Jack Lindsay and British Poetry in the 1930s

by Adrian Caesar

In a recent volume of essays celebrating his work, it is said of Jack Lindsay that he is not only one of the most important writers of the Twentieth Century; he is also one of the least well known'.[39] Despite having written, translated, and edited well over 150 books, his work is relatively unknown both in Australia and in England. Why this should be so is not, I think, difficult to gauge, and has nothing to do with the quality of Lindsay's writing. His long residence in England, and the European concerns of much of his writing, have offended the nationalistic trend of Australian letters, whilst the English literary establishment has been less than welcoming not only because of Lindsay's nationality but also because of his Marxism and his dealings with the Soviet Union. [40] Lindsay has fallen between two shores. His poetry of the 1930s has been ignored or treated dismissively by literary history, and yet as we shall see, he played a major role in left-wing literary activities in England during the latter half of the decade.

In order to understand this work fully, and see it in relation to the other poets and poetry I have discussed, it is necessary to attempt the same kind of contextualisation that I have offered in my previous discussions. This, however, is rendered difficult in Lindsay's case, because to appreciate his background fully one would have to provide the same kind of potted history of Australia that he himself offers as the opening chapter of his autobiography. Space will not permit such an indulgence. Suffice it to say that Lindsay saw his own background and early development as an embodiment of specifically Australian tensions and traditions. Particularly important to him is the democratic tradition of Australia which makes heroes of the gold diggers of Ballarat who fought for their rights at the Eureka stockade, and which celebrates the fact that 'the first ballot law of the modern world' was passed in Victoria in 1856. Equally of interest to Lindsay is the opposite



tension evident in the class-structures he witnessed emerging when he was a boy.

Lindsay was born in 1900 in Melbourne, the son of the artist Norman Lindsay, but his parents separated early on, and Jack was brought up in Brisbane by his mother. [41] Their life during Jack's childhood and youth was not terribly comfortable as they shuffled between a series of boarding houses and rented accommodation. It was a lifestyle which was poised uneasily between petit-bourgeois respectability and working-class deprivation. Lindsay himself best describes his own situation:

The years of my childhood and youth . . . were the post-Federation years when Australians felt something of a new sense of national unification, but when the industrialization was still in its infancy. It follows that neither was the proletariat fully founded and grounded nor the middleclass widely extended. A portion of the mobility, confusion or instability of my spiritual positions must be attributed to this fact. The last thing I want to suggest is that my doubts and difficulties are reducible to it; but I can see now that the stage of national development played an essential part in the attitudes I took . . . For the unstable state of the class to which I belonged, hovering on the edge of a considerable advance but still uncertain of its role between squattocracy and proletariat, could not but help in giving a buffet to my uneasy station . . . . [42]

He goes on to speak of being able to move easily between the houses of the 'wealthy and esteemed' and those of 'revolutionary Quinlan or carpenter Cunningham'. It is not merely the simple fact of Lindsay's nationality which distances him from the English poets we have looked at so far, but also his ability to move easily between classes is, I suggest, crucial in his later adoption of Communism and critique of capitalism. His background gives him a critical distance from which to view English power, its history and structures.

But this is to jump ahead too far too soon. Just as his class background was 'fluid' so his educational progress was mixed. Due to a very indulgent mother, Lindsay's only schooling until the age of twelve was some little time at a kindergarten. The young Lindsay seems to have taught himself to read, nevertheless when his uncle insisted that he should go to school he began in the infants' class and had to work his way upwards from there. This he did and eventually at the age of fourteen he won a scholarship to Brisbane Grammar School where he found friends among the other scholarship boys: the 'rough tough lads', as he was later to call them. He entered the University of Queensland in 1918, graduating brilliantly in 1921.


It was during his time at university that Jack fell under his father's aesthetic spell. Norman Lindsay, in both his art and polemical prose, was the purveyorof a Nietzschean, Dionysiac vitalism, which opposed the parochialism of Australian art, and which viewed art as the only aspect of society which had any value. As Craig Munro has remarked, Lindsay's creed was 'not only elitist, but also unashamedly racist, sexist, and anti-modernist; in short thoroughly reactionary'. [43] At university, and for some considerable time afterwards, Jack Lindsay embraced his father's beliefs; the artist was an aristocratic anarchist rejecting the 'barbarism' of the Australian petit-bourgeoisie, together with what was considered as the life-denying morbidity of European modernism. In the early 1920s, Jack, now living in Sydney, co-edited a literary magazine, Vision, which was dominated by Norman's ideas.

But by 1926 Jack Lindsay had had enough of Sydney in particular, and Australia in general, so, encouraged by P.R. (Inky) Stephenson, a university friend now studying at Oxford, Jack left for Europe and after a time in Paris set up the Fanfrolico Press in London with Stephenson and John Kirtley. Despite the fact that at this stage Stephenson was a Communist, the Fanfrolico Press continued to be dominated by Norman Lindsay's ideas and his drawings. The press produced high- quality limited editions and managed to survive, despite financial problems and the vagaries of its three editors, until it was brought down in the early years of the slump. It was at this stage (1930-1) that Jack retreated from London to the West Country where he lived in poverty as a virtual recluse for most of the decade.

It was during this time that Lindsay began to move intellectually and emotionally away from the Nietzschean philosophy derived from his father towards his own somewhat idiosyncratic, but nevertheless committed, Communism. Both in Australia and in England Lindsay had been somewhat déclassé, but now he turned to make common cause with the working class, and, at whatever distance, to join the radical literary tradition of Australia which has its origins in the anti-establishment ballads of firstly the convicts, and subsequently the gold-diggers and agricultural workers.

Lindsay's was not a superficial conversion to Marxism. In late 1935, with his mind upon what was happening in Europe, he read voraciously in the works of Marx and Engels, 'with a sprinkling of Lenin's theses'. [44] He had also been reading Kierkegaard and Jaspers. He saw in Marxism the possibility of integration:


At the crucial point, reached round the New Year of 1936, the new balance triumphantly asserted itself as a definitely organised system, and I found it was Marxism: not simply the particular system labelled Marxism at that moment, but Marxism the vital stream of thought-feeling which in that system had reached the highest world level then possible. Marxism, as a vital stream broadening into the future and implying an ever greater unity of consciousness, unity of man and nature, unity of man and man. Not that I did not welcome and accept the system as it had evolved up to that moment. To do otherwise would have been to sever potentiality from existence, otherness from self—the primary existentialist errors. [45]

Lindsay was before his time in the way he attempted to fuse existentialism and Marxism in his personal philosophy, and in later years his continuing unorthodoxy occasionally led him into conflict with his comrades in the Communist Party. But in 1936, Lindsay's voice was a welcome addition to the pages of Left review and Poetry and the people.

In the 1 920s Lindsay had shown himself capable of writing opalescent lyrics which figured his father's Hellenistic predilections. In the early years of the 1930s, having parted from the Fanfrolico Press, and working away from Norman's influence through his own personal problems, he turned to Surrealism. But in 1936, he wrote two poems which signalled his new direction. Both of them were inspired by newspaper articles, one concerning England and one about Spain. It is in these poems that Lindsay begins to forge his own left-wing poetry and poetics which are unique in the history of poetry written in English. For here he brings together Romantic modernism with the folk tradition to create a passionate voice which is capable at its best of combining lyrical feeling with an uncompromising tough-mindedness.

In early 1936, Lindsay read a review in the Times literary supplement of Alan Hutt's book This final crisis, a Marxist interpretation of the condition of England. The reviewer remarked that Hutt was hampered in his pursuit by 'serious drawbacks' amongst which was numbered the fact that he 'did not understand the nature of the English People'. In response to this piece of reactionary blather, Lindsay wrote a long poem initially entitled 'Not English', which was published in the Left review for May 1936. [46]

The poem opens with the lines, 'Who are the English / according to the definition of the ruling class', and goes on to describe in highly emotive language all the oppressed and exploited who have martyred


themselves to preserve the upper classes' notion of 'England' and the 'English'. The casualties of the First World War and slum-dwellers are concentrated upon. It is implicit from the beginning that in appropriating definitions of 'England' and 'English', the ruling class have literally appropriated and exploited both land and people.

In the long middle section of the poem Lindsay turns to an alternative historical view of England and the English. A description is provided of all those who have resisted the ruling classes' definitions:

We'll step back first six hundred years or seven
and call up the peasants hoarsely talking under the wind,
their cattle stolen by the king's purveyors,
their wives deceived by whining hedge-priests.
Peasants, leaving your wattled huts to haunt
the crooked dreams of Henry with your scythes,
unrolling a long scroll you couldn't read
though you knew the word it held, not England,
but justice—come, you peasants with hoof-smashed faces,
speak from the rotting wounds of your mouths, we'll understand,
prompting you with our anger. [47]

This is a fine example of Lindsay's historical imagination at work. The minimisation of metaphoric decoration together with a judicious deployment of epithet enhances Lindsay's narrative method. But the most interesting stylistic feature is the rhythm. Rather like T.S. Eliot, Lindsay uses the iambic pentameter as a basis, and plays all kinds of free variations upon it, lengthening or shortening the line at will. The effect is to approximate to speech-rhythms. Lindsay takes vers libre and allies it with the narrative and dramatic aspects of folk art. Those seeking to denigrate his work would doubtless invoke modernist or post-symbolist criteria in order to judge him 'prosaic'. But such judgements seem to me an irrelevance. The real question is whether the writing is effective or not, and in its passionate evocation of a revolutionary tradition it seems so to me.

The poem contrives to invoke not only the peasants' revolt but also the revolutionaries of Cromwell's era, the Anabaptists and Levellers, and from there Lindsay moves through Luddites and Chartists to William Morris and 'the unknown weaver / who wrote in the Poor Man's Guardian of 1832/ . . . There is no common interest / between working-men and profit makers. . .' [48]

Having thus established an historical basis for a radical tradition, Lindsay returns to the present asserting that 'we' are not the English


either; the working classes of today, like those of the past, have been dispossessed. In a long lyrical passage Lindsay evokes the beauty of the English countryside, but this is neither to convey a Georgian nostalgia or a reactionary patriotism but rather to point up the birthright of the working class which has been plundered, leaving them only with, 'the field of toil':

. . . it was all taken away, England was taken,
what little of it was ours in desperate toil
was taken, and the desperate toil remained,
and lanes of dank gloom where the echo of midnight falls
a late wayfarer stumbling, leaving nothing behind
except the gaslight coughing and the crying child,
milk turned sour in the thunder-hour awaiting,
queues at the Labour Exchange while the radio squeals,
in the shop nearby, and nothing remains, nothing
except the mad-faces forming from the damp stains on the plaster . . . [49]

Lindsay adroitly shifts his focus from the agrarian to the tenements of the industrial cities, bringing his vision to a dark nadir, before introducing his final rallying call: 'Workers of the World unite'. From this point forward Lindsay moves to an heroic vision of the future in which England is re-inherited by the working class. From the perspective of the present this is apt to sound hopelessly naive, and the relationship between past and future disastrously over-simplified. But at least the poem attempts to encapsulate past, present and future in its radical vision. It is a poem of great breadth, moving easily from emotional appeal to intellectual analysis. To read Lindsay's poem is to perceive immediately the difference between upper-middle-class liberalism and a truly radical left-wing position. None of the English poets of the 1930s expressed a Marxist view of history in their work. For Lindsay it was an imperative.

According to his own testimony, 'Not English' was 'received with such acclamation that it was reprinted in large numbers as a pamphlet'. More importantly, the recently formed experimental Group Theatre asked if they could use the piece, and it was duly performed as a dramatic production accompanied by dance and mime. This, Lindsay says, 'provided the basis of an English form of mass-declamation'. [50]

In an article for Left review, Lindsay outlined a plea for left-wing poets to concentrate upon the writing of declamatory poems which could be performed to large working-class audiences. Drawing upon his extensive knowledge of classical as well as English literature, Lindsay


argues that 'poetry has always found its vitalisation in a socially valuable relation to the speaking voice'. The epic, together with Hellenic and Elizabethan drama, were all, he argues, born out of traditional rituals and declamation. Since the Industrial Revolution in England, poetry has been severed both from its sources in folk art and from its proper audience. It has degenerated into bourgeois sophistication severed from the productive world, and constitutes 'nothing but a perverted taste for the complexities and corpse-lights of disintegration'. [51]

Lindsay goes on to attack contemporary English poetry which has attempted to grapple with political issues. Such work, he says, represented a dead-end because it addressed itself primarily to a bourgeois audience and thus 'sought to expand in terms of a narrowing audience, to regain vitality in terms of the debilitated'. The answer to this problem, Lindsay believed, lay in mass declamation; an attempt to revitalise poetry by fusing it with ritual, by 'resuming all the socially valid forms of the past with a new content' and going beyond these 'with an enriched drama and lyric'. The emergent proletariat were to be wooed in this way, and so poetry was to become a revolutionary weapon.

Whatever the limitations of this cursory theoretical position, what may be forcefully demonstrated is that Lindsay's idea worked. When the Spanish Civil War broke out, encouraged by Edgell Rickword, Lindsay wrote another poem in declamatory style entitled 'On guard for Spain'. Like its predecessor, 'Not English', it was first published in Left review, and then reprinted as a penny pamphlet. The poem was first performed at a rally in Trafalgar Square in 1937, and subsequently upon a great number of occasions throughout Britain, often to very large audiences. Don Watson quotes Jerry Dawson, a member of the Merseyside Unity Theatre Group, describing the impact of the poem thus: 'When we did On Guard the impact was almost always enormous. I remember when we played it to a meeting at Garston Baths, I saw people in tears even at the mention of the name of certain Spanish towns . . . These audiences didn't see declamations as something arty, as poetry being recited to them, but as an emotional expression of things they'd come across politically in their newspapers.' [52] If some members of the audience did not consider the poem to be 'arty', this does not mean it was written without artistry. Liberal critics have been dismissive in their condemnation of the poem as 'mere' propaganda. But as the following stanzas indicate, the poem is


not without 'literary' as well as political virtues. Here Lindsay is describing the election victory of the Republicans prior to the outbreak of the Civil War:

After the February elections
the people sang in the streets of work.
The echoes of time were notes of guitars
and the moons smelt of oranges
amid the jasmine-stars.

Bodies that had been jailed by fear
turned to the slopes of light once more.
The sun tied ribbons in all the trees
when we led the prisoners out of the jails,
thousands of comrades came singing out
while the waves of the sea clicked castanets
from shore to dancing shore. [53]

This celebration is neatly handled with its use of sensuous imagery and direct statement producing an appropriately emotional texture. The poem goes on to celebrate the heroism of the Spanish workers in the face of the Fascist revolt. Lindsay projects the struggle in Spain as an image of the international working-class struggle against Fascism and capitalism. It is a plea for solidarity and for courage. It calls upon its audience to mourn for the Republican dead, but not to lose heart or belief. The poem as a whole, to my mind, is not as successful as 'Not English'. But its emotional appeal cannot be doubted. And again we find Lindsay using modernist vers libre together with the demotic language, syntax and imagery of the folk tradition to produce an authentic left-wing utterance.

Lindsay did not confine his poetry of the later 1930s to mass declamation. He wrote other poems which dwelt upon English history, and he wrote occasional satire usually using a balladic form as here in 'Ballad of a dean'. This poem was a response to a remark of Dean Inge's in 1936 to the effect that there was no class-conscious proletariat in Britain:

O take him away to the Rhondda Valley,
and rub his face in the coal,
strip away his dog-collar,
unstud his immortal soul,
feed him on bread and dripping
and bilge of tea for a year,
then ask him if he's class-conscious yet
or merely feeling austere. [54]


The poem progresses geographically through the United States to Australia, Russia and back to Lancashire and Scotland, in all of which locations are found the militant proletariat fighting against capitalism.

Other of Lindsay's poems, like 'Summering song', and 'Prayer at dawn' deal with his more personal philosophical involvement with Marxism. As his remarks quoted earlier imply, and as these poems express, he saw in the Marxist dialectic the way forward to a sense of unity not only between men but also between man and the means of production, and from there between men and nature. In other words, Lindsay found in Marxism the answer to the Romantic dilemma; the materialist dialectic replaced, as it were, the dialectic between imagination and nature.

His poetry then, accommodates both his emotional and intellectual commitment to the left. It has been ill-treated by liberal critics and literary-historians pretending to make 'apolitical' judgements of purely 'literary value'. But it is Lindsay's politics they object to. The quality of his writing that I have quoted in his defence stands tall against the work of say, Spender or Day Lewis. And Lindsay continued to write out of his political convictions throughout the war years. Joining the army to fight against Fascism, he wrote dramatic narratives in verse, 'written for the understanding of the common soldier'. [55] Courage, comradeship and political hope for the future, remain his principle themes conveyed through vers libre or ballad forms. In his narrative poem 'Into action' Lindsay extended his formal apparatus to include collage. Using accounts of the Battle of Dieppe, and interviews he gleaned, he produced an epic poem. It was first published in 1942, and 'seems to have been issued in at least ten thousand copies within a few months'. [56] Lindsay's work of both the 1930s and the 1940s then, defies the literary-historical myth of the period 1930-45.



39  B. Smith, Editor's Preface to, Culture and history: essays presented to Jack Lindsay, Sydney, 1984, p. 10. [—> main text]

40  See, N. Lopyev, 'Jack Lindsay's books in the Soviet Union', Culture and history, pp. 181-97. [—> main text]

41  J. Lindsay, Life rarely tells, London, 1958, pp. 9-66. [—> main text]

42  Ibid., p. 18. [—> main text]

43  C. Munro, 'Two boys from Queensland: P.R. Stephenson and Jack Lindsay', Culture and history, p. 42. [—> main text]

44  J. Lindsay, Fanfrolico and after, London, 1962, p. 252. [—> main text]

45  Ibid., pp. 262-3. [—> main text]

46  Left review, vol. 2, May 1936, pp. 353-7. [—> main text]

47  Ibid., p. 354. [—> main text]

48  Ibid., p. 355. [—> main text]

49  Ibid., p. 356. [—> main text]

50  Lindsay, Fanfrolico and after, p. 260. [—> main text]

51  J. Lindsay, 'A plea for mass declamation', Left review, vol. 3, Oct. 1937, pp. 511-517. [—> main text]

52  D. Watson, '"On guard for Spain" and mass declamations', Culture and history, p. 158. [—> main text]

53  Collected poems of Jack Lindsay, Lake Forest, Illinois, 1981, pp. 304-5. [—> main text]

54  Ibid., pp. 269-70. [—> main text]

55  J.J. Borg, 'A poet for the people', Culture and history, p. 133. [—> main text]

56  Ibid., p. 134. [—> main text]

SOURCE: Caesar, Adrian. Dividing Lines: Poetry, Class and Ideology in the 1930s. Manchester: Manchester University Press; New York: St. Martin's Press, 1991. (Cultural Politics). This selection is section III of chapter 9, pp. 214-222. Title added for this web page.

©1991, 2003 Adrian Caesar. All rights reserved.

A Checklist of Jack Lindsay's Books
Includes all of the following Lindsay links & more

"The Origins of Jack Lindsay's Contributions to British Marxist Thought" by Joel R. Brouwer

Collected Poems [Section Headnotes] by Jack Lindsay

"Spinoza" by Jack Lindsay

"Giordano Bruno" by Jack Lindsay

"A Note on My Dialectic" by Jack Lindsay

"Towards a Marxist Aesthetic" by Jack Lindsay

Adorno and the Frankfurt School by Jack Lindsay

A Garland for Jack Lindsay

British Marxism in Philosophy, Science, and Culture Before the New Left:
Essential Historical Surveys

Offsite Links:

Jack Lindsay - Wikipedia

Papers of Jack Lindsay (1900-1990) (MS 7168, National Library of Australia)

The Origins of Alchemy in Graeco-Roman Egypt by Jack Lindsay
Poem To Marie Delcourt-Curvers [HMTL]
To Marie Delcourt-Curvers [pdf file]
The First and Concluding Chapters

Adrian Caesar

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