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Reviews & Essays

Preface to
Oxford Poetry 1927 –
Auden & Day-Lewis

Did it serve no other purpose, this volume should at least offer a rebutment of the tendency, share by many serious-minded and a few single-minded persons, contemptuously to credit Oxford with ‘the undergraduate mind.’ We confess ourselves able neither to comprehend such an abstraction nor to surmise what increment may result from the fitting of any intellectual caption to so many diverse heads. Our minds are sparse enough, in all conscience: they must not also be held obnoxious to the charge of uniformity.

On the other hand, the chaos of values which is the substance of our environment is not consistent with a standardization of thought, though, on the political analogy, it may have to be superseded by one. All genuine poetry is in a sense the formation of private spheres out of a public chaos; and therefore we would remind those who annually criticize us for lack of homogeneity, first, that on the whole it is environment which conditions values, not values which form environment; second, that we must hold partly responsible for our mental sauve-qui-peut, that acedia and unabashed glorification of the subjective so prominent in the world since the Reformation.

Im Winkel König Fahrenheit
hat still sein Mus gegessen
--’ Ach Gott, sie war doch schön, die Zeit,
die man nach mir gemessen! [1]

A tripartite problem remains, and may be stated thus:

  1. The psychological conflict between self as subject and self as object, which is patent in the self-consciousness and emotional stultification resultant from the attempt to synchronise within the individual mind the synthesis and the analysis of experience. Such appears to be the prime development of this century, our experiment in the ‘emergent evolution of mind. Emotion is no longer necessarily to be analysed by ‘recollection in tranquillity’; it is to be prehended emotionally and intellectually at once. And this is of most importance to the poet; for it is his mind that must bear the brunt of the conflict and may be the first to realize the new harmony which would imply the success of this synchronization.

  2. The ethical conflict; a struggle to reconcile the notion of Pure Art, ‘an art completely isolated from everything but its own laws of operation and the object to be created as such,’[2] with those exigencies which its conditions of existence as a product of a human mind and culture must involve, where the one cannot b ignored nor the other enslaved.

  3. The logical conflict, between the denotatory and the connotatory sense of words, which is the root-divergence of classic and romantic; between, that is to say, an asceticism tending to kill language by stripping words of all association and a hedonism tending to kill language by dissipating their sense under a multiplicity of associations.

In what degree this problem is realized and met in these pages, the individual reader must decide. Those who believe that there is anything valuable in our youth as such we have neither the patienc e to consider nor the power to condone: our youth should be a period of spiritual discipline, not a self-justifying dogma. As for the intelligent reader, we can only remind him, where he experiences distaste, that no universalized system - political, religious or metaphysical - has been bequeathed to us; where pleasure, that it is but an infinitesimal progression towards a new synthesis - one more of those efforts as yet so conspicuous in their paucity.


[1] Christian Morgenstern, ‘Galgenlieder.’
[2] Jacques Martain, ‘Poetry and Religion’; New Criterion, V, I.vi