‘Swinburne my only miss’

EP-Pisa-viaWallStJournalNPG x81998; Algernon Charles Swinburne by Elliott & Fry

(Pound in the dispensary at the DTC via Wall Street Journal; Algernon Charles Swinburne by John McLanachan: Wikipedia Commons)

It’s the first day of official lockdown in the UK, a little looser as yet than in some other countries but a large stride in what had become a necessary direction.

In an earlier and rather different instance of containment—the Disciplinary Training Center near Pisa in 1945—remembering those days ‘before the world was given over to wars’, Ezra Pound wrote: ‘Swinburne my only miss’. To his parents, in the Spring of 1909, the literary traveller (who would seek out W. B. Yeats, meet most other leading writers and ‘glare’ at Henry James across a room) had remarked that ‘Swinburne happens to be stone deaf with a temper a bit the worse for wear, so I haven’t continued investigation in that direction.’[1]

Less than three weeks after that letter, on 10 April 1909, Swinburne died. ‘He grafted on to epic volume a Berserker rage: he was a man of fine frenzies’, Ford Madox Ford wrote in the May 1909 issue of The English Review,[2] seeming to allude to Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, in which Theseus asserts that ‘The lunatic, the lover, and the poet/ Are of imagination all compact’:

The poet’s eye, in a fine frenzy rolling,
Doth glance from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven,
And as imagination bodies forth
The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen
Turns them to shapes, and gives to airy nothing
A local habitation and a name. (V.i.12-17)

Fuseli, Henry, 1741-1825; Titania and Bottom

(Henry Fuseli, A Midsummer Night’s Dream: Tate)

Ford’s obituary note on Swinburne is generous – but he certainly didn’t regard rage and frenzy as ideal writerly qualities. He once described what he termed ‘the view of their profession held by what it is convenient to call the Typical English Writer of the pre-Moonrise period. You sit down; you write; the vine leaves are in your hair; you forget mundane tribulations; gradually intoxication steals over you. Sometimes you stumble into sense; sometimes you do not.’[3] Nearly thirty years later, borrowing Jean Cocteau’s remark about Victor Hugo, Ford would describe the painful progress of his ‘weary eyes’ and ‘enfeebled mind’ through ‘rivulets of print between top and bottom of a page’ of Swinburne’s verse: ‘And then in exasperated protest: “That page is mad. . . . It thinks it’s Swinburne!”’[4]

Ford disliked the notion of the inspired, even intoxicated poet; he disliked inversions, needless profusions of rhymewords and, with regard to Victorian poets in particular, was dismayed by the sheer quantity of stuff that they disgorged. His doubts about Swinburne at least were shared wholly or in part by other writers, including Browning, Matthew Arnold and A. E. Housman.[5]

‘Love of sound and especially of rhyme persuaded [Swinburne] to a somewhat lighter use of words than is common among great poets’, Edward Thomas wrote, a couple of years after Swinburne’s death. ‘Space would be wasted by examples of words produced apparently by submission to rhyme, not mastery over it. The one line in “Hesperia”: “Shrill shrieks in our faces the blind bland air that was mute as a maiden”, is enough to illustrate the poet’s carelessness of the fact that alliteration is not a virtue in itself.’[6]

In Ford’s The Good Soldier, the narrator, John Dowell, recalls of Edward Ashburnham that: ‘Once, in the hall, when Leonora was going out, Edward said, beneath his breath—but I just caught the words: “Thou hast conquered, O pale Galilean.”’ Interestingly, Dowell then adds: ‘It was like his sentimentality to quote Swinburne.’[7]

The line is from Swinburne’s ‘Hymn to Proserpine’, which laments the ousting of the pagan gods and goddesses by the Christian faith:

Thou hast conquered, O pale Galilean; the world has grown grey from thy breath;
We have drunk of things Lethean, and fed on the fullness of death.
Laurel is green for a season, and love is sweet for a day;
But love grows bitter with treason, and laurel outlives not May.[8]

FMF-Good-Soldier

‘Sentimental’ or ‘sentimentalist’ is applied to Edward Ashburnham more than two dozen times in this short novel. Early on, speculating on what so many people, particularly women, see in Ashburnham, Dowell wonders too what he even talks to them about. ‘Ah, well, suddenly, as if by a flash of inspiration, I know. For all good soldiers are sentimentalists—all good soldiers of that type. Their profession, for one thing is full of the big words, courage, loyalty, honour, constancy’ (28).

That phrase ‘a flash of inspiration’ may prompt us to caution but I think there is a parallel between what Edward Thomas called ‘submission to rhyme, not mastery over it’, and an unthinking adherence to preferences or forms of thought or behaviour without review or scrutiny. We grow out of things, we adapt, develop and change: this may mean leaving behind some youthful tastes and assumptions, not clinging to them for wrong reasons. John Buchan, late in life, reflected on those ‘oddments’ which are ‘carried over from youth’, the memory of them recalling ‘blessed moments’ with which we associate them. He terms it ‘pure sentimentality, but how many of us are free from it?’ He goes on: ‘My memory is full of such light baggage. Stanzas of Swinburne, whom I do not greatly admire, remind me of summer mornings when I shouted them on a hill-top, and still please, because of the hill-top, not the poetry.’[9]

VH_FMF_Selsey

(Ford and Violet Hunt at Selsey)

Ford is one of the recurrent figures in Pound’s Pisan Cantos and elsewhere in Canto 80, after the mention of ‘the mass of preraphaelite reliques/ in a trunk in a walled-up cellar in Selsey’—a reference to the West Sussex cottage, owned by Violet Hunt, where she and, very often, Ford spent a good deal of time—we read: ‘“Tyke ’im up to the bawth” (meaning Swinburne)’ (80/508).

In ‘Swinburne versus his Biographers’ (1918), Pound had launched with even more orthographic gusto into his Cockney performance, citing: ‘Swinburne at the Madox Browns’ door in a cab, while the house-keeper lectures the cabman: “Wot! No, sir, my marster is at the ’ead of ’is table carving the j’int. That’s Mr. Swinburne—tike ’im up to the barth”’.[10]

Through his grandfather, Ford knew both Swinburne and Theodore Watts-Dunton, who cared for Swinburne during the last thirty years of the poet’s life. Pound’s line derives from Ford’s writing—or, more likely, conversation—recalling the anecdotes about his grandfather’s housemaid, Charlotte Kirby. In Ancient Lights, Ford recalls her telling him: ‘“I was down in the kitchen waiting to carry up the meat, when a cabman comes down the area steps and says: ‘I’ve got your master in my cab. He’s very drunk.’ I says to him— “and an immense intonation of pride would come into Charlotte’s voice—” ‘My master’s a-sitting at the head of his table entertaining his guests. That’s Mr. —. Carry him upstairs and lay him in the bath.’”

A later version has Ford overhearing the conversation himself – and the blank is filled in: ‘At last she brought out composedly the words:
“That’s Mr. Swinburne. Help me carry him upstairs and put him in the bath.”
And that was done.’[11]

Ford_Madox_Brown

(Ford Madox Brown)

Ford explains that his grandfather, the painter Ford Madox Brown, ‘whose laudable desire it was at many stages of his career to redeem poets and others from dipsomania, was in the habit of providing several of them with labels upon which were inscribed his own name and address. Thus, when any of these geniuses were found incapable in the neighbourhood they would be brought by cabmen or others to Fitzroy Square’ (Ancient Lights 12).

In his essay on Swinburne—one of Pound’s early enthusiasms but one which he now felt he could see in a clearer perspective[12]—Pound is frank about what he sees as Swinburne’s defects while also extolling his virtues: ‘we can, whatever our verbal fastidiousness, be thankful for any man who kept alive some spirit of paganism and of revolt in a papier-mâché era’. While he remarks that ‘No man who cares for his art can be deaf to the rhythms of Swinburne, deaf to their splendour, deaf also to their bathos’, there are signs of familiar—and not, perhaps, strictly ‘literary’—Poundian preoccupations of that period. One is that ‘paganism’ (and lack of enthusiasm for the Christian faith) of ‘Hymn to Proserpine’; another is made clear by the assertion that his essays ends on: Swinburne’s ‘magnificent passion for liberty—a passion dead as mutton in a people who allow their literature to be blanketed by a Comstock and his successors; for liberty is not merely a catchword of politics, nor a right to shove little slips of paper through a hole. The passion not merely for political, but also for personal, liberty is the bedrock of Swinburne’s writing’ (Literary Essays 294).

LR-Oct-17

(The Modernist Journals Project (Searchable database). Brown and Tulsa Universities, ongoing)

Pound’s long essay on Henry James, published a few months later, would praise James in part along the same lines: ‘the hater of tyranny’, author of ‘book after early book against oppression’, with ‘outbursts in The Tragic Muse, the whole of The Turn of the Screw, human liberty, personal liberty, the rights of the human individual against all sorts of intangible bondage!’ (Literary Essays 296). D. H. Lawrence’s The Rainbow had been suppressed in 1915; in October 1917, the issue of the Little Review containing Wyndham Lewis’s ‘Cantleman’s Spring Mate’ had been seized by the U.S. postal authorities and the same periodical’s serialising of Joyce’s Ulysses would soon lead to more censorship difficulties, culminating in a trial in early 1921.[13] In that climate, Pound’s celebration of a ‘passion for liberty’ in artists he admires is hardly surprising but the tribute to Swinburne is nevertheless a genuine and powerful one.

 
Notes

[1] The Cantos of Ezra Pound, fourth collected edition (London: Faber and Faber, 1987), 82/523, 80/506; letters dated 21 February 1912 and c. 24 March 1909: Ezra Pound to His Parents: Letters 1895–1929, edited by Mary de Rachewiltz, David Moody and Joanna Moody (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), 273, 165.

[2] The English Review (May 1909), 193-194: reprinted in Ford Madox Ford, Critical Essays, edited by Max Saunders and Richard Stang (Manchester: Carcanet Press, 2002), 71-72. Ford wrote a two-part essay entitled ‘The Poet’s Eye’ in 1913.

[3] Ford Madox Ford, Thus to Revisit (London: Chapman & Hall, 1921), 9.

[4] Ford Madox Ford, Portraits from Life (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1937), 194.

[5] All mentioned by Kenneth Haynes in his edition of Swinburne’s Poems and Ballads & Atalanta in Calydon (London: Penguin Books, 2000), xiv-xv.

[6] Edward Thomas, A Language not to be Betrayed: Selected Prose, edited by Edna Longley (Manchester: Carcanet Press, 1985), 43.

[7] Ford Madox Ford, The Good Soldier: A Tale of Passion (1915; edited by Max Saunders, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), 190. A nice detail here is that Swinburne’s maternal grandfather was the third Earl of Ashburnham.

[8] ‘Hymn to Proserpine (After the Proclamation in Rome of the Christian Faith)’, Haynes, Poems, 55-61. Daniel R. Barnes comments that ‘Leonora, as the agent of orthodox Catholicism, has triumphed over [Edward Ashburnham’s] own paganism’. See ‘Ford and the “Slaughtered Saints”: A New Reading of The Good Soldier’, Modern Fictions Studies, XIV, 2 (Summer 1968), 168.

[9] John Buchan, Memory Hold-the-Door (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1940), 202-203.

[10] Literary Essays of Ezra Pound, edited by T. S. Eliot (London: Faber and Faber, 1960), 290.

[11] Ford Madox Ford, Ancient Lights and Certain New Reflections (London: Chapman and Hall, 1911), 11-12; Portraits from Life, 187.

[12] For the youthful enthusiasm, see Collected Early Poems of Ezra Pound, edited by Michael John King (London: Faber and Faber, 1977), 40-43, 261; and Christoph de Nagy, The Poetry of Ezra Pound: The Pre-Imagist Stage (Bern: Francke, 1960), on Pound seeing Swinburne as ‘the poet of human destiny’, who asked ‘the final questions about the fate of man’ rather than the erotic or perverse poet; also as the poet of ‘liberation’ (73, 74).

[13] That ‘pale Galilean’ crops up in Ulysses, as do a good many other Swinburne references: see index to Don Gifford, with Robert J. Seidman, Ulysses Annotated: Notes for James Joyce’s Ulysses, revised and expanded edition (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989). There’s also a lot of Swinburne in Lawrence’s work, not least in Lady Chatterley’s Lover, largely because of his constant recurrence to the Persephone myth.

 

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