The Cult of Sincerity
APART from the extended essays on Shelley and Byron, In Defence of Shelley, written in 1936 to defend Shelley against Mr. Eliot, and Byron published in 1951 as a supplement to British Book News, and the two lectures, Coleridge as Critic and Wordstivorth's Philosophical Faith, the main body of Mr. Read's book is devoted to a discussion of the nature and evolution of organic form. Its main propositions were outlined more than twenty years ago in an essay Form in Modern Poetry, but the material presented here was originally prepared for a seminar at Princetown University in 1951.
Mr. Read begins with a discussion of the philosophical basis of romanticism as formulated by Schelling and Coleridge, and he prints Schelling's " key text," Concerning the Relation of the Plastic Arts to Nature, as an appendix. This leads to the isolation of organic form as the specifically romantic principle, resting on " one of the most fundamental distinctions 'known to philosophy—variously expressed as the distinction between essence and existence, universals and particulars, natura naturans and natura naturata." Organic form according to this definition represents the principle of life and ' growth, as opposed to the classical principle, which tends to academic- ism, clichés and rigid patterns. Mr. Read notes the tendency of all forms of life to seek new and more flexible organisations of their constituent elements. Thus symmetry in biology and physics repre- sents a point of rest and, biologically speaking, of death. These matters, which have now become the concern of the latest develop- ments in philosophy and logic, were, he shows, present as basic intuitions in the work of the poets and philosophers at the beginning of the Romantic movement. There can be no compromise, in Mr. Read's view, between the two basic conceptions—" the classical conception of art as artifice or play, and the romantic conception of art as increasingly acute awareness of the nature of experience, of ... art as the cult of sincerity."
This cult of sincerity is at the root of Mr. Read's conception of organic form, which finds expression in " a fluid diction, following ... the contour of the poet's emotions, responding to the inflections of his inner voice (the silent but fluctuating stream of consciousness)." For it is in rhythm that we feel the pulse of the poet's thought, and sincerity reveals itself in an increasing rejection of the generalised and poetical in favour of the colloquial and the direct. This reform in modern poetry, the adoption of" the language of men," began with Wordsworth, but it has taken a century and a half to expend its force ; indeed during the greater part of this time the Victorians returned to an artificial poetic diction, and its impact is not felt again till we come to the Imagist and " free-verse" movement at the beginning of the present century. Free verse, however, was written long before T. E. Hulme, Ezra Pound and Mr. Eliot, and Mr. Read equates it with the form taken by all great poetry at its moments of greatest intensity, from the last soliloquy of Marlowe's Faustus to the Four Quartets.
Where the emotional temperature is lower, poets tend to keep to more regular measures. As Mr. Eliot has remarked, we cannot expect to have poetry all the time. Indeed he tells us that in The Cocktail Party " the test of strict dramatic utility has excluded poetry:" Mr. Read rightly regards this adaptation of poetic drama to the standards of Shaftesbury Avenue and Broadway as a dan- gerous precedent, and pertinently remarks : " Shakespeare's ground- lings could scale Parnassus, to throw their caps in the air : must ours be fed on a thin diet of imperceptible verse ? " He thinks that there may be more sense in Pound's "shock therapy" for our atrophied sensibility, though he is careful not to commit himself on the poetry of The Cantos, except to say that much of it is incoherent and that "all great poetry, as Keats realised, is born of a certain modesty and simplicity of heart," qualities in which Pound is notably deficient.
With such a book as Mr. Read's one can do little more, in a short review, than attempt to indicate its main conclusions. Mr. Read's criticism is always acutely ,sensitive, courageous and profound, and his book must surely be one of the most important statements on poetry in our time. But, with its knotted, strenuous thought, it is not one to be undertaken lightly.
Mr. Graham Hough, on the other hand, does not think that the term " romantic " is worth using except as a chronological label. It is a relief to find that he is not going to discuss Coleridge's doctrine of the imagination • he confines himself to the observation that" we can see in it the beginning of a split between the poet and the man of the world that was unknown to the eighteenth century and that has grown steadily more acute till our own day." Not for him Schelling's "realm of essence." The chapter on Wordsworth and Coleridge is, nevertheless, the best in the book. Here, one feels, Mr. Hough is writing of poetry he enjoys far more than that of Shelley or Keats—perhaps because Wordsworth " has his feet on the ground far more firmly than any other poet of his age." Both the prefaces to the Lyrical Ballads and the Biographia Literaria come in for some acute criticism, and altogether Mr. Hough's book is singularly refreshing with its vivacity and good sense. Much of what he has to say has necessarily been said before, but it can seldom have been said so well, and his judgements have an epigrammatic clarity. It, would be difficult to find a better introduction to this