In this week’s Dispatches from The Secret Library, Dr Oliver Tearle celebrates a neglected voice in modern poetry
The ‘Pylon Poets’ was the name given to a group of British poets writing in the 1930s, poets whose work deals with technological modernity. The poem which inspired the name of this ‘school’ of poets was Stephen Spender’s ‘The Pylons’, which is itself an enigmatic poem whose legacy is more famous than the poem itself.
But Spender’s wasn’t the only ‘pylon poem’ written in the 1930s about these new industrial features of the English landscape. The forgotten English poet Stanley Snaith also wrote a poem about them.
The name Stanley Snaith, it’s fair to say, isn’t exactly a famous one in the world of twentieth-century English verse. He doesn’t even have a Wikipedia page (not even a ‘stub’), and his name is absent from the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (ODNB). But let’s sketch out a few of the (sketchy) details of his life. Born in 1903, Snaith worked as a librarian and was also a keen mountaineer (one of the first results that comes up following a quick Google search of his name is this 1937 Spectator review of his book detailing a number of excursions to Everest – the summit, of course, would not be reached for another sixteen years). He published a number of volumes of poetry, including April Morning in 1926 (published by Virginia Woolf’s own Hogarth Press, making tracking down a copy for anything less than a king’s ransom impossible), North (1934), Fieldfaring (1935), and The Flowering Thorn (1946). Stanley Snaith died in 1976.
I encountered Stanley Snaith’s name, and his poetry, in an old anthology, Modern Poetry, 1922-1934, which a colleague of mine gave to me. Compiled by Maurice Wollman, the anthology charts the dozen years in English poetry following the publication of The Waste Land, leading up to the arrival of a distinctive new kind of poetry, the poetry of the ‘Thirties Poets’ and of Dylan Thomas (whose first volume appeared in 1934), a new generation of poets who brought distinctive new voices, voices which replaced the modernism of T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, and others from the 1920s. ‘Pylons’, the poem I’ve chosen to reproduce below, is from 1933, when pylons had only just started to appear among the fields and meadows of England.
Over the tree’d upland evenly striding,
One after one they lift their serious shapes
That ring with light. The statement of their steel
Contradicts Nature’s softer architecture.
Earth will not accept them as it accepts
A wall, a plough, a church so coloured of earth
It might be some experiment of the soil’s.
Yet are they outposts of the trekking future.
Into the thatch-hung consciousness of hamlets
They blaze new thoughts, new habits. Traditions
Are being trod down like flowers dropped by children.
Already that farm-boy striding and throwing seed
In the shoulder-hinged half-circle Millet knew,
Looks grey with antiquity as his dead forbears,
A half familiar figure out of the Georgics,
Unheeded by these new-world, rational towers.
Written in irregular blank verse, Snaith’s poem takes a critical position towards these new industrial interlopers: the pylons represent ‘new thoughts, new habits’ which threaten the traditions of the past, which are ‘being trod down like flowers dropped by children’. The harsh alliteration, almost spat out, of ‘statement of their steel’ plays off against the internal rhyme in the next line between ‘Nature’ and ‘architecture’. The phrase ‘thatch-hung consciousness of hamlets’ is good, neatly combining a physical image of Olde England with the deep-rooted ideas we have about Englishness (‘hamlets’ summons the traditional English village, as well as half-hinting at the thatched world of Shakespeare’s England, thanks to the suggestion of Hamlet), while the later reference to Virgil’s Georgics underscores the superannuated look and feel of this old England now the pylons have arrived.
Stanley Snaith doesn’t deserve his obscurity: at the very least, he should be accorded a modicum of immortality for being part of a new generation of poets who succeeded the high point of modernism in the 1920s, and wrote powerfully about the new world that the arrival of the pylons signalled. Unfortunately, there is no volume of his selected poems available, far less a collected poems. It’s very difficult to find his poems online. This blog post is an attempt to redress the neglect that has plagued Snaith for many decades. Perhaps one day more of his poetry will be available again.
Discover more forgotten literary curiosities with our Secret Library archive.
Britain by the Book: A Curious Tour of Our Literary Landscape by Oliver Tearle is out now in hardcover, published by John Murray.