The Owl: An Introduction

By Matthew Vaughn

The Owl: An Introduction

Published during an era from which the best remembered literary magazines were decidedly experimental and political in tone, Robert Graves’s short-lived quarterly The Owl is notable for its purposeful conservatism. The magazine was originally the inspiration of Graves’s father-in-law, the painter Sir William Nicholson, and it was decided that Graves would serve as literary editor while Nicholson would choose The Owl‘s illustrators and, more importantly, subsidize its publication. The first issue appeared in May of 1919 when Graves was twenty-three. The magazine ran to only two numbers, but was briefly resurrected as the Winter Owl for one issue in November of 1923. At this early point in his career, Graves’s literary tastes were still largely dictated by his association with the Georgian poetic movement and this is reflected in his choice of contributors. He rejected the radical literary figures of his day in favor of an impressive group of more established writers like Thomas Hardy, J. C. Squire, John Galsworthy, and Walter De la Mare.

With an emphasis on rural settings and storybook imagery, the magazine’s design elements serve to further accentuate Graves’s Georgian influences. As a symbol, the owl suggests the Georgian’s interest in nature and in promoting a more traditional, conservative brand of poetic wisdom. The large (13″ x 10″) red covers and whimsical owl illustrations seem, at first glance, more suitable for a child’s book. Many of the contributing artists were, in fact, noted for their illustrations of children’s books and, taken as a whole, the magazine’s design suggests a certain nostalgia for childhood and the lost innocence of the prewar years. William Nicholson, who was himself a storybook illustrator, and his daughter, Nancy, who had married Graves in 1918, would both contribute illustrated fables to the pages of The Owl. Other notable illustrators included in the first issue were the prodigy Pamela Bianco, who was only twelve at the time, and Randolph Caldecott, whose work had revolutionized children’s literature in the late nineteenth century. Caldecott had been dead for more than thirty years by this time, so his inclusion most likely represents an homage on the part of Nicholson. Printed by a method of old-fashioned stone lithography, The Owl‘s artwork is beautifully reproduced and, in most cases, vibrantly colored (Presley 34).

A majority of the literary contributors to The Owl first gained recognition in the Georgian poetry anthologies published by Edward Marsh before and during the war. Marsh had discovered Graves in 1913 and, after having carefully educated the young poet in the Georgian philosophy, included some of his poems in the third volume of the anthology. Although the first three volumes represent a significant poetic contribution, the anthology’s relevance was rapidly declining by the time of Georgian Poetry IV‘s publication in 1919. Graves, nevertheless, remained loyal to the members of the Marsh circle and, despite growing critical opposition to their cause, continued to promote their work in The Owl. Contemporary Georgian scholars like Robert H. Ross and Myron Simon have carefully traced the development of the movement’s early critical reception, which by the 1930s had made the term “Georgian” principally one of abuse. As early as 1920, Harriet Monroe, in a review of Georgian Poetry IV, was criticizing the movement’s outmoded approach: “The ‘Georgians’ live in the twentieth century, no doubt, but their subjects, ideals and methods follow the old standards of English song […] almost nothing in the book reminds us of the age we live in” (qtd. in Simon 2). As a group, the members of the movement would be condemned for their failure to adjust to the changing literary environment of the postwar world. By rejecting modernist poetry as incoherent and needlessly obscure, Marsh had essentially guaranteed that by 1922 Georgian Poetry would already be seen in many quarters as an anachronism (Ross 189-90). In most of the scholarly discourse relating to the Georgians they are consistently portrayed as falling on the wrong side of the critical debates in modernism. In an atmosphere that strongly favored innovation, their commitment to traditional poetic technique is usually seen as docile and regressive. Their interest in ballads and nursery rhymes is regarded as “a kind of grotesque infantilism” in comparison with the supposed difficulty and intellectual rigor of modernist poetry (Simon 4-5). The Georgian preoccupation with nature is, as this quotation from The Victorians and After demonstrates, also seen as antithetical to the modern temper: “They withdrew themselves into worlds of birds and flowers, and crooned about them; or into worlds of their own sensations; or into worlds of antiquity. They were cut off from the major emotions of their age, and they did nothing towards clarifying the intellectual and emotional muddle of their time” (qtd. in Simon 5).

Much of the early modernist invective against the Georgians was directed at the Neo-Georgian camp that began to dominate the anthology after Georgian Poetry III. Led by the influential editor of The London Mercury, J. C. Squire, they were representative of “a large segment of British poetry which, by 1917, was attempting either to ignore or escape from the brutality of a spiritually disastrous and too-long-protracted war” (Ross 163). Their principal haven of escape was what Ross calls “the exotic moon-drenched landscape of the jungle” (163). Ross points to Squire and W. J. Turner as the chief culprits behind the Neo-Georgian’s cultivation of exoticism. Printed in the first issue of The Owl, Turner’s poem “The Ape” is a representative example of this trend. Apparently an exploration of man’s connection to nature, the poem is set in “the Asian forests” and saturated in moonlight, “rippling streams,”“twittering” birds, and “flitting” butterflies. By shifting the focus of Georgian Poetry in the direction of exoticism, the Neo-Georgians “took the first step toward verse that was increasingly trivial, unreal, and irrelevant to the late war years and the violent postwar period” (Ross 165).

Rather than being defined by escapism, the members of the original Marsh group that produced the first two volumes of Georgian Poetry were initially noted for their rebellion against the pompous seriousness of the Victorians. They were, in fact, joined in this anti-Victorian stance by Ezra Pound and his circle: “Both Georgian and Imagist recoiled from Victorian decorum and solemnity, from turgid and ornate poetic diction, and from enervated sensualism” (Simon 37). Indeed, the Georgian poetic was initially characterized by a movement away from stylized poetic diction in favor of a greater emphasis on realism both in terms of vocabulary and subject matter. The early Georgians wished to engage reality as directly as possible, to grasp its essential meanings “as fully as their sensibilities would allow” (Simon 53). Originally, their interest in the psychology of childhood was a product of this desire to experience reality from an unbiased perspective: “they sought to approximate the innocent eye of childhood, not as an artistic mannerism or as a means of escape from personal responsibility or from the modern world but as a model of the unaided sensibility” (Simon 53). This realistic impulse, however, was partially obscured by the introduction of the Neo-Georgians into the third volume of the anthology and “it was almost wholly displaced from the last two volumes, which became episodes in the open warfare between John Squire and the Modernists” (Simon 86).

By 1920, under the guise of promoting sound critical standards, Squire and the members of his camp were engaged in a full scale coterie war with members of the modernist literary movement. Edith Sitwell’s Wheels and Chaman Lall’s Coterie were recipients of regular censure in the pages of The London Mercury. In the November 1919 issue, for instance, Squire concluded an attack on Coterie with this assessment: “It is a pity that so much paper should be wasted on so much rubbish” (qtd. in Ross 179). Wheels was likewise rejected by the Mercury as “incomprehensible” (qtd. in Ross 187). Like many small magazines in this era, Coterie was intended primarily as a forum for younger poets who felt that Squire and his fellow conservatives had excluded them from the established journals in an effort to promote their own work. Squire, through his dismissals, had earned for himself the ire of the burgeoning modernist poetic and, consequently, that ire was also directed at the Georgians. By allowing Squire to exercise his influence on the direction of Georgian Poetry, Marsh managed to completely alienate most of the younger poets of the postwar era and inject his anthology into the very kind of coterie warfare he had hoped to avoid (Ross 184-185)

Although Marsh’s poetic philosophy would not allow for the inclusion of the more avant-garde poets, he was, unlike Squire, sincere in his desire to produce a representative anthology and avoid the coterie charge (Ross 155). Graves employed a similar anti-coterie stance during his editorship of The Owl and articulated his commitment to an eclectic approach in a brief forward to the first issue:

It must be understood that “The Owl” has no politics, leads no new movement and is not even the organ of any particular generation―for that matter sixty-seven years separate the oldest and youngest contributors.

But we find in common a love of honest work well done, and a distaste for short cuts to popular success.

“The Owl” will come out quarterly or whenever enough suitable material is in the hands of the Editors.

During its brief life, The Owl was remarkably successful in its pursuit of eclecticism, but this strategy would once again set Graves at odds with the literary trends of his day. This is roughly the same period in which Eliot and Pound were arguing that for a literary magazine to be of lasting value its contributors must, at the very least, share a common agenda of some kind. A magazine without a clear ideological position could never be anything but an anthology or a miscellany. Only a few years after The Owl‘s final issue, Eliot would argue in the pages of The New Criterion that “it is not enough to present a list of distinguished contributors” or “express a cordial zeal for the diffusion of good literature” (1). According to Eliot, “[t]he review which makes up its contents merely of what the editor considers ‘good stuff’ will obviously have the character of a miscellany, and no other character whatever, except the feeble reflection of the character of a feeble editor” (2). While Eliot was willing to concede that there may be a place for these “miscellanies” so long as they are willing to “acknowledge their nature,” it is clear that he sees greater relevance and cultural value in reviews with a more distinct editorial stance (2). Pound would later argue that “[t]he little magazines that have printed only verse or only fiction have not been as effective as those which printed also editorial and critical matter. […] And the periodical anthology does not enter active contemporary life as effectively as the review that definitely, even with foolhardiness, asserts its hope and ambition” (703).

Graves’s conservative editorial stance is also evident in The Owl‘s approach to the war. In this case, he seems to have favored the escapism of Squire and the Neo-Georgians over Marsh’s insistence on realism. In The Great War and the Missing Muse, Patrick J. Quinn notes that for a poet who enlisted only a few days after Britain declared war on Germany and who served gallantly until he was severely wounded at the Battle of the Somme, Graves’s output of war poetry is relatively sparse. Drawing on quotations from Graves’s 1918 poem “The Assault Heroic,” Quinn argues that “Graves was determined to make the best of the ‘damned days and nights’ when he was forced to lie in the mud of Flanders and surrender his pride and natural inclinations to the machinery of war. Now, he hoped to alchemize this raw material into ‘lumps of gold’” (30). Commenting on Graves’s characteristic optimism, Martin Seymour-Smith notes that “[o]ne of his resources, developed early on―even in his schooldays when he suffered most from being at the mercy of others―was always to make the best of his situation” (71). Although it was likely a crucial factor in his postwar recovery, this approach also engendered an escapist tendency in Graves’s artistic efforts that would in some instances undermine his ability to face his war experiences directly. Much of his early poetry is, as Quinn points out, an escape from a realistic confrontation with the horrors of war and “tends to over-refine the repulsiveness into traditional images of childhood or of Georgian poetry” (34). The Owl, though not entirely devoid of content relating to the war, is for the most part representative of this inclination toward nostalgic escapism.

Although The Owl included several poems by Siegfried Sassoon, Graves avoided his friend’s characteristically bitter war verse in favor of more positive poems like “Everyone Sang.” Sassoon, as John W. Presley notes, would grow to dislike the poem’s “fatuous optimism” (41). Indeed, none of the poems in The Owl is representative of his best work, but including examples of Sassoon’s more sardonic verse would have required Graves to alter his escapist approach, a step he seems unwilling at this point to take. The only contribution in the first issue to mention World War I directly, John Galsworthy’s dramatic scene “The Sun,” is decidedly escapist and optimistic in tone. It begins with a dialogue between “Jim” and his sweetheart, “Daisy,” as they anticipate the arrival of her former lover, a soldier just returned from the war. They both expect a confrontation, but when the soldier arrives he is so elated to be home he cheerfully gives Daisy up without a fight and walks away singing. Jim hastily concludes that the soldier is mad, but Daisy knows better: “The sun has touched ‘im, Jim!” she exclaims.

When Sassoon, who in 1918 was “still raging at the hypocrisy of war” as he recuperated from a near-fatal wound, criticized Graves for avoiding the issue in his poetry, his comrade responded in a letter insisting on his happiness: “I can’t write otherwise than I am now except with hypocrisy, for I am bloody happy and bloody young (with only very occasional lapses) and passionate anger is most ungrateful […] Worrying about the War is no longer a sacred duty with me” (qtd. in Seymour 84). This claim of happiness was, no doubt, due in part to his recent marriage to Nancy Nicholson with whom Graves collaborated on a number of projects in their first years together. In his autobiography Good-bye to All That, Graves explains that Nancy’s skill as a storybook illustrator complemented his own interest in children’s rhymes (320). Attempting to account for their eventual divorce, biographers have often been too eager to uncover early signs of incompatibility. Graves’s poem “Vain and Careless,” for example, is usually cited as a reproach of Nancy’s faults, but when examined in its original magazine context, it reveals itself as a tender collaboration between husband and wife (Seymour 82). The table of contents for the first issue of The Owl credits the illustrated fable “The Careless Lady” to Nancy alone, but the verse below her illustration is actually an early version of the first two stanzas of “Vain and Careless.” Appearing in issue two, “Vain Man” is, likewise, a charming combination of Nancy’s artwork with Graves’s poetry, in this case a version of the third and fourth stanzas of “Vain and Careless.” Nancy’s illustration for “Vain Man” depicts a foppish young gentleman walking on stilts above a crowd of villagers. The young man is, as Presley notes, a caricature of Graves. According to Presley, “Vain and Careless” is representative of “the strain of children’s songs, simple ballads, and the like in Graves’s early work,” but unlike the majority of Graves’s simpler poems it survived in the canon, appearing in 1977’s New Collected Poems (39). Its importance to Graves may in part be due to this early collaboration with his first wife.

Although these whimsical collaborations reflect a determination on Graves’s part to express the happiness and success of his union with Nancy, the marriage was marked by difficulties even in the beginning. Troubled by the love he felt for a young man he now believed to be a homosexual and suffering from severe shellshock, he plunged into marriage in an effort to confirm his heterosexuality and to soothe the terrifying aftereffects of his war experience (Seymour 77). Nancy was, as Miranda Seymour notes, “a remarkable young woman, independent, confident, and proud” (78). She was a committed feminist and a talented artist. She could be quite cold, however, and although not without compassion toward Graves’s condition, she was quick to remind him that his war experiences were nothing in comparison to the general suffering of women. According to Graves, she was obsessed with male callousness and stupidity to the point that she found it difficult not to include him in her universal condemnation of men (343). Appearing in The Owl‘s second issue, Graves’s poem “One Hard Look” is often read as a statement of his growing disenchantment with married life. For Seymour-Smith it is an indication of how the “hypersensitive, very newly married” Graves “experienced Nancy’s general demeanour towards him” (64). The poem is the appeal of a man haunted by war for the “One smile” that can relieve his “deadly sad” heart. It suggests that Graves was quite familiar with the “hard look” mentioned in the final stanza and, moreover, had taken it to heart as indicative of a lack of love (Seymour-Smith 64). By the time of The Owl‘s final issue in 1923, the situation had clearly not improved. Seymour reads Graves’s final contribution to magazine, “Full Moon,” as an acknowledgement of “the death of hope for his marriage” (118).

Despite its escapist tendencies, The Owl reveals its editor’s postwar struggles in other instances as well. As Seymour notes, “[h]owever hard he tried to concentrate on the soothing images and rhythmic chants of childhood, he could not get away from the hideous images which returned every few weeks in bouts of shell-shock” (84). In the night he would hallucinate shell bursts on his bed and “strangers in the day-time would assume the faces of friends who had been killed” (Graves 340). Graves’s poem “Ghost Raddled,” which appears in The Owl‘s first issue, provides a disturbing glimpse into his hallucinatory struggle. Initially, the poem evokes a bar scene in which drunken “madmen” call out for a song from the protagonist who instead offers a choice of four terrifying ghost stories. However, the images Graves evokes of “a night so torn with cries, / Honest men sleeping / Start awake with glaring eyes, / Bone chilled, flesh creeping” are highly suggestive of the battlefield. The poem concludes by asking, “What laughter or what song / Can this house remember? / Do flowers and butterflies belong / To a blind December?” As Seymour points out, the house clearly stands for England and the poet is “questioning the validity of his own songs of flowers and butterflies in a time of devastation” (85). For Graves and the contributors to The Owl, the question, after the horrors of the First World War, is: how does one begin to celebrate beauty and artistry again?

In the trenches of the Western Front, Graves lost the rigid Christian faith he inherited from his mother and there began a long process of rejecting the Victorian ideals that were in part to blame for his sexual ignorance, his ill-advised first marriage, and his near-fatal wounding at the Somme. “Knowledge of God,” printed in the third issue of The Owl, marks an early attempt by Graves to articulate a new understanding of religion. The poem criticizes limited, traditional concepts of God which attempt to locate divinity in time, nature, or human consciousness. Traditional approaches to theology are marked by their reliance on temporal designations like “is” and “was,” but in Graves’s view both past and present historical conditions preclude this kind of understanding: “if God is, he must be blind, / Or if he was, is dead.” Reiterating his point, the final stanza urges individuals to reject outdated dogma, act out of their own impulses, and “cast no net for God.”

As Seymour-Smith notes, Graves sought out and cultivated many artistic mentors throughout his life (28). Three of the most important of these “gurus” contributed to the pages of The Owl. Thomas Hardy, whose style Graves had long admired and imitated, was by far the oldest and most distinguished contributor to the magazine. Nearly eighty at the time of The Owl‘s creation, Hardy was arguably England’s most cherished and influential poet (Seymour 99). The prominent place his work occupies in the magazine suggests that Graves meant to position him as a model for its overall aesthetic and no doubt capitalize on the revered poet’s considerable celebrity. Hardy’s poems “The Master and the Leaves” and “The Missed Train” appear in the first and last issues of The Owl respectively and in each case his work leads off the issue. In “The Master and the Leaves,” the budding leaves of spring call out for God to acknowledge their progress from the green of summer to the yellow and red of fall. As the leaves lament their eventual fall and decomposition in the “rooty bed” of earth they are, nevertheless, enchanted by their “magic show” and its expression of death and regeneration. Although his words suggest omnipotence, the God of the poem is, in typical Hardy fashion, primarily detached, indifferent, and reminiscent of the “purblind Doomsters” from Hardy’s 1866 reflection on the arbitrariness of fate, “Hap.” Another important mentor was T. E. Lawrence whom Graves met at Oxford in 1920. The two men quickly developed a close friendship and it has been suggested that Graves hero-worshipped Lawrence to some extent. Lawrence was by this time toying with the possibility of a literary career and, as he was familiar with Graves’s work, he approached the younger man for guidance (Seymour-Smith 78-79). The two soon began a productive collaborative relationship. Lawrence, for instance, provided advice on all the poems in Graves’s 1921 collection The Pier-Glass. Graves was also able to enhance his magazine and make use of Lawrence’s fame as the hero of the Arab Revolt by including an entertaining extract from an early version of Seven Pillars of Wisdom in the third issue. By the autumn of 1922, the Bengali philosopher Basanta Mallik had “usurped the place of Lawrence as the Gravesian guru” (Seymour-Smith 106). Mallik’s influence is most clearly evident in Graves’s 1924 collection Mock Beggar Hall. That volume included Mallik’s dramatic treatise on stoicism entitled “Interchange of Selves,” which was first published in the final issue of The Owl. However, the philosophical essay he originally submitted to the magazine was so obscure Graves was forced to rewrite it in an intelligible form (Seymour 116-17). In any case, Graves’s fascination with Mallik was short-lived: “Didacticism and a philosophy which owed much to the Indian tradition of indifference to life could act as only a temporary refuge for a man whose appetite for life was so voracious” (Seymour-Smith 107).

Given the literary climate of the postwar era, it is not surprising that The Owl, with its escapist tendencies, its policy of eclecticism, and its unfashionable commitment to the Georgian poetic, suffered an early extinction, but there were a number of other factors involved. The magazine’s exorbitant price of over twelve shillings an issue, taken together with a general lack of publicity, and the absence of the additional revenue the inclusion of advertising would have provided, no doubt contributed to its demise. Aside from these issues, there is evidence that Graves, still very young and not at all certain of his poetic ideals, was not entirely willing to commit so much of his attention and energy to a single project. In 1919 alone he had considered launching a career as a playwright, embarking on an American lecture tour, or becoming a composer of popular ballads (Seymour 90). The Owl is representative of what Michael Kirkham designates as the first period in Graves’s poetic career. Beginning in 1916 and concluding with his pivotal encounter with Laura Riding in 1926, this first period is dominated by emotional distress brought on by the war and Graves’s largely unsuccessful efforts to confront or, at other times, escape that distress. Kirkham points to Riding as the catalyst behind the revolutionary transformation Graves underwent both as a man and as a writer after this initial period (2-5). Riding’s influence upon Graves was such that by 1929 he was prepared to make his autobiography “a formal good-bye” to all the relationships and experiences that had shaped him up to and during his work on The Owl.

Works Cited and Consulted

  • Bryant, Hallman Bell. “The Owl.” British Literary Magazines. Ed. Alvin Sullivan. New York: Greenwood Press, 1983. 333-336.
  • Eliot, T. S. “The Idea of a Literary Review.” The New Criterion 4.1 (1926): 1-6.
  • Graves, Robert. Good-Bye to All That; An Autobiography. New York: J. Cape & H. Smith, 1930.
  • Kirkham, Michael. The Poetry of Robert Graves. New York: Oxford University Press, 1969.
  • Pound, Ezra. “Small Magazines.” The English Journal 19.9 (1930): 689-704.
  • Presley, John W. “The Owl: An Extended Bibliographic Note.” Gravesiana: The Journal of the Robert Graves Society 1.1 (1996): 33-45.
  • Quinn, Patrick J. The Great War and the Missing Muse: The Early Writings of Robert Graves and Siegfried Sassoon. Selinsgrove: Susquehanna University Press, 1994.
  • Ross, Robert H. The Georgian Revolt, 1910-1922; Rise and Fall of a Poetic Ideal. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1965.
  • Seymour, Miranda. Robert Graves: Life on the Edge. London: Doubleday, 1995.
  • Seymour-Smith, Martin. Robert Graves, His Life and Work. London: Bloomsbury, 1995.
  • Simon, Myron. The Georgian Poetic. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1975.
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