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Kate Price

Finite But Unbounded:

Experiment magazine
Cambridge, England, 1928–31


This piece is 6,200 words or about seventeen printed pages long.
Notes are given at the end of this file. Click on the note to be taken to it; likewise to return to the text.

We are concerned with all the intellectual interests of undergraduates. We do not confine ourselves to the work of English students, nor are we at pains to be littered with the Illustrious Dead and Dying. Our claim has been one of uncompromising independence: therefore not a line in these pages has been written by any but degreeless students or young graduates. It has been our object to gather all and none but the not yet too ripe fruits of art, science and philosophy in the university. We did not wish so much that our articles should be sober and guarded as that they should be stimulating and lively and take a strong line. We were prepared in fact to give ourselves away. But we knew that Cambridge is painfully well-balanced just now (a sign, perhaps, of anxiety neurosis) and so we were prepared also to find, as the reader will find, rather too guarded and sensible a daring. Perhaps we will ripen into extravagance.

[Experiment Number 1, November 1928]

The concern of Experiment with ‘all the interests of undergraduates’ was not simply a matter of having literary-minded mathematicians on the editorial team, nor one of including poetry produced by students reading Natural Sciences or Economics. Even taking Experiment as a literary magazine with an inspired eye on contemporary science, the ‘scientific’ content appears somewhat thin on the ground. The occasional article on biochemistry or biology, some hopeful remarks about the development of aesthetic science and Empson’s relativity poems are about the size of it. A distinctly literary and cinematic avant-garde emerges, giving the impression of an exclusively aesthetic kind of experimentation.
      Set alongside prevailing images of Cambridge science, this emphasis might encourage a distinction between two very different flavours of cultural activity called ‘experiment’. Those who spent their days in the Cavendish*, for example, may have helped to shake the foundations of the Newtonian universe — but in their spare time they were more at home with Shakespeare or the Rubáiyát than with T.S. Eliot or Gertrude Stein.


* The Cavendish Laboratory was opened in 1874 and has seen some of the most important discoveries in the history of physics, including the electron (by J.J. Thomson in 1897), the atomic nucleus (Ernest Rutherford, 1911), and the neutron (James Chadwick, 1932) — see http://www.cambridgephysics.com/ for more information. In 1953 James Watson and Francis Crick produced their model of the double helical structure of DNA, working as part of a new unit for ‘Research on the Molecular Structure of Biological Systems’ that eventually split from the Cavendish in the early 1960s to become the Laboratory of Molecular Biology.

      The magazine transition, to which members of the Experiment group contributed, was subtitled ‘An International Quarterly for Creative Experiment’. Surely these ‘experiments’ of the literary avant-garde had little to do with scientific experiment, beyond a general inclination towards novel techniques and an air of testing the unknown? In fact the magazine blurs this distinction between literary and scientific experiment. Experiment is shaped by an encounter between European avant-gardism and Cambridge scientism: these two contrasting outlooks are tested, and modified, across its pages.
      The magazine’s shape also reflected the composition of the group. As the concerns and structure of the group shifted so did the parameters of their experiment: they consolidated connections beyond Cambridge, and emphasised the literary nature of their project.
      Experiment was initially directed by an editorial group of five: William Empson, who had just completed a mathematics degree at Magdalene and was embarking on the English Tripos; William Hare (the rebellious Lord Ennismore, removed by his father from Oxford to Magdalene College, Cambridge, to be cured of socialism); Jacob Bronowski, studying mathematics at Jesus; Hugh Sykes Davies, reading Classics at St John’s; and Humphrey Jennings, reading English at Pembroke. Following Empson’s dismissal from Cambridge in July 1929 Sykes Davies and Bronowski edited the magazine for a further four numbers; a relaunch in March 1931 signalled the project’s natural end. Here I will be focusing on the earlier numbers of Experiment in an attempt to capture something of its original spirit. [Note 1]

What did the Experiment editors think they were doing? Kathleen Raine and Elsie Phare, the two female contributors to Experiment, provide two different perspectives on the magazine’s interdisciplinarity. In her autobiographical account The Land Unknown (1975) Raine describes how she arrived at Cambridge full of idealism only to find science dominating every field including literary criticism and poetry. [Note 2] Her recollections present Experiment as the product of a literary community beholden to materialism, a caricature that is based on a degree of accurate observation.
      By way of contrast, Elsie Phare’s contributions to Experiment contain key phrases that offer a more complex view of the magazine’s guiding concerns. In her article on Valéry and Hopkins in the first number she remarked that ‘Contraries, to be mutual, must belong to one category’. [Note 3] She was referring to the opposite styles of Valéry and Hopkins, but her comments fit the Experiment group well. Following Blake, she concluded that ‘in the perfect state Contraries must be equally true. It sometimes appears that they are so already, though not to the same person’. [Note 4] The magazine was characterised by a generosity of outlook, a lively but irenic attitude that held contrary views in exchange; this was the spirit in which the Experiment writers collectively tested out the avant-garde and scientific approaches available to them.
      In her review of Hemingway in Experiment 3 Phare discusses the impotence of Jake in Fiesta, a condition depicted by Hemingway as ‘certainly no warrant for suicide, scarcely an adequate reason for eccentric behaviour and possibly, the involuntary nature of the deprivation apart, not a misfortune at all’. [Note 5] She notes that ‘Jake achieves a wider diffusion of interests, has larger eggs in more baskets than anyone else in the book’, and concludes that the

quantitative solution is in fact shewn as working so successfully that at the times when Jake is most conscious of the pathos of his situation — he is constantly in the company of the woman whom he loves — there is always a hint that he is only making an attempt to see himself as other people do, to adjust his idea of his situation to a set of values less fluid than his own. [Note 6]

As a philosophical response to physical conditions, the ‘quantitative solution’ leads to a more flexible disposition, rather than a restriction of Jake’s perspective. This attitude characterises the contributions to Experiment as they test the modern scientific outlook, pressing its limits as a going ethical and social concern.
      The first sense of Experiment, then, is an analogy with scientific experiment that is itself putting the scientific outlook, and its implications for personal and social life, to the test. The second sense is that of aesthetic experiment, and there is a similar reflexiveness here: the magazine’s poetry and prose contributions read more promisingly as tests of the avant-garde than as attempts at being avant-garde. If this is taken to be a feature of experimental art in general, and if a rhetorical aspect is granted to scientific experiment, then the cultural gap between literary and scientific experimentation begins to look less vast. [Note 7] Operating in a grey area between these two forms, Experiment magazine established a space in which its contributors could conduct social experiments as thought-experiments — arguments by means of which the physical world offers greater choice about how to live, rather than less. [Note 8]

Gainsborough above the hot-water pipes

Questions of balance, coherence and unity pervade the early numbers of Experiment. The first number opens with Basil Wright’s ‘Postwar’, a sympathetic narration of German patriotism in the face of external defeat and internal critique. A broken picture frame stands for broken lives in this rather stilted stream of consciousness, the form enacting doubts about how to manage diverging perspectives. Fragments were subsequently picked up in by Richard Eberhart in Experiment 3, translating fragmented landscape into a tactic for psychological survival:

You, too, with a widening eye
Upon life’s point, the spirit and will,
Must fragmentary be, like these,
Like a burnt tree on a gaunt hill,
And bear a more hurt being
Because of the mind’s sharp daring
To pierce the secret of its seeing
And win the end of its wayfaring. [Note 9]

Eberhart is optimistic, encouraging collaboration between a fragmented world, a disintegrating sense of self, and the anatomising approach that colludes with disintegration. Other contributors were more wistful or pragmatic in their preoccupation with this shifting theme; overall the magazine acts as a kaleidoscope of interests.
      A related theme is that of stasis and dynamism. These were the contraries picked out by Elsie Phare in her first article, describing Valéry as

chipping with an axe at a lump of stone; he uses single, detached blows: the unity is in the result, the figure which he disengages from the rock. The contrary is true of Hopkins, whose imagery is cumulative. Valéry’s motto might almost be Gide’s “ne jamais profiter de l’impétus acquise.” If he is like a man chipping at a block of stone, Hopkins is like a man pouring bucketfuls of water into a stream. [Note 10]

Hopkins is, according to Phare, ‘never merely graphic, but rather cinematographic’; she reads The May Magnificat as ‘essentially a motion picture’. [Note 11] Other contributions emphasised either stasis or dynamism — some explicitly, others formally — and the interplay of these two approaches contributed to the magazine’s kaleidoscopic feel. Bronowski and George Reavey tended towards stasis while Empson was more like Hopkins, ‘so thoroughly at ease in the storm that he quite unnecessarily prolongs the turmoil’. [Note 12]
      The interdepedence of the two modes in their cinematographic aspect was brought out by N.N. Sen in his reading of L’étoile de Mer, subtitled ‘a poem as seen by Man Ray’:

A lot of the film is devoted to starfishes and the superb technique of the photographer is best shown when he projects twelve of these creatures, at the same time, as seen from various angles. They are separated from one another by a semiluminous zone and the whole thing is so well timed that one is able to grasp it all at one glance. [...]
      The whole thing is more like a series of photographs than a moving picture, but one must remember that Man Ray is a photographer. [Note 13]

A photograph from L’étoile de Mer, showing the starfish in jars, was reproduced in Experiment 3 as part of G.F. Noxon’s article on ‘Cinematic Idiom’. Stills from Eugène Deslaw’s La Marche des Machines, Eisenstein’s Potemkin and Brugière’s The Way were also included, all reproduced from Close up. [Note 14] The Experiment group took a keen interest in experimental cinema, and many of their written contributions reveal attempts to produce a controlling visual rhythm built up from individual shots, as described by G.F. Noxon in his analysis of pure cinema. [Note 15]
      The first science article in Experiment brought out the connection between unity and dynamism. In his article on ‘Biochemistry’, J.O. Giršavičius began with a justification of science on practical grounds:

Our attempt to find a new modus vivendi with the world, and to conquer the animal in ourselves, not by destroying it, which is impossible, but by so managing our world that we can again act and feel as a unit, man and the beast in us living in peace, our attempt in short to restore for us that natural harmony in which the animals and plants live with the world (and which we lost by the original sin, the change from ape to man), this is the ideal import of the practical application of science. [Note 16]

The biochemist takes a clinical approach to the living unit; Giršavičius explains that by ‘killing animals at various intervals after feeding the substance we are investigating, we find in what organs it accumulates and what changes it undergoes there’, and notes that the ‘same chemical processes which go on in a living muscle can be produced with the help of killed muscle or even special muscle extracts’. [Note 17] But he contends that the biochemist is not ‘chasing a shadow in analysing dead remains from which the subtle properties of life have fled’, because the organism ‘must be considered not as a static structure but as a dynamic mechanism’. [Note 18] The description of an organism as ‘something that happens’ is attributed to H.S. Jennings, whose influence on Cambridge biochemistry is clear, here and in subsequent contributions by R.S. Alcock.
      There is a broad equivocation about physical, psychic and social fragmentation throughout Experiment, a tension between the desire for unity and the need to break things down. In the midst of such anxieties it is refreshing to find Humphrey Jennings having ‘Odd Thoughts at the Fitzwilliam’:

The hideous new wing of the Fitzwilliam is nearly finished: the many people therefore who to their shame have never been to the old building as it now is should go immediately, and old friends must pay their adieus. For it cannot be that the present glorious mix-up will remain; there will be a tidying-up and a sorting-out, a re-arranging and a re-hanging, and that muddle of sculpture, old-clothes and superb water-colours which is the Fitzwilliam will have departed for ever.
      The very badness of some exhibits (Victorian copies of insipid Dutch pictures, and insipid Victorian pictures themselves) is a restful contrast to the excellence and interest of others. That oppression of masterpieces which one feels at the Uffizi, for instance, is delightfully absent here. Yet the MS of Jude the Obscure, and some splendid Nottingham alabaster-work, and Samuel Palmer’s The Magic Apple Tree, are all within ten yards of each other. From The Magic Apple Tree one can cross to Palmer’s etchings, thence to Blake’s Illustrations for The Georgics, and to complete the pastoral atmosphere, there is a delicious early Gainsborough above the hot-water pipes. And downstairs all the time there are two thundering pieces of Assyrian bas-relief in an overheated room of white match-boarding which looks out onto Peterhouse Fellows’ garden. [Note 19]

In the new gallery, by contrast, ‘everything is laid out in exquisite precision and one hardly dare tread’, and ‘half the joy of discovering [...] is lost’. [Note 20]
      A magnificent jumble inside the Fitzwilliam was one thing, but its exterior was another matter:

The whole thing is so timid: and is put to shame by an average Dutch power-station. The architect has made a well-meaning attempt at “good manners in architecture”: the old building is classical, so the new building must be vaguely classical to go with it; but obviously it cannot be in exactly the same style. Now this sounds all very well in theory, but in practice I begin to doubt its success. For the Fitzwilliam is not the only example of a building spoilt by compromise: the new building at King’s is frankly a hopeless jumble. Why can’t we be whole-heartedly modern? [Note 21]

For all that Jennings might approve of being ‘whole-heartedly modern’, Experiment itself was closer to the ‘glorious mix-up’ of the old Fitzwilliam, with its ‘Gainsborough above the hot-water pipes’. E.M. Wilson’s translations of sections from Góngora’s Las Soledades; Empson’s ambiguity readings of Herbert, Shakespeare and Eliot; Renoir, Schönberg and Charles Darwin; Jean Cocteau and Aristotle and King Amanullah: the magazine’s eclectic round of references is endless, but the sense of community between the contributors saves it from the architectural incoherence of ‘the new building at King’s’. [Photos, below, courtesy Paul Devenyi.]



King's College


King's College, another view

A ‘text-book’s gallimaufry’

In ‘Bourgeois News’ Rod Mengham identifies Experiment with the second stage of surrealism, in which the supremacy of thought over matter is reversed, and surrealism is discovered in everyday life, ‘in material reality and in a public, social world’. [Note 22] [ You can read the article in this issue of Jacket.]
      In their search for a ‘quantitative solution’ the magazine’s contributors were not simply imposing material constraints on social life; they were bringing social and material worlds together on equal terms. In part this reflects the sympathies from which the group was formed.
      When Jacob Bronowski arrived at Jesus College in October 1927 to begin his mathematics degree he found it hard at first to meet undergraduates who shared his literary interests. Eventually he found sympathetic company through Empson, mathematician and literary editor for the Granta*; it was, he recalls, ‘natural that we should form a group to meet regularly, and from these meetings grew the idea of founding a magazine’. [Note 23] The group’s balance of ideas gave Experiment the ability to tune itself into potentially contradictory movements: surrealism in one direction, and Cambridge scientific interests in another.


* Granta: The Granta was founded in 1889 as a Cambridge student magazine, named after the river (an alternative name for part of the River Cam near the University.). During the 1970s the magazine began to fail and was successfully relaunched in its present incarnation in 1979 (see http://www.granta.com/about/ for more information).

      Kathleen Raine recalls that in Cambridge she encountered a literature ‘compatible with Wittgenstein’s and Russell’s new logical positivism [...] and the materialist science of the Cavendish laboratory, that power-house that dominated all fields of Cambridge’. [Note 24] It was, she says, all ‘of a piece, the new taste and the criticism invented to justify it’. Her memoir is revealing but this caricature of Cambridge only tells half the story, leaving the scientism disconnected from the ideas about society held by many of its proponents.
      I.A. Richards for instance, in his attempts to establish literary criticism on a scientific basis, was concerned to distinguish the function of science from that of poetry in order to maintain healthy minds and improve communication. In biochemistry the influence of such theorists as Herbert Spencer Jennings extended the scope of psychology and eventually sociology to include the life of unicellular organisms. Jennings believed the processes of life to be the same for all animals, from protozoa to people, and went on to promote the idea that ethical and biological outlooks were compatible. [Note 25]
      The influence of this approach is clearly seen in the Experiment essays of R.S. Alcock and J.O. Giršavičius but the attitude was not restricted to students of biochemistry. A play written by Empson, Three Stories, had been performed at the A.D.C. (Amateur Dramatic Club) in February 1927; in response to this The Cambridge Review thought Empson might become a successful dramatist if only he would ‘refrain from wild experiment’. The Granta reviewer was more in tune with Empson’s temperament: ‘if we interpreted it rightly, it amounted to something like this: that the ethical problems of life differ from the scientific problems only if one conceives them romantically, and even then, the apparent romanticism achieved, they become scientific again. [Note 26]
      Empson’s questioning of science as a source of ideas to live by continued on the pages of Experiment, his poems adopting the finite but unbounded space of relativity theory as a social setting for intimacy. In ‘Camping Out’ the lovers are made to feel as though they are zooming through the galaxy faster than the speed of light. Their reflection on the surface of a lake spattered with flecks of toothpaste — moving rapidly apart because the soapiness has lowered the surface tension of the water — becomes a liberating extraterrestrial voyage:

And now she cleans her teeth into the lake:
Gives it (God’s grace) for her own bounty’s sake
What morning’s pale and the crisp mist debars:
Its glass of the divine (that Will could break)
Restores, beyond Nature: or lets Heaven take
(Itself being dimmed) her pattern, who half awake
Milks between rocks a straddled sky of stars.

Soap tension the star pattern magnifies.
Smoothly Madonna through-assumes the skies
Whose vaults are opened to achieve the Lord.
No, it is we soaring explore galaxies;
Our bullet boat light’s speed by thousands flies.
Who moves so among stars their frame unties,
See where they blur, and die, and are outsoared. [Note 27]

Empson’s poems are not ‘about’ relativity; they analogise its themes to explore and describe love affairs in a modern social universe. [Note 27a] This analogy can be extended to the social group that produced Experiment: a community of active thought whose unbounded possibilities were played out in the finite space of undergraduate experience.

The ethical burden of literary experiment was first aired by Bronowski in his analytic essay on ‘Symbolism’, in which he argued that a work may take on moral significance in two ways: by means of imagery or symbolism. The purpose of this scheme was to clear up ‘a type of confusion current in modern art’, a confusion that ‘must vitiate an art just striving for absolute form’. [Note 28] Bronowski distinguished between the absoluteness of symbols on the one hand, and the subjective associations of imagery — which give rise to ‘romantic misuse’ and ‘false analogies’ — on the other.
      This was an alternative formulation to the symbolist analysis on which Richards based his scientific criticism, yet it suffered from the same rhetorical discomfort over its own position, as criticism, with respect to absoluteness and subjectivity.
      In the creative contributions to Experiment the problem of subjectivity and objectivity produces more subtle effects. Hugh Sykes Davies, for instance, transplants classic literary themes into confined spaces in which a kind of empirical fantasy unfolds. These fantasies are virtually devoid of an experiencing subject, and when this trick is pulled off subjectivity becomes a function of the poem itself, yielding a stream of words insanely measured by the extra spacing that distinguishes Sykes Davies’ writing from that of other contributors. The classic themes range from an Eliotic decay of rats and weevils to the misadventures of Prometheus. His first contribution, ‘Music in an Empty House’, celebrated the morbid failure of words and of physical existence. In Experiment 2 his ‘Vendice’ relishes the hopeless superfluity of anatomical description of the skull:

their   syllables
cannot   confer
a   lease   beyond   the   rotting-time
coronal
stephanion

coracoid
asterion
a text-book’s   gallimaufry
yet   survive
their   archetypes [...]

occipital
exoccipital
basioccipital!   supra-
occipital
all   for   Death [Note 29]

The theme of death pervades the second number of Experiment, while resurrection creeps into the third number, indicating the effect of autumn and spring on the writers and serving as a reminder of the immediacy with which the magazine was assembled. In a more literal vein, R.S. Alcock explores the idea of ‘orthodox death’ with such intense objectivity that a clinical romanticism ensues:

The writhing, gasping, and moaning which usually precede death, it is now generally conceded, are not the reactions to pain stimuli, but are the natural effects of asphyxiation on the nervous system. [...]

In fact human physiology is a study of rhythms, from the short-wave impulse in the nerve to the whole life of a man. This last must also be looked upon as a rhythm, a part of a wave. [...] At one point there is a mark representing the time when the circulatory system fails to cope with the increased pressure; from here the curve must be continued as a dotted line, for the continuous line of life ends; the wave is never completed. [Note 30]

The preoccupation with death is put in perspective by George Reavey’s translation of ‘Mounds’ by Vsevolod Ivanov, recounting his work as a ‘travelling agent to the government’. [Note 31] In 1919 he had been sent to dispose of 8000 corpses that had accumulated at Tamarska, before the spring weather caused an epidemic:

To this end I was given a locomotive, two wagons, a typist, dynamite, and spirit, and, above all, full powers of action. These instructions, finally, were capped by the brief hope that, as a writer, I would no doubt appreciate the experience.

With the smell of decomposing bodies already in the air the bodies are flung into an enormous pit, using the imprisoned bourgeois as forced labour for the purpose. Three weeks later the writer is summoned by telegram, once the snow has melted and the grave has swelled and burst:

So the unwilling bourgeois were again marched out, and forced to re-cover the grave. The stench was terrible. The very horses refused to approach the spot; yet the bourgeois had to cover it with clay. A lorry, full of bricks, was then driven across. The ground heaved at first — more clay was added; and the lorry drove round again till the surface was steady. [...]

Since, I often envisage the time when, after a thousand winters, some archaeologist shall find a crossless, richly overgrown mound; dig; and understand nothing. [Note 32]

So concludes the second number of Experiment. Ivanov’s experiences could scarcely be further removed from those of Cambridge undergraduates, and his account threatens to undermine a literary preoccupation with death. By including this translation in Experiment the editors enhanced the potential for their own writing to appear shallow and pretentious; but they also showed that the magazine was a place for its contributors to test, rather than simply promote, their parochial preoccupations.


Clever young gentlemen talking clap-trap: aspidistras and moustaches

The Experiment kaleidoscope operated on a formal as well as a thematic level, enabling the contributors’ test of the modus vivendi supplied by science, and their investigation of literary tropes and techniques, to operate simultaneously. Symbolism and imagism, stream-of-consciousness and surrealism were all tried out, and three of the poems in Experiment 1 were simply titled ‘Poem’. Such writing invited parody, but the self-conscious testing approach gave it an uncertain air of parody to begin with. Following the simultaneous debut in November 1928 of Experiment and Venture the editors of Granta ran a generous two pages of ‘Experadventure’ lampooning the contents of both magazines. [Note 33] George Reavey’s ‘Poem’...

Buildings and cars are both straight lines
perpendiculars meeting where
no eye can see
cutting
one another where the static
is left pointing
skywards so they meet and diverge
merging only in men who move
and do not.

...became a ‘Pome’:

Projectors and toothpicks are both horizontals
cleaving the murkiness
and meeting,
a manifestation, hazily envisaged,
of the truly astounding many-sidedness of
this life of our age
Pyrrhic, pyorrhean.

By June 1929, when Experiment and Venture had produced their third numbers, the reception was more muted: ‘If they provide an aerodrome in which the hopeful Daedalus may try his wings, and find them wanting, they will have served their purpose’. [Note 34] Yet the reviewer encouraged Granta readers to take a moment during May Week to

ferret out what good there is (there is some) in Undergraduate publications. They will find in Experiment a large number of lamentably clever young gentlemen talking clap-trap much more obviously than any congeries of the ’nineties. In Venture, which will aggravate them much less, and reveal its ethical inferiority to Experiment by doing so, they will find few who are clever at all. If they are content to approach the two journals from this standpoint, which is exaggerated on the side of derogation, they will suffer no great disappointment, and may have the pleasure of fishing out a great deal of real merit.

The more obvious clap-trap and cleverness of Experiment gave it the avant-garde high ground, a position that the editors of Venture were more than ready to concede. Some contributors, such as Elsie Phare and Basil Wright, appeared in both magazines, but the two projects were contrary in the sense identified by Phare in her article on Valéry and Hopkins. In a ‘Manifesto’ printed at the end of Venture 3, the editors noted that their magazine had ‘withstood the violence of a too sudden “Renaissance,” and will continue for another year as a protest against the more licentious forms of Free Verse, Surréalisme, and Art without Tears’. [Note 35]
      Venture received a more thorough review than Experiment did in the Cambridge Gownsman and Undergraduette, whose reviewer had clearly been put off by William Hare’s article on ‘Beauty’. Hare was financing Experiment, and wrote from a curious blend of idealism dressed in the kind of analytic terminology favoured by Bronowski. It was all too much for the Gownsman reviewer:

When I read that “in the words ‘What is Beauty?’ we have the eternal problem of aesthetic science which gives it an original and undisputed territory beside ontology,” I feel the world slipping from beneath my feet, and in my ignorance I ask, “How does a problem give it a territory beside ontology?” and what has ontology to do with the case anyway? Does it not equally well give it a territory beside ornithology, bacteriology, or phrenology? I think I am right in supposing that ontology means very much the same thing as metaphysics, and I think that in the matter of Beauty, ornithology has quite as much right to consideration as metaphysics, and probably a great deal more. [Note 36]

The Gownsman was intolerant of aesthetic posing but this did not mean that its literary reviewers necessarily sided with more traditional poetic endeavours or took against the avant-garde altogether. They had read Robert Graves and Laura Riding’s Survey of Modernist Poetry, and were happy to accept that a ‘new language for poetry must be found’. [Note 37] This they conceded in a review of Songs for Sixpence, a series of poems published by the Cambridge bookseller Heffers in 1929 featuring contributions from Empson, Bronowski and White alongside the work of Venture writers Julian Bell, John Davenport and Michael Redgrave.
      The Gownsman reviewer expressed a clear preference for the Experiment spirit — exemplified by Empson and Bronowski — over the dilletantism of Venture poets such as Julian Bell. Yet both types of Cambridge poet were taken to task for their ‘adoption of a pose’. They were all, the reviewer complained, ‘much more pretentious than any of the other intellectuals of Cambridge’, and it was perfectly possible to be an intellectual without making an exhibition of oneself:

the brilliant thinker in Natural Science, the future Thomson or Eddington, does not wear a distinctive dress, does not converse publicly in such a loud voice and with such an air of arrogance that it sickens the ordinary man, and though he may have ideas on humanity as advanced and as intellectual as a prominent aesthete, does not disregard the fact that his ideas may be wrong. He does not drink foul drinks with foreign names, for the sake of being drunk in Russian rather than tight on beer. It may be argued that it is only the pseudo-poets, the hangers-on, who disgrace the branch of learning known as poetry in Cambridge, but certain gentlemen whose names are before me as I write are not free from this arrogance and desire to live up to the falsely-conceived conventions of their calling.

Empson may or may not have been guilty of drinking in Russian but the reviewer found it ‘particularly disappointing’ that the ‘pose’ was creeping into his poetry, giving rise to the ‘suspicion that he is deliberately trying to puzzle and to shock his readers’. In February 1930 the Gownsman offered a prize of one ounce of tobacco ‘to the first member of the University, whether of the men’s or the women’s colleges, who can get us a decent rhyme for ‘Bronowski’’, and observed that the owner of this unrhymable name ‘was too prominent at the Film Guild’s show the other night, chatting volubly in German’. [Note 38]
      The ‘falsely-conceived conventions’ of the Cambridge aesthete were enshrined in a two-page aspidistra bonanza, printed in the Gownsman a week after notice had been given of the second numbers of Experiment and Venture. While the Granta made habitual reference to aspidistras in the context of landladies and conventional broken hearts, in the Gownsman the aspidistra became an obsession that was clearly associated with the Experiment group. ‘Does your bedder know of this?’ demanded a headline announcing the Aspidistra Advancement Association, Inc, complete with prospectus and list of directors, including ‘Bombadier-Grenadier Sir Bloodstock-Gore’ and ‘His Lordship the Bishop of Six Mile Bottom’. [Note 39] On the facing page the following Sonnet appeared beneath a picture of the plant:

Scorn not the Aspidistra. We have frowned
Mindless of vasty import. To this tree
Bedders unbare their hearts. The memoree
Of this sad shoot gave ease to Empson’s wound;
From ’neath its boughs did Grigg the world astound;
With it Bronowski soothed an exile’s grief.
Why th’Aspidistra reared a verdant leaf
Over the Fool’s Cap which the Granta bound
On its receding brow. A noble gamp,
It cheered mild Pentland, called from Slumber-Land
To woo the Union’s grace. But when the damp
Closed round the paths of Cambridge, on its stand
The Thing became a Nuisance, whence we drew
Soul-devastating thoughts, alas, too blue!

The Gownsman’s aspidistra reduces experimental writers and union debaters, bedders (college domestic servants who make up students’ beds) and brigadiers to the same state of mediocrity. The paper’s skits and cartoons emphasise the parlour plant’s simultaneous association with inclusive safety and exclusive snobbery — an equivocation that the more intellectually self-conscious Granta could not quite manage.
      In January 1931, as the Experiment group continued to consolidate their Paris connections, a full page cartoon headed ‘Home Thoughts From Abroad’ appeared with the caption ‘Cambridge poet deeply moved by sight of aspidistra in Paris’. [Note 40] As Jason Harding has observed, the Experiment contribution to transition in June 1930 was laced with a ‘nervous shifting’, showing ‘that a native strain of Cambridge rationalism could never quite be happily transplanted to the heady soil of Parisian bohemia’. [Note 41] The Gownsman picture of a moustached and well-tailored figure clutching a pipe in one hand and his breast in the other, going into raptures as a cart is driven past the ‘Lapin d’Or’ café with three aspidistras perched on the back, says it all.


Aspidistra cartoon

From The Gownsman, January 1931
Reproduced by kind permission of the Syndics of Cambridge University Library.


      The Gownsman also kept up a running commentary on developments in the facial hair of members of the Experiment group. In March 1930 they issued congratulations to ‘Mr. Bronowski, for his moustache etcetera’, [Note 42] and in May it was announced by headline that ‘The Cult of the Moustache’ was assuming

threatening proportions amongst our aesthetic brethren. Following on the inspiring lead of Mr. Bronowski, Mr. Davenport is now arrayed in full glory. Mr. Davenport should not, however, wear a German pipe with his moustache. The total effect is not pleasing. Now we notice that Mr. Noxon has a “knightly growth” fringing his lip. At first we feared a “nightly growth”; examination leads us to believe, however, that the growth is intended to be more permanent. [Note 43]


Moustache cartoon

From The Gownsman, May 1930
Reproduced by kind permission of the Syndics of Cambridge University Library.


This obsession with facial hair and aspidistras is not particularly remarkable in the context of undergraduate humour, but there is a tangential connection between Gownsman observation of the Experiment group and the subsequent involvement of several Experiment writers with Mass-Observation. The ‘manifesto’ for this project gave a list of topics to be observed that included ‘The aspidistra cult’ and ‘Beards, armpits, eyebrows’. [Note 44]
      Rod Mengham notes the ‘sheer daftness’ of the original list of topics, which is ‘in perfect accord with the more facile subversions of surrealist humour’, and points out the influence of Surrealism ‘upon both the origins of sociology in Britain and on a war-time and post-war new realism concerned with the portrayal of working-class culture’. [Note 45] Experiment, along with the Gownsman commentary, indicates a local convergence of literary, scientific and social concerns, with as many new paths leading away from it as there were interests shaping the original project.
      What were the results of Experiment? Following Empson’s dismissal from Magdalene in the summer of 1929 (carrying with it ‘a prohibition on residence within the town bounds’) [Note 46], Bronowski and Sykes Davies became joint editors. Experiment contributed thirty-two pages of material to a special issue of transition in June 1930, and in Spring the following year the magazine was relaunched as The New Experiment, distributed by William Heinemann, with a new cover design and a price increase from one and six to two shillings. The editors had managed to secure an extract from James Joyce’s ‘Work in Progress’, reprinted from the first number of transition. ‘We have always avoided making protestations of policy’, wrote the editors,

choosing to leave it to the reader to conclude that we really do stand for a single direction of outlook. This number will, we hope, simplify and unify the conclusion; so that we feel it is now not arrogant to say that we are in some ways the only literary group which is positively post-war, which honestly seeks to transcend the spirit of academicism and stoicism of the older generation. [Note 47]

With this, the magazine’s original spirit departed. ‘The moment of Experiment had gone’, writes Jason Harding, and ‘The New Experiment was stillborn from the press’. [Note 48] The shift in editorial policy was perhaps inevitable, but ‘Experiment had overstretched the financial and human resources of its original Cambridge rationale; in no sense could The New Experiment be described as an undergraduate magazine’.
      The simultaneous testing of avant-garde and materialist outlooks in Experiment yielded equivocal results. Modern science provided a rich source of metaphors and ideas to live by, but the limits of scientific knowledge were uncertain. To what extent could the answers be reduced to a scientific treatment, and if science gave only partial answers then how did it fit in with other kinds of answer? Until these limits had been established the ‘quantitative solution’ could not be fully realised, and science was likely to cause as many problems as it eased.
      As for the test of aesthetic innovation, this may have been resolved into a ‘single direction of outlook’ as Experiment drew to an end but the magazine’s original flexibility remained. It was to re-emerge in Humphrey Jennings’ Pandemonium, a compilation of diverse forms in a kind of film sequence, producing ‘a sort of splendid furnace picture of the greatest days of industry’. [Note 49]
      And it operated in the subsequent careers of the other four original editors: Empson’s time in Japan and China, his work for the BBC during the war and later as Professor of English at the University of Sheffield; Ennismore as Governor-General of Ghana; Bronowski’s pursuit of topology and poetry, his research into the effects of the atomic bomb and his role in founding the Salk Institute; Hugh Sykes Davies’ survival of numerous literary trends, political movements, and marriages. [Note 50] In his conclusion to Practical Criticism in 1929 I.A. Richards feared the heterogeneity of modern reading and speech, handling ‘scraps from a score of different cultures’. [Note 51] The ‘mind of the future’, he believed, needed to be able to ‘shift its view-point and still keep its orientation’, and ‘carry over into quite a new set of definitions the results gained through past experience in other frameworks’. [Note 52] In Experiment, that ‘aerodrome in which the hopeful Daedalus may try his wings’, the mind of the future was preparing for take-off.



[Note 1] My account of Experiment owes a great deal to Jason Harding’s ‘Experiment in Cambridge: ‘A Manifesto of Young England’, Cambridge Quarterly 27 (1998), 287-309. Here my aim is to complement Harding’s historical account with a discussion of the magazine’s contents and its reception in Cambridge.

[Note 2] Kathleen Raine, The Land Unknown (London: Hamilton, 1975).

[Note 3] E.E. Phare, ‘Valéry and Gerard Hopkins’, Experiment 1 (November 1928), 19-23 (p. 19).

[Note 4] ‘Valéry and Gerard Hopkins’, p. 23.

[Note 5] E.E. Phare, ‘Ernest Hemingway’, Experiment 3 (May 1929), 13-16 (pp. 15-16).

[Note 6] ‘Ernest Hemingway’, p. 16.

[Note 7] For the rhetorical aspect of scientific experiment see David Gooding, Trevor Pinch and Simon Schaffer (eds), The Uses of Experiment: Studies in the Natural Sciences (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), and Peter Galison, How Experiments End (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987).

[Note 8] I can only glance at the possibilities of thought-experiment and social experiment here; there is evidently a lot more to be said. I am grateful to Katrina Dean for a preliminary discussion. The question of when literary and aesthetic experiment begins, and how it relates to scientific, philosophical and social experiment, also needs to be pursued, but the issue is clouded by the habitual use of ‘experiment’ to refer rather loosely to innovation in the arts; the reconstruction of its literary and aesthetic history is beyond the scope of the present article.

[Note 9] Richard Eberhart, ‘Fragments’, Experiment 3 (May 1929), 6.

[Note 10] ‘Valéry and Gerard Hopkins’, p. 20.

[Note 11] ‘Valéry and Gerard Hopkins’, p. 21.

[Note 12] ‘Valéry and Gerard Hopkins’, p. 22.

[Note 13] N.N. Sen, ‘L’étoile de mer: a poem as seen by Man Ray’, Experiment 1 (November 1928), 43-45 (pp. 44-5).

[Note 14] The film magazine and Experiment shared approximately the same life-span, Close up ran from 1927 to 1933. A certain sympathy of outlook obtained between the two magazines, and a further study of the connections between them would be fruitful.

[Note 15] G.F. Noxon, ‘Cinematic Idiom’, Experiment 3 (May 1929), 35-9.

[Note 16] G.O. Giršavičius, ‘Biochemistry’, Experiment 1 (November 1928), 33-37 (p. 33).

[Note 17] ‘Biochemistry’, pp. 36-7.

[Note 18] ‘Biochemistry’, pp. 33 and 36.

[Note 19] Humphrey Jennings, ‘Odd Thoughts at the Fitzwilliam’, Experiment 2 (February 1929), 13-15 (p. 13).

[Note 20] ‘Odd Thoughts at the Fitzwilliam’, p. 14.

[Note 21] The ‘new building at King’s’ is the S and Y staircases of Bodley’s Court, added in 1927. To see a picture of the new wing of the Fitzwilliam: http://www.cambridge2000.com/cambridge2000/html/0009/P9012313.html

[Note 22] Rod Mengham, ‘Bourgeois News’, New Formations 44 (Autumn 2001) 26–33; Jacket 20 (December 2002).

[Note 23] Jacob Bronowski, ‘Recollections of Humphrey Jennings’, Twentieth Century 165 (January 1959), 45-50 (p. 45).

[Note 24] Raine (1975), p. 29.

[Note 25] H.S. Jennings, The Universe and Life (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1933)

[Note 26] Quoted by Martin Dodsworth, ‘Empson at Cambridge’, Review 6-7 (July 1963), 3-13, (pp. 4-5).

[Note 27] William Empson, ‘Camping Out’, Experiment 2 (February 1929), 15.

[Note 27a] See John Haffenden, introduction to The Complete Poems of William Empson (London: Allen Lane, 2000), p. xxxvii.

[Note 28] Jacob Bronowski, ‘Symbolism, Experiment 2 (February 1929), 19-22 (p. 19).

[Note 29] Hugh Sykes (Hugh Sykes Davies), ‘Vendice’, Experiment 2 (February 1929), 16-18.

[Note 30] R.S. Alcock, ‘Death’, Experiment 2 (February 1929), 41-44 (p. 44).

[Note 31] Vsevolod Ivanov, ‘Mounds’, translated by George Reavey, Experiment 2 (February 1929), 47-8 (p. 47).

[Note 32] ‘Mounds’, p. 48.

[Note 33] ‘Experadventure’, Granta, 23 November 1928, pp. 152-3.

[Note 34] TW, ‘Nothing Venture’, Granta, 7 June 1929, p. 531.

[Note 35] ‘Manifesto’, Venture 3 (June 1929), 152.

[Note 36] ‘Literary Relapses’, Gownsman, 17 November 1928, pp. 6-7.

[Note 37] ‘Songs for Sixpence’, Gownsman, 30 November 1929, p. 22.

[Note 38] ‘Flotsam and Jetsam’, Gownsman, 8th February 1930, p. 2.

[Note 39] Gownsman, 26 January 1929, pp. 8-9.

[Note 40] ‘Home Thoughts From Abroad’, Gownsman, 17 January 1931, p. 6. Reproduced by kind permission of the Syndics of Cambridge University Library.

[Note 41] Harding (1998), p. 294.

[Note 42] Gownsman, 1 March 1930, p. 2. Insert picture here, reproduced by kind permission of the Syndics of Cambridge University Library.

[Note 43] Gownsman, 17 May 1930, p. 5.

[Note 44] See Rod Mengham’s ‘Bourgeois News’.

[Note 45] Rod Mengham, ‘Bourgeois News’.

[Note 46] Having attained a first class in Part I of the English Tripos in 1929 Empson was appointed to a Bye-Fellowship at Magdalene. He was dismissed before taking up his Fellowship following the discovery of contraceptives (condoms) in his rooms. See Harding (1998) and R. Luckett and R. Hyam, ‘Empson and the engines of love: The Governing Body decision of 1929’, Magdalene College Magazine and Record, 1990-91, pp. 33-40.

[Note 47] ‘Editorial’, The New Experiment 7 (Spring 1931), 4.

[Note 48] Harding (1998), p. 295.

[Note 49] Bronowski (1959), pp. 49-50. Pandemonium was published posthumously, after much delay, in 1985.

[Note 50] See George Watson, ‘Remembering Prufrock: Hugh Sykes Davies 1909 — 1984’, Sewanee Review, 109 (Fall 2001); Jacket 20 (December 2002).

[Note 51] I.A. Richards, Practical Criticism (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1929; 6thedition 1964), p. 339.

[Note 52] Richards (1929), p. 343.



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