The Chapbook

by Sam Alexander

The Chapbook (called The Monthly Chapbook in its first two installments), was the third journal edited by Harold Munro, founder of the Poetry Bookshop, and ran from 1919 until 1925.

Munro had previously edited The Poetry Review (the organ of the conservative Poetry Society) and the influential but short-lived Poetry and Drama (1913-1914), which he founded out of frustration with the censorship of the Society’s governing council. As he had in Poetry and Drama, the publication of which had been suspended by the war in 1914, Munro in 1919 sought a “critical middle-ground” between the aesthetically “advanced” or avant-garde journals so important to the modernists and middle-brow publications like J.C. Squire’s London Mercury, which favored the more traditional work of the Georgian poets.[1] The tension between these two extremes, which was constitutive of Munro’s identity as a poet, is illustrated by two of the first books published by the Poetry Bookshop under his direction: Pound’s Des Imagistes and the Georgian Poetry anthology that would become synonymous with conservatism in English verse.[2] The Chapbook reflects the hesitation of an editor who—like Ford Madox Ford, a regular contributor to the journal—was both a modern and a late Victorian.

Its subtitle, “A Miscellany,” indicates the variety of Munro’s selection and his independence from any single “school.” The poems in the first number range from traditional lyrics like Rose Macaulay’s “Driving Sheep” and D.H. Lawrence’s sedate “The Little Town at Evening” to the more aggressive “Étude,” by Herbert Read (T.S. Eliot’s friend and the wartime editor of Arts and Letters): “… To what abortion / Will the silence give birth? / Noon of moist heat, and the moan / Of raping bees…” The Imagists are represented by H.D. (“Leda”) and Richard Aldington (“Freedom”); also included are the Sitwells—Edith and Osbert— whose eccentricity led an early reviewer of The Chapbook to mock them as the “Asylum School.”[3] Subsequent issues are similarly diverse, and also demonstrate a commitment to publishing new poets; Munro was reportedly a meticulous editor even of rejected transcripts.[4] Arguably the most impressive verse in the magazine appears in the issues focusing on contemporary American poetry, which include work by Robert Frost, William Carlos Williams, E.E. Cummings, and Wallace Stevens. In the May 1920 issue, John Gould Fletcher contrasts Pound and Stevens (an opposition central to contemporary criticism) based on the different inflections of their irony (28-29).

By my count, only sixteen issues of The Chapbook are devoted to poetry (just under one half of the total). The journal’s variety of subject matter is as marked as Munro’s eclecticism in editing the poetry, and its title evokes not just the cheap volumes of poetry published during the first world-war, but also the “chapbooks” of the book-collector: items of popular literature, including pamphlets, ballads, tracts, and tales, which were originally pedaled by chap-men. The November 1919 issue, for example, is devoted to “Rhymes for Children” (“A fairly small book / At a fairly small charge / To teach you to read / Before you get large”), and the next installment consists of “Four Songs,” with words by Walter de La Mare and sheet music included. It is easy to dismiss such issues as financially expedient attempts to maintain a wide readership (like Munro’s earlier alliance with the Poetry Society), or to attribute them to the pressure of monthly publication, but the variety-issues of The Chapbook also help to illuminate Munro’s objectives in publishing the journal and the particular aesthetic to which he is committed. Often, he uses them to reintroduce traditional genres that privilege creativity and invention over the enslavement to “reality” that he feels characterizes modern forms of communication. An issue on the history of the marionette, for example, makes puppetry into an unlikely exemplar of anti-representative art: “[the ventriloquist] will probably make his own puppet, and having made it he will know its ways and have to create—he could not possibly fashion an imitation of a well-known man … And so imitation, that curse laid by Aristotle on the Arts, is ruled out of the game” (4). Similarly, a long illustrated issue on eighteenth-century broadside ballads (number 15) demonstrates an antipathy toward the newspaper that will recur throughout the journal: “whereas we are content to swallow our news in the baldest of prose, our ancestors … insisted on having theirs in verse” (8).

Munro’s affection for forms of popular art and verse may stem from his conception of himself as a popularizer, and of his journal as in some sense an educational enterprise. This pedagogical impulse appears not only in the children’s issue, but also in the regular bibliographies, like number 24: “A List of 101 Commendable Plays, Ancient and Modern… For the Use of Community Theatres, Schools, and Dramatic Groups in Town and Country” (29). As the editor of The Poetry Review, Munro had placed critical reviews before new poetry—a practice for which he was censured by Harriet Monroe— and his commitment to the explanation of poetry resurfaces in The Chapbook.[5] Some of the most modernist-looking issues of the magazine are those containing essays by the Imagist F.S. Flint on contemporary French poetry. In number four, Flint speculates on what kind of poetry will emerge from the first world-war, and compares a series of poems about airplanes by Jean Cocteau and others; in number 17 (“The Younger French Poets”) he introduces readers to Dada.

It is probably the criticism of writers like Flint that will prove the journal’s most enduring legacy—which is not to say that all the essays are as useful as Flint’s. The Chapbook is particularly deficient in criticism of the novel. In “Form and the Modern Novel,” W.L. George gives a confused genealogy of the psychological novel and laments that the influence of Henry James on English literature has been “futile, greenery-yallery, briefly evil” (no. 8). More impressive are the essays written by T.S. Eliot. While Eliot did not publish poems in the journal (with the exception of the final issue, number 40), he did contribute articles, including an essay on “Prose and Verse” (no. 22)—the feared replacement of poetry by prose being a central concern of The Chapbook— as well as “A Brief Treatise on the Criticism of Poetry” (no. 9), which is included with essays by Flint and Aldous Huxley on poetry criticism, and in which Eliot argues that “[e]very form of genuine criticism is directed toward creation” (3).

Eliot’s prose also appears in number 27, entitled, “3 Questions and About 27 Answers” (Munro was fond of such numerical coincidences between title and content). The three questions, posed by Munro to a number of eminent poets, are:

1. Do you think that poetry is a necessity to modern man?
2. What in modern life is the particular function of poetry as distinguished from other kinds of literature?
3. Do you think there is any chance of verse being eventually replaced by prose, as the narrative poem apparently is being replaced by the novel, and the ballads already have been by the newspaper report?

The poets’ responses, including those of Pound and Eliot (“1. No. 2. Takes up less space. 3. It is up to the poets to find something new to do in verse which cannot be done in any other form”), are less informative than the questions themselves, which illustrate Munro’s anxiety about the extinction of poetry (we see once again the panic about the newspaper) and his concern to counteract it.
Munro’s commitment to the survival of poetry in general may help to explain his willingness to overlook the specific differences among early twentieth-century poets. His openness makes The Chapbook at times appear less discriminating than many of its contemporaries among the modernist magazines, and it also creates some difficulty for the critic seeking to discern Munro’s “true” allegiances. It is often suggested that his sympathy lay with the innovators but that he felt the need to accommodate a more general audience than they generally were able to reach. This attentiveness to the audience’s experience of experimental appears very explicitly in one of the last issues of The Chapbook (no. 34), in Munro’s imaginary dialogue with T.S. Eliot concerning The Wasteland: “I have heard it suggested that you write for one hypothetical intelligent reader. – Well? – Do you think such a reader at present exists? – I’m not sure. – Do you think perhaps he is yet to be born?” (20).

If Munro had been more confident that such a reader had been born (or if, like the Eliot he imagines, he had simply not cared), The Chapbook would probably have been a better journal. As it stands, it is a fascinating portrait of an editor and a readership hesitating on the threshold of modernist poetry.

  1. ↑ Joy Grant, Harold Monro and the Poetry Workshop (Routledge, 1967), p. 137
  2. ↑ J. Howard Woolmer, The Poetry Bookshop 1912-1935: A Bibliography (Woolmer Brotherson, 1988), pp. 7-13.
  3. ↑ Dominic Hibberd, Harold Monro: Poet of the New Age (Palgrave, 2001), p. 205.
  4. ↑ Joy Grant, Harold Monro and the Poetry Workshop (Routledge, 1967), p. 140.
  5. ↑ Joy Grant, Harold Monro and the Poetry Workshop (Routledge, 1967), pp. 42-43.