Books: The Metropolitan Critic — Roy Fuller's Magisterial Thumb |
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Roy Fuller's Magisterial Thumb

In the fourth of his very fine collection of Oxford poetry lectures, entitled Owls and Artificers, Roy Fuller, praising Wallace Stevens, at one point writes:

I wouldn’t want to leave this aspect of Stevens without saying that he himself was perfectly aware of the objections to his existence as the existence of a poet which many of you have no doubt been silently raising. Mentioning his forthcoming collection of poems, Auroras of Autumn, in a letter of 1949 he said: ‘I don’t know how the book will be regarded,’ adding: ‘It is not easy to experience much in the rather routine life that I lead. While one is never sure that it makes much difference, one is equally never sure that it doesn’t.’
   Of course, Stevens was not speaking here of his avoidance of a superficial Bohemianism (if that adjective is ever really needed to qualify that substantive).

One is certain that Mr. Fuller can think of cases, in the past if not in the present, when the substantive needs to be left not only unqualified but untainted. One is equally certain that for his current purposes Mr. Fuller prefers not to try to think of them. As well as providing a great deal of first-rate criticism and professional commentary, he is conducting a polemic — a polemic in which the dedicated balancing of art and life, the long-term professionalism in a poet like Stevens, is to be emphasized to the extinction of any enthusiastic conception of the poetic whatsoever. A director of the Woolwich Equitable Building Society salutes the memory of a vice-president of the Hartford Accident and Indemnity Company: the tone is level, the words select, the hand dry-palmed.

In asides, in paragraphs, and sometimes in whole pages, this polemic is kept up throughout the lectures, on the assumption that a substantial part of the audience is in the grip of error. The error is unreasoning, indiscriminate enthusiasm (if those adjectives are ever really needed to qualify that substantive), and for the purposes of this polemic (or perhaps because Mr. Fuller really thinks so) it is assumed to be not only a common affliction of the immediately post-pubescent age group at all times, but uniquely prevalent at this time, among all age groups.

The enthusiasm may have any or all of the following phenomena — culled from the book’s index — for objects: BEATLES, THE; BOND, JAMES; CREELEY, ROBERT; GINSBERG, ALLEN; HORNSEY COLLEGE OF ART; LIVERPOOL POETS, THE; MAOISM; OLSON, CHARLES; PATTEN, BRIAN; STOCKHAUSEN, KARLHEINZ; YEVTUSHENKO, YEVGENY. The enthusiasm distorts and corrodes what is genuine, both sets trends and is swayed by them, and is a prey to fashion at the very moment of plundering the serious. It is a good argument to make and always has been: it can even be said that Mr. Fuller is correct in judging that it is a particularly necessary argument to make now. What might be worth considering, however, is whether Mr. Fuller has not done too thorough a job of ignoring the admittedly simplistic political assumptions on which this enthusiasm — among the young, at any rate — is largely based. By his own account (and here reference is made to an autobiographical note he contributed to the anthology The Poetry of War 1939-45) it took a good deal of hard experience before Mr. Fuller substituted reality for illusion in his own mind.

Among the vast majority of the young people who harbour them, the current illusions about the dysfunctionality of traditional art (and the functionality of a projected, revolutionary art) are part and parcel of a political view that is very generous: it can be argued that it is self-defeating, but scarcely argued that it is entirely unprincipled, and never argued that it is unprovoked. Like many of his generation of illuminati — and several of them are in Oxford on a permanent basis — Mr. Fuller has difficulty in realizing that in young eyes the social order is likely to go on needing justification in great detail. In supplying such a justification, even for the impregnable verities of artistic discipline and rigorous education, the merest hint of the tones of the Warden of All Souls is apt to prove ruinous.

The first lecture is called ‘Philistines and Jacobins’ and draws deeply on propositions first put forward by Matthew Arnold, a previous occupant of the Oxford chair of poetry. Arnold’s anguish at the prospect of a victory for prosperous Philistinism is by no means out of date. But now the Philistinism has some added features. First, the young who rebel against it are likely to produce a separate Philistinism on their own account. Second, the prosperity, if prosperity it be, has not spread so far as to put the intellectual out of his misery — he might earn his living as an intellectual, but only through a nominal, media-desensitized exercise of his function. This second point is obviously broadly true. The first, however, immediately needs the qualification that it is not mere ‘affluence’ that the young are in rebellion against. In supposing their disaffection to be based on only that, Mr. Fuller sets the terms for his sub-argument on this topic which extends throughout the book. The penalty paid is to strike at the outset the tones not of analysis but of obfuscation:

Even the offspring of the intelligentsia revolt, by way of dropping out from education, rash erotic alliances, crumminess of appearance, and so forth, perhaps because they see their parents more and more obsessed by the gadgets of affluence and less and less convinced that anything can be done by way of principle and belief.

And perhaps because they see their parents becoming more and more prone to abandoning, not only the conviction that anything can be done by way of principle and belief, but principle and belief as such. Be that as it may, the sub-argument is allowed to rest temporarily at this preliminary point, because Mr. Fuller wants to get on to another aspect of contemporary Philistinism — its ability to infect the adult intelligentsia itself.

Not only does kitsch flourish in parallel to culture, it increasingly is promoted — by the very people who ought to know better — as a substitute for culture. On this point he has some incisive things to say. Many of them have been said before (notably by Dwight Macdonald in Against the American Grain) but they bear being said again. It turns out, though, that most of the kitsch in question is provided by the young, who are promptly dragged back into the argument and treated as the culprits of whom the trendily treasonable adult clerks are merely the accomplices. Here, surely, is a clear case of the real argument being simplified, and in being simplified falsified, by a reflex invocation of the sub-argument. It is barely considered (and then only through a quick suggestion that modern poetry gave in too quickly to its status as a minority art) that poetry had entered a crisis of standards well before any youth rebellion had ever been heard of. Admirers of the Beatles are soundly trounced, but with scarcely a hint that the high musical tradition had at some time previous got itself into a crisis of acceptance.

Obviously these are large problems and it is a work of professional application — which is in itself one of the problems — to understand them. Nobody could mind if they had been sketched in and left unsolved. The trouble here is that Mr. Fuller, by an action more automatic than conscious, has had a shot at solving them. He has managed to propose that it is the audience which has instigated these crises of standards, of acceptance, of appreciation: you would have needed keen ears at this lecture to find out that modern creativity in its most intense forms had ever put itself beyond reach of amateur comprehension and caused critical, pedagogical, and sociological problems by doing so. The steady message of Mr. Fuller’s book is that the true line of descent in modern art is the line of unenthusiastic, fully conscious clarity of aim. This squares well with Mr. Fuller’s own production. It squares well also with the tendency of metropolitan (but not necessarily academic) criticism of poetry over the past decade — obviously it is the line of modest clarity which is being reasserted in the present and rediscovered, when it is there to be rediscovered, in the past. But when you are rebuilding comprehensible, universally applicable standards of meaning, it may be polemically justified, but it cannot be justified in fact, to talk as if those standards had been there all along.

The second lecture, ‘“Woodbine Willie” Lives!’, is an acute exploration of sentimentality in verse. Reactionary emotion, anti- scientific feeling and deficiency of realism are held to be sentimentality’s characteristics. One can think of more, but in the personal battle of Mr. Fuller’s generation against the successive prevailing fashions these were clearly the characteristics that mattered. He asserts that sentimentality was latent in the ideas that dominated 1930s poetry and surfaced when those ideas lost their dominance, somewhere around the end of the war. No surprise, then, that Dylan Thomas began to be valued for what was worst in him. And no surprise either that the Movement did not stop the rot: ‘The clear aims, logical thought, modest subject matter of the Larkins and the Thwaitses (sic) became superannuated... once more a poetry marked by sentimentality was let in.’ Mr. Fuller then proceeds to do an abrupt razor-job on Brian Patten. In the face of the successful emergence of the Liverpudlians, is it not clear that Practical Criticism was written largely in vain?

But one can welcome the accuracy and force of Mr. Fuller’s attack on all this trendy sludge without necessarily accepting his interpretation of modern literary history in general. To show that issues have now become clear, is it really desirable to pretend that they were always clear? ‘As the ’forties succeeded the ’thirties, so the ’sixties succeeded the ’fifties’, Mr. Fuller states. But this is to speak with a neatness of which only the old guard who have fought their way through to the 1970s are capable.

The propensity of modern art to run away with itself — to be unclear in aim, to be illogical in thought, and to be the reverse of modest in subject matter — was well established in the 1920s and could be defensibly regarded as central to the modern achievement. Indeed the question of the relationship of intellect to the creative imagination (and particularly whether that relationship was a governingone) was raised by modern art to the status of a problem. Mr. Fuller reduces it again to a mere difficulty — the difficulty being that corrupt taste among the consumers feeds back to vitiate the scrupulousness of the creators. You wouldn’t get all this high-flown tat if the yokels weren’t so easily impressed.

‘An Artifice of Versification’ is the third lecture and pretty much of a classic: it is in work like this that Owls and Artificers transcends even the best parts of The Crowning Privilege. The topic is syllabic verse. Marianne Moore and Elizabeth Daryush are the two main subject poets. All the traps of syllabics are clearly seen (including the paradoxical tendency of the freedom from regular stress to induce a greater complexity of diction) and yet finally the approval comes, especially for Miss Moore’s achievement, by which Mr. Fuller is manifestly enchanted. ‘It is hardly necessary for me to add’, he adds, ‘that it is syllabic verse’s extreme formal element that above all else gives one confidence in its validity.’

But this conclusion is not wholly satisfactory even when tested by the lecture’s own terms. He has been fairly careful to distinguish, in Miss Moore’s work, between the form that is merely intellected and the form which is felt. But simultaneously he has been very careful to distinguish between the syllabics he approves and those, sanctioned by Olson and Williams, which have come to nothing and are in no way the product of skill. Isn’t it the formlessness of these last that leads Mr. Fuller to endorse the ‘extreme formal element’, and allow the ‘validity’ of the syllabics employed by Moore, Daryush and Auden? Because if it is, the tendency of this lecture to be suspicious of coldly intellected form has been artificially checked. The lecture is really trying to say that its ‘extreme formal element’ can’t possibly be the reason why we should have confidence in the validity of syllabic verse. But the lecturer, thinking suddenly and uncomfortably of his archetypal shaggy opponent, almost by instinct steps on the brake. The theme is once again altered into a polemical weapon. It is only half allowed throughout the lecture, and completely disallowed at its end, that a preoccupation with form can be self-defeating — that under pressure of expression the notion of formal rules must be forced to give way to the notion of formal characteristics, these being discernible only ex post facto. And it is probable that Mr. Fuller takes this stance because he is all too aware of what has happened when, under the pressure of no expression worth speaking of except an advanced case of scribendi cacoethes (Dr. Johnson’s term, borrowed from Juvenal, for the unfortunate desire to write), formal rules have given way to sludge.

The fourth lecture, ‘Both Pie and Custard’, is the one on Wallace Stevens mentioned above. Critically, it is the only lecture in the course which is expansive rather than proscriptive, and excitement accrues as a consequence. One can imagine hirsute undergrads translating themselves at a rate of knots from the Sheldonian to the Bod in order to get acquainted with more than the few lines quoted of ‘The Comedian as the Letter C’ and ‘Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction’. One subsidiary virtue in Mr. Fuller’s excellent transmission of Stevens’s specific quality is a realization that the inauguration of the Modern had implications beyond those the lecturer has elsewhere allowed:

On the purely literary side we can see now that in the poems of Harmonium Stevens was liberated from explicit meaning, from the commonplaces of the tradition of his youth, through his reading of the French symbolists, a process similar to that undergone by T. S. Eliot.... Though a good deal of Stevens is not really as difficult as was once — as, indeed, is often still — thought, the ‘nonsense’ side of the modern movement in verse — the arbitrary symbols, the private references, the unexplained personae and fragmentary plots — persisted with him, in fact, until the end.... But, of course, if this were all there were to him he would merely share a place with a score of others. As it is, the conviction grows that he must be placed with the two or three greatest English-speaking poets of the twentieth century.

Making due allowance for the nonsense side, that must still leave quite a lot of inexplicit meaning at the centre of Stevens’s achievement. This, however, is a floodgate of argument that Mr. Fuller does not propose to open. Instead he pushes the line that Stevens’s attention to the details of his everyday office job held him comfortably close to reality. One says ‘pushes the line’ because it plainly is a line, a fact made further evident by this peculiar passage:

I wonder whether it is too fanciful to suggest that Stevens’s long lifetime of secular sensitivity to reality was sustained by his day to day absorption in business affairs. Certainly the relations between reality and poetry to be found everywhere in his work are paralleled by the relations of his office and his evening pursuits, and I don’t think the analogy necessarily glib or superficial. Many artists are, through the very success of their art, led away from the tensions and sources that brought it into being. And absorbed in the world of art they can become a prey to idealistic notions that their earlier years in the realer world would simply never have entertained. Spot illustrations are apt to be crude but the cases of D. H. Lawrence and T. S. Eliot spring to mind. It would be absurd to say that when the former left the Midlands, and the latter Lloyds Bank, decline set in, but it can hardly be denied that what is unsatisfactory in the later careers of both writers stems from a slackening of their hold on reality and the importation into their work of ideas that we can’t help but feel to be false or at the least inappropriate.

Does this mean that in the case of Eliot we missed getting a major poem called, say, Four Overdrafts? What we actually did get, for better or for worse, was an apprehension of a reality which Eliot considered to extend, both in time and space, well beyond the confines of the daily task. Is there anything ‘unsatisfactory’ about Four Quartets that is not also part and parcel of it, central to it? Surely that poem is a salient case of a modern work in which what is clear and what is not clear, what is rigorously perceived and what is gropingly envisioned, cannot easily be divided up? And by now it has become apparent that in his determination to argue for an unpretentious discipline of vocation, for a harmony of art and life, Mr. Fuller has inadvertently let in a mild variety of Philistinism on his own account. He has been redrawing the past to make it look more controllable than it was, and perhaps inadvertently giving the illusion that the modern movement in art, and beyond that the modern age in politics, offered few problems that force of character could not have dealt with. The magnetic attraction of the sub-argument has diverted the theme towards the simplistic. Short back and sides, a good steady job, and concoct your supreme fictions in the evenings: a straight-arrow formula if ever there was one.

‘The Filthy Aunt and the Anonymous Seabird’, the fifth lecture, faces the problem of difficulty in verse front on: of all these lectures it does the best job of keeping a balance between the theme and the sub-argument. Poets have a right to their difficulty, so long as it is genuine — if this means that poetry is for the few, then so much for the many. There is no refuting this. The question of what difficulty is genuine and what is not is the eye of the storm in modern criticism: Mr. Fuller tends to peg genuineness to accuracy of perception, but he leaves room for what is inexplicable — for what is not merely condensed but transmuted.

This, however, does not mean that anybody will be allowed to create poetry by accident. The fashionable highbrow is foolish (the sub-argument again) to expect, in the field of the pop lyric, any kind of ‘new start’ for simple, resonant poetry. The reason, apparently, is that ‘the great simple poets’ of the far past were formidably intelligent — pop lyricists, of course, not being that. It would be interesting to know what Mr. Fuller thinks might happen if they were. It’s a possibility that he dismisses too quickly. Real poetry retreats to the enclave. Fake poetry sweeps the new mass poetry market off its feet. No bridge-building, it appears, is feasible.

Such a stance allows for very direct, persuasive argument, but it denies the possibility (and it could be admitted that most of the evidence to date denies the possibility just as vehemently) that some of these guitar-plunking ragamuffins might, if they have something to express, develop disciplines to express it. In Mr. Fuller’s view the apostolic succession goes on within the enclave. Outside the enclave it seems to be a toss-up between the two things that can happen: real talent is blasted in the bud, and no-talent is a raging success.

The last lecture, ‘How to Stuff Owls’, is a study of bad verse vastly entertaining in its examples (generously, some of his own mistakes are included) and, within certain limits, analytically exact. Once again the anatomizing of sentimentality; once again the identification of faulty or diffident technique as a sign of forced feeling. The theme is carried through impeccably and the lecture will stand as an exemplary treatment of the subject. But as well as completing the course’s major argument about the nature of the art, this lecture also brings in the sub-argument for its final airing:

One thing a new anthologist would want to make clear — The Stuffed Owl demonstrates it unconsciously — is how from time to time in English poetry a school of poets arises which despises the intellect and elevates the feelings. The Della Cruscans at the end of the eighteenth century, the Spasmodics in the middle of the nineteenth — and in our own day the New Apocalyptics of the ’forties and that beat or underground movement unfortunately still with us: all these produced an amount of dangerous bad verse.

So finally it comes down to the balance kept between intellect and feeling — good, hard news for the undergraduate audience to be supplied with, we may be sure. Crummy of appearance and prone to rash erotic alliances, current youth is anti-intellectual as well.

To a large extent it obviously is, and needs such a doggedly sustained polemic as Owls and Artificers to shake it up. But to the witlessly rebellious present, just how valuable, how reliable a picture of the artistic past, of the story of art, does this book supply? The answer needs careful framing. Mr. Fuller will not admit relativism into the discussion of artistic merit, and in that he is right. Neither will he admit eclecticism, and he is right in that too. But when such commendable rigour becomes rigid, it does not become over-rigorous — it becomes not rigorous enough. It is relativistic, and therefore something less than rigorous, to promote the notion that artistic excellence is of necessity connected to a sane, balanced and verifiable view of the real. Such a notion may come in handy for squashing Beatles, but it can’t make much of, say, Yeats.

When talent occurs within an unstructured intellect, the evidence suggests that it may well go on to structure that intellect along its own lines. When such a process takes place it is doubtful whether we can relate intellect to the creative imagination in any meaningful way at all. Logically it might be said that there has to be a separation in order for there to be a connection, but equally it can be argued that we are dealing with a unity. Statements about the provenance of creativity in given groups of people should consequently not be proscriptive. It is probable that burgeoning artists in all fields will go on acquiring as much education as they need. To say that they have always done so in the past is of course tautologous — if they had not, they would not have come to our attention.

And here is where the Beatles come back in, still defiantly crawling after the magisterial thumb is lifted. It is not relativism and it is not eclecticism to enjoy the best of their songs — it is merely pluralism. Mr. Fuller is afraid that the achievement in the song of Schubert, Brahms, Duparc, Debussy, Strauss, Rachmaninov and Poulenc is threatened by the recognition accorded to four trogs who crawled out of a cave. It is not made clear whether this is a sociological argument or an aesthetic one. If a sociological one, it can be countered by pointing out that for those who know those names there is no threat, and as for those who do not know those names, it is hardly fair to take the Beatles away from them too. If it is an aesthetic one, we should like to know by what criteria the Beatles’ songs are so confidently dismissed from the same plane of achievement as Rachmaninov’s. Certainly it is a pity that their rudimentary formal training set limits to their development and that trendy pressures diverted them towards the bogus. But it is a greater pity still that young men with all the formal training in the world go utterly to pieces. While Mr. Fuller hunts bugs, the house burns down.

The Beatles are only one case in which Mr. Fuller has underestimated the generation he is attempting to instruct. He has very sensitively and very correctly detected the intellectual vacuum, but he has made the error of assuming that no art can breathe inside it. But it is there, both actually and potentially: it presents difficulties with which only an open mind can grapple.

The real problem is to supply it with a criticism which can deal with what is promising in it without complying with what is retrogressive, virulent or inane. Total dismissal is too neat. For what it deals with, Owls and Artificers is a penetrating work. For what it fails to deal with it is more symptomatic than diagnostic — but still personal, admirable and, finally, liberal in a way that the generation it castigates will live to respect.

(TLS, 1971)


Though the Sixties were technically over, the hangover had not yet safely replaced the binge, so I can be seen in this piece carefully laying claim to a hard head, while trying to continue with the self-imposed task of informing my elders and betters that the so-called Youth Culture had something to offer besides rabies. The Oxford Professorship of Poetry had finally, for Roy Fuller, established the prestige he might have enjoyed earlier if he had indulged in personal publicity. Another contributing factor to his elevation had been the backing of the The Review, which rightly saw in his accumulated achievement a version of recent literary history free of bardic howl or apocalyptic rant. A veteran campaigner for decent reticence, un-arty art and a balanced life, Fuller had a right to speak de haut en bas. Speaking in the other direction, however, I had things to tell him. The requirement was to do the telling without sounding like a Red Guard: hence the careful, not to say pussyfooting, tread. Less diffidence and more evidence might have been in order. Copyright restrictions allowing, I should have quoted some of the pop lyrics I professed to admire. A would-be pop lyricist myself at the time, I had published a string of assertive articles on the subject in a doomed music-biz magazine called Cream, as well as a long piece in The Review which amounted to my manifesto on the subject. The TLS would probably have stood for the same treatment; a few good quotations would have been worth any amount of pontification; but I missed the opportunity. Still, just to put the point looked subversive enough at the time, and there were probably readers who found it repellent. Fuller wasn’t one of them, incidentally: the lecturer made no objection to being lectured. As for my use of ‘structure’ as a verb — well, there was no excuse, because I was already well aware that grand words cover slight thoughts, and sociologese fills a vacuum.