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Reference group
New Apocalypse (act. 1939–1945) was a group of loosely associated writers, principally poets, who contributed to three anthologies—The New Apocalypse (1939), The White Horseman (1941), and The Crown and the Sickle (1945)—that outlined the movement's critical position and exemplified its reaction against the 1930s school of W. H. Auden, Christopher Isherwood, C. Day Lewis, Louis MacNeice, and Stephen Spender. The first anthology was edited by the Scottish poet James Findlay Hendry and the second and third by Hendry and Henry Treece.

Hendry introduced The New Apocalypse with an essay, ‘Writers and apocalypse’, which emphasized the need to ‘write organically’ as a means of giving expression to the emotional-cum-intellectual wholeness of man, in opposition to what he saw as the abstract and mechanistic forces that prevailed in contemporary literature and politics. For Hendry apocalyptic writing was concerned with ‘the war for justice to man, to prevent his becoming an object as in abstract art or the Totalitarian State’ (p. 11). Emphasis was placed on myth rather than rational narrative; and the preferred model was the work of Dylan Thomas. The latter's short story ‘The Burning Baby’ is given pride of place in the anthology immediately after Hendry's introduction, and Hendry praised Thomas's use of alliteration and sound effects, which were said to ‘serve a definite organic purpose’. Likewise Thomas's ‘pleasure in recurrence’ is claimed to be a ‘pleasure in wholeness and roundedness’ (p. 3). The influence of Thomas is notable in Hendry's own poetry, and especially in that of Treece, the latter's Dylan Thomas: Dog among the Fairies (1949) being an early appreciation of the poet's work. The Bible and the poems of William Blake are also notable influences, as in Hendry's poem ‘adonai’, where references to Moses and Elijah combine with allusion to Blake's ‘The Tyger’ (‘when the stars / Of Heaven in their pride / Burst through the trees of Hell’); and lurid metaphor combines with often overwrought rhetoric to express horror and revulsion at fascistic violence, as in ‘Picasso—for Guernica’.

In The White Horseman it is George Sutherland Fraser who acts as the movement's apologist. In his essay ‘Apocalypse in poetry’ he notes the movement's debt to surrealism—a subject touched on, somewhat disparagingly, by Hugh MacDiarmid in the essay ‘Six Scottish poets of to-day and to-morrow’ (1945), but developed more constructively by Frederick J. Hoffman in 1948 in his essay ‘From surrealism to the apocalypse’, which also offered useful comments on the influence of André Breton and Herbert Read. Fraser's purpose, however, was to emphasize the negativity of surrealism in comparison with the positive role accorded to conscious direction in the writings of the New Apocalypse. The latter recognized ‘that the intellect and its activity in willed action is part of the living completeness of man’ (p. 3), and ‘unlike surrealism, insists on the reality of the conscious mind, as an independent formative principle’ (p. 5). Thus like D. H. Lawrence—whose book Apocalypse (1931) provides the epigraph for this anthology—Fraser celebrated the living wholeness of ‘man alive’, and he was in agreement with Hendry in doing so. However, his essay also betrayed a greater inclination towards the virtues of rationality than Hendry's. Though suggesting that the Apocalyptics were akin to the Romantics, and in contrast to the 1930s poets who belonged to what ‘one may call a classical tradition’ (p. 25), Fraser gave sympathetic analysis to an extract from W. H. Auden that reveals an attitude very different from his fellow Apocalyptic.

The movement's third volume, The Crown and the Sickle, had no equivalent manifesto piece. The short preface by Treece explained the title of the anthology as a combination of the crown, symbolizing ‘glory, victory, the imagination’, and the sickle, representing ‘the surgical reason’, with both together being symbolic of ‘man's completeness’. But Treece also reflected what had now become a looser, less ideological trend in the Apocalyptic movement by referring to it as simply ‘a new Romantic tendency, whose most obvious elements are love, death, an adherence to myth and an awareness of war’ (p. 5).

The range of writers who appeared in the Apocalyptics' three volumes, and the nature of their contributions, reveals that from the beginning there was rather more diversity than unity among them. Besides Hendry, Treece, and Thomas, contributors to The New Apocalypse included Dorian Cooke, Norman MacCaig (who then spelt his name McCaig), Nicholas Moore, and Philip O'Connor, and the art critic Robert Melville, who contributed an essay on Picasso's Anatomy of Woman. The poems by Treece are markedly ‘apocalyptic’ in their visionary, and at times nightmarish, quality while those of Moore and O'Connor are more quietly intimate and syntactically more relaxed. Among the verse contributors to The White Horseman were Fraser (his poetry already showing the more unassuming quality of his later work), Vernon Watkins, and Tom Scott (the latter being more part of the revival of Scots poetry than distinctively of the Apocalypse). A still more miscellaneous collection of newcomers appeared in The Crown and the Sickle, including Terence White, Alex Comfort, F. J. Brown, Fred Marrau (in translation), Peter Wells, Gervase Stewart, Leslie Philips, Robert Herring, Robert Greacen, Wrey Gardiner, Ian Bancroft, Dorian Cocket, John Gallen, Maurice Lindsay, Seán Jennett, Stefan Schimanski, and Denys Val Baker. By this point New Apocalypse had begun to resemble more a collection of new writing than a new movement.

The fresh direction so urgently sought by the Apocalyptics, as conceived by Hendry and Treece, expended itself soon after the Second World War, leaving a sense of high ambition rather than triumphant achievement. Its writers moved on, and those who were successful tended to gain their acclaim in other fields: Treece, for example, in prose romance directed towards children, and Hendry with Fernie Brae (1947), a semi-autobiographical account of his Glasgow childhood and adolescence reminiscent of Lawrence's Sons and Lovers and Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Norman MacCaig (as he was now known) later disowned his Apocalypse beginnings and wrote in a quite different manner. Fraser became a critic and academic who continued to write some excellent poetry, but again in a decidedly non-Apocalyptic manner. Dylan Thomas, the most distinguished name associated with the New Apocalypse, never formally subscribed to its tenets; and, though he became something of a model for its members, like Milton he wrote in his own individual style and tended to be an unhappy influence on his followers.

A critical reaction also followed, and is particularly associated with Robert Conquest and the New Lines anthology (1956) that he edited. In his introduction Conquest did not specifically mention the New Apocalypse poets, but seems to have had them in mind when referring to excesses of the ‘Id’ in the 1940s, and when saying that the new poets of the 1950s refused to ‘abandon a rational structure and comprehensible language’. Setting aside the polemical element in this, the ‘Movement’ group—represented in New Lines with contributions from, among others, Kingsley Amis and Philip Larkin—signalled a return to a more traditionally discursive strain in English poetry found in the work of Thomas Hardy and Robert Graves (and, it has to be said, of Auden), as well as the Irish poetry of W. B. Yeats.

Subsequent critics have also tended to deplore the over-emotional element in the New Apocalypse. Neil Corcoran, for example, while accepting that the movement was an understandable response to the turbulence and disruption of the 1939–45 war, found its poetry ‘fraught, emphatic and obsessive’ (Corcoran, 41). For A. T. Tolley the poetry of the New Apocalypse ‘did not measure up to its aspirations’, and he maintained that along with New Romanticism it ‘fostered much of the looseness and pretentiousness that were the vices of the worst poetry of the Forties’ (Tolley, 340). A partial exception was Derek Stanford who, looking back at his own earlier responses to the movement, at least found Hendry's emphasis on myth ‘stimulating’ and seeming to promise ‘a middle path between the dry sticks and dusty bricks of Social Realism's documentary writing and the Surrealists' wallow in the slough of unreason’ (Stanford, 35). The one critic to regard the New Apocalypse with complete seriousness was A. E. Salmon. His Poets of the Apocalypse (1983) gave detailed consideration to the work of Hendry, Treece, MacCaig, Fraser, and Moore, and set the whole movement in a carefully documented account of its forerunners and successors. As Salmon pointed out, it is something of an irony that Robert Conquest's reaction against the New Apocalypse was based on the very principle of doing justice to ‘the whole man’ that Hendry had claimed for the Apocalyptics themselves. New Apocalypse can thus be seen as a literary movement that reflected a wartime need for a new emphasis on the emotional sources of poetry.

R. P. Draper

Sources  

A. Bold, The Scotsman (20 Dec 1986) · Chapman, 52 (1988) [J. F. Hendry issue] · R. Conquest, ed., New lines (1956) · N. Corcoran, English poetry since 1940 (1993) · G. S. Fraser, A stranger and afraid: the autobiography of an intellectual (1983) · J. F. Hendry, ed., The New Apocalypse (1940) · J. F. Hendry and H. Treece, eds., The white horseman (1941) · J. F. Hendry and H. Treece, eds., The crown and the sickle (1945) · J. F. Hendry, ‘The apocalyptic element in modern poetry’, Poetry Scotland, 2 (1945), 61–6 · F. J. Hoffman, ‘From surrealism to the apocalypse’, ELH: a Journal of English Literary History, 15 (1948), 147–65 · H. MacDiarmid, ‘Six Scottish poets of to-day and to-morrow’, Poetry Scotland, 2 (1945), 67–8 · J. Press, A map of modern English verse (1969) · A. E. Salmon, Poets of the apocalypse (1983) · D. Stanford, Inside the forties: literary memoirs, 1937–1957 (1977) · A. T. Tolley, ‘New Apocalypse’, The Oxford companion to twentieth-century poetry in English, ed. I. Hamilton (1994), 379–80