VOLUME 4, ISSUE 5, APRIL 1938
An afterword on the final words of Philip Rhav’s “Trials of the Mind.”
If you were to look across from page 11 and read Rahv’s final line, which is a tidied up quotation from W.H. Auden’s ‘Spain’: ‘History / May say Alas but cannot help or pardon,’ you would find there two poems by a “young poet,” D.S. Savage, “Pastoral” and “A Ballad.” The full phrase that Auden had written was ‘History’ to the defeated,/ May say Alas but cannot help or pardon.’ Though Rahv along with most of the other editors of Partisan Review did advocate the political position of ‘revolutionary defeatism,’ and though it would have been fairly easy for him to have left the quotation as written, perhaps Rahv hadn’t the sureness and boldness to assert the likelihood of defeat in those months of the Civil War in Spain and the German Anschluss.
“Revolutionary Defeatism”had been Lenin’s position about WWI. The war in Europe he said was an inter-imperialist one, and revolutionaries should aim to defeat their bourgeois governments and military forces, to better undertake the struggle for the consolidation and expansion of International Socialism.
Not long after WWII had begun in earnest, Rahv and others on the journal modified or entirely changed their positions. That Rahv more or less ‘repressed’ the phrase which imagines the actual defeat of the Allied Forces, does wipe off some of the shine from the essay, “Trials of the Mind.”
The two poems by D.S. Savage are also Auden-inflected. “A Ballad” is in the Auden ballad measure, with that characteristic shock of blunt reality interrupting more traditional ballad topics:
After a day of working hard
On a canvas-stitching machine
I meet my love in the cinema
On an aluminium screen.
There was a time when I was young
A young man courted me,
He was a mechanic at Ponders End
In a bicycle factory.
[you can enlarge the screen with your fingers to more easilyread the rest of the poem]
if you are already familiar with Auden’s ballad forms, you may find it hard to do more than recognise the influence of Auden on the young poet. I haven’t got much to say about myself.
The other poem, “Pastoral” is more interesting to me. But when a brilliant poem falls into my world, it remind me how un-lustrous the jobbing work of poem-writing can be…. and “Pastoral” isn’t exactly a stunner.
It pre-reminds me(?is that possible?) of what Roethke will do in Root-Cellar, which is less a mood poem than a sensuous phenomenology of rank and decaying nature, and its intransigent refusal to ever be decayed.
Bulbs broke out of boxes hunting for chinks in the dark,
Shoots dangled and drooped,
Lolling obscenely from mildewed crates,
Hung down long yellow evil necks, like tropical snakes.
And what a congress of stinks!
Roots ripe as old bait,
Pulpy stems, rank, silo-rich,
Leaf-mold, manure, lime, piled against slippery planks.
Nothing would give up life:
Even the dirt kept breathing a small breath.
So why are these poems here and who was D.S. Savage? Well, he too was a revolutionary defeatist in the sense that he was a pacifist, and today we might think of him as a member of the ‘simple living’ movement of late capitalism. He grew up in Hertfordshire and he said that he became a pacifist at 13 years old, when he saw wounded and mutilated soldiers of WWI in the hospital where Savage was being treated for leg injuries from playing football. I imagine that the editors at Partisan Review were interested in a poet-pacifist, since Trotsky had written and spoke about the relationship between pacifism and revolutionary defeatism.
‘Only very slight injury can be done to the machinery of war of the ruling class by pacifism. This is best proved by the courageous but rather futile efforts of Russell himself during the war. The whole affair ended in a few thousand young people being thrown into prison on account of their conscientious objections…. In the old Tsarist army the sectarians, and especially the Tolstoyans, were often exposed to persecution because of their passive resistance to militarism; it was not they, however, who solved the problem of the overthrow of Tsarism.’ (L.D. Trotsky, ‘On Pacifism and Revolution’, 1926, written in reply to a review by Bertrand Russell of Trotsky’s book Where Is Britain Going?)
By 1938, Trotsky had become more open to what pacifism might contribute to revolutionary defeatism.
‘Bourgeois pacifism and patriotism are shot through with deceit. In the pacifism and even the patriotism of the oppressed there are elements which reflect on the one hand a hatred of destructive war and on the other a clinging to what they believe to be their own good elements which we must know how to seize upon in order to draw the requisite conclusions. Using these considerations as its point of departure, the Fourth International supports every, even if insufficient, demand, if it can draw the masses to a certain extent into active politics, awaken their criticism and strengthen their control over the machinations of the bourgeoisie.’ (L.D. Trotsky, Transitional Programme of the Fourth International, 1938.)
Though he had left organised religion in his youth, he was reconfirmed at St. Paul’s and added a commitment to living sparely and simply to his pacifism. Savage’s first pamphlet of poetry, The Autumn World was published by Reginald Caton’s Fortune Press in 1939, after Caton’s press, under the watchful eye of the Law, stopped printing gay erotica and porn. Caton turned to poetry, and also published early work by Dylan Thomas and Philip Larkin, as well as Savage’s The Autumn World.
He married in 1938, and when the poems were published, he and his wife moved to a village near Cambridge, where, Alison Olson wrote in an 2007 obituary of Savage, the couple lived in a condemned cottage without water, light or sanitation in Dry Drayton, Cambridgeshire.
Savage remained a pacifist, and in 1940 he taken to a tribunal on that account. He was ridiculed as a coward, but he felt that war was a manner of ” legalised murder”. In 1944, he moved to Bromsash Hertforshire, where the family — they had six children — lived in a pacifist market-gardening village. Savage was committed to simple living, Anglicanism, and Pacifism.
In 1947, Savage discovered the pleasures of Cornwall and the literary-artistic community around St.Ives The family moved to Mevagissey, and he became friends with the poet W.S. Graham, Nessie Dunsmuir, and also knew Roger Hilton. The Savages lived in the Heligan Woods, continuing his decision to live a life of poverty. They went without running water, and had no oven. Savage took the family dinners to be cooked in the Village Oven, part of a long-time community ritual. He did move from the Heligan Woods into the Village after two years and lived there until his death in 2007.
Savage is known to many as a literary critic, who wrote The Withered Branch against the Modernist Novel in the 1950s. But in 1938, he was beginning a life of asceticism, piety, pacifism, and poetry.
“My central idea,” he wrote, “is the necessary unity of poetry, religion and politics in integrity. Politics needs to be ethically grounded and pacifism is the ethical ground of political action.”