Anarchism to Personalism: Henry Treece and the New Apocalypse
A psychodrama of the Blitzscape: Robert Herring’s Harlequin Mercutio
Anarchism to Personalism: Henry Treece and the New Apocalypse
The poetry of the ‘forties has now been reappraised with almost as much vigour as that with which it was earlier despised; in the process “critical” generalisations and stereotypes have been deconstructed or discredited, and its real breadth has been rediscovered. Some of it has even been read again. But there are limits. I mean, nobody actually still reads the core New Apocalyptics, J F Hendry and Henry Treece, do they?
Wartime anarchist Henry Treece adopts an Apocalyptic expression. Portrait by David Kemp from Treece's 'How I See Apocalypse', 1946.
D J Enright in Scrutiny memorably characterised Treece’s poetry as “non-meaning” set in “Bogeyland”. Whatever we think of Scrutiny, he may have had a point. One can put up with only so many warrior bards and falcons, let alone the oceanic splendours of delight, the shroud of pestilence, the running panther of desire, etc etc. Considering that Treece, who was far from stupid, wrote the first real appreciation of Dylan Thomas, it’s odd that he learned so little from him. Even such a relatively sympathetic reviewer as Alex Comfort, writing in Poetry Quarterly in 1947, conceded Treece’s “inequality” (unevenness), and his taste for rhetoric: “He is extremely easily led to adopt his own cast-off clothes and parade as a kind of Guy Fawkes effigy of himself. Words obsess him, and he seems to think in gestures or gesticulations …” (He granted though, that Treece’s gesticulations had “scope”.)
The Apocalyptics are interesting today maybe less for their poems than for their theorising on the zeitgeist. And they certainly could theorise! Though one does wonder what Apocalypticism, Personalism and so forth ever really were in practice, that is, beyond their own manifestos about themselves. Was there any substance at all beyond the texts? Comfort notes that Treece’s theorising (as opposed to his impulses or background) is the real basis of his poetical rhetoric, and damns “his tendency to write theoretical expositions of what he is doing”. And it does often seem that Treece was temperamentally incapable of having a conversation or writing a poem without also producing, in parallel, some sort of theoretical self-commentary in essayese in which he would announce the event to an expectant and grateful reading public. As an ex-Marxist (of sorts), Treece understood perfectly well the proper relation between theory and practice (“as closely connected as … thought and deed”). But it seems that he only understood this in theory.
But on the plus side, all this pontification in print has at least left us some evidence of the impact of anarchism on the chattering classes of the war years, which seems to have been more considerable than has sometimes been recognised. (This evidence also serves to demonstrate the weakness of anarchism when it is left to float around literary circles as a set of ideas, disconnected from any class basis in organised labour.) Not that you would know about any of this from the literary historians. For instance, Linda M Shires, in the Apocalypse chapter of her lacklustre 1985 essay collection on British Poetry of the Second World War, omits strikingly even a single mention of anarchism. But for Treece and others, under the influence of Herbert Read and seeking a progressive alternative to the leftovers of Auden and Stalinism, it was a vital strand of their thinking. “The only way Left, as I see it,” wrote Treece, “is that of anarchism”.
Treece was born in the Black Country, was educated at Wednesbury High School, and later left Birmingham University “with a degree scarcely worth the paper bearing its inscription; the result … of my refusal to adapt myself to a regimen which I felt to be inimical to true learning.” Working as a young teacher while learning the craft of writing, he considered himself “as Red as it is possible to be”, and would have joined the Party “if I had known how to do it”. (Just how difficult could that have been?) But in time
I gradually came to see that my “Communism” was nothing more than my adolescent sense of injustice, operating in terms of the only symbols that were then available to me, those of Capital and Labour … In fact, I looked around and found that the Capitalists were the people I liked, the “decent” folk with nice manners and pleasant voices, who had me to dinner … They were the people who could afford to read the books I admired … They went to Oxford and to Cambridge, wore good Harris Tweeds … They did the things I liked to do, in fact. How then could I shoot them? … and in any case, the Workers, with whose Cause I had so gratuitously identified myself, would never take me seriously, but would keep calling me “Sir” … when I would have wept for joy to have been called “Comrade”.
John Tunnard's rather fab cover for Treece's 1946 essay collection. Is the structure abstract? Or is that a pair of eyes at the top and a mouth at the right - the "I see" and "lypse" of the title? Is this the face of Apocalyptic Man?
Despite the the tongue in the cheek here, it’s clear that Treece’s espousal of anarchism was in part down to his suspicion that it might involve him in less of this uncomfortable class war business. In his rather trad, rural, William-Morrissey vision of a libertarian society “… the aristocracy would exist as well under anarchism as they have done during any other period of change in this country, provided they were useful and not simply ornamental.” The aristo would be saved from Treece’s firing squad by his “tradition of service to his locality”. Conversely, to be fair, Treece spared no sympathy for the nouveau riche, enjoying wealth and privilege without responsibility, or for the “industrial magnate … who employs 500 wage-slaves for his purely private gain”, of whose enterprise “the final result is, of course, an armaments chain”. The criteria here are to do with Treece’s sense of natural equity, and not primarily with the redistribution of wealth. Although, a little vaguely, he denounced “the capitalist balloon” and advocated “a revised economic system”, he was, as he cheerfully admitted, no kind of economist.
The Spanish Civil War had left him untouched. He writes of the “remoteness of the fighting”, making that war for him and others like him merely “something privately Quixotic, a symbol of free action, and a stimulus to free thought”. Remarkably, he admits that though he had “many” Spanish friends, “I did not know on which side they would be fighting”.
Nor does Treece’s anarchism always come through too explicitly in his verse. Take, for instance, “The Warrior Bards”:
So they came riding
In red and in gold
With laughter and harping
Over the weald
No sword was among them,
They fought with a song etc etc
Two verses later the bards are ambushed (it’s not clear by whom, except that they are grey and black, rather than red and gold), and the poet watches “their gay dead / Ride the gaunt cattle / Back through the wood”. Leaving aside the issue of why the gay dead ride cattle rather than horses – and one suspects that it may be simply to provide a rhyme with “battle”- we can be forgiven for taking this at face value as a bit of rollicking mediaevalism – vaguely like Heath-Stubbs but not so good. But according to Treece’s own commentary: “The Bards are not only the poets, but all the bright souls born into a system which demands of them only blind obedience to the God of Profit Production.” Really?? How Treece expected anyone to detect the anti-capitalism behind the men in tights is hard to say.
Compare with his fellow anarchist poets Alex Comfort and George Woodcock. Alex Comfort’s “Elegy for a girl dead in an air-raid” (1942):
For nobody falls but we two hear the shot –
no one is beaten but we see the blood,
and the pale hand uncurl in the green water –
or hear the miner’s spine crack two miles down.
George Woodcock’s “Poem for Michael Bakunin” (1943):
For that dry future where these tiny flames
Grow into one to burn both fear and hope
And when life’s day bursts on a ruined land
The iron growth of stars where green guns grew
Will be more violent than our eyes can hold.
(Woodcock’s Anarchy or Chaos of 1944 gets a better press these days than his much criticised Anarchism of 1962 and 1973. It would be too much of a sideline here to take in the re-launch of Freedom newspaper under Woodcock and Vernon Richards in 1944. Stuart Christie, in “My Granny made me an anarchist“, characterises this as “a shameless coup by the pacifists and intellectuals who were out to sideline the class-struggle oriented anarchists and shift Freedom towards a more literary, artistic and academic focus.” This incident obviously has resonances for our consideration of Treece’s anarchism. But suffice to say that in the early ‘forties, Woodcock’s anarchist credentials were still intact. I cite these passages to show how, at the time, anarchist poetry could be written that had immediacy and passion, without sliding into Audenesque agit-speak.)
But this is not to say that Treece’s brand of anarchism was always less than radical. Influenced by the writings of Herbert Read, he defined his desired society as one of
small, local “collectives”, worked by individuals, a new Guild system, not an octopus Trades Unionism; the burial of The State without honours; the dispossession of all Capitalists unwilling to toe the new line.
Fairly dissident for someone who served during the war as an Intelligence officer with RAF Bomber Command. As an anarchist, Treece declares himself for equity and natural law, and against man-made justice and moral law; for the local group, the market town, the market gardener and the small owner, and against the dehumanising central Machine, the industrial city and the industrial magnate; for neighbourly decency and against the profit motive. As an Apocalyptic, he is for the organic and against the decorative or fake, for individual sensitivity and against The Object, for myth and against centralised planning, for William Blake and against Imagism.
There is much here that is sympathetic, even if some elements seem a bit new-agey. (The roots of the ‘sixties were definitely in the ‘forties.) Moreover, Treece denounces Surrealism (a considerable influence on early Apocalypticism) as subjecting its followers to the blind and authoritarian demands of the unconscious, in denial of man’s free will to control his circumstances. Given that organised Surrealism allied itself under Breton to purely authoritarian forms of revolutionary theory, and to the relentless historical necessities of Marxism, this is a pretty astute critique.
However, there is also much talk of the integration of the conflicting aspects of man’s personality, of the imagination with the world of objects and so forth, Treece’s “personal Armageddon”. In the background of Apocalypticism lurks the occult spectre of Jungian individuation, though this is never acknowledged. One influence that is acknowledged though, is Apocalypse (1931), the confused and ranting last testament of D H Lawrence, that apostle of individualist authenticity. (Apart from anything else, this explains the origination of the term “Apocalypticism”, which otherwise seems wilfully obscure.) Hardly surprising then that by 1943, perhaps under the influence of his collaborator Stefan Schimanski, Treece’s Apocalypticism had reformed itself as Personalism, a philosophy of self-expression and self-realisation. As the political dimension receded, it all became terribly interior:
“Yet what I am asking for … is not primarily a revised economic system, the destruction of caste and privilege, the establishment of industrial zones and the limiting of the size of our towns, the abolition of dividends and the muzzling of machines; it is A CHANGE OF HEART.”
By the early ‘fifties, Treece had had his own change of heart. As he abandoned poetry and turned his hand to the historical novel, the elements of national tradition and laissez faire within his thinking floated to the surface, and he became a firm monarchist and social conservative. The seeds of this conservatism had always been there within his conception of anarchism. Even in his radical years, his views had not been a million miles away from those of a small-government, localist, rural, libertarian Tory. There’s a lesson there somewhere.
Treece decorates the supermarket as a local celebrity
There are not too many traces left of Treece. Savoy still reprint some of his historical novels, which have been lent a modern legitimacy by the advocacy of fantasy and SF writer Michael Moorcock (another literary anarchist). His only public monument is on the giant metal friezes that adorn the new Morrison’s supermarket at the centre of Wednesbury in the Black Country, his birthplace, and not too far from Walsall, the site of a notoriously rigged anarchist bomb conspiracy trial in 1892. Here his face, taken from a later photo and somewhat simplified in sheet aluminium, winks down at shoppers and passing motorists, above those of local historian Frederick Hackwood, comedy actor Richard Wattis and industrial inventor Cornelius Whitehouse, with accompanying text by Wednesbury’s unofficial poet laureate, Brendan Hawthorne.
Treece’s anarchism may have been of a fairly philosophical variety, but there can’t be too many public monuments to anarchists of any kind in the West Midlands, let alone on a supermarket. Though it’s appropriate enough, in its way. In the totalitarian climate of 1943, Personalism must have looked like a radical programme. Today, we’ve all bought into free choice and self-realisation. “Bought” being the operative word. At the supermarket, we are all Personalists.
A psychodrama of the Blitzscape: Robert Herring’s Harlequin Mercutio
“We are building a new world. We are not in the least afraid of ruins.”
Classified as unfit for active service, the poet and critic Stephen Spender joined the London Auxiliary Fire Service during the war. There is some experiential weight, therefore, behind his comments on the effects of the Blitz in his introduction to Air Raids, a 1943 paperback in the Oxford U P’s morale-boosting “War Pictures by British Artists” series.
In Spender’s view, the new war had produced no single stereotypical battle front, unlike the First World War where the battered moonscape of the Western Front had established itself as a universal image. And so the iconic landscape of this war would be that of the wrecked city under an air raid. To begin with, he sounds a regretful note at the loss of great architecture to the bomb, and at belated public recognition of its greatness:
It has taken a Blitz to make crowds of people visit buildings in our cities which they had never noticed, perhaps, until they became, overnight, famous ruins.
'Merseyside 1941', W Douglas Macleod, from 'Air Raids'
But then –
Tragedy is exalting because it opens up a future, and indeed a present, at the very moment when it destroys past achievements. There is something of release in the destruction of the greatest monuments, and what is released is the spirit which they enshrined. At the same time, there is something dead and inhibiting about a tradition that lives on without being appreciated. It is right that Londoners should have derived a sense of the greatness of Wren’s architecture from the destruction of the city churches.
This is very close to suggesting that the wholesale destruction of the old, “inhibiting” architecture is a necessary and desirable precondition of a national spiritual renewal. Further, the destruction brings together in their shared trauma the artist and the man in the street, whose new solidarity will enable the post-war reconstruction, which will be a spiritual advance and not a mere rebuilding:
Both live now among the same grim realities … It is important that the artist should hold on to this new certainty of reality, and that the public should not fall asleep again. If the gulf can remain bridged after the war, we may build new cities and a new civilization worthy of the values which we are now spiritually aware of because they have, materially, been destroyed.
At one level, we have to give Spender credit for evolving this thesis from his personal experience of fire fighting during the Blitz. At another, he is simply constructing, as he was required to, a positive gloss to put on a destruction whose severity threatened to collapse public morale. And his argument is selective and elitist; beyond the refreshingly thrilling demolition of a couple of Wren city churches, what about the flattening of ordinary homes, and the deaths and mutilations of their inhabitants? What spiritual renewal there?
There is, however, another text of the period that, in its own eccentric manner, takes Spender’s argument all the way, finding in the bombing of childhood homes a means of the reintegration of the individual human personality. This is Robert Herring’s seven scene “pantomime” of the Blitz, Harlequin Mercutio, published in the first (1943) issue of Transformation, the chunky New Apocalypse periodical edited by Henry Treece and Stefan Schimanski.
Herring’s career as a poet and critic has rather dropped out of sight. Born in 1903, he edited the literary periodicals The London Mercury and Life and Letters Today from the ‘twenties to the ‘forties. Today he is better remembered as an early film critic involved in experimental cinema through his association with the Pool Group of Kenneth MacPherson and Hilda Doolittle (“HD”), playing a part in MacPherson’s 1930 film Borderline. By 1943 he was no longer in any younger generation, but as the ascendancy of Auden declined he seems to have found a niche among the neo-romantics. He also promoted the Welsh and Scottish poetry “Renaissances” in the pages of his review.
Robert Herring, 1929
In a dismissive review of Herring’s 1947 Westward Look (selected poems from 1922 to 1945), Derek Stanford characterised Herring’s poetic career as “ ‘a glass of fashion’ in which the chameleon Zeitgeist of verse has left its various passing reflections – an album of poetic ‘poly-photos’ of one’s time. From mock-Elizabethan, via Imagist puns, to the borrowed storm-wrack of ‘Apocalyptic’ song …” Conversely, Apocalyptics Treece and Schimanski applauded Herring for his “individual, kaleidoscopic technique” and as “a playwright completely en rapport with Restoration Drama”.
The Imagist and Apocalyptic poles of Herring’s poetic spectrum seem predictable enough, given the time span of his career, but the mock-Elizabethan/Restoration seems rather out on a limb. Harlequin Mercutio, like his 1944 play The Impecunious Captain, is written entirely in this idiom, and the overall effect – Shakespearian verse drama enacted by Jungian archetypes and set in the London Blitz – is, frankly, bizarre. (For a ‘forties visual equivalent, we would need some sort of fusion of the acid-baroque fantasies of Robin Ironside, and the waif-in-the-Blitz drawings of John Minton.)
John Minton, 'Blitzed city with self portrait', 1941
Herring’s sense is further obscured by his frequent and cavalier use of highly condensed and fractured syntax, as in such supposed sentences as –
“Cavil but that you’re vulnerable”.
“Wit-riddled, mis-read ‘whole’ intact outside – and first was holed.”
– and is regularly chopped up by desperately meaningful and horribly over-stretched puns:
“here, from razing, rose”
“answer raze with ‘raise’”
“a world of railing – both a London square, and families, fowling, falling foul”
Robin Ironside, 'Hamlet'
As a piece of theatre, not that it was intended as such, Harlequin Mercutio would be unperformable. As an extended poem or (hypothetically) a radio play, it is incoherent, wilfully difficult and virtually unreadable. But there is something oddly brave about it, and it witnesses to a period view of the Blitz that sits well outside what we are supposed to know about the cheery suffering of the home front. It’s hardly feasible to transcribe here its full two dozen pages , but the author’s own introductory synopsis (which wobbles throughout on the edge of self-parody) will give a good idea:
(SYNOPSIS – In this pantomime of present-day London, EGO, surveying raid-damage, delves through the rubble that he may find the centre from which to begin again. This delving is both actual, in a journey to past homes, all hit, and spiritual, in a review of his life in them.
He is accompanied by HARLEQUIN, his many-faceted mind, and at each site finds something of his Spirit. This is personified by MERCUTIO.
MERCUTIO, as in the play, dies, cursing “a plague on both your houses”. His soul is therefore condemned to seek a habitation. At each site, he is baffled by a figure of HAMLET, who will not face him. It is only when he has learnt to face himself, that MERCUTIO realizes that HAMLET is another aspect of his own self, and that together they form EGO.
This unification is presented as their being blown together by a bomb. From the fusion rises HARLEQUIN, le malin, taking his leave and transforming into MERLIN, the magician.
According to legend, MERLIN sleeps until called upon to save the world. He had no father and therefore depends only on himself. He here represents the good in Man, and hence his power of self-help and resurrection. – R.H.)
In his own rather generalised review of the poetry of the war years in Transformation 3, Herring indicates in passing that he views life, and the experience of war, in terms of a quasi-psychoanalytic process of maturation:
“… war, being a form of childishness, presents the problems of childhood: parting, insecurity, nightmare, growing up (as well as the compensations of childhood – quick response, experience, growing up) … [War has] maybe intensified that, as it intensifies most things or the lack of them.”
Graham Sutherland, 'Devastation 1941: Ruined Buildings 2', from 'Air Raids'
In Harlequin Mercutio, this intensified process is enacted as a Jungian reintegration of archetypal aspects of the fragmented personality, but, given the Merlin figure, it also seems to be presented as a reconfiguration of national myth, a project fond to the Apocalyptic heart. The city is thus “raided to unity – or, if preferred, yourself completed”. Herring freely plunders Shakespeare for archetypes with which to populate his densely symbolic world, identifying Mercutio as an aspect of Mercury (“My name, Mercutio, carries syllable of a winged messenger, mercurial”), and as the liberated and liberating spirit of the Blitzed streets:
He who cried
“A plague on both your houses,” as he died?
That plague has come …
He is the knocker on the unhinged door;
the carpet flapping and the clocks that tick;
the paper pennant, perilous on shaved brick.
All thin remainders in destruction thick
he is; all homes hit to the quick,
be they in fair Verona, or whate’er you call
the city where a heart hangs in each wall
whose half is hollowed – that one, over all,
towers to a town that, flaked, will yet not fall.
The actual plot (if it can be called a plot) is of less interest than the depiction of the city of ruined houses whose opened walls create an imaginary stage set – “properties” in both senses:
The scene is scattered, and the properties
are lath and plaster merely; not designed
as such deliberately …
You stand before your home. Once among these
stones, sited safe, you lived …
…Ruins, till only recently, were old.
Today, what’s lived in yesterday, lies cold.
To lawyer, dwelling-place or office go;
en route, be welcomed by the overthrow
of landmark: you, so lately heir, must live
of home suspended …
… a home
a maddened minute mashed to lifelong loam.
Ego’s visits to thrown-open buildings once lived in become an opening up of unconscious memories, a re-examination of all the psychoanalytic clutter of childhood trauma, beginning at his Grandmother’s house:
Here, in gloves
(honouring the father whom your mother loves)
you first felt fettered …
Though open to the street,
the hungry house, its aura is replete
as any Sunday dinner, over pushed-back chair
in die-ning room that shuddered out the air.
The burst house is haunted by the “unhallowed band” of oppressive ghosts of familial conflict:
On with your mask! The family come, the troop
of angry acrobats, who will not stoop
to pick a handkerchief, but throw a glove;
cannot arise in greeting, but can shove,
contortioning all ways to draw have from ‘love’.
Conflict such as shaped Hamlet or Romeo and Juliet is internalised as a personality divided against itself and cursed. In Mercutio’s words,
‘Plague on your houses – those split selves that be
Voidably wed to endless enmity!
From here, Ego arrives at his own childhood home, the house of his dead father:
Father is dead. Talked of, he makes no noise …
… yet present in a house
preserved in piety …
The scene moves to the bombed-out cemetery, in which torn graves extend the symbolism of the opened unconscious:
Here, where finality, it was, gave grief,
bombs have made ev’n last resting place be brief.
Granite’s degraded here, and crosses chipped …
… and what was sealed, is seared; what shut, half-open.
From where, finally, Ego-Mercutio returns to his own house –
Across all London, every home you trace
may hold its ground, but’s slightly lost its face.
Grandmother’s sliced, your parents cut to bone;
cemetery grazed and the last link, your own,
– only to find himself the ghost at his own wake. As Mercutio dialogues with his alter ego Hamlet the house is bombed:
– and in that moment, flame
flew at the street; burnt them; and made them same.
Flame licked their linen – bombs bit squares from skin,
and sable weeds were slashed to Harlequin.
The bloody wounds of the bomb victim become the red lozenges of Harlequin’s costume:
Ah, you have colour now. Inch-thick, are laced
in blood-dripped diamonds …
He rises from the bodies of Hamlet and Mercutio, mirrored and fused in death, and “becomes visible as MERLIN, the sun-god, the Wizard, waiting at the bottom of the Well for Man to set him free …”
Merlin! Unfathered, woken to avenge
our street upended with a new Stonehenge.
I, Merlin, who now rise,
the glory buried in you, which – for fear it burn –
you seek to cover …
… Yet, in the end erupting, overturn
all you eclipse me with, and in your need
reach what it takes an earthquake to have freed.
The image of a new Stonehenge created by fragmented slabs of bombed buildings is maybe one of Herring’s happier conceits. And so, in this generalised blaze of optimistic, national-solar symbolism, the play closes.
R Murray, 'Crater', from 'Air Raids'
Harlequin Mercutio is hardly a neglected masterpiece, though its clogged Hermetic symbolism, its arcane allusions and its unhelpful antiquarianism are redeemed to an extent by Herring’s vivid and sympathetic narration of Ego’s childhood and family history, which has the feel of being drawn from personal experience. Overall as a text, it is something of a failure, especially given Herring’s understanding of the syntax of film editing, which he might have applied with better effect to this particular script. And it would have benefited had he buried himself less in The Golden Bough, though he was not alone in that indulgence. But the play remains worthy and fascinating for its audacious reclamation of the Blitz as a moment of spiritual rebirth at both psychoanalytic and mythic levels. It belongs within an alternative strand of British modernism that fell out of favour and has since fallen out of view. Whether the strong conservative cultural pull within that strand might, in different circumstances, have given birth to an unpleasant post-war Arthurian nationalism, with a benefit to the political right, is another issue.