The Anxiety of the Thirties: Richard Aldington’s Life Quest

In this week’s Dispatches from The Secret Library, Dr Oliver Tearle reads Richard Aldington’s Life Quest, the modernist long poem that time forgot

The standout modernist long poem of the 1920s was The Waste Land. T. S. Eliot’s poem redefined what modernism could do in poetry, influenced by James Joyce’s example of the ‘mythical method’ in his novel Ulysses and the various Symbolist and imagist experiments in French and English verse. It captured a moment and mood of post-war desolation and uncertainty, a world in ruin plagued by fears and anxieties, ennui and a lack of self-confidence. But what happened to the modernist long poem in the 1930s at another moment of anxiety and transition has been less well-covered by scholars and critics of modernism.

The thirties belong to W. H. Auden, and to a lesser extent those who moved in his orbit but were good, or very good, poets in their own right: Stephen Spender, Louis MacNeice, the ‘Pylon poets’. Curiously, Auden more or less began his poetic career with a highly unusual work, caught between poetry and prose and defying further categorisation (is it modernist, or post-modernist, albeit not in the unhyphenated or more modern sense that we use that term?): a work published by T. S. Eliot at Faber and Faber and influenced, in one way or another, by The Waste Land. This work was The Orators, a long work which Auden later said was the sort of thing that was written by someone who would later become a fascist or go mad. Auden, of course, did neither, and his later work is markedly different from this early start, or false start, written when he was still in his early 20s.

T. S. Eliot himself produced no long poem in the 1930s. Indeed, he barely produced any poetry: this was the decade when, having finished Ash-Wednesday at the end of the previous decade, he tried to make his mark on the theatre world, first with the largely unsuccessful pageant play, The Rock, commissioned to celebrate the rebuilding of London’s churches, and then with Murder in the Cathedral and The Family Reunion. ‘Burnt Norton’ was the one major work of poetry he wrote during the decade (his religious poem Ash-Wednesday, published in 1930, was largely completed in the 1920s). But another modernist poet, who had been writing in Eliot’s shadow earlier in his career but had fought his way out of it by this point, offers an interesting response to the mid-1930s as a time of uncertainty and chaos, marked by a sense of impending world war (another one), austerity, the rise of fascism on the continent, a world that has lost its way. The poem is Life Quest, by the modernist poet and novelist Richard Aldington.

I own a first edition of Aldington’s Life Quest, which I picked up online for a fiver, plus postage. Not bad for a book by a notable if not quite canonical modernist writer. But if Life Quest has been forgotten and is rarely touched upon by scholars of English modernism – most critics and biographers are more interested in Aldington’s novels from this period – recovering it may help to tell us something about both how Aldington responded to the age and how the age itself was seen by poets and writers of the time. In his prefatory note to the poem, Aldington writes that the poem that follows is ‘not intended to be a narrative or the exposition of a philosophy’ and that it contains ‘no argument, but a loose string of moods and meditations, variations on the theme of the “Life Quest.”’ Aldington directs his readers to Sir G. Elliot Smith’s book Human History, published a year earlier, for more information about the history of the ‘life quest’ as an idea.

Life Quest is divided into twenty short sections, in which Aldington muses upon everything from Egyptian mythology to rain in the Pyrenees, the philosophy of Heraclitus, and the misery of modern London’s streets. Indeed, like The Waste Land, Aldington’s Life Quest is at once a British poem and a European one, moving between London and the continent. At one point, Aldington collapses Nelson’s Column into the story of Simeon Stylites, that Syrian saint who stood perched atop a tower, like ‘Horatio’ the statue in London’s Trafalgar Square. Britain has come to view Nelson as a ‘saint’, a national hero, to whom Aldington looks for a ‘signal’. Britain is stuck, lost.

At another point he observes of the ‘concrete pylons’ in the ‘Lombard plains’ that they are raising ‘stiff arms to the Duce or the sky, / But what they meant I could not tell.’ Are these latter-day obelisks or Cleopatra’s Needles temples to the rise of Mussolini or innocent structures? Certainly there are many such pylons in Italy (I’ve seen those erected in Sicily for myself). The poem, like the layering of empires in The Waste Land, posits a dreamscape where past and present seem to merge together, so that old empires are reflected in the new.

‘In the beginning / But we do not know the beginning, / In the end / But we do not know the end.’ These words, which open the sixth section of the poem, might be said to sum up the whole of Life Quest, Aldington’s exploration of uncertainty written at a time when Britain, and Europe, were changing rapidly. The ‘life quest’ is both Aldington’s personal journey and one which was affecting, in a myriad ways, the whole of Europe at large.

Oliver Tearle is the author of The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History, available now from Michael O’Mara Books.

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