Author Archives: Jem Wikeley

Two Types of Pessimism

Thomas Hardy’s comprehensively if not especially catchily titled collection Late Lyrics and Earlier with Many Other Verses includes an introduction by the author framed as an ‘Apology’ against the charges of ‘pessimism’ which dogged him his whole career.

In the piece Hardy protests that ‘what is today [this was just over a century ago, in 1922] alleged to be “pessimism” is in truth only questionings in the exploration of reality, and is the first step towards the soul’s betterment, and the body’s also.’ If way to better there be, he quotes from one of his own poems, ‘In Tenebris’, it exacts a full look at the worst.

Hardy is a profoundly pessimistic writer, sometimes to the point of perversity. Awful things happen in the books: there is one scene in Jude the Obscure that made me cry on the train. There is a lingering air of melodrama in ‘Late Lyrics’, too, where the characters (most of the poems are ballad-like stories) are forever betraying each other or encountering misfortune of some kind. He is never shy to point out that bad things happen to good people. 

In Hardy’s day, the charge of pessimism went hand in hand with censure, particularly over the way he challenged Victorian sexual morality and religion. Hardy’s universe does not appear to have a Christian God or any more abstract sense of benevolence.

What is interesting about the ‘Apology’ is that Hardy does not say simply that ‘what is alleged to be “pessimism”’ is simply how the world is or appears to him – which is what his most famous acolyte Philip Larkin did whenever he was accused of a similar attitude.1 It could be that Hardy felt that gambit was unnecessary: he was describing Victorian rural life as he witnessed it, with all its attendant cruelties.

Instead, Hardy takes his critics on their own turf and defends his perspective as useful – even positive. ‘Pain to all… tongued or dumb [i.e. to humans or animals],’ he writes, ‘shall be kept down to a minimum by lovingkindness operating through scientific knowledge, and activated by the modicum of freewill conjecturally possessed by organic life when the mighty necessitating forces – unconscious or other… happen to be in equilibrium, which may or may not be often.’

If this is hope it is incredibly qualified and not a little obscure. But despite the forbidding grandeur of phrases like ‘mighty necessitating forces’ there is a recognisable, positive philosophy here in which compassion is linked to finding and applying rational solutions to moral and social problems.

In a reissue of his first collection, The North Ship, Philip Larkin says that, shortly after those poems were published he threw off the influence of W. B. Yeats’s symbolism in favour of Hardy’s more plain style, paving the way for the ‘mature’ Larkin voice of The Less Deceived and The Whitsun Weddings.

Critics have largely gone along with this story, though some suggest Yeats’s influence might have been stronger, and continued longer, than Larkin let on. But you don’t, I think, admire a writer to the extent of identifying yourself with them, as Larkin did with Hardy, without also engaging with their broader vision. Which makes the differences in their ‘pessimism’ particularly telling.  

Two key themes that Larkin and Hardy have in common is their attentiveness to suffering and their tendency to attack the sexual morality of their day. Hardy’s ‘Apology’ makes him out to be in some ways a good Victorian liberal, holding out for ways of alleviating human misery and for a time when people can love according to their true selves, even if this rarely happens for the characters in his work.

For Larkin, on the other hand, suffering and sexual privation – for him, the two were usually associated with one another – were not problems to be resolved but states which offered insight into the true nature of life, and which became the starting point of his own poems. Larkin takes Hardy’s so-called pessimism (which Hardy claims is only a qualified hope for others) and turns it into something both more personal and more intractable – almost a kind of mysticism.


1 See for example the remarkable interview with John Haffenden, subsequently published in Viewpoints: poets in conversation with John Haffenden (Faber, 1981) and Further Requirements (Faber, 2001). Haffenden presses Larkin on this point several times.

NB the cover picture is a detail of an 1983 etching of Thomas Hardy by William Strang (National Gallery of Scotland)

Are we being educated here?

In one of the lectures he gave while Oxford Professor of Poetry – on ‘clarity and obscurity’ – the now Poet Laureate Simon Armitage recalled attending a poetry reading with a non-poet friend (all the lectures are available to listen to here). After the reading, the friend asks Armitage about the mini-introductions the readers had given to their poems: why, his friend wants to know, don’t they put them in the books? In reply, Armitage reels off various defences – a book is a privileged space, that any one explanation might preclude other readings.

“I still think they should put them in the books,” his friend says. “Or in the poem.”

While he doesn’t go as far as advocating for individual introductions, Armitage goes on to describe how poems can be more or less generous with the information they offer, and suggests that the contemporary tendency to hold something back – those references which have a personal, or particular, but unexplained resonance – may even be attempts to recreate the kind of ‘enigma’ which was previously summoned up by the conflict between form and meaning, when poetry itself is increasingly formless.

Free verse is sometimes defended as a more inclusive way of writing, so it is curious that it often goes hand in hand with obfuscation, deliberate or otherwise. What, Armitage asks, if obscurity is just another ‘club membership by which the ignorant and uninformed are kept outside the door’?

Several of the poems Armitage discusses are ekphrastic poetry: responses to works of art. He shows how some contemporary examples require the reader to be familiar with niche works of art (allowing for the fact nicheness is relative). Other poems do not even reference the work they are responding to: only the ‘in the know’ would know the poem is a response at all. What, Armitage wants to know, is the thought process behind deciding not to give the reader this kind of information?

By contrast, W. H. Auden’s ‘Musee des Beaux Arts’ (one of my favourite poems full stop), describes the whole picture: it takes what Armitage calls a ‘belt and braces’ approach, even at the risk of providing ‘unnecessary subtitles’ to a familiar image. The Fall of Icarus by Breughel, was not familiar to me when I first read the poem, though I knew the myth. But that is the point. The poem still works: it might even work if you didn’t know the myth, or at least make you want to seek out both the story and the picture. The enigma is in the delivery of the idea of the awful ordinariness of suffering (in the rhymes, as Armitage puts it).

It’s possible the internet has encouraged writers to feel like they can demand more of their readers. Armitage describes having to Google a sculpture in order to properly appreciate one poem. If Auden’s readers had wanted to see Breughel’s The Fall of Icarus for themselves they would have had to go to Brussels (I Googled that) – or find a reproduction.


NB In the spirit of explanation, the title of this blog is taken from a line in Armitage’s lecture and the header image is an excerpt from The Fall of Icarus (c.1555).

The Long Haul

For reasons not unknown, but entirely arbitrary, I read two epic poems for the first time recently: Milton’s Paradise Lost and Simon Armitage’s translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Night. It wasn’t my first stab at Paradise Lost: we had ‘done’ the first two books for A Level (most of the term was spent trying to get the class to comprehend the plot by turning it into a story board). But we weren’t expected to read the rest, and I rarely go beyond expectations.

I rarely read an ‘epic’, let alone a really lengthy poem, either. Much longer than a page is usually a reason to skip a poem in a book that is new to me. I am pretty confident I am not alone in this. Most readers have no idea what to expect from poetry, but even the few of us who might have a sense of what we are looking for, are usually looking for something like a lyric: a modest shape on the page which, as Robert Frost put it, begins in delight, and ends in wisdom. Ends quickly, he might have added (Frost’s own longer poems are not his best loved, perhaps unfairly).

Epics are another thing entirely. Stories written to be recounted, although more than stories: fables, myths, almost arguments. It might seem obvious, but what struck me about these poems was not just the sound, but the relentlessness of that sound. Line after line after of blank verse or alliteration. And all that space, meaning the imagery and the ideas, the repetitions, and the contrasts, build up and interlace across the huge chunks of verse, yet wound more tightly than a novel.

I enjoyed both Gawain and Paradise Lost a lot, though it took me two holidays to finally finish the latter. The form is so unfamiliar. Even putting aside the language, you are not likely to have come across a thing like it unless you studied English or a classical language at university. And by then, for most people, it is probably already too late. It is not a poem. It is not a novel. It is something else.

The form is unfamiliar. It had also, to my mind, which is invariably instrumentalist, been superseded by other types of writing. If you want narratives, there are novels. If you want language, lyrics. Argument, philosophy. And that relentlessness of sound, that was partly a way of helping the recounter remember the thing. What purpose does the epic serve in a text-based culture?

I find it hard to think of a future where long poems (let alone epics) don’t remain rare occurrences or largely academic interests. But what purpose does a novel serve? Or a poem? By holding longer poems to a standard I don’t hold any other kind of writing, I was just giving myself an excuse not to read them.


1 The thing is there are plenty of long poems, if not epics, I know I like a lot: Autumn Journal by Louis MacNeice, Alice Oswald’s Dart, or Wendy Cope’s The River Girl, which is one of the best things she’s done. But when I think ‘what do I want to read next’, it is never ‘a really long poem’.

Throwing it all away

The other day the philosopher (you can be one of those) Julian Baggini wrote an article which annoyed a lot of people on the internet. The title – ‘Why is it so hard to get rid of our books?’ – probably didn’t help, nor did the screenshot circulating on Twitter, where Baggini wondered whether “the main reason to keep a house full of books is to show ourselves and others that we are intelligent and well-read.”

In fact, most of the article was dedicated to a survey of all the other perfectly good reasons someone (or, at least, Baggini, his friends and his acquaintances) might have for keeping a book: as a reference, or to share with someone else, to re-read later, or as a treasured memento of a time or a person – or a time you were a different person. He admits that the aesthetic attraction of a bookshelf depends on seeing them en masse ‘irrespective of what lies between the covers’. (They’re good insulation, too.)

Which all seems pretty uncontroversial. What rubbed people up the wrong way was the fact Baggini had dared suggest it was possible to use books as status-symbols (as if this pretty mundane observation was itself an assault on knowledge), combined with the faint hint whiff of ‘personal optimization’: at one point Baggini describes how the process of throwing away a book means coming to terms with ‘failure’ (as if not having enough time to read everything you want to read says something about you, not life).

Put those two together, ignore the nuance, and what was a harmless if anodyne series of reflections by a man moving house starts to look like yet another attempt to police people’s behaviour, right at the level of the most sacred thing there is: books. How dare he!

The fact is, philistine as I am, Baggini’s driving argument was one I recognised and agreed with: holding onto books can be a way of holding onto ‘unrealistic illusions’ about ourselves. “We use books to underline our identities when more often than not they undermine them,” he writes.

I don’t read this as an assault on the concept of literature so much as an attempt to square up to the conditions under which literature is made and read, and which make reading and writing meaningful in the first place: our limited time on earth, our limited attention spans, and our willingness (or not) to change our minds.

Like many people, I buy more books than I will ever read and I keep more books than I will ever revisit or re-gift. That won’t change. But I am well aware that one of the reasons I do this is to fool myself: to pretend, against all the evidence, that I will have time to reread this, or write something about that, or read everything I want to. The books are an escape. Every now and then I try and be brutal about it and chuck a load out. Probably, that is a kind of escape too. But at least it makes space.

Modern vs Contemporary Poetry

All categories are slightly artificial and perhaps none more so than periods in literary history. When I wrote about first encountering ‘contemporary’ poetry, I wanted to emphasize how far our ’now’ can, or should stretch. Decades, not years

Perhaps it should stretch further. Playing with categories is like shuffling cards: potentially endless and, after a certain point, pointless. But the way we use words like ‘modern’ and ‘contemporary’ says something about our attitudes to the past and the present and this is always interesting to me because it means they are also value judgements, statements of feeling as much as descriptions.  

For example, you could argue that having a very narrow conception of the contemporary is simply an extreme version of a much older debate about the value of modern as opposed to ‘classical’ poetry: whether literature should reflect the world the writer is living in or be based on ‘timeless’ principles, usually associated with particular forms and conventions.

If what distinguishes the modern from the classical is its ‘present-ness’, then we should expect poetry to change as often and as drastically as the world does, i.e., a lot. So, although Milton, Wordsworth and, say, Elizabeth Bishop, are all ‘modern’ in comparison to Homer, they represent distinct eras. What now tends to get called modern poetry is just the era before whatever era we are in right now.

Then again, none of these writers (or their contemporaries) are as distant as we might think. People once dismissed the idea of writing poetry in English at all, or of writing plays which weren’t modelled on Greek tragedy. Then they dismissed poets like Wordsworth and Coleridge as, well — romantics. W. H. Auden feels pretty contemporary right now – but so does John Clare.

One the things which makes poetry poetry is the way it sits somewhere outside of ‘day to day’ time. It speaks to — and is a way of listening to — the past as well as the present. There is no point in quibbling about where the contemporary begins, because all poetry is contemporary.

And yet: there is a lot of past to choose from. And because poetry is so time-specific, it is easy to take out of context. How people chop up history almost always says more about the chopper than the thing being chopped. There is something inevitable about this. Everyone has to work out for themselves what they want to listen to, who they want to speak to. You have to chop your own wood.

The problem comes when history is wielded in order to exclude or diminish other kinds of writing with different concerns, or to demarcate a particular community: ‘everyone should read and admire X, not Y, or they are not truly one of Z’. (The traditional sign that something radical has become prescriptive is that you have to study it in school or at university.) The rebels always end up inside the castle.

Louis MacNeice said it best when he advocated for ‘impure poetry… for poetry conditioned by the poet’s life and the world around him.’1 Beyond that, perhaps it doesn’t matter what you call it.


1 The quote comes from MacNeice’s book-length essay Modern Poetry, which was published in 1938.