‘The sewer of this vile book’ : one man’s rage against a poetry anthology.

Paths of Glory poems 001

Today, a hundred years on, most historians find it difficult to justify the carnage that was the Great War. Back in 1919, many were morally divided on the issue. One man who saw the fight against German brutality as a wholly justified, glorious crusade, was the poet and playwright Henry Newman Howard (1861 – 1929). On reading The Paths of Glory, an anthology of anti-war poetry, he sent a scathing letter to its pacifist editor, Bertram Lloyd. A typewritten copy of this letter was recently found, tucked in with a batch of press cuttings relating to the offending book, in a copy of it , which may have been Lloyd’s own, that ended up the library of Maria Assumpta College, Kensington and was subsequently de-accessioned into the secondhand book trade.

Here in full is Howard’s letter to Lloyd:

29 Jan 1919

25, Charlbury Road,

Oxford.

Sir,

Your’ anthology ‘of War Poems is a crime. I grieve that the publishing house fathered by noble John Ruskin should be Sponsors to this execrable publication. Never again will I purchase a book bearing the stamp fouled by the guilt of this sinister booklet. Other books there are one recalls as foul things. Il Principe, possibly John Davidson’s Testament; Nietzsche—these last, like the German Empire, died mad of their guilty thoughts. Your book, garbage from end to end—if not in the individual poems, assuredly in their bringing together—carries the sickly unction of a spurious humanitarianism.

                         Germany leaps unprovoked at the throat of civilisation; drives non-combatants in front as live shields for her butchers, ravishes whole convents of girl children, dismembers them—I speak only of things vouched to me first hand, --planning thus to get all earth under her savage heel, submissive under pain of like ferocity for all time. England, though decadent, finds her manhood; singing “Are we downhearted? No “. She goes forth to agony for the world’s salvation. Her maimed dead and bereaved count by the tens of millions. Deliberately, she takes up the cross of Christ for the world’s saving. The agony of it is in the nerves and fibres of the whole race; the hope of selfish gain was and is nowhere.

                         These are the years and the deeds your book defiles as wanton war, waged for its glamour, egged on by the old at the cost of the young, smugly engineered by arm chair heroes; the deed of England one wit the deed of Germany.

                         Damned souls have fouled their wives and offspring with slander. defaming innocence; to your book it is reserved to spit obloquy on your motherland in her greatest agony, her most glorious immolation.

                         Your defence will be in the unworthiness of a few: old women of both sexes, hedonists of things bloodthirsty not suffered in their own person; boys here and their pardonably in revolt at their cruel lot. My own airman-son and nurse-daughter, and we who have talked with hundreds of the maimed fighters, know that this was false to the main current as, to the vast pure ocean, the sewer that enters here and there. That the sewer soul has mingled occasionally with the nation’s great spirit might have warranted a few such poems among others of the spirit of Rupert Brooke’s sublime sonnets, the noble impassioned verses of Kipling, Cosic’s great poem, and Mrs Meynell, or Hamilton King’s chant. But not one of the noble sort enters. Thus placed together, lines separately unknown, join the main sewer of the vile book.

That you will repent or atone I have not the smallest hope. Your deed is done. To hell with you: no, for you are already there, among the basest of earth.

                                       Yours sincerely,

                                         (signed) Newman Howard

At this point it should be mentioned that Howard was a chartered accountant by trade who had published several volumes of verse and some plays, to no great acclaim. In these productions he seems to have betrayed an infantile interest in celebrating Arthurian legend, medieval romance, Norse sagas and the like. Some idea of the quality of his work in this idiom may be obtained from the following extract:

Wit ye well

A giant is bellowing!

Take to thy heels, thou brave Sir King

Ride! Hide!

Belike he is following:

Knights are his caudle, and fattened to flay


Eftsoons the woful echoes die—

The birds are merry again, I ween

Braver knight there is none than I:

Creep on thy belly the boughs between…


Doubtless this may explain Howard’s attachment to the notion of ‘noble ‘deeds done in the same of honour etc. And although his contemporary Herbert Palmer, also wrote on these themes, it is impossible to imagine the latter, steeped as he was, not only in English, but also in French and German literature, launching such a bombastic attack on an anthology of poetry. In comparison with Howard, Lloyd, by training a naturalist, and a socialist and pacifist with a broad interest in the arts, was also a scholar of German literature. This breadth of sympathy for all victims of war informs both his introduction to the anthology and his choice of poetry, which naturally contains no Brooke or Kipling. It is interesting to compare his lucid prose style here with that of Howard, whose pomposities and archaisms ( ‘sickly unction’, ‘damned souls’, ‘defaming innocence’, ‘vile sewer’ etc ) together with an often clumsy syntax , echo his limited reading, poor literacy, and childish obsession with archaic and mythical worlds in which ‘ noble ‘ acts of violence were celebrated.


Moreover it seems, that Howard was swimming against the tide of sympathy for the nobility of war that perhaps had existed in 1914, but which had been entirely extinguished by 1919, as the many enthusiastic reviews that greeted the publication of The Paths of Glory testify. [R.R.]

Email this to someoneShare on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on Google+Pin on PinterestShare on TumblrShare on RedditShare on StumbleUpon

4 thoughts on “‘The sewer of this vile book’ : one man’s rage against a poetry anthology.

  1. James

    Interesting to see Davidson’s Testament referenced – do you think he was referring to a particular one, or to the series as a whole? Anyone know if this reaction to the Testament series was widespread?

    Reply
  2. Jot 101 Post author

    Thanks James– yes I was quite surprised to see John Davidson lumped in with Machiavelli and Nietzsche…not sure how much of a stir it did cause..

    Reply
  3. James

    It seems that Davidson’s materialist atheism was probably the primary cause of offence to Howard as the author of the ‘Christian trilogy’ of blank verse tragedies (which were, at least according to Wikipedia, “critically praised”). In this respect, Davidson also seems to have earned the wrath of The Academy under Lord Alfred Douglas’s editorship. The following ‘review’, which has a vituperative character almost on a par with the letter you cite, appeared five months prior to Davidson’s suicide:
    “Considering The Testament of John Davidson in all its ghastly and bumptious enormity, we for our part fail to comprehend how it comes to pass that in a Christian country it should be possible for a person who considers himself a poet to be writing at his leisure such dangerous and stupid twaddle on a pension which is paid to him quarterly out of the Treasury of a Nonconformist Government… The King is the Defender of the Faith, and we consider that it is against public policy and decency that Mr Davidson should be allowed to huckster offensive atheism from a booth subsidised out of the State purse.”

    Reply
  4. Jot 101 Post author

    Thanks James. I thought it was something like that. Lord Alfred Douglas is no surprise, the review may have been written by him – it has his ‘Mr Angry’ tone…

    Reply

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.