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Profile ‘A poet does not speak merely for himself’

Those words by JOHN EDGELL RICKWORD sum up a writer for whom literature was always a political and cultural battleground, says Brian Denny

THE VERY embodiment of the English radical literary tradition, John Edgell Rickword was many things. Trench poet, communist, critical pioneer and publisher, he was also the first director of publishers Lawrence & Wishart.

A literary polymath, he championed French symbolist poets like Paul Verlaine and Arthur Rimbaud, US modernist poets such as TS Eliot and Ezra Pound and English metaphysical poets such as the republican John Milton and John Donne and, inspired by his ironic satire, Jonathan Swift.

The influence of all those poets would later dominate the 20th century partly as a result, regularly name-checked by leaders of the 1960s counterculture such as Bob Dylan and Allen Ginsburg.

But Rickword would break with Eliot and Pound, the former having flirted with the British Union of Fascists and the latter being a mouthpiece of the fascist dictator Mussolini.

Born in Colchester in 1898 into a conservative, bookish family, Rickword was first influenced by utopian socialists such as William Morris and the late Romantic poets Tennyson and Swinburne.

Then he absorbed hard-hitting new writers like Joseph Conrad and Jack London, who wrote The Iron Heel, one of the first modern dystopian fiction novels which follows the rise of an oligarchic dictatorship in the US.

By the time he was a teenager he had written to the British government to demand that James Connolly, leader of the 1916 Easter Rising in Ireland, be spared execution in Kilmainham jail.

This was at a time when Labour MPs stood up and cheered in the House when news came in that a wounded Connolly had been tied to a chair and shot by firing squad.

Nevertheless, Rickword joined the army in 1916 and was wounded twice, winning the Military Cross for distinguished service.

He continued his literary development in the trenches and, ever the autodidact, taught himself French by reading French novels and the works of Verlaine, Rimbaud and Charles Baudelaire, who has been credited with coining the term “modernity” to describe urban life.

But the greatest influence on him was the war poetry of Siegfried Sassoon, whom he came across in 1918. He found it “devastating” because it dealt with war in the vocabulary of war and it also chimed with Rimbaud’s radical contempt for “dead convention.” Rickword never looked back.

He set about writing poetry that rejected the romantic and dealt with the reality for ordinary young men at the front living under hellish conditions and constantly facing death. The best of these poems may be Trench Poets and The Soldier Addresses his Body, in which a young man casually accepts he may be destroyed in a moment.

Rickword increasingly preferred to mix with the lower ranks rather than the officer class “not because there were many literate men in the ranks but for the opposite reason,” he stated. “Speech, with the illiterate, is their highest form of expression, and they put their best into it, till it rings like good money thrown down.

“Those who live more remotely, the cultured, are apt to regard it as a necessary wearisome system of exchange.”

Unsurprisingly, he came home an angry young man on a mission and fell in with some of the best writers active on the left.

While Eliot had founded The Criterion magazine for a growing cabal of increasingly fascistic writers, Rickword countered by publishing The Calendar which showcased young writers such as Robert Graves, EM Forster, Edwin Muir, John Crowe Ransom, Hart Crane and Allen Tate who all poked fun at the Establishment in different ways.

Rickword joined the Communist Party in 1934 and edited Left Review, championing the Spanish republic and the anti-fascist war.

His poem To the Wife of Any Non-Interventionist Statesman, translated into many languages and on a par with Picasso’s classic anti-fascist painting Guernica, was arguably the most successful political poem of the period.

By this time, Rickword had inspired a new generation of writers such as Stephen Spender, WH Auden and William Empson and was working with other communist intellectuals such as Jack Lindsay in mapping out a democratic vision of the future.

His influence would also inspire historians such as EP Thomson and Christopher Hill and encourage the study of the English radical tradition, the “Good Old Cause” signposted by the likes of Milton, William Blake and William Cobbett.

Charles Hobday called his excellent biography of Rickword A Poet at War because here was a man who had fought in the trenches and returned home determined to wage another long battle with a complacent literary and political establishment.

He was never really forgiven for these acts of bravery and irreverence, which exposed the decadence, corruption and cynicism at the heart of the dying British empire.

But he had the courage to build cultural movements that championed a different, democratic future and challenged establishment conventions, imperialism, colonialism and racism. He has left us a legacy which proved him right.

For Rickword the personal cost of the battles he relentlessly waged was a price worth paying because, as he once remarked, “a poet does not speak merely for himself.”

We still have much to learn from the great man.

Brian Denny is giving a talk about the life and times of John Edgell Rickword on on February 26 at the Sohemian Society, 6pm The Wheatsheaf pub, 25 Rathbone Pl, Fitzrovia, London and on March 26, 7pm to 8.30pm at Metal at Chalkwell Hall, Chalkwell Avenue, Southend on Sea, SS0 8NB. Register online at metalculture.com

 

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