The Unsceptered Isle of English Literature : A SINKING ISLAND The Modern English Writers by Hugh Kenner (Alfred A. Knopf: $22.95; 290 pp.)

Toward the end of his farewell to English literature--the island of the title has pretty well sunk, and only a life raft or two bobs among the flotsam--Hugh Kenner addresses the long poem, "Briggflats," by Basil Bunting, whom he regards as one of the few surviving raftsmen.

Kenner starts to say what "Briggflats" is about, and then he turns on his own word. You may about him no abouts. Kenner doesn't write about literature; he jumps in, armed and thrashing. He crashes it, like a party-goer who refuses to hover near the door but goes right up to the guest of honor, plumps himself down, sniffs at the guest's dinner, eats some, and begins a one-to-one discussion. You could not say whether his talking or his listening is done with greater intensity.

Having taken on first the American, then the Irish moderns, Kenner lands in England in 1895. Conrad was starting out, and the three giants were under conversion--Hardy from novels to poetry, James into his monumental last period, and Yeats from misty and ornate to rock-hard (though still pretty ornate).

He goes from the decadents--Oscar Wilde and The Yellow Book--to the Georgian poets, the climb to the high modernist summits of Eliot, Pound and Joyce and, following that time of triumph, a prolonged breakdown, leading to decay, drifting and death. "There's"--he writes 20 pages from the end--"no longer an English literature."

So his history is a wake. But it's an Irish wake, whose hilarity grows from its lamenting. Kenner may be leading a funeral procession, but he turns it into a magical and intoxicating grand tour. If I were a writer, I would rather have Kenner bury me than have almost anyone else proclaim my immortality.

Why the breakdown? Roughly, Kenner's thought goes like this: The English missed the boat, always a bad thing for an insular people to do. The boat was what he calls International Modernism.

Beginning with Pound, Eliot and Joyce, it opened the specifically English tradition of letters to wider influences. "The Waste Land," for example, used shards of English references side by side with Provencal, Italian and Sanskrit; the hallowed line--Shakespeare, Dryden, Donne, Marvell, Keats, Coleridge, Wordsworth, Tennyson, Browning--became, Kenner writes, "an incident in a long Indo-European story."

The innovations of "The Waste Land," of "Ulysses," of the Cantos, would radically alter the direction of English letters--everywhere but in England. Joyce took refuge in Paris, Pound in Italy, and Eliot behind a cautious smile. The vitality they conjured up emigrated to America.

Kenner quotes Donald Davies on "the silent conspiracy which now unites all the English poets from Robert Graves down to Philip Larkin, and all the critics, editors and publishers too, the conspiracy to pretend that Pound and Eliot never happened."

It was, Kenner holds, a fatal rejection. It blocked the only vital way out of the 19th Century into the 20th and past World War I; it left English literature bottled up and headed for gradual asphyxiation and irrelevance. It has given, with a few exceptions, "new meaning to the word 'provincial.' "

Kenner's argument is not rigorous and certainly not narrow. When he puts up a line of thought, which he does with force and subtlety, he feels that it is a shame to let a good line go to waste, and proceeds to hang all kinds of fascinating and distracting things on it.

"A Sinking Island" is built around a series of trenchant literary portraits and critical observations dealing with major and a number of minor writers of this century. But in addition to literature, Kenner is interested in the life of literature.

He examines the institution of tea as the provincial writer's means of access to the London literary world. A bookseller would introduce you to a literary hostess, and you would find yourself performing at 5 in the afternoon in the company of Yeats. This was before World War I; between wars, the networks operated around magazines and small presses: Eliot's The Criterion, the Woolfs' Hogarth Press. Still later, it became "blind-man's buff."

Kenner considers Henry James on a bicycle; a still-benign intrusion of the machine-age, since it amounted to "a gaily-accelerated walking." He writes of the growth of popular readership in the late 19th Century--"nothing else, not even the pin, was being mass-produced on such a scale as reading matter"--and studies Tit-Bits. This immensely successful sheet combined odd facts and sketches with skillfully written pulp. Kenner notes that Joyce, Conrad and Virginia Woolf all submitted material to Tit-Bits and were all turned down. Selling out is hard to do.

He makes a suggestive connection between mass readership and literary history. The conviction of Oscar Wilde put a chill on the anything-goes spirit out of which experimentation tends to grow, and we are led to speculate whether the bad fright had something to do, later, with English chilliness to the experimenters.

One reason that Wilde's peccadilloes were so harshly punished, Kenner writes, was the power of the popular press, which waxed indignant over the scandals it flaunted. "The wages of sin is circulation," he remarks.

There is a portrait of Everyman's Library, which for decades made available a kind of authorized pantheon of great books. It was an extraordinary enterprise; could its success have cemented British tastes into the past? Kenner wonders.

His literary history is a history of readers as well as of writers, and makes all kinds of cogent and stimulating connections between the two. This in no way waters down the force of his individual portraits and judgments.

He suggests that Conrad's foreignness made it necessary to break down the conventional dictions he encountered; the stylish modules assembled from England's rich literary tradition which, taken together, gave a slickness, a plumminess that we can find in high-class English journalism to this day. Conrad's "measured, faintly exotic eloquence," his most un-English "hallucinatory definiteness" opened things up for the language of "The Waste Land."

Kenner comes down firmly on the side of Henry James against critics who found him attenuated. He deflates H. G. Wells' celebrated attack--James is a hippopotamus picking up a pea--with a splendid admonishment of the facile use of critical wit: "The wrong questions, the wrong answers; there's nothing like them."

Kenner's presentation of Eliot and Pound, of Ford Madox Ford, Pound's teacher, and of the growth, character and consequences of their innovations, has perhaps the greatest sustained brilliance in this rich and generally brilliant book. His treatment of Woolf, though witty and in large part penetrating, scants her achievement, particularly that of her Common Readers.

He is angry at her supercilious treatment of the Modernists, particularly Joyce, and he has little use for Bloomsbury's trick of being subversive and privileged at the same time. Kenner is passionate, once in a while frivolous--rather agreeably so--and occasionally, there is a traffic jam as he tries to get out three bright things at the same time.

After finishing "Sinking Island," with its fireworks, its parades, and its real battles, there may be brief shell shock. When this passes, what succeeds it is an amazing hunger to read or re-read the array that Kenner has set out. British letters may be moribund, but what a life he has conjured up for it, as much by scolding as by praise.

At one point, the author quotes Pound telling of his attempt to summarize the wit and compression in a letter from Ford, his mentor: "I couldn't make the note in fewer words than those in Ford's actual page." The same goes for Kenner.

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