Past-Praiser

Frank Kermode

  • Dear Shadows: Portraits from Memory by John Wain
    Murray, 186 pp, £10.95, April 1986, ISBN 0 7195 4284 7
  • The Oxford Library of English Poetry edited by John Wain
    Oxford, 1430 pp, £27.50, April 1986, ISBN 0 19 212246 0

In the poem which provides John Wain with the title of this book Yeats is addressing the dead Gore-Booth sisters and telling them, quite tenderly at first, that now they’re dead they know it all –

all the folly of a fight
For a common wrong or right

– so that it seems dying has enabled them to catch up with him, for he knew it and stayed alive. The strength of feeling is unmistakable –

the innocent and the beautiful
Have no enemy but time

– and at the end of the poem fuels an incendiary fantasy: all their efforts to achieve a common right amounted to no more than the construction of an aristocratic folly, fragile and, in the long run, a waste of life and beauty. I doubt if Wain wanted the whole context to be considered, and none of his dear shadows dirtied upper-class hands in popular causes: but the living, contemplating the completed lives of dead friends, will often feel sadness at what seems evidence of waste of effort, frustrated intentions, avoidable unhappiness in a world now past, a world in which happiness seemed more possible than it does at present. There is something of this sadness in Wain’s account of the men and women he summons – or rather is visited by, since he lacks that peremptory Yeatsian touch, calling this person, summoning that one, and putting them to work in poems.

When Yeats surrounds himself with ghosts he is always the boss, but Wain here is always the observer, meeting and listening to interesting people, representing himself as ‘a willing pair of ears’. He tells us that this volume may be taken to be the sequel to his autobiographical Sprightly Running, published in 1962, but he does himself an injustice, presenting himself merely as a compliant fellow who had the luck to run into various peculiar, talented and amiable people to whom he had very little to give. His book may therefore be taken to confirm the view that he and others who started out in the Fifties were grey-faced youths who hated Mozart, abroad, metropolitan high jinks and Modernism. It is a view no more accurate than Isherwood’s pretence that he was an impassive observer of all the goings-on he reported from Berlin. In fact, the wild, funny and curious young Wain was the magnet, and the distinguished as well as the commonplace filings fell irresistibly into line. However, he could hardly say this; and in any case to have given himself a vivid part in the séance wouldn’t have suited the gently nostalgic tone of the older Wain’s remembrance.

He is a survivor; he chose quite deliberately to be a man of letters, one to whom no genre of writing was alien, knowing that he did so at a time when the profession was dying. His model was Arnold Bennett, though he would add poetry to the kinds Bennett so profitably exploited. The Oxford Library of English Poetry which he has edited, starts with Spenser and ends with Heaney; and it is not a surprising selection, though to give Cowley four times as much space as Herbert is an unusual judgment, and the only canonical upset I can find in an anthology meant to be canonical. Wain had an easier start than Bennett, his fellow townsman, but the second stage was harder. No serious young writer in the Fifties could possibly be as rich and free to move around as Bennett had been. In 1950 you couldn’t take more than £25 out of the country, and there were no credit cards. So Bennett’s Parisian life was not available to Wain: but eventually he did work in Paris and in New York (always on the understanding that Stoke and Oxford were his true homes) and he did write novels, plays, memoirs and reviews without giving up verse. In fact, he has been very prolific, though no more a recluse than his model, and with a gift for friendship Bennett would have admired. Sprightly Running will be remembered, if for nothing else, for the superb chapter on a wholly improbable friend, E.H.W. Meyerstein.

The comparable chapter in this book is on Marshall McLuhan. Wain knew him long before he was famous, even before the publication of The Mechanical Bride which brought on the first stirrings of the cult. He took an interest in McLuhan’s ideas, but it was the man, with his completely individual profile, that enchanted him: large and gauche, usually towing a priest along, constantly saying astonishing or absurd things (his ‘probes’, as he called them), an authoritarian father whose strictures were ignored by his children, he was exactly the mixture of enthusiastic amateur and professional pedagogue Wain has always admired. The Gutenberg Galaxy gave McLuhan the sort of guru celebrity more easily acquired in the Sixties than before or since, and by 1966, when Understanding Media appeared, he was on a rapidly rising curve of fame and influence. He wrote more books, very inferior to these, and Wain hints that he showed signs of accepting the world’s estimate of his powers. Then he became ill and was long silent; by the time he died in 1980 he was half-forgotten. This was unjust, and a consequence of his takeover by Madison Avenue and the seething academies of the time: what Wain calls his ‘outrageous all-inclusiveness’ suited the mood of the moment. Institutionalised, McLuhan first lost some of his endearing qualities, and then most of his fame.

There is some mention here of a television interview I did with the sage in January 1967. It was produced (for Monitor) by Jonathan Miller, and Wain was present. He says he understood nothing of the conversation, and the BBC presumably agreed that it was unintelligible, for it was never transmitted. However, a transcript of the programme was published, and it contains nothing that within months would not have seemed commonplace to most sixth-formers. The recording was a convivial occasion; I thought Marshall very likeable and for a time kept up with him. But in his memory it turned sour. Miller later wrote a book about McLuhan for a series I edit, and the book may have helped to reduce the subject’s reputation. Wain reviewed it favourably, so all three of us were involved in a performance he regarded as at least mildly treacherous. Miller’s book was carefully researched and judiciously written; it was right to publish it, and right for reviewers to speak well of it. So there were no guilty men. And yet it is somehow pleasing that Wain should make amends for us all by addressing McLuhan’s shade with such evident affection and understanding of his true qualities. He really was a remarkable fellow, and right about many things. It is permissible to hope for a revival, a neo-McLuhanism purged of the adventitious excitements of the late Sixties, more in keeping with our present (and perhaps no less spurious) sobriety.

Wain could have been a don and a very good one; the point of his piece about Nevill Coghill is that it tells us what sort of don he would have been. Dons aren’t always very lovable and colleagues were nasty to Coghill, a very agreeable man whom I remember best from a photo showing him perched on his chaise-longue like a huge faun. He believed in teaching students about Shakespeare by producing the plays, which seemed wicked to the other teachers; and ‘the hard-nosed professionals’, as Wain calls them, sneered at his scholarship, which was much more ingenious and original than they allowed. In the matter of scholarship, what Wain requires is a subtle combination of gentleman and player, a Coghill who inhabits an academy innocent of competition, self-serving and self-display. It may seem a Utopian fancy, but I think Wain locates it in a magical, rather Arnoldian Oxford that somehow existed alongside the real one, in the good old days.

The old days, indeed, preoccupy him more and more. In Shottery, not yet swamped by tourists, he lived in theatrical lodgings run by a wise raffish landlady, and now meditates the advantages to art of small towns like Weimar or Salzburg or even Shakespeare’s London. The Potteries of his father’s youth are also the object of his piety: but so are the jazz clubs of Paris, London and New York and the trumpet of Billy Coleman which, I am prepared to believe, had a sort of primitive purity. Famous names – Pound and Lowell, for instance – flit through these pages, but nobody is there because he or she is famous, only because Wain in his wanderings bumped into them and found them worth his time or his affection.

This seems a very relaxed book, but just when you think you can predict the next bit because you’ve formed a notion of the author as a testy past-praiser living on old fruit preserved as bland sweet jam, just then he may confound you with an unexpected view of someone, or with the hidden side of some idea. The range of intelligence is great; not deep the poet sees but wide. He now talks, far too early, about his energies gently ebbing away. Perhaps thinking too much about dear shadows can have that effect. Some artists, again like Yeats, need a public attitude to match their age, and it is true that everybody over sixty is likely to have a crowd of dear shadows: but they probably do not care what mask you choose, and in any case they are quite prepared to wait.