28 APRIL 1939, Page 36


IN this book Mr. Bronowski puts forward a theory of poetry as religion. He takes his stand upon Sidney's Virtue and Wordsworth's Nature against Shelley's view of poetry as social function. "I defend poetry," he says, "because I think it tells the truth. . . . I believe there is a truth which is free of the society within which it has been found . . . an absolute truth, which I think is the truth of poetry." Because poets have lost sight of this ideal truth, he contends, the worth of poe,try has steadily declined. This view leads Mr. Bronowski into serious difficulties, especially as he tells us that he has tried to write criticism as reasoned as geometry. But it is only asking for trouble to attempt to defend such an ideal concept as "truth beyond the near-truths of science and society" with the methods of science. Mr. Bronowski is aware of this contradiction, and remarks with an engaging frankness that he is a materialist in politics, science and social life, that, indeed, "we cannot think of ideals until we are fed "; but that we should nevertheless regard ideals and social living as two different fields. This leads him to the conclusion that since poetry is an expression of ideal living, it should have nothing to do with our actual living. What, then, should it have to do with?

Again Mr. Bronowski is in difficulties. For he has to admit that as soon as an ideal is put into practice it becomes social living. Unfortunately, however, this is only to vulgarise it, even if we go no further than embodying our ideal in poetry. "Sidney sees that the written poem is always something of a travesty of its ideal, because it is written through the senses." But as poetry cannot be written or read, or even conceived, in any other way, are we to conclude that the greatest poets are those who have nursed the purity of their ideal in com- plete silence? The Renaissance was an age of action, and Sidney held that the ideal flashes over living in the moments

of greatest living. But "the moments of great living al-, social moments : and then Sidney's ideal of Virtue is abused when it is brought into social life." For then it becomes di( Roman virtue, or the medieval conception of chivalry, which gave rise to William Blake's angry comment in the margin of Bacon's Essays: "What do these knaves mean by virtue? Do they mean war and its horrors, and its heroic villains) " Poets have always believed—and there could scarcely be any. poetry without this belief—that there is a peculiar virtue in the passions and intense living for its own sake. All the splendour of Elizabethan extravagance is founded on that belief, and Wordsworth's theory of poetry also, right down to W. B. Yeats. The poet, Wordsworth tells us, is "a man pleased with his own passions and volitions, and who rejoiced more than other men in the spirit of life that is in him." Such a definition does not, on the face of it, apply to the poetry of Mr. Eliot or Mr. Auden. Poets today have grown ashamed of themselves, and rightly, because they are deficient in this very inward spirit of life. The author of The Waste Land is certainly not pleased with his own passions and volitions. But Mr. Eliot pursues an ideal truth whereas Yeats, who was pleased with his own passions, was content to remain "a foolish, passionate man." Mr. Bronowski censures Yeats for having made poetry and living one, seeing in this the last anti- poetic faith. Once more this emphasises the self-destructive contradiction that runs through Mr. Bronowski's view of poetry. "Yeats," he tells us, "is a poet great enough to stand against poetry." But if poetry teaches us anything, it is that there is no one truth : there are as many different truths as there are different ways of living. PHTLIP HENDERSON.