Bombs, planes, larks and mere delight


(Ivor Gurney via Oxford DNB; Ford Madox Ford via New York Review of Books)

The poet Ivor Gurney wrote to his friend and sponsor Marion Scott (21? June 1916): ‘High up in the air like harmless gnats British aeroplanes are sailing – but No Germans – and ever and again as they come round in their circles lovely little balls of white fleece, or dark fleece or occasionally ruddy, gather in their track and up above and below. But they take about as much notice as of so many peas.’ And, in a second letter of the same date: ‘Tonight an aeroplane has been sailing high up in the blue – right over the German lines, and occasionally leaving at his back a flock of tiny white clouds; looking so innocent as they unfold, that unless one has caught the tiny flash of the explosion it is perfectly impossible to think that these are anything but the tiny clouds of Summer W H D loves to sing of.’[1]

This reminded me that, also in that summer of 1916, Second Lieutenant Ford Madox Hueffer—later Ford—arrived in France. In No Enemy: A Tale of Reconstruction, written partly in that year (but mostly in 1919), his persona, Gringoire, recalls a day on which he and other officers ‘sprawled about on the bare hillside with the downland winds running over the grasses just as they do in Sussex on a cloudless day.’ Then:

induced as the eye was to look into the pellucid sky, there became visible a number—some one counted fourteen—of tiny, shining globes. They appeared to be globes, because there was a fresh wind blowing straight from them and they turned end on. So, but slowly and incessantly heaving, did the immense one close at hand; a spider’s network of cordage went with its movements. Tiny and incredibly pretty, like films of gold dust floating in blue water and like peach blossom leaves—yes, incredibly pretty in the sunlight—airplanes were there. Because the—just as pretty—little mushrooms that existed suddenly in the sky, beside the sunlit dragonflies and peach blossoms, were pearly white, one officer said:
“Hun planes!”[2]

Flying machines were still a relatively new phenomenon then, something that many people would still not yet have seen. But I’ve been reading lately the poems and prose of Keith Douglas, killed in Normandy on 9 June 1944, so just three days after the Allied landings, at the age of twenty-four. Douglas served in the desert war as a tank commander and, early in his classic narrative, Alamein to Zem Zem, there’s this:

Up above in the clear sky a solitary aeroplane moved, bright silver in the sunlight, a pale line of exhaust marking its unhurried course. The Bofors gunners on either side of us were running to their guns and soon opened a rapid, thumping fire, like a titanic workman hammering. The silver body of the aeroplane was surrounded by hundreds of little grey smudges, through which it sailed on serenely. From it there fell away, slowly and gracefully, an isolated shower of rain, a succession of glittering drops. I watched them descend a hundred feet before it occurred to me to consider their significance and forget their beauty. The column of tanks trundled forward imperturbably, but the heads of their crews no longer showed. I dropped down in the turret and shouted to Evan who was dozing in the gunner’s seat: “Someone’s dropping some stuff.” He shouted back a question and adjusted his earphones. “Bombs!” I said into the microphone.[3]


(Keith Douglas in the desert via War Poets Association)

The bright silver of the plane is noted but that impression of beauty given to the poet’s eye derives from the shower of bombs it drops. Douglas, unsurprisingly, was well acquainted with the poets of the First World War, particularly Wilfred Owen and Isaac Rosenberg – his ‘Desert Flowers’ begins:

Living in a wide landscape are the flowers—
Rosenberg I only repeat what you were saying—
the shell and the hawk every hour
are slaying men and jerboas, slaying

the mind: but the body can fill
the hungry flowers and the dogs who cry words
at nights, the most hostile things of all.[4]

I wondered, then, if there might be an element of reversal there, looking back to Rosenberg’s ‘Returning, we hear the larks’:

Lo! Heights of night ringing with unseen larks:
Music showering on our upturned listening faces.

Death could drop from the dark
As easily as song—

But song only dropped[5]

A comparison of the passage from Alamein to Zem Zem with the earlier draft shows some interesting revisions: the published version adds ‘imperturbably’ to the tanks trundling forward; and in that last line, ‘I said’ replaces ‘I shouted’, clearly choosing to avoid the repetition; ‘and forget their beauty’ was earlier ‘as well as their beauty’.[6]

All three writers note and record the beauty while variously showing themselves aware of the purpose and true meaning of what they’re looking at. The disruptive effect of that ‘Hun planes!’ of Ford finds its echo in Douglas’s ‘Bombs!’, while Gurney’s observations demonstrate a consistent awareness of what he’s looking at. Douglas, though, foregrounds the conscious reinstating of that borderline between observed beauty and understanding of what is observed: ‘I watched them descend a hundred feet before it occurred to me to consider their significance and forget their beauty’—or ‘as well as their beauty’.

So, two qualities held in the mind; or entertained sequentially. If the latter, that neat sequence is like a demonstration of the terms of the debate about subjective and objective judgements, of what Elizabeth Prettijohn refers to as ‘free beauty’, which is ‘altogether independent of interests or ends’, and ‘dependent beauty, ‘in which our response to the object is influenced by considerations other than the mere delight we experience in contemplating it.’[7]

Certainly, in the cases of the Ford and the Douglas, though other considerations are massing in the background, I’d say I’m happy enough in the first instance with mere delight.



[1] Ivor Gurney, Collected Letters, edited by R. K. R. Thornton (Mid Northumberland Arts Group & Carcanet Press 1991), 100, 102. W. H. Davies has a poem called ‘Clouds’: ‘My Fancy loves to play with Clouds/ That hour by hour can change Heaven’s face;/ For I am sure of my delight, / In green or stony place’. His ‘When the Cuckoo sings’ begins, ‘In summer, when the Cuckoo sings,/ And clouds like greater moons can shine’.

[2] Ford Madox Ford, No Enemy (1929; edited by Paul Skinner, Manchester: Carcanet Press, 2002), 31-32.

[3] Keith Douglas, Alamein to Zem Zem (1946; edited and introduced by Desmond Graham, London: Faber and Faber, 1992), 27.

[4] The Complete Poems of Keith Douglas, edited by Desmond Graham (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1979), 102.

[5] Isaac Rosenberg (21st Century Oxford Authors), edited by Vivien Noakes (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), 113; Desmond Graham notes that there was no copy of Rosenberg’s poems among Douglas’s books but that he had as a school prize Ian Parsons’ The Progress of Poetry (1936), which contained a good selection of Rosenberg’s work: Graham, Keith Douglas, 1920-1944: A Biography (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1974), 277, note to page 188.

[6] See ‘Abandoned draft, revising part of Alamein to Zem Zem’, in Keith Douglas: A Prose Miscellany, compiled and introduced by Desmond Graham (Manchester: Carcanet Press, 1985), 107.

[7] Elizabeth Prettejohn, Beauty and Art 1750-2000 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), 50 – she is here referring back to Kant’s The Critique of Judgement.

An unfamiliar tribe


(Harry dealing with Brexit in the only sensible way)

I could just read; or fool around on the internet. The Librarian could, as befits the dignity of her profession, continue to play on the kitchen floor with a tabby cat and a yellow catnip banana. Instead, unwisely, we tune in to the Conservative party leadership debates. Dear God, they’re depressing. We deserve better than this, the Librarian says, flourishing her empty glass with obvious urgency. We do, yes – and are unlikely to get it. Indeed, the latest results have just been announced: the one hundred and sixty thousand members of the Conservative party—and thus grotesquely unrepresentative of the nation as a whole—will choose between Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt to assume the position of Prime Minister of this country’s sixty-six million citizens.

Unsurprisingly, the debates were poor stuff. All that relentless concern for the poor, the underprivileged, the disadvantaged, climate catastrophe – and this from Tories, who thus nodded through the hostile environment, the bedroom tax, Universal Benefits, arms sales to the Saudis, airport expansion and much, much more. And, crucially, they all support Brexit and claim that ‘we’ must, absolutely must, leave the EU on or by 31 October.

It was, yes, like watching the antics of an unfamiliar tribe, at least one remove from the ordinary universe. While it’s frankly puzzling that anybody would consider giving a position of any responsibility to Boris Johnson, to be told repeatedly that he’s the favourite to become the country’s next Prime Minister beggars belief. I remind the Librarian that a large chunk of the country has turned mad dog in recent years but she, reasonably enough, reserves the right to continue to be astonished.

Robert-Graves Siegfried=Sassoon

I think briefly of Robert Graves and Siegfried Sassoon around the time of the latter’s famous protest against the conduct of the First World War. ‘We discussed the whole political situation’, Graves recalled. ‘I told him that he was right enough in theory; but that every one was mad except ourselves and one or two others, and that it was hopeless to offer rightness of theory to the insane.’

Somewhere, a hundred years pass. . .




Animal to animal


(William Blake’s Tyger)

‘Yes’, William Carlos Williams wrote to Ezra Pound on 14 June 1932, ‘I have wanted to kick myself (as you suggest) for not realizing more about Ford Maddox’s [sic] verse. If he were not so unapproachable, so gone nowadays. I want to but it is not to be done. Also he is too much like my father was – too English for me ever to be able to talk with him animal to animal.’[1]

That phrase would recur more than twenty-five years later, when Williams asked Hugh Kenner whether it might be possible to talk to T. S. Eliot ‘animal to animal’.[2] Ford and Williams became closer in the last year of Ford’s life, when he founded the Friends of William Carlos Williams.[3] Still, animal to animal. . . was there enough common ground for words to mean the same things to both parties? Would each of them even recognise the other’s direction of travel? Were their aims and ideals comparable, perhaps even within touching distance? Could they connect?

Humans and animals, humans as animals, humans becoming animals – it’s a crowded field: Ovid’s transformations, Kipling, Kafka, David Garnett’s Lady into Fox; more recently, the remarkable Sarah Hall: ‘She stops, within calling distance, were he not struck dumb. She looks over her shoulder. Topaz eyes glinting. Scorched face. Vixen.’[4]


We accept we are animals; or no, it’s those others that are animals; some animal traits we see in humans, some human traits in our dogs, cats, horses. ‘Funny buggers the human animals’, David Jones wrote to Tom Burns, while Llewellyn Powys referred to ‘that escaped, brain-mad animal, man’ and, in order to escape the human into a dreamed world, immaterial and eternal, William Butler Yeats wrote:

Consume my heart away; sick with desire
And fastened to a dying animal
It knows not what it is; and gather me
Into the artifice of eternity.[5]

Guy Davenport remarks that, ‘Odysseus declining the stupidities of hallucination and Akhilleus taming the animal within himself end one age of Greece.’ And here is the philosopher George Santayana in a later Davenport story, ‘Dinner at the Bank of England’:

The unexamined life is eminently worth living, were anyone so fortunate. It would be the life of an animal, brave and alert, with instincts instead of opinions and decisions, loyalty to mate and cubs, to the pack. It might, for all we know, be a life of richest interest and happiness. Dogs dream. The quickened spirit of the eagle circling in high cold air is beyond our imagination. The placidity of cattle shames the Stoic, and what critic has the acumen of the cat? We have used the majesty of the lion as a symbol of royalty, the wide-eyed stare of owls for wisdom, the mild beauty of the dove for the spirit of God.[6]


(George Santayana)

Of T. H. White, author of both The Goshawk and The Once and Future King, David Garnett recalled: ‘Tim was not a mere devotee of blood sports, he was a naturalist with a gift for sharing the instincts and prejudices of all the animals he hunted or domesticated. Thus he could really enter into the soul of a hawk, or a fox, or a wild goose, or a badger. His description of Merlin’s education of Arthur in The Sword in the Stone is not a piece of fanciful writing, but full of his own experience.’[7] Patrick White wrote of his character, Miss Hare: ‘Now she recalled with nostalgia occasions when she had lost her identity in those of trees, bushes, inanimate objects, or entered into the minds of animals, of which the desires were unequivocal or honest.’[8] Some ten thousand years before the present, Julia Blackburn writes, ‘A man is preparing to go out hunting. In order to achieve the death of the animal that is to be hunted, he must become the animal. Inhabiting that other body is the first step towards possessing it.’[9]


(Lily James as Natasha in the BBC dramatisation of War and Peace)

That recognised and lived closeness of the worlds of human and animal is certainly an integral part of cultures both ancient and modern. In Tolstoy’s War and Peace, Natasha speaks of recalling memories until one remembers what happened before one was in the world. ‘“That’s metempsychosis,’ said Sonya, who had always been a good scholar and remembered what she learned. “The Egyptians used to believe that our souls once inhabited the bodies of animals, and will return into animals again.”’ And Carlo Levi, exiled by the Mussolini regime to Gagliano in the Lucania region of Italy, wrote: ‘The deities of the state and the city can find no worshippers here on the land where the wolf and the ancient black boar reign supreme, where there is no wall between the world of men and the world of animals and spirits, between the leaves of the trees above and the roots below.’[10]


No wall. So near and yet so far away. Reading aloud, animal to animal, I accept the cat as prospective audience – but he keeps his own counsel and, I notice, makes no comment at all.



[1] Pound/ Williams: Selected Letters of Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams, edited by Hugh Witemeyer (New York: New Directions, 1996), 119.

[2] Hugh Kenner, The Pound Era (London: Faber and Faber, 1972), 19.

[3] Max Saunders, Ford Madox Ford: A Dual Life, two volumes (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996), II, 537-538.

[4] Sarah Hall, ‘Mrs Fox’, in Madame Zero (London: Faber and Faber, 2017), 9.

[5] Letter of 28 August 1940: Dai Greatcoat: a self-portrait of David Jones in his letters, edited by René Hague (London: Faber and Faber, 1980), 104; Llewellyn Powys, Ebony and Ivory ([1923] Redcliffe Press, Bristol, 1983), 30; ‘Sailing to Byzantium’, W. B. Yeats, The Poems, edited by Daniel Albright (London: Everyman, 1994), 240.

[6] Guy Davenport ‘The Dawn of Erewhon’, in Tatlin! Six Stories (New York: Scribner’s, 1974), 200; ‘Dinner at the Bank of England’, in The Cardiff Team: Ten Stories (New York: New Directions, 1996), 13.

[7] David Garnett, The Familiar Faces (London: Chatto & Windus, 1962), 176.

[8] Patrick White, Riders in the Chariot (Harmondsworth: Penguins Books, 1964), 82.

[9] Julia Blackburn, Time Song: Searching for Doggerland (London: Jonathan Cape, 2019), 171.

[10] Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace, translated by Rosemary Edmonds (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1982), 616; Carlo Levi, Christ Stopped at Eboli, translated by Frances Frenaye ([1947] Penguin 2000), 78.


Play up, play up and play the game!


6 June 1944, and the Battle of Normandy begins as Operation Overlord gets underway. The news coverage of the seventy-fifth anniversary has been unsurprisingly extensive and has featured some remarkable veterans, most inevitably in their nineties now, and some extraordinarily moving testimony. And, of course, several commentators and columnists have remarked on the painful ironies of the occasion, that vast military operation to liberate Europe marked by cooperation, expansion and alliance—apart from Britain, the United States and Canada, there were also service personnel from Poland, Greece, Norway, New Zealand, Australia, the Netherlands, Czechoslovakia, France and Belgium—set against the assumptions and values currently espoused by many in Britain and the United States, of separation, closure and isolation.

Our local D-Day connection is with Bristol’s Clifton College, founded in 1862, which became, for part of the Second World War, the British headquarters of the United States First Army. In October 1943, General Omar Bradley moved to Clifton and the college Council Room became the centre of invasion planning.

Clifton College boasts an extraordinary list of old boys (mainly boys: its co-educational history is relatively brief), from Trevor Howard, Michael Redgrave and John Cleese to Roger Fry, Peter Lanyon and Henry Tonks. Ford Madox Ford’s Christopher Tietjens, in Parade’s End, has attended Clifton, together with his friend Vincent Macmaster – but then Arthur Marwood, Ford’s friend and the partial model for Tietjens, did go there. Other Clifton-educated writers were Joyce Cary, L. P. Hartley, Geoffrey Household – and Henry (later Sir Henry, knighted in 1915) Newbolt, born 6 June 1862 (he died the year before the Second World War began). Among his contemporaries were Arthur Quiller-Couch (‘Q’, editor of the Oxford Book of English Verse among many other volumes), Francis Younghusband and Newbolt’s ‘lifetime friend’ Douglas Haig, the revered and reviled Field Marshal Haig, commander of the British Expeditionary Force from 1915 until the war’s bloody end. Paul Fussell, in his seminal The Great War and Modern Memory, remarks that, ‘To Newbolt, the wartime sufferings of such as Wilfred Owen were tiny—and whiny—compared with Haig’s’.[1]


(Clifton College, via

Newbolt became head of school in 1881 (he was called to the Bar in 1887 and practised for a dozen years). His poem ‘The Chapel’ presents a father talking to his son; the second stanza runs:

To set the cause above renown,
To love the game beyond the prize,
To honour, while you strike him down,
The foe that comes with fearless eyes;
To count the life of battle good,
And dear the land that gave you birth,
And dearer yet the brotherhood
That binds the brave of all the earth.[2]

Newbolt attended the initial meeting that Charles Masterman held at Wellington House, first home of the War Propaganda Bureau. It took place on the afternoon of 2 September 1914 and the writers gathered there included James Barrie, Arnold Bennett, Robert Bridges, G. K. Chesterton, Arthur Conan Doyle, John Galsworthy, Thomas Hardy, John Masefield and H. G. Wells. Kipling and Quiller-Couch, though unable to attend in person, sent messages offering their service. Ford Madox Ford didn’t attend but subsequently wrote two idiosyncratic propaganda volumes for his friend Masterman.[3]

It’s hardly a surprise that, to literary men returning from the trenches or the ‘theatre of war’, who had seen and heard and suffered the devastating effects of mechanised warfare as well as the tactical and strategic policies pursued by those who had such weapons at their disposal, Newbolt was a handily compressed version of all they had learned to reject, mistrust and disbelieve. Wilfred Owen, who fought and died in France, wrote ‘Dulce et decorum est’; Ezra Pound, though a non-combatant, wrote in Hugh Selwyn Mauberley (1920):

Died some pro patria, non dulce non et decor . . .

walked eye-deep in hell
believing in old men’s lies, then unbelieving
came home, home to a lie,
home to many deceits,
home to old lies and new infamy;

usury age-old and age-thick
and liars in public places.[4]


(Henry Newbolt via

Newbolt’s most famous poems now are probably ‘Drake’s Drum’ and ‘Vitaï Lampada’, the latter ‘a public-school favourite since 1898’, Fussell observes, and one that demonstrates the classic equation between war and sport. ‘Fox-hunting, the sport of kings with only twenty per cent. of the danger of war!’ a character in Ford’s Last Post reflects, perhaps remembering R. S. Surtees’ Handley Cross (1843), ‘it’s the sport of kings, the image of war without its guilt, and only twenty-five per cent of its danger’, and even William Somerville, ‘The Chase’ (1735), ‘the sport of kings; / Image of war, without its guilt.’[5] Newbolt opts for cricket:

Gore, Spencer, 1878-1914; The Cricket Match

(Spencer Gore, The Cricket Match, 1909: The Hepworth Wakefield

There’s a breathless hush in the Close to-night—
Ten to make and the match to win—
A bumping pitch and a blinding light,
An hour to play and the last man in.

The second stanza switches to war in the Sudan, the unsuccessful attempt to relieve Gordon at Khartoum:

The sand of the desert is sodden red,—
Red with the wreck of a square that broke;—
The Gatling’s jammed and the Colonel dead,
And the regiment blind with dust and smoke.
The river of death has brimmed his banks,
And England’s far, and Honour a name,
But the voice of a schoolboy rallies the ranks:
“Play up! play up! and play the game!”[6]

( )

And, in the final stanza:

This is the word that year by year,
While in her place the school is set,
Every one of her sons must hear,
And none that hears it dare forget.
This they all with a joyful mind
Bear through life like a torch in flame,
And falling fling to the host behind—

“Play up! play up! and play the game!”

Newbolt’s career was marked by literary popularity, eminence in public service and significant governmental influence, including on the policy pursued in Ireland. He became Controller of Telecommunications at the Foreign Office and was made a Companion of Honour in 1922. Still, I like to recall Ezra Pound’s account of a conversation he had, pre-1914, of course, with Maurice Hewlett, poet and novelist, who had likened Newbolt’s poems to ‘The Ballads’.

E. P. BUT (blanks left for profanity) . . . it, Hewlett, look at the line:
‘He stood the door behind’,
(blanks for profanity) you don’t find lines like that in Patrick Spence.
Hewlett: But, but I don’t mean an OLDE ballad, I mean an—eh—eighteenth-century ballad.
E. P., But (blanks left for profanity), Hewlett, the man is a contemporary of Remy de Gourmont!
Hewlett: Ungh!! Unh nnh eh, I don’t suppose he has thought of that. (Long pause)
Hewlett: (continues very slowly): I don’t suppose, eh, I had either.’[7]



[1] Paul Fussell, The Great War and Modern Memory (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1975), 26.

[2] ‘Clifton Chapel’, The Oxford Book of English Verse, 1250-1918, edited by Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1966), 1066 (yes, really).

[3] Peter Buitenhuis, The Great War of Words: British, American and Canadian Propaganda and Fiction, 1914-1933 (Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 1987), 14.

[4] Ezra Pound: Poems and Translations, edited by Richard Sieburth (New York: Library of America, 2003), 551.

[5] Ford Madox Ford, Last Post (1928; edited by Paul Skinner, Manchester: Carcanet Press, 2011), 12fn.

[6] Fussell, Great War and Modern Memory, 25-26.

[7] Ezra Pound, ‘Harold Monro’, in Polite Essays (1937; Plainview, New York: Books for Libraries Press, 1966), 11.


‘Gather the welcome signs’: Whitman, Joyce, Kafka


Given that it’s Walt Whitman’s two hundredth birthday, I meant to write about that ‘good gray poet’; but then, hundreds if not thousands of people will be commenting on Whitman, stressing his concentration on democracy and America, even quoting a bit of his poetry; and, in any case, I’ve been distracted today by the machinations and opaque absurdities of banks – and also by the important business of settling in Harry,  a recent addition to the household.


Quick, quick, said the bird. Here’s a bit of poetry:

Warble me now for joy of lilac-time, (returning in reminiscence,)
Sort me O tongue and lips for Nature’s sake, souvenirs of earliest
Gather the welcome signs, (as children with pebbles or stringing
Put in April and May, the hylas croaking in the ponds, the elastic
Bees, butterflies, the sparrow with its simple notes,Blue-bird and darting swallow, nor forget the high-hole flashing his golden wings[1]

I was thinking, anyway, of James Augustine Aloysius Joyce and Franz Kafka. On 2 February 1926, Sylvia Beach, proprietor of the Shakespeare & Company bookshop and first publisher of James Joyce’s Ulysses, held a party for the fourth birthday of the novel (and its author’s own forty-fourth birthday). Both she and Joyce wore eye patches for the occasion. Joyce suffered consistently from eye problems for many years; Sylvia, more specifically, was suffering an obstruction of the lacrimal ducts, having strained her eyes while working, with Adrienne Monnier, on a translation of Walt Whitman’s unpublished speech, ‘The Eighteenth Presidency’. Sylvia, a member of the newly formed Walt Whitman Committee of Paris, had suggested a Whitman exhibition at the bookshop, with manuscripts, photographs and early editions. At the Ulysses party, Joyce had quoted some Whitman. Now he announced: ‘I am going to Stratford-on-Odéon’, before attending the opening of the Whitman exhibit, to a private audience, on 20 April 1926.[2]

Sylvia’s Aunt Agnes had once visited Whitman in Camden, where manuscripts, letters and much else was strewn all over the floor.[3] Her aunt was with a friend, Alys Smith, who later married Bertrand Russell. ‘Whitman was anything but the style’, Sylvia wrote later. ‘“The Crowd” couldn’t put up with him, especially after T. S. Eliot aired his views about Walt. Only Joyce and the French and I were still old-fashioned enough to get along with Whitman. I could see with half an eye Whitman’s influence on Joyce’s work – hadn’t he recited some lines to me one day?’[4]


(Franz Kafka via The Guardian)

As is often noticed, ‘old Whiteman self’ turns up in both Finnegans Wake and—‘Do I contradict myself? Very well then, I contradict myself’—Ulysses.[5] If Mr Eliot was unconvinced, and Messrs Pound and Lawrence conflicted, there were, quite apart from the French and Mr Joyce, admirers everywhere. In Prague, Franz Kafka gave a copy of the German translation of Leaves of Grass to his young friend, Gustav Janouch, praising Whitman as one of ‘the greatest formal innovators in the modern lyric.’ He went on: ‘The formal element in Walt Whitman’s poetry found an enormous echo throughout the world. Yet Walt Whitman’s significance lies elsewhere. He combined the contemplation of nature and of civilization, which are apparently entirely contradictory, into a single intoxicating vision of life, because he always had sight of the transitoriness of all phenomena. He said: “Living is the little that is left over from dying.” So he gave his whole heart to every leaf of grass.’[6]


(Sylvia Beach and James Joyce)

Four years after the Whitman exhibition, another American arrived in Paris, who was also an enthusiast. Henry Miller would later write: ‘For me Walt Whitman is a hundred, a thousand, times more America than America itself’; and, of Dostoievsky and Whitman: ‘for me they represent the peaks in modern literature.’ To the photographer Brassaï, Miller remarked: ‘You know that one of my gods is Walt Whitman. The cosmological scope of his vision no doubt owes a great deal to the “vastness” of the American continent. Whitman was dreaming of a new race on the scale of that land, an earthly paradise. Despite everything about American life that’s been spoiled, that potentiality still exists. I’m convinced of it.’[7]


Paul Zweig registered the noticeable trait among leading modern poets of bringing ‘the unpoetic’ into poetry, pointing to Pound, Rilke, Eliot and Williams: ‘But in this area, Whitman is the master. Apparently there was nothing he could not use: his personal knowledge of house building, Italian opera, Olmsted’s lessons on astronomy, the world atlas.’[8]

Master Whitman posed a problem for many poets, especially American poets. How to avoid and evade the legacy of ‘the great American poet’? Interestingly, in an essay on Wallace Stevens, Hugh Kenner observed that: ‘Nonsense freed both Eliot and Stevens from a poet they longed to be freed from: Whitman. It permitted an American to manipulate the rituals of certified Poetry (the resonant turn of phrase, the mighty line) without sounding the way Whitman had made Tennyson sound, provincial. Whitman’s was no longer the only way around an Anglophile provincialism.’[9]

In a 2008 lecture, the poet Michael Longley said that, throughout fifty years of writing, ‘when the creative buzz comes on, I have felt sizeable, capacious like Walt Whitman; but when I’ve written the poem and typed it out I realise that I am still Emily Dickinson – the pernickety Emily who, when asked for her opinion of Leaves of Grass, said of Whitman, “I never read his book ­ but was told that he was disgraceful.”’


Longley went on to say that he had worshipped Emily Dickinson since his university days. He had read Whitman ‘of course’ but ‘the penny has only recently dropped. How could I have managed without him for so long?’[10]

Well, yes. How could anybody?

A line in long array where they wind betwixt green islands,
They take a serpentine course, their arms flash in the sun—hark
to the musical clank,
Behold the silvery river, in it the splashing horses loitering stop to
Behold the brown-faced men, each group, each person a picture,
the negligent rest on the saddles,
Some emerge on the opposite bank, others are just entering the
Scarlet and blue and snowy white,
The guidon flags flutter gayly in the wind.

‘Whitman’s excitement carries weight because he realized that a man cannot use words so unless he has experienced the facts that they express, unless he has grasped them with his senses.’[11]




[1] ‘Warble for Lilac-Time’, Walt Whitman: The Complete Poems, edited by Francis Murphy (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1986), 400.

[2] Noel Riley Fitch, Sylvia Beach and the Lost Generation: A History of Literary Paris in the Twenties and Thirties (New York & London: Norton, 1983), 225-231.

[3] Guy Davenport, ‘Horace and Walt in Camden’, in The Death of Picasso: New and Selected Writing (Washington: Shoemaker & Hoard, 2003), 196-197.

[4] Sylvia Beach, Shakespeare and Company, new edition (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1991), 20, 128.

[5] James Joyce, Finnegans Wake (New York: The Viking Press, 1945), 263; Ulysses (1922; London: The Bodley Head, revised edition, 1969), 19.

[6] Gustav Janouch, Conversations with Kafka, translated by Goronwy Rees, second revised and enlarged edition (New York: New Directions, 1971),167.

[7] Henry Miller, The Books in My Life (New York: New Directions, 1957), 104, 221; Brassaï, Henry Miller, Happy Rock, translated by Jane Marie Todd (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002), 55.

[8] Paul Zweig, Walt Whitman: The Making of the Poet (Harmondsworth: Penguin 1986), 93.

[9] Hugh Kenner, ‘Seraphic Glitter: Stevens and Nonsense’, in Historical Fictions (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1995), 165.

[10] Michael Longley, ‘A Jovial Hullabaloo’, in Sidelines: Selected Prose, 1962-2015 (London: Enitharmon Press, 2017), 314.

[11] F. O. Matthiessen, American Renaissance: Art and Expression in the Age of Emerson and Whitman (1941; New York: Oxford University Press, 1968), 518.


‘Last few days’: bits of paradise


(Ford Madox Ford and Janice Biala via the Times Literary Supplement)

Eighty years ago today, Thursday 25 May 1939, William Carlos Williams, poet and paediatrician of Rutherford, New Jersey, went into New York City to make his farewells to Ford Madox Ford and his partner, the painter Janice Biala. Ezra Pound was also expected to say goodbye but didn’t turn up. Ford and Biala were due to leave on 30 May, aboard the Normandie. Williams ‘knew with his trained medical eye that Ford would soon be dead. Nevertheless, Ford himself, wheezing and overweight, was still optimistic. He was taking a villa on the French coast near Le Havre and invited the Williamses to sail over for the month of August.’

The next day, three and a half thousand miles away, Lawrence Durrell and his wife Nancy, returning to Corfu from England, called in to see Henry Miller in Paris. ‘With a sense of finality, Henry inscribed a copy of Tropic of Capricorn to them with the words, “To Larry and Nancy from Henry – Paris 5/26/39 ‘last few days’”.’


(Nancy Durrell and Lawrence Durrell, family photograph, Joanna Hodgkin, included in Amateurs in Eden: The Story of a Bohemian Marriage, Virago, 2012, via The Guardian)

(Miller’s novel begins: ‘Once you have given up the ghost, everything follows with dead certainty, even in the midst of chaos.’)

Ford fell ill on the voyage to France; he and Biala reached Le Havre on 4 June and moved across the Seine to the port of Honfleur. Three weeks later, on 26 June 1939, Ford died at the age of sixty-five. His death ‘hit Williams hard’, though it was four months before he set down his feelings about Ford in a poem because ‘he deeply mistrusted occasional verse’. Towards the end of October, his poem ‘To Ford Madox Ford in Heaven’ emerged. It was later included in his volume The Wedge (1944) and begins:

Is it any better in Heaven, my friend Ford,
than you found it in Provence?

I don’t think so for you made Provence a
heaven by your praise of it
to give a foretaste of what might be
your joy in the present circumstances.
It was Heaven you were describing there
transubstantiated from its narrowness
to resemble the paths and gardens of a
greater world where you now reside.
But, dear man, you have taken a major
part of it from us.
Provence that you
praised so well will never be the same
Provence to us
now you are gone.

With Europe under threat, Paul Mariani comments, Williams was ‘writing an elegy not only for a man but for a whole world in danger now of disappearing forever.’

Ford’s long poem ‘On Heaven’, written before the First World War, essentially identified that celestial place with his beloved Provence. It became increasingly central to his work in the last decade of his life. In the late work Provence: From Minstrels to the Machine (1935), Ford remarked, ‘If I write of Provence a little as if it were an earthly Paradise the reader must amiably condone what, not being fully in the know, he will consider as a weakness.’

Earthly Paradise was the title that Robert Phelps gave to his skilfully assembled collection of Colette’s autobiographical writings. Colette once observed that, ‘For the hearts which have chosen Provence it takes only July, August, to restore – new, annual unchanging – every astonishment and every bestowal.’ Lawrence Durrell, who spent his last decades, living in Sommières, wrote of catching a glimpse of what Provence must have meant to the ancients: ‘a sort of Tibet-shaped land of paradisiacal luxuriance, remote and at peace’.


(Durrell with Miller – flanked by Richard Aldington and F. J. Temple, Sommières, 1959)

In earlier years, it was Greece that had seemed paradisal to Durrell, not least because it represented release from a stifling England—it did to his wife Nancy as well at the outset, though Durrell’s jealousy and controlling behaviour led to their separation during the Second World War, after they had been forced to flee Greece. For Henry Miller too, his first experience of Greece tasted of heaven in the face of encroaching catastrophe. A few months before the outbreak of war, he went to the Dordogne region: ‘It is the nearest thing to Paradise this side of Greece.’ Arriving at Piraeus in a heat wave in July 1939, he joined Durrell and spent time on Corfu, in Athens and travelling in the Peloponnese. He would later state simply that, ‘Greece is now, bare and lean as a wolf though she be, the only Paradise in Europe.’

The ‘last few days’. But the noises of war were increasingly difficult to ignore. The American Embassy was keen to get its nationals home safely and Miller returned to the United States.

A few years later, in a detention camp a little to the north of Pisa, Ezra Pound wrote:

Le paradis n’est pas artificiel

adding, unsurprisingly:

l’enfer non plus.


A few books

Colette, Looking Backwards: Recollections [Journal à rebours and De ma fenêtre], translated by David Le Vay (London: Peter Owen, 1975)

Lawrence Durrell, Caesar’s Vast Ghost: Aspects of Provence (London: Faber and Faber, 1990).

Ford Madox Ford, Provence (London: Allen & Unwin, 1938).

Joanna Hodgkin, Amateurs in Eden: The Story of a Bohemian Marriage (London: Virago, 2012).

Edmund Keeley, Inventing Paradise: The Greek Journey, 1937-47 (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1999).

Ian MacNiven, Lawrence Durrell: A Biography (London: Faber and Faber, 1998).

Paul Mariani, William Carlos Williams: A New World Naked (New York: W. W. Norton, 1990).

Henry Miller, The Colossus of Maroussi (1941; London: Penguin Books, 1972).

Henry Miller, Tropic of Capricorn (1939; London: John Calder, 1964)

Max Saunders, Ford Madox Ford: A Dual Life, two volumes (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996), II: The After-War World.

William Carlos Williams, The Collected Poems, Volume II: 1939-1962, edited by Christopher MacGowan (Manchester: Carcanet Press, 1988).

William Carlos Williams, Selected Letters, edited by John C. Thirlwall (New York: New Directions, 1969).



Going to the polls (greenly, liberally or laboriously)

Our English Coasts, 1852 ('Strayed Sheep') 1852 by William Holman Hunt 1827-1910

(William Holman Hunt Our English Coasts, also known as Strayed Sheep)

We go to the polls tomorrow; I mean that Europe does and, for now at least, the United Kingdom, if we’re sticking with that title, is on the list. The high anxiety for some Labour supporters has, though, been simplified by Mr Corbyn’s continuing to teeter on the fence, not unlike the grey cat that frequently passes, insecurely and unconvincingly, along the back of our garden.

As to the result, the predictions may be awry in some cases but no doubt right enough in one, that the Brexit Party will come out ahead. It’s simple arithmetic: Stayers will split their votes among three or four parties, Quitters will vote for one party. That reflects at least one aspect of the case: the world can be made to appear very simple; or it’s a complicated place where nuances and complexities abound. Louis MacNeice wrote, in ‘Letter to Graham and Anne Shepard’:

We are not changing ground to escape from facts
But rather to find them. This complex world exacts
Hard work of simplifying; to get its focus
You have to stand outside the crowd and caucus.

Still, this is where we are, in a tight spot. ‘My God’, the Librarian says, ‘the news is bleak.’ As it is. The United States national security advisor threatens war with Iran while, domestically, America wages war on women. The recent Australian election seems not to have been particularly good news for women either. On the European continent, there’s a struggle taking place that we’re likely to end up on the wrong side of; as with the environmental crisis, it seems extraordinary that the response to warnings that the building is on fire is so often to yawn and turn over in bed. Nancy Cunard recalled her friend Brian Howard’s bafflement over the lack of interest in the rise of Nazism in Germany. ‘How was it that, each time he returned to England, or even to France, not enough people cared nor wanted to be made aware of the hideous import of these facts, these obviously lucid indications? Why, save for a minimum of really politically minded people, were they, seemingly, not even interested? Must one be politically minded to be concerned at the appalling things going on? What about being merely human?’

(Felix Vallotton, ‘A Tight Spot’)

What indeed? Ernest Hemingway famously remarked to George Plimpton: ‘The most essential gift for a good writer is a built-in, shock-proof, shit detector.’ And for non-writers? ‘The road from appearance to reality is often very hard and long, and many people make only very poor travellers’, Franz Kafka once said. ‘We must forgive them when they stagger against us as if against a brick wall.’ He was a forgiving sort of person. Still, given the events of the past few years, not least in the United Kingdom and the United States, the most obviously essential tool for the voter, the citizen, is a built-in bullshit detector; and it’s clear that—to put it mildly—not everybody has one.

It was said after the EU Referendum in this country that, if it showed nothing else, it showed that a great many people didn’t mind being lied to as long as they liked the lie they were being told – and there have always been, in the phrase Pound used in Hugh Selwyn Mauberley, ‘liars in public places’. But as Harry Frankfurt’s On Bullshit and many related books since have suggested, there’s a distinction to be made between lies and bullshit, even though overlap often occurs. While liars tend to know when they’re lying and also to accept that truth matters, even if they’re deliberately deviating from it, bullshitters often don’t even know what’s true and they certainly don’t care. The examples often cited here are Messrs Trump, Johnson and Farage ­– and the main reason why they’re able not to care appears to be that those they are speaking most directly to don’t care either.

Ah, well. As the excellent Marina Hyde concluded a recent column, ‘The UK remains in toxic stasis, presided over by a necrotic government, but now with a gathering sense that much worse could be in the post.’

A gathering sense. Yes. Watch that space.