Eastering

Rabbits

Easter: ‘the greatest feast of the Church year, celebrating the Resurrection of Christ and the salvation of man’,[1] though it may mean different things to children, to bakers, to rabbits and to chocolatiers. To literary-historical folk, it might mean the death of Edward Thomas or, perhaps more likely, the poetry of William Butler Yeats:

Was it needless death after all?
For England may keep faith
For all that is done and said.
We know their dream; enough
To know they dreamed and are dead;
And what if excess of love
Bewildered them till they died?
I write it out in a verse—
MacDonagh and MacBride
And Connolly and Pearse
Now and in time to be,
Wherever green is worn,
Are changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.[2]

The Easter Rising, Declan Kiberd suggests, ‘is the great, unmentionable fact which hovers behind so many episodes of Ulysses’.[3] I remember being surprised by reading that it was under the dispensation of the Defence of the Realm Act (passed a few days after the war began) that the executions after the Easter Rising were carried out.[4] I’d associated that legislation with censorship, the watering-down of beer and, of course, the shortening of pub opening times to discourage munitions workers and those engaged in other crucial wartime activities from whiling away too many hours in the public bar.

Ford Madox Ford termed the act ‘the unlovely Dora’, commenting that, ‘Even during the war she was offensive and stupid in patches, but one bore with her because it was then expedient and necessary to support authority, however stupid Authority might be.’ But ‘after the war Authority itself became an offence to the Realm.’[5]

The poet Ivor Gurney was Gurney wounded on Good Friday night and sent to the hospital at 55th Infantry Base Depot, Rouen.[6] Three days later, on Easter Monday, Siegfried Sassoon was close enough at Basseux to hear the guns at Arras, where Edward Thomas was killed that morning by the blast from a shell.[7]

Gurney_BBC

(Ivor Gurney via BBC)

Gurney’s poem, ‘The Mangel-Bury’, written a few years later, begins:

It was after war; Edward Thomas had fallen at Arras –
I was walking by Gloucester musing on such things
As fill his verse with goodness; it was February; the long house
Straw-thatched of the mangels stretched two wide wings;
And looked as part of the earth heaped up by dead soldiers
In the most fitting place – along the hedge’s yet-bare lines.
West-spring breathed there early, that none foreign divines.[8]

References

[1] Bonnie Blackburn and Leofranc Holford-Strevens, The Oxford Companion to the Year (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), 622.

[2] ‘Easter 1916’, W. B. Yeats, Collected Poems, second edition (London: Macmillan, 1950), 204.

[3] Declan Kiberd, Ulysses and Us: The Art of Everyday Living (London: Faber and Faber, 2009), 156.

[4] Arthur Marwick, The Deluge, 2nd edition (London: Macmillan, 1991), 77.

[5] Ford Madox Ford, It Was the Nightingale (London: Heinemann, 1934), 84.

[6] Michael Hurd, The Ordeal of Ivor Gurney (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1978)

96.

[7] Harry Ricketts, Strange Meetings: The Poets of the Great War (London: Chatto & Windus, 2010), 101.

[8] Ivor Gurney, Collected Poems, edited with an introduction by P. J. Kavanagh, revised edition (Manchester: Carcanet Press, 2004), 263.

 

Geoffrey Not Maynard

 

Geoffrey-Keynes

‘Just now I am very proud because I recently acquired a wonderful edition of Sir Thomas Browne’, Elizabeth Bishop wrote to Donald E. Stanford in 1934, ‘very elegant, once selling for $36 and now remaindered at $12. It’s edited by Geoffrey Keynes and has a lot of charming portraits.’[1]

Geoffrey Keynes may be less well known than his famous economist brother Maynard but is of extraordinary interest on his own account. He was at Rugby School with Rupert Brooke, becoming the literary executor of Brooke’s estate after the poet’s death in 1915: his huge Letters of Rupert Brooke finally appeared in 1968. When a house surgeon at St Bartholomew’s, Keynes played a major part in saving the life of Virginia Woolf after her first suicide attempt in 1913 (and so prior to publishing any of her novels).[2] During the war, he served in the Royal Army Medical Corps and, in 1917, married Margaret Elizabeth Darwin, Charles Darwin’s grand-daughter and younger sister of Gwen Raverat, the artist and author of Period Piece, constantly in print since its first appearance nearly seventy years ago:


‘Once I was taken out of bed and carried down to the front door in my nightgown to see the water covering the road and the Green, when a flood had risen suddenly one night. My parents had gone out to dinner on foot, but the frightened maids sent a four-wheeler to fetch them back in a hurry. The water came up to the hubs of the wheels, but was not very deep on the pavement. The cellars were awash, and my father had to wade out into the garden to rescue a cat which was marooned on top of a wall. We had several very delightful floods in my youth, but unfortunately the water never quite came into the house; nor did it in the Great Flood of 1947.’[3]

Keynes was a close friend of Jacques Raverat (who married Gwen in 1911), knew Eric Gill, and arranged publication of several limited editions of Siegfried Sassoon’s work, as well as compiling a Sassoon bibliography. He became an eminent medical figure, particularly notable for his advocacy of blood transfusion and his treatment of breast cancer. But he’s most commonly celebrated as the bibliographer of Donne, John Evelyn, Thomas Browne and, especially, William Blake. His bibliography of Blake, together with his editions of Blake’s writings, paved the way for the great rise in Blake scholarship and the general revaluation of his works in the twentieth century.

Keynes met Francis Meynell, founder of the Nonesuch Press, in 1923, the year in which the press produced its first title, an edition of John Donne’s Love Poems. They became, and remained, friends for over fifty years. Meynell later remarked that Keynes had produced, in whole or in part, sixteen books for the Nonesuch Press, though Keynes comments that he ‘had a finger in a great many more besides’.[4]

Many people will own, or at least remember, Nonesuch Press volumes. I also have to hand a ‘Prospectus and Retrospectus of the Nonesuch Press 1932/ 16 Great James Street WC2’. Glancing through it in search of Keynesian input, I find, firstly, The Writings of William Blake, edited in three volumes by Geoffrey Keynes: 1500 sets at £5 11s. 6d. and 75 copies in one volume at £10. This may have been the edition that Elizabeth Bishop mentioned in her letter, though, on balance, perhaps more likely is another Keynes production, The Works of Sir Thomas Browne, in six volumes, published in 1928 by Faber & Gwyer. (The firm traded under that name from 1925 to 1929, when the Gwyers and Geoffrey Faber parted ways and Faber devised the new firm’s impressive name by simply doubling his own.

)Nonesuch

Also in the Nonesuch catalogue:
Evelyn’s Instructions for the Gardiner at Sayes Court, edited by Geoffrey Keynes (Ready in June)
Ten Sermons by Dr John Donne, chosen by Geoffrey Keynes (725 copies at £1 7s. 6d.)
Memoirs for my Grand-son by John Evelyn, edited by Geoffrey Keynes
Blake’s Pencil Drawings: eighty-two collotype reproductions, chosen and annotated by Geoffrey Keynes
De Motu Cordis by Dr William Harvey, edited by Geoffrey Keynes
The Compleat Walton, edited by Geoffrey Keynes, illustrated by C. Sigrsit and T. L. Poulton
Bibliography of Jane Austen, compiled by Geoffrey Keynes
Bibliography of William Hazlitt, compiled by Geoffrey Keynes
Among the ‘Unlimited Editions’ of the Nonesuch Press, Keynes edits a one-volume Poetry and Prose of William Blake and a Selected Essays of William Hazlitt.

So eleven  books in (at most) nine years, some of them involving enormous labour.
All the while, he was putting in a tremendous amount of work at Bart’s Hospital – and pursuing other cultural interest (music, ballet). Were the hours just longer in those days? As for that Nonesuch list. Other stray, non-Keynesian, items catch the eye: Charles Ricketts on Oscar Wilde; an edition of D. H. Lawrence’s Love Among the Haystacks with a memoir by David Garnett; Montaigne edited by J. I. M. Stewart; Herbert Farjeon’s edition of Shakespeare in seven volumes. . . .

And there is an odd sense of dislocation. Knowing perfectly well that the catalogue is eighty-six years old and that the prices are in a form of currency extinct for more than forty, I still catch myself fashioning a short shopping list. The quoted review from the Manchester Guardian of an earlier volume in the series devoted to John Dryden’s dramatic works, edited by Montague Summers, has this: ‘His introduction, too, is in many ways a new survey of Dryden’s literary career. But it is, we regret to say, not infrequently disfigured by irrelevant and tasteless remarks…’ Who wouldn’t want to know what those remarks were? Here, in any case, is the Letters from W. H. Hudson, edited by Edward Garnett; and Peter Warlock’s selection of songs from the eighteenth-century pleasure gardens of London. Add the three-volume Blake and perhaps Cobbett’s Life and Adventures of Peter Porcupine, the Walton and possibly that handsome edition of North’s Plutarch. Then this brief note swims into focus: ‘Of the complete tally of Nonesuch books printed in the Retrospectus…only the last to be published is still available [a book on the death of Marlowe]; all the other editions are exhausted. . . ’

Browne

Fine printing and attractive, carefully designed books have not, of course, vanished from the world. Far from it—the book as desirable physical object has steadily became one of the primary defences against those invading digital hordes. And, unlike the holiday that turned out badly, the lavish celebratory meal that didn’t quite cut the mustard or the latest piece of whizz-technology that will be mutton-dead in a year or so, they can last—still beautiful and still useful—for a hundred years or so.
Thomas Browne (to end with him) wrote: ‘’Tis opportune to look back upon old times, and contemplate our Forefathers. Great examples grow thin, and to be fetched from the passed world. Simplicity flies away, and iniquity comes at long strides upon us. We have enough to do to make up our selves from present and passed times, and the whole stage of things scarce serveth for our instruction. A compleat peece of vertue must be made up from the Centos of all ages, as all the beauties of Greece could make but one handsome Venus.’[5]

References

[1] Elizabeth Bishop to Donald E. Stanford, 21 January 1934: One Art: The Selected Letters, edited by Robert Giroux (London: Pimlico, 1996), 15.

[2] Hermione Lee, Virginia Woolf (London: Chatto and Windus, 1996), 330.

[3] Gwen Raverat, Period Piece: The Cambridge Childhood of Darwin’s Granddaughter (1952; London: Faber and Faber, 2002), 43.

[4] Geoffrey Keynes, The Gates of Memory (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1983), 180.

[5] Sir Thomas Browne, Hydriotaphia, or Urn-Buriall, in Selected Writings, edited by Geoffrey Keynes (London: Faber and Faber, 1970), 116.

 

Back to normal

Morris

We stayed in Walthamstow in December 2017 mainly to be sure of finally getting to the William Morris Gallery. Housed in a mid-eighteenth century house, in which Morris lived between the ages of fourteen and twenty-two, the Gallery reopened in 2012 after a major redevelopment. We timed the visit to coincide with an exhibition of the work of May Morris, William’s younger daughter, artist and designer of wallpapers, jewellery, embroidery and much else: teacher, lecturer and editor of the 24-volume collected edition of William Morris’s works: http://maymorrisartandlife.co.uk/the-exhibition/

On this occasion of William Morris’s birthday (24 March 1834 – 3 October 1896), I was thinking of Peter Stansky noting that, among other paradoxes, Morris’s strong dislike of the Renaissance had to be set against his providing a fine example of what has become the conventional definition of ‘a Renaissance man’. Opposing the very notion of individual genius was a man of evident individual genius. As Stansky remarked, ‘What Morris was unprepared to recognize was that his was truly the exceptional case.’[1]

May_Morris.Wiki

(May Morris)

The narrator of L. P. Hartley’s The Go-Between remarks at one point, ‘I was in love with the exceptional and ready to sacrifice all normal happenings to it’.[2] Yes, that ‘normal’ – what is it and what has it become? I saw too a photograph, earlier today, in which a ‘March For Our Lives’ demonstrator in Washington held up a placard reading ‘This is not normal’. We said, of course, ‘Back to normal’ as the scheduled strike period ended and the Librarian returned to what was hoped and desired to be precisely that. But normality, like nostalgia, isn’t what it used to be. From the individual and small-scale to the national and supranational, the stable and the commonsensical have taken a vacation of unspecified length.

On that smallest scale—deliveries cancelled; collections missed; a plasterer working in the house—my own ‘normal’ wasn’t shaping up too well and, essentially, I needed to keep out of the way. Work on walls I might have dodged; work on ceilings made things a little trickier. So I walked to the newsagent, then out over the park to the station and caught a train to Bath.

It occurred to me, not for the first time, that, just as cats can immediately spot the one man or woman in the room unsympathetic to cats—and head straight for them—so men on trains with mobile phones and loud voices can pick me out in a crowded carriage—‘Hey, a guy with a book!’—and are thus able to position themselves behind my right ear before getting stuck in to a detailed and repetitive progress report on a telecommunications project, involving several individual contracts. The train ride was thirteen minutes long: when I arrived in Bath, the palms of my hands were slightly damp but I’d suffered no blackouts and the telecommunications man was still in rude health.

(Rex Whistler, The Foreign Bloke; Thomas Gainsborough, Louisa, Lady Clarges: both Victoria Art Gallery, Bath)

So: bookshops, cafés, parks, canal path walking but mainly looking at pictures—David Inshaw’s The River Bank (Ophelia), William Roberts’ The Dressmakers, Gainsborough, Joseph Wright, Thomas Barker—while reading Elizabeth Bishop whenever I could:

‘Mr. Valdes had a wonderful time, I think. It was rather exhausting for us, though, because he speaks scarcely any English, and he stayed from four till seven. We had sherry, which he seemed to regard as just “wine.” He kept saying “More wine” and he finished off the bottle, while Charlotte and I became sicker and sicker. The high point of the affair was when he and Charlotte imitated mosquitoes and buzzed around the room.’ And, ‘Since our patronage he has changed his sign (a palette stuck on the front of his cottage) from “Sign Painter” to “Artistic Painter”. . . ’[3]

Valdes-painting-key-west

https://brbl-dl.library.yale.edu/vufind/Record/3578226
(Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University)

But yes, that ‘normal’. Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? Jeanette Winterson entitled her memoir—in the course of which she wrote of the feelings of sympathy shared by people, even when they didn’t know one another, inside the giant tent during the church’s Glory Crusades. ‘The tent was like the war had been for all the people of my parents’ age. Not real life, but a time where ordinary rules didn’t apply. You could forget the bills and the bother. You had a common purpose.’[4] This was something that I already associated with my own late mother, not in a religious context but purely a social one. For my mother, it was a time when class barriers fell away and everyone was nice to one another and pulled together. Rarely, if ever, mentioned were those opportunities provided to—and enthusiastically taken up by—looters, murderers, rapists, black marketeers and fraudsters. It was, quite simply, the most exciting time—perhaps, unambiguously, the best time—of her life. And this widely-held view of the past, particularly that period of the past, had, I suspect, a strong bearing on the recent convulsions in this country.

Ideas of the normal change over time, with age, within social groups; and some are more obvious than others. The general shift to increasingly liberal social values makes the hundreds of capital offences current in the early nineteenth century, famously including such crimes as impersonating a Chelsea pensioner and damaging Westminster Bridge, almost comic now. And it was quite normal in the nineteenth century for the family album to have photographs of the infant dead, choreographed so that, with eyes open, they still seemed to be alive.[5] Now, I’m often struck by the extraordinary lengths to which some people go to avoid or conjure away the whole subject of death.

‘It may well be’, Allan Bloom observed, ‘that a society’s greatest madness seems normal to itself.’[6] A text for the times, you may think. Still, as Herbert Read noted, ‘it is perfectly possible, even normal, to live a life of contradictions.’[7]

So it is, so it is. I wonder, though, whether the possibility of not living a life of contradictions, is fast vanishing – if it has not already left the building.

References

[1] Peter Stansky, Redesigning the World: William Morris, the 1880s, and the Arts and Crafts (Princeton University Press, 1985), 6.

[2] L. P. Hartley, The Go-Between ([1953] Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1971), 94.

[3] To Frani Blough and Margaret Miller, 3 June 1938: One Art: The Selected Letters, edited by Robert Giroux (London: Pimlico, 1996), 75.

[4] Jeanette Winterson, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? (2011; London: Vintage 2012), 70, 71.

[5] Raphael Samuel, Theatres of Memory (London: Verso, 1996), 375.

[6] Allan Bloom, The Closing of the American Mind (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1988), 75.

[7] Herbert Read, Contrary Experiences (London: Faber, 1963), 62.

 

Talking hats

 

kensington-high-street-royal-celebration-1903-rchm-copy

( via https://rbkclocalstudies.files.wordpress.com/2012/06/kensington-high-street-royal-celebration-1903-rchm-copy.jpg  )

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.

Bogart-Marlowe

(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]

M00968701

(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]

Tenniel-mad-hatter

(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.

 

 

References

[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

Snow-1802-2

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

(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]

FMF-via_Arts_Desk

(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.

 

References

[1] Roger Lancelyn Green, Kipling and the Children (London: Elek, 1965), 49, 204.
And see: http://chester.shoutwiki.com/wiki/Hermitage

[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.

JohnBerryman_TomBerthiaume

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?

References

[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.