Boswell: Sir, what is poetry?

Johnson: Why Sir, it is much easier to say what it is not. We all know what light is; but it is not easy to tell what it is.

(James Boswell, Life of Samuel Johnson, 1791, 12 April 1776)


I would like this blog to be a space in which the poetry and politics of the 1940s can receive some of the attention they so richly deserve. Even today, the “age of anxiety” remains little-discussed and surprisingly under-researched.  Literally and figuratively, a pall continues to hang over the period. Yet both the literal and the literary deaths that the pall hides from sight were man-made. And that is why I have named this blog after the title of a poem by W.H. Auden: because I share his wish to understand how and why “what needn’t have happened did”. Indeed, that is what I would like these pages to be about.  

My own particular interests are poetry and the history of political ideas (aka moral philosophy), and how they inter-relate within a given geopolitical space and time. My research bears mainly on the political ideas of the 1940s and their communication in the form of poetry, but I would not like to suggest that the subject is restricted to that form. On the contrary, I firmly believe that every form of communication, including every artistic genre, tells us something about what could be said and what could be heard at the time in which it was produced. To name but a few: the science fiction, the war documentaries and film noir, the ballet, the music, the novels and plays of the period are just as interesting and often as little-known, as the poems written out of that time. 

– Helen Goethals

Honorary Professor of Commonwealth History in the English Department of the University of Toulouse-Jean Jaurès, retired in 2020

Member of the CAS research team (EA 801)

Member of the SAES

Vice-President (Europe) of the Robert Graves Society

Member of the War Poets Association

Member of the Poetry Society