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Beyond the Gentility Principle : Ted Hughes. The Gentility Principle. Robert Conquest in New Lines (1956) presented a set of principles in the work of the Movement poets:

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The Gentility Principle

  • Robert Conquest inNew Lines (1956) presented a set of principles in the work of the Movement poets:

    • rejection of tradition: ‘I have no belief in “Tradition” or a common myth-kitty or casual allusions in poems to other poems or poets’ (Philip Larkin, in D.J. Enright’s Poets of the 1950s, 1955)

    • empiricism: ‘It is empirical in attitude’ (Conquest)

    • rejection of second-hand experience: ‘Nobody wants any more poems about philosophers or paintings or novelists or art galleries or mythologies or foreign cities or other poems.’ (Kingsley Amis, ibid.)

    • the writer‘s duty is to be ‘original’ (Larkin, London Magazine, 1964)

    • purity of diction, comprehensible language

    • no interest in foreign influences

    • admiration of common sense

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Beyond the Gentility Principle I

  • A. Alvarez, The New Poetry (1962)

  • The ‘gentility’ of the Movement: ‘Life is always more or less orderly, people always more or less polite, their emotions and habits more or less decent and more or less controllable, that God, in short, is more or less good’.

  • Proposition: ‘poetry needs a new seriousness’, i.e.: ‘the poet’s ability and willingness to face the full range of his experience with his full intelligence; not to take the easy exits of either conventional response or choking incoherence’.

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Beyond the Gentility Principle II

  • Alvarez compares –

  • Larkin’s ‘At Grass’: common sense, understatement, gentle, unpretentious, nostalgic recreation of English countryside, social creatures of race horses

  • Hughes’s ‘A Dream of Horses’: less controlled, it is ‘about something’, recreates a ‘powerful complex of emotions and sensations’, the horses have a violent, threatening presence, partly physical and partly a state of mind.

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Ted Hughes (1930-1998)

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I imagine this midnight moment’s forest:

Something else is alive

Beside the clock’s loneliness

And this blank page where my fingers move.

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Ted Hughes and Syliva Plath

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Ted Hughes with Frieda and Nicholas

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‘The Thought-Fox’ MacNiece

  • I imagine this midnight moment's forest:Something else is aliveBeside the clock's lonelinessAnd this blank page where my fingers move.Through the window I see no star:Something more nearThough deeper within darknessIs entering the loneliness:Cold, delicately as the dark snowA fox's nose touches twig, leaf;Two eyes serve a movement, that nowAnd again now, and now, and nowSets neat prints into the snowBetween trees, and warily a lameShadow lags by stump and in hollowOf a body that is bold to comeAcross clearings, an eye,A widening deepening greenness,Brilliantly, concentratedly,Coming about its own businessTill, with a sudden sharp hot stink of foxIt enters the dark hole of the head.The window is starless still; the clock ticks,The page is printed.

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From 'The Burnt Fox' MacNiece

[…]I began to dream. I dreamed I had never left my table and was still sitting there, bent over the lamp-lit piece of foolscap, staring at the same few lines across the top. Suddenly my attention was drawn to the door. I thought I had heard something there. As I waited, listening, I saw the door was opening slowly. Then a head came round the edge of the door. It was about the height of a man's head but clearly the head of a fox - though the light over there was dim. The door opened wide and down the short stair and across the room towards me came a figure that was at the same time a skinny man and a fox walking erect on its hind legs. It was a fox, but the size of a wolf. As it approached and came into the light I saw that its body and limbs had just now stepped out of a furnace. Every inch was roasted, smouldering, black-charred, split and bleeding. Its eyes, which were level with mine where I sat, dazzled with the intensity of the pain. It came up until it stood beside me. Then it spread its hand - a human hand as I now saw, but burned and bleeding like the rest of him - flat palm down on the blank space of my page. At the same time it said: 'Stop this - you are destroying us.' Then as it lifted its hand away I saw the blood-print, like a palmist's specimen, with all the lines and creases, in wet, glistening blood on the page.

I immediately woke up. The impression of reality was so total, I got out of bed to look at the papers on my table, quite certain that I would see the blood-print there on the page.

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MacNiecePoetry and Violence’ I

In relation to my verse the word 'violence' was originally used by Edwin Muir, in his review of my first collection, where he qualified it as 'admirable violence' - speaking about the poem titled 'Jaguar'. What is 'admirable violence'? [...]

When Saul fell on the road, as he is said to have done, and ceased to exist, while Paul the Father of the Church rose up in his place and in his skin, Saul could justifiably have called it 'homicidal violence' (since he was not merely displaced but annihilated), but Paul could properly have called it 'admirable violence', since it united him with Christ and his highest spiritual being. How do those kinds of 'violence' relate to 'our customary social and humanitarian values'?

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MacNiecePoetry and Violence’ II

When you arrange the common uses of the word in a pattern you can see just how the confusions about its meaning arise. First of all, the word obviously covers a great range of different degrees of seriousness. By seriousness I mean serious in the way of moral and spiritual consequences. The general image behind the word is always a vehement action that breaks through something, but the moral and spiritual consequences can be all-important and immense or they can be nil. One imagines the line of a graph of increasing seriousness, with the word recurring all the way along it, from weak, loose meaning with nil or trivial consequences at one end to strong, specific meaning with enormous consequences at the other. Yet at any point on the graph it is the same little bald word 'violence'. Simultaneously, wherever it sits on the graph, the word can have either positive implications or negative. Isolated on a page, the word can give no idea of how serious it is meant to be, or whether its implications are positive or negative. These crucial extras depend wholly on context. And when the word is used virtually without context, as in that phrase 'poetry of violence', it is not actually meaningless but it is a word still waiting to be defined. It still contains all the different degrees of seriousness, and every positive or negative implication: they are all writhing around inside it, waiting to be selected. [...]

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MacNiecePoetry and Violence’ III

At the weak, loose extreme, though the ethicalimplications are trivial or nil, the meaning can still be negative or positive. One can use the word 'violence' to describe a passion, a cavorting horse, or a dancer, and be perfectly well understood to mean something positive and exciting admiration. More usually, even at this weak, loose extreme, the word carries negative implications - as in the mediaphrase 'sex and violence'. Generally, in this case, it signifies forceful physical damage inflicted on the person or the property of another, but here too, when the 'violence' is contained within a tight, exemplary system of just retribution, the moral and spiritual consequences are considered to be slight and under control. If the physical damage begins to escape the system of controls, and larger negative moral, spiritual consequences begin to be felt - as can sometimes happen in the media - then the violence shifts along the graph. It begins to move towards a stronger, more specific degree of seriousness.

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MacNiecePoetry and Violence’ IV

At the other end of the graph, at the strong, specific extreme, 'violence' is in another world. The real negative vigour of the word now comes to the fore in the idea of violation. The core of its meaning opens up, to reveal a rape of some kind, the destruction of a sacred trust, the breaking of a sacred law. Central to the general idea of the criminally lawless and the physically vehement is that particular horror of sacrilege. Meanwhile, the moral and the spiritual consequences have become all-important - contagious and far-reaching in their evil effects. This radical, negative, strong sense of the word 'violence' seems to be its primary one. That's the meaning we use when we call Hitler's gang 'men of violence'. All our vigilant apprehension is fixed on it with good reason. Behind that sense of the word lies everything we have learned about the explosive evil in human nature.

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MacNiecePoetry and Violence’ V

Nevertheless, at this extreme, too, the word can have positive implications. The meanings of the action are now inverted. We no longer have a murderous force which violates a sacred law. Instead we have a life-bringing assertion of sacred law which demolishes, in some abrupt way, a force that oppressed and violated it. The image I suggested for this strong, positive violence ('admirable violence') was the sudden spontaneous conversion of Saul to Paul. The moral and spiritual consequences are again all-important, contagious and far-reaching, but now considered entirely good.

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Dancer conversion of Saul to Paul Media: sex& Violation/sacrilege violence

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From ‘ MacNieceThrushes’

Terrifying are the attent sleek thrushes on the lawn,More coiled steel than living - a poisedDark deadly eye, those delicate legsTriggered to stirrings beyond sense - with a start, a bounce, a stabOvertake the instant and drag out some writhing thing. No indolent procrastinations and no yawning states,No sighs or head-scratchings. Nothing but bounce and stab And a ravening second.Is it their single-mind-sized skulls, or a trained Body, or genius, or a nestful of bratsGives their days this bullet and automaticPurpose? Mozart's brain had it, and the shark's mouthThat hungers down the blood-smell even to a leak of its own Side and devouring of itself: efficiency whichStrikes too streamlined for any doubt to pluck at itOr obstruction deflect.

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From 'Poetry and Violence' MacNiece

Considering the three images - Thrush, Mozart's brain and Shark - as hieroglyphs, only one has a clear self-evident meaning. So that one is the key to the others. Mozart's composing brain - the lump of animal brain tissue producing Mozart's music - has a single plain meaning: divine activity in something fleshly. However else we interpret the image, our ideas revolve around this fixed, central axis of meaning. [...]

Neither Thrush nor Shark can properly be defined by the weak, loose negative meaning of 'violent'. There are several factors in each situation contradicting that sense. The Thrush is doing what it has evolved to do, and is feeding its young as well. The Shark is doing what it has evolved to do and what uniquely determines everything about it, but has been tricked, in innocence, to turn the activity against itself, unknowing. So other meanings open up in both mages. [...]

It is not unorthodox to see that there is a clear and strong sense in which both Thrush and Shark are obeying - in selfless, inspired (i.e. lucid) obedience, like Mozart's brain - the creator's law which shaped their being and their inborn activity. And they are obeying it with that effortless instantaneity which is a 'divine' characteristic, also, of Mozart's composition.  

This is where what the critics called 'poetry of [negative] violence' begins to assert its credentials as poetry of positive violence, poetry about the working of divine law in created things. [...]