An Outline of English Literature (General Adult Literature) by G. C. Thornley, Gwyneth Roberts

By G. C. Thornley, Gwyneth Roberts

A survey of the English prose, poetry and drama of serious Britain and eire from earliest occasions to the Eighties.

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Poetry, he writes, like a river ‘flows south / From ranches of isolation and the busy griefs, / Raw towns that we believe and die in’. Unmistakably, this was not a poem written in Europe, where an American word like ‘ranches’ or a phrase like ‘Raw towns’ would have seemed, literally, out of place. In modern poetry, profound ideological changes are manifested in perturbations of diction, rhythm and form as much as in new kinds of content. In the ensuing months Auden’s writing consistently invoked non-‘English,’ non‘traditional’ poetic techniques.

S. 4 And yet, in spite of this globalising reality, nationalist exceptionalism continued to flourish in politics and art. Auden sombrely noted in his 1939 elegy for Yeats that ‘In the nightmare of the dark / . . the living nations wait, / Each sequestered in its hate’ (EA, p. 243). In the United States, Auden began to explore the consequences of the belief that a new kind of world demanded a new kind of poem. In Auden’s time, just as much as in Virgil’s, every poet aspiring to major status needed a profound historical gesture.

The Auden born in York in 1907 was not magically reborn in New York in 1939. To live in New York was not to live in a world where he had no reputation and so could be completely anonymous. Most of his writing to date had already been published there, and his fame in US literary circles was well established. To see the English-speaking poetic world as a single, transnational system does not imply the identity of all its parts. The intellectual and cultural atmosphere in New York was different enough to unleash a new burst of energy.

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