23 JUNE 1973, Page 20

Critical classic

Robert Nye

Guide to Modern World Literature Martin Seymour-Smith (Wolfe £10.00) Case Number One. Name: Seemore. Crime; Extreme. The line occurs in a poem by Martin Seymour-Smith, 'The Execution,' which you. will find in his collection Tea With Miss Stockport (Abelard-Schuman, 1963). Readers as yet unpractised in the complex ironies of Mr Seymour-Smith's mind may decide too early in his Guide to Modern World Literature that his crime is extreme indeed. Here is one man writing not just descriptively but in sharp critical evaluation of hundreds of writers from all over the world. There are thirty-three sections, ranging alphabetically from African and Albanian Literatures to western minor and then Yugoslav Literature. Dozens of countries and cultures are covered in the course of its 1,200-odd pages. The scope extends, in fact, and ambitiously, to " writers of all nationalities who survived 31 December 1899." There have been such books before, but they have usually been called concise encyclopedias or whatever and assembled by a number of hands. Pithy, brilliant, occasionally gratuitously unpleasant — e.g. "one senses [Charles] Williams hanging masturbatorily over his nasty, midcult images of evil " — the fascination of this Guide is that one man should in the first place presume to range over such a vast field, and in the second place report on his findings with such confidence. I see' that Kay Dick in the Times has already scolded Mr Seymour-Smith as

"nothing if not omnipotent-minded." Yet perhaps she means only omniscient? The name is Seemore, after all.

And also Smith. The virtues of the book are plain. For any who have been following his literary progress from the time of that Fantasy Press pamphlet (Number Ten, 1952), it will be sufficient to say that those virtues are the merits of his poems — intelligent, witty, sophisticated but informed by deep feeling, poems such as 'The Northern Monster' and ' The Rosy Captain' should be better known as among the more authentic written in English in the last two decades.

As in the verse, there is little sense of skimming, or of cutting graceful figures over the ice — at least in those areas where this reviewer can claim acquaintance with the works discussed. (A publisher's hand-out refers attention to Mr Seymour-Smith's skill as a linguist, but I am still wondering if he is one of the "fewer than half a Million people" who can read Dun Karm, for example, in the original Maltese, a language "with affinities with Tunisian Arabic, ancient Phoenician and Sicilian," or whether like the rest of us he had to rely upon A. J. Arberry's translations.) Again as in the poems, Mr Seymour-Smith concerns himself crucially with the mystery of the imagination, though there is nothing mystical or pretentious about his concern and he is if anything over-fastidious to the point of having an obsession with finding sexual motives for experiences conveniently designated ' religious.'

What matters in a volume such as this Guide, however, is the verve and vivacity, the pervasive nerve of the enterprise, and in my opinion this is where Mr Seymour-Smith does well. The energy of the writing hardly flags, author after author is characterised in terms which a student may easily grasp, but which will also satisfy readers wanting something more than teachers usually say. The general drift of the concepts employed is given in the introduction. Broadly, Mr Seymour-Smith has drawn two useful categories from Schiller's Uber naive und sentimentalische Dichtung (1795), that of the naive and the sentimentive, and he applies these illuminatingly to the twentieth century writers he has to discuss, being thus enabled to appreciate talents as different as those of Sherwood Anderson and Thomas Mann. Beyond categories, it may also be claimed, he attaches the greatest importance to those writers who cannot truly be classified as either naive or sentimentive, and whose works are neither raw dreams nor cunningly cooked meals of the conscious mind. "What is needed — we have had it in Rilke, Vallejo and some others — is the real dream; the meaning of the dream in terms of its own original, unknown, mysterious day-haunting images." Day-haunting images Is a fine definition of the blend of inspiration and control which Mr Seymour-Smith appears to value above all else, especially as this is to be found in English in the poems of Laura Riding. The emphasis placed upon this poet's Collected Poems (1938) is vital. A good residing in the truthful use of language is here extolled, as well as some sympathetic account given of Laura Riding's subsequent rejection of poemwriting as an inadequate means of truth-telling. In this section directly, and by further references throughout, Mr Seymour-Smith himself appraises poetry for a quality of seriousness which puts thought and feeling to an ultimate test, and this in turn amounts to a general appreciation of poetry which. although properly sceptical might be considered religious in that it treats language as a power in which belief may be placed, and which requires standards of exactness and abandon from its adherents.

Such high opinions — it is probably too much to call them beliefs — could unfortunately be the reason why Mr Seymour-Smith can sometimes quite obviously seem less than fair to writers who have reported on this own experience of an ultimate value residing out with language — I am thinking of his treat ment of Mauriac, Claudel, and Eliot in parti cular. It is one thing to insist that the early

Eliot of Prufrock and The Waste Land is pre

ferable to the decorative and Parnassian Eliot

of Four Quartets. It is another to try and

write him off as though you were passing judgement in a divorce court: "Eliot is a minor poet: he cannot write and love; he lacks real sympathy, or empathy; he is frigid. . ." Certainly there is a lot of piffling literary commentary on the later Eliot which needs to be forsotten, and one function of a book such as this may be to redress balances, but it is difficult to distinguish discrimination from prejudice in Mr Seymour-Smith's argu ment (' Eliot's poetry after his conversion to the Anglican religion becomes empty '); and as for saying that E. M. Forster "put his fin ger on the reasons for this conversion" in 1929, how can Mr Seymour-Smith know so much of the human soul that he can assure us that Forster's fingers were in the right place? M 'it happens, the reader may notice by certain queer spots of diction that Mr Sey mour-Smith gets stung by a bug in religious areas. In talking of the ' decadent ' writers of the 'nineties, for instance, he speaks of how several of them 'died incense-sniffing Catholics.' One sees (or smells) the point. The addiction sneer is valid. Or is it? How can Mr Seymour-Smith presume to judge the sincerity of the souls of Ernest Dowson, Lionel Johnson, or Paul Verlaine? And if he could, and is right in attributing weakness to them, would it not hae been more critically responsible to have used a less supercilious phrase?

It would be wrong to end on a curmudgeonly note, though. A major attraction of the Guide is the respect and attention which it pays to a number of writers who have not yet been given their due: George Moore, Ford Madox Ford, Wyndham Lewis, Malcolm Lowry, Hart Crane, C. H. Sisson, Jacques Audiberti, among others. The priorities are right, and the right poems by minor poets are singled out — e.g. Dowson's ' Spleen,' which is indeed excellent. The strictures upon Auden and Dylan Thomas and Pound, while not in accord with anything being fashionably chattered about those poets, refer us like the praise of Laura Riding to a seriousness which English poetry has always had and always looked like losing if there were not poetcritics like Mr Seymour-Smith to give it house room. The blurb mentions Dr Johnson, who also saw more and whose crime in his Lives of the Poets was extreme in a comparably splendid manner. I expect that prejudices, spots, sheers and all, this book will become a critical classic before we have too much more modern world literature to be going on with.

Robert Nye is a novelist and poet, who has recently edited a selection of work by Fulhe Greville.