Herbert Read

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I believe that the poet is necessarily an anarchist, and that he must oppose all organized conceptions of the State, not only those which we inherit from the past, but equally those which are imposed on people in the name of the future.

Sir Herbert Edward Read (4 December 189312 June 1968) was an English anarchist, poet, and critic of literature and art. He was one of the earliest English writers to take notice of existentialism, and was strongly influenced by proto-existentialist thinker Max Stirner.


True poetry is never speech but always a song.
  • Poetry is creative expression; Prose is constructive expression. … by creative I mean original. In Poetry the words are born or reborn in the act of thinking. … There is no time interval between the words and the thought when a real poet writes, both of them happen together, and both the thought and the word are Poetry.
    • English Prose Style (1928)
  • It is not my purpose as a poet to condemn war (or to be exact, modern warfare). I only wish to present the universal aspects of a particular event,
    • Note appended to his poem The End of War (1933)
  • Such is our ideal – not another museum, another bleak exhibition gallery, another classical building in which insulated and classified specimens of a culture are displayed for instruction, but an adult play-centre, a workshop where work is a joy, a source of vitality and daring experiment. We may be mocked for our naive idealism, but at least it will not be possible to say that an expiring civilisation perished without a creative protest.
    • On the occasion of the opening of Forty Years of Modern Art (February 1948)
  • I believe that the poet is necessarily an anarchist, and that he must oppose all organized conceptions of the State, not only those which we inherit from the past, but equally those which are imposed on people in the name of the future.
    • Poetry and Anarchism (1938)
  • The modern poet has no essential alliance with regular schemes of any sorts.He reserves the right to adapt his rhythm to his mood, to modulate his metre as he progresses. Far from seeking freedom and irresponsibility (implied by the unfortunate term free verse) he seeks a stricter discipline of exact concord of thought and feeling.
    • Collected Essays in Literary Criticism (1938)
  • All revolutions in modern times, Camus points out, have led to a reinforcement of the power of the State.
    "The strange and terrifying growth of the modern State can be considered as the logical conclusion of inordinate technical and philosophical ambitions, foreign to the true spirit of rebellion, but which nevertheless gave birth to the revolutionary spirit of our time. The prophetic dream of Marx and the over-inspired predictions of Hegel or of Nietzsche ended by conjuring up, after the city of God had been razed to the ground, a rational or irrational State, which in both cases, however, was founded on terror." The counterrevolutions of fascism only serve to reinforce the general argument.
    Camus shows the real quality of his thought in his final pages. It would have been easy, on the facts marshaled in this book, to have retreated into despair or inaction. Camus substitutes the idea of "limits." "We now know, at the end of this long inquiry into rebellion and nihilism, that rebellion with no other limits but historical expediency signifies unlimited slavery. To escape this fate, the revolutionary mind, if it wants to remain alive, must therefore, return again to the sources of rebellion and draw its inspiration from the only system of thought which is faithful to its origins: thought that recognizes limits." To illustrate his meaning Camus refers to syndicalism, that movement in politics which is based on the organic unity of the cell, and which is the negation of abstract and bureaucratic centralism. He quotes Tolain: "Les etres humains ne s'emancipent qu'au sein des groupes naturels" — human beings emancipate themselves only on the basis of natural groups. "The commune against the State... deliberate freedom against rational tyranny, finally altruistic individualism against the colonization of the masses, are, then, the contradictions that express once again the endless opposition of moderation to excess which has animated the history of the Occident since the time of the ancient world." This tradition of "mesure" belongs to the Mediterranean world, and has been destroyed by the excesses of German ideology and of Christian otherworldliness — by the denial of nature.
    Restraint is not the contrary of revolt. Revolt carries with it the very idea of restraint, and "moderation, born of rebellion, can only live by rebellion. It is a perpetual conflict, continually created and mastered by the intelligence.... Whatever we may do, excess will always keep its place in the heart of man, in the place where solitude is found. We all carry within us our places of exile, our crimes and our ravages. But our task is not to unleash them on the world; it is to fight them in ourselves and in others.
  • War, as Rousseau pointed out long before Tolstoy took up the theme, only makes manifest events already determined by moral causes (Emile,Bk. IV). For this reason our main energies must be directed against the moral causes of war. Those moral causes lie within ourselves — and pacifists should not suppose for a moment that they are pure in heart in this respect.
    • The Redempton of the Robot (1969)
  • The politics of the unpolitical—these are the politics of those who desire to be pure in heart: the politics of men without personal ambition; of those who have not desires wealth or an unequal share of worldly possessions; of those who have always striven, whatever their race or condition, for human values and not for national or sectional interests. For our Western world, Christ is the supreme example of this unselfish devotion to the good of humanity, and the Sermon on the Mount is the source of all the politics of the unpolitical.
    • “The Politics of the Unpolitical,” To Hell with Culture (1963), p. 38
  • What I am searching for... is some formula that would combine individual initiative with universal values, and that combination would give us a truly organic form. Form, which we discover in nature by analysis, is obstinately mathematical in its manifestations—which is to say that creation in art requires thought and deliberation. But this is not to say that form can be reduced to a formula. In every work of art it must be re-created, but that too is true of every work of nature. Art differs from nature not in its organic form, but in its human origins: in the fact that it is not God or a machine that makes a work of art, but an individual with his instincts and intuitions, with his sensibility and his mind, searching relentlessly for the perfection that is neither in mind nor in nature, but in the unknown. I do not mean this in an other-worldly sense, only that the form of the flower is unknown to the seed.
    • The Origins of Art (1965)

Collected Poems (1966)[edit]

  • Poetry, we might say, is concerned with the truth of what is, not with what is truth.
    • What is Poetry
  • The poem, even when it has some predetermined pattern, must be wrought to some effect or finish that justifies the exclamation: This is a poem!
    • What is Poetry
  • True poetry was never speech, but always song.
    • What is Poetry
  • A poem therefore is to be defined as a structure of words whose sound constitutes a rhythmical unity, complete in itself, irrefragable, unanalyzable, completing its symbolic references within the ambit of its sound effects.
    • What is Poetry
  • A poem is not a statement, but a manifestation, a manifestation of being.
    • What is Poetry
  • The words in a poem, (or more exactly, syllables) are vocal signs that convey an intangible essence (the pattern of feeling) that vanishes the moment we approach it with an analytical intelligence.
  • The rhythm of a poem ceases the moment the feeling loses its intensity.
    • What is Poetry
  • The feeling (of intensity) held in a crystal cage, as an image, sealed and immortalized for our contemplation. Beauty in a wild foray, the form we have created, now, remote from the emotion we experienced.
    • What is Poetry
  • Why do we forget our childhood? With rare exceptions we have no memory of our first four, five, or six years, and yet we have only to watch the development of our own children during this period to realize that these are precisely the most exciting, the most formative years of life. Schachtel’s theory is that our infantile experiences, so free, so uninhibited, are suppressed because they are incompatible with the conventions of an adult society which we call ‘civilized’. The infant is a savage and must be tamed, domesticated. The process is so gradual and so universal that only exceptionally will an individual child escape it, to become perhaps a genius, perhaps the selfish individual we call a criminal. The significance of this theory for the problem of sincerity in art (and in life) is that occasionally the veil of forgetfulness that hides our infant years is lifted and then we recover all the force and vitality that distinguished our first experiences—the ‘celestial joys’ of which Traherne speaks, when the eyes feast for the first time and insatiably on the beauties of God’s creation. Those childhood experiences, when we ‘enjoy the World aright’, are indeed sincere, and we may therefore say that we too are sincere when in later years we are able to recall these innocent sensations.
    • pp. 16-17
  • These are the sensations and feelings that are gradually blunted by education, staled by custom, rejected in favor of social conformity.
    • Referring to the curiosity and sense of wonder of the child, p. 17
  • Once we become conscious of a feeling and attempt to make a corresponding form, we are engaged in an activity which, far from being sincere, is prepared (as any artist if he is sincere will tell you) to moderate feelings to fit the form. The artist’s feeling for form is stronger than a formless feeling.
    • p. 18
  • The work of art … is an instrument for tilling the human psyche, that it may continue to yield a harvest of vital beauty.
    • p. 20
  • The great modern heresy in poetry is to confuse the use we make of words in a poem with modalities of speech...For true poetry is never speech but always a song.
    • End Word

The Cult of Sincerity (1969)[edit]

  • Sentir mon Cœur is a privilege only granted to the exceptional man — the one who has the ability to find words that exactly (or, to himself, convincingly) express his feelings. … The value of words help to define the feeling itself. … The common failure is to allow habitual words and phrases, flowing spontaneously from the memory, to determine and deform the feelings.
    • p. 16
  • The work of art … is an instrument for tilling the human psyche, that it may continue to yield a harvest of vital beauty.
    • p. 20

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