Convictions

C.H. Sisson

  • Edgell Rickword: A Poet at War by Charles Hobday
    Carcanet, 337 pp, £16.95, October 1989, ISBN 0 85635 883 5

‘The greatest men grow so long as they live.’ There is a touch of bravado about this assertion. Rickword was in his middle twenties when he made it, and he may have thought differently before his death at the age of 84. Be that as it may, he would almost certainly have stood by the reflection with which he concluded his sentence: ‘no one,’ he said, ‘has ever changed the fibres of his character.’ Through all the ups and downs of fortune recounted in Charles Hobday’s biography, the essential stuff of the man remains the same.

Rickword was born in Colchester in 1898, the son of the town’s first borough librarian, who was also a local historian. Edgell’s background was thus in a petit bourgeois family of exceptional literacy and of great local respectability. Hobday describes the family home, rather contemptuously, as ‘one of a row of small, bow-windowed houses built in drab brick, of a type which was mass-produced all over Victorian England as homes for Mr Pooter and his peers’. Edgell was by seven years the youngest of five children and, Hobday tells us, the ‘age-gap between himself and his brothers and sisters meant that he was something of a family pet.’ On Rickword’s own account, ‘the proximity’ of his ‘cradle to a book-stack helped to decide’ his destiny. He went to Colchester Grammar School, a Tudor foundation. There, Hobday informs us – he is rather keen on such things – his subject learned about ‘the English class system’; it may be added that he learned by the usual method of noticing those who were richer than himself rather than by being enlightened as to the advantages he himself enjoyed. When war broke out in 1914, he was in camp with the school cadet corps. Although only 16 at the time, he made an attempt, properly frustrated by the medical officer, to join the Artists’ Rifles. ‘From the vantage-point of the late 20th century,’ the biographer says, ‘his eagerness to plunge into the slaughter seems incomprehensible, and incompatible with his Socialism.’. (He had read William Morris, and was ‘still at grips with social problems’.) There is here perhaps a certain lack of historical imagination, on Hobday’s part. Rickword did in due course join the Artists’ Rifles, a corps in which, we are told, ‘the artistic element’ had declined but which ‘remained a predominantly middle-class body’ with ‘a special attraction for ambitious young men who hoped to obtain a commission quickly’.

It was thus that, in September 1917, he became a subaltern in the Royal Berkshire Regiment, and by the end of the year he was in France. In the months that followed he had his share of the horrors of his situation, and served with a distinction which was recognised by the award of the Military Cross ‘for conspicuous gallantry and initiative’. After the end of hostilities, and while still in France, he had an accident, not thought serious at the time, which led to complications resulting in the loss of an eye. So he ended the war with a glass eye, and impaired vision in the other. The government system of scholarships for ex-officers enabled him to enter Pembroke College, Oxford in the autumn of 1919.

While he was still in training with the Artists’ Rifles in 1916-17 Rickword had become acquainted with W.J. Turner, whose name was known to him as the music critic of, and occasionally a poet in, the New Statesman. A published poet! In the months before he went up to Oxford he renewed his acquaintance with Turner, who naturally knew other people in the literary world, and introduced him to Siegfried Sassoon, then literary editor of the Daily Herald, ‘who in turn introduced him to his fellow scribbler of the 36th Brigade, Edmund Blunden’. It was thus that, at the age of 20, Rickword himself became a published poet, with the much-anthologised poem, ‘Winter Warfare’. So, one way and another, through accidents unfortunate and fortunate, he was fully entitled to hold his head high among literary undergraduates. He was one of the youngest of the war poets. Blunden was two years his senior, Graves three, and Sassoon 12, while Owen and Rosenberg, killed in France, were respectively five and eight years older. At 21, even a year or two counts; in the war years, they were crucial. The Rickword who emerged from the Army, less a valuable eye, was a very youthful veteran. All his war poems were written after the end of hostilities, and so represent not an immediate reaction but emotion reflected in such tranquillity as that condition allows.

One should, however, not think of Rickword simply as a ‘war poet’, and I imagine that Hobday had wider considerations in mind in his subtitle. It can be argued that the poet, as such, is not at war with anybody. Of course he may take sides in a public brawl, like anyone else, but poetry is an art of peace and the actual moment of composition is more like obedience than revolt; the poet has to be directed by the language and the rhythms which present themselves. Rickword in his early twenties may well have been confused, for youth is a time when the influence of older contemporaries can be too insistent. He took something from Sassoon and Graves, and from the Georgians at large, but he seems to have found his way back to the Nineties and forward from there, but with a glint of steel – never far below the surface – which was that of Baudelaire, Rimbaud and Corbière as well as that of bayonets. What is missing, and it is something that might well have come his way if he had been a few years older before the war swallowed him, is the influence of the Imagists, and of Pound. In a review in the Daily Herald, written in 1920, he said that ‘theories about the way to write poetry are utterly utterly useless’ – a remark which bears the mark of a true practitioner – but the point is that he showed no sign of having assimilated the techniques which were an important part of the Modernist development. A review of contemporary verse anthologies which he published in the New Statesman in the following year indicates something of his orientation in these matters. He praises Ford Maddox (then still) Hueffer as more than compensating for ‘Sir Henry Newbolt’s paternal moralising in Clifton Chapel’, but asserts that Mr Squire (the editor of one of the volumes under review) ‘may have included a few ugly ducklings but he passes no swans,’ adding: ‘One may feel the merits of Mr Eliot and other new poets entitle them to inclusion, but it would have been a false hospitality to immerse them in that particular atmosphere.’ Yet he knows what he is looking for, which is what any true writer must look for: ‘The style’s the test, and that which has not that indefinable, continually elusive quality, however interesting, audacious or irreproachable the sentiment, is chaff to the winnower.’

Reading this useful biography, which is full of facts and accompanied by all that is needed, by way of references, bibliography and index, for the reader to find his way through a complicated story of publications, marriages and liaisons, jobs and political involvements, one suspects that Hobday perhaps does not appreciate the full force of this pronouncement. The fly-leaf informs us that he is associated with ‘Left Review and other radical journals’, and these interests seem to lead him to put the bias elsewhere. Rickword, certainly, was on the side of enlightenment, and he follows the trend of the times into the confusions of the Thirties, when left-wingism of some sort was more or less compulsory for middle-class intellectuals. He joined the Communist Party in 1934 and played his part in blinding the world at large to the importance of nations in prewar Europe by attributing all evils to the emotive abstraction of Fascism. He stayed with the Communist Party until 1957, when the great fall-away in membership took place. One might say that, on the whole, his politics were conventional for the decades he lived through. He was perhaps never very close to the practicalities. Hobday himself makes the point that ‘it is surprising that he, as a Socialist, should have been taken by surprise by the general strike, which had been impending since long before he left London’ for Wales, as he did about this time. There is a touch of comedy about his returning to the capital in a train run by black-leg labour, with a view to assisting the strikers, only to find that the TUC ‘had called off the strike unconditionally’. No doubt he was a man of conviction like his father, who was given to a rather over-heated form of Anglo-Catholicism.

Hobday is quite right to be ‘caustic’, as he says Rickword himself was, about the theory that ‘Communism killed his poetry,’ which virtually ceased in 1931, when he had still fifty years to live. Rickword’s explanation is the only true one a poet could give: ‘I hadn’t any impulse to write poems.’ It is unanswerable, and a mark of his continuing integrity. He had indeed not ‘changed the fibres of his character’, but neither had he been one of those who ‘grow as long as they live’. It is not only that his poetic faculty had left him: most of his best prose work was done before the date of its demise. Not that there is not much of interest in his later critical writings – for example, in what he had to say about the English radicals, but the real distinction of the best work he had done for The Calendar of Modern Letters (1925-27) and the Scrutinies volumes of 1928 and 1931 is hardly to be found after the latter date. The work we have, in the best of his verse and prose, is of a rare quality, and no one who cares for the literature of the 20th century should leave it unread.

Hobday’s biography is likely to remain indispensable as a record of his subject’s career. It does little to illumine what Rickword, in his brilliant review of Eliot in 1925, calls ‘the vegetative life’ of the poet, ‘whose ends are obscured in the means’. So one is left wondering about things which must have had a longterm effect on the author, but are here treated rather summarily: most important, Rickword’s first marriage, from 1919 to, technically, 1944 but effectively to 1923, when his wife, in Hobday’s phrase, ‘lost her reason’ and he ‘entrusted ... to foster-parents’ the two little girls who ‘grew up virtually in ignorance of their parents’.