The Angry Young Men and The Movement.

Interlude to the poetic art of Dorothy Cowlin.


The Death of Thomas Chatterton ( by Henry Wallis )

'The Angry Young Men.'

After the second world war, a journalist recalls that he thought he had really 'arrived', when he attended a meeting of The Society of Authors with a talk given by Dorothy Cowlin. Her novels ceased to be published but a new generation was in evidence. Their politics, at least at first, was similar to Dorothy's: left-wing Labour. Unlike her, they were aggressively post-war.

Incidentally, Dorothy Cowlin's views had something in common with those of the novelist and literary critic, Margaret Drabble, who wrote a Fabian Society pamflet favoring ( relatively ) equal incomes. ( Such a basic equality is needed to make the 'free' market fair and prevent greed destroying the ecology. )

A famous review, of new writers from the mid to late nineteen fifties, dubbed them 'the angry young men.' Membership of this band was still providing John Wain with copy, in the closing years of the century. He pointed out that his first novel Hurry On Down came out in 1953, the last year before television occupied most British homes. In other words, he was a genuinely popular success and not a media-made literary personality.

Hurry On Down and Kingsley Amis' break-thru, Lucky Jim, are young men's novels. I remember how much I enjoyed them. As one ages, the dreams fade, and perhaps also youthful ambitions and their frustrations.
Despite his career comedy of suppressed anger, Amis denied he was of some new group. And of course there was copy in taking that line.

These upstarts, from the working or lower middle classes, were the lucky elite, with university scholarships. ( Dorothy Cowlin was an even rarer pre-war example. ) Amis, like H G Wells before him, seems to dread falling back into 'the people of the abyss'. In the age of the Welfare State and Full Employment ( with capital letters ), Amis can afford to make a slapstick comedy of cliff-hanging onto a career.

Wain is ahead of is time. His hero drops-out ( more or less voluntarily ) after 'coming down' from university. He does a series of menial jobs. Becoming a window-cleaner, he innocently seeks a job at his old school. The Head takes this as a practical sneer at his education.

'The angry young men' no doubt got their name from John Osborne's play Look Back In Anger, which is anger in earnest. The letter to the press, he wrote late in life - Damn you, England - might have been said by Jimmy Porter. ( A suitably implacable performance was given by Richard Burton. ) Was this social criticism or personal complaint?

There is a saying, it is the crying baby that gets picked up. Art becomes the art of attention- getting. I can't help feeling there was an element of that when John Braine swung over to extreme right wing, in the nineteen sixties, of all times - but then it was a way of standing out.
Perhaps it was a way of suggesting he had found his own Room At The Top when he was just keeping going. ( The film of the book had another servicably surly performance, this time from Lawrence Harvey. )

His novels arent helped by the advent of the author's reactionary persona. Eventually, he swung back somewhat. He said on radio: people in this country have forgotten what liberalism is. He mellowed into a successful television personality, before his untimely death.

A useful motto of Braine's was: Diversify or perish. For instance, he wrote about his fellow Bradford hero, J B Priestley, and about the Novel. If there was any bitterness left in him, he had no more time for it than a passing remark about Labour politics: the politicians being in it for themselves.

The grammar-school educated John Braine is usually linked to his contemporary, Allan Sillitoe also a best-seller of working class stories, Saturday Night And Sunday Morning, and The Loneliness of the Long-distance Runner, also successfully filmed. The latter title entered the language as a figure of speech. This is a literary achievement coveted by writers.

Sillitoe left school at fourteen. In this he has more in common with Colin Wilson, who was self-educated. The range of his reading was already apparent from The Outsider, which made the young man's name.
The follow-up was panned in Kenneth Allsop's survey of The Angry Decade. But Wilson has proved a survivor. When things looked bad for him, he kept his courage up and kept on working and publishing diversely. He may lack academic scepticism but he writes with a hard-earned plainness, for the general public, that most scholars have never learned.

Allsop reckoned that J P Donleavy's The Ginger Man is the kind of yobbish character defeated by Lucky Jim. Even in the fifties, this Irish story followed Joyce's Ulysses into exile, for its sexuality, with a first publication in France.
But when you read Donleavy's novel, you think: he is a poet. You wouldnt necessarily guess this from the first novels of Wain, Amis and Sillitoe, tho they all took poetry seriously and published verse.

Kenneth Allsop was frankly partisan towards Amis, like 'a favourite son' he reproved for wasting his talent writing New Maps Of Hell, an early survey of science fiction.

Amis himself made a success in the genre with The Alteration a typical Amis under-statement. John Wain decried SF as a sort of literary bankruptcy, in a review of C S Lewis' writings. Wain singled out the Oxford History Of English Literature volume Lewis contributed. This must have been some last despairing protest, because Wain brought out an SF novel of his own, to the triumph of Braine's saying, 'Diversify or perish'.

The device of grouping writers together into a sort of 'convoy system' has proved there is safety in numbers. It helped them to be remembered as writers, if only of their first writings. This can be a further cause for complaint. But public acclaim in the arts often has to rely for a break-thru, on some work of extra-ordinary power. Later work may come as an anti-climax. Also, too much praise, too soon, may be debilitating.

The tag 'angry young men' obviously didnt do women writers any favors. Iris Murdoch's first novel, Under The Net linked her sympathies to this group. But it was as a member of something called, instead, The Movement. Murdoch, the academic was to move away to long circumstantial novels. The term was soon appropriated for a new school of English poets - mainly men again.
Before reviewing Dorothy Cowlin's poetry, it is worth commenting on their programme, as her style has much in common.

'The Movement' and Philip Larkin.

To top.

The previous section contrasted Dorothy Cowlin's work with a succeeding group of novelists, the angry young men. Some, like Amis and Wain, belonged to another new group of the nineteen-fifties, 'The Movement'. This provides a context for Dorothy's poetry, most of which comes after their hay-day.

By and large, the angry young men were aggressive with ambition. The Movement could also be considered an upward movement in social mobility. Hence, Kingsley Amis points out Hull librarian, Philip Larkin as an outstanding new poet. ( They were contemporary scholarship winners to Oxford. ) And Larkin characterised meeting Amis as the odd experience of being in the company of someone more talented than himself.
In other words, you scratch my back and I'll scratch yours.

It helps the promotions of a mutual admiration society, if there is some truth in them. Larkin wrote two early novels, which proved to be wild oats. He summed up his true vocation by saying: I seem to have been waiting all my life for poems to arrive. Larkin is the acknowledged leader of the Movement. No attempt is made here to describe its extent. But we can look at the summit of its achievement in one or two of Larkin's poems.

The Whitsun Weddings.

To top.

The Whitsun Weddings may be the finest English poem of the twentieth century. I must admit it exploded my speculations about the nature of poetry. To me, the essence of poetry was the symbolic image or metaphor. Nowadays, I would express this by saying that poems are dream-like experiences, while novels are the medium of waking life.

Poems, like dreams are short, elusive and concentrated, with over-lays of symbolic meaning, as Freud said. Novels, however, make readers imagine other people's everyday conscious experience. We do so, thru usually imaginary characters. Even if the characters are historical, including our own past selves, they are necessarily imagined.

By involving ourselves in their circumstances and problems, we may get some idea of how they felt. Perhaps, novels have to be logic-led in their understanding of people. They are too long, otherwise, ever to get written.

Margaret Atwood's novels, for instance, include dreams. They are, after all, part of the panorama of existence. But they are not typical of it, in the West's rationalised culture ( if damagingly irrational in its corporatism ).

Conversely, The Whitsun Weddings is a north-south English train journey, that might have been material for a novel. Yet, draw as it does, on a wide-awake description of the bright of day, this narration is assuredly a poem. The reason is not only because the experience is skilfully versed, yet so colloquial we are not on our guard against being sung to sleep by its incantation.

Rather, the poem is like one of those dreams we confuse with reality. The event described would be conducive to a hallucogenic state in the author. Larkin has a rush on, to catch the train for his holidays. Once safely aboard, he can relax, helped by the hypnotic tattoo over the rails ( a rhythm mimicked in the four-syllable second lines to each verse ).

As when going to bed, no more action is required of the long distance train traveler for several hours. From the smell of the upholstery onwards, the passenger's senses become acute - as the imagination comes into relief, in the night. The images rise up before us, thru the traveling window, as unbidden as a dream sequence. And the cross-section of the English landscape is as lacking in any apparent over-all logic.

Yet in eighty lines of picture language Larkin creates a pictogram of England that all such train travelers can recognise as representing their own experience. The poem is a symbol of national identity in the mid twentieth century.

The symbolism is deeper and more universal than that. Whitsun was when the marriages took place and the couples departed. At station after station, Larkin was passing thru, the focus of existence repeats its message. Looking out at the leave-taking celebrations, he reads the expressions on the faces of all the different participants - from the newly-weds at the eye of the storm of attention, to the bored kids on the sidelines.

The train seems to be speeding thru time, as well as space, as marriage follows marriage, down the line. So, real life appears as fleeting as a dream, which it surely is, on the cosmic scale. The passenger lives in his eternal present. But that leaves him a helpless on-looker, like a dreamer, who never awakes to the possibilities of his nature.

In the whole poem, there are only two metaphors. They are decidedly common-place but the latter is given a slightly different slant, to beautiful effect, as a conclusion. This poem is the bread of life, unbuttered by fantasies. The sense impressions are accurately described, not fancifully transcribed. Doing that takes imagination enough, without dragging in other scenes.

The subject in hand requires its own language, or specific choice of words, that doesnt have to be translated in terms of some more familiar experience to be understood, or into something more exotic to be made wonderful.
More and more imaginative translations of a given reality may mean the original gets lost in the translation, like the party game of Chinese whispers.

This is consistent with Larkin's own guidelines for poetry. Each poem should be a self-contained world. There should be no classical or trendy allusions that the general public cannot be expected to know. Likewise, no obscure symbolism that is private to the writer's own imagination. Robert Browning was asked to explain what one of his passages meant. He replied: once God and he knew, but now... God only knows.

This was just the sort of reason why the Movement was against romantic poetry. In particular, they were against the excesses of its most recent exemplar, Dylan Thomas. Thomas is supposed to have said, with some merriment, that he would look for an obscure word to replace a simple one.
Dorothy Cowlin, whose work we shall be going thru, loved the poems of Dylan Thomas, she saw anthologised. So, she bought his collected verse. She found that nearly all the other pieces eluded her.

In The Whitsun Weddings, Larkin looks at the romance of reality but he does not enter the reality of romance, that he sees.

Wild Oats.

To top.

This statement seems confirmed by Larkin's rare poem about courtship, Wild Oats. The title is misleading. Chamber's dictionary defines to sow one's wild oats, as to indulge in the usual youthful dissipations.
A biography reviewer commented how Larkin's private life was to belie his famous first lines:

Sexual intercourse began
In nineteen sixty-three
( Which was rather late for me ) -

However dissipated his later life, Wild Oats is about a youthful attempt at a mature relationship. Two women, who are friends, appear at his work place. The poet recalls he was too shy of the glamorous one. So, he makes do with making friends with the other woman. Tho, it is not friendship that he really wants but the evil enchantment of sexual attraction.

Even as he disparages, in a dismissive phrase, 'bosomy rose', one suspects he is still held in thrall to the charmer. To the end, he carries a photo of both women. One can see why Larkin would be an anti-romantic, as a man, as well as a poet. Romance is an illusion that delivers none of its promise, yet does not allow one escape from it.

Our society undervalues friendship. And so friendship between two young people of the opposite sex is taken to mean courtship. Larkin submits to that understanding. He even seems to have become engaged to her, but he hadnt his heart in it. Naturally, the fiancée, as we must call her, was increasingly annoyed at having her time wasted. And tells him some home truths about himself.

The poet delivers himself from his embarrassment by being politely chastened. The poem is a prime example of Movement doctrine that emotions show up all the more strongly for being under-stated. There is none of the romantic's passionate protestations of regret. ( Altho, Emily Bronte could still expose Heathcliff's 'monomania', in Wuthering Heights, for what it was. )

Wild Oats is the more impressive for its quiet detachment. But its style is a personal alternative rather than a replacement for Emily Bronte's kind of rugged power.

An under-statement, on a big issue, is John Wain's A Song About Major Eatherly, a fine mood poem. The Movement was criticised for not often tackling subjects of public importance. In this respect, Wain's 1962 collection Weep Before God is considered a radical departure.

There is no doubt that Wild Oats offers a glimpse into a humiliating passage of the poet's youth, which it took many years to come to terms with. So successfully does he pass off formal control as loose conversation, that I didnt even notice the rhymes at first. This is another stylistic hall-mark of the Movement.

In leaving him by, life left this nugget from its eruption of ashes.
As a poem, it is a triumph of economy - he didnt want to dwell on it, yet manages to convey it. As life, it was a waste of time, tho not one that counts for much, in the scale of things.

The writer of this commentary was not far removed from Larkin's sexually repressive era. This poem also speaks for myself as a failure in life's unforgiving contest.

In 1971, an anthology edited by Jeremy Robson was called The Young British Poets. ( As if there werent any others! ) The publishers believed their book would be as influential as New Signatures and New Lines for Thirties and Fifties poetry. ( New Lines, edited by Robert Conquest, was the Movement's manifesto. ) Some names now famous were there. The Celtic fringe was well represented. But only one of the twenty-three young British poets was a woman.

In Scanning the Century ( 1999 ) Peter Forbes goes so far as to say:

In Britain the real surge in women poets had to wait until the 1980s when the one-track Oxbridge domination of English poetry finally broke down.

The purpose of the following two web pages is to appreciate the poetry of a woman whose writing career began long before that.

Richard Lung
1999, slightly edited july 2003.

To top.

To home page.