Toiling optimists

(Thomas Fenwick, Late Autumn Landscape: University of Edinburgh)

A new month, the first of the meteorological autumn. On 2 September 1774, the naturalist Gilbert White observed that: ‘Many birds which become silent about Midsummer reassume their notes again in September; as the thrush, blackbird, wood-lark, willow-wren, &c.; hence August is by much the most mute month, the spring, summer, and autumn through. Are birds induced to sing again because the temperament of autumn resembles that of spring?’[1] Birds here, particularly the bluetits, are certainly singing, though a little warily. Still, who would not be wary just now?

The trees in the parks had already been misled into thinking that autumn had arrived. The weather generally has dried again, with a warm, slightly unhealthy feel to the breeze. The constants remain. . . constant – that is, the workmen, still, after months, making those thunderous noises of drilling and hammering that you associate with the beginnings of a job like that, not the late stages. Surely by now it should be no louder than the seductive murmur of a paintbrush on skirting-board or garden fence, the feathering of a soft broom, the occasional faint squeal of a cloth on clean glass. As well as the workmen, of course, the howl of ambulance sirens and the relentless overhead roar of damned aeroplanes, each one shaving just a little more off the lifespan of homo sapiens on this earth.

As for the news—from time to time, the Librarian, referencing the late Leonard Cohen just a little too appositely, will inquire, in passing: ‘You Want It Darker’? My response is most often ‘God, no!’ while, inside my mildly floundering but at-straw-grasping mind, another refrain runs: ‘It’s not dark yet but it’s getting’ there.’[2] Really, monsieur D.? Not there yet? O, optimist! But that was, of course, twenty-five years ago, which can make all the difference in the life histories of failed states.


What do you find to boast of in our age,
To boast of now, my friendly sonneteer,
And not to blush for, later? By what line
Do you entrain from Mainz to Regions saner?
Count our achievements and uplift my heart;
Blazen our fineness. Optimist, I toil
Whilst you crow cocklike.

So Ford Madox Ford began a poem, ‘Canzone à la Sonata’, dedicated to ‘E. P.’, that is, Ezra Pound, then in Giessen, the German town in which Ford stayed while pursuing a madcap scheme to secure a divorce from his wife under German law by qualifying for citizenship of that country. It was the setting for the famous ‘Giessen roll’, Ford diving headlong to the floor and writhing about in agony in response to the archaisms in Pound’s new collection of poems. The poem’s title indicates its target: ‘canzone’, a poetic form, not a style. It guys, as Ford often did, the conventional picture of the inspired and youthful lyric poet, and queries the price of exclusion paid by the optimistic singer. His inquiring ‘By what line/ Do you entrain from Mainz to Regions saner’ alludes to the poetic line but also employs an image that Ford would recur to often: the use of the railway journey as intersection of illusory stability, permanence, stasis and radical circumstantial alteration, whether in personal relationships or the larger configurations of history. Indeed, a poem called ‘In the Train’ occurs four pages earlier than ‘Canzone’ in the published volume, High Germany. By early 1912, in fact, Ford was perfectly aware of the threat from Germany, though his own history of involvement with that country was already immensely complicated and soon to become more so.


Optimist –  so many shades of meaning, interpretation, claim or confession there. People with their glasses half-full, half-empty – surely, just order another drink, to be on the safe side. The word defines not only individuals but eras: ‘It is difficult to think of an important Edwardian optimist’, Samuel Hynes wrote. ‘So that if “Edwardian” is to be used as an adjective identifying a literary tone, that tone must be one of social awareness and anxious concern.’[3]

More positively, it can evoke recovery, rebuilding, resurgence. Doris Lessing, remembering her arrival in Britain in the early 1950s, wrote: ‘There was still that post-war effervescence, the feeling that suppressed energies were exploding, the arrival of working-class or at least not middle-class talent into the arts, and, above all, the political optimism, which has so completely evaporated.’[4] More upbeat too was Margery Allingham’s view of her detective, Albert Campion, seeing in that extraordinary individual the virtues of the ordinary man (which, of course, enabled him to perform the feats of detection and deduction that qualified him to serve as her central character): ‘The optimism of a healthy mind is indefatigable, however, and as time went on even Campion began to see the events here recorded from that detached distance so often miscalled true perspective.’[5]

I am, of course, keeping my own optimism firmly within bounds: a true perspective in a healthy mind, as they say. Possibly.


Notes

[1] Gilbert White, The Illustrated History of Selborne (London: Macmillan, 1984), 94.

[2] Bob Dylan, ‘Not Dark Yet’, Track 7 on Time Out of Mind (1997).

[3] Samuel Hynes, ‘Introduction: A Note on “Edwardian”’, in Edwardian Occasions: Essays on English Writing in the Early Twentieth Century (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1972), 8.

[4] Doris Lessing, Walking in the Shade (1997; London: Fourth Estate, 2013), 280.

[5] Margery Allingham, Death of a Ghost (London: Penguin Books, 1942), 176.

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