Herbert Read

English anarchist, poet, and critic of literature and art (1893-1968)

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.

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.



Literary Quotes

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.
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.
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)
  • The Thousand and One Nights, with its magnificent apparatus of genii and afrits, is the greatest work of fantasy that has ever been evolved by tradition, and given literary form. But it, alas, is not English, and has no English equivalent. The Western world does not seem to have conceived the necessity of fairy-tales for grown-ups — though it has been suggested that the modern detective story is an equivalent — and that is perhaps why it condemns them to a life of unremitted toil.
    • 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)

Other Quotes

  • Art is most simply and most usually defined as an attempt to create pleasing forms. Such forms satisfy our sense of beauty and the sense of beauty is satisfied when we are able to appreciate a unity or harmony of formal relations among our sense-perceptions.
    • The Meaning of Art, London : Faber & Faber, 1931
  • To stop the war, besides being a futile gesture, would leave the crisis unresolved. It would postpone the necessity of a solution. Therefore, in a spirit of fatalism (which my opponents are welcome to call a spirit of sadism) I say: Let the war go on. It is the shortest and therefore the best way to replace the capitalist system by a democratic system, and which will at the same time rescind those partial and tyrannical solutions of the crisis represented by the Soviet Union no less than by Germany and Italy.
    • "At the Moment of Writing", Horizon magazine, January 1940. Quoted in Steve Ellis,British Writers and the Approach of World War II. Cambridge University Press, 27 Oct 2014
  • The aesthetic canons of Puritanism or Iconoclasm have little relevance to the facts of art, in so far as these facts are an expression of the diversity of human creatures. Like Fascism today, those religious movements were attempts to dragoon art to control it from a centre and to impose uniformity on it. I personally take the view, which is heterodox to most people, that the more consciously moral or political values are imposed on art, the more art suffers.
    • "Art and Crisis", Horizon magazine, May 1944. Quoted in Read, The Grass Roots Of Art, World Publishing Company, 1946.
  • 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.
  • 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
  • The modern world has largely forgotten, and our educational systems ignore, the primary importance, in the evolution of man, of various types of symbolic communication—the communication embodied in gesture, ritual, dance, music myth, and poetic metaphor. All these modes of expression constitute a language of feeling, a non-discursive form of thought, absolutely essential to our individual development and to the unity of social life.
    • Selected Writings—Poetry and Criticism. (1964).
  • 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 (1966).
  • 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 Redemption of the Robot (1969).
  • The revolutionary artist is born into a world of clichés, of stale images and signs which no longer pierce the consciousness to express reality. He therefore invents new symbols, perhaps a whole new symbolic system.
    • The Philosophy of Modern Art: Collected Essays (1971).

What is a Poem - Endword - Selected Poems (1926)

  • Poetry, we might say, is concerned with the truth of what is, not with what is truth.
  • 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!
  • True poetry was never speech, but always song.
  • 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.
  • A poem is not a statement, but a manifestation, a manifestation of being
  • 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.

The feeling (of intensity) held in a crystal cage, asn an image, sealed and immortalized for our contemplation. Beauty in a wild foray, the form we have created, now, remote from the emotion we experience.

Phases in English Poetry (1928)

  • The modern poet is above all things honest. He does not write for fame nor for money. He merely writes to vent his own spleen, his own bitterness. His own sense of disparity between the ugliness of the world that is and the beauty of the world that might be.
  • There is no beauty in anything rational. Beauty emerges from the unknown, often from the inane, generally irrational, as unforseen combinations.
  • English Poetry has come full circle from the widest public appeal, the communal poetry of ballads to the narrowest possible , in the present day as the poet addresses himself.
    • 'Phases of English Poetry' Hogarth Press (1928)

Form in Modern Poetry (1932)

  • All art originates in an act of intuition or vision.
  • Words,their sound and even their very appearance, are, of course,everything to the poet.
  • The school of art which Hulme started and Pound established .. diction ,rhythm and metre were fully emancipated from formal artifice and the poet was free to act creatively under the laws of his own origination.
  • The process of poetry consists firstly in maintaining this vision in its integrity and secondly in expressing this vision in words.
  • Poetry is properly speaking a transcendental quality, a sudden transformation in which words assume a particular influence.
  • The difference between poetry and prose is not one of surface qualities, or form, or mode of expression, but of essence. The state of mind in which poetry originates must either seek poetic expression or it must not be expressed.
  • The distinction between a major and minor poet is the ability to write a long poem successfully.
  • A short poem is often called a lyric, which originally meant a poem short enough to be set to music and sung for a moment's pleasure.
  • From the poet's viewpoint a lyric is a poem which embodies a single or simple emotional attitude that expresses directly an uninterrupted mood or inspiration.
  • Shakespeare shows us tradition is a meaningless abstraction for the poet itself and I give thanks for for this poet reaching after nothing more distant than the impassioned accents of its own voice as it issued from an intuitive mind.
    • Form in Modern Poetry (first published 1932) published -Vision Press, Estover, 1948

The Philosophy of Anarchism (1940)

  • For the first time the personality is deliberately cultivated as such; and from that time [the European Renaissance] until today it has not been possible to separate the achievements of a civilization from the achievements of the individuals composing it. I have not the slightest doubt that this form of individuation represents a higher stage in the evolution of mankind. The future unit is the individual, a world in himself, self-contained and self-creative, freely giving and freely receiving, but essentially a free spirit. P. 11-12

A Coat Of Many Colours (1945)

  • Kierkegaard is a new world of thought, a rare mental atmosphere in which we live dangerously, as many people have already discovered at the cost of their complacency. .... To begin reading Kierkegaard is to embark on a long journey, a journey which will be difficult and dangerous, but with such a reward at the end that all the incidental pain will be immediately forgotten. Kierkegaard’s life was in every sense that of a saint. He is perhaps the most real saint of modern times. p. 251-252, 255

Forms of things unknown: essays towards an aesthetic philosophy 1960, 1963

  • Kierkegaard was concerned to prove what might be called the activist nature of love, and in this respect he returns to the conception of the early Greek philosophers. He goes so far as to say that the poet who sings of earthly love cannot be a Christian, 'for love of one's neighbour is not sung, it is acted'. p. 214

Collected Poems (1966)

  • 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 Cult of Sincerity (1969)

  • Sincerity! All my life I have been reproved for attempting to use this word, and rightly so because the very notion of sincerity implies a consciousness of one’s self as a circumscribed entity, a ‘single one’ (Kierkegaard) or a ‘unique one’ (Stirner), to be defined and defended, and that state of self-consciousness is itself insincere.
    • p. 13
  • 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
  • I cannot bear witness to the presence of God either in Burber’s sense or in Jung’s sense, and yet I am not a materialist. All my life I have found more sustenance in the work of those who bear witness to the reality of a living God than in the work of those who deny God – at least, the witness of deniers, Stirner, Marx, Nietzsche, Freud, Shaw, Russell has been out-balanced by the witness of those who affirm God’s existence – George Herbert, Pascal, Traherne, Spinoza, Kierkegaard, Hopkins, Simone Weil. In that state of suspense, ‘waiting on God’, I still live and shall probably die.
    • p. 34

Quotes about Read

  • The Spanish Civil War shaped the political consciousness of a whole generation, which overwhelmingly saw it as representing heroic resistance to Fascism. Goldman and J. C. Powys did not belong to that generation – they belonged to the generation of its parents or, even, grandparents. And rather than resistance to Fascism, it was the social achievements of the Spanish Revolution that inspired them. In that they stand alone, among figures of the front rank, with Read and Orwell
    • David Goodway, in Anarchist Seeds beneath the Snow (2006), p. 129
  • Whereas Marxist critics, and their descendants the social historians of art, might at best see art as merely the pastime for a leisured bourgeois class, for Read it was a crucial component of our humanity. Without it, we would lack consciousness of the world around us, and be incapable of the social evolution that is necessary for the very survival of our species. When stated like this, one can see why Read believed art to be so important.
    • Michael Paraskos, "Herbert Read", in Chris Murray, in Key Writers on Art: The Twentieth Century. Routledge, 2005. (p.238)
  • "A poet has to undergo a process of birth and growth: he does not discover himself until he has rejected the alternate selves represented by the poetry already existing in the world," says Herbert Read.
  • Anyone dealing with poetry and the love of poetry must deal, then, with the hatred of poetry, and perhaps even more with the indifference which is driven toward the center. It comes through as boredom, as name-calling, as the traditional attitude of the last hundred years which has chalked in the portrait of the poet as he is known to this society, which, as Herbert Read says, "does not challenge poetry in principle-it merely treats it with ignorance, indifference and unconscious cruelty."
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