In this week’s Times Literary Supplement, Michael Dirda writes an interesting review of a new biography of Raymond Chandler. One phrase irked me, though. Dirda refers to Chandler’s early poetic attempts as ‘wan Georgian-style verse’. Since most of the published ones were written before 1910, they are not even Georgian by chronology – but I think Mr Dirda is not just referring to time of composition. ‘Georgian’ in literary criticism refers to the group of writers included in or inspired by Edward Marsh’s Georgian Poetry. Modernists, and later critics who have taken the modernist narrative at face value, have often used the term ‘Georgian as an insult, and I think that that is what Mr Dirda is doing here.
If we look at a typical bit of Chandler’s early verse – ‘The Quest’ of 1909 – we will see that it has little in common with the kind of poems that Marsh included:
I sought among the trampling herds of men
That choke the cities of the cast and west.
The proudest mansion and the foulest den
I entered, seeking wisdom yet unguessed.
I searched them through unpausing, without rest,
Until the bricks and plaster of each wall
Became transparent at my thought’s behest,
But still I could not hear the Master’s call.
With its stage-Gothic scenery, archaism, vague religiosity and suggestion that wisdom might possibly be found in ‘the foulest den’, this is a warming-up of nineties left-overs, and very different from the rural realism that is found in the best of Georgian poetry (Masefield, W.H. Davies, D.H.Lawrence, Edward Thomas and others). Merryn Williams, in her excellent anthology ‘The Georgians’ (2009) makes a strong case for the movement, representing them as the link between the tough-minded humanism of Hardy and the work of the best of the War poets.
Mr Dirda is, of course, justified in his suggestion that Chandler’s early verse was weak stuff. Later his poetic output thinned, but the quality seems to have improved markedly, to judge by this ‘Song at Parting’, which was on display in a Bodleian Library exhibition a couple of years back:
He left her lying in the nude
That sultry night in May.
The neighbours thought it rather rude.
He liked her best that way.
He left a rose beside her head,
A meat-axe in her brain.
A note upon the bureau read:
‘I won’t be back again.’