Talking hats



( via  )

An abandoned hat on a garden wall reminded me again of how visible an indicator of historical periods hats are. In old film footage of cinema audiences, the most glaring feature is the fact that almost every man and quite a few women are smoking. In old footage of urban street scenes, everyone is wearing a hat – not only workmen, cardinals and private detectives.


(Humphrey Bogart as Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe)

Useful to raise when meeting a female acquaintance, to remove when a funeral cortège passed, and on Remembrance Day. Some people still wear them—I have three myself, two that don’t fit while the third is a faltering Panama—but it’s a positive and individual choice these days. As to why such a widespread habit died out – suggestions include changes in social class, baldness and increased car ownership. A few years ago, en route to a crematorium, I saw a youngish man, sitting down on the kerb at a bus stop, catch sight of the cortège and emphatically make the sign of the cross on the frayed jacket buttoned over his chest. Religion was a complicating factor there but a hat to doff would have simplified matters. Philip Larkin, famously, ‘hatless’, took off his cycle-clips ‘in awkward reverence’.[1]

In one of his autobiographical volumes, David Garnett remembers his friend Ralph Wright, who had fought at Gallipoli and had one of his brothers killed beside him; then fought in France. Once, on a bus, passing the Cenotaph, he was deep in a book ‘and an old gentleman tapped him angrily on the shoulder. “Take your hat off, young man. Why don’t you pay some respect to our glorious dead?”

“I am one of our glorious dead,” replied Ralph in a mild voice. Mark Twain would have called this a gross exaggeration but there was a truth in it which applied to thousands of survivors of the war. It was not only the body and the brain that could be killed or wounded, but the spirit.’[2]

A hat is a minor plot device in James Joyce’s story, ‘Counterparts’, when Farringdon is slipping out to the pub – again. ‘The chief clerk glanced at the hat-rack but, seeing the row complete, offered no remark. As soon as he was on the landing, the man pulled a shepherd’s plaid cap out of his pocket, put it on his head and ran quickly down the rickety stairs.’ Farringdon is soon in the snug of O’Neill’s shop, downing a glass of porter – and a caraway seed to take away the smell of the alcohol.[3]


(Rose Macaulay via Times Literary Supplement)

Penelope Fitzgerald thought that Rose Macaulay was ‘most characteristically English’ in part because she was ‘given to wearing flat tweed caps, or hats like tea cosies’.[4] By the early years of the Second World War, Mollie Panter-Downes was commenting that Englishwomen ‘have never looked prettier than they do these days when they are dressing more simply, often going hatless, and working so hard that sleep comes easy at night, bombers or no bombers.’[5]

Haydon, Benjamin Robert, 1786-1846; Wellington on the Field of Waterloo

(Benjamin Robert Haydon, Wellington on the Field of Waterloo: Walker Gallery)

The Duke of Wellington seems to have been very attached, sentimentally as well as (usually) physically, to his hat. Benjamin Haydon had borrowed it because he was painting the Duke’s portrait (the last of several). On the morning after Haydon had shot himself, not very successfully, having to finish the job by cutting his throat, Wellington sent a servant round to Burwood Place to recover his hat, having seen the news in The Times.[6] I find this strongly reminiscent of the Tommy Cooper joke about the man calling round to his neighbour’s, being told he’s died the previous night and, after a lengthy pause as if digesting the news, asking the widow: ‘Did he say anything about a pot of paint?’

The Victorian clergyman and diarist Francis Kilvert recalled that, ‘when people were going to market on Thursday mornings they would exhort one another to come back in good time lest they should be led astray by the Goblin Lantern, and boys would wear their hats the wrong way lest they should be enticed into the fairy rings and made to dance.’[7] (Is this why so many men still wear baseball caps the wrong way round? Get into those fairy rings and dance!) Julian MacLaren-Ross wrote of an acquaintance called Nott: ‘He had one of those faces that once seen is never remembered. In London I used to identify him only by a green tweed hat: of such a shape that, in order to wear it correctly, he’d been obliged to print “BACK” and “FRONT” in ink on the lining, afterwards adding “SIDES” (at my suggestion) to preclude any possibility of error.’[8]

William Gaunt writes that, in the 1830s, ‘The intellectuals of Paris wore the steeple-crowned hats and sinister cloaks of Italian brigands and cultivated disdain for the law-abiding citizen.’[9] This image fed into the various versions told of Wyndham Lewis’s first encounter with Ford Madox Ford, then editing The English Review:

‘He seemed to be Russian. He was very dark in the shadows of the staircase. He wore an immense steeple-crowned hat. Long black locks fell from it. His coat was one of those Russian-looking coats that have no revers. He had also an ample black cape of the type that villains in transpontine melodrama throw over their shoulders when they say “Ha-ha!” He said not a word.’

The mysterious stranger establishes himself ‘immovably against the banisters’ because the editor is attempting to push him down the stairs, and begins ‘fumbling in the pockets of his cape. He produced crumpled papers in rolls. He fumbled in the pockets of his strange coat. He produced crumpled papers in rolls.’[10]

These crumpled rolls of paper resolve themselves into ‘The Pole’, Lewis’s first published story, which appeared in The English Review in May 1909. Opening his book on Lewis with the tale of this encounter, Hugh Kenner comments that, ‘The magician’s gestures owe their meaning to the fact that the rabbit from the hat—like the story from the cape—has no history.’[11] Yes, a man with no history appearing to another man, Ford, who was carrying a great deal of it, some of which he sought to shed.

The Gallery of HMS Calcutta (Portsmouth) c.1876 by James Tissot 1836-1902

(Tissot, The Gallery of H. M. S. Calcutta (Portsmouth): Tate)

From hats to hatters. James Tissot (born Jacques Joseph in Nantes in 1836 – he changed his name to signal his fondness for England and English things – moved from Paris to London in 1871, partly to avoid possible trouble following his participation in the defence of the Paris commune. His mother designed hats, a background that surely influenced the content of many of his paintings: women, often society women, in gorgeous clothes and hats, with details expertly rendered.

The Mad Hatter is inextricable now from Lewis Carroll, who never actually refers to his Hatter as mad, though the chapter is called ‘A Mad Tea-Party’. The phrase ‘as mad as a hatter’ preceded Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, as did ‘mad as a March hare’. T. H. White wrote confidently of the man who was, he said, the original of Lewis Carroll’s Hatter, a seventeenth-century eccentric named Robert Crab, ‘a haberdasher of hats at Butterbury’, who subsisted on a diet of dock leaves and grass, and gave all his goods to the poor. Martin Gardner refers to Tenniel basing his drawing on Theophilus Carter, who owned a furniture shop in Oxford, though also detailing other candidates. Carter was mentioned in a letter to The Times from the Reverend Gordon W Baillie: ‘All Oxford called him The Mad Hatter. He would stand at the door of his furniture shop…always with a top hat at the back of his head, which, with a well-developed nose and a somewhat receding chin, made him an easy target for the caricaturist.’[12]


(John Tenniel, ‘A Mad Tea Party’)

Sharing with William Maxwell another helping of hat lore, Sylvia Townsend Warner wrote to him: ‘Your bedroom fireplace should have had a fire in it. When family pews meant anything, they had fireplaces in them, and the eldest son of the family poked them up before the sermon. At that date you never saw a gentleman on his knees. He remained seated & prayed into his hat. My poor father couldn’t, because if he went to church it was to the school chapel, dressed as such; and for some deep mystical reason you can’t pray into a mortar-board.’[13]

Talking into your hat, that is, rather than talking through it.




[1] Philip Larkin, ‘Church Going’, Collected Poems, edited by Anthony Thwaite (East St Kilda: The Marvell Press and London: Faber, 2003), 58.

[2] David Garnett, The Flowers of the Forest (London: Chatto & Windus, 1955), 236.

[3] James Joyce, Dubliners (1914; introduction and notes by Terence Brown, London: Penguin Books, 2000), 84.

[4] Penelope Fitzgerald, ‘A Student of Obliteration’, an introduction to Macaulay’s The World My Wilderness, in A House of Air: Selected Writings, edited by Terence Dooley with Mandy Kirkby and Chris Carduff (London: Harper Perennial, 2005), 299.

[5] Mollie Panter-Downes, London War Notes (1971; edited by William Shawn, new preface by David Kynaston, London: Persephone Books, 2014), 29.

[6] Alethea Hayter, A Sultry Month: Scenes of London Literary Life in 1846 (1965; London: Robin Clark 1992), 103-104.

[7] Francis Kilvert, Kilvert’s Diary, edited by William Plomer, Three volumes (London: Jonathan Cape, 1938, reissued 1969): I, 247.

[8] Julian MacLaren-Ross, Bitten by the Tarantula and other writings (London: Black Spring Press, 2005), 155.

[9] William Gaunt, The Aesthetic Adventure (1945; revised edition, London: Sphere Books, 1975), 10.

[10] Ford Madox Ford, Return to Yesterday: Reminiscences 1894-1914 (London: Victor Gollancz, 1931), 407.

[11] Hugh Kenner, Wyndham Lewis (New York: New Directions, 1964), 6.

[12] T. H. White, England Have My Bones (1934; London: Macdonald Futura, 1981), 42; Martin Gardner, The Annotated Alice: The Definitive Edition (Harmondsworth: Allen Lane, The Penguin Press, 2000), 72-73; The Times, March 19, 1931.

[13] Letter of 9 January 1972: Michael Steinman, editor, The Element of Lavishness: Letters of Sylvia Townsend Warner and William Maxwell, 1938-1978 (Washington: Counterpoint, 2001), 227.


Strait Expectations


It seems unreasonable to charge the weather with bad faith – but somehow I persuaded myself that we had a deal. After the snow two weeks ago, which was more than enough to slake the appetite of the Librarian for such stuff (‘we never get snow’), I thought that was it. We could proceed peaceably enough* towards a convincing Spring. Clearly not.

So today turned out to involve shuffling to the newsagent; reading at length about the harvesting of Facebook data; brief forays to the bird table with suet pellets; making soup; browsing in a few books; and not having a drink just yet.

And tomorrow – ah, perhaps not ‘fresh Woods, and Pastures new’ but certainly a return to what was previously called ‘normality’. The last scheduled University staff strike day was on Friday. Everyone involved is profoundly hopeful that they can simply get on with their work, that there won’t be a need to schedule any more stoppages but, given that the circumstances which brought this situation about have not substantially changed, any natural optimism is being held firmly in check.

‘But our expectations are always higher than the tallest cathedral, the mightiest wave in a storm, the highest leap of a dancer’, Proust wrote (in James Grieve’s translation).

Not this time, Marcel.

* Insert dry smile.

Fording Kipling

Sadler, John, 1843-1908; The Anchorite's Cell, Chester

(John Sadler, The Anchorite’s Cell, Chester: Grosvenor Museum)

In 1877, Rudyard Kipling’s mother took her children from Lorne Lodge in Southsea—‘the House of Desolation’—to Golding’s Hill, on the edge of Epping Forest. In Kipling and the Children, Roger Lancelyn Green mentions that a part of the young Kipling’s reading there was Meinhold’s Sidonia the Sorceress, ‘a shibboleth of the Pre-Raphaelite circle (Morris later reprinted it at the Kelmscott Press)’. Later in the book, Green cites Edward A. Freeman’s reference to the legends of how Harold survived the Battle of Hastings: ‘Harold is supposed to have become a hermit, visiting many shrines but finally settling in the cell still shown as his near St. John’s Church, Chester.’[1]

The two details together reminded me of The Young Lovell, the last novel that Ford Madox Ford published before The Good Soldier, and which he described in a letter to his agent, dated 17 March 1913.[2]

‘The date is towards the end of the XVth Century, running up to the beginnings of the Reformation, though it isn’t in that sense concerned with religion. The action takes place in Northumberland and the story contains any number of things concerning “The Percy out of Northumberland”, the Bishops Palatine of Durham, the besieging of castles, border raids, and so on with what is called “a strong element of the supernatural” and a vigorous love interest.’[3]


(Edward Burne-Jones, Sidonia von Bork: Tate)

Sidonia the Sorceress, by Wilhelm Meinhold, was indeed ‘a shibboleth of the Pre-Raphaelite circle’, read and recommended by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, William Morris, Edward Burne-Jones (who painted watercolours depicting two of the book’s characters), Oscar Wilde (whose mother had translated it), Ford’s grandfather, Ford Madox Brown, and his brother Oliver (who wrote a book on witches). This is part of the ‘strong element of the supernatural’ contained in Ford’s novel.[4]


(Ford Madox Ford: via The Arts Desk)

The legend about Harold ending as a hermit in an anchorite’s cell is mirrored in the closing pages of The Young Lovell, where, in the aftermath of a great battle, Lovell’s body is walled up in a hermit’s cell while his spirit disports in paradise with the goddess Venus. Ford’s story is set in 1486, the year after the death of Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth Field. Historically, then, it follows not merely a battle but a war, since Bosworth Field was the last decisive battle in the Wars of the Roses, as Richard was the last king of the House of York and the last king of the Plantagenet dynasty.

Francis Lovell was a noted supporter of Richard: he disappeared in 1487, presumed dead. Mysteriously, though, when building work was carried out on his ancestral home, Minster Lovell, in 1708, a man’s skeleton was apparently discovered ‘in a vault’, seated at a table, surrounded by papers and with a dog’s skeleton at his feet – all crumbled to dust as soon as air was admitted to the room.[5] Max Saunders also connects Ford’s novel with a Victorian ballad called ‘The Mistletoe Bough’, in which a young bride disappears: her skeleton is eventually found in a trunk, in which she had been accidentally locked while playing hide-and-seek. The husband in the ballad is twice referred to as ‘Young Lovell’.[6]

Rudyard_Kipling .

(Rudyard Kipling)

The Ford–Kipling relationship or, rather, the lack of it, remains an enduring object of interest to me. They were not quite exact contemporaries (Kipling was eight years older) but had very similar Pre-Raphaelite backgrounds; and significant figures in Kipling’s case, the painter Edward Burne-Jones (Kipling’s uncle) and Crom Price (headmaster of United Services College at Westward Ho, scene of the Stalky & Co stories), were aligned not only in their artistic tastes and convictions but also in their anti-imperialist politics. So when Kipling veered off the path that he might have appeared to be cruising along, it was not only Pre-Raphaelitism that he diverged from – he moved camp politically too. Of course, while Ford wrote a lot about the Pre-Raphaelites, he also struggled at times to free himself from the inevitable weight of his familial and cultural connections. As for his politics: they tend to resist any attempt at tidy analysis, since he claims at various points to be strongly Tory, while simultaneously arguing the case for black South Africans at the time of the Boer War, or for Irish Home Rule; and ending as an equally unclassifiable pacifist, anarchist eco-warrior in the 1930s.

Ford’s complex dealings with England and Englishness would also seem to connect with Kipling’s own – his ‘foreignness’ that long sojourn in India, to set against Ford’s German family.  But, while Ford wrote several times about Kipling, as poet and short-story writer, Kipling displayed no evidence of knowing that Ford was even in the world. Yet, despite his many references to Kipling, Ford always seems to locate his best work in the Indian tales, barely mentioning anything thereafter. For me, apart from Kim and a scattering of the early stories, the work of greatest interest starts in Traffics and Discoveries (1904), running all the way through to Limits and Renewals (1932). And those more complex, oblique, often puzzling later stories are sufficiently ‘modern’ to make Ford’s apparent dismissal of them frankly odd.

Still, as literary lives, theirs were very different from one another. Ford’s literary connections were enormous and ranged over three generations, while Kipling’s friends, especially in later life, tended not to be writers. He became quite hostile to London literary society, in fact, and wrote satirical stories about it or  referring to it – they tend not to be among his best.

No, I certainly haven’t explained it satisfactorily to myself. Perhaps a minor mystery, but still one that I’m unlikely to lose interest in any time soon.



[1] Roger Lancelyn Green, Kipling and the Children (London: Elek, 1965), 49, 204.
And see:

[2] He did publish Ring For Nancy in the United States around the same time but this was a slightly revised version of The Panel, a novel published in the UK a year earlier.

[3] Ford Madox Ford to James B. Pinker, Letters of Ford Madox Ford, edited by Richard M. Ludwig (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1965), 56.

[4] I review Ford’s sources for the novel in ‘“Pretty Big and Serious”: Ford Madox Ford and The Young Lovell’, in Laura Colombino and Max Saunders, editors, The Edwardian Ford Madox Ford, International Ford Madox Ford Studies 12 (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2013), 237-255.

[5] See, for instance, James Gairdner, ‘Francis, Viscount Lovel: Minster Lovel’, Notes & Queries, 5th series, X (1878), 28-29.

[6] Max Saunders, ‘The Case of The Good Soldier’, in Max Saunders and Sara Haslam, editors, Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier: Centenary Essays (Amsterdam: Brill/Rodopi, 2015), 147, n.17.

The digestion of Milton


Writing of Felix Vallotton and what, he suggests, ‘might be called Vallotton’s law: that the fewer clothes a woman has on in his paintings, the worse the result’, Julian Barnes notes that ‘Vallotton came to the nude through a study of Ingres, proving that great painters, like great writers – Milton, famously – can be pernicious influences.’[1]

I came across this shortly after recalling Jonathan Williams quoting Bentley’s clerihew (‘The digestion of Milton/ Was unequal to Stilton/ He was only feeling so-so/ When he wrote Il Pensoroso’).

And then, a few days ago, waiting for the kettle to boil, I was browsing through a Penguin Classics translation of Virgil’s Eclogues, which had found its way onto the kitchen table, . The notes to the first eclogue mentioned two lines in Milton’s Lycidas derived from this single line of Virgil: ‘siluestrem tenui Musam meditaris auena’, translated there as ‘You meditate the woodland Muse on slender oat’.[2]

Already in trouble and the tea not even made. Mediate on, surely. But then my dictionary actually includes the phrase ‘meditate the muse’, offering as explanation ‘(Latinism, after Milton) to give one’s mind to composing poetry.’ The line in Lycidas does indeed have ‘meditate’ unclothed by a preposition. ‘Slender oat’? A reed pipe, perhaps oat grass, a wild grass that looks like the oat. The old Loeb edition’s version—‘wooing the woodland Muse on slender reed’—is a bit clearer at first glance.

Anyway: Williams, Barnes, Virgil. Three times so close together may be enemy action for Ian Fleming’s Goldfinger; it’s a sign from the gods for the rest of us. So, diverting my attention from ornithology, weird cat behaviour in the garden and university staff strikes, I thought back over the history of my problem with Milton.

One of the great poets, no doubt, no doubt. In the nineteenth century, it seems, few had a bad word to say about him – Blake, Wordsworth, Byron, Keats. In the twentieth century, things went the other way. Ezra Pound—to choose one of his more polite remarks—thought Milton ‘got into a mess trying to write English as if it were Latin.’[3] Enlarging on this elsewhere, he asserted that Milton was using ‘an uninflected language as if it were an inflected one, neglecting the genius of English, distorting its fibrous manner’.[4]

T. S. Eliot took William Hazlitt to task for classifying Dryden and Pope as ‘the great masters of the artificial style of poetry in our language’ as against his chosen poets of the ‘natural’ style: Chaucer, Spenser, Shakespeare and Milton. Reviewing ‘at least four crimes against taste’ that Hazlitt has committed in a single sentence, Eliot observes that ‘the last absurdity is the contrast of Milton, our greatest master of the artificial style, with Dryden, whose style (vocabulary, syntax, and order of thought) is in a high degree natural.’ Eliot is here reviewing a book on Dryden and has more to say on the respective strengths of the two poets but clearly, at this stage (1921, the year before The Waste Land), he finds more to admire in Dryden, whose powers were, he suggests, ‘wider, but no greater, than Milton’s’.[5] Pound comments that ‘Dryden gives T. S. E. a good club wherewith to smack Milton. But with a modicum of familiarity or even a passing acquaintance with Dante, the club would hardly be needed.’ This is turn looks back to Pound’s earlier comment that ‘Dante’s god is ineffable divinity. Milton’s god is a fussy old man with a hobby.’[6]

There are other famous negatives (F. R. Leavis, for one) but none of this has much bearing on my own troubles with Milton. The failure to warm to him, if failure it be, is obviously mine – still, I’m tempted to shovel a good part of the blame onto my old English master, a real Milton enthusiast. That enthusiasm drove him to read Paradise Lost to us, fairly relentlessly, for what seemed an eternity, an approach that drove some pupils to despair, rebellion or the edge of madness; for me, evidently, it erected barricades. ‘For each man kills the thing he loves’ – kills it for other people, in some cases, however good the intentions. I’ve made at least two serious attempts to get back into some sort of relationship with Mr Milton, one of them after reading Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy, Pullman being such a strong advocate for Milton, and for Paradise Lost in particular. But it never really took.

Lycidas, though. A relatively short poem. A very literary one too, in the sense of adopting (even if tweaking) a good many conventions; and also retrospectively, since it’s been plundered for a good many book titles and quotations that everyone knows (even when they don’t, quite)—‘Fame is the spur’, ‘Look homeward angel’, ‘Tomorrow to fresh woods and pastures new’. I’ve read it several times, starting, of course, at school. But, as far back as I can remember, even reading Milton’s shorter poems was somehow associated with a sense of task, of obligation. I don’t mind putting in the work but didn’t really experience the pleasure which I thought a reasonable, reciprocal part of the deal.


One sidelong approach is by way of John Berryman’s fine short story, ‘Wash Far Away’, which I read again recently. The title comes, of course, from Lycidas: ‘Whilst thee the shores and sounding Seas/ Wash far away, where ere thy bones are hurld’. The poem is a pastoral elegy, occasioned by the death of Edward King, a Cambridge friend of Milton, drowned in the Irish Sea. In Berryman’s story, a professor teaches Lycidas to his class, and the narrative of loss and lament in the poem is juxtaposed with the professor’s own memories and enduring sense of loss of a brilliant and gifted friend who died young. There’s a good deal of quite scholarly Miltonic discussion. Much of it circles around the question of whether the poem is actually ‘about’ King or, in fact, more about Milton himself. Several remarks by the students are surprisingly acute and unsettling—‘The professor studied the lines. He felt, uneasily, as if he had never seen them before’—but the effects of the session are finally positive, the sharpness of memories and the acute sense of loss, brought vividly to mind, seeming to resuscitate the professor, to bring alive again his image of himself as a sentient, emotionally responsive being.[7]

So I glance again, though warily, warily, at my copy of Paradise Lost, glowering in the corner. Ars longa, vita brevis, as someone – was it Seneca? – said. Well, yes – but just how longa? And just how brevis?


[1] Julian Barnes, ‘Vallotton: The Foreign Nabi’, in Keeping an Eye Open: Essays on Art (London: Jonathan Cape, 2015), 190.

[2] Virgil The Eclogues, translated by Guy Lee (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1984), 31, 109n. The lines in Lycidas are ‘and strictly meditate the thankless muse’ and ‘But now my oat proceeds’.

[3] Ezra Pound, How To Read (London: Desmond Harmsworth, 1931), 55.

[4] Ezra Pound, ‘Notes on Elizabethan Classicists’, in Literary Essays of Ezra Pound, edited by T. S. Eliot (London: Faber and Faber, 1960), 238.

[5] T. S. Eliot, ‘John Dryden’, in Selected Essays , third enlarged edition (London: Faber and Faber, 1951), 309-310, 314. Dryden was also, of course, a translator of genius. ‘If I had to give my vote to our greatest translator it would go to Dryden’: The Oxford Book of Verse in English Translation, chosen and edited by Charles Tomlinson (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1980), xvii.

[6] Ezra Pound, ‘Prefatio Aut Cimicium Tumulus’, in Selected Prose 1909-1965, edited by William Cookson (London: Faber and Faber, 1973), 360; The Spirit of Romance (1910; New York: New Directions, 1968), 156-157.

[7] John Berryman, ‘Wash Far Away’, in The Freedom of the Poet (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1976), 367-386.

Jubilant jaunty Jonathan


(Jonathan Williams, via New Directions Publishing Corporation)

In 1973, William Blissett, on a visit to the poet and painter David Jones, went with him through a list of queries about In Parenthesis, one of them ‘yon’s wick as Swale-side rat’. Yorkshire dialect, Jones told him, quick, alert, artful. He was surprised that the Oxford English Dictionary gave only ‘wicked’: that was ‘not what he meant at all.’ Blissett added: ‘He remembers a Yorkshireman in his unit who used to pass things to him, saying “’ere ye are, wick’un.”’[1]

That rang a bell with this Southerner and the ringing sound was traced to the fine collection of Portrait Photographs by Jonathan Williams, with a short preface by Hugh Kenner.[2] One of the photographs is of David Hockney and beside it Williams wrote: ‘I worry sometimes that La Grande Chic will gobble up David and turn him into High Society’s current stand-in for Cecil Beaton or Noel Coward. But, maybe that argument is neither nowt nor summat, as they say in the West Riding where he comes from. Our David is wick as a lop and still knows what’s what.’


(David Hockney by Jonathan Williams)

‘Wick as a lop’, yes, that was the phrase. Getting on for forty years later and Hockney still knows what’s what, is still working endlessly, exploring, experimenting, trying stuff out and giving pleasure. Not bad going.

Jonathan Williams (born 8 March 1929), was poet, publisher, photographer, essayist. He studied at Black Mountain College and, with David Ruff, founded The Jargon Society in 1951. It published an extraordinary range of writers, mainly poets, including Robert Duncan, Mina Loy, Louis Zukofsky, Paul Metcalf, Kenneth Patchen, Robert Creeley and Denise Levertov, though its all-time bestseller seems to have been White Trash Cooking. Following Williams’ death in March 2008, his long-time partner, the poet Thomas Meyer, took the decision to present The Jargon Society’s inventory and publication rights to the Black Mountain College Museum & Arts Center: see


Charles Olson’s early Maximus volumes appeared from Jargon. So too did Lorine Niedecker’s beautiful T & G: The Collected Poems (1936-1966), printed by the Falcon Press in Philadelphia, in September 1969. Niedecker lived most of her life on Black Hawk Island, Wisconsin.

Black Hawk held: In reason
land cannot be sold,
only things to be carried away,
and I am old.

Young Lincoln’s general moved,
pawpaw in bloom,
and to this day, Black Hawk,
reason has small room.[3]

In the early 1960s, as Niedecker wrote to Louis Zukofsky, ‘Letter from Jonathan says he reads my poems to English audiences but tho the response was good, “very tentative. The English tend to want a lot of ‘profound talk’ in everything, and they are so non-sensual that they find it difficult to enjoy anything else. . .”’.[4] Williams was also given to ‘reading and slide-showing tours around the Republic in his Volkswagen, The Blue Rider’. He is, Guy Davenport wrote, ‘the iconographer of poets in our time, and of the places and graves of poets gone on to Elysium.’[5]

Williams’ own poems were written in the Pennine Dales and the Appalachian Mountains. Hugh Kenner’s observation that ‘Jonathan Williams is our Catullus and our Johnny Appleseed’ hints at the hybrid nature of the poetry.[6] It’s hugely various, veering from high modernism to folk art, exploratory, a little crazy, jaunty, ingenious, funny, often splendidly indecent. From two-line epigrams through acrostics, clerihews and what Williams calls ‘Meta-fours’, four words to a line, these and others often skirting the edge of nonsense, if not toppling over; there’s the fifty-page Mahler; and then many ‘found’ poems. They may be literally so, reshaped from newspaper reports or postcards or public notices; but the term could be applied more widely, to Williams looking and listening with close attention to ordinary lives in the Appalachians or in Cumbria. Guy Davenport quotes such a poem, suggesting that it demonstrates its author having learned from William Carlos Williams’ insistence that ‘the poet’s business is to let the world speak for itself’:


Mister Williams
lets youn me move
tother side the house

the woman
choppin wood’s
mite nigh the awkerdist thing
I seen.[7]

As with many of Marianne Moore’s poems or, for that matter, Ezra Pound’s ‘In a Station of the Metro’, the title is an integral part of the text of the poem. It contains twenty words; the poem itself, twenty-one.

Williams quotes with approval Bentley’s Milton clerihew:

The digestion of Milton
Was unequal to Stilton.

He was only feeling so-so
When he wrote Il Pensoroso.

And devises many of his own:

Why did Professor J. R. R. Tolkien
never really come clean

about the scientologists in cupboards
in the House of L. Ron Hubbard?

or (one of my favourites):

Gertrude Stein
arose at nine

and arose and arose
and arose.[8]


His acrostic on Guy Davenport’s name ends with the line, ‘To keep afloat the Ark of Culture in these dark and tacky times!’ His prefatory ‘A Greeting to the Reader’ mentioned that Davenport ‘has been reading the poems since the 1960s.’[9] The two writers had enjoyed a long and fertile friendship, apparently damaged by the publication of A Garden Carried in a Pocket: Letters 1964-1968, including material that Davenport had specifically asked Williams to omit.[10]

Jubilant Thicket appeared in 2005, the year of Davenport’s death. One of the last poems in it is for Lorine Niedecker:

she seined words
as others stars
or carp

laconic as
a pebble
in the Rock River

along the bank
where the peony flowers

her tall friend
the pine tree
is still there

to see[11]


Tremendous collection of photographs of Williams’ life here:

Jeffery Beam’s obituary here:



[1] William Blissett, The Long Conversation: A Memoir of David Jones (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1981), 123; see David Jones, In Parenthesis, (1937; London: Faber, 1963), 114.

[2] Jonathan Williams, Portrait Photographs (London: Coracle Press, 1979): the Hockney portrait is Plate 22.

[3] Taken from Lorine Niedecker, Collected Works, edited by Jenny Penberthy (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002), 99.

[4] Letter of 3 February 1963, Jenny Penberthy, Niedecker and the Correspondence with Zukofsky, 1931-1970 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), 328.

[5] Guy Davenport, ‘Ralph Eugene Meatyard’, in The Geography of the Imagination (Boston: David R. Godine, 1997), 368; ‘Jonathan Williams’, first published as introduction to Williams’ An Ear in Bartram’s Tree, then as a pamphlet from Jim Lowell’s Asphodel Bookshop; reprinted in The Geography of the Imagination, 180-189.

[6] Dust jacket blurb quoted by Willard Godwin, Hugh Kenner: A Bibliography (Albany, New York: Whitston, 2001), 402.

[7] Jonathan Williams, Jubilant Thicket: New & Selected Poems (Port Townsend, Washington: Copper Canyon Press, 2005), 136.

[8] Jonathan Williams, Jubilant Thicket, 101, 102, 108.

[9] Jonathan Williams, Jubilant Thicket, 114, ix.

[10] W. C. Bamberger, editor, Guy Davenport and James Laughlin: Selected Letters (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 2007), 139n.

[11] Jonathan Williams, Jubilant Thicket, 273.

Snow gone, strike on


“Mais ou sont les neiges d’antan?” Villon wrote, which Dante Gabriel Rossetti famously translated as ‘But where are the snows of yesteryear?’ We, of course, are wondering where the snows of last Thursday and Friday have gone, as water streams along the gutters, so plentifully, in fact, that there must be a burst main somewhere..

The university was officially shut on Friday, due to the weather. The weekend passed with reading, phone calls and emails; and with the Librarian making bread while I counted the birds coming for food in the garden, a little anxious about how many of the regulars had survived what was reported to be the coldest March day since such records began at the start of the twentieth century. But there have been no obvious casualties: both the male and female blackbirds, the sparrows, the blue tits, the robin and the not-quite-definitely-identified bird (very sparrow-like but with a black cap) have shown up, however briefly And snow outside the back door, deeper than the average cat, whittled down their risk.

Now the world tilts back to whatever passes for normal lately. At the moment, this means the Librarian setting off, with placard and badge, for the picket line. Like most of her colleagues, she would rather be putting her skills and experience to work and, again like most of her colleagues, resents being forced into this position by recalcitrant employers with, pretty evidently, other priorities than their staff or the education of their students.

Those students were sufficiently unimpressed by their vice-chancellor to have occupied his office this morning; and the marches are still demonstrating a high level of support for the strike by university staff:

And some lecturers are also less than enthusiastic about recent developments:

Everyone (except, perhaps, the hawks and hardliners) must hope that the scheduled talks move things towards a resolution. But, as the poet said, ‘Today the struggle.’ So for now the strike goes on.





Bunting Nodding

Lawrence, Thomas, 1769-1830; Homer Reciting his Poems

(Homer Reciting His Poems: Thomas Lawrence, Tate)

Francis Wyndham once observed that what he’d always wanted to do in his fiction was ‘to write about the hours and hours and hours, the enormous proportion of life which is spent in a kind of limbo, even in people’s active years. It seems to me that it isn’t sufficiently celebrated.’[1]

He meant it, I think, in a secular sense: an uncertain period of waiting, for decisions or resolutions, rather than the borderlands of Hell, unbaptised infants and the rest; nor, presumably, a Caribbean dance. My Chambers dictionary adds the helpful ‘unsatisfactory state of consignment or oblivion’.

Ah, oblivion. Yes, I’d apply that to many people passed in the street, plugged in to various devices, oblivious at least to the world through which they’re walking. Oblivious too are some of the passing motorists, a few of whom are busily and hazardously engaged with their mobile phones or make-up or breakfast, all the while keeping their speed up to 50 m.p.h. to avoid bits of themselves dropping off.

‘Dropping off’ recalls me to a deeper state than limbo: actually nodding off. Having nodded off, actually or almost, at staff meetings and conferences, in cinemas and theatres, readings, lectures and presentations, I think of Homer nodding. (A lot of links assume that ‘Homer’ means ‘Simpson’ rather than ‘dead, blind Greek epic poet’ but the latter is meant here.) The phrase, ‘even Homer nods’, deriving originally from Horace, is now pressed into service often and in wildly divergent contexts. There was, naturally, a band called ‘Even Homer Nods’ — though the soporific qualities of such a lengthy name presumably prompted them to the snappier version which succeeded it: ‘The Nods’. There is also a racehorse, I gather, an Irish chestnut gelding (with the full-length moniker).


My worst instance of dropping off—certainly the occasion when I least wanted to—was at a reading by Basil Bunting (to whom birthday wishes are due: born 1 March 1900) a few years before he died. Not having taken the precaution of writing down detailed directions to the venue, I wandered around unfamiliar parts of the city for a couple of hours. Early on, I established the habit of popping into a pub for advice every so often and downing a quick drink. The various bar staff that I consulted had conflicting views on where the small theatre was, so I arrived late and the worse for wear. The attendance was appalling but would not have surprised Bunting, I suspect. He read a number of translations from the Persian and some early poems, certainly his ‘Villon’, but I may have slumbered through at least a third of the incomparable ‘Briggflatts’. I have two recordings of the poem (both by Bunting) but that live performance must have been one of his last—one of the true last chances.

As the player’s breath warms the fipple the tone clears.
It is time to consider how Domenico Scarlatti
condensed so much music into so few bars
with never a crabbed turn or congested cadence,
never a boast or a see-here; and stars and lakes
echo him and the copse drums out his measure,
snow peaks are lifted up in moonlight and twilight
and the sun rises on an acknowledged land.[2]

Later, though, I read an account of how Bunting had attended a lecture by Robert Duncan, slept through the greater part of it, snoring audibly, then woken at the end to exclaim how much he’d enjoyed it: ‘I like talks like that.’[3] So yes, even Bunting nodded.


[1] Quoted in the text of Rachel Cooke’s interview with Wyndham (The Observer, August 2008):

[2] Briggflatts, IV: The Poems of Basil Bunting, edited by Don Share(London: Faber and Faber, 2016), 56.

[3] J. M. Edelstein, in Madeira & Toasts for Basil Bunting’s 75th Birthday, edited by Jonathan Williams (Highlands, North Carolina: Jargon Society, 1977), unpaginated, but see also Richard Burton, A Strong Song Tows Us: The Life of Basil Bunting ((Oxford: Infinite Ideas, 2013), 419.