Remembering the Movement, and researching it

Frank Kermode

  • The Movement: English Poetry and Fiction of the 1950s by Blake Morrison
    Oxford, 326 pp, £8.50, May 1980, ISBN 0 19 212210 X
  • The Oxford Book of Contemporary Verse 1945-1980 by D.J. Enright
    Oxford, 299 pp, £7.50, May 1980, ISBN 0 19 214108 2

It seemed to be happening only yesterday, but Blake Morrison was born in 1950, and for him the Movement is something you have to work on in a library. So it suddenly comes to seem rather remote, as deep in the past as those files of the Spectator where he found the famous pieces by J.D. Scott and Anthony Hartley, or the scripts of John Wain’s Third Programme magazine First Reading, or copies of the Reading limited editions of Wain and Amis. Mr Morrison claims to have eschewed gossip and attended instead to such questions as: ‘Did the writers know each other? Is there any evidence of mutual admiration, mutual influence, or collaboration?’ It is almost as if he were seeking information about Spenser, Gabriel Harvey and the Areopagus. Yet most of the poets he is writing about are ascertainably hale and not yet eligible for the Old Age Pension; even the few living elders they respected are still around, and capable of spry conversation – Empson, Fuller, Graves. Mr Morrison, of course, knew this, and addressed some inquiries to relevant survivors. Some responded – not Amis, I notice, and not Larkin, for reasons no doubt easily guessed at; but Conquest, doyen of the group, co-operated, and so did Davie, who is quoted more than anybody, though in my view (and in that of certain members of the group) he was never really in the middle of it, partly because he was an interloper from Cambridge, and partly because of all the talents assembled his was the least identifiable with the Movement’s mood and programme.

Still, researchers have to use what material there is, and although there is a certain air of unreality in this study, a Martian postcard quality, it’s well enough and conscientiously done. Morrison decides, unsurprisingly, that there really was such a thing as the Movement, that it wasn’t a ‘gigantic confidence trick’ to get the Spectator over a circulation crisis; less unsurprisingly, he goes on to describe it as ‘a literary group of considerable importance ... probably the most influential in England since the Imagists’. He believes that a lot of good poems (‘key texts’) in the post-war period originated in the play of influence between members of the group, and by extending the term to include writers who weren’t among the New Lines poets, but nevertheless felt some sympathy with them, he makes a fair case. Whether he’s right to maintain that the Movement was as central to the Fifties as the ‘Auden Group’ to the Thirties depends a bit on whether you believe, as he does, that there was a ‘Movement ideology’ existing in some significant relation to the social and political mood of the time.

Robert Conquest’s anthology came out in 1956, the year of Suez, so the ‘ideology’ must have been formed during the administrations of Churchill and Eden. The first Attlee Government carried out the programme enthusiastically endorsed by the troops in 1945, but the second, hampered by the exhaustion of its leaders and the smallness of its majority, did little, and it was easy to feel that six years after the end of the war many of its more depressing aspects, such as ruins and rationing, were here to stay. But in 1951 the 13 continuous years of Conservative rule began, and so, in a way, did the post-war period. Labour in opposition devoted itself to a masochistic doctrinal argument which ended only with Gaitskell’s defeat of the Left in 1961. But often people no longer found ideology very interesting, and indeed its end was announced.

These facts have a bearing on the mood of the Movement. When John Holloway, in an article here quoted, spoke in 1956 of ‘the recent social revolution, gentle though real’, he was of course talking about something that happened between 1945 and 1950. Part of the cost of the revolution was the measure of privation I’ve already mentioned: the queuing for your weekly egg and shilling’s worth of meat, the bread, petrol and clothes coupons, the terrible shortage of beer. All that soon ended, and so did the revolution. But some effects of the war and its immediate aftermath persisted. It seemed possible to opt out of the old class system; as Holloway observed, it was no longer inevitable that lower-class talent should be ‘decanted’into the upper class. New writers could stay where they were, in the provincial universities perhaps; enjoying, or reconciled to, a mildly proletarian life-style, free of the affectations of the metropolitan literary world.

There is no doubt that thoughts of this kind occurred to the writers in question, and even to their enemies; the classic document on the fears of the latter is Somerset Maugham’s attack on Lucky Jim. But Maugham and Amis became quite good friends after a while, and of course there never was anything very proletarian about the Movement. Most of its members were formed under the old system, scholarship boys from lower-middle-class backgrounds; they retained some expectation of being ‘decanted’ and in due course they were – into All Souls, Professorships of Poetry, positions of power in London. After 1951, such expectations were no longer muted – if they ever were – by a confidence that their suppression might contribute to a just society, and in the new world then dawning these exceptionally able men found themselves rather well placed to make it. It’s worth remembering that the only university owing its origins to the period of Labour idealism was Keele; the other new universities, established in cathedral towns and other pleasant places, and for a time at least extremely fashionable, belong to the Macmillan era. Lucky Jim’s having to start life in a redbrick was, as it turned out, merely a consequence of being born a bit too early.

In short, there was nothing much in the education of this essentially Oxford group of poets that made it hard for them to flourish under the new Toryism. By 1951, they were already fed up with their little suburban houses and rotten pay. I remember my surprise when John Wain told me he intended to vote Conservative in the 1951 election; it shows how naive I was, but it also explains why the Movement’s later ‘drift to the Right’ did not surprise me. Indeed, it is a bit of a puzzle why Amis drifted so late; and Conquest cannot have had very far to drift in any case. He alone, I think, had a strong sense of politics, but it was never true of the others that they weren’t in some sense political; it is never true of anybody. They were, I suppose, typical Butskellites, with a preference for the But end of the term. At the time, it was noticed that the novels of both Amis and Wain exhibited a tendency to hypergamy – marrying upwards – and one might, without being too fanciful, represent that as a rapprochement with the upper classes parallel to the attitude of the Labour revisionists who came to terms with what, despite the ‘revolution’, remained a society of rich and poor.

Morrison dutifully records the careers of the members of his group at Oxford; Larkin’s introduction to the 1976 edition of Jill is good testimony, though a rather different sense of the place may be had from Wain’s Sprightly Running, with its magnificent memoir of E.H.W. Meyerstein. The young man from the Potteries was greatly taken with this weird upper-class eccentric, and for a long time afterwards plugged his un-Movementish poetry. Wain was also close to C.S. Lewis, who had very little in common with these young men except a liking for beer and (important in Wain’s case) a love of scholarship. But it is a fact rarely mentioned that even in wartime, Oxford was a highly competitive place, and these men thrived on competition. They were not unambitious. They wanted things – their own journal, Mandrake, access to the BBC and the highbrow weeklies. They required to be noticed, and were.

Here the importance of Amis is obvious. He had a formidable talent for sending up whatever seemed phoney or affected (see Larkin’s introduction), and pretty well all the preferences of London literati might be so classed. The positive programme of the Movement was formed in reaction to the assumptions of these powerful phoneys: an Orwellian emphasis on lucidity, accompanied by a dislike of snobbish preferences in the arts; a preference for tight verse forms (with Empson as an ambiguous progenitor, and some historical support from Davie’s Purity of Diction); in prose, common sense, plain dealing and blunt speaking, in contrast with the mandarinism of the capital, whose fashions they affected to deplore in the manner of Leavis. It was possible to claim that such a programme restored a broken contact with a genuinely English tradition, long obscured by foreign modernism and London xenophilia.

I suppose the main charge against the group has been philistinism or little-Englandism, expressed in general terms as a dislike of Abroad and some kinds of Beauty – these being what people you loathe tend to go in for. And certainly the writers in the group encouraged a belief that they read no language but English and hated music (except jazz) and pictures and theatres. This was largely nonsense, but it had its importance, especially for Larkin and Amis. To get the balance right, one needs to ask naively whether Amis would be the fine novelist he is if he truly shared the Weltanschauung of Jim Dixon. Actually much of his best writing is about privation and the intolerable terms on which life has to be accepted (this is as true of ‘A Dream of Fair Women’ as it is of The Anti-Death League and Jake’s Thing). The hilarious rejections are a comic aspect of this almost metaphysical sense of loss and division, and if it were not so the joke would have long ago worn thin. The same is true, with variations, of Larkin.

Morrison looks at these and other matters very carefully, considering the relation of his subjects to their audience, their attitudes to society and literary tradition, and so forth. He is scrupulous and balanced. But he does not succeed in supporting his judgment that these writers are of importance by writing well of their work. The chief failure here is with Larkin, who crops up over and over again, and understandably, since The Less Deceived is by common consent the best volume the Movement produced. There seems to be some quality in Larkin’s verse that repels Morrison’s analytical instruments. For example, he treats at some length the beautiful early poem ‘At Grass’, which he describes as ‘post-imperial’. The horses have only their memories of ‘faded, classic Junes’; they are, however, enjoying their superannuated peace. So they stand for England; and elements in the language of the poem – ‘Squadrons of empty cars’, for instance – are equally reminiscent of imperial pomp. Morrison backs away from his own reading by saying that the allegory is unconscious, though it has to be supplied because ‘the emotion of the poem is in excess of the facts as they appear.’ But this comment is open to the same criticism as Eliot’s remark about Hamlet, which it echoes: where but from the poem did he find the evidence of what was needed to make it work? A more profitable approach might have been rhetorical. For example, the last two lines

Only the groom, and the groom’s boy,
With bridles in the evening come –

get their power from a ghostly and very inferior unwritten version, which puts the groom and the groom’s boy in reverse order and supplies the half-rhyme that is promised by the inversion in the second line. The Marvellian assurance and purity of this is a ‘fact’ no emotion in the poem is in excess of.

Indeed, I don’t believe the poem has anything to do with imperial splendour and the Welfare State, any more than I think ‘Church Going’ provides evidence of the Movement’s muted concern with Christianity; Morrison’s comment simply bounces off that wonderfully paced and original concluding stanza. What he says about ‘The Less Deceived’ is again characteristic of a certain failure to read Larkin, because ‘fulfilment’s desolate attic’ surely shouldn’t be treated as a general proposition about ‘post-coital disillusion’. The difficulty arises from the method of the book, which is to use the works of these poets as evidence of Movement attitudes to this, that and the other (the Empire, Christianity, Sex) rather than to consider them as poems. In just this way, the author, despite strong guidance from Donald Davie on the point, simply misunderstands a poem by Amis (pages 79-80). It’s coming to something when these apostles of the new lucidity, proponents of the view that the poet must do his share and not leave the reader to work out his obscure half-written verses, find their poems subjected to the kind of rival interpretations that used to be reserved for ‘A Cooking Egg’.

This isn’t to say Morrison is dull or imperceptive. He is good, for example, on Larkin’s characteristic silent transitions from ‘I’ to ‘we’, and on the verbal tricks (‘seems’, ‘of course’, ‘surely’) that are trademarks of the Movement. But his chief interest is in placing the group historically, and in doing that he is often shrewd: for example, when he asks what sort of audience the Movement thought it needed and deserved, he catches its members out in all kinds of contradictions. And he works hard at the question as to why this batch of highly educated, very literary people should have put together a programme which, however vague on some things, quite certainly rejected ‘Modernism’. ‘The modern movement began with a brilliant blaze,’ said Enright. ‘Unfortunately the flames got out of control, and ever since we have been warming ourselves at the embers.’ Davie, in his youth, argued for consolidation, for a healthy ‘loss of nerve’. Neither he nor Wain found it simple to reject Pound, but they both had a strong interest in English 18th-century poetry, and a wish to return to a more English tradition.

It would be wrong to suppose that the anti-modernism of the Movement was anti-academic. Nobody taught Pound or Joyce in the universities of those days, and Davie’s books on diction and syntax were respectfully received. At the end of the decade an academic, Graham Hough, spelt out in his Image and Experience the view that modernism was an interruption of the native tradition, cogently questioning the method by which Eliot and Pound claimed to have built structures dependent upon a ‘logic of imagination’ different from other logics, and intelligible only to selected readers. He gave organised expression to something the Movement poets already believed. They particularly resented the snubbing of ‘ordinary readers’, whom they wanted for their own work; of course they knew that even their more accessible verses weren’t going to find a large readership. As Amis remarked, they really wrote for dons, and a slightly shamefaced sense of election comes through in an early poem of Wain’s:

And so my speech must be confined
To those who taste our epoch’s plight

Nothing, it seemed, could be done for ‘the limping, the half man’. It was probably this difficulty about the audience for poetry that induced Wain and Amis to try their hand at fiction. The novel also provided better opportunities for bashing the phoney cultured, who were still, before the academics took over, the protectors of modernist art.

I’ve suggested that the best work of the group was a poetry, and a fiction, of disappointment: work that was aware of what it had given up to be as it was. The worst work is that in which the need to seem philistine has made the poet be philistine; the need arose, as Lindsay Anderson remarked, from a fear of being thought to be something even worse than a philistine – namely, an intellectual.

Donald Davie, looking back at his ex-colleagues, thinks they had to pretend to be cultural teddy-boys in order to ‘put the house of English poetry in order’, but condemns them nevertheless because in place of the old pretentiousness and cultural window-dressing they provided something ‘painfully modest ... deliberately provincial ... inevitably marginal in importance’. Morrison, surveying the activities of the members of the group after it broke up, is more generous, and insistent on their continuing influence. I think he’s right: a form of their anti-modernist position is still strongly held, the resistance to innovation in the novel and poetry may even have increased, and a native tradition is not so much something one argues for as what is taken for granted, like a fact of nature.

D.J. Enright’s anthology is, among other things, an example of this quiet acceptance. It comes a quarter of a century after his Poets of the 1950s, which was more combative, a blow in the struggle to establish the new, right kind of poetry. He looks back at the Movement, is glad that its members, ‘after a brief cohesiveness’, went their separate ways, and that he is making this new collection in times which, as he reads them, do not call for schools and manifestos. All is calm. Alvarez upset things for a while with his accusations of Gentility, but what really counts, and what in fair measure we have, is Civility. Of the eight poets in his first collection five survive: Conquest, Enright, Amis, Davie and Larkin. Three drop out: Holloway, Jennings, Wain. The temporal qualification for inclusion is to be a poet ‘whose staying power is attested’ by work published between 1945 and 1980, but writers who flourished in the Thirties are excluded. The oldest poet present is Stevie Smith, who, like Earle Birney, was older than Auden; A.D. Hope was born in the same year as Auden, and is older than Spender. The poets who do get in are all pretty well known and mostly unexceptionable. Certain Americans pass the Civility test: Lowell, Berryman, Nemerov, Wilbur, Simpson, Hecht. When the two first named are uncivil, as sometimes happens, they are below their best, and Berryman is represented by work ‘which may well though not indisputably be judged unrepresentative’. We are offered poetry which aspires to ‘civility, passion and order’, but which above all makes sense. The editor shuns surprises, which might be bad surprises, and bad surprises are no better than being boring. There are, I needn’t say, a great many good poems in this book. Anybody who turns on to less civil American, or indeed British, stimuli will of course avoid it. It’s an Oxford Book that shows how wrong it would be to think the Movement, an Oxford phenomenon, fell apart around the time of Suez; or that the period of consolidation, of the preferred neutral tone, might be short.