Tuesday, 29 January 2013

On Q again: a Cambridge Centenary

Last week I sneaked into the very lecture theatre and stood for a moment at the lectern from which Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch delivered his Inaugural Lecture as King Edward VII Professor of English at Cambridge, exactly one hundred years ago, 29th January 1913.  The theatre is remarkably unchanged. It occupies what was once the smartest new building in the University: the Arts School (1901), now the somewhat dowdy home to the Central Science Library. Sic transit gloria … but it could be worse. It stands right behind what was until recently the imposing Bene’t Street Barclays Bank, part of which is about to re-open as an Argentine Steak Bar.

Q’s Inaugural Lecture was a grand affair: the Vice-Chancellor and members of the Senate were there, and the lecture hall was crammed. I have written before about Q’s unexpected appointment, and many were eager to get their first glimpse of this new professor, who had a Chair but no Tripos and was head of a School which did not yet exist. Q didn’t disappoint them: his lecture was a manifesto for English as the academic discipline he conceived it to be, and he set out his vision of what a School of English could become.

Q argued first that English was not a subject at all, but a practice. This for him was a critical distinction. In the Preface to On the Art of Writing (1915), his first book written as Professor of English, he described himself as ‘a man called unexpectedly to a post where in the act of adapting himself, of learning that he might teach, he had often to adjourn his main purpose and skirmish with difficulties’. These difficulties centred on the opposition, within the University, not just to his appointment but to the very idea of English as a serious subject; intellectual opposition, therefore, to the possibility of Cambridge’s creating a School of English. 

So much for the difficulties. But what was the ‘main purpose’ about which he wished to preach (his favourite term for the act of lecturing)? Q again:

It amounts to this – Literature is not a mere Science, to be studied; but an Art, to be practised. Great as is our own literature, we must consider it as a legacy to be improved …. If that be granted, not all our pride in a Shakespeare can excuse the relaxation of an effort – however vain and hopeless – to better him, or some part of him. If with all our native exemplars to give us courage, we persist in striving to write well, we can easily resign to other nations all the secondary fame to be picked up by the commentators. (Preface, p.v)

(Was it then Q, not C.P. Snow, who launched the Two Cultures debate?) By ‘commentators’ he meant followers of the German style of historical and philological criticism that had grown up in the nineteenth century. He distrusted these critics for two reasons. First, they seemed to him to deny the vitality of English literature by treating it as a ‘closed’ subject like Latin or Greek, whose texts existed like fossils to be excavated and subjected to an historical analysis that allowed no scope for appreciating literature ‘absolutely’ (a key term for Q, indicating a direct approach to the text – to its meaning and its  impact upon readers). Second, these commentators appeared to downplay the role of the writer by exaggerating the importance of the critic, and putting the emphasis on the critic as the arbiter of the text as a ‘literary’ object. Q would have dismissed the ‘death of the author’ as blasphemy against the very idea of literature.  It was no accident that he lectured first On the Art of Writing and only secondly On the Art of Reading (1920). And it was with a conviction amounting to anger that he announced, during a 1918 lecture ‘On Reading the Bible’:

The thoughts, actions and passions of men become literature by the simple but difficult process of being recorded in memorable speech; but in that process neither the real thing recorded nor the author is evacuated. (On the Art of Reading, p.128)

Q was a contradictory character: though one of the star lecturers at Cambridge, he advised his students against attending too many lectures; he also believed examinations were a threat to good English teaching, whether at school or university level: they encouraged teachers to focus on knowledge about literature (regurgitation of pre-digested, de-contextualised gobbets), whereas what students needed to learn, he passionately insisted, was an understanding of what literature was about. Thus, addressing the Vice-Chancellor on that January morning in 1913, he declared:

The man we are proud to send forth from our Schools will be remarkable less for something he can take out of his wallet and exhibit for knowledge, than for being something, and that ‘something’ a man of unmistakable intellectual breeding, whose trained judgment we can trust to choose the better and reject the worse. (On the Art of Writing, p.16)

‘Unmistakable intellectual breeding’ is not, to our ears, a happy phrase. Still, the idea that studying English should teach one discrimination sounds a note familiar to anyone who has ever read Leavis on ‘the common pursuit of true judgment’, or O’Malley and Thompson or David Holbrook; it was a note first sounded at Cambridge by Quiller-Couch. 

Yesterday saw the 200th anniversary of the publication of Pride and Prejudice. Today’s centenary, Q’s inaugural lecture, may seem small beer by comparison, but not if we consider that we owe more than we realize – or than many people will acknowledge – to Q for articulating the modern idea of English as an open, creative and a critical discipline. I leave the last word to him:

In criticism of literature, which is (however it may disguise itself) in the end criticism of life, no word can ever be final; and the more it seems or affects to be final the less it can be true. (Studies in Literature, 1929, pp. 147-8)

Adrian Barlow

[illustration: Lecture Theatre A, in the Central Science Library, Cambridge; formerly the Arts School, © the author.

This is the third time I have blogged about Quiller-Couch. The first post, On Q, was published in January 2011. Quiller-Couch: Cornwall, Cambridge and English, was published on 23 November 2012, the centenary of the announcement from Downing Street of his appointment as King Edward VII Professor of English at Cambridge. 

Monday, 14 January 2013

Tarantula: John Hayward, man of letters

For the past week I have been kept up each night by a book I could not put down. Tarantula’s Web, written by one of my oldest friends, John Smart, is a biography of John Hayward (1905-1965). If you have on your shelves an old Penguin Book of English Verse, or - better still - the Nonesuch editions of the works of John Donne, or Jonathan Swift or the Earl of Rochester, you’ll have come across Hayward’s work as anthologist and editor.  And if you’ve read Lyndall Gordon’s biography, T.S. Eliot – An Imperfect Life, or Helen Gardner’s still indispensable study of Eliot’s finest poem, The Composition of Four Quartets, you’ll know Hayward was one of the most important figures in Eliot’s life.

As friend, literary executor and collaborator, editor and mentor, Hayward encouraged, protected, and coped with Eliot for over thirty years. For eleven of those years, after the Second World War, they shared a flat together until out of the blue one evening in 1957, Eliot handed Hayward a letter, announcing he was going to be married in two days’ time, and walked out of the flat for good. The next day he duly married his secretary, Valerie, who was thirty-eight years younger than him, and lived happily ever after. Hayward didn’t.

‘Tarantula’ was what Eliot and his closest friends called John Hayward, and Hayward himself was happy to play up to the name. He had, as Tarantula’s Web reveals, the most extraordinary gift for making friends - and enemies too (F.R Leavis was one of the most implacable.) He was sometimes called the most malicious man in London, but others saw him quite differently: Graham Greene described him as the bravest man he ever knew, and the poet Kathleen Raine called him ‘that witty brilliant malicious tragic man who so heroically invented himself’.

Why was he tragic, and why did he have to set about inventing himself, as he did from a very young age? By the time he was a teenager, he was already showing signs of muscular dystrophy. But he always envisaged for himself a life in literature. At Gresham’s School in Norfolk, where he edited the school magazine, he had the distinction of being the first person to publish a poem by his younger contemporary W.H. Auden.

By the time he arrived at King’s College, Cambridge, he was already walking with difficulty and a stick, but this did not stop him acting, debating and becoming well known to the wider Bloomsbury circle: Virginia Woolf, Bunny Garnett and Dadie Rylands too. Later, Ottoline Morrell and Edith Sitwell would become good friends, so would William Empson, Stephen Spender and, eventually, Dylan Thomas and George Barker.  Tarantula’s web drew them all in. But at the start it was Eliot who helped to launch his professional career by encouraging him to review for The Criterion.

Reviewing, editing, criticism and commentary – these became the main sources of Hayward’s income and reputation. To these he added bibliography, anthologies and literary journalism. For five years in the 1930s he wrote a fortnightly ‘London Letter’ for the New York Sun. By the start of the Second World War he was also writing regularly about the London literary scene for Spanish and Swedish newspapers too. After the war (which he had sat out in frustrating exile in Cambridge) he became the chief literary advisor to the Festival of Britain, curating major exhibitions of rare books in London and Paris. He was afterwards awarded the CBE: some thought he deserved a knighthood.

By this time Hayward had long been confined to his wheelchair, though he did his best to pretend it made no difference to his life at all.  He was incorrigibly sociable and flirtatious. Gradually, inevitably, he came to rely more and more on friends to help him get around: taxi drivers knew him, and he was a familiar sight in London, even on one occasion being wheeled along by Eliot at the rear of a circus procession making its way through Chelsea. Hayward called Eliot ‘the Master’ and referred to himself as Eliot’s ‘creating critick’ – a precise description of his role, because his criticism became an indispensible part of the creative process enabling Eliot to develop the Four Quartets during the early years of the war.

Recovering, at least outwardly, from the shock of Eliot’s abrupt departure, Hayward became editor of a journal he had helped to establish, The Book Collector, again writing a wide-ranging Commentary at the start of each issue. His pre-war and post-war journalism, mixing literary gossip, criticism, bibliography and sheer love of books, was Hayward’s equivalent of writing a regular blog today. His dispatches from the literary frontline were a discipline and a pleasure. It’s no exaggeration to say that they were his particular creative achievement. He had, as it happens, once tried and failed to complete a novel; his poetry was for the eyes of family and friends only. But in his ‘Letters from London’, in his Commentaries and in his broadcasts, he declared the value of a life in literature. 

John Hayward was, in the honourable if old-fashioned sense, a bookman and a man of letters. He believed in books as objects of historical and cultural significance and in literature as a source of pleasure and enjoyment. He cared about the literary health of the country. He admired the creative imagination and courage of the modernists (of Eliot above all) but he was at heart a traditionalist. As a rationalist who believed in the public role of literature, he would have been at home in the eighteenth century: John Smart likens him, justly, to Dr Johnson, surrounded by his circle of friends and acolytes; to me, however, he resembles most closely Alexander Pope. For with Pope,  (who was also physically disabled) I think Hayward would have been happy to say

Yes I am proud, I must be proud to see
Men not afraid of God afraid of me.

 John Smart’s biography, Tarantula’s Web: John Hayward, T.S. Eliot and their Circle, is published by Michael Russell (ISBN 978-0-85955-324-7). I recommend it strongly.

Adrian Barlow

Wednesday, 2 January 2013

T.S. Eliot and the turning year

Poets tend to have mixed feelings about the new year. Here’s Tennyson (from In Memoriam):

Ring out, wild bells, to the wild sky,
   The flying cloud, the frosty light:
   The year is dying in the night;
Ring out, wild bells, and let him die.

Ring out the old, ring in the new,
   Ring, happy bells, across the snow:
   The year is going, let him go;
Ring out the false, ring in the true.

RS Thomas, in ‘Song at the Year’s Turning’ offers only slightly more than naught for your comfort:

Winter rots you; who is there to blame?

The new grass shall purge you in its flame.

T.S.Eliot is good on the year’s turning. These lines seem particularly apt for a New Year’s day when, amazingly, after so much gloomy rain, the sun shines bright in a clear sky:

Midwinter spring is its own season
Sempiternal though sodden towards sundown,
Suspended in time, between pole and tropic. (Little Gidding ll.I-3)

But the passage that always comes to my mind is the opening Chorus of Part II of Murder in the Cathedral:

Does the bird sing in the south?
Only the sea-bird cries, driven inland by the storm.
What sign of the spring of the year?
Only the death of the old: not a stir, not a shoot, not a breath.
Do the days begin to lengthen?
Longer and darker the day, shorter and colder the night.
Still and stifling the air: but a wind is stored up in the East.
The starved crow sits in the field, attentive; and in the wood
The owl rehearses the hollow note of death.

Fifty years ago I was a member of the Chorus in a school production of Murder in the Cathedral. The part of Thomas Becket, that turbulant priest, was played by John Methuen, himself one day to become a turbulent figure as Dean of Ripon. Somewhere I still have some photographs of the production, and I wish I could find them now. I remember his performance as Thomas: it had astonishing power and captured the essential inner stillness of Eliot’s Archbishop. I remember, too, that he later produced John Barton’s RSC anthology of dramatized readings, The Hollow Crown, in which I had a part. He was a generous and humane presence in a school where such qualities were not always to be found.

The producer of Murder in the Cathedral was Malcolm Ross, at that time Head of English at my school, and one of the key influences in my life. Later he became (and remains, fifty years on from that production) a national figure in the world of the arts in education. It was Mr Ross who, in the classroom, first introduced us to the work of modern poets: Eliot, of course, Auden, Dylan Thomas, Ted Hughes. Both in the classroom and outside it, he encouraged us to write poetry. Up until then, at prep school, my experience of reading and writing poetry had got no further than the Georgians.

Malcolm Ross was a great encourager, but strict too. He encouraged us to write in different ways and to experiment with different forms - Haiku, sprung rhythm and free verse - but he always took care to warn us, quoting Eliot, that ‘no vers is libre for the man who wants to do a good job’. Poetry was at the heart of all his teaching: at the same time as we were rehearsing Murder in the Cathedral, he was introducing us to Eliot’s Preludes and to Landscapes. We began to understand how to make connections. In class before lunch we read

                   Still hills
Wait. Gates wait. Purple trees,
White trees, wait, wait,
Delay, decay. Living, living
Never moving. (Landscapes II. Virginia)

After lunch, in rehearsal, we acted:

When the leaf is out on the tree, when the elder and may
Burst over the stream, and the air is clear and high,
And voices trill at windows, and children tumble in front of the door,
What work shall have been done, what wrong
Shall the bird’s song cover, the green tree cover, what wrong
Shall the fresh earth cover? We wait, and the time is short
But waiting is long.

Our rehearsals were in the school chapel, a very modern building, only consecrated that year. It had a raised nave that sloped gently like a theatre auditorium. This was where we were to perform the play. For a term and a half, aged 14, as a member of the Chorus, I lived with Eliot’s poetry inside my head and on my tongue. The performances themselves, four of them, just before Easter 1964, were – and remain – one of the most intense experiences of my life.

Eliot’s play is rarely performed these days. But, having once been one of the Chorus (‘we, the scrubbers and sweepers of Canterbury’) in Murder in the Cathedral, I can never think of the new year, and the seasons as a whole, except through the words spoken by the Chorus in the play’s concluding Benedicite, as Malcolm Ross directed us:

[All] Even in us [ pause: one beat]the voices of seasons, [Barlow] the snuffle of winter, [Bryant] the song of spring, [Delve] the drone of summer, [Norfolk and Moor] the voices of beasts and of birds, [All] praise Thee.

Adrian Barlow

Postscript: Malcolm Ross’s most recent book, Cultivating the Arts in Education and Therapy (2011) ends with a credo by my old teacher that speaks as powerfully to me today as his teaching and encouragement did many years ago:

It is the job of the arts teacher and arts therapist to cultivate the habit of art to enrich the lives of young people growing up, to repair the stricken lives of people who have lost, failed to discover or been prevented from discovering the power and confidence to act expressively …. The habit of art must be worked at devotedly, must be perfected as a way of life, worn as a familiar garment, easily and with confidence. pp.196-7