- Romantic Moderns: English Writers, Artists and the Imagination from Virginia Woolf to John Piper by Alexandra Harris
Thames and Hudson, 320 pp, £19.95, October 2010, ISBN 978 0 500 25171 3
‘In T.S. Eliot we find the poet as farmer’: now that truly is revisionist. If the pin-striped modernist with the ‘features of clerical cut’ ever put his hand to a pitchfork, the incident has gone unreported. And yet in Romantic Moderns, her provocative critical survey of English cultural life between 1930 and 1945, Alexandra Harris points to Eliot’s lines in ‘East Coker’ about ‘Earth feet, loam feet, lifted in country mirth/Mirth of those long since under earth/Nourishing the corn.’ Harris argues that the poet was thinking about the dead farmworkers of his ancestral village in Somerset because the seasonal round symbolised by their festive dance had become integral to his vision of society. Any culture worthy of the name must build on agriculture, rather than leaning on the insidious mass delusions of advertising and propaganda. ‘The connection with the earth, the “dung and death”, was for [Eliot] the very sign of civilisation,’ writes Harris, who also quotes him urging, in 1938, the necessity ‘that the greater part of the population, of all classes (so long as we have classes), should be settled in the country and dependent on it’.
And so the poet as farmer (‘or’ – in Harris’s brisk stepping back – ‘at least as a champion of agriculture’) was in touch with the rural revivalists. Rolf Gardiner at Springhead in Dorset was trying to ‘rebuild a hill-and-vale economy along modern organic lines’, at once reducing local unemployment and staging work camps where the educated could sing and dance after heaving their forkloads of muck. Viscount Lymington, Eliot’s farming friend in Hampshire, the leader of a mini-militia called the English Array, liked to assert that ‘in loving service to the soil, men see each season how death may be cheated and learn how they must always protect the sound seed from the weeds, and how close breeding makes fine types of stock.’ In other words, his ruralism entailed anti-semitism and eugenics. The High Tory Eliot kept his distance from these doctrines of Lymington’s, but like Gardiner, the two looked towards a dirt-kicking, muscular countryside, rather than any prelapsarian pastoral. Harris contrasts the rural dancers in Eliot’s late poem to those in a modernist icon painted 30 years earlier. Whereas ‘the figures in Matisse’s La Danse float and skip through their eternal circlings on a bright originary hill top,’ those in ‘East Coker’ are ‘lifting heavy feet in clumsy shoes’. These villagers are weighted by their lusts – for coupling, for eating and drinking – and like all sinful mortals, they are dancing their way into the grave.
‘East Coker’ was written in 1940, hardly the moment for visions of innocence. Harris claims that ‘Eliot did not want to distance himself from those dancers, but to join them,’ because he now wished to cleave to his adopted nation’s collective fate, to make his personal submission to ‘the life of significant soil’. She describes how ‘East Coker’, ‘The Dry Salvages’ and ‘Little Gidding’ were read out, each as it was published, on the wartime BBC, and how that factored into their rhetoric. ‘“History is now and England”: that is the voice of a rousing speechmaker and it was meant to be.’ And there, in the buoyancy of Harris’s own speech rhythm, you catch what makes Romantic Moderns such a striking critical debut. Harris swoops down boldly on the writers of her chosen era, flying off with them where she will. A sure way with a phrase (‘bright originary hill top’ and the like) is matched by a far-roving curiosity. She alights not only on poems, novels, memoirs, pictures and sculptures done during the 1930s and 1940s, but on gardens, kitchens, apartment blocks, travel guides, films and operas. The survey abounds in bright synchronic leaps, arriving for instance at Eliot’s thoughts on farming via the pottery of Bernard Leach and Thomas Hennell’s 1939 drawings of discarded scythes and harrows for H.J. Massingham’s Country Relics.
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