the first world war
This Excellent Machine GO
Port Bou GO
Here War Is Simple GO
the second world war
crimes against humanity
the nuclear age
The poet Roy Fuller was born in 1912. 'It turned out that my boyhood ended at the start of a world upheaval, which led to an upheaval in English writing, particularly the writing of poetry.'
In 1929, when the great economic depression began, Fuller was 17 years old. 'It can't be said that before 1929 one lived in a just, prosperous and ordered England. I was conscious of the injustices and illogicalities in the social distribution of money and privileges.' By 1932 he had become a Marxist. 'I believed that the wrongs in society could be righted only through social revolution. I believed that the threat of war could be removed only by the victory of the international working classes. I believed that opposition to Nazi and other fascist movements would only be effective from left-wing parties and leadership. By then W H Auden, Stephen Spender and C Day Lewis had published their early books, all containing verse concerned with social issues and political beliefs. One felt part of a new movement in literature.'
But nothing was straightforward. 'Almost from the start there were difficulties and unhappiness. The belief in Marxism seemed to some people a matter of faith. On losing that faith they felt deeply guilty at ever having held it.' Fuller too had doubts about the way Marxism worked, or did not work, in practice. He began to be uncertain about 'the goodness of mankind in the mass, and about State ownership'. The problem for everyone was what was happening in Russia, a country whose government was built on Marxist principles and had turned out to be run by a brutal dictator. The 1930s saw three dictators in power: Joseph Stalin in Russia (between 1934 and 1938 millions of so-called 'enemies of the people' were imprisoned, exiled or shot), Benito Mussolini in Italy (in power from 1922 and at his most aggressive in the 1930s), and Adolf Hitler, whose Nazi party was elected to the leadership of Germany and who made himself sole ruler in 1933.
Roy Fuller pinpointed something else: the developing sense that poets were 'temperamentally and otherwise unfitted for political life and action'. This bothered him. 'The evils of the age go on presenting themselves as conquerable, if at all, only by the active steps taken by each individual.' Taking no steps was letting oneself and others down.
Roy Fuller's own way of writing was ultimately inspired by a remark made by Stephen Spender: that a poet might usefully and honestly write about, or 'out of', his or her own doubts. Doubts about beliefs: is communism really the answer, can all problems be dealt with by politics? Doubts about actions: is one holding back when one shouldn't, pressing forward when one should? Doubts about strong views: are they fair, is it sometimes OK to compromise? In fact raising questions and airing doubts can be inspiring, enlightening, thought-provoking - in a word, poetic.
Indeed, it was in the 1930s that poetry was accepted as having to do with everything. 'Poetry,' said W H Auden, 'is memorable speech' - about what? Everything; anything. Birth, death, hatred, fear, the delights and miseries of desire, the prosperity of unjust people and the misery of many just ones, triumphs, earthquakes, boredom and anxiety, terror, despair... When Auden said that all the things we remember, 'no matter how trivial, are equally the subject of poetry', he also meant that they can be used to convey ideas and feelings about things that aren't trivial at all.
'Poetry,' said Roy Fuller, 'is a succinct art: readers must let it expand in their understanding'. In the 1930s poems began to do what they do best: shine light, from different angles, on things that should not always be kept in the dark. But they have to be given time to work in the mind, as it, so to speak, adjusts itself to the light.
The four poems in this section are all, in very different ways, wake-up calls, reminders that, as Roy Fuller said, each individual should 'take active steps'. Their authors were all young, intelligent, alert, aware, and confident that poetry was the new medium for ideas. (In 1935, John Lehmann was 28, Stephen Spender 25, C Day Lewis 31, W H Auden 28.) They wanted to make people think. How often do we say 'it makes you think'? How often ought we to hang on to that thought and do something with it - 'take active steps'?
Roy Fuller again: 'The evils of the age go on presenting themselves as conquerable, if at all, only by the active steps taken by each individual - or at any rate so pervasive and fundamental as to make taking no steps a matter of self-reproach.' It makes you think.