Criticism: The Foundations of Modern Literary Judgment

By Mark Schorer; Gordon McKenzie et al. | Go to book overview

CHRISTOPHER CAUDWELL:
English Poets: The Decline of Capitalism*

ARNOLD, Swinburne, Tennyson and Browning, each in his own way, illustrate the movement of the bourgeois illusion of this "tragic" stage of its history.

Tennyson's Keatisan world is shattered as soon as he attempts to compromise between the world of beauty and the real world of misery which will not let him rest. Only the elegiac In Memoriam, with its profound pessimism, the most genuinely pessimistic poem in English up to this date, in any way successfully mirrors contemporary problems in contemporary terms. Like Darwin, and even more Darwin's followers, he projects the conditions of capitalist production into Nature (individual struggle for existence) and then reflects this struggle, intensified by its instinctive and therefore unalterable blindness, back into society, so that God--symbol of the internal forces of society --seems captive to Nature--symbol of the external environment of society:

Are God and Nature then at strife,
That Nature lends such evil dreams?
So careful of the type she seems,
So careless of the single life;

That I, considering everywhere
Her secret meaning in her deeds,
And finding that of fifty seeds
She often brings but one to bear,

I falter where I firmly trod. . . .

The unconscious ruthlessness of Tennyson's "Nature" in fact only reflects the ruthlessness of a society in which capitalist is continually hurling down fellow capitalist into the proletarian abyss:

"So careful of the type?" but no.
From scarped cliff and quarried stone
She cries: "A thousand types are gone:
I care for nothing, all shall go."

. . . No more? A monster then, a dream,
A discord. Dragons of the prime
Which tear each other in the slime
Were mellow music matched with him.

O life as futile, then, as frail!
O for thy voice to soothe and bless!
What hope of answer, or redress
Behind the veil, behind the veil?

Browning revolts from the drab present not to the future but to the glories of the virile Italian springtime of the bourgeoisie. Never before had that vigour been given in English poetry so deep a colouring. But his vocabulary has a foggy verbalism which is a reflection of his intellectual dishonesty in dealing with real contemporary problems. To Tennyson the Keatsian world of romance, to Browning the Italian springtime; both are revolting backwards, trying to escape from the contradiction of the class for whom they speak. Browning, dealing with contemporary problems, can produce no higher poetry than that of Mr. Sludge or Bishop Blougram. Yet he too in his eager youth could reproach an older bourgeois poet for following the familiar round of reaction:

Shakespeare was of us, Milton was for us,
Burns, Shelley was with us-- They watch from their graves!
He alone breaks from the van and the freemen,
He alone sinks to the rear and the slaves!

Swinburne's poetry is Shelley's world of immanent light and beauty made more separate by

____________________
*
Christopher Caudwell was the pseudonym of St. Christopher John Sprigg ( 1907- 1937). "English Poets: The Decline of Capitalism" is the sixth chapter of Illusion and Reality ( 1937), and it is reprinted here by permission of The Macmillan Company of New York, publishers, and of Lawrence and Wishart, Ltd., of London. Caudwell also wrote Studies in a Dying Culture ( 1938).

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