Peacocks, cats, poets

mcdiarmid-peacock
(Thomas Hardy: Dorset County Museum)

On 2 June 1912, Thomas Hardy was seventy-two years old and his birthday was marked by a visit to Max Gate by Henry Newbolt and William Butler Yeats (the only guests), for the purpose of presenting Hardy with a gold medal from the Royal Society of Literature. As Lucy McDiarmid writes in her book centring on the famous visit by a shoal of poets to Wilfred Scawen Blunt nineteen months later, ‘Before the peacock dinner, there was the cat dinner.’ She refers here to Mrs Thomas Hardy’s cats at the gold medal visit.[1]

The event had its awkward moments. Hardy determinedly discussed architecture at great length with Newbolt who, recalling the occasion, commented: ‘Through his conversation I could see and hear Mrs Hardy giving Yeats much curious information about the two very fine cats, who sat to right and left of her plate on the table itself’. Prior to the presentation, Hardy ‘invited’ Emma to leave the room, despite Newbolt and Yeats requesting that she be allowed to stay. ‘But Hardy insisted and she made no further appeal but gathered up her cats and her train with perfect simplicity and left the room.’ After the addresses by Newbolt and Yeats, Hardy—who had already given a copy of his speech to the newspapers, adding a note to say that he’d delivered it to his guests—explained that he couldn’t now make them party to a falsehood by failing to do so. He then read his acceptance speech aloud.[2]

Mrs-Hardy-cat

(Mrs Hardy and a cat: Dorset County Museum)

The ‘peacock dinner’ was the occasion, on 18 January 1914, when Yeats, Pound and several other poets (Victor Plarr, Sturge Moore, Richard Aldington, F. S. Flint) visited Wilfred Scawen Blunt at Newbuildings, Sussex, presented him with a small marble casket made by Henri Gaudier-Brzeska and ate roast peacock. ‘Quite what they were honouring him for’, Helen Carr comments, ‘even Blunt remained unsure.’[3] In the photograph commemorating the occasion, the poets are nicely grouped by age, Plarr (50), Sturge Moore (43) and Yeats (48) on one side of Blunt, with Pound (28), Aldington (19) and Flint (26) on the other.

Pound-Yeats-Blunt

(A pride of poets: Via The New Yorker)

In May 1914, the journal Poetry (Foreign Correspondent: E. Pound) published ‘The Peacock’ by W. B. Yeats:  

What’s riches to him

That has made a great peacock

With the pride of his eye?
The wind-beaten, stone-grey,

And desolate Three-rock

Would nourish his whim.
Live he or die

Amid wet rocks and heather,

His ghost will be gay
Adding feather to feather

For the pride of his eye.[4]

This arose, then, not from the visit to Newbuildings Place but, Hugh Kenner suggested, from the 1903 biography of James McNeill Whistler by Elizabeth Robins Pennell and Joseph Pennell, which recorded Whistler’s sentiments about the artist and ‘riches’, as well as his proposal for ‘“a great peacock ten feet high”’. The poem was written on 23 November 1913, at Stone Cottage, in Coleman’s Hatch in Sussex, where Pound was acting as secretary to Yeats, duties which consisted largely of him reading aloud to the older poet who often had problems with his eyesight. [5]

peacock-room

(Harmony in Blue and Gold: The Peacock Room, by James McNeill Whistler and Thomas Jeckyll, translocated to the Freer Gallery of Art, Washington, DC: via The Smithsonian)

More than thirty years later, sitting in the Disciplinary Training Center in Pisa, Pound remembered that first winter with Yeats in Stone Cottage at the edge of Ashdown Forest. As Wordsworth would walk up and down the garden path, composing aloud, so Yeats would walk around in the cottage, voicing the words, trying out vowel sounds and rhythms and intonations. Pound wrote, in Canto 83:

There is fatigue deep as the grave.
The Kakemono grows in flat land out of mist
    sun rises lop-sided over the mountain
        so that I recalled the noise in the chimney
as it were the wind in the chimney
    but was in reality Uncle William
downstairs composing
that had made a great Peeeeacock
    in the proide ov his oiye
    had made a great peeeeeeecock in the. . .
made a great peacock
    in the proide of his oyyee

proide ov his oy-ee
as indeed he had, and perdurable

Pound then adds: ‘a great peacock aere perennius’: ‘more lasting than bronze’, Horace wrote in one of his odes (III, xxx).[6]

In the first of the Pisan Cantos, Canto 74, among the ‘lordly men’ that were ‘to earth o’ergiven / these the companions’, Yeats is there, of course—so too was Victor Plarr, one of those peacock dinner poets, along with Ford Madox Ford, James Joyce, Edgar Jepson, Maurice Hewlett—and Sir Henry Newbolt:

Fordie that wrote of giants
and William who dreamed of nobility
            and Jim the comedian singing:
                 “Blarrney castle me darlin’
                 you’re nothing now but a StOWne”

and Plarr talking of mathematics
            or Jepson lover of jade
Maurie who wrote historical novels
                        and Newbolt who looked twice bathed
                                    are to earth o’ergiven.
(74/432-433)

Thomas Hardy, with whom Pound had exchanged a few letters in the last decade of Hardy’s life,[7] is present too, a little later:

So that leaving America I brought with me $80
            and England a letter of Thomas Hardy’s
            and Italy one eucalyptus pip
from the salita that goes up from Rapallo
                                    (if I go)
(80/500)

Leaving Italy? He is in a prison camp near Pisa – but, after all, he is in another country, another Italy.

But to have done instead of not doing
            this is not vanity
To have, with decency, knocked
That a Blunt should open
                        To have gathered from the air a live tradition
or from a fine old eye the unconquered flame
This is not vanity
            Here error is all in the not done,
all in the diffidence that faltered . . .
(81/521-522)

 


Notes


[1] Lucy McDiarmid, Poets and the Peacock Dinner: The Literary History of a Meal (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014), 14.

[2] Newbolt quoted by Claire Tomalin, Thomas Hardy: The Time-Torn Man (London: Viking, 2006), 307.

[3] Helen Carr, The Verse Revolutionaries: Ezra Pound, H.D. and the Imagists (London: Jonathan Cape, 2009), 625.

[4] W. B. Yeats, The Poems, edited by Daniel Albright (London: Everyman, 1994), 172.

[5] Hugh Kenner, A Colder Eye: The Modern Irish Writers (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1984), 77; James Longenbach, Stone Cottage: Pound, Yeats and Modernism (New York: Oxford University Press, 1990), 51.

[6] Horace, The Complete Odes and Epodes, translated by David West (Oxford: Oxford University Press), 108.

[7] Patricia Hutchins, ‘Ezra Pound and Thomas Hardy’, The Southern Review (Winter 1968),  90-104.

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