Aoiffe Walsh, Royal Holloway, University of London
3rd July 2020
‘It was as if the filthy modern tide were wetting my heels as I scrambled to safety.’
In 1932 Paul Nash questioned whether it was possible to ‘go modern’ and still ‘be British.’ As a painter of often abstract landscapes, inspired by his upbringing in rural Buckinghamshire, Nash contemplated the stability of British historical values in the face of modernity, claiming that ‘the battle lines [had] been drawn up: internationalism versus an indigenous culture; renovation versus conservatism; the industrial versus the pastoral; the function versus the futile.’ This sentiment gestured towards two types of Britishness: the identity sprung from British cultural history concerned with ‘traditional rural life’, and that which absorbs and welcomes the pace, products and advancements of modernity.
In order to examine the problems and potential for synthesis between the historic and the modern in Britain I will consider the literary theory of the Cambridge Surrealist group. In particular, neo-romantic poet and sometimes reluctant Surrealist Kathleen Raine offered a particular insight into this modernist tension. Her three-part autobiography published in 1975 provided a particular assessment of modernity. As a retrospective adversary of modernist culture at the heart of a network that shaped the 1930s British modernist aesthetic, Raine not only offered lived experience of modernist’s sometimes contradictory nature but she confronts our tendency to crystalize historical figures within a fixed set of ideas or beliefs. Recognizing this changeable intellectual character can help illustrate the often complex makeup of British literary modernism.
Raine was an active member of the Experiment group, a cohort of bright Cambridge undergraduate students whose members (for example Jennings, Sykes Davies, Empson, and Trevelyan) went on to comprise the British faction of the Surrealist movement. Surrealism in Britain may have contributed to Raine’s concept of modernity as a tide, washing over Britain from its place of origin across the Channel. The 1936 London International Surrealist Exhibition is often considered as the inaugural moment of British Surrealism and, although works from the late 1920s indicate earlier British Surrealist activity, this still situates the movement several years after the Bretonian French one. In the publication the Surrealist Exhibition produced, the contributing British Surrealists were quick to defend their belated claim to Surrealism, with Sykes Davies asserting that ‘the Surrealists in England, [had] not heard a message from France in a cloud of fire’ but rather that Surrealism was ‘historically handed down… by the culture unto which we were born.’ Here Sykes Davies, ex-husband to Raine, was addressing the same question of compatibility that Raine and Nash did of British modernity. Sykes Davies claimed that Surrealism was a cultural continuation of the ‘native tradition’ of British art and literature; entwined with the British roots that signified for Raine true eternal poetic activity. If we suppose that Surrealism in Britain was ‘the natural and inevitable product of historical forces’, and not an expression of the modernist tidal rupture that Raine posits, the question of its ‘modernness’ in this context still remains. If Surrealism belongs to a particular political, ideological and literary British cultural tradition, can it simultaneously still bear the mark of modernity? And, rendered as ‘British’ in the 1930s, can the French intent for Surrealism as a means to untether cultural activity from the confines of consciousness remain intact without being split across the ‘battle lines’ of Britishness and modernity?
In her maternal Scottish heritage, Raine identified the fundamentality of poetry, inextricable from the fervor of rural Scotland. During the First World War, Raine and her family moved to agrarian Northumbria, somewhere she found to be equally ‘a place of poetry.’ In 1926, despite her hidden intention to become a poet, Raine began her studies in natural sciences at Girton College. At the time Cambridge was the epicentre of western Empiricism. Amongst the academic luminaries of logical positivism, pragmatism, humanism and materialism, Raine’s belief in the transcendental potential of poetry was challenged, as she was adopted into a literary world far removed from the palpable spirit of the landscapes she had thought the life source of poetic expression.
Raine felt that the Cambridge formulaic approach to poetry inverted the poetic process. The particulars of ‘lyric form’ became the ‘prescribed shape’ into which poetic experience must fit, rather than the ‘outcome and sign of poetic exaltation.’ Modernity had established ‘the new taste’ and with it ‘the new criticism invented to justify it.’ To Raine this development of poetic taste required the prioritization of mechanism over meaning and, most significantly, the replacement of the ‘eternal’ with the ‘temporal’. Like Nash, she suggested similar ‘battle lines’ with these categories: the permanent versus the ephemeral, the idealistic versus the quantitative, the spiritual versus the material. Furthermore, Raine assigns the eternal and the temporal to the two types of British identity extrapolated from Nash’s question, the British eternal and the modern, temporal.
Borrowing from the romanticism of Coleridge, Raine reminisced of the landscape which for her fostered a poetry that revealed ‘the eternal, in and through the temporal’ rather than what she encountered in Cambridge: ‘a world for which there was no eternal.’ Raine’s rural upbringing and what it taught her of the poetic eternal she held to be ‘integral to the cultural inheritance of England.’ What she encountered at Cambridge, temporal literary modernity, seemed to Raine in conflict with this British historical identity. Modernism’s temporal presented ‘values new and false.’ What she perceived as the modernist dismissal of the rural pastoral experience, what for Raine represented her ‘roots’ and ‘earliest loyalties,’ signified a movement away from what was true and good. Despite the ‘roots’ which shaped her own poetic sensibility, Raine posited that ‘the rootless will always be attracted, as I was, towards, avant-gardism.’ For Raine, the ‘sour new style’ of the modernist avant-garde had little grounding in British soil. Modernity was like a wave that washed over the landscape, without context, temporal in its ebb and flow; a ‘filthy modern tide’ that Raine hoped to elude. In contrast, the ‘roots’ of her home, of rural British sentimentality, were steadfast, unchanging and eternal. This metaphoric language suggests an understanding of modernity as a rupture, and Raine and her Surrealist peers, a ‘victim’ of this disruption.
Kathleen Raine, The Land Unknown (Hamish Hamilton: London, 1975), p. 27.
Paul Nash, ‘“Going Modern” and “Being British”’, Weekend Review 5 (12 March, 1932), pp. 322-323.
Sam Smiles, Going Modern and Being British: Art, Architecture and Design in Devon c. 1910-1960. (Intellect Books Bristol, 1998), p. 2.
Hugh Sykes Davies, ‘Surrealism at this Time and Place’, Surrealism, ed. by Herbert Read (Faber and Faber: London, 1936), p. 121
Herbert Read, ‘Introduction’, Surrealism (Faber and Faber: London, 1936), p. 19.
Sykes Davies, p. 120.
Kathleen Raine, Farewell Happy Fields (Hamish Hamilton: London, 1973), p. 22.
The Land Unknown, p. 36.
Ibid, p. 29.
Ibid. p. 27.
Ibid. p. 39.
Ibid. p. 27.