Academic journal article Yeats Eliot Review

Meeting Eliot and Hodgson in Five-Finger Exercises

Academic journal article Yeats Eliot Review

Meeting Eliot and Hodgson in Five-Finger Exercises

Article excerpt

Recently, I came upon Patrick Heron's half-scowling, half-smiling painting of T. S. Eliot reproduced in an anthology (1) alongside Eliot's part V of Five-finger Exercises. (2) It seemed to me that the pairing was emblematic of the partial familiarity we have with the poetic sequence as a whole--of all of FFE, only part V, "Lines for Cuscuscaraway and Mirza Murad All Beg," has any substantive memory for most of us. The section comprises, of course, the famous and witty word-portrait of the poet as "unpleasant" to meet. But, knowing part V as well as we do, one wonders why we have been so quiet about the sequence as a whole? Is it that we have long understood the whole to be an unimportant "exercise in allusiveness and imitation" and not more? (3) Do we think these animal "fables" only reveal Eliot's "lighter side"? (4) Perhaps we are aware that "our pleasure indicates they are fairly serious about something.... [that] these pieces refer to Eliot's own revolutions in poetry method" (5) and we leave it at that. However, there is indeed something broader to be said about the sequence poem that has not yet been said about it. FFE, we may find, tells us of the nineteen-twenties' literary war between the Georgians and the Moderns (6) and that one Georgian poet, Ralph Hodgson, a personal friend of Eliot, seems to be the parodic target. It is Hodgson who bears the brunt of the attack being made in the name of the Moderns, whose standard-bearer is, naturally, T. S. Eliot.

II.

The Georgian poets, in the narrowest definition, were those chosen by Edward Marsh to appear in five serial volumes, Georgian Poetry, issued between 1912 and 1922. (6) Like that of most of the poets in them, Ralph Hodgson's reputation was built on nature poetry--in Hodgson's case, lines written in anger over human cruelty towards animals and birds, and in empathy with their vulnerable place in nature. However, in their general attempts to revitalize the nature themes of the Romantics, the Georgian poets began soon to produce false passions, verging on the silly, about which, for example, Edith Sitwell wrote, "Birds became a cult. Any mention of the nest of a singing-bird threw the community into a frenzy.... [All birds were] admired, as were bulldogs weeping tears of blood." (7) Roy Campbell scorned "the homely thoughts of the Georgians on "rugger, love, or beer: their conversations with dogs; their bland approval of virtue, restraint, and intellectual dignity; their desire to lose their identity in a musical blending with nature; their delight in the spring; their fellow-feeling for cows, sheep, dogs, and rabbits; their raptures as walking-tourists and globe-trotters." (8) Indeed, as the poetry of the Georgians became increasingly trivial and unreal, it sold less and less well. Yet, at the start it was indeed popular.

Born in Yorkshire in 1871 where his father was a dyer (a detail of some importance in class-conscious England), and a poet by 1907 with the publication of The Last Blackbird and Other Lines, (9) Ralph Hodgson in 1914 won the Edmond de Polignac Prize, awarded by the Royal Society of Literature--an honor that called Marsh's attention to him. Presenting the prize, John Masefield announced, "Mr. Hodgson has used his starry power ... like a man in ecstasy." (10) Hodgson then appeared in Georgian Poetry H (1915). Reviewed favorably, his own slender first volume was reprinted in 1917 and 1921. In the interim, he also issued chapbooks of selected poems: his Eve and Other Poems quickly sold out and went into a second edition. In 1924, with reputation established, he began teaching at Sendai University in Japan--and stayed fourteen years, returning several times to visit England.

That, in brief, was Eliot's friend Hodgson. The logical Eliot positioned him in part IV, at a climactic point in FFE, to cap parts I, II, and III--all of which have animals as their subject. It might seem odd that as late as 1932 Eliot would take up the cudgel against Georgian poetry. …

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