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PN Review 276
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This item is taken from PN Review 2, Volume 4 Number 2, January - March 1978.

Donald Davie Editorial
IF THERE are any new readers of PNR reading this, I wonder where we found them. Or rather I wonder where they found us. It wasn't in their local bookshop or bookstall, that's for sure. For the very few booksellers who used to stock Poetry Nation have all refused to take Poetry Nation Review. And why is this? Is it because, largely by accident as a matter of fact, our first issue chose to be dispassionate about a couple of notoriously right-wing figures, Percy Wyndham Lewis and Charles Maurras? Of course not! If we'd treated with comparable seriousness some left-wing figures (as in due course I hope we shall-Edgell Rickword, for instance, to counter-balance Wyndham Lewis), the reaction would have been just the same: 'I'm sorry, there's just no demand. . .' It's the level of seriousness that is the inexcusable thing, not at all the topics that we choose to be serious about. What cannot be forgiven us is that we appear to think there is a British public-that is to say, a section of the British electorate-for which the furthest reach of mental exertion about national affairs is not watching drooping-eyed Harold Macmillan interviewed by Robin Day, or runny-eyed Harold Wilson talking to David Frost. The actual or potential existence of such a public is what neither booksellers nor party managers can dare to admit; because such a public would no longer take seriously the Westminster charade of Tweedledum Callaghan and Tweedle-dee Thatcher-and in that case what would happen to the bookshops' and bookstalls' stock-in-trade, those Crossman and Cecil King Diaries, those Home and Macmillan and Wilson Memoirs, those Daily Telegraphs and Daily Heralds, those New Statesmans and Spectators, all of which work on the assumption that Westminster isn't a charade but a momentous drama?

This is dangerous talk of course. The history of the interwar years shows us all too clearly where we end up once we begin talking about parliamentary democracy as a 'charade'. But that isn't what I am saying. Parliamentary democracy has in the past, and could again, present us with figures of a different calibre from-quite simply, with more personal weight and presence than-Thatcher and Heath, Callaghan and Wilson and Healey. I am repeating only the time-honoured truism that parliamentary democracy can work only if we presume the existence of an educated electorate. And we do not have such an electorate at the moment, but one that is at best half-educated, more or less consciously and willingly bamboozled and led by the nose. Our current leaders' are those that a half-educated electorate might be expected to elect; and their staying at the top in either or any party depends upon the electorate never being more educated than it is at present. PNR on the other hand, like any other responsible journal at the present time, must have as a main objective the bringing into being of an electorate that shall once again be educated. I say 'once again', for I can remember a time, not many years ago, when for instance the London Magazine-not, heaven knows, an intellectually very exacting journal, nor one with any specifically political pretensions-was to be found on railway bookstalls, where for many years now it is not to be found at all, not even in London. The process of uneducating the electorate, feeding them with nothing but predigested pap and trivia, has been evident no doubt for nearly a century, but the process has speeded up very notably in the last twenty years-the years, of course, of TV.

For the moment PNR is proceeding on the assumption that the sort of education that the electorate most lacks and most needs is an education in the nation's history. Hence Charles Sisson's essay in PNR 1 on Toryism, and mine in the same issue on the English nonconformist churches. No conscious policy decision was made; if Sisson and I approach politics by way of history, that is because of a bent and doubtless a conditioning that we happen to share. Perhaps it is not after all the bent that is most helpful and relevant; there are plenty of voices that will tell us it isn't, and if any such voice chooses to sound off in PNR, we'll be glad to hand over the megaphone for as long as is needful. But until we are forced out of our predispositions by superior information or weight of argument, we shall no doubt continue on the assumption that nothing so bedevils and constricts our current thinking about British politics as drastically short historical perspectives, and tendentiously selective and distorted readings of the historical record. This is a very old-fashioned assumption indeed, and one that was laughed out of court in the Harold Wilson/Ted Heath era. But now that we can see what their image of the computer-feeding, lab-coated technician has brought us to-to the point where we are a lame duck and a laughing-stock in the eyes of other nations-the historian's pietas may be worth another whirl after all. Poetry NATION is what we are called: and 'Nation', I suppose, is there to take care of our pietas, which at the present juncture of our national affairs cannot take any other form than bitter humiliation-bitterness at having been humiliated on the international scene, not once but many times. What 'Nation' emphatically does not mean therefore is any sentimental or resentful 'Little Englandism', any refusal to know about, to imagine, or to take note of the figure that we cut in the eyes of foreigners. Quite the contrary; as Michael Schmidt drove home in PNR 1, when he insisted on comparing our conduct of our intellectual affairs with the way these things are handled in Latin America. We hope and intend that there will be a great deal more of this, and that Octavio Paz will not be the last distinguished foreign commentator whom we shall be privileged to print. The matter is of considerable moment, I'm afraid: because it now seems indisputable that a previous attempt to make literary and poetic intelligence tell in the national life outside of literature-and I mean the effort sustained over many decades by F. R. Leavis-has run to ground in a Little-England chauvinism which is pitifully self-enclosed and self-regarding. The pertinacity of Leavis's endeavour is a heroic example we shall try to emulate even as we (no less gratefully) try to learn from his mistakes.

Another embattled and relentless figure of roughly the same vintage is one that has been brought on to our pages by contributors rather than by editors. And so much the better, of course. This is the late Yvor Winters. Not only do Dick Davis and Neil Powell explicitly discuss Winters in the present issue, but I think I detect his authority and his presence by implication in other essays and reviews. This has happened before. Winters even in his lifetime enjoyed a better press over here than in his native U.S.A., rather surprisingly, since he never visited these shores, and in his assessment of nineteenth-century poetry he conspicuously slighted the British performance in favour of the American. In fact he was as staunchly an American patriot as Leavis is an English one, and for his pains Winters got treated even more shabbily by his compatriots than Leavis has been by his. What Winters did for us-for us even more than for his fellow-Americans-was, as Neil Powell says, to make available, as masters for us writing today, some of our own Renaissance poets whom we had too hastily shelved in college libraries, and labelled as 'of scholarly and antiquarian interest'. Shameful, that we had to wait for an American to make us aware of this part of our own English heritage? Well, yes: though the shamefulness hardly counts, compared with the shames we have lately endured, and must now endure, from quite different causes. Meanwhile, in Dick Davis's poetry but also in the poetry of others, we see-not before time, but better late than never-the active virtues of that body of our own past poetry which, had it not been for Winters, we should perhaps never have thought of turning to, for guidance about how we ought to write today.

And is it not here, precisely, that the 'Poetry' in our title comes together with the 'Nation'? Our poetry can be rejuvenated from taking a feelingful, rather than just well-informed, interest in certain luminous precedents from our own past. If this is true of the dimension of our national past which we call 'poetic', may it not be equally true of that dimension which we call 'political'? It is in that faith or that hope, surely, that Sisson wrote his essay on Toryism, and I mine on Nonconformity. Indeed, who ever told us that, when we look at our national past, the dimension that we call 'poetic' is poles apart from the one we call 'political'? Harold Wilson didn't tell us that, nor did Ted Heath. They didn't need to: because it has been an unquestioned, unargued assumption of British political life, if not since Jeremy Bentham, then since Walter Bagehot. It is an assumption, thus long unquestioned, that PNR is vowed to question: and it's because of that vow that Heath vs. Wilson, Thatcher vs. Callaghan, cannot appear for us except as Tweedledum vs. Tweedledee. Since both the major parties at Westminster-and incidentally all the others there represented-base themselves on philistine assumptions that we regard as highly questionable, how can we respond to them except with the highly unsatisfactory though Shakespearean exclamation: 'A plague o' both your houses'? We think we represent the England of Fulke Greville as well as the England of Shakespeare, the Dissenters' England of Isaac Watts as well as the Romish England of Alexander Pope and the Anglican England of Jonathan Swift, the would-be republican England of Walter Savage Landor as well as the monarchical England of Alfred Tennyson. We will not be satisfied with any political programme that pretends-either explicitly, or in the rhetoric that it indulges in-that any one of these various Englands (and there are others) does not exist. Shall we be told that we are Utopian? But this so various England exists, it is in being; not a Utopia at all, but precisely the multifarious reality that our politicians claim to take account of, and to legislate for. When the actions of any one of them matches with his protestations, we shall support him (or her).

Donald Davie's The Poet in the Imaginary Museum: Essays of Two Decades, will appear in 1977, as well as a new collection, In the Stopping Train and Other Poems.

This item is taken from PN Review 2, Volume 4 Number 2, January - March 1978.

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