Most Read... Rebecca WattsThe Cult of the Noble Amateur
(PN Review 239)
John McAuliffeBill Manhire in Conversation with John McAuliffe
(PN Review 259)
Patricia CraigVal Warner: A Reminiscence
(PN Review 259)
Eavan BolandA Lyric Voice at Bay
(PN Review 121)
Vahni CapildeoOn Judging Prizes, & Reading More than Six Really Good Books
(PN Review 237)
Tim Parksin conversation with Natalia Ginzburg
(PN Review 49)
Next Issue Gwyneth Lewis ‘Spiderings’ Ian Thomson ‘Fires were started: Tallinn, 1944’ Adrian May ‘Traditionalism and Tradition’ Judith Herzberg ‘Poems’ translated by Margitt Helbert Horatio Morpurgo ‘What is a Book?’
Poems Articles Interviews Reports Reviews Contributors
Reader Survey
PN Review Substack

This item is taken from PN Review 4, Volume 4 Number 4, July - September 1978.

Letters E. M. Valk, Eric Homberger, Richard Luckett, Clive Wilmer

Blake Morrison seems not to read all the words on a page. In his review of The Open University Twentieth Century Poetry Course) (PNR 3), he comments that I seem 'unaware of the Sidney poem' to which Larkin's 'Sad Steps' 'must surely be related'. This point is clearly made in a footnote on p. 41 of the Philip Larkin Unit.

                       Yours, etc.
The Open University, Milton Keynes ROGER DAY



Reviewing Harry Zohn's version of Karl Kraus's The Last Days of Mankind in PNR 3, C. J. Fox says that no 'extended translation' of the play had previously been 'accessible' to English-speaking readers. Such an 'extended translation', by Alexander Gode and Sue Ellen Wright, was in fact published in 1974 by Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., New York, with an introduction by Frederick Ungar, who attended readings by Kraus in Vienna, and a critical analysis by Franz H. Mautner, professor emeritus of German, Swarthmore College. The hardcover and paperback editions are still in print.

                   Yours, etc.
Exeter E. M. VALK



Miss Olwyn Hughes can defend herself; it is surprising that she asks the editor of PNR to do it for her: I am sorry about recounting rumours which she found offensive. I am glad that they are wholly unfounded. They should never have been printed. But Letters Home remains, in my opinion, a source to be treated with considerable caution. It was highly revealing that Mrs McCullough says that hurtful comments about Peter Davison were left in because Davison has said things about Plath which someone did not care for. This is not what I understand to be editing, but rather reminds me of vendetta

Val Warner's translations of Corbière, The Centenary Corbière, appeared in 1975. Her first full-length collection of poems, Under the Penthouse, will be followed by a new book, Before Lunch. tactics. The communications from Mrs McCullough to The Atlantic Monthly, and Miss Hughes's to the New York Review of Books in August and September of last year, serve to make at least one point quite clear: the 'doubts and suspicions' which I voiced in that review had been widely expressed in America-but not, at the time it was written, in England. It would have been more appropriate to indicate the precise way the letters were edited, and on what principles, in the volume itself.

                          Yours, etc.
University of East Anglia ERIC HOMBERGER



It is possible that some readers of Professor Alan Walker's 'Thinking about Musical History' (PNR 2) will not have known that Beethoven laid the foundations of his Viennese reputation by his superb playing of Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier, that he went to great lengths to obtain copies of Bach's works, that he was involved in an endeavour to publish a complete edition of Bach's instrumental compositions, and that he tried to raise money for Bach's only surviving daughter in her poverty-stricken last years. Yet, generous as was Beethoven's devotion to Bach, he admired both Mozart and Handel more. Late in life he confided to Cipriani Potter that he had always considered Mozart as the greatest composer, but that he had now come to regard Handel as greater. On his deathbed he pointed to Arnold's edition of Handel, saying: 'There is truth'.

It was also whilst Beethoven lay dying that he was given a print of Haydn's birthplace, a gesture that pleased him greatly, and caused him to remark: 'A wretched peasant's hut, in which so great a man was born!' It is hard to reconcile all this (and there is much more to add: Beethoven's knowledge of Mozart's piano concertos and his admiration of him as 'the master of us all' in that form; his reiterated homage to Handel) with Professor Walker's extraordinary assertion that Beethoven 'knew very little Bach, Haydn or Mozart'. It may be that he did not know as much Bach, Haydn and Mozart as he did Handel (significantly absent from Walker's list: perhaps the professor is cannier than he seems), because they had not received the benefit of a scholarly and complete edition, such as Arnold attempted for Handel. But he would undoubtedly have wished for such editions had they been available, though in the case of Mozart enough of the oeuvre was accessible for there to be no real need for one. In fact it is a safe assumption that Beethoven knew far more of Bach, Haydn and Mozart than Professor Walker supposes, and what he knew he knew with an intensity and insight at which we can only guess. Nor was the worship of the 'material' side of music alien to him, as his pleasure in the Haydn picture shows; and his reflections on Haydn's circumstances reveal that he was far from lacking an awareness of the social factors conditioning a composer's work. But a more sober commentator than Professor Walker would presumably have grasped that even the most extreme worship of the 'material' side of music is simply a form of bibliophilia or collector's mania, and has never, in its musical forms, approached the extravagancies of its literary manifestations. Again, a more sober commentator would have realized that Beethoven, living in a world that preserved many of the social features of Purcell's or Monteverdi's time, would have known on his pulses things that we today can only laboriously recreate; and that such recreation, at its best, is a form of art. For much of our knowledge of Beethoven's views on all the matters I have discussed we are indebted to Alexander W. Thayer (1817-97), an historian (or, if you prefer, a biographer: Emerson's distinction is quite irrelevant here) greatly interested in food bills, laundry-lists, weather conditions, and even the composition (or at least the complexion) of inks. He was concerned with these things because he was interested in the truth, and a hundred years ago no one considered him 'eccentric'. That vulgarity was reserved for this century.

'It is a fact', says Professor Walker, 'that "authentic" performances are strictly impossible: there are no longer any authentic listeners.' Unlike much else that he asserts this is true, if he means (as I take him to) that we cannot hear Messiah with the same expectations and the same backgrounds of experience, whether musical or personal, as those of the original Dublin audience, nor Pierrot Lunaire with the ears of that first audience in the Berlin Choralionsaal. But we can-and if we care for the composer's intentions we must-try to be aware of the states of mind, the fields of receptivity which the composer counted on when he made his work, and we shall need much help from the musical historians in order to do so. The experience as well as the innocence of the first audiences has vanished, and everything that has happened since necessarily intervenes; but this serves to make the act of informed imaginative attention imperative rather than futile. Yet it is not necessary to accept even this simple argument, vital to all the arts though it is, to realize that there is nothing arrogant in the claim that, all other things being equal, a performance which tries to recreate a contemporary sound will be superior to a performance that does not. Let us for a moment assume that all composers are our contemporaries, and let us also accept that an aspect of sound is the variety of tonal quality that our ears can perceive and differentiate (this is what I take Professor Walker's 'sonic surface' to mean). Then, for exactly the same reason that we do not perform Tippett's Second Piano Sonata on a Moog Synthesizer, we must strive to produce the sounds which any other composer has intended, even if this means mean-tone tunings, short-necked violins and three-keyed oboes. For this reason too, we will need not only ur-texts but also, quite likely, knowledge of the 'temperature of the glue used in old instruments'. The only way we can avoid this is by arguing that, because a given composer was not our contemporary, he would not have cared how his music sounded, nor would he have made assumptions about its tonal qualities; to argue this we would of course have to have a profound, even startling, knowledge of musical history. Needless to say, there are good and bad performances, but this is another matter; scholarship can be a cover for poor musicianship, as it can be for bad faith of any kind. Such evasions must be exposed, but their persistence is not an argument for another kind of dishonesty.

I await with interest Professor Walker's demonstration that the notion of 'music influencing music' is in any way incompatible with that of 'developing the language': such a demonstration is essential to his argument, since on the one hand 'the most potent influence on music is music', whilst on the other hand Bach, Mozart, Beethoven and Brahms 'had no idea of whether they were moving forwards, backwards or sideways across the face of history'. As a matter of fact all four expressed views on this, in words, as well as music; though Professor Walker, who is not interested in music history, naturally enough doesn't know it. If his interest in music had extended to Couperin, and he had tried to play Couperin from what was until recently the standard edition, he might have been mildly intrigued to find Brahms's name given as an editor. If his interest extended merely as far as Brahms he might have had occasion to pause for a moment when he encountered Brahms's ostentatious use of eighteenth-century forms and, what is more, themes. Since he himself is ignorant, he imagines composers in his own image, modelled after the mechanism of clocks, incapable of self-awareness or self-criticism-a view as solipsistic and philistine as it is disquieting.

I am baffled as to why PNR should have published such a piece. Everything that Professor Walker writes he might just as well have written about literature, but had he done so it is unlikely that his opinions would have commended themselves to the editors. There are, of course, essential differences between the arts, and music stands in a relationship to the intellect and emotions that is both nearer and farther than that of poetry, since its grammar, though related to both discourse and movement, is comparatively formalized and abstracted. Yet, for all its freedom from the quotidian, there are fundamental points of correspondence. To read a poem we need, first, a reputable text (which will have been established by a textual scholar who is also, of necessity, an historian), then beyond that, we need to know what the author intended his poem to mean. If we do not possess such knowledge (and we can never be in full certainty of such possession, but that is a condition of attending to art) we cannot justly criticize. Of course the mere fact that we pursue our reading of a poem, that we ponder it, depends on a kind of coup d'oeil of criticism, but this will be informed by our knowledge and experience of those things we have read before. There are critics who, engaged with a poem, feel no need of any conscious reference out, nor of any appeal to context. Such critics, if they are of any value, prove to be exceptionally endowed with an historical sense, to the point that they take their endowment for granted. The most remarkable modern instance is F. R. Leavis, whose assertion that 'the text, duly pondered, will yield its meaning and value to an adequate intelligence and sensibility', can only be understood in the light of some such qualification. Professor Walker's question, who thinks of Brahms's Third Symphony whilst listening to the Fourth?, is presumably founded on a similar refusal to acknowledge his own advantages-though I imply no comparison between Professor Walker's probable merits as a critic and the proven capacities of Dr Leavis. Our understanding of a composer's intentions depends on our sense of the direction his musical language takes, and erroneous dating (as with, say, Purcell's Trio Sonatas, where the last set, contrary to received opinion, antedates the first) can vitiate our listening by persuading us that the composer was striving for particular effects when these in fact made up the commonplaces of his dialect. We may feel we know the direction of Beethoven's language in his quartets, and we probably take our sense of this for granted. But only a sad lack of humility can cause us to presume that we have such knowledge in the case of an unfamiliar composer. We must learn, and to learn we need the facts. To turn even to Professor Walker's calculatedly absurd instance: it might not influence my understanding of either set of the 48 if I believed that the second had been composed first, but it would certainly influence my understanding of Bach.

It is, however, instructive to find that a Professor and a Chairman of a Music Department in a University can advance such views, for they seem symptomatic of a disease which we have yet fully to identify, let alone control. Had Professor Walker written a piece lamenting the fact that, rather than a flourishing musical profession, we now have a flourishing musical academic profession, I might have read it with sympathy. It is not just that there are in all probability researchers more interested in plate-numbers than in performances, and who do not see that the end of their work on plate-numbers has anything to do with performance (1): what we have created is a system in which the incentives for an intelligent musician to study plate-numbers may be greater than the incentives for him to perform, or to create. The intellectual shelter afforded by the academy is being buttressed by the state's discrimination against those who seek to earn their living in ways that affront the matrix of the eight-hour day and the tax-code. It is a situation which exists in literature just as it does in music, creating tensions apparent enough from a single issue of PNR.

But Professor Walker did not treat of this, which I take to be his real subject. Instead he appears to have chosen to elaborate the nescience into which, when faced by manifestations of the problem, he has retreated. If my reactions are violent it is because I have seldom seen a better proof of the way in which the modern academy can produce an active, as well as a passive, barbarism. I have tried to soften these reactions in setting them down, and there is one point I have refrained from discussing, since it assumes a false centrality in Professor Walker's outburst. This is his assertion that 'the language of music is a closed system'. For many reasons (amongst which are the statements by Stravinsky and Schoenburg, which do not seem to me at all to mean what Professor Walker understands by them) (2) I believe this to be untrue, but I can more easily express my sense of the matter by saying that I do not find the 'unfolding' of language differs, as Professor Walker uses the words, from the 'development' of music. The wise musical historian, like the wise critic, avoids the use of the word 'development', with all its Victorian evolutionary connotations, and both Romain Rolland and Peter Warlock have warned against its abuse. Everything that 'unfolds', by virtue of that fact, must have a history. We can, if we like, assert the independence of such history from other kinds of history, but this remains at best an assertion: there is another history embracing all kinds of history (but the wise historian, and the wise critic, does not invoke 'ontology'). Thus the future historian will have to record that in 1977 a Professor of Music was able to claim that music was wholly unconnected with anything else, that composers were in capable of reflecting on their art, and that all music was contemporaneous and stood apart from any historical sense that a listener might possess. In the face of such innocence, our historian may wonder, were fallen mortals suddenly overwhelmed with guilt? and did they feel envy at a man able to assert that 'experience of phenomena' is not changed by 'knowledge about phenomena'? Why in the 1970s should a teacher, in a magazine devoted to the practice and study of poetry, apparently allege that a sister art should be approached either through the unfeeling intellect or through the uninformed heart? Was it to show mere poets, involved with their art in their time, that tradition, and culture, were idle words, and the problem of relativism a philosopher's aberration? Perhaps, but even in an age of Icarus the suppression of the cognitive faculties seems a high cost to pay for such a freedom, and Professor Walker's preference for a doggy life more than a little wanton.

                        Yours, etc.
St Catherine's, Cambridge RICHARD LUCKETT



As one of the poets most vigorously reproved by Donald Davie in his review of Ten English Poets (PNR 3), I might be thought especially ill-qualified to meet his objections with any degree of impartiality. Nevertheless, there are in the review certain errors of fact regarding me and some of my friends, which need correction; and there are many matters of principle which Davie raises that go far beyond the anthology itself and should not be left unchallenged. Consequently, I shall refrain as far as possible from referring directly to specific poems and poets and shall concentrate on the theoretical basis of his strictures.

First of all, then, some matters of fact. Davie appears to suggest that some sort of Wintersian conspiracy originated at King's College, Cambridge, during the 1960s. While it is true that Dick Davis, Robert Wells, Michael Vince and I were all students there, none of us were exact contemporaries and such friendship as has persisted among us (together with any inevitable exchange of ideas and enthusiasms) has tended to develop since we graduated. (Vince and Davis, by the way, have only met on one occasion and do not even correspond.) It is therefore false to say that we were 'inoculated' by Winters's poetry at King's, though all of us admire it in varying degrees. (I must say that I resent the implication that there is something involuntary about my response to so great a poet.) Neither Vince nor Wells has ever attempted to follow Winters's teaching and all of us have been affected by poets who would have been anathema to him. This is especially so of Wells who, as far as I can see, has been significantly influenced by no poet later than the eighteenth century; to the best of my knowledge, Winters's criticism is unknown to him. So much for the facts.

Davie professes not to understand what Michael Schmidt means by the word 'prescriptive'. It seems to me that he concurred with Schmidt's objection in an earlier edition of PNR when, taking issue with Neil Powell-Winters again being the bone of contention-he wrote that 'to go all the way with Winters involves, as Powell makes clear, thinking Wordsworth an inferior poet. If Winters's scheme held good, Wordsworth could not have been a great poet. But he was ... ; my sensibility tells me so.' Precisely so. Davie's sensibility, a highly subjective phenomenon, tells him so and it is in permitting prejudice rather than sensibility to determine his judgements that he becomes, in the bad sense, prescriptive: the very fault that has forced him to part company with Winters who was, like Johnson, Ruskin and Arnold, nothing if not prescriptive, yet for that very reason (often heroically) wrong about many things; because value judgements, however necessary, must always be seen in a temporal context. In the same letter, Davie goes on to remind Powell that 'a quarter of a century is a long time'.

In his review, too, Davie draws our attention to the date-1976. I must confess that writing 'for our own time' is normally something I try as hard as possible not to consider. But I am bound to say I find it odd that I should be denounced at one moment for archaism and, at the next, for failing to obey prescriptions laid down in a Preface dated 1798! Nor do I understand why Robert Wells should be expected to acknowledge a critical act carried through in the second decade of this century as 'irreversible' if those carried through by Milton and Dryden were not. It seems to have escaped Davie's attention that what applied in 1798 or 1914 need not apply still-which is not to say that we should therefore forget it-and that, while it is reasonable and even courageous to be prescriptive about some issues (e.g. that the language of a poem should be appropriate to its contents), matters of diction are inevitably relative. Otherwise Davie could not admire Pope, whose diction is by implication damned in Wordsworth's Preface, or Wordsworth himself, who stands condemned in much of Pound. Pound and Wordsworth both issued manifestoes and began to publish verse in periods when, as it seemed to them (and most of us would agree with them), the language of verse had become insufferably decadent. Poets were confining themselves to a diction which they conceived of-if they thought about it at all-as proper to poetry and only to poetry; they had forgotten that the source of poetic language must inevitably be in 'the real language of men'. The argument is familiar, but, as Davie has so often shown us-and even shows us in this review when he mediates between Elizabeth Daryush and Neil Powell-the 'ordinary use of English' is necessarily 'slipshod' and the true poet labours to select (the term is Wordsworth's) his diction. Now, in whatever respect our age may be thought decadent, it is certainly not in the over-refinement of its language, literary or otherwise.

This is a point I shall pursue further but, first, it is worth re-considering for a moment the means by which Wordsworth and Pound achieved their undeniable freshness. No poet ever seemed more natural than Wordsworth; few have ever been more skilful in their deployment of conscious artifice. What, one may ask, is the Miltonic diction that occurs throughout The Prelude and The Excursion, if not poetic, literary and artificial? And what are all those sequences of deliberate archaisms doing in Pound's Cantos? In his recent book on Pound [in the Fontana Modern Masters Series] , Davie adopts much the same tone of mock amazement in the face of the 'Envoi' to Mauberley as he does in this review to a passage of Robert Wells's; but he goes on to praise Pound for his inventiveness while he comes close to ridiculing Wells. Why? In my case, it is interesting that the phrases he quotes from my own verse as intolerably archaic could conceivably be defended as everyday English, certainly as everyday written English. But he pays no attention to the one phrase in that passage which could not by any stretch of the imagination be regarded as of the twentieth century, the phrase 'his once-fair demesne'. Perhaps because the choice of archaism is so clearly purposeful and deliberate? For this, surely, is the root of Davie's error: he refuses to distinguish between the Patience Strongs of this world, who lapse into poeticism as soon as they think in metre, as if that were the only language proper to poetry, and poets for whom archaism is a matter of choice. Great poets like Winters and Pound select from the language of the past what is appropriate to their subject and its treatment. Davie asserts that archaisms such as those of Winters can never 'strike home to us as suffering beings in the here and now'. Has he never been moved, then, by Canto LXXXI with its great refrain of 'Pull down thy vanity'? I wonder when Davie last used the word 'thy' to his wife, his colleague or his friend. And surely the best of all Pound's critics has not failed to notice that Pound's 'vanity' has more in common with the usage in the Book of Ecclesiastes than in any ordinary contemporary use of it (as in, say, the phrase 'vanity-box'). Pound on a number of occasions exhorts us to Make It New-precisely because 'It' is not and never will be new, but must constantly be revived by every poet worthy the title. To make it new is an act of conscious artifice-which is why Pound so often sounds more like a contemporary of Thomas Wyatt's than one of Bernard Shaw's-and probably why, on the Caedmon recordings of Pound reading his own work, he does so in an accent that is neither American, nor English, nor Scottish, but something between them all, fashioned out of the air. It alludes to an inferred reality which no longer has substantial life and can only be recalled by means of artifice.

Let us go back to the year, 1976. We are not living in an age of aestheticism-fortunately-but the painter Burne-Jones's defence of it may still provoke thought. He wrote-I forget the exact words-that the more brutish and cruel his environment became, the more angels he would paint. Aestheticism-the pursuit of artifice at the expense of all else-can be a social act. Limited, no doubt, but none the less an act of protest. Coleridge, in his refutation of the Wordsworth Preface, reminded the reader that, as soon as a man sets down his thoughts in metre, he gives notice that, whatever words he uses, his language will differ from the ordinary language of men and that the difference will be the point. The translators of the Authorized Version kept as much as they could of the dated prose of Tyndale and Coverdale-presumably because they hoped by so doing, as men have always done, to confer upon sacred meanings the sanctity of age. Whenever we engage in moments of great but considered emotion, we are glad of the holiness that archaism confers. So it may be, though not invariably, with poetry.

But there is a further difference. Wordsworth, in selecting from 'the real language of men', was able to draw upon a specific dialect enriched by an exceptional intimacy between man and his environment. To this he superadded the majestic Latinisms of Milton and the more homely dignity of the folk ballad. One might compare Dante's virtual creation of modern Italian out of somewhat different circumstances. We, though, live in an age marked not only by what Davie calls the depletion of our landscape but, perhaps more brutally and indelibly, by that of our language. The Wordsworthian equation is simply not available to us. I must now speak for myself alone. Nothing is more tragic to me personally than the fact that my own 'dialect'-the classless speech of the rootless intellectual-has no relationship with any sort of environment at all. So what is this 'real language' that Davie would have me draw upon? That of The Times or the Sun? Of the mid-Atlantic 'communicator'? Of the urban working class? Or of the old school-tie élite? And what is ordinary language anyway? The diction of the admirable poem by Neil Powell that Davie quotes differs from most of mine in that it is not archaic at any point, but I cannot imagine that that is how Powell actually speaks and I know that it is nothing like his written prose. So I fail to see to what I must refer if I am to discover a 'real language' that is available to the poet.

I cannot speak for any of the other contributors to the anthology or for its editor. But I do know that, when I wrote the poems that were selected for it, I was seeking, however vainly, to re-awaken in the reader some sense of the human loyalties latent in words that, thankfully, he is still able to understand. What finally baffles me most of all is the fact that the criticisms I have felt the need to rebut are the considered judgements of the author of Purity of Diction in English Verse, a man who has also written two full-length studies of Ezra Pound. For, surely, in at least half of this letter, I am preaching to the converted.

                Yours, etc.

  1. Even so, it remains true-and this is greatly embarrassing to Professor Walker's arguments-that we need the textual scholars, the ink and watermark experts who are essential if a 'right' note is in fact to be a right note, even if we do not need a Leichtentritt or a Lang or an Adorno.

  2. Stravinsky, in the Poetics of Music, went so far as to quote with approval Verdi's advice: 'Let us return to old times and that will be progress', and this must surely embarrass Professor Walker's position in yet another way.

This item is taken from PN Review 4, Volume 4 Number 4, July - September 1978.

Readers are asked to send a note of any misprints or mistakes that they spot in this item to
Searching, please wait... animated waiting image