Fifteen years before the publication of George Orwell’s novel Nineteen Eighty-Four his wife Eileen had already written and published a poem about 1984. In an extract from her forthcoming biography, Eileen: The Making of George Orwell, author Sylvia Topp describes the poem and the state of the world in which it was published in 1934.
Eileen’s high school in Sunderland celebrated its fiftieth anniversary, in 1934, with gatherings and dinners both on the school grounds and in London. Eileen is not obvious in some surviving photos of the celebrations, but she was well aware of the significance of the anniversary. Looking fifty years ahead, to the school’s one-hundredth anniversary, she wrote a poem titled ‘End of the Century, 1984’, which was published in the Sunderland High School magazine in 1934, the year before she met Orwell.
Synthetic winds have blown away
Material dust, but this one room
Rebukes the constant violet ray
And dustless sheds a dusty doom.
Wrecked on the outmoded past
Lie North and Hillard, Virgil, Horace,
Shakespeare’s bones are quiet at last.
Dead as Yeats or William Morris.
Have not the inmates earned their rest?
A hundred circles traversed they
Complaining of the classic quest
And, each inevitable day,
Illogically trying to place
A ball within an empty space.
Every loss is now a gain
For every chance must follow reason.
A crystal palace meets the rain
That falls at its appointed season.
No book disturbs the lucid line
For sun-bronzed scholars tune their thought
To Telepathic Station 9
From which they know just what they ought:
The useful sciences; the arts
Of telesalesmanship and Spanish
As registered in Western parts;
Mental cremation that shall banish
Relics, philosophies and colds –
Worlds have died that they may live,
May plume again their fairest feathers
And in their clearest songs may give
Welcome to all spontaneous weathers.
Bacon’s colleague is called Einstein,
Huxley shares Platonic food,
Violet rays are only sunshine
Christened in the modern mood.
In this house if in no other
Past and future may agree,
Each herself, but each the other
In a curious harmony,
Finding both a proper place
In the silken gown’s embrace.
As Eileen wrote this poem, she was engulfed by news of the growing horrors of governments close by, those led by Hitler, Mussolini, and Stalin. She feared that the world of scholarship and cultural life that she so loved – represented by some interesting choices of writers in the poem – was being destroyed by the designs of men she abhorred.
Her typing and stenographic work had deprived her of the time to glory in the poetry of the past, and she wrote this poem in memory of her days of study at school, regretting that in the present time there was no use for her beloved poets – they have become ‘outmoded’. She was critical of the present, with its emphasis on science, technology, and rationality, where ‘sun-bronzed scholars,’ without the need for books, ‘know just what they ought’, leading to ‘mental cremation’. This vision foreshadows Orwell’s vision, expressed in Nineteen Eighty-Four, of a world where the only accepted thought is prescribed by Big Brother. Orwell saw his novel as a warning, not a prediction, about the future. Eileen envisioned a ‘curious harmony’ of the past and future. Because she was eternally optimistic, she decided to look forward another fifty years, to 1984, and imagine that the world would right itself. She believed that knowledge of the past could not be completely wiped out and that, at least at institutes of learning, the past glories would be resurrected. Orwell’s thoughts about how the world might transform itself years later were not as optimistic as his wife’s. He hoped she was right, but he feared she was wrong.
Eileen: The Making of George Orwell, by Sylvia Topp will be published by Unbound Autumn 2019
Uploaded: June 21st 2019