Everything as something else


When I read John Banville’s novel, The Sea, some years ago, one statement stuck in my head, when the narrator observed: ‘Everything now reminds me of something else.’ It stayed with me because this seemed increasingly my own case. If you have an associative memory, in which details tend to cling to others like burrs, as the sheer quantity of matter in that memory becomes unmanageable, it’s increasingly difficult to dredge up a thing cleanly. ‘To see the object as it really is’—a central concern for Matthew Arnold, meaning rather to remove the incrustations of orthodoxy or class habit or cultural assumption: perfection ‘can never be reached without seeing things as they really are; and it is to this, therefore, and to no machinery in the world, that culture sticks fondly.’[1]

How much of a problem is it if something read or heard or, increasingly, seen recalls something else, quotations, images derived from similar-sounding words, parallels and echoes? And, problem or not, is it in any case avoidable—or even desirable that it should be?

‘Now, this power of suggestion is one of the most mysterious properties of words. Everyone who has ever written a sentence must be conscious or half-conscious of it. Words, English words, are full of echoes, of memories, of associations—naturally. They have been out and about, on people’s lips, in their houses, in the streets, in the fields, for so many centuries. And that is one of the chief difficulties in writing them today’. This is Virginia Woolf, who gives the example of ‘incarnadine’, adding: ‘who can use it without remembering also “multitudinous seas”?’[2]


‘Incarnadine’ isn’t a word I’d use that often anyway, to be honest, but the essential case is made and plenty of other examples confirm it. The word ‘swaddled’, for instance, is now, I think, inextricable from images of the Christ-child, even in the minds of those least-versed in Christian imagery and symbolism. Yet that’s immediately complicated by the example of the word’s use that first springs to mind, T. S. Eliot’s ‘Gerontion’, where, to borrow a phrase, ‘the quotabilities swarm’:[3]

Signs are taken for wonders. ‘We would see a sign!’
The word within a word, unable to speak a word,
Swaddled with darkness. In the juvescence of the year
Came Christ the tiger


The poem is two and a half pages long; the commentary, twenty. ‘Swaddled with darkness’? ‘The Book of Job’ (38, 9) via a sermon of Lancelot Andrewes.[4]

But the Banville, yes. At some point, without foreboding or focused intention, but merely happenstance (how often and how genuinely are things ‘merely happenstance’?), I browsed my way back to it and noticed (of course) that what I recalled so vividly was not present at all. He had actually written: ‘…everything for me is something else, it is a thing I notice increasingly.’[5]

And (of course) this, or something like it, had cropped up before; many times, probably, but one occurs to me without searching or straining. Towards the end of To the Lighthouse, James, the Ramsay son to whom the first words of the novel are addressed, recalls what the lighthouse has meant to him in the past and compares it with the reality of the structure very close to him, as the boat journey to the rocks on which it stands is almost ended. And he understands that ‘the Lighthouse’ is neither one thing nor the other, not simply, not always. ‘For nothing was simply one thing.’[6] And in Orlando, a work notable above all, I suppose, for changeability, mutability and instability: ‘Everything, in fact, was something else.’[7]

Something else as well, I want to write. Everything turning out to be something completely different from what we believed it to be is too scary a thought; but multiplicity is fine, better than fine, desirable, no, indispensable.

World is crazier and more of it than we think,
Incorrigibly plural. I peel and portion
A tangerine and spit the pips and feel
The drunkenness of things being various.[8]

We are deluged with information now, much of it crazy, much of it incorrigibly plural—and much of it by routes where nothing is filtered or ordered. The internet is a wonderfully accurate reflection of this: a hundred or a thousand or a hundred thousand links brought up by a typed keyword or phrase. We may recognize a few of the sources and already have them arranged in a loose hierarchy in our minds; but in most cases we can’t tell without clicking on them, assessing, questioning. Many people assume, based on other contexts, that the ‘best’ links are at the top of the page. Alas, it ain’t necessarily so. And the question we ask of them can often not be answered since the lack of the information required to answer it was what prompted the original inquiry. I recall this from the novelist Nicholas Mosley: ‘The experiment is to discover the mechanisms of the brain. But the instruments are constructed by these mechanisms, so the operation is impossible.’[9]


Information overload. Recreation overload. Writing a letter to Lord Byron (as you do), W. H. Auden remarked:

Indeed our ways to waste time are so many,
Thanks to technology, a list of these
Would make a longer book than Ulysses.[10]

I remind myself that we’ve had eighty years since Auden published his poem to develop ways of wasting our time – and that my favourite edition of Ulysses is 933 pages.


[1] Culture And Anarchy (1869; edited by J. Dover Wilson, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1969), 35.

[2] Virginia Woolf, ‘Craftsmanship’, in Selected Essays, edited by David Bradshaw (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), 88 (referring to Macbeth, II, ii, 59).

[3] Hugh Kenner on Part II of William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury, in A Homemade World: The American Modernist Writers (London: Marion Boyars, 1977), 194.

[4] The Poems of T. S. Eliot. Volume I: Collected and Uncollected Poems, edited by Christopher Ricks and Jim McCue (London: Faber & Faber, 2015), 31, 474.

[5] John Banville, The Sea (London: Picador, 2006), 138.

[6] Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse (1927; edited by David Bradshaw, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), 165-166, 152.

[7] Virginia Woolf, Orlando (1928; edited by Rachel Bowlby, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992), 138.

[8] Louis MacNeice, ‘Snow’, in Collected Poems, edited by Peter McDonald (London: Faber, 2007), 24.

[9] Nicholas Mosley, Natalie Natalia (Dalkey Archive Press: Victoria, Texas: 2006), 130.

[10] Auden, Letter to Lord Byron, Part II (first published in Letters from Iceland, his 1937 collaboration with Louis MacNeice), in The English Auden: Poems, Essays and Dramatic Writings, 1927-1939, edited by Edward Mendelson (London: Faber, 1977), 177.


Sorrows, joys, magpies


Watching a magpie on the garden fence, trying to identify the memory that its gestures and movements called to mind, I realised that it was Jacques Tati, in Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday. (One of my earliest visits to the cinema: the only time I ever saw my father crying with laughter.) The abrupt uplifting and lowering of the head, the stiff yet rapid leaning forward from the waist, the quick flicks of the head to left and right: mais oui, c’est Monsieur Hulot!


Their distinctive staccato chatter sounds from the roof, the fence, the tree, the neighbouring chimneys. It’s everywhere in the nearby park, though generally singly. There was a period during which we would see five or six in a group, strutting, leering, looking distinctly thuggish. But lately it’s one at a time. More than a dozen years ago now, my wife was walking to work over the park and had just noted two magpies when she slipped on black ice and fractured her wrist. Since then, we have been wary of rhymes’ prophetic validity. Two may not be lucky but do the loners necessarily signify misfortune?

One for sorrow, two for joy
Three for a girl, four for a boy

That’s the version most people know, at least if of a certain age and able to recall the television programme. What is, presumably, the older rhyme runs:

One’s sorrow, two’s mirth,
Three’s a wedding, four’s a birth[1]

This survives in the version – from a sixteen-year-old Birmingham schoolgirl, recorded by Mark Cocker and Richard Mabey:

One for anger, two for mirth,
Three for a wedding, four for a birth

This version gets ‘saltier’ (their word) as it progresses:

Five for rich, six for poor
Seven for a bitch, eight for a whore[2]

The origin of the name runs back through Shakespeare’s Macbeth (‘maggot-pie’) to ‘Margaret’ or ‘Margot the pye’, from a French equivalent. Iona and Peter Opie have a nice story of the poet laureate, Henry James Pye, appointed in 1790, whose first (very poor) ode was for the king’s birthday, and was guyed by a punster named George Steevens (‘when the PYE was opened’), unimpressed as he was by Pye’s feeble effort. The Opies quote a version of ‘Sing a song of sixpence’, the rhyme published in 1784, which ends with ‘Up came a magpie and bit off her nose.’ The maid still suffers, then, but at the hands – beak, rather – of a different bird.[3]

‘Pie’ is ‘pied’, of course, the black and white plumage, and bishops were sometimes termed ‘magpies’ because of the similarly contrasting colours of their vestments. The magpie’s occurrences in literature include one in Ezra Pound’s ‘Canto 81’:

Pull down thy vanity
Thou art a beaten dog beneath the hail,
A swollen magpie in a fitful sun,
Half black half white
Nor knowst’ou wing from tail[4]

The black and the white together is a handy representation of the opposing strains of interpretation of this passage and the question of just who is being addressed here (‘Pull down thy vanity’): some say it’s Pound himself, others the U.S. Army (Pound’s captors at that time, in the Disciplinary Training Center at Pisa).[5]


In ‘House and Man’, Edward Thomas recalls a man in his house amidst ‘forest silence and forest murmur’, the only house for miles:

But why I call back house and man again
Is that now on a beech-tree’s tip I see
As then I saw – I at the gate, and he
In the house darkness, – a magpie veering about,
A magpie like a weathercock in doubt.[6]

This is, as you’d expect from Thomas, quite accurate: I’ve watched magpies, precisely, veering about; and ‘a weathercock in doubt’ is wonderfully suggestive.

John Fowles had a bookplate which showed his name surrounded by magpies, a pictorial representation of his habits as both reader and buyer of books. ‘A quite literal pair of magpies breed in my garden every year,’ he closes his essay on the subject. ‘Wicked creatures though they are, I let them be. One must not harm one’s own.’[7]

‘Wicked’? The magpie certainly has a justified reputation for being omnivorous: eggs and nestlings feature among many other food sources. It’s a famously intelligent bird, sociable, mischievous and, I’d venture, with a strong sense of humour. Pretty widespread too: Jonathan Trouern-Trend, who served in Iraq, notes sightings of grebes, egrets, kites, vultures, bustards and avocets galore but, happily, our friend Pica pica is also there: ‘Seen year round at LSAA [LSA – Logistics Support Area is my guess – Anaconda, his home base], seemed more common at higher elevations.’[8]



[1] The version quoted by Sylvia Townsend Warner, in a letter to Julius Lipton, 21 October 1935: Letters, edited by William Maxwell (London: Chatto & Windus, 1982), 36-37.

[2] Mark Cocker and Richard Mabey, Birds Britannica (London: Chatto & Windus, 2005), 400.

[3] The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes, edited by Iona and Peter Opie, second edition (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997), 471, 472.

[4] The Cantos of Ezra Pound, fourth collected edition (London: Faber and Faber, 1987), 521.

[5] So, for instance, Christine Froula—‘self-accusations’—in A Guide to Ezra Pound’s Selected Poems (New York: New Directions, 1983), 236; and A. David Moody—‘humbled’—Ezra Pound: Poet: A Portrait of the Man and His Work: Volume III: The Tragic Years 1939-1972 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015), 159; as against Jerome McGann—‘not himself but the US Army’—in Towards a Literature of Knowledge (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1989), 114.

[6] Edward Thomas, The Annotated Collected Poems, edited by Edna Longley (Tarset, Northumberland: Bloodaxe Books, 2008), 60.

[7] John Fowles, ‘Of Memoirs and Magpies’, in Wormholes: Essays and Occasional Writings, edited by Jan Relf (London: Jonathan Cape, 1998), 33.

[8] Jonathan Trouern-Trend, Birding Babylon: A Soldier’s Journal from Iraq (San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 2006), 79.


Gathering Roses


There are seven, or is it eight, buds on our rosebush now. Like many readers, I can call to mind the first line of Robert Herrick’s ‘Gather ye rosebuds while ye may’ but then I tend to falter. The poem’s usual title, ‘To the Virgins, to make much of time’, points to those preoccupations with sex and death which are so common in the poetry of that period, perfectly reasonably so, given wars, plagues and an average life expectancy of less than forty years (that this was heavily influenced by a very high infant mortality rate can’t have been that much comfort). So the other three lines of Herrick’s first stanza are:

Old Time is still a-flying:
And this same flower that smiles to-day
Tomorrow will be dying.[1]

Be not coy, he advises those maidens, an admonition moved up to headline status in Andrew Marvell’s wonderful To His Coy Mistress. Marvell is also extremely keen to get his lover into bed: of course, he’d like nothing better than to devote tens, hundreds, even thousands of years to praising and adoring her eyes, forehead, breasts and heart. ‘But’, alas, ‘at my back I always hear/ Time’s wingèd chariot hurrying near’. And he points out, quite sensibly, that ‘The grave’s a fine and private place,/ But none, I think, do there embrace.’[2]

So the rose, or rather, the beauty of the rose, is inextricable from the brevity of its flowering. There are, I see now, a staggering number of poems about roses and often, simultaneously, about beauty, sex and death also. They stretch back to the ancient world—Homer, Horace, Sappho—up through Shakespeare and Milton to the modern period of Frost, H. D., Yeats, De la Mare, Randall Jarrell and Charles Tomlinson.

Go, lovely Rose—
Tell her that wastes her time and me,
That now she knows,
When I resemble her to thee,
How sweet and fair she seems to be.[3]


(Edmund Waller, after John Riley)

This is the first stanza of the famous lyric by Edmund Waller (1606-1687), poet and politician; involved in a 1643 plot in the interest of the king, he escaped execution and was banished to France, returning to England in 1652 and becoming an admirer and friend of Oliver Cromwell.

And here’s the first stanza of the ‘Envoi’, carefully dated (1919), to the first part of Ezra Pound’s Hugh Selwyn Mauberley:

Go, dumb-born book,
Tell her that sang me once that song of Lawes:
Hadst thou but song
As thou hast subjects known,
Then were there cause in thee that should condone
Even my faults that heavy upon me lie
And build her glories their longevity.

The speaker then thinks of how the grace and beauty might be made to outlast its moment, its natural lifespan, as roses might be made to do:

Tells her that sheds
Such treasure in the air,
Recking naught else but that her graces give
Life to the moment,
I would bid them live
As roses might, in magic amber laid,
Red overwrought with orange and all made
One substance and one colour
Braving time.[4]

Henry Lawes set Waller’s ‘Goe lovely Rose’ to music; ‘her that sang me once that song of Lawes’ was almost certainly Raymonde Collignon (Madame Gaspard-Michel), who made her professional debut in 1916, was favourably reviewed several times by Pound when he reviewed music for the New Age under the name ‘William Atheling’, and performed in Pound’s opera, The Testament of François Villon.[5]

A quarter of a century later, in the last pages—what I think of as the ‘English’ pages—of Canto LXXX, part of the Pisan sequence, Pound wrote:

Tudor indeed is gone and every rose,
Blood-red, blanch-white that in the sunset glows
Cries: ‘Blood, Blood, Blood!’ against the gothic stone
Of England, as the Howard or Boleyn knows.[6]


(© National Portrait Gallery, London
Unknown woman, formerly known as Catherine Howard
after Hans Holbein the Younger; oil on panel, late 17th century)

The red rose of Lancaster and the white rose of Yorkshire: the thirty-year-long Wars of the Roses and the passing of the Plantagenet dynasty; then the deaths of Katharine Howard and Anne Boleyn on the block; followed by the end of the Tudors with the death of Elizabeth.

But Pound used roses in another context: their delicacy, fragility and vulnerability set against the patterning of energy made visible by, for instance, iron filings acted upon by a magnet.

Hast ‘ou seen the rose in the steel dust
(or swansdown ever?)
so light is the urging, so ordered the dark petals of iron
we who have passed over Lethe.[7]

Pound first mentioned his magnetic ‘rose’ in a 1915 piece on Vorticism, at a time when he was preoccupied with forms of energy. ‘An organisation of forms expresses a confluence of forces [ . . . . ] For example: if you clasp a strong magnet beneath a plateful of iron filings, the energies of the magnet will proceed to organise form. It is only by applying a particular and suitable force that you can bring order and vitality and thence beauty into a plate of iron filings, which are otherwise as “ugly” as anything under heaven. The design in the magnetized iron filings expresses a confluence of energy.’[8]

He returned to the theme—and the image—again in an essay on the medieval Italian poet Guido Cavalcanti,[9] and in 1937, once again found the rose revivified by magnetic energy: ‘The forma, the immortal concetto, the concept, the dynamic form which is like the rose pattern driven into the dead iron-filings by the magnet, not by material contact with the magnet itself, but separate from the magnet. Cut off by the layer of glass, the dust and filings rise and spring into order. Thus the forma, the concept rises from death’.[10]

The idea and the image tend to divert attention from the language used: but the words themselves form highly effective, opposing clusters: ‘dead’ and ‘death’, ‘separate’ and ‘cut off’ set against ‘immortal’, ‘dynamic’, ‘rise’, ‘spring’, ‘rises’.


Eighty years earlier, another writer—another highly contentious figure—began his own rose-centred obsession. John Ruskin, in the preface to his autobiography, Praeterita, referred to ‘passing in total silence things which I have no pleasure in reviewing, and which the reader would find no help in account of.’ Later in the same book, he writes that ‘Some wise, and prettily mannered, people have told me I shouldn’t say anything about Rosie at all. But I am too old now to take advice…’[11]

Rosie—Rose La Touche—was ten years old when she first met Ruskin. She died at the age of twenty-seven. He seems to have asked her to marry him around her eighteenth birthday, though he had clearly fallen in love with her some time before that: she asked him to wait for an answer until she was twenty-one. The story of this long, sad affair, complicated by parental concern, religious mania and Ruskin’s well-documented predilection for young girls, has been traced at length by Ruskin’s biographers. Tim Hilton states baldly that Ruskin ‘was a paedophile’,[12] which, certainly in today’s cultural climate, seems to say both too much and too little. As Catherine Robson points out, ‘There is no evidence that Ruskin sexually abused little girls: the exact dynamics of his encounters with real girls—with Rose La Touche, with the pupils at Winnington, with girls in London, France, Italy, Switzerland, the Lake District—remain essentially unknowable.’[13] Given the ‘non-consummation’ of Ruskin’s marriage with Effie Gray, it seems highly likely that Ruskin never had a full sexual relationship at all.

Roses are everywhere in Ruskin’s work, from the title of his botanical book, Proserpina—not only does the title embrace the word ‘rose’ but Ruskin associated Rose La Touche with Proserpina since at least the spring of 1866[14]—to numerous pages in Fors Clavigera, not least thelittle vignette stamp of roses’ on the title page, of which he writes in ‘Letter XXII’: ‘It is copied from the clearest bit of the pattern of the petticoat of Spring, where it is drawn tight over her thigh, in Sandro Botticelli’s picture of her, at Florence.’[15]



(Rose La Touche by John Ruskin, 1861)

And at the last, in ‘Letter XCVI. (Terminal)’ of his great work, Ruskin talks of ‘a place called the Rosy Valley’, which becomes ‘Rosy Vale’, the title of the letter. Rosy Vale, ‘Rosy farewell’. At the head of the letter is a drawing by Kate Greenaway, called, of course, ‘Rosy Vale’. And Fors Clavigera closes with these words: ‘The story of Rosy Vale is not ended;—surely out of its silence the mountains and the hills shall break forth into singing, and round it the desert rejoice, and blossom as the rose.’[16]

How much this painful history contributed to Ruskin’s depression and mental decline is impossible to gauge. Rose had died mad in 1875; from 1889 to his death in 1900, Ruskin produced little and, apparently, spoke little, that span of a dozen years eerily echoed in the life of Friedrich Nietzsche, who suffered a mental collapse in 1889 but lived on until 1900. For the last dozen years of his life, Ezra Pound produced practically nothing and spoke—in public—barely at all.

‘You think I jest, still, do you? Anything but that; only if I took off the Harlequin’s mask for a moment, you would say I was simply mad. Be it so, however, for this time.’[17]


[1] The Oxford Book of English Verse, 1250-1918, edited by Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1966), 274.

[2] Andrew Marvell, ‘To His Coy Mistress’, in The Complete Poems, edited by Elizabeth Story Donno (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1986), 50. Some readers of Ford Madox Ford prick up their ears at this point, remembering General Campion’s quoting (and misquoting) of this poem: No More Parades (1925; edited by Joseph Wiesenfarth, Manchester: Carcanet Press, 2011), 219-220.

[3] The Oxford Book of English Verse, 318.

[4] Ezra Pound: Poems and Translations, edited by Richard Sieburth (New York: Library of America, 2003), 557.

[5] Eva Hesse, ‘Raymonde Collignon, or (Apropos Paideuma, 7-1 & 2, 345-346): The Duck That Got Away’, Paideuma, 10, 3 Winter 1981), 583-584.

[6] The Cantos of Ezra Pound, fourth collected edition (London: Faber and Faber, 1987), 516.

[7] ‘Canto LXXIV’, The Cantos of Ezra Pound, 449. Pound critics point to Ben Jonson’s ‘Her Triumph’ here; and to the form of Edward Fitzgerald’s The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám in the case of the previous quotation.

[8] Ezra Pound, ‘Affirmations II. Vorticism’, New Age, XVI, 11 (14 January, 1915), 277. Later in the series, an article on Imagism mentioned ‘energy’ or ‘energies’ twelve times, ‘emotion’ or ‘emotional’ sixteen times.

[9] Literary Essays of Ezra Pound, edited by T. S. Eliot (London: Faber and Faber, 1960), 154.

[10] Pound, Guide to Kulchur (1938; New Directions, 1970), 152,

[11] Ruskin, Praeterita and Dilecta (London: Everyman’s Library, 2005), 9, 471.

[12] Tim Hilton, John Ruskin: The Early Years (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1985), 253.

[13] Catherine Robson, Men in Wonderland: The Lost Girlhood of the Victorian Gentleman (Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2001), 122.

[14] Tim Hilton, Ruskin: The Later Years (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2000), 311.

[15] Ruskin, Fors Clavigera: Letters to the Workmen and Labourers of Great Britain, new edition (Orpington & London: George Allen, 1896), I, 427.

[16] Ruskin, Fors Clavigera, IV, 507.

[17] Ruskin, Fors Clavigera, III, 257,

Lawrence Outside England


(The Tinners Arms, Zennor)

On Friday 29 July 1870, the Reverend Francis Kilvert wrote in his diary: ‘Then we came to Zennor, the strange old tower in the granite wilderness in a hollow of the wild hillside, a corner and end of the world, desolate, solitary, bare, dreary, the cluster of white and grey houses round the massive old granite Church tower, a sort of place that might have been quite lately discovered and where “fragments of forgotten peoples might dwell”.’[1]

The literary associations of Zennor these days are most likely to be with D. H. Lawrence’s stay there in the middle years of the First World War—or with the fine novel, based on those events, by Helen Dunmore, whose untimely death occurred so recently.[2]

Lawrence and Frieda spent nearly three weeks at the Tinner’s Arms, Zennor, in early 1916, before moving into ‘a little 2-roomed cottage, for £5 a year’, as Lawrence wrote to his friend S. S. Koteliansky, adding: ‘We are going to furnish it and live like foxes under the hill.’[3] They moved into the cottage at Higher Tregerthen on 17 March 1916 and remained in Cornwall until October 1917. For a little over two months, Katherine Mansfield and John Middleton Murry, who had been witnesses at Lawrence and Frieda’s wedding in 1914, lived with the Lawrences at Higher Tregerthen. But the relationship was always stressful and Mansfield and Murry moved to Mylor in South Cornwall in mid-June 1916.[4]


(Lawrence; Katherine Mansfield; Frieda; John Middleton Murry via http://spartacus-educational.com/)

At a time when Lawrence’s feelings towards England were at their most complex, feeling thoroughly English yet hating the country—his great novel The Rainbow suppressed by the authorities, the sense of humiliation at the medical examination for military service (he was granted complete exemption), as detailed in the ‘Nightmare’ chapter of Kangaroo[5]—he found in Cornwall the sense of a country outside England. At the end of 1915, staying at Padstow, he had written to his friend Dollie Radford: ‘This country is bare and rather desolate, a sort of no-man’s-land. For that I love it: it is not England.’ The following day, he wrote to his agent, J. B. Pinker: ‘Already, here, in Cornwall, it is better; the wind blows very hard, the sea all comes up the cliffs in smoke. Here one is outside England, the England of London—thank God.’[6]

On 10 August 1916, he wrote to Catherine Carswell, welcoming the news of her forthcoming novel: ‘I feel it is coming under the same banner with mine.’ His had been called ‘The Sisters’ but May Sinclair had published a novel called The Three Sisters two years earlier. Lawrence added: ‘I thought of calling this of mine Women in Love. But I don’t feel at all sure of it.’[7]


(Lawrence and Frieda, Mexico, 1923: University of Nottingham)

D. H. Lawrence was born in Eastwood, Nottinghamshire, on 11 September 1885; he died in Vence (between Nice and Antibes), on 2 March 1930. He was just 44 years old.

There’s a D. H. Lawrence festival in Eastwood, where the Lawrence Society is based and which publishes the Journal of D. H. Lawrence Studies. There are frequent international conferences, the most recent taking place just this month: ‘London Calling: Lawrence and the Metropolis’. There have been radio programmes and documentaries; and another recent BBC version of Lady Chatterley’s Lover – though the reviewers’ consensus, as far as there was one, seemed to be: ‘Where’s the sex?’

All this would seem to argue a healthy level of interest; yet one of those reviews included the confident statement: ‘Barely anybody reads D. H. Lawrence any more’.[8] Poor bloody them if that’s true, I thought. But I wonder. Is it?

There’s certainly a good deal of academic interest; and a good deal of, what, biographical interest, many visitors to the places where Lawrence lived and grew up. Later, most of his addresses would be in more remote locations, so the early years are the most fruitful from this country’s point of view. But is he really not read much by the general reader, the library user (if their local public library has survived the clumsy cudgels of austerity), the literary wanderer, the restless traveller? Do they know what they’re missing – or do they just assume that they know?


The adaptations of Lawrence’s work, over the years, in cinema and television, though tending to concentrate on the handful of best-known works (which are often the most highly regarded too—Sons and Lovers, The Rainbow, Women in Love, Lady Chatterley’s Lover) have also included several of his short stories, a couple of novellas (The Fox, The Virgin and the Gipsy), a few of his plays – even a mini-series, Australian, unsurprisingly, based on The Boy in the Bush and starring Kenneth Branagh. Still, there are half a dozen other novels, scores of short stories, several novellas, apparently untouched by screenwriters – though there may be countless projects that never made it into the home straight. I recall from my bookselling days how rarely I sold a Lawrence text that fell outside the chosen few, while I waited patiently for the rarer spirits, the explorers.
—Do you have Mornings in Mexico or Kangaroo or Mr Noon or Aaron’s Rod?
—Yes, we do. All of them.

A few years ago, I read or – mainly – re-read all of Lawrence’s fiction, including the three versions of Lady Chatterley’s Lover, the short novels and the Collected Short Stories; plus some of Phoenix and Phoenix II; and a couple of volumes of the letters. I can’t remember now what started me off on that and I certainly felt a little apprehensive about how I would view some of the work that I hadn’t read for, say, twenty years. Visits after long gaps can be hugely pleasurable, stimulating, enlightening; but they can also be wholly baffling. Nor are they prone to consistency or rational analysis.

In the case of Lawrence, briefly, I found that I remembered the faults or, at least, the irritations, well enough. He often hectors, sounds off in inappropriate contexts, voices opinions that a great many contemporary readers would draw in their skirts against, and, not unlike Thomas Hardy, can move from clunky to sublime in the space of a paragraph. But his strengths, recalled in general or somewhat abstractly, leapt into sharp and startling focus. He can write so vividly, with such an acute eye for beauty (and ugliness), for the detail, for the contrast, that the thing seen and rendered is alive in the room. His freshness and vitality make many other writers seem artificial, laboured, painfully literary and derivative. And those strengths are not confined to the ‘major’ works.


Famously, Joseph Conrad wrote: ‘My task which I am trying to achieve is, by the power of the written word to make you hear, to make you feel—it is, before all, to make you see. That—and no more, and it is everything.’[9] Lawrence carries that achievement to the uttermost, in his fiction, his travel books, his poetry, his extraordinary letters. The pleasures can be both large and small. ‘Lemon trees, like Italians, seem to be happiest when they are touching one another all round.’ And, from the same book, back on the mainland: ‘Once more we knew ourselves in the real active world, where the air seems like a lively wine dissolving the pearl of the old order. I hope, dear reader, you like the metaphor.’

‘The sharpness of Lawrence’s eye is incredible,’ Anthony Burgess writes in his ‘Introduction’ to D. H. Lawrence and Italy, ‘and his judgements are madly sane.’[10] Indeed. Sometimes, the first moment of thinking ‘Nonsense’ or ‘You can’t say that’, slides rapturously into ‘Actually, though. . . ’

And, of course, there’s a tremendous bonus, once you find a writer who gives you pleasure and food for thought and insight (and perhaps also gives a little pain, provokes a little rage or violent disagreement), to have quantity, a wide expanse of territory in which to wander, get lost and (perhaps) find yourself again: Lawrence, Faulkner, Woolf, Ford, Burgess, Colette, Kipling, Durrell, Sylvia Townsend Warner. How Lawrence achieved all this by the age of 44 is a separate story, a separate mystery. But we have the writing; and a body of writing which has benefited from an extraordinary and sustained scholarly project: the Cambridge Edition of the Works of D. H. Lawrence (1979 – ).

‘All real living hurts as well as fulfils. Happiness comes when we have lived and have a respite for sheer forgetting. Happiness, in the vulgar sense, is just a holiday experience. The life-long happiness lies in being used by life; hurt by life, driven and goaded by life, replenished and overjoyed with life, fighting for life’s sake. That is real happiness. In the undergoing, a large part of it is pain.’[11]



[1] Kilvert’s Diary, edited by William Plomer, three volumes (London: Jonathan Cape, 1938, reissued 1969), I, 199. The quotation is from Tennyson’s Idylls of the King, ‘The Passing of Arthur’, actually ‘Where fragments of forgotten peoples dwelt’: Tennyson: A Selected Edition, edited by Christopher Ricks (Harlow: Longman Group, 1989), 963.

[2] Zennor in Darkness was her first novel, published in 1993; it won the McKitterick Prize the following year.

[3] To Koteliansky, 8 March 1916: Letters of D. H. Lawrence II, June 1913-October 1916, edited by George J. Zytaruk and James T. Boulton (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981), 568-569.

[4] See Mark Kinkead-Weekes, D. H, Lawrence: Triumph to Exile, 1912-1922 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 317-327.

[5] Kangaroo (1923; edited by Bruce Steele (London: Penguin Books, 1997), Chapter XII, 212-259. See also Paul Delany, D. H. Lawrence’s Nightmare: The Writer and His Circle in the Years of the Great War (Hassocks: The Harvester Press, 1979), Chapters VI and VII, on the Lawrences at Zennor.

[6] To Dollie Radford, 31 December 1915; to J. B. Pinker, 1 January 1916: Letters of D. H. Lawrence II, 494.

[7] Letters of D. H. Lawrence II, 639.

[8] Jasper Rees, Daily Telegraph, 6 September 2015.

[9] Conrad, ‘Preface’ to The Nigger of the “Narcissus”’, in Typhoon and Other Tales (New York: Signet Classics, 1962), 21.

[10] Sea and Sardinia (1921), in D. H. Lawrence and Italy (London: Penguin Books, 1997), 5, 181, xii.

[11] D. H. Lawrence, The Boy in the Bush, written with M. L. Skinner (1924; edited by Paul Eggert, London: Penguin Books, 1996), 92.


Butterflies in ruins

Small White - Male


In our small back garden, I doubt whether I’ve seen more than half a dozen butterflies so far this summer, perhaps fewer than that. It’s hardly surprising in the light of recent research, which suggests that 2016 was one of the worst on record for butterflies in this country, with nearly three-quarters of all species experiencing a decline in numbers.


A rare sighting of butterflies now often brings back memories of a holiday in Greece nearly twenty years ago in Ayía Efamía, on the island of Kefaloniá, but with a week on the mainland. Against the scarcity of England now, profusion and abundance then: the wild flowers, the scutter of lizards, the columns of ants—and butterflies everywhere, starting up in clouds as you stepped along the grassy lane, red and yellow and white, one with paper thin white wings with, at their base, an intricate pattern like leaves and branches, in vivid green.

The Greek word psyche meant both ‘butterfly’ and ‘soul’. Some vase paintings contain images of butterflies emerging from the mouths of the dead. ‘To have heard the farfalla [butterfly] gasping as toward a bridge over worlds . . . ’ Ezra Pound writes of that hazardous terrain between life and death.[1]

And butterflies were always there among the ruins, at Delphi, Mystras, Mycenae, flickering above and around broken blocks of stone, fallen pillars, fractured arches. Butterflies amidst the ruins of empire.


Olympia via www.discovergreece.com/

The collapse of empires recurs through history, as does the collapse of financial systems. We, of course, continue to add those contemporary extras, not only terminal climate change, but also the rapid extinction of species—butterflies among them.

In the Romantic era, poets, philosophers, artists, travellers had ruins often on their minds. Romanticism, Raphael Samuel remarks, was built on time’s ruins. Its idea of memory was premised on a sense of loss.[2]

In the midst of the revolution which made or unmade France, Comte de Volney, a deputy in the National Assembly, published Les Ruines, Paris 1791. (That same year, the sixteen-year-old J. M. W. Turner was working in Bristol; he was always, Peter Ackroyd remarks, fascinated by fire and ruins.)[3] In 1818, the eighteen-year-old poet Victor Hugo’s mother came to live on the third floor of 18 rue des Petits-Augustins. ‘An elderly visitor who frequently climbed the stairs of No. 18 was a cousin of Mme. Hugo, the Comte de Volney.’[4]

The Ruins of Kirkstall Abbey at Night c.1799 by Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851

(J. M. W. Turner, ‘The Ruins of Kirkstall Abbey at Night’, c.1799, watercolour and graphite on paper: ©Tate Britain)

In an essay on Walt Whitman, Guy Davenport remarks that: ‘It is [ . . . ] worth reading Whitman against the intellectual background he assumed his readers knew and which is no longer remembered except sporadically: the world of Alexander von Humboldt, from which Whitman takes the word cosmos, Louis Agassiz, for whom Thoreau collected turtles, Volney’s Ruins, the historical perspective of which is as informative in Whitman as in Shelley, Fourier, Scott. A great deal that seems naif and spontaneous in Whitman has roots and branches.’[5]

‘Things have roots and branches’, Ezra Pound wrote in his later version of Confucius, ‘affairs have scopes and beginnings. To know what precedes and what follows, is almost as good as having a head and feet.’[6]

Volney crops up in a wide variety of contexts. Of Shelley’s ‘Philosophical poem’, Queen Mab, Richard Holmes remarks that ‘The conception of such a total approach to human knowledge was encouraged in Shelley by the reading of Count Volney’s notorious vision of corrupt society, The Ruins of Empire, and Erasmus Darwin’s poems of science and society.’[7]

Curran, Amelia, 1775-1847; Percy Bysshe Shelley

(Amelia Curran, Percy Bysshe Shelley, oil on canvas, 1819.
Photo credit: National Portrait Gallery, London)

Shelley’s famous ‘Ozymandias’ has a word or two to say about the ruins of hubristic ambition and the delusions of the powerful:

‘And on the pedestal, these words appear:
“My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.’[8]

But not only ruins. Just today, The Observer’s tribute to the photographer David Newell-Smith included one of his shots of the Rolling Stones performing in Hyde Park, 5 July 1969.

(A gallery of Newell-Smith’s photographs for The Observer is here:

Planned as both a return to live performance and the debut appearance of new guitarist Mick Taylor, the Hyde Park concert became in large part a memorial for Brian Jones, who had died just two days earlier. Famously, Mick Jagger read an extract from Adonais, Shelley’s elegy for John Keats, before hundreds of cabbage white butterflies were released (there had been around 2500 but, in the hot weather, many had died).


Rolling Stones on stage, Hyde Park, 5 July 1969
( https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=39102141)

Out of interest, I looked back at what Mick Jagger actually read. Adonais is not a short poem: it consists of 55 stanzas, each of nine lines (so almost 500 lines in all). Jagger read stanza XXXIX and part of stanza LII (he left out the last two and a half lines): he also departed quite a few times from what Shelley actually wrote, usually adding short words—probably to make it easier both for him to read and for the audience to grasp.

And yet—ruins, after all. The two and a half lines that Mick Jagger omitted, probably because of the momentary confusion that mention of ‘Rome’ would cause, run:

Rome’s azure sky,
Flowers, ruins, statues, music, words, are weak
The glory they transfuse with fitting truth to speak.[9]

Around the time that he was writing Queen Mab, Shelley also wrote a long poem called ‘The Retrospect: Cwm Elan, 1812’, contrasting his mental and emotional state of the time with that of a year earlier:

Changed!—not the loathsome worm that fed
In the dark mansions of the dead,
Now soaring through the fields of air,
And gathering purest nectar there,
A butterfly, whose million hues
The dazzled eye of wonder views,
Long lingering on a work so strange,
Has undergone so bright a change.[10]

Just two years before the Hyde Park concert, there had, of course, been another celebrated Mick Jagger link with Lepidoptera, when William Reese-Mogg, quoting (almost) a line from Alexander Pope’s ‘Epistle to Dr Arbuthnot’, headed his Times leader article ‘Who breaks a butterfly on a wheel?’ This was in the wake of the dubious court case, in which the judge, Leslie Block, had imposed prison sentences on Jagger and Keith Richards for drug offences.[11]

‘We Love You’, the Jagger-Richards song that followed shortly after that court case, and that begins with the crash of prison cell doors closing, was released on 18 August 1967.


[1] ‘Notes for CXVII et seq.’, The Cantos of Ezra Pound, fourth collected edition (London: Faber and Faber, 1987), 802. See also Canto XCII, 619: ‘farfalla in tempesta/ under rain in the dark: / many wings fragile’.

[2] Raphael Samuel, Theatres of Memory (London: Verso, 1996), ix.

[3] Ackroyd, Turner (London: Vintage Books 2006), 9.

[4] Christopher Woodward, In Ruins (London: Chatto and Windus, 2001), 158-159.

[5] ‘Whitman’, in Guy Davenport, The Geography of the Imagination (London: Picador, 1984), 70.

[6] Confucius. The Unwobbling Pivot; The Great Digest; The Analects (New York: New Directions, 1969), 29.

[7] Holmes, Shelley: The Pursuit (London: Penguin, 1987), 202.

[8] The Complete Poetical Works of Percy Bysshe Shelley, edited by Thomas Hutchinson (London: Oxford University Press, 1909), 546. On this poem, see Davenport, The Geography of the Imagination, 278-281.

[9] The Complete Poetical Works of Percy Bysshe Shelley, 438.

[10] The Complete Poetical Works of Percy Bysshe Shelley, 865.

[11] The Times, 1 July 1967. Pope’s line has ‘upon’ rather than ‘on’.

The Mark on the Wall


(Carrington and Stephen Tomlin via http://spartacus-educational.com/)

Writing to Leonard Woolf on 17 July 1917, Lytton Strachey praised the inaugural production from the Hogarth Press. This was ‘Two Stories’, one each by Virginia (‘The Mark on the Wall’) and Leonard (‘Three Jews’), with four woodcuts by Carrington. To Carrington, two days earlier, Strachey wrote: ‘The Woolf booklet has come – but probably you’ve seen it. Damn them – they haven’t put enough ink on your cuts. I adore the snail. Virginia I consider a genius.’

Now to Leonard, Strachey wrote: ‘The “Two Stories” was a most cheering production. I never could have believed it possible. My only criticism is that there doesn’t seem to be quite enough ink. Virginia’s is, I consider, a work of genius.’[1]


Via Echoes from the Vault: a blog from the Special Collections of the University of St Andrews

The machining and inking had been Leonard’s responsibility; Virginia’s the typesetting, binding and distribution. Carrington’s (unsigned) woodcuts earned her fifteen shillings.[2] Virginia had written to her on 13 July: ‘We like the wood cuts immensely. It was very good of you to bring them yourself—We have printed them off, and they make the book much more interesting than it would have been without. The ones I like best are the servant girl and the plates and the Snail.’[3]

‘The Mark on the Wall’ is a little less than seven pages in my copy of the short fiction.[4] It was clearly significant for Woolf: more than a dozen years later, she wrote to Ethel Smyth, ‘I shall never forget the day I wrote The Mark on the Wall—all in a flash, as if flying, after being kept stone breaking for months.’[5] A breakthrough, then: and ‘a work of genius’?


Perhaps it is. It’s certainly ingeniously suggestive and brilliantly keeps in play the definite and the indefinite. That mark on the wall is both. Though unidentified until the end of the story, it’s an apparently fixed point from which to take off on imaginative flights or to trawl through memory. That juggling is present from the first line: ‘Perhaps it was the middle of January in the present year that I first looked up and saw the mark on the wall.’

‘Perhaps’. It starts with uncertainty: and the middle of a month is fairly definite but not exact. ‘I first looked up’—might the narrator have seen it before, say, looking downwards at it? But the second sentence is key: ‘In order to fix a date it is necessary to remember what one saw.’ So the material—and the source of what is written, the memory—is immediately transposed into a visual key. Commenting first on the ‘mock-precision, the pseudo-historicism of the story’s method’, Sue Roe notes that ‘the mode is pictorial; and the history invoked resides in the history of painting, rather than that of literature.’[6] Roe then draws upon Kenneth Clark’s description of Leonard da Vinci’s comments in his Treatise on Painting about such phenomena as firelight—and stains on walls—as stimulants to the free play of imagination.[7] And Woolf’s story not only takes off from that mark on the wall, indulging in the free play of her imagination but the story itself provokes something similar in the reader. We bring to it half-remembered or half-recognised references, books, pictures. Did Woolf place them there—or do we? Readers recognise this fruitful uncertainty when faced with all manner of stories, novels and poems, of course, but the effect is very pronounced here, I think.

So, while ‘Tumbling head over heels in the asphodel meadows’ might vaguely recall Homer’s Odyssey, look how that sentence ends: ‘like brown paper parcels pitched down a shoot in the post office!’ The dictionary firmly asserts that ‘shoot’ is a recognised alternative to ‘chute’—but still, ‘shoot in the post office’, a year after the Easter Rising in Dublin and the occupation of the General Post Office on O’Connell Street, is bound to catch some people’s attention. It certainly caught mine.

Then the dust on the mantelpiece, ‘the dust which, so they say, buried Troy three times over, only fragments of pots utterly refusing annihilation, as one can believe’ (84). This surely glances—or does it?—at the excavations of Heinrich Schliemann in the 1870s, who claimed to have discovered ancient Troy, granting material meaning to Greek words and phrases that had survived in texts as disembodied signifiers but could now be attached to jewellery, armour, cups and masks. ‘As his discoveries persisted, more and more Homeric words came to mean something producible, something belonging to the universe of the naturalistic novelist.’[8]


(Sophia, Heinrich Schliemann’s wife, wearing treasures recovered at Hisarlik)

Also striking is the example of the person or place or process glimpsed from the train window that Woolf’s narrator invokes to convey the abruptness with which she was separated from the ‘very interesting people’ who ‘had this house before us’—this recalls such specific examples as Ford Madox Ford’s The Soul of London, where he writes of ‘so many little bits of uncompleted life’, of how ‘the constant succession of much smaller happenings that one sees, and that one never sees completed, gives to looking out of train windows a touch of pathos and of dissatisfaction.’[9] There is an ingrained human desire to see the end of stories: and this frustrates that desire. Much modernist art and literature, though, does so in order to provoke a different desire, subject to a different kind of satisfaction. The closed narrative, in literature as in life, seals off the innumerable other possibilities. As Declan Kiberd observes of Ulysses, ‘Joyce seeks to capture not just the openness but also the randomness of life, something which it is almost impossible to do in a neat narrative.’[10]

But the glimpse from the window of the speeding train can stand for a central feature of modern art: in an age of transformational technological and scientific change, that art is increasingly marked by the unstable, the fragmentary, the minute, the unfamiliar. And we, the readers, the viewers, the listeners must, to a greater extent than ever before, fit those fragments together and shape a meaning for ourselves.

So I experience a faint but strengthening suspicion that a reader might, if so minded, see here, in miniature, not only much of Woolf’s career—at this stage, she’s published only one novel—but also, in miniature, a great deal of modern, or modernist, writing. There’s the uncertainty of genre: in what sense is it ‘a story’, or autobiography, or an essay? Then the folding of a fiction into a fiction, the narrator picturing a man, a scene but deciding that this ‘historical fiction’ is dull and doesn’t interest her, so she imagines another narrative, in which she enters a room and joins a discussion. There’s the instability that attaches to the statement or assertion immediately undermined or countermanded, the firmness of outlines thinning and dissolving. There’s the playfulness and punning of words like ‘reflections’, both thoughts and looking-glasses: ‘As we face each other in omnibuses and underground railways we are looking into the mirror; that accounts for the vagueness, the gleam of glassiness, in our eyes’ (85).

And what of the war, often treated obliquely in her novels? The phrase ‘since the war’ occurs almost exactly halfway through the story, after a discussion of ‘a few of the things lost in our lifetime’ (84) and the ‘military sound’ of the word ‘generalisation’. Then the narrator mentions ‘those barrows on the South Downs which are, they say, either tombs or camps.’ And, ‘Of the two I should prefer them to be tombs, desiring melancholy like most English people, and finding it natural at the end of a walk to think of the bones stretched beneath the turf. . . . ’ (86).

And then, of course, the irruption of the second voice onto the page, announcing the intention to go out and buy a newspaper: ‘“Though it’s no good buying newspapers . . . . Nothing ever happens. Curse this war; God damn this war!”’ (89).


(Snail: woodcut by Carrington: via http://scholarlyediting.org/2014/editions/intro.markonthewall.html)

And, at the last, the snail. Symbol of slowness, in this maelstrom of rapid thought and quicksilver phrases; an image of fragility with its brittle shell, yet remarkably enduring, certainly throughout this tale; and a shell that is spiral, a turning and winding about a central axis.

A work of genius—very likely.



[1] The Letters of Lytton Strachey, edited by Paul Levy (London: Penguin Books, 2006), 358.

[2] Hermione Lee, Virginia Woolf (London: Chatto & Windus. 1996), 364.

[3] Virginia Woolf, The Question of Things Happening: Collected Letters II, 1912-1922 (London: The Hogarth Press, 1980), 162.

[4] The Complete Shorter Fiction of Virginia Woolf, edited by Susan Dick, second edition (Orlando: Harcourt, 1989), 83-89: page numbers in brackets.

[5] Letter of 16 October 1930: A Reflection of the Other Person: Collected Letters IV, 1929-31 (London: The Hogarth Press, 1981), 231.

[6] Sue Roe, ‘The Impact of Post-Impressionism’, in The Cambridge Companion to Virginia Woolf, edited by Sue Roe and Susan Sellers (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 175. Roe has just been discussing another short piece (or pair of very short pieces), ‘Blue & Green’, both strikingly visual.

[7] Roe, ‘The Impact of Post-Impressionism’, 176-177.

[8] See Hugh Kenner, The Pound Era (London: Faber, 1972), 42-44, on the significance of Schliemann’s discoveries for the author of Ulysses.

[9] Ford, The Soul of London (1905), collected in England and the English, edited by Sara Haslam (Manchester: Carcanet Press, 2003), 40, 41.

[10] Declan Kiberd, Ulysses and Us: The Art of Everyday Living (London: Faber and Faber, 2009), 154.


Sounds of silence—sounds and silence.


(Crowd awaiting news of signing of the Armistice in Paris, 11 November 1918.)
Imperial War Museum © IWM (Q 69705)

Sitting reading in an upstairs room, I’m hardly conscious of the quiet. Most of the time, I would have to strain my ears to hear the noise of traffic on the main road at the far end of our street. At the nearer end, there’s a park, popular and well-used but not generating the kind of noise that carries very far. Some people, I know, are made uncomfortable by a complete absence of sound—if such a thing exists in a twenty-first-century city. I lean the other way and think myself lucky not to have to shut out extraneous noise. Silence is not a neutral quality, any more than sound: we bring to it our personality, our training, our conditioning, our education, our predilections, our choices. The things we like or admire are often most clearly defined by contrast with the things that we don’t like or admire. Note that the louder the music playing in the car that just passed you, the worse it was. Quite unlike the music you play when you’re driving in your car.


Alex Ross’s book on twentieth-century music—‘Listening to the Twentieth Century’— was published ten years ago and entitled The Rest is Noise; while Hamlet’s last words, if not sounds, are ‘The rest is silence’.[1] ‘Speech is silver, silence is golden’, an old proverb says, urging the wisdom of biting your tongue and keeping your own counsel. And silence has traditionally been seen, certain among British men of a certain class, as a sign of strength of character. No doubt it enhances our ability to hear, sometimes others, sometimes ourselves. William Least Heat-Moon recalled the words of Brother Patrick Duffy, whom he met in Georgia: ‘When I go quiet I stop hearing myself and start hearing the world outside me. Then I hear something very great.’[2] And  an inner silence, or calm, can surely be a source of strength, as Robert Louis Stevenson remarked: ‘Quiet minds cannot be perplexed or frightened, but go on in fortune or misfortune at their own private pace, like a clock during a thunderstorm.’[3]

To the east of Avesnes on the morning of 11th November 1918, the noise was deafening. Then, at 11:00 A.M., it stopped and ‘the sudden quietness made us all feel dazed—almost stunned—and it was some time before anyone spoke. We who were left just stood gazing into space. It was rather like one feels in regaining consciousness after an anaesthetic.’

This is Gunner James Davidson of the 50th Divisional Trench Mortar Battery: his 1978 letter to the BBC is being quoted by Stanley Weintraub in his fine account of the end of the Great War.[4]

Such noise—in volume, in intensity, in duration—as that inflicted by the Great War had not previously been known. In 1900, Ford Madox Ford had written, at the end of his large volume on The Cinque Ports: ‘But I have sometimes thought that, in the end, a time will come, when the brain of man—of humanity all the world over—will suddenly grow unable to bear with the hurry and turmoil that itself has created.’[5] Sixteen years later, as he would subsequently recall, during the Battle of the Somme, ‘in pitch blackness, in the midst of gunfire that shook the earth I did once pray to the major Heavenly powers that my reason might be preserved.…’[6]


(Anne Bradstreet, 1612(?)–1672)

All of us, or most of us, begin with a cry—

‘drencht & powerful, I did it with my body!’ John Berryman has Anne Bradstreet say. And, a little later: ‘Blossomed Sarah, and I/ blossom. Is that thing alive? I hear a famisht howl.’[7]

and end in silence.

Into our earlier silences, noise comes, must be accommodated, incorporated, used. Henry David Thoreau, ‘self-appointed inspector of snow storms and rain storms’, marvellously sets against one another the penetrating sound of the locomotive whistle and the solitude and stillness in which, for the most part, he sits. Thoreau is indeed a noted connoisseur of both sound and soundlessness. There are, as he says, ‘many fine things which we cannot say if we have to shout.’[8]

The sound of the railway would become background noise; as would the noise of the car and, eventually, the noise of the aeroplane. Now we move through walls of sound, seas of sound, and are largely unaware of them. In the early years of the twentieth century, Don Gifford remarks, ‘most people regarded the telephone as a medium for messages that were rather more urgent than casual talk.’[9] Now the loudness of a mobile telephone call in a public place is generally an index of its triviality, its banality.

Just as darkness is no longer darkness as our grandparents knew it, so silence is rarely noiseless now. In his splendid novel, The Broken Lands, based on the tragic Franklin expedition of 1845-8, Robert Edric writes at one point: ‘They passed into a stillness and an emptiness that even the flocks of following birds seemed to acknowledge in their silence.’[10] A hundred and forty years later, on a hill above Bristol, I thought that I was surrounded by silence until I concentrated on what was not and eventually compiled a list of nineteen separate and identifiable sounds.


(Not Ambrose but Fra Angelico’s S. Dominic. Still, a saint reading.)

I still read poetry aloud—but tend to ensure that I’m on my own when I do so. It helps both remembering and understanding and, of course, used to be simply how it was done. Alberto Manguel discusses Saint Augustine’s account of St Ambrose reading—remarkably—to himself and in silence. ‘Augustine’s description of Ambrose’s silent reading (including the remark that he never read aloud) is the first definite instance recorded in Western literature.’[11]

Looking almost as far back into (literary) history—and in another country—Arthur Cooper, writing of the 8th-century poet Li Po, notes that poems were always sung or chanted: there was ‘no notion of reading poems silently till perhaps a thousand years later’.[12] This was the poet whom Ezra Pound called Rihaku, following the Japanese form of the name in the notebooks of Ernest Fenollosa, original source of the poems in Cathay and the Noh plays which so enthused W. B. Yeats and led to his writing At the Hawk’s Well. A few years later, Pound would write in Canto 21 of ‘Another war without glory, and another peace without quiet.’[13]



[1] William Shakespeare, Hamlet, V, ii, l.363; edited by Harold Jenkins (London: Routledge, 1989), 416. The First Folio had, after ‘silence’, ‘O, o, o, o, o.’

[2] William Least Heat-Moon, Blue Highways: A Journey into America (London: Picador, 1984), 88.

[3] Stevenson, Travels with a Donkey in the Cevennes and Selected Travel Writings, edited by Emma Letley (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992), 71.

[4] Stanley Weintraub, A Stillness Heard Around the World: The End of the Great War, November 1918 (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987), 223.

[5] Ford, The Cinque Ports (Edinburgh and London: William Blackwood and Sons, 1900), 372.

[6] Ford, It Was the Nightingale (London: Heinemann, 1934), 100.

[7] Berryman, Homage to Mistress Bradstreet and Other Poems (London: Faber and Faber, 1959), 17.

[8] Thoreau, Walden, edited by J. Lyndon Shanley (Princeton and London: Princeton University Press, 1974), 18, 141.

[9] Don Gifford, The Farther Shore: A Natural History of Perception (London: Faber, 1990), 61.

[10] Robert Edric, The Broken Lands (London: Jonathan Cape 1992), 41.

[11] Alberto Manguel, A History of Reading (London: Flamingo, 1997), 42-43; and see Saint Augustine, Confessions, translated by Henry Chadwick (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), 92-93.

[12] Arthur Cooper, Li Po and Tu Fu (Penguin, 1973), 32.

[13] The Cantos of Ezra Pound, fourth collected edition (London: Faber and Faber, 1987), 98.