though. His treatment of Davie in this latest book is straightforwardly subservient: ‘That strictest of modern critics, Donald Davie’; ‘as Donald Davie writes’; ‘as Donald Davie does’; ‘as Donald Davie reminds us’; ‘as Donald Davie calls him’ et cetera. So there you are. I have declared an interest.
At the same time, though, I find myself wondering: what was it that I did to Donald Davie all those years ago? Reviewed him, I suppose, or failed to publish on of his poems. Or was his vehemence more lofty, more ideological? Did it perhaps go back as far as 1962, when – in another magazine of mine – Davie was drawn into a debate with A. Alvarez: a kind of Feeling v. Reason set-to, as I recall it, with Alvarez, and my magazine, quite feeling-fully on the side of Feeling. Maybe it was that.
Or do I just want to believe it was that because I’ve been reading A Critical Difference, David Goldie’s engrossing study of a similar dispute – an early Twenties stand-off between T.S. Eliot and John Middleton Murry? This argument also centred on two magazines – indeed, three magazines – and it began gradually, with neither of the two protagonists quite noticing that it was in the wind. From 1919 to 1921, Eliot and Murry were colleagues of a sort on Murry’s periodical, the Athenaeum, and they got on fairly well. The temperamental differences between them were kept well hidden by their common preoccupation with some kind of postwar ‘reconstruction’ – intellectual, aesthetic, spiritual.
Nowadays it would seem obvious from Eliot’s poems that he would soon enough get tired of Murry’s messianic talk about ‘new births of consciousness’. On the other hand, Eliot did like to pretend that what he wrote in verse had nothing much to do with what he wrote in prose – had nothing much to do, in fact, with him. And Murry was too admiring of Eliot’s accomplishments as both poet and prose-writer readily to forgo his services as a co-shaper of the postwar British Mind. For a time, then, Murry – so far as he was able – kept the lid on his subjectivity, his worshipful vaunting of the Self, and Eliot in his turn played down his hankerings for some ‘external’ directives and endorsements.
The lid came off, for both men, in 1923. Murry’s wife, Katherine Mansfield, died, and he plunged into mysticism; Eliot, tormented by his problems with his first wife Vivien (who herself took ‘a satirical swipe at Murry’s inspirational style’), headed off towards the Anglo-Catholic Church. A year earlier, he had started the Criterion and in 1923 Murry founded the Adelphi. Over the next five years, as the differences between them grew, Eliot and Murry used their respective magazines to wage an argument which, in the end, could not be won by either side. Eliot became more rigorously orthodox and neo-classical. Murry became more grandiosely Self-obsessed. He also became somewhat less intelligent, in Eliot’s view, and it was not long before the argument turned slightly nasty. Eliot began treating his adversary as a troublesome buffoon. Murry came to see Eliot as a shiftily point-scoring cleric. Personality v. impersonality, romanticism v. classicism, Nonconformism v. Catholicism, intuition v. intellect: by 1928, all the ground had been covered and the pair of them unamiably agreed to disagree. Eliot went on to become what he became, but poor Murry was, in David Goldie’s view, much wounded by the dispute, and – in some sophisticated eyes – discredited: a simple soul, a simple mind.
And this, as Goldie tells it, is unjust. Of the two disputants, Murry – as one might expect – was always the more vehemently certain of his ground. It’s not easy, though, to mount intelligent attacks on ‘the Intelligence’. Eliot, on the other hand, liked being Intelligent and is shown here to have been something of a slippery debater – and all the more slippery once he had decided that Murry was not really worth debating with.