One thing that could be said of the special Christmas 1930 edition of the literary review The Bookman is that it was sumptuous, and due to its inclusion of art paper, very physically if not intellectually, heavy. Always unashamedly middlebrow in character, a fact borne out by the lack a proper appreciation of D. H. Lawrence, who had died a few months earlier.In fact, the only critique of him focused almost solely on his character, where he is dismissed as a ‘puritan’, rather than the originality of his writings. While other more serious literary journals had given Lawrence the respect he deserved, and the Times had trashed him, the Bookman, devoted more room to reviews of adventure stories for children , modern novels of manners, travelogues and popular histories than it did for serious fiction and poetry. In many ways it was the sort of magazine read by those who took the Yorkshire Post, the Morning Post and the Daily Telegraph. It comes as no surprise that the last two newspapers took full page adverts puffing their book pages. It is indicative of the conservatism of the Yorkshire Post that Geoffrey Grigson, then a junior staffer there, had to exert great pressure on its London Editor to insert a brief notice on Lawrence, a writer of whom, Grigson remarks, his boss had probably never heard.
By December 1930, the recently married Grigson, then aged 25, was keen to supplement his exigent pay as a junior, and so in the year in which John Masefield had been appointed the successor to Robert Bridges as Poet Laureate, he chose The Bookman for an assessment of past Poet Laureates ( his Editor doesn’t seem to have minded this moonlighting). Perhaps another indication that he was keen to make his debut as a serious writer, rather than a hack, was the fact that around this time he placed an advert in the TLS asking if anyone who had material relating to the eighteenth century satirist ‘ Peter Pindar’ ( aka John Wolcot, to get in touch with him, as he was writing a biography. He had managed to obtain a Reader’s Card for the British Museum, perhaps to gain access to books by Wolcot. At this time, in his reviewing for the Yorkshire Post Grigson was gaining a reputation for debunking; as well as Wolcot’s biting satires , he enjoyed reading parodies and bad verse, and he had become addicted to the work of arch debunker Wyndham Lewis, who he later was to champion in print.
A short profile of the new Laureate had appeared in this Christmas issue along with an appreciation of other Laureates, including William Wordsworth and Robert Bridges, as well as an attack on one of the weakest, Alfred Austin, who Grigson mentions briefly and even decorously in his article as a purveyor of ‘ absurdities ‘.Grigson begins his piece by wishing Masefield well in his new post, remarking that he could never sink to the depths of some of his predecessors, three or four of whom were ‘ the worst poets who ever wormed their way into biographical dictionaries’, and who had produced ‘limping, leering, sycophantic dough-like lumps of verse ‘ .
However, in Grigson’s view the laureateship had begun well with Dryden ( who Grigson later promoted), but thereafter slowly sank into mediocrity, from which it barely recovered. Nicholas Rowe, ‘ a decent fellow of dignity and parts’ wrote odes on the king’s birthday and the New Year ‘ well enough ‘ ( talk about faint praise), but his successor Eusden deserved to be the butt of jokes by offering verse that compared George I to Julius Caesar and Moses . When he had tried to obtain a copy of Eusden’s complete verse from the British Museum, Grigson discovered that none could be found, which he felt was indicative of Eusden’s stature as a poet.
Grigson doesn’t have much good to say about any of Eusden’s successors as Laureates. If Colley Cibber was a good dramatist, his Odes were ‘ dreadful ‘, and although Whitehead wrote some ‘ readable ‘ poems, he struggled to say good things about the Georges, as did his successor Warton, who was a scholar who ‘ brayed out ‘ poems in the ‘ usual style’. As for the next Laureate, Henry J. Pye, the author of the ‘ excellent ‘ Universal Sportsman’s Dictionary, and other unpoetical works, it was he who got the salary of sack commuted to money. Grigson has nothing to say on the occasional bathos of Wordsworth or Southey, or indeed Tennyson, but instead returns to Pye for his conclusion:
‘ Pye above all, should be a warning to those misguided folk who still think that the laureateship should be something more than an honourable sinecure, and not a kind of poet’s O.M. for past rather than future services.’
Incidentally, Grigson never managed to bring out his biography of ‘Peter Pindar’, though in his often vitriolic attacks in New Verse in the thirties and in his many anthologies and book reviews, he continued to demonstrate his contempt for bad poets and bad poetry. Later, long after Masefield had died, he expressed his own views on the former Poet Laureate, who he described as a man with an ‘ordinary sensibility’ who imparted in a few lines out of many poems, and in a few adventure stories, a feeling that the wonderful might be just around the corner’. Nevertheless, in Grigson’s view, ‘in nearly all his verse, if he describes, his description is not an image of all actuality. The Paradise he experienced only dwindles, as a rule, into such words as wonder or beauty’. Given the importance Grigson attached to the precise value of the image in poetry this is perhaps the most damning verdict of all.
- M .Healey