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Readers are asked to send a note of any misprints or mistakes that they spot in this item to editor@pnreview.co.uk

This item is taken from PN Review 6, Volume 5 Number 2, January - March 1979.

Editorial
That is not to say that there will not be directions, violences of opinion even-which one hopes, however, will be sufficiently tempered by a sense of reality not to lead anyone beyond the wisdom of-Article XXXVII of the Articles of Religion, commonly known as the Thirty-Nine Articles. That article contains an extraordinarily judicious and well-rooted statement which should not be allowed to remain hidden in the back of the Prayer Book, in an age which is for ever talking about violence, and pleading the pros and cons of its use in political fields home and away.

'It is lawful for Christian men', the article says, 'at the commandment of the Magistrate, to wear weapons, and serve in the wars.' It is a balance which is repeatedly lost by contemporary disputants on the subject. First, in opposition to those who argue cases of conscience around the mere idea of the state laying a strong hand on anybody, it asserts merely that it is lawful for the magistrate to do exactly that. What the subject is to do is left to his conscience. The implication is, of course, that civil society cannot exist without such sanctions, or, more simply, that none does, in spite of visionaries, who none the less have their place in the world. Secondly, no countenance is given to any private person, who thinks that, because of some political ambition, or internal crisis of conscience, he is entitled to encourage violence. These are simplicities which are often forgotten, but which should be considered by anyone before he entertains us with revolutionary schemes or the support of rebels, or so much as talks of these matters as if what is at issue is merely one force pitted against another. The legitimate force of an established civil society ought to have, in all our minds, a standing unquestionably superior to that of any disturber of the Queen's peace. If such language sounds extreme, that is merely a measure of the liquescence of our society. Many pretend to enjoy this state of affairs, but few are willing to face the consequences of an eventual lack of safety of life and limb, or of the most modest personal possessions, or of a lack of facility in our lawful avocations and ultimately the loss of the very notion of lawful avocations. Somewhere in every civil society, there must always be those who, however little we like to think about it, are grappling corps-à-corps with those who will stop at nothing to destroy some element of it.

Like so many restatements of historically long-lived doctrines which are now unpopular, this is merely a reminder that the world is not as anyone would like it to be, but as it is; and that the minds, even of the nicest people, are not as nice as owners of the minds think. There is now, in relation to the basic principles of politics, exactly the kind of occlusion of the intellect which occurred, in relation to sexual matters, in the nineteenth century. The 'frankness' of our age is, after all, only another form of un-informed popular morality, no less contemptible than that of other ages. It is too facile for anyone who wants to employ even a modicum of reason, and to show even a little openness to evidence.

A literary magazine which takes its orientation from the processes which operate in great literature-and in particular great poetry-has a special reason for not settling for either the forms or the silences of prejudice, in politics or in other matters. The mind has to admit itself, because that is how poetry is written. Poetry is not what we want to write, but what we do write with the marks of authenticity which justify it. The popular Marxist who knows where he is going, as a matter of theory, and the bad versifier, who knows what he should praise and blame, and how the poem should look, before he has written it, are equally pretending to know what they do not know. They are vain voices, in a world too full of such chatter. The mind which will not be shut up is a rarer phenomenon than is usually supposed. It often escapes people that not being shut up means being open to listen to all that is said, much more than merely opening our mouths to say the little we ourselves have to contribute.

A passion for poetry, in any depth and in any width, involves learning more than speaking-learning, in the sense of acquainting oneself with the varieties of thought and feeling which our tradition has produced over the course of its history. It is well to know, before one becomes too ecstatic about the marvels of the modern stage, how little has been added to comic technique since Plautus; two thousand years and here we are. Or that the political penetration of our poets of public affairs is not profound, beside that of Dante. One could go on. But since, however it chooses to view itself at a particular moment, the mind, as to its form and content, is largely an historical phenomenon, an acquaintance with the best writing of the past is not irrelevant to our perception of the world we view now. Indeed, some inkling of the similarities, and the differences, between the more capacious minds of one age and another, is essential to even the most rudimentary finding of our way among the confusions of the time. The fashion which has sought to discredit humane studies, as if they did nothing to prepare people for the great interlocking world of professional and administrative responsibilities on which the safety and prosperity of the res publica depend, comes from mere ignorance, not only of what literature is about, but of how the affairs of the human race are conducted, of the nature of human thoughts and turns of expression. For the writer, for the poet, a wilful ignorance of the past is suicidal. Hundreds of young men and women, encouraged to do what is called 'expressing themselves' to the point when the Arts Council will subsidize their public readings, may think otherwise, but for their productions some other word than 'poetry' ought to be found.

The modest part this magazine can play, in keeping, not so much flags flying as lamps burning, is not much. But it is something; within the limits of our resources we do the best we can. If we are overwhelmingly concerned with contemporary literature, it is against the background of the past, and as part of a process of continually testing the insights of the past against our own-and our own against the insights of the past, recognizing that almost all that is written now must shortly fall into its proper insignificance. There is a particular appositeness about our publishing in PNR 5-and we were honoured to publish-the essay on Dante by one of the most distinguished poets of the Europe of the twentieth century, Eugenio Montale. Not only does this give us a perspective on to the living scene of 1300-because seen through eyes more than usually alive; it enables us to catch a little of the angle of vision of a contemporary Italian mind of great depth and sensitivity. For part of the function of a literate mind is to understand the separations effected by languages and cultures, the extent to which we have to work, and to keep our ears open, to know even a little of how our neighbours feel. The cant phrases of politics, repeated round the world, cannot give us anything like a living acquaintance with the minds operating in other countries and languages. To throw light on a German author of such depth as Gottfried Benn, whose works have on the whole been presented in this country with inadequate sympathy, is to contribute to our grasp of what used to be called the European mind, which is still there, not necessarily the worse for having been profoundly shaken.

A certain insistence on ways of thinking other than our own, and outside the realm of the most widely diffused Anglo-Saxon sentiment of the moment, is part of the duty of any serious literary magazine at this time. North Americanism, while one does not want to exclude it, can easily have too much space, both because the relative accessibility, in a language, which is a version of our own, makes any exceptional effort on our part unnecessary, and because North America is dependent on the same European sources as we are ourselves. One certainly does not wish to exclude oriental and other cultures, but there the problem is their relative in accessibility, so that we can generally pick off much less than the literatures have to offer, because the growth is from other roots. At any rate, no more distant forays can be made an excuse for our letting the threads of European thought slip through our hands.

What we are seeking is merely to remove dogmatic and ideological barriers to the flow of energy to the brain. The way must be opened up to the past, to foreign cultures and in particular European cultures, if we are to operate to the best of our abilities in our own territory. We are not interested in the poetry of brainlessness, now almost universally practised in Anglo-Saxondom. This does not mean that we are interested in verse written by a process of ratiocination or academic parti pris. Far from it. It means that we think that a poet should use his brains, as well as his other faculties, and should not regard himself as excused by (what has become) the soppy title of poet. He should study to the full whatever he has an aptitude for, and if his studies are greatly restricted the mind which informs his poetry is likely also to be a narrow one. For the poet a great deal of reading, a great deal of work, goes to the making of a small and very indirect result. Intellectual openness is important for the filling of the cisterns from which poetry may pour (or drip) and certainly has a bearing on the quality of the work produced. The open mind will sometimes emit sentiments which are unfashionable and un-popular, but it is a terrible intellectual servitude to restrict oneself to the most acceptable whims of the moment.

The English are, at present, mercifully free from the duty which appears to weigh upon Scotch, Irish and Welsh of talking as if they were themselves. Deliberate literary nationalisms-deliberate nationalisms of any kind-are a diversion and restriction of energy. Hugh MacDiarmid is an example of something different. Not only has his mind been open to an uncommon variety of influences, from a variety of quarters, but having made a success of a curious version of his local speech, he abandoned it altogether for the English required by his wider later subject-matter. And so it will be, with any serious writer. The openness to foreign influences, so far from causing the drying up of the genuine native spring, helps it to flow. Moreover, a culture defines itself by contacts with other cultures, just as it is by moving about the world that a man begins to have some inkling as to what sort of man he is.

If our advance is unprogrammed, it is because at the centre of our concern is the poet, who by definition cannot help writing as he does, and who is the prototype and unacknowledged legislator of everyone who, if he happens to be English, will one day wake up and find himself in England.
-C. H. SISSON

This item is taken from PN Review 6, Volume 5 Number 2, January - March 1979.



Readers are asked to send a note of any misprints or mistakes that they spot in this item to editor@pnreview.co.uk
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