A guest blog post by Alasdair Goudie, from the Memorialising Scottish Literature & Culture placement, working on MS Morgan G/5-6 in Archives and Special Collections
Literary controversies have always formed a unique point of entry for engaging the broader reading public into particular books, areas of literature, or the lives and livelihoods of particular authors. While obvious examples include the censorship of Lady Chatterley’s Lover or the ever-sustaining ‘question’ of Shakespeare’s authorship, there exist numerous other smaller controversies. Instances of slandered image, distorted perspectives, and wounded pride abound, even in the field of academia.
A particularly prescient example of such an event emerges in Edwin Morgan’s unpublished review of A Poet’s War: British Poets and the Spanish Civil War by Dr Hugh Ford. Although Morgan’s time as a book reviewer is more commonly a note in biographies than it is a defining feature of his career, his prolific nature and zealous productivity carried through into his reviews, spread out over a variety of publications but favouring the Times Literary Supplement, The Glasgow Herald, and The New Statesman. However, in the wake of the particular controversy surrounding this book, Morgan’s review went unpublished. While some reviewers might simply write this off as a run of bad luck, the fact that Morgan collected other reviews related to the book indicates that he continued to follow the controversy surrounding the book. These additional reviews, and Morgan’s review itself, indicate a classic parable of reviewer and academic alike – where one crosses the line from contemporary literary theory to prying speculation about motive and intention. As a man ensconced in both fields, this is likely a matter Morgan himself had reflected on intently.
The controversy surrounding the book was one of slandered reputation, which makes Morgan’s focus on Ford’s failure to examine the literary and emotional aspects of the poems at hand even more relevant. Margot Heinemann, one of the poets featured, had objected to Ford’s inaccurate dating of her poem ‘For R.J.C’, along with his interpretation of other poems of hers. Although which poems he misrepresented are not specified, Heinemann’s passion for ‘For R.J.C’ is understandable, given that it was dedicated to Rupert John Cornford, a poet who she had been in a passionate relationship with, and whose honour she was known to passionately defend decades after his death.
Another factor that may have raised Morgan’s interest in the controversy was the fact that he, himself, was a war poet, having chronicled his experiences as a stretcher-bearer in the Second World War in The New Divan (‘History so fearfully/draws us backward’ (Centenary Selected Poems, 2020, pg. 88). And, given the separation of dates between the request for the review (August 1965) and the (unpublished) review being received (February 1966), it was likely a matter he reflected on for some time. However, when one reads the draft of Morgan’s review and contrasts it with the other reviews of the piece that he had collected, one actually witnesses a great deal of restraint, with the response being best summarised as ‘wryly cynical’. The most positive review enclosed refers to it as ‘an extraordinarily dogged book’ (Romilly, Unspecified). Henry Reed’s review in The Sunday Times opens with a lengthy diatribe about the monomania of American literary academics – ‘the basic subject of the thesis shall be of such microscopic dimensions and even smaller importance’ (The Sunday Times, 1965) – and Francis Hope’s review in The New Statesman aptly opens with ‘What, more about the poetry of That War?’ (The New Statesman, 1965)
Morgan, as a general rule, wrote his reviews close to their due date (as he had a full-time job as an academic as well), and so we can see that the review was likely written after he had received a telegram requesting the return of his copy, with the promise of ‘a ‘legal’ copy in due course’. However, it was also written before the official apology issued on behalf of the Oxford University Press, thus making it unlikely that Morgan knew the nature of the controversy in question. With this in mind, Morgan’s review focusing on Ford’s failure to engage with the literary aspects of the poems, and focusing far too much on political worthiness (‘the inadequacy of a poem tends to be seen in terms of inadequacy of attitude or belief’), is oddly prescient for the storm at hand.
Hope, Francis. ‘Don’t Shoot The War Poet’, The New Statesman, 1st October 1965, pg. 490
Morgan, Edwin. Centenary Selected Poems, (Manchester: Carcanet, 2020), pg. 88
Reed, Henry. ‘Spain, ’36-’39: no art out of war.’, The Sunday Times, 5th September 1965.
Romilly, Giles. Review of The International Brigades and A Poet’s War: British Poets and the Spanish Civil War. Newspaper, date, and page number unspecified.