Georgian poets (act. 1912–1922)
by Dominic Hibberd

Georgian poets (act. 1912–1922) is the name commonly given to the forty writers who contributed to one or more of the five volumes of Edward Marsh's anthology, Georgian Poetry (1912–22). Unlike their contemporaries the imagists the Georgians had no agreed programme and were in no sense a literary school. Indeed the only workable definition of a Georgian poet is that his or her work (there were briefly two women among the forty) appeared in Marsh's anthology. Critics have sometimes tried to evade this definition, claiming that some contributors, such as Thomas Sturge Moore, were too old and others, notably D. H. Lawrence, too original to qualify as Georgians. But Marsh chose a wider range of work than he is often credited with, while Lawrence appeared in four of the five volumes and was the most enthusiastic reviewer of the first: ‘we are awake again, our lungs are full of new air, our eyes of morning’ (Rhythm, March 1913, quoted in Rogers, 102) . Arguably the first of the Georgians was Wilfrid Gibson, who decided in 1905 that a poet should write in simple language about the life of his own times. By 1910 he was well known. In 1911 John Masefield's notorious verse narrative The Everlasting Mercy, as well as work by Harold Monro, Lascelles Abercrombie, and Rupert Brooke, gave promise that a long period of stagnation in English poetry was coming to an end.

It is usually accepted that Georgian Poetry was the brainchild of Rupert Brooke and Edward Marsh (then private secretary to Winston Churchill at the Admiralty). According to Marsh it was on 19 September 1912 that Brooke half flippantly suggested shocking the public by publishing a book of new, unconventional poems of his own, disguising it as work by twelve imaginary poets. Marsh saw that the authors might as well be real: there were plenty of good young poets whose work needed publicizing. Next day he and Brooke held a lunch party for Monro and Arundel del Re, respectively editor and assistant editor of the Poetry Review, as well as Gibson, who had recently moved to London, and John Drinkwater, who had not met Marsh before and seems to have been taken along by Monro.

Monro was crucial to the project and perhaps its true originator. Only a few weeks earlier, as Marsh and the others knew, he had rented a house in Bloomsbury to be a Poetry Bookshop, a centre for young poets and for the publishing, sale, and reading of their work. He had launched the Review in conjunction with the Poetry Society at the start of the year and was keen to build on its success. Monro had also coined the phrase ‘Georgian poets’ in 1911, the year of George V's coronation, and he may well have talked of an anthology of poems from the Review. At any rate, he readily agreed to publish the book that Marsh proposed. The lunch party decided, amid some doubts, that the title should be Georgian Poetry, 1911–1912. Marsh would have sole responsibility as editor and would make good any losses; profits, if any, would be shared between the Review and the editor, who would distribute his half equally among the contributors. In November the magazine announced that the new book, to be ‘edited by E MARSH’ and published by the Review, would be ready when the bookshop opened on 1 December. (Marsh at once asked for anonymity, although his identity was never a secret.)

In late November the Poetry Society suddenly fired Monro as editor of the Review, having found him alarmingly progressive. The anthology had to be delayed, presumably so that its imprint could be changed from ‘The Poetry Review’ to ‘The Poetry Bookshop’. But when the first copies went on sale in mid-December, customers at the new shop proved eager buyers, and before long Georgian Poetry, 1911–1912 was selling in extraordinary quantities, to the astonishment of its editor and contributors.

The most obvious feature of what Brooke in 1913 called ‘the New Poetry’ was that it was not Victorian. Gone at last were vague rhetoric and earnest moralizing, gone too the languors and introspection of the decadence: the work of the first Georgians was outward-looking, positive, full of energy and hope. In a prefatory note ‘E.M.’ declared his belief that ‘English poetry is now once again putting on a new strength and beauty’. He arranged his seventeen poets—eleven of whom had contributed to the Review—in alphabetical order, so the first poem was Abercrombie's ‘The Sale of Saint Thomas’, which set the tone for the book with its dramatic form, evocations of exotic places, tough, sometimes brutal, realism, and precise, vivid imagery. The saint learns that ‘prudence is the deadly sin’; certainly none of the 1912 Georgians seemed interested in prudence.

Yet nothing in any volume of the anthology could be described as revolutionary. Marsh maintained that poetry should be intelligible, musical, and ‘racy’ (he said raciness meant intensity of thought and feeling). These were qualities of Brooke's work in particular: he was ‘the moving spirit’ among the early Georgians, as Monro remembered later, and the only significant influence on Marsh, who adored him. In 1914 Brooke collaborated with Gibson, Abercrombie, and Drinkwater in publishing their own verse in their own periodical, New Numbers [see Dymock poets]. Gibson and Drinkwater were to contribute to all five volumes of Georgian Poetry, as were William H. Davies, Walter de la Mare and, perhaps out of courtesy, Monro. Abercrombie and Gordon Bottomley, as well as Lawrence, were in four volumes, Masefield and James Stephens in three. Ezra Pound was invited to contribute, but he and Marsh could not agree on a suitable poem: Pound soon grew scornful of the Georgians, and his 1914 anthology, Des imagistes, also published by Monro, was intended as a counterblast to Marsh's.

Marsh had not intended to produce another volume, but the success of the first persuaded him that a second, covering the next two-year period, would be worth risking. War intervened, but Georgian Poetry, 1913–1915 eventually came out in November 1915. The selection had mostly been made early in 1914, so not many war poems were included. Several poets were dropped, and there were only two newcomers, Ralph Hodgson and Francis Ledwidge. The book was dedicated to Brooke and James Elroy Flecker who had both died in 1915: Marsh chose poems by both of them, but ruled that any future volume would be limited to living writers (later he added British as a further limitation, which conveniently ruled out Pound). Sales reached 19,000, the highest for any of the five volumes, but reviews were mixed: the enterprise was generally applauded, but two verse plays by Bottomley and Abercrombie were condemned as ugly, superficial, and deliberately shocking, much to Marsh's disappointment. Like many of his poets, he was keen to see a revival of verse drama.

Georgian Poetry, 1916–1917 (November 1917) marks a transition. Marsh held back many of the early Georgians to make way for a slightly younger generation. Half of the eighteen contributors were new, including three of the most admired ‘soldier poets’, Siegfried Sassoon, Robert Graves, and Robert Nichols, and there was even a short lyric by Isaac Rosenberg as well as war poems by Gibson and other civilians. However, with the sole exception of Sassoon's ‘“They”’, Marsh avoided anything too unpleasant. His conservative, establishment inclinations were strengthening: despite strong objections from Monro, he insisted on including inferior work by Maurice Baring and Raymond Asquith, the sons respectively of a peer and the former prime minister. Work by the other newcomers, J. C. Squire, John Freeman, and W. J. Turner, noticeably lacked the energy and fire of their predecessors.

The change of direction was confirmed, disastrously, by Georgian Poetry, 1918–1919 (November 1919). Some reviewers were respectful, treating the anthology as an established institution, but others agreed with Amy Lowell that the book was ‘desperately sad’, a feeble response to the war (The Dial, 1920, quoted in Rogers, 256) . The strongest attack came from John Middleton Murry, who demonstrated that with few exceptions the current Georgians preferred technical skill and ‘false simplicity’ to originality and genuine feeling (The Athenaeum, 1919, quoted in Rogers, 231–7) . Not surprisingly Marsh was defensive in the preface to Georgian Poetry, 1920–1922: he had only wanted to do ‘a good turn’ to poets and public. He brought in more new poets, including Edmund Blunden. But this fifth volume, published in November 1922, a month after T. S. Eliot's The Waste Land, sold only 8000 copies: Georgian Poetry had run its course.

Several poets, including Masefield, had declined to appear in the later volumes, and others had only agreed out of loyalty to Marsh, who had advised and befriended them with tireless generosity. Monro had continued as publisher and contributor, despite growing doubts. Valuing his independence, he had never fully identified with the other Georgians, although his style had moved towards theirs and his long poem ‘Week-end’ in the 1917 volume was presumably the source of the term ‘weekend poetry’, often used to damn Georgian work. He seems to have been the first person to use ‘Georgian’ in a pejorative sense and to describe Squire, Freeman, and other latecomers as neo-Georgians. In 1925 he suggested his wife, Alida, should compile a sixth volume to ‘round off the Series by suggesting new directions’ (Hibberd, 231). Marsh understandably declined, saying the new directions were not to his taste, but in November 1933, the year after her husband's death, Mrs Monro brought out the anthology she had planned, Recent Poetry, 1923–1933, with contributions by Eliot, W. H. Auden, William Empson, and others. It was the last book ever published by the Poetry Bookshop.

Other writers whose work was published in one of the five volumes of Georgian Poetry included: Martin Armstrong; G. K. Chesterton; Richard Hughes; Peter Quennell; Victoria [Vita] Sackville-West; Francis Brett Young.

DOMINIC HIBBERD

Sources  

J. Grant, Harold Monro and the Poetry Bookshop (1967) · C. Hassall, Edward Marsh, patron of the arts: a biography (1959) · D. Hibberd, Harold Monro: poet of the New Age (2001) · E. Marsh, A number of people: a book of reminiscences (1939) · E. Marsh, memoir, in The collected poems of Rupert Brooke (1918) · T. Rogers, ed., Georgian poetry, 1911–1922: the critical heritage (1977) · R. H. Ross, The Georgian revolt: rise and fall of a poetic ideal, 1910–22 (1967)


© Oxford University Press 2004–14 All rights reserved