Sunday, May 31, 2020

In Auden's Shadow: Michael Roberts

Michael Roberts (1902-1948)

I used to try to buy any stray volumes of collected poems I ran across in bookshops, on the off-chance that I'd be lucky enough to locate some submerged genius who nobody else knew about. This policy had somewhat mixed success, I must admit.

One of the most interesting such books I bought, however, was Michael Roberts' Collected Poems, way back in the 1980s sometime.

Michael Roberts: Collected Poems (1958)

I didn't know anything much about him. It was a handsome Faber volume, with an introduction by the editor, his widow Janet Roberts - somewhat better known under her maiden name of Janet Adam Smith, a distinguished contributor to Scottish literature in her own right.

Here's one of the poems from the book:

The Caves

This is the cave of which I spoke,
These are the blackened stones, and these
Our footprints, seven lives ago.

Darkness was in the cave like shifting smoke,
Stalagmites grew like equatorial tree,
There was a pool, quite black and silent, seven lives ago

Here such a one turned back, and there
Another stumbled and his nerve gave out;
Men have escaped blindly, they know not how.

Our candles gutter in the mouldering air,
Here the rock fell, beyond a doubt,
There was no light in those days, and there is none now.

Water drips from the roof, and the caves narrow,
Galleries lead downward to the unknown dark;
This was the point we reached, the farthest known.

Here someone in the debris found an arrow,
Men have been here before, and left their mark
Scratched on the limestone wall with splintered bone.

Here the dark word was said for memory’s sake,
And lost, here on the cold sand, to the puzzled brow.

This was the farthest point, the fabled lake:
These were our footprints, seven lives ago.

Michael Roberts (1902-1948)

There was a sort of studied simplicity about the diction: a concreteness and sureness of touch. The subject matter was interesting, too: lots about mountains, caves, climbing ... though I think the section of the book I liked best was his late sequence of poems about Chinghis [Genghis] Khan.

I guess that this must have been intended for broadcast on the radio, though I didn't realise that at the time. There were a lot of stage directions and details about the various voices the narrative was filtered through. It had an undeniable power to it, though:


Tchirek River runs
Under the Dark Mountain
Where the sky is like the sides of a tent
Stretched down over the Great Steppe.

The sky is grey, grey,
And the steppe is wide, wide:
Over grass the wind has battered low,
Sheep and cattle roam.

You can say that it's a bit like Matsuo Bashō's famous haiku:
Summer grasses,
All that remains
Of warriors' dreams
or, for that matter, Carl Sandburg's rather more protracted version of the same basic idea, "Grass":
I am the grass.
Let me work.
and that would certainly be true, and yet there's something extra there in Michael Roberts' poem - something about that evocation of the mountains, the steppe and the river which persuades us that he's been there - that there's nothing second-hand about his inspiration, however much it may recall other expressions of the same thought.

One thing's for certain. He doesn't sound anything like Auden - or like anybody else, really, except himself.

A. T. Tolley: The Poetry of the Thirties (1975)

All of that, of course, was before I worked out what he was really famous for. You have to remember that these were the days before the internet, before Google and Wikipedia. All I really had to go on was the disconcertingly brief and gnomic entries in our copy of the latest (1975) edition of Oxford Companion to English Literature.

Robin Skelton, ed.: Poetry of the Thirties (1975)

So, it seems that some time in the early thirties Leonard and Virginia Woolf's Hogarth Press was approached by a young schoolteacher, mountaineer (and ex-communist) called Michael Roberts who tried to sell them on the idea of a short anthology designed to show just what the new young poets beginning to emerge were getting up to.

The fact that one of the writers on the list was Virginia's ne'er-do-well nephew Julian Bell might well have been one of the factors that motivated them to agree.

Michael Roberts, ed.: New Signatures (1932)
New Signatures: Poems by Several Hands. London: Hogarth Press, 1932:
[W. H. Auden, Julian Bell, C. Day-Lewis, Richard Eberhart, William Empson, John Lehmann, William Plomer, Stephen Spender, A. S. J. Tessimond]
This was the result. It's quite a strange list, in retrospect: no MacNeice - and the choice of A. S. J. Tessimond may already have seemed a bit eccentric.

Nevertheless, it's probably better to concentrate on the successes than the failures. Auden was hardly known at the time. He'd only published one commercial collection: Poems (1930) - apart from a privately printed pamphlet produced by Stephen Spender on his handpress at home. The Orators was not yet out; nor was The Dance of Death.

Nor had Spender himself published a collection as yet. Only Day-Lewis had much under his belt, and he would later come to regard his three collections from the 1920s as mostly juvenilia. Roberts had published only one book of poems himself - and was probably best known for his reviews he and his wife had started to contribute to T. S. Eliot's Criterion.

Not all the reviewers were convinced. The young American poet T. C. Wilson [who he? - ed.] was content to remark: "the disparity between the intention and the published work is substantial."

Nevertheless, other reviewers and readers sat up and took notice of (in particular) Roberts's polemical introduction, in which he asserted 'that the modern poet could no longer write like Keats, rather he must take his imagery from urban and industrial civilization and "be abreast of his own times"' [cf Jason Harding, The Criterion: Cultural Politics and Periodical Networks in Inter-war Britain (2002): 160 et seq.].

Michael Roberts, ed.: New Country: Prose and Poetry (1933)
New Country: Prose and Poetry by the authors of New Signatures. London: Hogarth Press, 1933:
[W. H. Auden, Richard Goodman, C. Day-Lewis, John Lehmann, Charles Madge, Michael Roberts, Stephen Spender, A. S. J. Tessimond, Rex Warner]
A year later, Roberts put out another, larger volume, offering both 'Prose and Poetry by the authors of New Signatures.' You'll note a few additions to the line-up: Richard Goodman, Charles Madge, and our old friend Rex Warner.

This was an even greater success, and led Eliot to commission a rather more substantial exercise in canon-building, one of the most influential poetry anthologies of the twentieth century, reprinted - in various versions - to this day, The Faber Book of Modern Verse:

Michael Roberts, ed.: The Faber Book of Modern Verse (1936)

Michael Roberts, ed.: The Faber Book of Modern Verse. 2nd ed. rev. Anne Ridler (1951)

Michael Roberts, ed.: The Faber Book of Modern Verse. 3rd ed. rev. Donald Hall (1965)

Michael Roberts, ed.: The Faber Book of Modern Verse. 4th ed. rev. Peter Porter (1982)

Michael Roberts, ed.: The Faber Book of Modern Verse (1982)
[A reissue of the original edition with an account of its making by Janet Adam Smith]
As you can see, the book has continued to be read from that day to this. It undoubtedly marks the high water mark of Roberts' influence, and of his publishing career. He continued to edit anthologies and publish poetry and books on science and current affairs, but the authors he'd been so successful in introducing to the public gaze went on to surpass him.

Anthony Burgess's much-thumbed copy of The Faber Book of Modern Verse

Like Louis MacNeice - and, for that matter, George Orwell - Roberts spent most of the war working for the BBC, broadcasting mainly to German-occupied countries. After the war he took up the post of Principal of the College of St Mark and St John in Chelsea, London. He died of leukaemia in 1948. His Collected Poems appeared, finally, a decade later.

So will he be remembered principally as an influential antbologist who also scribbled verse in his spare time, or as a poet who got diverted (briefly) into acting as the 'spokesperson for a generation'? Your guess is as good as mine. I suppose that it depends largely on whether you first encountered his work through the Faber Book of Modern Verse, or through the Collected Poems.

I read his poems before I read all those thirties-agenda-setting introductions, so I think of him mainly as a poet: a lover of the mountains and the open air, more at home on a cliff-face than a lecture room.

I, too, have had more success editing anthologies than through my own published collections of poems, so I suppose the answer is more important to me than it might be to most people. I can't help believing, though, that the work that you do can end up in unpredictable places, and I've taken much inspiration from the curt, cut-back idiom and concrete, tangible subject-matter of Michael Roberts.

Perhaps, as usual, it's best to allow the poet himself the last word:

On Reading Some Neglected Poets

This is a long road in a dubious mist;
Not with any groan nor any heard complaint
We march, uncomprehending, not expecting Time
To show us beacons.

When we have struggled on a little farther
This madness will yield of itself,
There will not be any singing or sudden joy,
But a load will be set down.

And maybe no one will ever come,
No other traveller passing that way,
Therefore the load we lifted will be left,
A milestone, insignificant.

Michael Roberts: The Recovery of the West (1941)

[titles I own are marked in bold]:


  1. These Our Matins. London: Elkin Mathews & Marrot, 1930.
  2. Poems. London: Jonathan Cape, 1936.
  3. Orion Marches. London: Faber & Faber, 1939.
  4. Collected Poems. Introductory Memoir by Jane Roberts. London: Faber, 1958.

  5. Prose:

  6. [with E. R. Thomas] Newton and the Origin of Colours: A Study of One of the Earliest Examples of Scientific Method. London: G. Bell, 1934.
  7. Critique of Poetry. London: Jonathan Cape, 1934.
  8. The Modern Mind. London: Faber & Faber, 1937.
  9. T. E. Hulme. London: Faber & Faber, 1938.
  10. The Recovery of the West. London: Faber & Faber, London, 1941.
  11. The Estate of Man. London: Faber & Faber, London, 1951.

  12. Edited:

  13. New Signatures: Poems by Several Hands. London: Hogarth Press, 1932:
    [W. H. Auden, Julian Bell, C. Day-Lewis, Richard Eberhart, William Empson, John Lehmann, William Plomer, Stephen Spender, A. S. J. Tessimond]
  14. New Country: Prose and Poetry by the authors of New Signatures. London: Hogarth Press, 1933:
    [W. H. Auden, Richard Goodman, C. Day-Lewis, John Lehmann, Charles Madge, Michael Roberts, Stephen Spender, A. S. J. Tessimond, Rex Warner]
  15. Elizabethan Prose. London: Jonathan Cape, 1933.
  16. The Faber Book of Modern Verse. 1936. Second Edition, revised by Anne Ridler. 1960. London: Faber, 1962.
  17. The Faber Book of Comic Verse. London: Faber & Faber, 1942.

Michael Roberts, ed.: The Faber Book of Comic Verse (1942)

Tuesday, May 26, 2020

In Auden's Shadow: Rex Warner

Rex Warner (1905-1986)

The first person I thought of when I came up with this overall topic of writers languishing (or flourishing - who knows?) under Auden's shadow, was Rex Warner.

When I was a teenager I bought a second-hand copy of Warner's novel The Aerodrome (1941), and was suprised to observe that it came from a 'uniform edition' of his works.

Rex Warner: The Aerodrome: A Love Story (1941)

Some of the comments on the blurb were intriguing, too. He was, it seems (according to V. S. Pritchett), 'the only outstanding novelist of ideas whom the decade of ideas has produced' and the comments about his other books made it clear that they, too, had been considered of major significance at the time.

The Aerodrome (Uniform Edition): blurb (1946)

The only Rex Warner I knew about was a translator and occasional commentator on Greek texts and culture. I had a copy of his version of Caesar's commentaries - conveniently, if unconventionally, transposed from the third person into the first. I also had his Penguin Classics translation of Thucydides.

Caesar: War Commentaries, trans. Rex Warner (1960)

Who, then, was this earlier Rex Warner, this eloquent critic of fascism, this author of a series of odd, symbolic texts which seemed to have run in parallel with much of the early work of Auden and his friends - The Wild Goose Chase (1937) with Auden & Isherwood's bizarre charade-play The Dog Beneath the Skin:

Rex Warner: The Wild Goose Chase (1937)

W. H. Auden & Christopher Isherwood: The Dog Beneath the Skin, or Where is Francis? (1935)

The Professor (1938) with Spender's play Trial of a Judge:

Rex Warner: The Professor (1938)

Why Was I Killed? (1943) with MacNeice's Group Theatre extravaganza Out of the Picture?

Rex Warner: Why Was I Killed?: A Dramatic Dialogue (1943)

Louis MacNeice: Out of the Picture (1937)

Rex Warner began, as novelists so often do, as a poet rather than a prose-writer. Remember those lines from C. Day Lewis's The Magnetic Mountain (1933) I quoted above, in the first of these posts?
Then I'll hit the trail for that promising land;
May catch up with Wystan and Rex my friend ...

Rex Warner: Poems (1937)

It wasn't till four years afterwards that he finally broke into print with his own verse. Here are a couple of samples:

Rex Warner: 'Sonnet'. Poems (1937), p.11.


How sweet only to delight lambs and laugh by streams,
innocent in love wakening to the early thrush,
to be wed by mountains, and feel the stars friendly,
to be a farmer's boy, to be far from battle.

But me my blood binds to remember men
more than the birds, not to be delicate with squirrels,
or gloat among the poppies in a mass of corn,
or follow in a maze endless unwinding of water.

Nor will my mind permit me to linger in the love,
the motherkindness of country among ascending trees,
knowing that love must be liberated by bleeding,
fearing for my fellows, for the murder of man.

How should I live then but as a kind of fungus,
or else as one in strict training for desperate war?

Note the prevalence of alliteration - a device brought back into popularity by Auden's predilection for Anglo-Saxon verse: "Doom is dark and deeper than any sea-dingle. / Upon what man it fall. ..."

Note, too, the clipped, slightly awkward diction: another sign of the deep influence of his younger contemporary on his writing. The poem might as well have been titled 'Audenesque'. Sonnets composed in simple, prosaic language, too, were another favourite device of Auden's.

Having said that, the poem is not without interest in the severe psychological traumas it tries to explore. Who, in 1937, did not feel themselves 'in strict training for desperate war'?

Rex Warner: 'Light and Air'. Poems (1937), p. 19.

Light and Air

Our private vision is death, and the seers are yellow
who saw something remarkable in the dark,
who left the gas turned on, but never lit it,
and innocently withdrew before the explosion,
only too glad to forgive everyone.

Broken fragments are left, pieces of pottery,
fragments of a branch or frond for the microscope,
groups seen for an instant in indistinct light,
sometimes a curious smell outside the window.

We sometimes raise our heads from the window sill.
We sometimes venture to the ruinous door;
in the creaking house we demand light and air;

for what we need most is an atmosphere
fit to be breathed, and light by which to see.

The Auden influence is strong on this one, too. But here one might almost see Warner's preoccupation with the 'curious smell outside the window' as prophetic of Auden's later lines, in 'September 1, 1939':
The unmentionable odour of death
Offends the September night

The Wild Goose Chase: blurb

That same year, 1937, saw the publication of Warner's first novel, a rather bizarre allegorical mishmash called The Wild Goose Chase.

Clearly, judging by the blurb above, his publishers had high hopes of the book, and while it hasn't really stood the test of time as much as some of his later work, the same could easily be said of similarly mad creations of the thirties mindset as Auden's The Orators (1932) - or, for that matter, C. S. Lewis's allegorical novel The Pilgrim's Regress (1933):

Here's the verse dedication Warner wrote for the book:

The Wild Goose Chase: Dedication

Wild Goose, I made you a symbol of our Saviour,
With your fierce indifference to bye-laws and quiet flying,
your unearthly song, your neck like thunder and lightning,
and your mysterious barbaric love.

O missionaries and motor-cyclists!
Let us at daybreak honour the flying host,
the yelping hounds of air who, with blood for essence,
thrust like live shells through the speedways of heaven
above low coasts, over bed of rotting weed.

By light-houses, through showers of ice, listen
suddenly for onrush of wings, or from the storm
the bell-like note of an outriding voice.

This makes clear the basically Christian perspective he was working from at the time, as well as his continuing devotion to Auden's stylistic tropes: that mention of 'motor-cyclists', for instance, surely recalls Auden's 1930 poem 'Consider This'?
Consider this and in our time
As the hawk sees it or the helmeted airman
There's more there than just Auden, though. For the first time, I think, we catch a distinct echo of Gerard Manley Hopkins.

It's important to remember, in this connection, that - while we (rightly) consider Hopkins as a nineteenth-century poet, his collected verse was only published by his friend Robert Bridges in 1918, after the First World War.

Robert Bridges, ed.: Poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins. Rev. Charles Williams (1930)
Bridges, Robert, ed. Poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins. 1918. Second Edition With an Appendix of Additional Notes, and a Critical Introduction by Charles Williams. 1930. The Oxford Bookshelf. 1937. London: Oxford University Press, 1941.
Charles Williams' second, enlarged edition appeared in 1930, just in time to exert a decisive influence on all of the thirties poets - especially Rex Warner's close friend, Cecil Day Lewis:

Rex Warner: The Converts: blurb

All of which brings us, by a a commodius vicus of recirculation back to The Aerodrome, his third and still most celebrated novel. Like Auden's The Orators, which it resembles in many ways, it's an allegorical / satirical account of Fascism - what a distinctly English brand of it might look like, and the aspects of English life which already tend in that direction:

W. H. Auden: The Orators: An English Study (1932)

Anthony Burgess, in the blurb I've reproduced above, describes it as 'the best, perhaps the only, English Kafka novel.' In his own introduction to a later reprint, he goes further and claims that: 'its value as literature becomes increasingly apparent at each rereading:

Rex Warner: The Aerodrome: A Love Story (1941)

Maybe you had to be there. For me, it reads more like various other 'symbolic' works of the late thirties and early forties - Ernst Jünger's Auf den Marmorklippen [On the Marble Cliffs], for instance:

Ernst Jünger: On the Marble Cliffs (1939)

Or, for that matter, Alfred Kubin's pre-First World War account of a weird journey to the depths of the unconscious mind, Die andere Seite [The Other Side]:

Alfred Kubin: The Other Side (19008)

I don't myself see much of Kafka there. Rex Warner's inspiration seems far more matter-of-fact than that to me, though perhaps the posthumour Amerika comes as close as anything.

Rex Warner: Julius Caesar: The Young Caesar & Imperial Caesar. 1958 & 1960 (1967)

For me, I'm afraid, the really readable and durable part of Warner's oeuvre comes in his later historical novels about such figures as St. Augustine, Julius Caesar and Pericles the Athenian. Each of these seems lively and interesting to me in a very original way - far beyond any conventional 'novelisation' of their respective careers.

Rex Warner: Pericles the Athenian (1963)

I'd go so far as to say, in fact, that his only real rival in this field is the great Mary Renault, re-inventor of Ancient Greece for the love generation.

Mary Renault: The Last of the Wine (1956)

It's true that Renault's own homosexuality adds a passionate polemic dimension to these alleged 'recreations' of Ancient Greek mores - and incidentally guarantees the continuing value of her work - but Rex Warner runs her a close second in his vivid sense of what it might have been to be alive then.

Nor is his own work bereft of passion. Take, for example, this piece from his 1945 collection Poems and Contradictions:
Whether love leaping to love as loose as fishes,
sand-sensitive, hot and delicate as a moth,
or whether with crushing load and slavering mouth
on impassive flesh, and hate trembling the lashes,
or whether as customary, and without fuss
that seed slid in the membrane and found a home
in the throbbing darkness of the impulsive womb,
that seed lodged firm and mastered all the mass;
and knew no love but to take toll of blood,
dreaming the dream of creepers or of fish,
limpet or saurian, the start of man,
fastened and fettered by a string to food,
by love or lust or duty framed in flesh,
growing in bulk, and groping into pain.

One thing seems certain. While his novels and stories may never be the first thing to leap to mind when you think of the thirties writers - or, for that matter, when you think of post-war classicists - anyone willing to give him the benefit of the doubt and actually pick up one of his excellent books will not find it disappointing.

Here is one case where a revival is, I firmly believe, long overdue. I haven't read the biography yet, by his student Stephen Tabachnick, but it seems to have been quite well reviewed.

Julius Caesar: blurb

The Professor (Penguin edition): blurb (1945)

Rex Warner

[titles I own are marked in bold]:


  1. Poems. London: Boriswood Limited, 1937.
  2. Poems and Contradictions (1945)
  3. New Poems 1954 (with Laurie Lee and Christopher Hassall) (1954)

  4. Rex Warner: The Converts: A Novel of Early Christianity (1967)


  5. The Wild Goose Chase: A Novel. London: Boriswood Limited, 1937.
  6. The Professor: A Novel. 1938. Penguin Books 482. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1945.
  7. The Aerodrome. 1941. Uniform Edition. London: John Lane / The Bodley Head Ltd., 1946.
  8. Why Was I Killed? A Dramatic Dialogue. London: John Lane / The Bodley Head Ltd., 1943.
  9. Men of Stones: A Melodrama (1949)
  10. Escapade (1953)
  11. Julius Caesar: A One-Volume Edition of the Two Novels The Young Caesar and Imperial Caesar. 1958 & 1960. London: Collins Clear-Type Press, 1967.
  12. Pericles the Athenian. London: Collins Clear-Type Press, 1963.
  13. The Converts: A Novel of Early Christianity. London: The Bodley Head Ltd., 1967.

  14. George Sefers: On the Greek Style, introduction by Rex Warner (1967)


  15. Xenophon. The Persian Expedition. 1949. Penguin Classics. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1952.
  16. Thucydides. History of the Peloponnesian War. 1954. Ed. M. I. Finley. 1972. Penguin Classics. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1975.
  17. Plutarch. Fall of the Roman Republic. 1958. Ed. Robin Seager. 1972. Penguin Classics. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1983.
  18. Caesar. War Commentaries. Mentor Books. New York: New American Library, 1960.
  19. Seferis, George. On the Greek Style: Selected Essays in Poetry and Hellenism. Trans. with Th. D. Frangopoulos. London: The Bodley Head Ltd., 1966.
  20. Xenophon. A History of My Times (Hellenica). 1966. Ed. George Cawkwell. Penguin Classics. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1978.
  21. Plutarch. Moral Essays. Ed. P. A. Russell. Penguin Classics. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1971.

  22. Rex Warner: The Stories of the Greeks (1967)


  23. Men and Gods. 1950. Penguin Books 885. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1952.
  24. Greeks and Trojans. 1951. Penguin Books 942. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1953.
  25. Cavafy, C. P. Poems. Trans. John Mavrogordato. Introduction by Rex Warner. 1951. London: Chatto & Windus, 1974.
  26. The Stories of the Greeks: Men and Gods / Greeks and Trojans / The Vengeance of the Gods. 1951, 1953, 1955. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, Inc., 1967.
  27. The Greek Philosophers. 1958. A Mentor Book. New York: New American Library, 1963.

  28. Secondary:

  29. Stephen Ely Tabachnick: Fiercer Than Tigers: The Life and Work of Rex Warner. East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 2002.

Rex Warner: Men and Gods / Greeks and Trojans (1950-51)