Edgell Rickword

(1898 - 1982)

"The best English poet between Eliot and Empson." - The Times Literary Supplement

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  • Collected Poems, Carcanet, 1991
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Edgell Rickword (1898-1982) is best known as the influential editor of journals such as Calendar of Modern Letters and The Left Review and was a key figure in establishing radical criticism in the wake of the First World War. However, he was also a gifted, if sporadic, poet described by the TLS as "the best English poet between Eliot and Empson."

Rickword was born in Colchester, Essex, into a family he describes in a 1973 interview as "conventional moderate Tory". Early reading of authors such as William Morris and H. G. Wells awakened a socialist sympathy in the young Rickword but it was his wartime service and experience of the restless peace that followed which really radicalised him. He was injured twice on the Western Front, losing one eye, and was awarded the Military Cross. In 1919 Rickword went up to Oxford in the company of several other soldier-poets, including Edmund Blunden, whom he got to know well. As he recalled not much work went on given that many of them "were still too dazed at being alive." Rickword became quickly disillusioned with his course in French literature which omitted the French symbolist poets he'd first read in France and who were an important early influence. He left when he got married after only four terms. Nevertheless Oxford provided him with many literary contacts including meetings with Robert Graves and Siegfried Sassoon, whose own treatment of their wartime experiences helped inspire Rickword’s early poems.

After Oxford, Rickword began making his way in the literary world. His first book of poems, Behind the Eyes, appeared in 1921. In 1924 he published a study of Rimbaud and began reviewing work for the TLS, including his celebrated piece on 'The Waste Land' which ranks as one of only a handful of perceptive contemporary reviews. In 1925 he started The Calendar of Modern Letters literary review which published new talent in a deliberate attempt to break with received literary opinions. This now highly regarded journal lasted a couple of years and included work by E. M. Forster, Aldous Huxley, Hart Crane, Allen Tate, Edmund Blunden, D. H. Lawrence and Bertrand Russell. It was followed by two volumes of Scrutinies which, as its name suggests, cast a severe eye over some notable literary reputations such as John Masefield and J. M. Barrie.

Rickword's increasing disillusion with social conditions in the 20s and 30s led to a further radicalisation of his political views. For many years a member of the Labour Party, in 1934 he joined the Communist Party of Great Britain and became one of its leading intellectual lights, co-founding The Left Review. During its four year existence, contributors included W. H. Auden, Stephen Spender, Cecil Day-Lewis, George Barker, Nancy Cunard and Valentine Ackland.

Rickword was still writing poetry throughout this period, his second collection, Invocation to Angels, appearing in 1928 and a third, Twittingpan, in 1931. However, gradually his role as an editor took over, and there were to be no further collections of new material. In his 1973 interview, Rickword does not blame his increasing involvement in politics for the drying up of his poetic gift, but rather what he terms "a sense of artistic failure" particularly with regard to his struggle to find a form that captured a sense of freshness. Following the demise of The Left Review in 1938, Rickword became editor of Our Time, the communist review, until 1947. He continued his involvement in literature and politics until his death.

While Rickword's poetry reacts strongly against the perceived insipidity of the work of his contemporaries, his aesthetic of 'negative emotions' and insistence on new forms of communication in literature did not imply a wholesale rejection of the past. Like Eliot, he believed in a tradition which included the best of English literature, the metaphysical poets in particular, but unlike Eliot this belief did not lead to a new conservatism. His admiration for Jonathan Swift is illuminating in this respect - he admired both Swift's vehemence describing him as "the most vigorous hater we've ever had in our literature" but also his refusal to set himself apart from the rest of humanity. In Rickword a deep commitment to Marxism did not lead to a narrow dogmatic approach in either his critical or creative writing. This is attested to in the range of poems featured here - from the personal sensuality of lyrics such as 'Intimacy' through the studied toughness of 'A Soldier Addresses his Body' to the powerful satire of 'Incompatible Worlds' (which is dedicated to Swift). This selection allows you to sample some of the variety of this fine poet and the qualities which define his writing in both poetry and prose: "energy, wit and sinewed intelligence...robust, masculine sexuality, caustic disposal of cant, uncluttered compassion and political commitment of great force." Desmond Graham.

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