Endings also

Minnedosa

(The Minnedosa via www.greatships.net )

On the night of 22 September 1927, off Labrador, aboard Canadian Pacific S. S. Minnedosa, Ford Madox Ford wrote to Stella Bowen in Paris: ‘Darling: I finished Last Post ten minutes ago: I am tired out but quite well and awfully happy!’

The fourth and last part of his masterpiece Parade’s End, Last Post, while concerned with new beginnings—for Christopher Tietjens, for Valentine Wannop and the child she is carrying, and for England—is deeply engaged with endings also, both within and without the book itself, not least, the closing of his ten-year life with Stella. She would write to him in New York a few months later, ‘But your letter, & the “Last Post” together, seem to mark the end of our long intimacy, which did have a great deal of happiness in it for me’[1]

stella-bowen

(Stella Bowen: https://www.nationaltrust.org.au )

Exactly thirty-seven years later, 22 September 1964, Hugh Kenner wrote to Guy Davenport that he was reading Evelyn Waugh’s authorized biography of the Catholic theologian and author Ronald Knox. Knox was ‘the darling child of the gone world’ and ‘like so many Englishmen of that generation was the end of something. Literally every single Oxford crony of his fell in W.W.I, having enjoyed only a few months of free manhood and commenced, with Ronnie, to found the future.’ He went on: ‘We are apt to forget how devastated was the landscape over which the Pound Era seized hegemony.’ While Pound and Eliot, as Americans, were noncombatants, the Irish Joyce had sat out the war in Europe and Wyndham Lewis (British mother, American father) had served in the war but survived, ‘the English generation corresponding to theirs was annihilated: how thoroughly, till I read Knox’s life, I had never before realized.’

Kenner and his first wife, Mary-Jo, were received into the Catholic Church that month: Mary-Jo was in her final illness, suffering from spinal cancer, and though she was at home when Kenner wrote again on 28 September, he feared it would be temporary. ‘The statistical likelihood is of course that it has metastasized already. We are all dying, but at different rates.’[2] She died six weeks later.

wheeler-cartland

(Sir Mortimer Wheeler with Barbara Cartland)

Then too, ‘every single Oxford crony’ reminded me of Charlotte Higgins writing about Mortimer Wheeler, who became the archaeologist best-known to the British public, not least because of his appearances on the 1950s television show, Animal, Vegetable, Mineral: in 1954, he was the BBC’s first television personality of the year.

Wheeler, Higgins observed, ‘had a good war and emerged a major. But by 1918 his generation, he recalled in his memoir, “had been blotted out”. He wrote: “Of the five university students who worked together in the Wroxeter excavations, only one survived the war. It so happened that the survivor was myself.” The “Oxford Blues” were dead.’ Wheeler himself was not an Oxford man but had studied at University College London, taught Latin by the poet and classicist A. E. Housman.[3]

One visitor to the Wroxeter excavations—the village occupies a portion of what was once Uriconium, the fourth largest Roman town in Britain—in the summer of 1913 was Wilfred Owen. He met several of those working there, probably including Wheeler, though he felt ‘miserably jealous of two of them, who were from Oxford.’[4]

Wroxeter-English-Heritage

(Wroxeter via English Heritage)

It lieth low near merry England’s heart
Like a long-buried sin; and Englishmen
Forget that in its death their sires had part.
And, like a sin, Time lays it bare again
To tell of races wronged,
And ancient glories suddenly overcast,
And treasures flung to fire and rabble wrath.[5]

Owen’s end came just five years later on 4 November 1918 as he crossed the Oise-Sambre canal in northern France—the telegram announcing his death arrived at the family home on Armistice Day, one week later.

Before all else, though, the date on the calendar prompts thoughts of my sister. Had she lived, she would have been seventy-four today, so, though there is hardly a need for more reasons to raise a glass in these benighted times – santé, Penny.

 

 

Notes

[1] Correspondence of Ford Madox Ford and Stella Bowen, edited by Sondra J. Stang and Karen Cochran (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1993), 320, 373.

[2] Questioning Minds: The Letters of Guy Davenport and Hugh Kenner, edited by Edward M. Burns, two volumes (Berkeley: Counterpoint Press, 2018), I, 618, 620. Kenner’s phrase, ‘the gone world’, occurs, of course, in the opening line of The Pound Era (1971), which he first mentioned to Davenport in October 1961. The famous closing line, ‘Thought is a labyrinth’, came from Davenport.

[3] Charlotte Higgins, Under Another Sky: Journeys in Roman Britain (London: Jonathan Cape, 2013), 80.

[4] Dominic Hibberd, Wilfred Owen: A New Biography (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2002), 106.

[5] Wilfred Owen, opening of ‘Uriconium – An Ode’ (1913): The Poems of Wilfred Owen, edited by Jon Stallworthy (London: Chatto & Windus, 1990), 42; and see Stallworthy’s note (45).

 

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