1930s Diatribe against wage slavery

The recent Jot reproducing manifestos from The Idler that celebrate freedom from the corporatist world remind me of a wonderfully invocatory collection of poems from Kenneth Muir called The Nettle and the Flower, which came out in 1933. Muir, then just 26, had, just a few years before, graduated from St Edmund Hall, Oxford, where Geoffrey Grigson was his senior by two years. I seem to recall that Muir, being a rather serious-minded student, took against Grigson ostensibly because he performed a prank in which he dressed up as a ghost. But it is more likely that the freshman of solid Labour convictions felt contempt for anyone of a privileged background (though Grigson, who attended a very minor public school, was hardly in this category) who had broken the General Strike of 1926. Grigson was one of many at the University who helped unload ships at Hull docks.

Anyway, The Nettle and the Flower, though rather unfocussed politically, certainly reflected Muir’s equal hatred of the Stalinist view of conveyor-belt drudgery as something noble that contributed to the power of the worker-state, and exploitative Big Business. This is from a Poem to William MacCance:

…The Unemployed shall teach us the dignity of Leisure.
Scurrying rabbitwise, we fear the leisure which the great arms
Of the machines have offered us for a generation. We fear
bored degeneration, without the servitude of toil:
but soon those despised ones will begin to smile
at those who are not blessed with their disadvantages.

That man with his rock-garden, cucumbers and prize carrots;
this one, with his fretwork, the homemade Radio which gets Moscow;
these with their soiled library tickets, their discussion groups;
young Folk Dancers whirling to an ancient tune reborn;
this one who makes gay rugs; this bug-hunter;
‘King Lear’ in the Parish Hall, applauded frantically.

The boy in the one-eyed attic lost in ‘Hyperion’,
The campers, the part singers, the quartet playing Mozart:
these waste-products, these cast offs of our civilisation
are the heralds, the pioneers of the new age of Leisure:
these to whom we offer Charity---this stone that Big Business
rejected, has become the headstone in the corner…

In addition to the strong echoes of Auden and Day Lewis, The Nettle and the Flower contains a number of allusions to the Bard, and indeed Muir went on to become one of the greatest Shakespeare scholars of the twentieth century. He remained solidly Labour to the end. [RMH]

*Portrait of Kenneth Muir by Andrew Ratcliffe  (Liverpool University Collection - with thanks)

One thought on “1930s Diatribe against wage slavery

  1. Roger Allen

    What would Messrs. Cameron and Osborne, with their beliefs in the virtues of "hard-working families" and that the out-of-work should spend at least thirty hours a week looking for work make of Professsor Muir's early views?
    Next time I'm in the BL or the Poetry Library I'll look for this book.


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