Max Beerbohm, and postwar uncertainties

The tone of much writing in the twenties is a demoralised restlessness. The effect of war trauma? For some, definitely. The effect of economic uncertainty? A factor not to be underestimated.
Also, though, there was a loss of moral bearings. During the tough days of the War, Britain had been buoyed up by the myth of a united nation, working together against a clearly defined enemy. Afterwards, in the future that men had been fighting for, there was uncertainty, division,  a fear of fragmentation.

‘Something Defeasible is an essay by Max Beerbohm in a 1919 issue of that excellent magazine, The Owl (edited by Robert Graves and now available online as part of the Modernist Journals Project). In it, he watches a boy building a sandcastle, and knows that the incoming sea will soon utterly destroy it. This castle becomes a metaphor for civilisation, at risk from the large forces of history. While building the castle, its young builder had kept at bay the jeering older boys, but against the sea he is powerless. Beerbohm ruminates, in a manner many may find odiously reactionary, but which I’m sure expressed the feelings of many in England at the time:

During the War one felt it a duty to know the worst before breakfast; now that the English polity is threatened merely from within, one is apt to dally…. Merely from within? Is that a right phrase when the nerves of unrestful Labour in any one land are interplicated with its nerves in any other, so vibrantly? News of the dismissal of an erring workman in Timbuctoo is enough nowadays to make us apprehensive of vast and dreadful effects on our own immediate future. How pleasant if we had lived our lives in the nineteenth century and no other, with the ground all firm under our feet! True, the people who flourished then had recurring alarms. But their alarms were quite needless; whereas ours—! Ours, as I glanced at this morning’ s news from Timbuctoo and elsewhere, seemed odiously needful. Withal, our Old Nobility in its pleasaunces was treading once more the old graceful measure which the War arrested; Bohemia had resumed its motley; even the middle class was capering, very noticeably… To gad about smiling as though he were quite well, thank you, or to sit down, pull a long face, and make his soul,—which, I wondered, is the better procedure for a man knowing that very soon he will have to undergo a vital operation at the hands of a wholly unqualified surgeon who dislikes him personally? I inclined to think the gloomier way the less ghastly. But then, I asked myself, was my analogy a sound one? We are at the mercy of Labour, certainly; and Labour does not love us; and Labour is not deeply versed in statecraft. But would an unskilled surgeon, however ill-wishing, care to perform a drastic operation on a patient by whose death he himself would forthwith perish? Labour is wise enough—surely?—not to will us destruction. Russia has been an awful example. Surely! And yet, Labour does not seem to think the example so awful as I do. Queer, this; queer and disquieting. I rose from my bench, strolled to the railing, and gazed forth.

So far, so grumpily conservative, but Beerbohm takes it further. When the sea comes in and destroys the boy’s masterpiece of sand-architecture, it is cheered on not only by the jeering older boys, but by the young architect himself:

He leapt, he waved his spade, he invited the waves with wild gestures and gleeful cries. His face had flushed bright, and now, as the garden walls crumbled, and the paths and lawns were mingled by the waters’ influence and confluence, and the walls of the cottage itself began to totter, and the gables sank, and all, all was swallowed, his leaps were so high in air that they recalled to my memory those of a strange religious sect which once visited London; and the glare of his eyes was less indicative of a dreamer than of a triumphant fiend.

Even the urbane Beerbohm is not immune from this contagious joy in destruction:

I myself was conscious of a certain wild enthusiasm within me. But this was less surprising for that I had not built the cottage, and my fancy had not enabled me to dwell in it. It was the boy’s own enthusiasm that made me feel, as never before, how deep-rooted in the human breast the love of destruction, of mere destruction, is. And I began to ask myself: ‘Even if England as we know it, the English polity of which that cottage was a symbol to me, were the work of (say) Mr. Robert Smillie’s own unaided hands’—but I waived the question coming from that hypothesis, and other questions that would have followed; for I wished to be happy while I might. [Robert Smillie was leader of the Miners’ Federation of Great Britain.]

Anthony Powell in an essay described Beerbohm as one of those writers who were never the same after the First World War. This essay partly explains why.


  1. Tom Deveson
    Posted September 12, 2012 at 6:50 am | Permalink

    It’s intriguing to see how Auden uses almost the same imagery for opposite purposes and with very different feelings in A Summer Night [1933]:

    “…Soon, soon, through the dykes of our content
    The crumpling flood will force a rent
    And, taller than a tree,
    Hold sudden death before our eyes
    Whose river dreams long hid the size
    And vigours of the sea….”

    Auden welcomes the flood because after revolutionary destruction comes the growth of something new:

    “…But when the waters make retreat
    And through the black mud first the wheat
    In shy green stalks appears,
    When stranded monsters gasping lie,
    And sounds of riveting terrify
    Their whorled unsubtle ears…”

    David Blackbourn’s The Conquest of Nature: Water, Landscape, and the Making of Modern Germany explores the connection between ‘the conquest of nature’ and ‘the conquest of others’, making huge historical sense and interest out of these metaphors as they turn into physical fact.

  2. Posted September 12, 2012 at 9:03 am | Permalink

    Thanks, Tom – that’s an intriguing comparison.
    I can’t help wondering – does Auden want us to despise those outdated stranded monsters? Or feel for them as they gasp fruitlessly? Or a bit of both?
    I looked at this poem in both the posthumous Collected, and in ‘Look Stranger!’ of 1936. Auden (the inveterate reviser) toned down the cultural death-wish in later printings of the poem, cutting out this stanza that had been included in 1936:

    For what by nature and by training
    We loved, has little strength remaining:
    Though we would gladly give
    The Oxford colleges, Big Ben,
    And all the birds of Wicken Fen,
    It has no wish to live.

    The elderly Auden in his Oxford College refuge was much less willing than his younger self to give up the certainties of civilisation for the thrills of revolution.

    • Tom Deveson
      Posted September 16, 2012 at 7:19 am | Permalink

      Yes, it feels like ‘a bit of both’. As so often in Auden’s personal-political poems, the tone of voice is immediately persuasive and at the same time tricky to define. And, as you say, the revisions make it even harder to be exactly certain what he meant. John Fuller has some interesting stuff on the revisions to A Summer Night in his huge book of commentary, but there are [and will be] other opinions. Geoffrey Grigson wrote a piece in New Verse 1937 [the special Auden double number] called ‘Auden as a Monster’, so the monsters themselves might justly want to argue in favour of ambiguity.

  3. Bill
    Posted September 20, 2014 at 3:09 am | Permalink

    Is this apparent welcoming of a destructive, cleansing force not very similar to the way Brooke and others welcomed the War itself, the “… swimmers into cleanness leaping, Glad from a world grown old and cold and weary…”?

    • Posted September 20, 2014 at 4:50 pm | Permalink

      The desire to clean and purge society remained a dangerous temptation throughout the twentieth century.
      These days the Islamic State chaps seem very keen on it.

      • Bill
        Posted September 22, 2014 at 8:00 pm | Permalink

        Of course, Yahweh didn’t set the best of examples rather earlier with his approach to the Cities of the Plain and Noah’s compatriots.

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