Poetry and The Listener: the Myth of the ' Middlebrow'
Jane Dowson, De Montfort University
Although a new and widespread phenomenon, the radio has had little academic discussion, perhaps because it is assumed to be 'lightweight' or 'middlebrow', as in "one whose apparent artlessness and insistence on its own ordinariness has made it peculiarly resistant to analysis" (Light 1991: 11–12). At the time, a recurring complaint was that it was too 'highbrow' but its wide audience and the difficulty of placing the Listener ideologically make it open to Virginia Woolf' s more disparaging caricature of 'middlebrow':
The phenomenal success of the
Explicitly, then, it aimed to enlarge minds and
disseminate "culture" by developing "intellectual curiosity"
and the reading of "good books"; it recorded that between September
and December 1928, there were 160 listening and discussion groups in touch
with the adult Education Service of the
Although it was consistent in its ideal of cultural amelioration, what that means was not straightforward. In some articles, the Listener appears to be a conduit of traditionalism between the paper and the public, but often it tried to court them away from prejudices against the new.
The prefixes 'low-' ,'middle-' and 'high-' attached to brow
may have some equivalence with class delineations but the battle of the
brows was more acutely between conservative and progressive cultural forces.
In "Middlebrow" , originally an unsent a letter to the
New Statesman probably written during the 1930s, Virginia Woolf
goes to some length to separate 'high' , 'middle' and 'low' brows from
class distinctions; her list of lowbrows ranges from omnibus conductors,
a woman with 10 children and 35 shillings a week, and a prostitute, to
a stockbroker, admiral, or duchess. 'Highbrow' is implicitly related to
intellectual openness, "riding across country in the pursuit of ideas".
(The horseriding image is, nevertheless, a give-away class assumption.)
Opposingly, 'middlebrow' resists innovation. They buy fake antique
furniture and first editions of dead writers "but never anything
new, never a picture by a living painter, or a chair by a living carpenter,
or books by living writers" (Woolf 201). In Woolf's terms, 'middlebrow'
better describes the audience than the
Although its connection with working-class tastes was limited, the wireless and the Listener marked and maintained the socio-literary divergences of the nineteen thirties. Correspondence and articles suggest that the public was annoyed at what they perceived as 'highbrow' elitism, that is modernism, partly because it was too remote from their experience, but more pertinently, because it signalled change.
Progressives within the
The work of Hilda Matheson for the radio and Janet Adam
Smith for the Listener, among others, testify to the progressive
forces within it. Hilda Matheson, (1888-1940) may be better known as one
of Vita Sackville-West's lovers than for her work at the
She commissioned Harold Nicolson to give a series on new literature which included playing a record of James Joyce reading from A Work In Progress but resigned from the post when Lord Reith refused to allow Harold Nicolson to praise Joyce's Ulysses in a projected talk. In a draft resignation letter she wrote that she "could not loyally administer a policy which seemed to be turning into a reversal of what I had been instrumental in helping to build up" (Hunter 1994).
Janet Adam Smith, assistant editor of the Listener,
was evangelical about new poets and sent a portfolio of her typical choice
to T. S. Eliot who approved. Due to complaints about her choice of poems
in the Listener, from within and outside the
In her introduction, Adam Smith addresses the readers' desire for exact rhymes and regular rhythms by linking contemporary flexibility with half-rhymes or stressed syllables to "a good ancestry in English poetry, though perhaps not in those parts of it with which the average reader is most familiar" (iii). At the same time, she sets herself against the usual tradition of poetry which anthologies maintained and instead promoted George Barker, Louis MacNeice, Charles Madge, Kathleen Raine, Herbert Read and Stephen Spender along with another young generation who included Julian Bell and Richard Goodman. In 1935, she married Michael Roberts, editor of the influential The Faber Book of Modern Verse (1936). Janet Adam Smith's achievement in acquainting the 'average reader' with new work was even recognised by Geoffrey Grigson:
Another indication of Adam Smith's perceived progressiveness
is the counter anthology Poems of To-day (Macmillan 1938) published
by the reactionary The English Association which aimed "To uphold
the standards of English writing and speech" . Like Matheson, she
testifies that the
Along with women like Adam Smith and Matheson, other poets
and critics such as Herbert Read and Hugh Sykes Davies worked to shift
traditionalism within the
Another strategy for converting the public was the series called "The Enjoyment of Modern Poetry". In Lecture V, Hugh Sykes Davies tried to enthuse the public about imagism by linking its innovation with the security of regular and recognisable metres (Sykes Davies, 6 Sept. 1933). In "Why Poetry?" (June 1936) Clifford Dyment tried to reassure a cautious public that poetry hadn’t become too esoteric, that is "highbrow". Similarly, in 1938, the Listener ran a series titled "The Poet and the Public" aimed at bridging the gulf between them: "You know you can have poetry which most people would call highbrow—remote from the everyday world—but which need not necessarily be difficult" (Jennings, 25 May 1938). In "The Poet Laureateship", Humphrey Jennings panders to the lowbrow desire for what Woolf would call personal identification which she believed was aesthetically stifling: "[T. S. Eliot] is representing himself as one of the readers instead of a poet aloof from the world with a big hat or a laurel crown" (Jennings, 23 June 1938). At the end of the decade, however, readers'letters indicate that the public was still not convinced:
or "I sometimes wonder whether we shall not, one day, find our poets talking exclusively to one another! Could they, and the Listener, not occasionally remember Mr Littlewood, and your humble subscriber?" (Martin 1937).
Readers' gut resistance to the unfamiliar was partly their deep-seated British nationalism which confused stylistic radicalism with political revolution. Bonamy Dobrée's review "New Life in English Poetry" tried to make the alleged communism of the modern poets, namely Michael Roberts, W. H. Auden and Stephen Spender, sound patriotic to an anxious or sceptical audience:
In 1936, the eighteenth national lecture was given to "Modern Poetry" and W. B. Yeats who appealed to his listeners' nationalism by arguing that T. S. Eliot influenced the war poets whose spirit lived on: "Their social passion, their sense of tragedy, their modernity, have passed into young influential poets of today: Auden, Spender, MacNeice, Day Lewis, and others. Some of these poets are communists, but even in those who are not, there is an overwhelming social bitterness" (Yeats 1936).
As the decade moved on, and with it fears of war, radical poetry became even more threatening. In 1938, "an open letter" from Herbert Read "to the new Director of the BBC" [Frederick Ogilvie], was published in New Verse:
Read's reference to "dumb listeners" indicates
the perceived gulf between the living poets, along with those in the
The radio was potentially the most influential link between people; it could reach into the "homes and hearts" of north and south, readers and non-readers. However, it has to be acknowledged that poetry only appealed to a small proportion of the population. In 1936, the editorial "A Muse at the Microphone" announced a new series of poetry readings on Tuesday afternoons and on another day from 11.40 to midnight:
The polarisation of the philistines and Bloomsbury
endorses Virginia Woolf's conceptual battle between middle- and high-brow
but both enjoy Woolf's leaning tower of social privilege whose inhabitants
only gesture towards the human mass at ground level (Woolf 1992). Thus,
the conservative public who contacted the
Albeit tightly controlled, the radio and the Listener
did raise awareness about current affairs and culture: "There is
a danger that in viewing early radio broadcasting from our contemporary
standpoint we may take far too much for granted and fail to recognise
the truly original contribution to the cultural life of the nation made
by the pioneer programming in these early days" (Giddings 1993: 138).
Whether poetry in pubs reached the audience both missed and threatened by the radio is intriguing since it would seem that the hurdle wasn’t getting their attention but producing poetry which connected to people’s experiences.
In his Introduction to the Bloodaxe Poems of the Year (2003), Neil Astley confronts the current "mismatch between publication and readership". Like the Thirties series The Poet and the Public, Astley’s sell-out Staying Alive: Real Poems for Real Times (2002), attempts to broaden access to poetry:
For him, the enemy to literary democracy are elitist publishers and papers who promote work which has decreasing market. In striking contrast, the people are reading what they hear on the popular media. According to Public Lending Statistics the top ten poetry loans for 2001 are dominated by broadcast anthologies:
1. The Nation's Favourite Poems
2. The Nation's Favourite Twentieth Century Poems
3. The Nation's Favourite Love Poems
4. The Nation's Favourite Comic Poems
5. Classic FM One Hundred Favourite Poems
6. Classic FM One Hundred Favourite Humorous Poems
7. The Nation's Favourite Poems of Childhood
8. 101 Poems that could save your Life
Please 1: 100 popular poems from the
10. Serious Concerns: by Wendy Cope
(PLR April 2003; repr. The Poetry Society, Poetry News, Autumn 2003:2). The editorial in Poetry Review Autumn, 2000, identifies the same double-pronged influence of the radio on the public. The Nation's Favourite Poems collections clearly foster poetry reading but tend to be chosen by a traditionalist audience. Like her female predecessors, Janet Adam Smith and Hilda Matheson, Daisy Goodwin is a pioneer who drove the initiative but
Peter Forbes puts the success of the Nation's Favourites down to
The echoes between the articles now and in the 1930s resonate with the unresolved ownership of cultural wealth and the war between the small body of elitist but progressive writers and their promoters and the 'middlebrow' vociferous public who are nevertheless a minority of but purport to speak for 'The Nation' .
Adam Smith, Janet. Poems of Tomorrow: an anthology of contemporary verse. London: Chatto and Windus, 1935.
Astley, Neil. Bloodaxe Poems of the Year. Newcastle-upon-Tyne: Bloodaxe, 2003.
Boston, Richard. "The People Say-So." Guardian. 12 Feb.1994: 28-9.
Branson, Noreen and Margot Heinemann. Britain in the Nineteen Thirties. St Albans: Panther, 1973.
Day, Gary, ed. Literature and Culture in Modern Britain Vol. Two: 1930-1955. Harlow: Longman, 1997.
Day Lewis, C. and L. A. G. Strong, eds. An Anthology of Modern Verse 1920-1940. London: Methuen, 1941.
Giddings, Robert. "Radio in peace and war." Day, 1997: 132-157.
Hunter, Fred. "Hilda Matheson and the
Grigson, Geoffrey. Review of Poems of Tomorrow, NewVerse. 15 (June1935): 20-1.
Light, Alison. Forever England: Femininity, Literature and Conservatism Between the Wars. London: Routledge, 1991.
Marwick, Arthur. Class: Image and Reality in Britain, France and the USA since 1930. London: Collins, 1980.
Read, Herbert. "An Open Letter—To
the new Director of the
Scannell, Paddy and David Cardiff. A Social History of Broadcasting Vol. One 1922-39: Serving the Nation. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1991.
Tolley, A.T. The Poetry of the Thirties. London: Gollancz, 1975.
Woolf, Virginia. "Middlebrow." Collected Essays. Vol. 2. London: Hogarth Press,1966.196–203.
——— "The Leaning Tower." A Woman's Essays. Harmondsworth: Penguin,1992.159–178.
Articles from the Listener
Dobrée Bonamy, Review of Poems of Tomorrow, ed. Janet Adam Smith, 26 June 1935.
Dobrée , Bonamy, "New Life in English Poetry", Review of New Country, ed. Michael Roberts, Poems by W. H. Auden, Poems by Stephen Spender, and The Magnetic Mountain, by C. Day Lewis, 14 June 1933.
Dyment, Clifford, "Why Poetry?", 17 June 1936.
Editorial, "A New Venture", 16 Jan. 1929.
Editorial, "Modernist Poetry", 12 July 1933.
Editorial, "A Muse at the Microphone", 7 Oct. 1936.
Ellison, J. B. "Need Modern Poetry Be Obscure?" Letter from London S.W.1. 8 Dec. 1938
Freeman, John, "A Survey of Modern Poetry", 6 Feb. 1929.
Holgate, John, "Poetry In Pubs", 6 July 1939.
Jennings, Humphrey, "The Poet and the Public: 'Understanding modern poetry' ", 25 May 1938.
Jennings, Humphrey, and Herbert Read, "The Poet and the Public: Summary of 'The effect of the war'", 16 June 1938.
Jennings, Humphrey, "The Poet and the Public: 'The Poet Laureateship'", 23 June 1938.
Nicolson, Harold, "The New Spirit in Literature’: 'The Modernist Point of View'", 23 Dec.1931.
Yeats, W. B. "National Lecture on Modern Poetry", 14 Oct. 1936.
Appendix 1: Poems published in the Listener during the 1930s
The list is selected to indicate the extent to which the 'Auden Generation' were published but also that 'thirties poetry' was broader than this group. I used copies of the Listener stored in the library at the University of Leicester. Since they are mostly collected in six monthly folders, 'a' and ' b'refer to January-June and July-December respectively.
W.H. Auden 'Summer Night', 'Poem' 34a; 'Bride in the 30s', ' Poem-May with its light behaving' 5a; 'Seaside' 35b; 'Poem-Fish in unruffled lakes' 36c; 'Journey to Iceland' 36b; 'Song of the New Year' 37a; 'Hegel and the Schoolchildren' 37b; Oxford' 38a; 'Ship' 38b; 'Sonnet-Wandering Lost upon the mountain of our choice' 38b; 'Voltaire at Ferney' 39a; 'Unknown Citizen' 39a; 'Matthew Arnold' 39b.
George Barker 'Lines', 'The Chimera' 34a; 'Cornucopia' 34b; 'Elegy' 34b'; 'Multiple Figures' 34b; 'Anatomy of Love' 35b; 'Though Lovely and Lonely' 35b; 'It is the Sorrow Season' 36a; 'Poem on Being 36b; By the Boyne' 37b; 'Ballad—Saturday' 37b; 'Battersea Park' 37b; Lago D'I’seo 1937' 38b; 'Poem in Ireland' 38b; 'Triumphal Ode MCMXXXIX' 39b.
Julian Bell 'Still Life' 1931; 'Red Shirts?' 34a.
Edmund Blunden 'Tree Cut Down' 35b; In the Margin—War with Japan', 'Dreamer' 38a; 'Chance Pleasures', 'Sum of All' 39.
John Betjeman 'Cheltenham' 38b.
Richard Church 'Letter supporting Masefield' 31; Poem 31b; Latterday Euridyce' 32a; Home from the Woods' 33b; 'Dust' 34a; 'Early Wisdom' 35a; 'Bonfire' 35b; 'The Martyr' 36a; 'The Friend', 'Archaeology' 36b; 'Man without faith' 36b; 'Secret Service' 36b; 'Spring in Town' 37a; 'The Word' 37b; 'In a War’s Face'; 'Be Frugal' 38b; 'Hero' 39a; ' Hours of a Day', Reading in a Field' 39b.
C. Day Lewis Time to Dance' 34a; 'In the Heart of Contemplative' 37b; 'Three Cloud Maidens'.
Clifford Dyment 'The Ruin' 34b; 'Sculpture' 34b; 'The Faithful' 34b; 'Fox’ 35a; 'Switch Cut in April' 35a; 'Poppy' 35b; 'The Mouse', 'Glory' 36a; 'Spring' 36b; 'The Son', 'Christmas Poem' 36b; 'The Wayfarer'’, 'Crimewarrior' 37a; 'Holidays' 37a; 'Snow' 37b; 'Brother Ass' 38b.
Richard Eberhart (USA) 'Groundhog' 34b; 'Dissertation by Waxlight', '1934' 34b.
David Gascoyne 'Perpetual Winter Never Known' 34a; 'Nightpiece' 34b.
Richard Goodman 4 poems including 'It is too Late' 32a; 'Ode to a Dead Comrade' 33a.
Wyn Griffiths 'Exile' 31a; 'The Colours' 31b; 'Time Signal' 32a; 'Country Tale' 35a; 36a.
De La Mare 4 poems including 'Epitaph' 38a; 'Reunion dream' 38a.
John Masefield (Poet Laureate) 'Prayer for the King's Reign' 37a.
Louis MacNeice 'Spring Piece' 34a; 'Perseus' 34b; 'Snow' 35a; 'Hidden Ice' 36a; 'Poem - Now that the Shapes of Mist' 36b; 'Song: the Sunlight in the Garden' 37a; 'Passage steamer' 37a; 'Sonnet' 37a; 'Solvitor Acris Hiems' (Horace Ode) 37b.
John Lehmann 'A Little Distance Off' 32a; 'Crowds and Shadows' 33b.
Charles Madge 'The Times' 33; 'Loss', 'Fortune' 34a; 'At Watch' 35a; 'Victory' 35a; 'A Nightly Deed' 36a; 'Meeting Halfway' 38b; 'Love in the Desert’ 39.
Edwin Muir 'Scotland's Water' 33a; 'Poem' 38a.
Walter Plomer 'Devil Dancing' 34b; ' Epilogue', 'Goodbye to the Island' 34b; 'Seventeen Faces' 35a; 'Barren Peartree' 35a; 'Knife-Like Will' 35b; 'Tattooed' 36a; 'Thoughts on Japanese Invasion' 38a; 'Charm Against Trouble' 38a; 'Angel Satyr' 39.
John Pudney 34a; 34b; 35a.
Herbert Read 31; 'September Fires 34b', 'Epitaph on a fair Lady?' 36a; 'Poem', 'Shipwreck?' 37b; 'Poem' 39b.
Michael Roberts 'Shining Dark' 33a; 'Emblem' 35a; 'If suddenly 35a; 'Hand of time' 35b; 'And if this Mountain Ceases' 36c; 'The Mill' 36a; 'I am that Shape' 36a; 'In the Strange Isle' 36b; 'The Caves' 36b; 'Child' 37b; 'Chamagny Le Haut' 38a; ' Time's Other Country' 38b; 'Inundation Nothing?' 36b; 'In our Time' 39.
Roger Roughton 'Wall' 34a; 'Song Forgotten' 34b.
Siegfried Sassoon 'Vigil in Spring' 35b; 'An Emblem' 35b; 'Museum Piece' 36b; 'Property' 37b; 'Ideologies' 39.
Stephen Spender 'I think of those' 31b; 'After they have Tired,' 'Misfortune cannot fail' 32a; 'Shape of Death' 34a; 'the Poem: I take the lift' 38a; 'Out of the Chaos of my Being' 38a 'Separation' 39.
D.S. Savage 'Poem?' 35b.
Randall Swingler 'Man Like Sun' 34b; 36a.
A.S.J. Tessimond 'Bells, Pool and Sleep' 32a; 'Quickstep' 33; 'Love Speaks to the Lover' 35b; 'Unwept waste', 'Firewalkers' 39a; 'London – Spring 1939' 39b.
Dylan Thomas 'Light' 34a; 'Poem in October' 34b.
Ruthven Todd 'In September' 37b; 'Poem: he went from the harsh tower of words' 38; 'Dies Mirabilis' May 38; 'Poem – To walk in Remembered Places' 38b; 'Beyond the Trees' 38b; ' Last Ogre' 38b.
R.E. Warner 'Lapwing' 35a.
T.H. White 'Invocation to words' 31a, 'Indescribable Loneliness of Man', 31b; 'The Skull' 33a.
(For titles and discussion see Women's Poetry of the 1930s ed. Jane Dowson. London: Routledge, 1996.)
Frances Cornford 1932; 33a.
Lilian Bowes Lyons 2 in 35a; 2 in 35b; 36a; 36b; 37b.
Kathleen Raine 34b; 2 in 35a; 38b.
Jan Struther 36a.
Vita Sackville West 31; 39.