The New Isaiah: A Forgotten English Poem of the 1930s – Niall McDevitt

David Gasgoiyne.inddFlicking through the fine hardback New Collected Poems of David Gascoyne (Enitharmon, 2014), I finally saw in the contents list the name of a poem I’d always wanted to read. All I’d ever known of it was the title, The New Isaiah, and a quoted paragraph which I’d seen in Robert Fraser’s biography Night Thoughts: The Surreal Life of the Poet David Gascoyne from 2012. However, the poem itself was not in my edition of an earlier Collected Poems, nor in any selection I had seen, nor was it online, nor in any anthologies I’d come across. Perhaps it was lost? Or juvenilia? Or not one of his best? Or maybe English poetry’s best-kept secret, David Gascoyne, was still keeping secrets from those few who knew his work? When I heard of this new collection I was hoping it would include the poem. My first anxious scan through the contents list missed the title, perhaps not thinking it would appear so early. A second search spotted the shibboleth, The New Isaiah, page 19. It had been published in his precocious debut Roman Balcony. At last, I began to read:

Across the highways strewn with ashen filth
The ragged pilgrims come to the new Metropolis,
That cruel City, built of stone and steel,
where unveiled passions, unashamed crimes,
the windy avenues traverse, where lust
wars bitterly with lust, where naked lights
illumine nightly what the day concealed.

Reading it doesn’t disappoint, but it does exasperate. How can this early masterpiece, and one of the better English poems of the 1930s, have been excluded from anything? Editors of Gascoyne and of poetry anthologies can only have been thinking quantitatively and left it out to save space. (It runs to three pages.) Or they underestimated its grandeur and cadence. Its unavailability has led to a gap in the skyline, akin to a missing edifice. This is an outstanding poem and yet apart from Robert Fraser’s signpost no one ever writes about it, talks about it, quotes it, republishes it, until now that is. All credit to Roger Scott, the editor of the new volume, for bringing it back into the public eye. A forgotten lyrical monument is publicly unveiled again.

The introductory stanza takes us into its negative cityscape as Dante takes us into Dis. I’d have preferred ‘traverse the windy avenues’ to the inversion but the poem plays with archaism as so many modernists were wont to do. Joyce looks back to Homeric epic, Eliot to Arthurian epic via Joyce, Gascoyne to Biblical epic via Eliot and Joyce. The ancient/modern parallelogram is erected again.The second stanza changes texture. Its vista of rural migration not only has a Shakespearean feel, but subliminally seems to imagine Shakespeare himself as the English Everyman who quits the provinces for the capital, leaving Ann Hathaway for theatreland.

They come in hordes, they come all day,
the oafs, the ignorant, the louts,
who tire at last of retch and sweat
on farms, on all-too-barren fields
whose crude desires, unsatisfied
by buxom cheek of dairymaid,
by greasy thigh of country-wench,
come hither in an eager rout
in search of painted lips and faces,
of limbs by nightly libertines embraced.

Gascoyne's debut poetry collection, 'Roman Balcony'

Gascoyne’s debut poetry collection, ‘Roman Balcony’

The 1930s was an excellent decade for English poetry, which saw the artform not only revelling in new techniques but using them to return poetry to its prophetic roots. Poetry became engaged again as politics explored extremities. MacSpaunday – the four-headed beast MacNeice/Spender/Auden/Day Lewis – dominated the mainstream, but there was a fecund fringe at work and a fruitful clash of generations. Everyone knows September 1, 1939 is a great 1930s poem but even admirers of David Gascoyne may not have read The New Isaiah until now. That said, Gascoyne’s brilliant Zero is another virtually unknown visionary classic of 1939. The problem, I believe, is not just the spiritual sincerity but the true radicalism of Gascoyne, which makes for a poetry that is slower to assimilate because harder to digest. Being resistant, it meets more resistance. A recent two-hour BBC documentary on 20th century British poetry chose to highlight among others John Betjeman. Gascoyne went unmentioned. This is how blinkered (and blinkering) the traditional survey of English poetry can be. Elsewhere, he is excluded from Michael Schmidt’s Lives of the Poets except for the phrase ‘like David Gascoyne on a rare good day’. Ridiculously, this is in a passage criticising ‘stylistic irony’and lamenting a lack of sincerity in poetry. Such a throwaway comment looks like revenge for some slight, but ripples out generating more prejudice. Even an enthusiast, Darran Anderson, sees Gascoyne as a kind of one-hit wonder whose oeuvre fails to live up to the greatness of And the Seventh Dream is the Dream of Isis. The hapless author is ‘A writer who connected briefly with genius and wrote a poem so monumental it casts a long shadow over everything else he wrote or failed to write.’ This is a reductio ad absurdum from the usual reduction of Gascoyne to mere Surrealist, but at least proselytizes for another 1930s Gascoyne poem. It’s an all-too-secular verdict, replaying Breton’s anti-Christian dismissal.

libra-1-isis_smallPublished a year after The New Isaiah in 1933, And the Seventh Dream is the Dream of Isis is both a showcase poem of English surrealism and modernism’s most stylish ‘white goddess’ poem – even when modish, he is religious – but full immersion in this poet’s output finds the sublimest depths elsewhere. Still a ripe target for contempts and condescensions, pigeon-holed by a few early poems, Gascoyne is something of a modern Blake, an outsider poet whose presence swells by the decade. He is a poetic ‘crisis manager’, capable of registering personal-political upheavals. Sane poets only go so far; Gascoyne goes further. His own psychological and financial difficulties and his more slow-growing, underground reputation make him a – superficially – less attractive figure than the highly successful Eliots, Audens, Betjemans of this world. Gascoyne is not a poet of the tournament but of the wilderness. He has what all poets should have, but surprisingly often don’t… profundity. The New Isaiah is a textbook example of how a poem/poet/poetry can extend its depth by turning to contemporary philosophy for guidance.

They come to toil at City desk,
to serve in cafes or in shops,
to balance on the scaffolding
of building-sites, to dig the roads,
to wait in the weary, rain-drenched queues
that straggle outside the Labour Exchanges;
or if the City finds them fools,
they sit and sleep like sodden sacks
on the rusty seats of embankments or suburbs.

Elementary as it is, this stanza captures our present as well as Gascoyne’s, connecting the Great Depression of yesterday with the ‘economic downturn’ of today. To the riddle of the title, the dedication supplies a key. Oswald Spengler is the recipient of the poet’s benediction, alive at the time of writing and to whom it may have been sent. (Gascoyne, though shy, still found the courage to make contact with people he admired.) The poem has several notable qualities. It is a foreboding versification of the ‘Downfall of the Occident’ metanarrative; a British-Israelite portrait of London between the wars; an ambitious young poet’s attempt to vocalise the city in the aftermath of Eliot; and an important forerunner of such later Gascoyne urban explorations as A Vagrant and Night Thoughts. The philosophical starting-point allows him to ruminate on his native city of London as a Spenglerian world city. His observations and lucubrations coalesce into poetry. Quotidian sights and sounds are symptoms of a terminal fall.

When night descends, when the last toil is done,
the City streets, garbed in beguiling lights,
invite the labourer to every vice,
and laughter squalls, and crowds go arm-in-arm,
the whores come out to wait in alleyways
where sudden drunks from hidden corners lurch,
and Pleasure Palaces and smoky dens
alike proclaim their diverse cheap attractions.

Oswald Spengler

Oswald Spengler

The civil servants of English poetry baulk at the idea of the prophetic, and this is perhaps why this poem – like a whistle-blowing document – has been filed away. The New Isaiah is a prophetic poem in that it is stylised as such, but tells an unusual story as it humbly passes the prophetic mantle to someone else. It is as much a praise poem for the thinker Oswald Spengler as it is a condemnation of the evils of the polis. In other words, in his call-and-response relationship to The Waste Land Gascoyne is not trying to step into the shoes of Eliot as poet-prophet, but is versifying the theory of one of the most idiosyncratic and controversial thinkers of the time, one who became a touchstone for the most out-there and abandoned literati to follow, most famously Miller and Burroughs. Steeped in the twin pessimisms of Spengler and Eliot, the poem makes no attempt to rebut the pessimism of Eliot, as Hart Crane and others did, but echoes Eliot without imitating Eliot. The major difference is that while Eliot’s poem expresses a patrician malaise, Gascoyne’s is much more socially mobile and much more rooted in the metropolis in question, London, and its native people. Even though Eliot uses London placenames, while Gascoyne opts for a universal urbs, the London of the ‘Labour Exchange’ is recognisable. There is something Hogarthian in its concerns. Gascoyne, born in the aptly named London suburb of Harrow, may seem as condescending to the rustics who flood into his capital as Eliot is to the cockneys he ventriloquizes, but Gascoyne was always a considered anti-fascist and a sometime communist. Their politics are not the same, nor backgrounds, Gascoyne being of petit-bourgeois-cum-bohemian origin. Nor does Gascoyne share the incrementally right-wing politics of Spengler. As it happens, the coolly neutral The New Isaiah is not concerned with class analysis but with the plight of an industrious if licentious people who are sacrificing themselves to a machine, a machine that is falling from a state of disrepair into a state of disuse. This poem of godlessness differs from Eliot’s in that it is comprehensible all the way, though it retains mystery. There are stanzas of blank verse and free verse, pentameters and tetrameters interchanging, but nothing of the outré stylistics of The Waste Land. What makes this substantial poem work is its confident switch between free and formal verse, (or perhaps free-ish and formal-ish verse.) The prosaic offsets the poetic as if by shift work. As Eliot references the urban laureateship of Baudelaire in his ‘Hypocrite lecteur!’, Gascoyne homages the Frenchman by breaking into intense rhyming quatrains. Some of the lines are ringing Alexandrines such as ‘… and with our brushes paint disintegration’s signs.’ Rather than the discombobulating polyphony of The Waste Land, there is dialogue between a narrator and the prophet. The narrator is Gascoyne, the prophet is Spengler, but the prophet is also the man in the street listening to himself. This is folk prophecy reminiscent of Piers Plowman – as in the alliterative line ‘they sit and sleep like sodden sacks’ – not written de haut en bas, but shared. The seemingly humdrum vistas of the opening stanzas suddenly intensify. Realism explodes into expressionism.

In stinking sewers open to the sky
the worn-out profligates lie down to die:
and rank contagion fills the germ-laid air
from poisoned corpses that the wind strips bare.

Midst clawing shadows and the web of crazy nights,
in stuffy rooms that paralyse the mind,
the weakened bodies of this later race of men
beget a stunted and deformed mankind.

Nor art nor music flourishes in this decline;
the world degenerates, has lost its mind.
We hang our harps upon the streets to weep
and with our brushes paint disintegration’s signs.

There is a herd instinct among some literati to react to an utterance as grave and concerned as this with snide indifference. Another contemporary critic, Andrew Duncan, has dismissed Gascoyne as ‘pedestrian and hysterical.’ Aside from the wrongness, my objection to this is a lexicological instinct never to deploy the word ‘pedestrian’ as a critical term. There’s nothing wrong with walking, quite the opposite, so it should never have become a metaphorical basis for the putting down of poetry. I first noticed this critical oxymoron in an essay by Jeremy Reed – introducing Gascoyne to the readers of the anthology Conductors of Chaos – who eulogised Gascoyne’s night walks in Paris (from the poem ‘Noctambules’) whilst accusing the Larkinian mainstream of ‘pedestrianism’. It’s a paradox too far. For a poet, pedester is equester. Gascoyne’s poems were inspired by his colossal walks through London as Rimbaud’s and Blake’s had been before him. Much poetry would benefit from being more pedestrian, less desk-bound. I have looked through Robin Skelton’s skeltonPoetry of the Thirties and other anthologies to see if they contain any poems as good as The New Isaiah. The good thing about this Penguin tome, which more than makes up for its abysmal cover, is that the mage-like Skelton was an informed Gascoynean and included a half-dozen poems by the misfit, though not The New Isaiah. Auden’s Spain, Barker’s Elegy on Spain, MacNeice’s Autumn Journal are brave contenders; but Gascoyne’s poem has the advantage of timelessness. True, there is the fashionable Spenglerian theme, but Gascoyne is drawing on the old Isaiah too to paint a pestilential ever-recurring London. Black Death, fire, blitz, apocalypse are all visible within its perimeters. Too often, poets write about what they see by daylight. Auden’s fine epistle to Isherwood; To a Writer on his Birthday concludes with an image of ‘I smoke into the night’ but begins with a ‘Daily’ and a ‘lulled by the light’. It is solar not lunar poetry. And it is desk-bound. Gascoyne has night vision, mobile as the moon, and sees what is rather than projecting his own charms and circumstances onto the object. The poem is free of any intention whatsoever to make the reader feel good.

All aim and faith has gone. Men do not grope
within this xanthic fog, nor do they hope,
but toil and grovel as the years proceed.
They toil for nothing; nor do they feel need.

Though the earlier line ‘in stuffy rooms that paralyse the mind’ is Eliotian, suggesting Preludes, Gascoyne shows how determined he is to differentiate himself from Eliot in his phrase ‘xanthic fog.’ All xanthic means is ‘yellow’ but if he had said ‘yellow fog’ it would be literally quoting from Prufrock. Xanthic offers a completely other texture, and sound, to describe the same phenomenon. The stanza is filmic, the celluloid rolls, and we seem to see footage of somnambulant workers in satanic mills. It’s hellish and irredeemable, but for the trumpets:

The ranting whirligigs revolve and scream
in acrid breath of smoke and steam;
the lights are harsh and dazzle every eye
to signs of omnipresent Destiny.

But Destiny’s brass trumpet wakes the wise.
They see decay, they see the falling globe,
they see the slow inevitable decline
of nations, and the twilight of the West.

The despairing tone is not unique. Gascoyne himself later compared the two novelists Henry Miller – a personal friend and hero – and Louis Ferdinand Celine, finding ‘the same unbounded pessimism, the same catastrophic vision of a world stifling in disease and filth’. Celine’s bitterness and Miller’s joie de vivre contrast, but Gascoyne’s variation on a theme is the rhythmic deeming of a lyric poet to the accompaniment of bass drum. Of course this youthful Gascoyne has seen less, but he has seen. The consolation for the populaces limned within is that a prophet is walking among them, a waking conscience, an illuminated soul who records the mass descent of humanity into what Blake calls ‘the Nether Abyss’. The clarity and simplicity of the language convey a stately effect. It’s been carefully worked but doesn’t show it and has been pared down to what it is, a social cri de coeur. The second of the two quatrains above slips out of rhyme as the poem resumes its other form, the larger blank verse stanza. The intense pitch stays. Is it good news that a prophet is among the people once again? Is it good news that Isaiah has returned in a new incarnation? It almost is. It could be. The obvious snag is that the people will ignore his importunings, as they always have. A masterful iambic pentameter couplet takes us to the heart of the matter.

A new Isaiah walks the City streets
with burning coals of fire on his head
who cries his warnings to the careless crowds
who heed him not but arm themselves for wars,
who whet their swords for one another’s blood,
who go a-whoring with their own inventions
deaf to the cries of one who sees their fate:
’As Rome fell, ye shall fall,
as falling ye are now.

A new Isaiah walks the City streets
with burning coals of fire on his head:
’The world-metropolis is built on dust,
with fruitless labour, by the sweat of lust.

To dust it shall return nor shall it rise again
till the world writhes in the tremendous pain
of a new birth in a far distant dawn,
nor can you hope to see that new world born.

‘You cannot turn to God for there is no God left:
Your God is the Machine, of soul bereft.
Through all the discords of a striving host
the machine drones on, a steel ghost.

‘Out of the foul refuse that the mob ignores
old vices rise that no one now deplores.
New Sodoms and Gomorrahs flourish in the dusk
which suck their foul fruit dry and throw away the husk.

‘You cannot check the wheel of Fate.
The years are late. The years are late.
The West declines, Metropolis is falling…’
through the loud shade the prophet-voice calling.

The sun has gone. The City’s lights
shine out with fevered brilliance.
When at the last these brilliant lights shall fail
how dark and terrible the Winter night!
E’en now, above the giant roofs
rises a pale and waning moon –

Tis but a few can read the signs.

Of course, Spengler isn’t walking the streets in this fashion; but Gascoyne the pedestrian poet is, intoning internally, firing mentally.The line ’The years are late. The years are late’ is very Eliotian but the stanza it features in is not. Again, it’s a well-executed versification and vindication of Spengler. I particularly like the way the quotation mark returns after the third line, signalling the breaking off of the prophet. From the fine line ‘the world-metropolis is built on dust’, the prophet speaks in definite rhyming couplets, the most consistent stretch in the poem. It’s a poem I wish I could hear Gascoyne read, but I’m not aware of a recording. The new Isaiah, like the old, prophesies the coming of a messiah but warns his listeners to entertain no hope of seeing the messianic age. In a way, the poem is an entertainment. It is a blast against complacency; it would be funny if all the people contained in the poem could become its audience. Had Gascoyne recited it in a London pub, it would have been understood by laymen – that is one of the miracles of the poem. The British-Israel mystique appeals to something deep in a populace nourished on the King James Bible. Most Gascoyne stuff is not as accessible. This poem so goes against the grain of entertainment deployed in most public address, including poetry,that it somehow entertains despite itself, as Piers Plowman entertains even as it reprimands. The utterance, the musicalisation, do not cause despair but something more like relief. The unutterable has been uttered, the truth is out. The metrics are pleasing. Such is this poem’s ‘brief authority’ the reader who has not yet read Spengler may feel there is no need; the poem has condensed the two-volume book into a song. Is there a moral? It is certainly not in the earlier stanza about the ‘later race of men’ who ‘beget a stunted and deformed mankind’. Gascoyne is absolutely not advocating the eugenics of so many of his contemporaries. This is merely a detail in the poem’s necessary hyperbole. Both species and system are dying. It includes us all, not a victimised underclass. The moral must surely have something to do with Gascoyne’s choice of prophet. We may have assumed it would make no difference had he called the poem The New Jeremiah, that it was a matter of style, of sound. But the prophets are distinguished by their teachings. The New Jeremiah could have worked well as no one foresaw the destruction of civilisation – nor incarnated the poetry of despair – better than the author who gave his name to the jeremiad. However, it is the choice of Isaiah that offers something like hope to the reader and indicates where Gascoyne is coming from. Isaiah is above all distinguished by his concern for the welfare of ordinary people in prioritising social justice over religious ritual, and by his famous anti-war message about converting swords into ploughshares. Gascoyne’s poem empathises with its own population, but only so far. As soon as Isaiah himself enters the stage, he turns on the people for their warlike ways. Suddenly it’s not hard to see that Gascoyne is addressing his own nation, still recovering from the military-industrial nadir of WW1 while preparing for the madness of WW2. Again, he does not aim the blow at a section of society but at all of society. And ruin is predicted. Gascoyne is telling the British Empire in no uncertain terms – and with total accuracy – that it is going the way of the Roman Empire. The archaism of the ‘ye shall fall’ is Biblical English. Spengler’s ‘Faustian’ Germany would fall first, Gascoyne’s Britain soon thereafter. The war will be won, the peace will be lost.

calamiterror george barkerAmid the poetry of the 1930s there is much seriousness, because many of the poets had tasted the brutalities of war and because many were clamouring for social reform. When they write in lighter veins, the result is still a very high-minded satire of which MacNeice is probably the best exponent, but which even Betjeman can rise to in a poem like In Westminster Abbey, a parody of religious jingoism. There is the sensual and sardonic wit of Geoffrey Grigson, most moving in the love poem And Forgetful of Europe. There is George Barker’s Blakean epic Calamiterror. There are the well-crafted but bland posturings of the pseudo-revolutionaries Day Lewis and Spender. It might be argued that the poetry then was too much political and not enough spiritual, but the apolitical Dylan Thomas comes to mind with any number of hip Christo-pagan classics, as well as the converted Eliot of Ash Wednesday. Gascoyne certainly fills the spiritual void and is one of those rare poets who can combine the political and religious in a single poem. The New Isaiah is a very early example of this. The mystery is how someone born in 1916 and who published his first volume in 1932 could have written such a serious poem. The New Isaiah was most likely composed when the author was 15 years old! One explanation is his schoolboy years in Salisbury as a member of the Salisbury Cathedral Choir, a highly accomplished musical ensemble, performing and recording such works as Edward Elgar’s setting of Cardinal Newman’s The Dream of Gerontius (with Elgar in attendance.) Chanting this high religious poem in 1929 was one of the most moving experiences in Gascoyne’s life, according to Robert Fraser, and it was in the same year that he began writing poetry. He must have sung countless psalms and hymns in his five or so years in Salisbury, before his voice broke and he was made redundant. But his 1930 return to London added a new stimulus: not the Regent Street Polytechnic but the allure of bookshops including Foyles, Zwemmers, A.H. Mayhew, Watkins Books, and the Poetry Bookshop where he encountered Eliot the man reciting Christina Rossetti. There are other fine poems in his first collection, most notably Seaside Tragedy which brilliantly turns a local newspaper article about a widow’s suicide in Bournemouth into a modernist lyric-epic, a work which sophisticates and dignifies its subject, creating a tragic poem about an ordinary person. It’s also a fine nautical poem. Prison is thought to be describing his low-ceilinged room in the family home at Richmond Road, East Twickenham. There is the opulent minimalist fantasy of the title poem, Roman Balcony, a clue to the fascism of the era. Each is its own work of art with its own materials. The Roman theme is courtesy of Pater’s Marius the Epicurean. However, it was not just the bookshops of London but the city itself that provided the Jerusalemite/Babylonian/Roman vistas for The New Isaiah and a template for the politico-religious urban poetry that Gascoyne would revisit. That a teenager could pen such a mature poem probably signifies genius. That critics such as Schmidt and Duncan can be so dismissive of David Gascoyne suggests he is probably one of those poets who divide readers in extremis. Visionary Londonists such as Iain Sinclair tend to be admirers. Academia has yet to fully catch on; a serious study would only garner a few dozen customers. Roger Scott has taken that route and a PHD has led to this monolithic new edition. The poems pipe on to their dedicated inspectors and find new ears. The New Isaiah is both caring and careful, addressed as it is to ‘careless crowds’. These must include the literati who failed to notice the poem. It’s not an epochal poem like The Waste Land, but it is an important, special, powerful poem. And it hasn’t been hacked to death. The deft, once-off repetition of the key couplet ‘A new Isaiah walks the City streets / with burning coals of fire on his head’ is compelling, as is the capitalization of the capital City. Who could disagree that herein lies a modern formula? This is urban shamanism. I like the image, suggestive of the ‘imbas’ that is Gaelic for a poet’s inspiration i.e. the ‘fire in the head’ (as well as the Shelleyan image of inspiration as a fading coal). It is based on a vision from Isaiah 6:

Then I said, “Woe is me, for I am ruined! Because I am a man of unclean lips,
And I live among a people of unclean lips; For my eyes have seen the King, the
LORD of hosts.” Then one of the seraphim flew to me with a burning coal in his
hand, which he had taken from the altar with tongs. He touched my mouth with
it and said, “Behold, this has touched your lips; and your iniquity is taken away and
your sin is forgiven.”

It is a fire unafraid of simplicity and profundity, with much heat and light to bestow. Adolescent? It is a clean-lipped poem.

Isaiah, depicted by Michelangelo

Isaiah, depicted by Michelangelo

Niall McDevitt, Oct ’14


David Gascoyne, ‘New Collected Poems’, Enitharmon Press, £25. An introductory bio (of sorts) for David Gascoyne, can be found here. The book can be ordered through Enitharmon’s website, or via the usual booksellers.

Niall McDevitt is a London-based Irish poet, and a recent bio for him can be found with an earlier piece on David Gascoyne. His recent essay on the poetry of Clayton Eshleman forms part of a project of criticism on the work of that poet, entitled ‘The Whole Art’, and is currently available through Black Widow Press.


About thefiendjournal

I was born in Blackpool, England and am currently based in Lancashire. Poems have been published in magazines in the U.K, Ireland, France, New Zealand, Canada, U.S.A and South Korea. A pamphlet; "MMV", was published in 2008. Hundreds of poems have been written in draft form, and multiple books are being planned and edited for future release. As well as editing 'The Fiend' I translate, paint and dabble in photography (images of which have occasionally been used here).
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