Edgell Rickword: Modernist or Marxist?

Edgell Rickword: Modernist or Marxist?

Laurence Coupe

Stand, 22, 3 (Summer 1981), pp.38-43

Note: This is a slightly revised version of the original review-article.


Essays and Opinions 1921-31, Carcanet

Literature in Society: Essays and Opinions 1931-78, Carcanet

Behind the Eyes: Collected Poems and Translations, Carcanet


There are two Edgell Rickwords. There is what we might call the ‘Pelican Guide’ Edgell Rickword, the man who edited the magazine that inspired Scrutiny and ‘Eng. Lit.’ as we know it — The Calendar of Modern Letters — but who came to nothing after making the mistake of taking Marx seriously. Now, at last, thanks to Carcanet, we can see the other Edgell Rickword: a leading poet and critic of the twenties whose political development was in keeping with the character and talent of the man; the Marxism complements the Modernism.

Rickword’s preoccupation has always been the need to assert and explore the rich potential of the individual mind, as something threatened by the sterile anxieties of our age — or, as Alan Young puts it in his introduction to the first volume of essays, ‘the struggle in art and in society between the free intellect and the dead convention’. It is because the individual matters that society must be changed.

Born in Colchester in 1898, Rickword received a conventional grammar-school education, was con¬verted early to socialism, and fought in the First World War (receiving the Military Cross). He briefly read French at Oxford (leaving after four terms because the course stopped before Baudelaire), began reviewing for the Times Literary Supplement and the New Statesman, wrote the first critical study in English of the poet Rimbaud (1924), and edited The Calendar of Modern Letters (1925-27). Having produced three important volumes of verse (1925, 1928, 1931) he joined the Communist Party and worked for Left Review in the thirties, completing the decade with a seminal Marxist study of Milton. He helped edit the journal Our Time throughout the Second World War, and has since been undertaking a complete revaluation of the English radical tradition.

Rickword’s early writings emerge from the aftermath of war. Having lain ‘in sodden trenches’ alongside his fellow soldiers

and loved them for the stubbornness that clings
longest to laughter when Death’s pulleys creak

he is appalled to see them now ride

… silent on the train
to old-man stools; or sell gay-coloured socks
and listen fearfully for Death …

And in his prose too he resists the post-war vacuity, calling for a new sense of the individual that, as it gained mythological breadth and depth, would facilitate a new social cohesion: called for a Hero, in other words:

A Hero would seem to be due, an exhaustively disillusioned Hero (we could not put up with another new creed) who has yet so much vitality that his thoughts seize all sorts of analogies between apparently unrelated objects and so create an unbiased but self-consistent, humorous universe for himself …

and so for us. The poems, dedicated to this figure, are a protest against, not our ‘dissociation of sensibility’ as understood by Rickword’s contemporary, T. S. Eliot, but our alienation as understood by Karl Marx:

and the I retreating down familiar paths
rears its defence against the terrible sun and in its figurative way rebuilds the altar and brothel of legitimate state
adjacent, with mean fanes darkening our streets.

Rickword, says Jack Lindsay, depicts the capitalist city as ‘hell itself objectified on earth in loneliness amidst crowds, frustration amidst expansion’.(1) So we read:

Deprived of freedom in time, space and love
they seek enfranchisement in the air beyond
the city’s silent rows of gnawing roofs,
expecting joy within the mouth of doom …


In 1925, Rickword outlines his plans for a complete ‘Re-creation of Poetry’. Tired of the ‘social queasiness’ that inhibits him from expressing what he calls the ‘negative’ emotions — a significant part of himself, that is — he asks what has become of the ‘fact of personality’ and the transformation of this material into art. The briskness of tone here, the scientific deliberateness – ‘fact’ – is as clearly tactical as Eliot’s comparison of poetic composition to a chemical reaction (see his essay ‘Tradition and the Individual Talent’), but with a different end in view. Rickword is adopting the language of 19th century positivism in order to facilitate a Modernist, anti-positivist, poetic. But the immediate enemy is the inheritance of 19th century poetry itself:

An effect of the triumph of the romantic movement in the last century has been to separate the poet from the subjects which abound in ordinary social life and particularly from those emotions engendered by the clash of personality and the hostility of circumstances.

Thus, Rickword’s theory is clearly at odds with that of Eliot, who speaks of the extinction of personality, continual self-sacrifice. That said, they have more in common than their choice of vocabulary suggests: the refusal to reduce literature to mere self-expression. Having conceded that affinity, however, we must note Rickword’s resistance against the full severity of Eliot’s formulation of ‘impersonality’. Hence we find him making a plea for a process analogous to the dramatic catharsis:

A poem must, at some point or another, release, enable to flow back to the level of active life, the emotions caught up from life and pent in the aesthetic reservoir. Otherwise the poem is an artifice, a wax effigy in a glass case, a curiosity.

It is a critical commonplace that Eliot’s poetry, despite his own early protestations, was always highly personal and idiosyncratic, sustained by a characteristically neurotic energy – which is not to say that he did not find what he elsewhere called an ‘objective correlative’ appropriate to the particular emotion he wished to

Rickword gets it right in his own review of Eliot’s Collected Poems, again in 1925. We are impressed, he says, on the one hand by ‘the urgency of the personality’ which comes close to breaking through ‘the aesthetic fabric’, and on the other by ‘the technique which spins that fabric’:

for it is by his struggle with technique that Mr. Eliot has been able to get closer than any other poet to the physiology of our sensations (a poet does not speak merely for himself) to explore and make palpable the more intimate distresses of a generation for whom all the romantic escapes had been blocked.

That parenthetical aphorism is Rickword’s own guiding principle: ‘a poet does not speak merely for himself’. And when he came to reject Eliot, it was because of the latter’s increasing disregard for that responsibility to his generation which was at least implicit in the very ideal of ‘impersonality’. In the pages of Eliot’s own journal The Criterion, which offered hospitality to a variety of right-wing Christian thinkers, Rickword saw ‘impersonality’ become ‘orthodoxy’, individual talent weighed down by scholastic tradition, while the criticism itself became rhetoric – the rhetoric of reaction, elitism, contempt.

Contempt is a ‘negative emotion’ associated with the name of Jonathan Swift, to whom Rickword points as a master of the sort of poetry required today. But he is quite clear, in a separate and later essay on Swift, that this contempt is at the service of a larger, more generous emotion and endeavour:

… it is not some inherent, ineradicable beastliness in individual men and women, as the bourgeois critics prefer to see it, which is the object of his magnificent fury, but the irresponsibility of man towards man which results when every item of personal worth has been translated into ‘exchange value’.

Rickword ‘re-creates’ Swift’s invective in his own poetry, for example, his ‘Hints for Making a Gentleman’:

Let library shelves sustain from reach
the facts experience may teach;
and Swift and Schopenhauer be banned
past grasp of most inquiring hand;
such pessimists are all suspect
for they may teach him to correct
the blind insurgent ego-lust
that goads this paladin of dust
and gives him in his rage for pelf
rule of all creatures but himself.

In his prose ‘Apology for Yahoos’ (written for The Calendar) Rickword offers an ironically anthropological account – Gulliver having written ‘before the observation of primitive races had been developed into a science’ – of modern society’s faith in ‘Love’’ and ‘Law’. These principles he sees as derived from its obsession with ‘Luxury’, the process of ‘eliminating the physical reminders of their animal origin’.

Rickword’s regard for Swift may seem excessively high. Would he not have done better to look to Pope for guidance, as possessing the greater balance, the finer humanity? This is a wide debate, not to be settled here. What we can say is that Swift demonstrated for Rickword the possibilities of a political, anti-capitalist poetry. In this emphasis, he anticipates the revaluation of tradition suggested, much later, by the scholar-critic F. W. Bateson:

It is time Swift’s status as a poet was reconsidered. Although his verse is uneven and often slipshod, at his best he seems to me to be one of the great English poets. I prefer him to Pope. Pope is a supreme talker in verse, endlessly vivacious and amusing, but it is difficult to take him or his opinions very seriously … Swift, on the other hand, though he restricted himself to light verse, is fundamentally one of the world’s most serious poets.(2)


Before he came to Swift, or re-asserted the ‘negative emotions’, Rickword discovered, independently of Eliot, the Metaphysicals. In his own verse, he is particularly close to Donne – and a long way from Eliot. Here is his witty celebration of the interplay between mind and matter, imagination and reality, drawing on an ingenious religious conceit, as articulated in the opening lines of ‘To the Sun and Another Dancer’:

The sun that lightened the first Easter Day
traced in the arc of his familiar way
the choreography of Resurrection,
which works on our world now, the true reflection
whereby the sun-foot dancer draws the dead
out of the sepulchre of formless dread;
and as the sun still seems to our slow wit
to attend on us when we derive from it
all vital qualities, these verses show
no revelation you did not bestow.

Rickword, at his best, effects a Modernist transformation of Donne’s Metaphysical grammar. Roy Fuller was right to remind us that ‘one would miss the full flavour of a couplet like the following if one hadn’t in mind the then current discussions about the essentially random nature of the motion of particles’.(3) Here it is:

Dawn is a miracle each night debates,
which faith may prophesy but luck dictates

We need only add that the reference does not, of course, explain the freshness of the language.

Seventeenth century Metaphysicals (English), eighteenth century satirists (English) … and now we come to nineteenth century Symbolists (French). Rickword’s desire to keep the past alive in the present, for the future, was as keen as Eliot’s. But where Eliot began identifying himself with Charles Baudelaire, and in particular with his sense of sin (‘Baudelaire was man enough for damnation’), Rickword was increasingly convinced of the genius of a later poet, an extreme ‘Symbolist’, Arthur Rimbaud. Few people in 1924 were concern¬ing themselves with that adolescent genius when Rickword produced his critical study, Rimbaud: The Boy and the Poet (extracts are included in the first volume of essays, the translations are in Behind the Eyes); now, of course, his reputation is secure, though as challenging as ever.

What is remarkable about the book in retrospect is that though, as one might expect from an exploratory volume, it dwells on Rimbaud’s precocious ‘Messianism’ (since taken up to his disadvantage), there is strong emphasis on the poet’s social awareness and on his political concerns (the cause of the Paris Commune in particular). Enid Starkie’s apparently exhaustive account of the poet’s career, written fourteen years later, insufficiently documents Rimbaud’s absorption in the utopian socialism of his day.

It is not possible to illustrate neatly the part played by his adopted genius in the formation of Rickword’s style: you can spot more easily his influence on Hart Crane, whom Rickword evidently converted to Rimbaud. What is important is to recognise a general determination to rescue language and thought from the mercilessly platitudinous logic that we are taught to call ‘common sense’, and which ultimately denies life:

… and women grown
too docile under habits not their own;
bright incarnations damned to trivial calls
like shirted angels nailed to bedroom walls;
and all tense lives subdued to what they seem,
shed their coarse husks and, naked in Time’s stream,
stand up unsullied out of the sun’s beam.

It was Rimbaud’s radical contempt for ‘dead convention’, artistic or social, which Rickword found congenial, and which Eliot may have found ‘heretical’.

For, though Rickword was the first critic to praise or even understand Eliot, he was also a fierce opponent of that tendency to reaction which revealed itself in the pages of the latter’s journal The Criterion: Eliot’s praise for Mosley, Pound’s advocacy of Mussolini, general Bloomsbury snobbery and, as already mentioned, right-wing theological debates. Too all of this Rickword meant The Calendar to be an antidote. Throughout his journal’s duration he was a socialist – giving his wholehearted support to the general strike of 1926 – and by the following decade he was a committed communist.

It is possible to see Rickword’s Marxism as some¬thing extraneous, perverse even: an abandonment of artistic integrity, something to be apologised for. This would be unfair. The Calendar had been a literary magazine with a political emphasis; Left Review was a political magazine that encouraged progressive literature. In his essay ‘Culture, Progress, and the English Tradition’, Rickword reminds us that the politically active writers of the thirties are only following the example set by Milton, Swift, Words¬worth … and he might have added Cobbett and Hazlitt (there are studies of all five included in Literature and Society). Not that Rickword’s Marxism is a vulgar, sterile application of economic theory to artistic practice. He castigates Philip Henderson for just that:

Society was feudal, it became bourgeois, it is going to be socialist – so much he knows; but of the interplay of the classes, the dialectical relationship between them, which is the law of humanity in motion, he realises nothing, or at any rate, does not apply it to the subject matter in front of him.

Nor is he indulgent of those ‘public- school’ Marxists who put his critical successor F. R. Leavis off Marxism, pointing out ill¬-considered language in Auden’s ‘Spain’ — ‘the flat ephemeral pamphlet and the boring meeting’; and his own poem on the Spanish civil war, ‘To the Wife of a Non-interventionist Statesman’, urgent and serious, contrasts favourably with Auden’s aloof weariness:

From small beginnings mighty ends,
from calling rebel general friends,
from being taught in public schools
to think the common people fools,
Spain bleeds, and England wildly gambles
to bribe the butcher in the shambles …
Five hundred dead at ten a second
is the world record so far reckoned;
a hundred children in one street,
their little hands and guts and feet,
like offal round a butcher’s stall
scattered where they were playing ball …

Yet on the whole it is the early Auden — socially responsible Modernism — that comes closest to Rickword’s ideal. Thus he complains, as the younger writer goes into retreat:

Auden is too good a poet to fall back into the simple exploration of individuality, after having originated a poetry of the social type along the lines of which there are so many fertile experiments to be made.


Rickword’s criticism in the thirties is as immediately concerned with contemporary creation as that in the twenties. Yet he himself, apart from the poem on Spain, produced no more verse for thirty-odd years. It would be misleading, I think, to see his renunciation of poetic speech as evidence of a disillusionment with either art or life. ‘A poet’, Rickword had said, ‘does not speak merely for himself’: it is not helpful to say, with the finality of jargon, that the Modernist poet became the Marxist functionary, any more than to say of Rimbaud that the Faustian genius became the mere gun¬runner’. As Michael Schmidt remarks of Rickword’s development:

Some of his critics believe that Marxism was responsible for his giving up poetry. And yet, without the development of his social conscience, his poetry would hardly have attained the commitment, range, and power that it did, before he moved beyond it.(4)

To assume the primacy of poetic praxis over political is to surrender to the empty idealism that Rickword has consistently opposed: an idealism that would ultimately prefer art to life, spirit to matter, idea to action, word to deed. However much we may regret the loss to English poetry involved in his decision, we must surely admire the struggle of a committed individual for integrity, totality, and against alienation, to which an ostensibly divided career — poet, critic, polemicist — bears ironic witness.



1 Jack Lindsay, After the Thirties, London, 1956, p.23

2 F. W. Bateson, English Poetry: A Critical Introduction, London, 1950, p.123

3 Roy Fuller, Professors and Gods, London, 1973, p.36

4 Michael Schmidt, Fifty Modern British Poets, London, 1979, p.187