Monday 2 March 2020

Geoffrey Grigson

Born on this day in 1905 was the indefatigable Geoffrey Grigson – poet, critic, literary journalist, exhibition curator, anthologist, editor and naturalist, who published some 80-odd volumes in his lifetime. He was one of seven brothers, of whom five died in the two world wars and a sixth in a plane crash in 1948, leaving Geoffrey as the sole survivor.
  Grigson first got noticed as a poet, then, in the Thirties, as editor of New Verse, a magazine very much under the spell of Auden and deeply hostile to, among many others, Edith Sitwell, Bloomsbury, the Book Society, most Georgians, academics, middle-brow pundits and neo-romantics. Against all these and other enemies, Grigson was happy to lead the charge, but, looking back on it all in his autobiography, he explained that his tirades were in response to attacks on young poets, which 'were an irritant to reply in kind, to slash with the billhook, which was far too much my weapon and which I endeavoured to keep sharp, wiping off the blood from time to time – when it happened, that is, to catch someone in whom any blood was flowing. But the tactic was wrong ... The tactic was too uncharitable ... I could no longer, now, billhook my victim and sit on his corpse enjoying a glass full of blood.'
  I take the above quotation from John Gross's classic The Rise and Fall of the Man of Letters. Gross devotes a couple of pages to Grigson and New Verse, taking a dim view of the magazine's feverish violence of attack and 'death-dealing rhetoric'. 'But,' he concludes drily, 'it would be Grigsonian not to add that New Verse, chiefly through the Auden connection, stood for much that was liberating and positive as well; that it was prepared to publish writers whom it had savaged ... that the majority of its attacks had at least a grain of justification; and that Grigson himself, when he isn't drinking his glass of blood, sometimes writes excellent and enlivening criticism.' [Gross was writing while Grigson was still very much alive.]
 I have several of Grigson's numerous anthologies dotted about on my shelves, and – a volume I particularly value – his The Englishman's Flora (1957), a precursor to Richard Mabey's mighty Flora Britannica, but with woodcuts from old herbals for illustrations, and with rather more of classical mythology and literature than Mabey's flora. Every flower-loving home should have one.


  1. Anthony Burgess got a nasty review or two from Grigson, and scatters unflattering references to him here and there in his books: a sonnet in Abba, Abba, a sneer of some kind (I think with Grigson named as the author of a clearly bad book) in The End of the World News

  2. Yes, fractious times, weren't they, George? Now all the literary world seems to sing from much the same hymn sheet, and it's all rather bland. Both Grigson and Burgess were very good at falling out and nursing enmities...