Monday June 17, 2013 § Leave a comment
There is no such thing as fulfilment on this earth. – Dickens
In the past few years I have written a series of books ostensibly about books. Not only books of course, but their authors too, but that (and I’m sure I will delight even the least strident theorists) is by the by. I work in an industry perhaps uniquely concerned with itself. Indeed, in many senses, criticism is largely self-fulfilling, or self-validating, and this is not to disparage its value. Yet I am often moved to muse upon one fellow critic’s comment, printed in these pages, that “criticism is one long act of incest, with all the attendant feelings of excitement and disgust that one would expect.” Whilst I would not have dared be so stark, I am forced too to recall Dosteyevsky’s famous assertion that “all intellectual activity is a disease [sic]”. There is a sense in other words, in which being a critic oneself can feel a somewhat perilous business. There is the anxiety over the worth of criticism, and its value, and an attendant fear of descending into pointlessness. There can be no claim for instance, readily made by artists of a certain type, to being genuinely creative or of uniquely representing human experience. For the critic there is nothing so grand. Neither can a claim be made to utility. For in a practical, real-world sense, what can it achieve? I should perhaps hasten to add that I am not suggesting there is no answer to this question. More that it is a persistent one that may nag away at the conscientious critic, causing him, if my experience is anything to go by, to pause at every turn, to ponder in every moment: what am I doing? Why am I doing it?
I remember reading an interview with the poet and critic Toby Lang a number of years ago, in which he discussed this same sense of angst. I was just setting out on my career at the time, and was for the first time feeling prone to the kind of outbursts of despair I am describing, and so his words perhaps made more of an impression on me than they otherwise might. He was asked (a somewhat cheeky question I feel) ‘how do you justify your critical work over and above your poetic output?’ By this stage Lang had not published any new poetry in over twenty years and his much-trailed critical biography of Coleridge was years overdue and largely abandoned, in private at least. Yet he replied with his accustomed dignity:
Certainly I must [justify it], or else I don’t believe I could continue. Although to rehearse my reasons here for you now feels somehow outrageous. I have been very lucky in what I do and to be able to do what I do. Perhaps that is enough, at least on an everyday basis.
What Lang cannily identifies, although in a rather veiled manner (another trademark) are two key facets of literary criticism, in so far as it is an organised profession, or business. Firstly, to borrow from economic jargon, that there is a demand for it, there is a market. Secondly, however, and more contentiously, there is the tacit acceptance that this status is in a sense unearned, or subsidised behaviour. It is in other words, not a consequence of ‘market allocation’, or of the ‘invisible hand’, distributing resources. Instead it exists as something of an anomaly, bankrolled by the few, but with no viability of its own, or at least no perception of it.
This use of economy is instructive.
The use of economic terminology to discuss criticism, and more broadly, literature is a trend reaching back as far as Thomas Carlyle, whose seminal essay ‘the Hero as Man of Letters’, first sought to set out the ground for a viable, and thus valid marketplace. For it is arguable that the same feelings of angst that Lang alludes to, also drive his essay. Throughout, the imagery is that of an “apocalypse”, against which the author alone is able to confront. (The author is thus blessed with heroic qualities) Ostensibly, this is in order to shelter society from a corrupt and venal culture (precisely the society of capitalist free-markets Carlyle seeks to join, incidentally) threatening to engulf it. Yet there is the sense in which it is the author (and by extension the critic) himself who has most to fear from this “apocalypse”, precisely because it is the author that would be first to go; he is at the ‘heart’ of this chaos:
Much had been sold and bought, and left to make its own bargain in the market place; but the inspired wisdom of the Heroic Soul [the man of letters] never until then, in that naked manner…But perhaps if we look at this of books and the Writers of books, we shall find here, as it were, the summary of all disorganisation; – a sort of heart, from which, and to which, all other confusion circulates in the world…
Thus what Carlyle arrives at is the conception, which has survived in more or less truncated form to this day, of the author as professional. In short, rather than fight the system that threatens, make yourself part of it – if you cant beat ‘em, join ‘em. The most immediate step according to Carlyle was to create a literary ‘Guild”, very much in the mould of the Plumber’s Guild, or the Merchants Guild. He describes
…the best possible arrangement for the Man of Letters in modern society; the arrangement of furtherance and regulation, grounded the most accurately on the facts of their position and of the world’s position.
What is more, Carlyle’s ideas were hugely popular. Charles Dickens, an unlikely bedfellow, wrote vociferously in their favour, and in his novel David Copperfield (which itself spawned a genre of author-as-hero novels) provides the model professional in young David himself. In stark contrast to the dashing, inspired Romantic writers that preceeded him, Dickens’ hero is serious, conscientious and disciplined. Rather than being the expression of his essential self, his art is a purely professional matter. Take this example. Many years ago, when I first began teaching, I had a seminar group discussing Copperfield. And the groups most common complaint? That there was very little about his writing at all. No pained discussion of subject matter, no anguished consideration of craftsmanship. Instead a rather dull proficiency. Dickens has Copperfield say:
I have never believed it possible that any natural or improved ability can claim immunity from the companionship of the steady, plain, hard-working qualities, and hope to gain its end. There is no such thing as fulfilment on this earth.
Yet this lack of detail is rather the point. David’s writing occupies so little space precisely because it is only a facet of life, and a professional life at that. The message would seem to be, that what happens in the office, stays in the office. It aspires to the same status.
And it seems to me that this question of status is what it is all about. Anthony Trollope goes even further, arguing that writing is to the writer what candle making is to the candle-maker, or cobbling to a cobbler. Inspiration is no more a part of it at any rate. What each of these writers is grasping for then, in their conception of the professional writer is not only a sense of purpose, but a sense of status. More precisely, each is engaged in a neat double trick: of on the one hand justifying what they do, but at the same time, trying not to overstep the mark. They would all presumably concur with Lang’s assertion that to seek to justify their work is “outrageous”. Outrageous in the sense that they too are alive to the charge of superfluity. Outrageous too, because they perhaps half-believe that themselves.
Yet this construction of the literary scene in economic terms is not confined as one might expect, to the status or otherwise of the profession. Rather, it comes to infect the “industry’s” internal regulation. By this we mean the manner in which the literary community administers its own peculiar brand of tasks, activities and markets. The most blatant example of this, at least in recent years, can be seen in the explosion of university education, in which the influence of the economic can be seen to be most clearly literal, governing everything from research funding to tuition fees. Indeed, the whole system of university education is predicated on the assumption that those institutions proven to be the best get the most funding, and so on and so forth down to the bottom of the line. This is the “invisible hand” of the market at work, although how invisible it actually is, is a matter for conjecture. The ‘outrageous’ element of this arrangement is obscured by its remaining so.
A similar use of hierarchy also exists within literary criticism itself. It should be remembered of course, that the growth of universities, and their reach, has both contributed to and safeguarded the rise of the critical community, and that universities themselves are graded in their ability to foster research and new work – in a word, criticism. As one of my colleagues with whom I worked at an American University a few years ago remarked, what English degrees essentially teach us is not literature, but rather how to be critics of it; and that mainly this is because nobody has figured out what literature is yet. It is also important to remember that criticism itself is a relatively modern invention, at least in its current state. For example, it is difficult to imagine that readers (and writers) of two hundred years ago ever thought about literature in quite the same way that we do now. The symbol of this to my mind is the evolution of the ‘canon’. Now, I do not want to wade into the debate about the merits or otherwise of the concept itself (for the record I am rather enamoured of it, which is no proper attitude for the discerning critic and so I plead more time) but it does seem to me to be symptomatic of our current attitude. That is to say, the way in which literature is valued, or ‘priced’.
Granted, the idea of looking to a body of work or writers who taken as constituting an accepted standard of practice is by no means a new one. The various emulations, transformations and evaluations of past writers and their modes in western literature in the last thousand years or more, have been taken consistently as a sign of literary development and sophistication. Yet two elements of the contemporary canon seem to set it apart. The first is scope; the second, one of organisation. Undoubtedly, the first factor has been largely caused by the explosion I refer to, of university education, whose own organisation has both encouraged and facilitated it. Perhaps literature has never been so well funded or resourced, on such a large national and international scale. This is one more aspect of the economic argument.
Yet more interesting, and more controversial, is this idea of organisation, for it is perhaps more callously economic in its judgements, and by extension, in its sympathies, than any simple question of funding. For what can be observed is that the principles, and moreover the prejudices that govern it are in a constant sense of flux. The consequence is that the different writers rise and fall as their reputations enhance of diminish; different groups, and sometimes whole movements move in and out of focus from year to year, and from decade to decade; and different opinions become more or less acceptable as politics alter, or alternatives arise. What we are left with is an uncertain legacy, which largely operates like a stock exchange in which an author’s stock rises and falls like a share price, people buying in, others eager to sell.
This of course may not be a bad thing. It does infer a certain sort of flexibility, and a degree of turnover is no doubt essential, even desirable. The reasons for it are various too. Undoubtedly a contributing factor is the degree of scrutiny devoted to the canon’s composition, which is largely unprecedented. Also, such movement is naturally to be expected as new talents seek to impose their own identity. For instance, the popularity of the ‘order of literature’ in modern times can be traced back to Eliot’s championing of the idea in the early 1920s, which itself was an attempt to insist upon his own, specifically hierarchical conception of literature, and later, society.
Yet order is possessed of a certain tyranny, and literary orders are no different. For one of the negative aspects of such a systematized approach is that very often talented and interested writers are discarded on the strength of present fads alone. Deviations from current values, in the past, can come back to haunt them, and mistakes made fifty years ago, and which will me made again by others, can be made to count. But writer’s reputations do not comply with such spare decision-making; human lives do not come down to a balance sheet.
In my own work I have often been drawn to such figures; excluded and maginalised writers to whom the market has been especially cruel. In researching primarily the Bretton Hall School of writers, you may say that I have had little choice. But of them all, perhaps the saddest is Toby Lang. His case is least understood, and his ‘sentence’ the least questioned. Michael North was from all accounts a difficult, dislikeable man who held dangerous opinions; John Language himself held very political convictions, which inevitably drew fire. They were in other words more transparently derided. Lang shared some of their faults, but his example is also a more complicated one, and appears to have been as much an accumulation of the years as anything else. Perhaps his very longevity was a part of the problem in an age with such a short attention span, and with such a penchant for the live fast, die young aesthetic. Such a long life is, after all, an expensive inheritance.
In the summer of 1967 I was in Bretton for a conference. I had given a paper on Michael North the day before which had not gone down well, and so I decided to give the final day celebrations, such as they were, a miss. Instead of heading to the library foyer for the free buffet and cheap wine, I drove out instead to Eveley, a small village no more than a few miles from the town. No doubt too I was missing my wife Veronica. She had been unable to come with me to the conference as her mother was unwell, but we had used to frequent several of the pubs in Eveley when we were both students at Bretton Hall in the late fifties, and so in a round about way it felt appropriate.
After arriving I decided to call her immediately. I remember waiting for half an hour to use the pub telephone, very rare in those days, to call and tell her where I was, only to find I had no change. By the time I’d wangled some from the old couple at the bar I had to queue again.
Stumbling back out into the light of the beer garden, I headed for an empty table by the entrance. After the dark dinginess of the pub my eyes took a moment to readjust. It was early evening, but it was still warm in the sun; the tall trees ringing the garden swayed ever so slightly in the breeze and I wished I’d brought a newspaper to read.
The garden was busy, and there was a steady hum of voices, with people coming and going regularly at my shoulder. Mostly I just stared ahead, fiddling with my cigarette packet, thinking of my long drive back to Leeds the next day. Indeed, so deep was I in my own thoughts that I nearly missed the man, with the slightly stooped walk, walking with arm around a daughter, enter altogether. It was not until he reached the pub door itself that he registered at all. But he sparked my interest immediately on account of his appearance alone. For despite the warmness of the evening he was still wearing his suit and tie, and what is more, a large coat over the top of it. He must have been at least seventy years of age, and had a thin grey straggly beard, a little incongruous with the smartness of his clothes. He was with two women, (one of whom I assumed was his daughter) who were largely unremarkable, but him I could not help but watch, until that is, he disappeared inside.
At first I was determined to think nothing more of it. I stared at the door but it was several minutes before he re-emerged. I went back to my cigarette packet, peeling the corners away, folding them down, as I had been doing for the last half an hour. But something was nagging at me. The man seemed familiar somehow, as if I knew him from somewhere, although I could not for the life in me think where. My pint was nearly finished, and I thought about finishing it and heading off, but I decided to wait, to see if the man came back out. He would have to walk straight towards me now, and I would be ab;e to get a good look at his face.
As I say, it was several minutes before he re-emerged into the garden, and it was only then that I noticed he walked with a stick; one of the women who was not his daughter carried the drinks on a tray, while the other guided the man by the arm to a bench by the door. I was disappointed, because it cut down the time I had to look at him, sitting so close to the door I mean, but in the event it didn’t matter. I recognized him all at once. That man was Toby Lang.
To be honest it seemed obvious after the fact. I knew that Lang lived in the area, in the village in fact, and had done all his life, although in all my visits over the years I had never seen him. One fellow undergraduate claimed to have seen him, but it was thought that he was mistaken, and anyhow, I didn’t believe him. In fact, I’m ashamed to say, I hadn’t been totally sure that Lang was still alive. For if I am honest (that word again) even though I was now a lecturer myself, and one specialising in Bretton Hall studies, I too had neglected him, and it surprised me how unconscious that had been. As an adolescent I had been introduced to Lang’s poetry by my father, who was a huge admirer, and had rather enjoyed it. Then, later, shortly before I went to University myself, I had devoured his Memoirs. I was deeply into the Bretton Hall writers at the time, writers such as Michael North and John Language, and I had seen Drew Thomas’s film A Sentimental Education, widely seen as an evocation, albeit at one remove, of his own relationship with Language all those years ago. Lang’s memoirs, containing sharp pen portraits and anecdotes of them all was thus essential and fascinating reading.
But as time went on, he slipped further and further out of focus. His work was not much covered by my tutors, who rarely discussed him, except in relation (usually an inferior one) to other writers, such as Language, and even Eliot. Even his memoirs began to seem dated, rather old fashioned, and almost without knowing I discarded them. At this time I don’t believe I possessed a word of his works.
But to see him still felt remarkable somehow. He had at one stage been England’s pre-eminent man of letters, no matter what anyone had said. During the 1920s the papers were calling him the “people’s laureate”, and had once amused the Queen at Buckingham Palace by the infectiousness of his laughter alone. True, these times were long behind him, but even the passage of such a long time cannot have struck them from the memory entirely. Time had withered him; both physically, and in the public perception but he still impressed me in himself. Where he was sitting, not twenty feet away from me, I could hear him laughing, and could see the twinkle in his eye. He seemed to be saying: “There’s life in me yet.” And I couldn’t help being impressed.
Then the thought struck me all at once: I should go over to his table and introduce myself. Perhaps even express to him my admiration of his work, although I was not sure how dishonest I could afford to be, even on a first meeting. I had, after all, forgotten him of late. But then a more sobering thought, would he even appreciate it? Would I not simply be intruding on an otherwise pleasant evening? He seemed rapt in conversation; there would not be a convenient moment to interrupt. Locked in these thoughts I stared back down at my cigarette packet, which by now was beginning to look a little shabby. I felt myself going red, as though everyone else could see my indecisiveness. Could I forgive myself for not going over, given the opportunity? Could I forgive myself either way?
Unfortunately (or fortunately) for me the decision was taken out of my hands. By the time I had looked back up he was almost upon me. On his table were three empty glasses, and Lang and his companions were walking towards me to the exit. Feebly, I expected him to say something, to acknowledge me, as if he had been somehow party to my dilemma, but of course he carried on walking straight past me, departing in what seemed like an instant. Then the chance, such as it was, was gone. What I did not know at the time, was that is was a chance gone forever.
In 1970 Lang died at home at the age of 73.
And so it was that I missed my chance to meet one of the great poets of an age. Later that evening, I called Veronica from my hotel but she did not believe me at first; she thought he had died years ago. She also said that I should have gone and introduced myself. I have to admit that this only made me feel guiltier. On the drive home I kept playing the evening over and over in my mind, rueing my lost opportunity. From a selfish point of view his acquaintance would have been hugely beneficial to my work, and perhaps it was this selfishness I really regretted, this guilt stemming from my own self-involvement. For what was striking afterwards was that nobody else had seemed to acknowledge him either. Seen in a certain light, it was as though he had been invisible, anonymous almost. The next morning I stopped into a bookshop on my way home and picked up his Collected Poems and devoured them in an afternoon.
In my work on Lang since, one of the striking aspects is quite how, despite the public’s seemingly collective indifference, he does still inspire devotion in a small number of critics and academics. Indeed, their devotion seems inversely proportional to the size of their number. Take for instance the Toby Lang Society. Shortly before presenting my first paper on Lang, I decided to first submit it to them, as a courtesy more than anything, and I was chastened to say the least. The suggested (insisted) on a number of alterations on points of fact and queried my conclusions. They felt I was too harsh on him, particularly on what I considered to be his “political naivety” (more of which later). Needless to say, I have been wary of them ever since.
Yet this was not ever the case. During the 1920s Lang was a phenomenally popular writer, and not only in the narrow literary circles we might ordinarily think of. He was popular with the public too; at this time hundreds, if not thousands would attend his public readings, at Bretton Hall and all over the country. His writing career had gotten off to an auspicious start. His first collection High Water, written whilst still a postgraduate at Bretton Hall gained widespread coverage and decisively was reviewed by Sir Nicholas Watson in the London press. The fact that Watson was also his tutor cannot have harmed him, but even reading the collection now, there is a sense of genuine merit. The poems themselves are very naturalistic and personable in their inspiration. There is a lyric on his first meeting with his future wife, and the title poem takes its inspiration from the brook that ran through the village a few yards from his house – a few yards indeed from the pub garden in which I failed to make my introduction. Comparisons have been made with Edward Thomas or Thomas Hardy, and Philip Larkin has often praised his “simple” and “direct” treatment of things. There is the sense in which he was a forerunner of the Movement poets, and in which too, his work stands apart from the Bretton Hall School of writing of which he has inevitably become a part. Certainly Lang’s work lacks the irony, and the urgency of say Language’s verse, or the intensity of say, Darius Jenkins’. But there is still the same commitment to self-examination, and to social issues that perhaps in turn sets the BHS apart from their contemporary modernists.
Lang followed this first collection two years later with Into The Wind (1921). This was a departure of sorts, as it was something of a concept piece. For not only was it a collection of stand-alone lyrics, but taken together the volume sought to narrate a story, ostensibly that of his attempts to set up home with his new wife (Lang married his childhood sweetheart in 1919). After the success as a poet, Lang had quit his studies, and with his first (and as it turned out, his only) child on the way, the happy couple bought a cottage in nearby Eveley, where had Lang had lived on and off since a child himself. The volume describes the trials and tribulations of moving home, and of starting a new life, as they literally sail “into the wind”, beginning their long journey through life together. Yet on a wider level, the volume provides a meditation on what it is to start a new life at all, and what excitements and fears it provokes. The narrative element readily lends itself to this, and it must be remembered that this use of narrative (the “concept”) was something of an innovation at the time, and stands to refute allegations, often made, that Lang’s work is staid, or unadventurous. It is true that this is not conceptual in perhaps the way we today may envisage; but neither is there anything arch, or “tricksy” in Lang’s creation either. In these two early collections there is a vibrancy, often underestimated, and a knowing innocence which today is lacking.
However, it was the next three or four collections that really made Lang’s name, collections that would recount and give shape to his earlier experiences. In 1918, during his final year at Bretton Hall, Lang had enlisted in the Bretton Hall Company. The First World War was still raging on the continent and although it had entered its final year, the armistice would not come until November, and in early March the end was by no means certain. The Bretton Hall Company had been formed in 1917 as the University’s contribution to the war effort. Essentially it was made up of students and lecturers who were prepared to go to France to fight, although for nine months, in the guise of basic training, the troop did little more than march up and down the playing fields, later moving on to bayoneting sacks of straw. In this way it resembled a sort of ‘pals battalion’, although a distinctly middle-class one. After joining in 1918 Lang too was submitted to months of training, happily joining in the marching and the cross-country runs. It did not even interfere with his studies and he was able to graduate in the Spring. However, all of this changed when in late May the company was ordered to leave England and head to France, and potentially the Front Line. On May 25th, the troop caught the train to London and from there sailed on to Normandy. At the station a small crowd had gathered to wave them off. Someone had decked the platform with bunting, while the university brass band played Rule Brittania and the Marseillaise.
At first the unit was stationed just outside the French town of Quiberon, a few miles in land. Today Quiberon is largely a tourist town with several large hotels and guest houses. But in 1918 its main industry was agricultural, although many of the farmers who had once tilled the land were themselves at the front, if they had not already been massacred on the killing fields of Verdun. Lang’s own impression of the town survives in a letter he wrote to his mother, one of the few we have from this period of his life:
Arrived in France yesterday. Very wet! France is not so different from England, but the town is very quiet. There is a café, and when we marched through we saw some old men playing cards, but the market place was deserted. As you can well imagine, I have had little chance to practice my French. We go mostly to the park, where I am writing this letter from, and where we can talk and smoke.
By a twist fate, the spot in the park from where Lang most likely wrote this letter is now home to the town’s war memorial, dedicated to all those local soldiers who lost their lives at Verdun.
From Quiberon the troop headed south to ________, where they were billeted for two days, before marching just a little farther onto ________, where their duties began in earnest. At first, because of their inexperience these were relatively light, and involved little more than sentry duty, or helping out with the camp postal service. As a young lieutenant Lang was put in charge of a small detail at the sorting office, responsible for directing post from France back to England. However, in early July the company was told to prepare to move again, this time to the front line. Units at the time, contrary to popular belief were actually rotated so that none was forced to endure too long on the very front line. For the term ‘front line’ also encompassed the many lines of reserve trenches behind, some far away from the direct line of fire. It was one of these reserve trenches that the Bretton Hall Company were moved to, where it was envisaged that because of their lack of fighting experience, the company would remain for the duration.
But this relative calm would not last. Following a German counter-attack in this sector, the British were caught entirely off-guard and were forced to cede ground. Losses were heavy, and the Company would have seen first hand the casualties being carried back through the lines on makeshift stretchers. It soon became clear that the front line troops would need to be reinforced. At first the Bretton Hall Company stayed where they were, although they now came under sporadic shellfire. But on the 22nd July the situation deteriorated further, and the company was moved up to the very front line to relieve those units worst affected.
For two days and two nights the company stood guard. Shellfire was still sporadic, and the bombardment taking place further down the line echoed through the air continuously, seemingly without interruption. Yet during all this time the Germans mounted no fresh attacks and the British were able to regroup in this sector. On the afternoon of the 24th July the company was relieved. Casualties had been minimal. A small number of the men were treated for shrapnel wounds from exploding shells, and one private had to be taken to the field hospital for a gunshot wound to the leg. It seemed as though they had gotten off lightly. But worse was to come. On the march back through the reserve trenches later that evening, a single freak shell landed just a few feet from the lead detachment. Bizarrely, everybody was unhurt, except for one officer, Timothy Edwards who was mortally wounded by a flying piece of shrapnel. The men managed to get him onto a stretcher and got him as quickly as they could to a dressing station farther up the line. It was of no use. Edwards was declared dead upon arrival. The next day a funeral was held from him, and the chaplain conducted a small service.
Lang was devastated. He had been good friends with Edwards, and had been his main companion on the long journey from Bretton Hall. He had not witnessed the fatal shell land, but had arrived at the dressing station, too late, to see his friend, covered over in a blanket, being taken to the mortuary. Years later, in his poem “Death of an Officer”, Lang would recall above else his friends bravery, and his companionship:
Slipped from the ether, one man, consoled by music
That tells a different story:
That shies not from bravery or fortune, from
Friendship or glory.
Distraught, Lang and the rest of the company headed back to camp several miles behind the lines, and on 19th August, they began the long march north, and to England.
Undoubtedly these experiences affected Lang deeply, and at first he spoke of them only very rarely and even then only to his wife or close friends. Soon however, he began to open up and aspects of his time in France began to appear in his work. There are a sprinkling of poems throughout his first two collections that deal, however obliquely, with the war and Lang’s own experiences. But it was only after the success of these collections that Lang decided to write an entire collection based on his time in France. His name and his reputation was growing and he had received a modest advance for a new collection. He had, in other words, unfettered time and means to devote himself to the new work. In his own mind this was something of a prerequisite.
In late 1921, Lang set about his task with all his usual diligence. At first he did not tell anyone of his intentions, preferring instead, when asked, to reply that he did not yet know what form the new collection might take. He shut himself up in his study at the cottage in Eveley, secluded save for his wife and their infant daughter. By the new year he felt ready to publish. He called the new collection “When Trumpets Fade”, and in February 1922 it appeared in London.
The reviews to begin with were tentative, and Lang became anxious. His closeness to the material made the success of the poems perhaps even more important than perhaps all his previous work. Therefore, to his great relief, critical opinion slowly warmed. One critic, writing in the Times called the collection ‘noble’, and a ‘fitting epitaph’ to a ‘lost generation’. Nicholas Watson, again chipped in, writing in the New Statesman that ‘a war has found its laureate, and a poet his muse.’ Lang was delighted. He wrote to his sister that he felt as though the ‘burden of all the world’ had been lifted from his shoulders. A small dinner party was held at Eveley cottage in celebration.
Yet what happened next shocked everyone. For whilst Lang concentrated on the reviews, he had neglected to follow the sales of his collection. If he had of done, he would have seen that the book was flying off the shelves. Between March and July, it was the nation’s best-selling title (for poetry at least), selling 10,000 copies. New print runs were ordered immediately , and Lang was bombarded with requests for interviews. A naturally shy man, Lang at first neglected the majority of them, but as time went on, buoyed by both his critical and popular success, he soon consented. He became a literary celebrity overnight, and began to spend more and more time away from Eveley, in London.
The collection itself was very similar in tone and style to his earlier work. Its dominant tone was still one of melancholy, its most common repose that of withdrawal, or of contemplation. In these ways the poems were comparable to those of Owen or Sassoon, with which they are inevitably compared. There is a shared sense of humility. Yet what perhaps sets Lang’s poems apart is their sense of celebration, if a muted one, of these sacrifices that were made. Whilst he stops short of celebrating war for its own sake, there is a pervading feeling that even in death there is a glory of sorts, or if not a glory, then certainly an honour. It was this aspect of Lang’s verse that captured the public’s imagination. In a country still reeling from the horrors of war, Lang’s poems seemed to light a way through the unprecedented grief.
Emboldened by his success Lang followed the collection with another, Unsad Shires, in 1924. The title is a reference to a line from Wilfred Owen’s poem, “Anthem for a Doomed Youth”:
No mockeries for them from prayers or bells,
Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs, –
The shrill demented choirs of wailing shells;
And bugles calling for them from sad shires.
The inference would appear to be that for Lang, whilst their losses are genuine, his shires would not be sad, but instead proud; proud of the sacrifice, and proud of all that it means. For it must be remembered that Lang was a patriot, and at a time when being a patriot meant something very different to what it does today. Reading these poems today, more so than those of When Trumpets Fade, they seem a little callow, a little simplistic. Certainly this was the opinion of one critic writing at the time who goes some way to describing the problem, citing what he terms as Lang’s ‘wilful naivity’. He was not the only one; other reviewers followed. It seems that for many this was the tipping point at which Lang’s work drifted into sentimentality, or worse, bombast. It is true, that this particular strain of idealism had always been present in Lang’s verse, but the pervading feeling now was that it now began to change into something else, and something far more disquieting.
Evidently the public did not feel the same way and continued to purchase each subsequent volume in the same numbers as before. Two further collections followed, The Death of an Officer in 1926, and Victory in 1928, with little sign of sales slowing. Yet these latter works only served to disillusion his critics further, and Victory in particular was savaged, with reviewers variously citing the ‘jingoism’ of the poems, or else their ‘militaristic, nationalistic’ overtones. The collection itself, which Lang conceived as the culmination of the series, sought to celebrate Britain’s ‘victory’ over Germany. However, even to the most patriotic of reviewers this seemed something of a wrong note.
Undoubtedly Lang was for a time at least insulated from critical opinion by his popular success. Such was his success that one tabloid newspaper bestowed upon him the title of ‘soldier’s voice’. But over time Lang became increasingly aware of the critical attitudes ranged against him. Partly this was due to their unrelenting nature – everything he now wrote, whether it be poems, or even newspaper articles, was greeted with disdain, or even derision from some quarters. It was also partly attributable to Lang’s growing misgivings about the worth of the later poems, a fear which the bad press simply served to confirm. Many of these fears are recorded by Lang’s friend, the poet Darius Jenkins, who in 1925, still struggling to establish his own reputation, went to Eveley to work as Lang’s ‘literary secretary’. In an article, only published after his death nearly thirty years later, he writes:
He was always very cheerful, very happy; but he could also be inconsolable, which was all the more unbearable for his outward good humour. He didn’t know what to trust – the public or the critical opinion. His agony was in choosing between his two selves, but I think that he understood that the implications of the choice itself, were such that he felt he’d lost his way.
Jenkins was capable of being equally eloquent in defence of his employer. In letters to John Language in particular, he defends Lang’s work, particularly The Death of an Officer against Language’s jibes about Lang’s growing mawkishness. Language, no doubt bitter about his own lack of success often lambastes Lang in these letters, but Jenkins is unmoved in his responses, and the pair argued regularly about it.
In the years that followed Lang began what he would term his ‘double-edged existence’. In public he continued to be lauded; he still consorted with the great and good and work, in the form of readings and newspaper articles showed no sign of abating. Moreover it was work he now genuinely enjoyed. In private however, it was a different matter. Hurt by the incessant critical sniping, and unsure of his own ability, his poems dried up, and in the four years that followed the publication of Victory he wrote no new material. He increasingly spent his time at home in Eveley, tending to his garden, or walking by the little brook.
There evolved here a small inner circle of friends and ‘courtiers’, outside of which Lang now rarely ventured. Included in this select group was Darius Jenkins, who was soon to have success of his own. After a year or two he left Lang’s employment to take up a teaching position at Bretton Hall. There was also Nicholas ‘Fred’ Sharman, a Conservative MP, and prominent member of the government. Between 1924 and 1929 he was Chief Whip, a post he returned to briefly in 1935, when his chief, Baldwin returned to the premiership. Sharman was also a key supporter of Chamberlain in the build-up to World War Two.
It was through Sharman that Lang became increasingly involved in politics. During the 1930s he wrote often and across a surprisingly diverse spectrum of subjects, from economic policy, to the issues of Indian independence. On this he found himself, briefly, in alliance with Winston Churchill, opposing independence and defending the putative Empire. Lang was certainly to the right of the Conservative party on this, and it perhaps this staunch imperialism that still deters latter-day readers of his work. Although his most controversial intervention was still to come.
In 1935 it was decided that the government would send a delegation to Germany. Ostensibly this was to be a cultural exchange, with no objectives beyond encouraging friendly relations between the two nation’s artistic communities. However, symbolically at least, it would always be much more than this. Hitler had come to power in 1933, and the Rhineland had already been re-occupied. Within three years both Austria and Czechoslovakia would be subsumed within the greater German Reich. From the outset then, the motivations behind the delegation were inevitably confused. In March, Sharman approached Lang to see whether he would be interested in going. Lang, it must be said, had not been Baldwin’s first choice but Sharman convinced him that Lang was the ideal candidate. As Britain’s unofficial ‘war laureate’ who else to heal old wounds? This questionable logic won him over and Lang excitedly agreed.
The first few days of the trip were spent touring the Bavarian countryside, taking part in folk festivals, and meeting local dignitaries. Politics seemed the last thing on anyone’s mind. Lang wrote to his wife:
The scenery is stunning, I don’t imagine there is anything like it anywhere in the world.
Gradually though the tour moved on, winding its way slowly towards Munich, where a reception had been laid on at a local hotel. It was at this reception that an innocuous looking local official, bearing Nazi insignia, approached the group, to ask them whether they would be willing to meet someone. On asking whom, they were astonished to hear that the Fuhrer himself wished to meet them, and not only this, but wondered whether they would like to dine with him later that evening. Placed in such a position it is not difficult to understand the groups willingness to accept, whatever their private reservations may have been. They were hardly in a position to decline. Not only would the diplomatic repercussions have been profound, but there was also the question of hospitality and courtesy. The German authorities were their hosts and to have refused such an invitation would have risked souring their day-to-day relations.
Lang’s own feelings at the time were obscure. Like many writers and thinkers of the time, Lang was certainly capable of a certain ambivalence towards the German chancellor, an ambivalence which to modern eyes seems suspiciously like admiration. Certainly he harboured no especial antipathy and seems to have viewed the prospect of the dinner with a sense of excitement more than anything else. Despite his shyness at other times, indeed perhaps because of it, Lang was oddly susceptible to the grand occasion, as is evidenced by his visit to Buckingham Palace a number of years before. He excitedly sent a telegram back to Sharman in London telling him the news.
Sharman for one saw the potential for embarrassment, and rushed around to Downing Street to advise Baldwin. What passed between them has remained shrouded in controversy ever since. According to Sharman, Baldwin gave his blessing to the meeting and the suspicion over the years, voiced most loudly by Lang’s defenders, Sharman among them, has been that the meeting must then have been engineered. In other words, that the government had fully anticipated that such a meeting would be proffered, and that consequently Lang must have been ‘set-up’. For his part, Baldwin always denied that this was the case, claiming that he did not, in fact, approve of the meeting, but rather that he didn’t disapprove of it either. Whatever the truth was, it represented the only serious break between Sharman and Baldwin in their life-long personal and political friendship.
Sharman’s own position was more complicated. Whilst he was no sympathiser of Hitler’s, he was deeply suspicious of the man and sincerely hoped that his election had been an aberration by the German people, and that a more palatable appointment would soon be made. At the same time he saw himself as a pragmatist and certainly did not wish to antagonise the Germans. He was later to be a passionate supporter of appeasement, and saw peace as a prize to be sought at all costs. Politics he believed was a “game of compromise”. But above all else he was loyal, and despite his own misgivings, he dutifully sent his own telegram back to Lang wishing him luck, adding that he hoped the food was pleasant enough – he had heard that Hitler was a T-total vegetarian.
The dinner itself passed off well enough, and Lang’s reflections from the time are recorded in an article he wrote for The Daily Sketch on his return. He recalled the grandeur of the place and the sense of ceremony, which he compared to the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace. The group had been taken to the Hotel Ludendorff (now sadly demolished) situated high in the hills around Munich. A small crowd had been invited and the motorcade was greeted by a flag-waving crowd who lined the road on either side. Lang writes:
A fine feast had been laid on for us, on a long dining table. Fortunately I was able to sit quite close to the Fuhrer, and we talked of many things. He spoke very quietly for such an important man. Certainly this was no hectoring demagogue, but a charming, tender man, who spoke very movingly about his experiences in the war, experiences not very different from my own; and although he spoke entirely through an interpreter, it was the sound of the man that was important, and I felt we understood each other perfectly.
Later, in his Memoirs, Lang expanded on his visit, and as well as the pleasantries, he recalled the great security around Hitler, and the “theatre of that evening”:
From the moment we arrived we were escorted around by uniformed men, usually at least two abreast on either side, who proceeded to lead us through corridors and corridors of further guards and lieutenants, all bearing arms, and all rigorously decked out in Nazi regalia. At one point I noticed a picture on the wall I’d seen before and turning to the fellow next to me I said: “Haven’t we been here before? I swear I recognise that picture.” “Of course,” he said to me. “Haven’t you been counting? This must be the third circuit!”
Contemporary reaction to Lang’s visit ranged from the relieved to the indifferent. There was no public appetite for talk of war or sanctions, and Hitler’s worst excesses were still to come. Significantly, there remained a public groundswell of disinterested support for Hitler, a support matched enthusiastically by the political classes, who saw Hitler’s feats in turning around a defeated Germany as nothing short of miraculous. A year later David Lloyd George, Britain’s saviour during the First World War, would also visit Germany, and write eloquently of Hitler’s striking personal qualities and political brilliance, while Oswald Moseley’s British Union of Fascists were at the peak of their popularity. Perhaps what damned Lang in later years was the way in which he recalled the encounter. As the above excerpt from his Memoirs aptly demonstrates, he saw the ridiculous, absurd side of the whole charade and its comic implausibility. And whilst he never sought to disavow the evil of Hitler’s regime, which he concedes he was oblivious to at the time, he refused to deny Hitler’s ability to charm and connect with his visitors. As both the above example, and his later poetry show, he did not do serious very well. Either he appeared flippant or else overemotional. Yet this was the character of the man and it should not detract from his moral courage.
In June 1940 he reenlisted, this time with the Staffordshire Rifles, and was posted to North Africa. But by 1942 he was back in Britain. He was badly wounded in action and was forced to retire from active service, serving with the Home Guard until the end of the war.
In April 1997 I returned to Quiberon, which I had first visited almost thirty years before. Much had changed, although it was still recognisable as the small market town I remembered. The tourists were not much in force this time of year and the weather was rather inhospitable, a marked contrast to that heady summer all those years ago. Many of the guesthouses were still closed for the season, and the café forecourts were deserted, the blue and white parasols hardly visible behind the rows of tables stacked up against the shop fronts. I was forced inside a lot of the time, and gazed from my hotel window while sheets of rain lashed the narrow arcades and the cobbled main street. Periodically the sky lightened and I would wander down to a bistro just off the market square and chat with the owner. Most afternoons we would share a bottle of wine, sitting outside beneath the awning till late, until the evening diners began to arrive and I would take my leave, and wander back through the park, past the war memorial.
It was possible to see the memorial from where we sat. It was tall, made from white stone, and only a little faded with the passing of the years. It consisted of a stone cross erected upon a rectangular base, which in turn was inscribed with the names of all those who had died during the Great War, and below this a further plaque had been hurriedly affixed bearing the names of those who died in the Second World War. Each evening I paused for a moment at the memorial, unconsciously reading the names. They were meaningless to me. I had not known any of these people. Their memories spoke to me from another time entirely. But I could not help but feel a little moved by their sheer endurance. Here their names remained, unchallenged and uninterrupted.
It was also from near this very spot that Lang wrote his letters home in 1918. Very few of them survive, but those that do say nothing of war or suffering. That would come later. Instead they describe his day-to-day routine, the drudgery and the banality of military life. It is odd then that his poetry should celebrate the ideals, rather than the realities of the life he endured; odd too when we consider that the works that preceded it were so realistic, so personable, and so unaffected. Perhaps Lang’s war poetry is most successful when it stays firmly within this earlier mode, as in “Death of an Officer”, or in the early poems of When Trumpets Fade. It is a mode to which, after the War he returned. In 1946 he published Home, a collection of poems written while recuperating at Eveley after his return from Africa. During this time his wife was also gravely ill fighting cancer, and for the first time in nearly twenty years they spent every day together, pottering about the village, tending to the garden. It was a return to the days before the war, and before his success, when they were simply man and wife bringing up a daughter. She may have departed to do her bit for the war effort, but her parents picked up where they left off.
However, their respective ailments did not make things easy. Lang had been badly wounded in the leg, a wound that would require that he walked with the aid of a stick for the rest of his life. His wife too was increasingly bedridden and was often not well enough to receive visitors. Lang wrote to Sharman:
If you could see the pair of us you would laugh. We potter on, we do, but it is sometimes difficult to see who is helping whom! We are as bad as each other, but I do worry for _______. She does not seem to get any better. I am not so worried for myself, I should get used to sitting very still and having a convenient excuse. I do worry I am old before my time though.
Lang was right to be concerned. His wife’s condition was largely untreatable, although the doctors were reluctant to say as much and many of the poems in Home document her slow decline, and describe quite tenderly his efforts to care for her. In the Spring of 1945, her condition took a turn for the worse. On June 5th, the day before VE Day she passed into a coma from which she would not recover. She died at home at the age of 48.
Lang was devastated. _______ was buried in the village cemetery where at least once a day he would visit her grave, sometimes for hours at a time. He stopped writing and put his poems away in a draw. It was not until a year later, when his daughter, home on leave, began to tidy his study that he returned to them. Finding them tucked away in one of drawers of his desk, and moved to tears, she encouraged him to persevere. After much reluctance he acquiesced, and in autumn 1946 they were published with little fanfare. Reviews were respectful, although a little unenthusiastic. Times had moved on and tastes had changed. The volume did not even sell very many, a far cry from his prolific pre-War career. His earlier meeting with Hitler did not play very well with a public still coming to terms with the end of the war. Disheartened, Lang decided that he would not publish poetry again. Before the war he had begun his mammoth biography of Coleridge, but even this he lost heart in. Instead he set about writing his memoirs, subsidised by occasional critical pieces commissioned every now and then, by friends and admirers. Yet even these would remain unpublished in his lifetime.
Setting off home through the park one evening I began to think of Toby Lang. The ground was sodden but it was still light, and the birds could still be heard singing in the trees. I walked slowly on, without pausing at the memorial this time, but passing right through, coming out into the narrow network of streets beneath the church on the other side. What interested me, was that in my entire career, a period spanning thirty years or more, I had never once written of his life. I had written occasional articles about this poem or that, or mentioned him in passing but little more. And it seemed odd to me that this should be the case, especially when one considers what an interesting life he led, and what a truly talented writer I believe he was. After seeing Lang in Eveley all those years ago I had come to Quiberon to solve the very same riddle, and had not found an answer then. I perhaps did not expect to find one now. I wonder whether Lang would have been one of Carlyle’s “Heroic Men of Letters.” I doubt it. I suspect Carlyle would have been similarly stumped.