Tuesday, 10 October 2017

Wounded Wings - The Poetry of Herbert Read (1893 - 1968)

Crossley Heath, a selective grammar school in Halifax, is not far from where I live, and overlooks Saville Park and much of the east of the Calder Valley.  Formed in 1985, as an amalgamation of two previous schools, its main building, whose slatey blue dome stands out on the landscape almost as dominantly as the nearby Wainhouse Tower, once housed the Crossley and Porter Orphan Home and School, among whose pupils was the poet, novelist and art critic Herbert Read.  

Born in North Yorkshire in 1893, Read, whose farmer father was described as an austere, inflexible man, who died in a hunting accident when Herbert was ten years old, was an influential figure in the Arts, a unique thinker, and a gifted writer.    As a poet, Read's traversed an eclectic spectrum of myth, Imagism, and fantasy, and believed that "true poetry is never speech, but always song."

Phoenic, bird of terrible pride,
ruddy eye and iron beak!
Come, leave the incinerary nest;
spread your red wings

And soaring in the golden light
survey the world;
hover against the highest sky;
menace men with your strange phenomena.

From Mutations of the Phoenix (1923)

Upon leaving school, Read worked - unhappily - for three years as a clerk, at the Skyrac and Morley Savings Bank on Bond Street, Leeds, my own home city.  I can picture Read, stifled by bureaucracy and oppressed by the daily drudgery of clerking life, spending his lunch breaks wandering disconsolately down Briggate, perhaps loitering in the library, or haunting, as he was known to do, the Art Gallery, where he formed friendships with the painter Jacob Kramer, and the gallery's curator Frank Rutter, who introduced him to the great works of European art. 


Eventually, Read began studying at Leeds University, and attended the city's Art Club, an avant-garde society that promoted liberal values.  With his ideological views largely shaped by his readings of Neitzsche, George Sorel, William Morris, and Kropotkin, Read soon established himself as an interesting counter-cultural voice in English writing, forging life-long friendships with poets such as Katheen Raine, who was to comment on his poetic development in a 1969 essay for the American journal Sewanee Review:

“Imagism was ... the first of several movements with which Herbert Read was to associate himself. From the regionalism which inspired his first and enduring poetic loyalty to Wordsworth he moved... into the American expatriate ethos which ... introduced into English letters that internationalism which changed, perhaps permanently, the course of its native current.”

The poetry of Herbert Read seems to me to emphasize a typically declinist, bleak vision of humanity, but one devoid of stringent morality, often outlining nihilistic scenarios in which past and future are blended, as in his poem September Fires, where a Doomsday scenario is given a Medieval backdrop, and told in a vocabulary hinting at its author's farmland roots:

Haulms burn
in distant fields.
Reluctantly the plumes of smoke
rise against a haze
of hills blue and clear
but featureless.

Our feet
crush the crinkled beech-leaves.
There is no other life than ours.
God is good to us this September evening
to give us a sun
and a world burning its dross.

Read's narrator apparently foresees the only future for humanity in somewhat Biblical, or perhaps post-Apocalyptic, terms:

we can expect no other fruit
until another year
brigs fire and fealty and the earth in barren stillness.

This tendency is further emphasized in the short but profound poem The Falcon and the Dove, where the predatory prowess of the former bird is depicted in brute violence against the complacent peacefulness of the latter - a playing out of the battle between Reason and Beauty (We have caught Beauty in a wild foray / And now the falcon is hooded and comforted away) in the form of an avian contest, where This high-caught hooded Reason broods upon my wrist, / Fettered by so tenuous a leash of steel, and where the inevitable is illustrated starkly, and with omissive description:

Over the laggard dove, inclining to green boscage
Hovers this intentional doom - til the unsullied sky recieves
A precipitation of shed feathers
And the swifter fall of wounded wings.

 Read served in the First World War, being  awarded the Military Cross (1917) and the DSO (1918), but was deeply disturbed by the experience.  For a time an avowed pacifist, his attitude would alter at the rise of Nazi Germany.  Believing Democracy worth defending, Read nevertheless encountered the mounting reality of World War Two with a strong sense of foreboding, as brilliantly evinced in his poem To A Conscript of 1940, where:

A soldier passed me in the freshly fallen snow,
His footsteps muffled, his face unearthly grey:
And my heart gave a sudden leap
As I gazed on a ghost of five-and-twenty years ago.

The poem takes the form thenceforth of a counsel given by its writer to the conscript:

`I am one of those who went before you
Five-and-twenty years ago: one of the many who never returned,
Of the many who returned and yet were dead.

We went where you are going, into the rain and the mud:
We fought as you will fight
With death and darkness and despair;
We gave what you will give-our brains and our blood.

Read then delivers his assessment on the achievements of his generation, the end results of their wartime sacrifice, in the following blisteringly hopeless verdict:

We think we gave in vain. The world was not renewed.
There was hope in the homestead and anger in the streets,
But the old world was restored and we returned
To the dreary field and workshop, and the immemorial feud

Of rich and poor. Our victory was our defeat.
Power was retained where power had been misused
And youth was left to sweep away
The ashes that the fires had strewn beneath our feet.

Scorning "heroes" and the "hollow victory" of the Old World, Read concludes:

But you my brother and my ghost, if you can go
Knowing that there is no reward, no certain use
In all your sacrifice, then honour is reprieved.

To fight without hope is to fight with grace,
The self reconstructed, the false heart repaired

As for so many of his generation, Read's life - and world view - was so moulded and defined by his First World War experience, that it is unsurprising to learn he searched in disparate directions for a sense of political direction.  Throwing in his lot with the Anarchist movement, he shocked many by accepting a Knighthood in 1953, admired Churchill, and ultimately came to identify ideologically with the Jungian and Existentialist schools of European thought.  As an older man, he joined sit-ins against the Vietnam War, opposed the machinations of the State, and addressed UNESCO on the subject of the Arts in education.  Read was a singular figure in British academia and writing; he was also a husband and father, and a man drawn back to his Yorkshire heritage , living out his later years in Stonegrave, and being buried in the same church where he had worshipped as a boy.  His poetry, when touching on the political, still retains an essence of the personal and poignant, such as his reflections on the death of Peter Kropotkin:

She said he had died in peace
and the eternal intelligence on his brow
had seemed like a light
in the dark unlit hut
And I imagined
steel-rimmed glasses on a side table
and eyes forever hidden.

and Read's prose works, mainly advancing his theories on Art and education, were widely praised for their positive encouragement of the transformational power of the Arts in learning.  
In 1943, he would write every child, is said to be a potential neurotic capable of being saved from this prospect, if early, largely inborn, creative abilities were not repressed by conventional Education. Everyone is an artist of some kind whose special abilities, even if almost insignificant, must be encouraged as contributing to an infinite richness of collective life, and nowhere is Read's flight from repression, in highly sensitized and imaginative style, expressed more exotically than in his 1935 novel The Green Child.

Inspired by a 12th Century legend, the novel tells of an encounter between the exiled dictator of a South American country, and a supernatural child, in a richly folkloric prose, at once deliciously naive, and endowed with deep thematic complexity.

Olivero began to feel faint, and sank to the ground. There he rested until 
he became accustomed to the atmosphere, the Green 
Child sitting by his side. When he had recovered, she 
told him that this was surely her native country, from 
which she and her brother had strayed thirty years ago. 

When they had rested there about an hour, they got 
up and made for that end of the grotto which seemed 
to admit light. The grotto gradually contracted, and the 
entrance, when they reached it, was not above four feet 
high. They proceeded in a crouching attitude and soon 
came out, but not into what we should call the open; 
for though the space that they now gazed into was 
much larger than that of the grotto they had left, never- 
theless a roof arched wide over them, higher and of 
greater span than the interior of any cathedral. The 
light in this space was still dim, like the summer twi-
light in England, but of a distinct greenish tinge. Olivero 
now perceived that it was emitted from the walls of the 
vast cavern, and must be of a phosphorescent nature. The 
rock itself was of a crystalline formation. 
At its finest, the writing of Herbert Read transports the reader into new dimensions 
of perception and thought, in poetry and prose simultaneously fantastical, 
and grounded in an sometimes cynical, often compassionate, reality. 
For me, his most memorable poems also evoke a pre-Lapsarian sense of enduring beauty 
and a faith in the creative spirit:

 The seven sleepers ere they left
the light and colour of the earth
the seven sleepers they did cry
(banishing their final fears) :

"Beauty will not ever fade.
To our cavern we retire
doomed to sleep ten thousand years.
Roll the rock across the gap.

Read once wrote that the characteristic political attitude of today is not one of positive belief, but of despair.  He might have been writing about our own times.  But in his passionate pursuit of education through creativity, his promotion of progressive ideas, and his own genre-defying, lyrical and thought provoking works, he might also be remembered for his observation that The worth of a civilisation is not valued in terms of its material wealth or military power, but by the quality and achievements of its representative individuals - its philosophers, its poets and artists.

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