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: 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]


(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.



[1] Roger Lancelyn Green, Kipling and the Children (London: Elek, 1965), 49, 204.
And see:

[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.

Jubilant jaunty Jonathan


(Jonathan Williams, via New Directions Publishing Corporation)

In 1973, William Blissett, on a visit to the poet and painter David Jones, went with him through a list of queries about In Parenthesis, one of them ‘yon’s wick as Swale-side rat’. Yorkshire dialect, Jones told him, quick, alert, artful. He was surprised that the Oxford English Dictionary gave only ‘wicked’: that was ‘not what he meant at all.’ Blissett added: ‘He remembers a Yorkshireman in his unit who used to pass things to him, saying “’ere ye are, wick’un.”’[1]

That rang a bell with this Southerner and the ringing sound was traced to the fine collection of Portrait Photographs by Jonathan Williams, with a short preface by Hugh Kenner.[2] One of the photographs is of David Hockney and beside it Williams wrote: ‘I worry sometimes that La Grande Chic will gobble up David and turn him into High Society’s current stand-in for Cecil Beaton or Noel Coward. But, maybe that argument is neither nowt nor summat, as they say in the West Riding where he comes from. Our David is wick as a lop and still knows what’s what.’


(David Hockney by Jonathan Williams)

‘Wick as a lop’, yes, that was the phrase. Getting on for forty years later and Hockney still knows what’s what, is still working endlessly, exploring, experimenting, trying stuff out and giving pleasure. Not bad going.

Jonathan Williams (born 8 March 1929), was poet, publisher, photographer, essayist. He studied at Black Mountain College and, with David Ruff, founded The Jargon Society in 1951. It published an extraordinary range of writers, mainly poets, including Robert Duncan, Mina Loy, Louis Zukofsky, Paul Metcalf, Kenneth Patchen, Robert Creeley and Denise Levertov, though its all-time bestseller seems to have been White Trash Cooking. Following Williams’ death in March 2008, his long-time partner, the poet Thomas Meyer, took the decision to present The Jargon Society’s inventory and publication rights to the Black Mountain College Museum & Arts Center: see


Charles Olson’s early Maximus volumes appeared from Jargon. So too did Lorine Niedecker’s beautiful T & G: The Collected Poems (1936-1966), printed by the Falcon Press in Philadelphia, in September 1969. Niedecker lived most of her life on Black Hawk Island, Wisconsin.

Black Hawk held: In reason
land cannot be sold,
only things to be carried away,
and I am old.

Young Lincoln’s general moved,
pawpaw in bloom,
and to this day, Black Hawk,
reason has small room.[3]

In the early 1960s, as Niedecker wrote to Louis Zukofsky, ‘Letter from Jonathan says he reads my poems to English audiences but tho the response was good, “very tentative. The English tend to want a lot of ‘profound talk’ in everything, and they are so non-sensual that they find it difficult to enjoy anything else. . .”’.[4] Williams was also given to ‘reading and slide-showing tours around the Republic in his Volkswagen, The Blue Rider’. He is, Guy Davenport wrote, ‘the iconographer of poets in our time, and of the places and graves of poets gone on to Elysium.’[5]

Williams’ own poems were written in the Pennine Dales and the Appalachian Mountains. Hugh Kenner’s observation that ‘Jonathan Williams is our Catullus and our Johnny Appleseed’ hints at the hybrid nature of the poetry.[6] It’s hugely various, veering from high modernism to folk art, exploratory, a little crazy, jaunty, ingenious, funny, often splendidly indecent. From two-line epigrams through acrostics, clerihews and what Williams calls ‘Meta-fours’, four words to a line, these and others often skirting the edge of nonsense, if not toppling over; there’s the fifty-page Mahler; and then many ‘found’ poems. They may be literally so, reshaped from newspaper reports or postcards or public notices; but the term could be applied more widely, to Williams looking and listening with close attention to ordinary lives in the Appalachians or in Cumbria. Guy Davenport quotes such a poem, suggesting that it demonstrates its author having learned from William Carlos Williams’ insistence that ‘the poet’s business is to let the world speak for itself’:


Mister Williams
lets youn me move
tother side the house

the woman
choppin wood’s
mite nigh the awkerdist thing
I seen.[7]

As with many of Marianne Moore’s poems or, for that matter, Ezra Pound’s ‘In a Station of the Metro’, the title is an integral part of the text of the poem. It contains twenty words; the poem itself, twenty-one.

Williams quotes with approval Bentley’s Milton clerihew:

The digestion of Milton
Was unequal to Stilton.

He was only feeling so-so
When he wrote Il Pensoroso.

And devises many of his own:

Why did Professor J. R. R. Tolkien
never really come clean

about the scientologists in cupboards
in the House of L. Ron Hubbard?

or (one of my favourites):

Gertrude Stein
arose at nine

and arose and arose
and arose.[8]


His acrostic on Guy Davenport’s name ends with the line, ‘To keep afloat the Ark of Culture in these dark and tacky times!’ His prefatory ‘A Greeting to the Reader’ mentioned that Davenport ‘has been reading the poems since the 1960s.’[9] The two writers had enjoyed a long and fertile friendship, apparently damaged by the publication of A Garden Carried in a Pocket: Letters 1964-1968, including material that Davenport had specifically asked Williams to omit.[10]

Jubilant Thicket appeared in 2005, the year of Davenport’s death. One of the last poems in it is for Lorine Niedecker:

she seined words
as others stars
or carp

laconic as
a pebble
in the Rock River

along the bank
where the peony flowers

her tall friend
the pine tree
is still there

to see[11]


Tremendous collection of photographs of Williams’ life here:

Jeffery Beam’s obituary here:



[1] William Blissett, The Long Conversation: A Memoir of David Jones (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1981), 123; see David Jones, In Parenthesis, (1937; London: Faber, 1963), 114.

[2] Jonathan Williams, Portrait Photographs (London: Coracle Press, 1979): the Hockney portrait is Plate 22.

[3] Taken from Lorine Niedecker, Collected Works, edited by Jenny Penberthy (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002), 99.

[4] Letter of 3 February 1963, Jenny Penberthy, Niedecker and the Correspondence with Zukofsky, 1931-1970 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), 328.

[5] Guy Davenport, ‘Ralph Eugene Meatyard’, in The Geography of the Imagination (Boston: David R. Godine, 1997), 368; ‘Jonathan Williams’, first published as introduction to Williams’ An Ear in Bartram’s Tree, then as a pamphlet from Jim Lowell’s Asphodel Bookshop; reprinted in The Geography of the Imagination, 180-189.

[6] Dust jacket blurb quoted by Willard Godwin, Hugh Kenner: A Bibliography (Albany, New York: Whitston, 2001), 402.

[7] Jonathan Williams, Jubilant Thicket: New & Selected Poems (Port Townsend, Washington: Copper Canyon Press, 2005), 136.

[8] Jonathan Williams, Jubilant Thicket, 101, 102, 108.

[9] Jonathan Williams, Jubilant Thicket, 114, ix.

[10] W. C. Bamberger, editor, Guy Davenport and James Laughlin: Selected Letters (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 2007), 139n.

[11] Jonathan Williams, Jubilant Thicket, 273.

Bunting Nodding

Lawrence, Thomas, 1769-1830; Homer Reciting his Poems

(Homer Reciting His Poems: Thomas Lawrence, Tate)

Francis Wyndham once observed that what he’d always wanted to do in his fiction was ‘to write about the hours and hours and hours, the enormous proportion of life which is spent in a kind of limbo, even in people’s active years. It seems to me that it isn’t sufficiently celebrated.’[1]

He meant it, I think, in a secular sense: an uncertain period of waiting, for decisions or resolutions, rather than the borderlands of Hell, unbaptised infants and the rest; nor, presumably, a Caribbean dance. My Chambers dictionary adds the helpful ‘unsatisfactory state of consignment or oblivion’.

Ah, oblivion. Yes, I’d apply that to many people passed in the street, plugged in to various devices, oblivious at least to the world through which they’re walking. Oblivious too are some of the passing motorists, a few of whom are busily and hazardously engaged with their mobile phones or make-up or breakfast, all the while keeping their speed up to 50 m.p.h. to avoid bits of themselves dropping off.

‘Dropping off’ recalls me to a deeper state than limbo: actually nodding off. Having nodded off, actually or almost, at staff meetings and conferences, in cinemas and theatres, readings, lectures and presentations, I think of Homer nodding. (A lot of links assume that ‘Homer’ means ‘Simpson’ rather than ‘dead, blind Greek epic poet’ but the latter is meant here.) The phrase, ‘even Homer nods’, deriving originally from Horace, is now pressed into service often and in wildly divergent contexts. There was, naturally, a band called ‘Even Homer Nods’ — though the soporific qualities of such a lengthy name presumably prompted them to the snappier version which succeeded it: ‘The Nods’. There is also a racehorse, I gather, an Irish chestnut gelding (with the full-length moniker).


My worst instance of dropping off—certainly the occasion when I least wanted to—was at a reading by Basil Bunting (to whom birthday wishes are due: born 1 March 1900) a few years before he died. Not having taken the precaution of writing down detailed directions to the venue, I wandered around unfamiliar parts of the city for a couple of hours. Early on, I established the habit of popping into a pub for advice every so often and downing a quick drink. The various bar staff that I consulted had conflicting views on where the small theatre was, so I arrived late and the worse for wear. The attendance was appalling but would not have surprised Bunting, I suspect. He read a number of translations from the Persian and some early poems, certainly his ‘Villon’, but I may have slumbered through at least a third of the incomparable ‘Briggflatts’. I have two recordings of the poem (both by Bunting) but that live performance must have been one of his last—one of the true last chances.

As the player’s breath warms the fipple the tone clears.
It is time to consider how Domenico Scarlatti
condensed so much music into so few bars
with never a crabbed turn or congested cadence,
never a boast or a see-here; and stars and lakes
echo him and the copse drums out his measure,
snow peaks are lifted up in moonlight and twilight
and the sun rises on an acknowledged land.[2]

Later, though, I read an account of how Bunting had attended a lecture by Robert Duncan, slept through the greater part of it, snoring audibly, then woken at the end to exclaim how much he’d enjoyed it: ‘I like talks like that.’[3] So yes, even Bunting nodded.


[1] Quoted in the text of Rachel Cooke’s interview with Wyndham (The Observer, August 2008):

[2] Briggflatts, IV: The Poems of Basil Bunting, edited by Don Share(London: Faber and Faber, 2016), 56.

[3] J. M. Edelstein, in Madeira & Toasts for Basil Bunting’s 75th Birthday, edited by Jonathan Williams (Highlands, North Carolina: Jargon Society, 1977), unpaginated, but see also Richard Burton, A Strong Song Tows Us: The Life of Basil Bunting ((Oxford: Infinite Ideas, 2013), 419.



Put it more simply, Larry

(Lawrence Durrell via )

When I went to the Ford Madox Ford conference in Swansea in September 2013, I remember thinking, as the train entered Wales, that the change was physically apparent. Could I really look out of a train window and say ‘that’s Wales’? I felt I could but would have been hard put to it if I were challenged to say precisely how and why. But I did, quite abruptly, recall the opening lines of a poem by R. S. Thomas, whose title I could not then remember, and sat leaning against the window, listening to the voice in my head:

To live in Wales is to be conscious
At dusk of the spilled blood
That went into the making of the wild sky,
Dyeing the immaculate rivers
In all their courses.
It is to be aware,
Above the noisy tractor
And hum of the machine
Of strife in the strung woods,
Vibrant with sped arrows.[1]

No, that’s not quite what I heard. The third line had ‘to’ instead of ‘into’, the fourth and fifth lines had vanished from my memory, I had ‘the noise of the tractor’ and ‘the hum’. But not too bad since I hadn’t read the poem for a good thirty years. At home, seeming not to have any R. S. Thomas, I took down from the shelves four or five anthologies of post-1945 poetry, all containing poems by Thomas but not that one. Then I remembered that the hugely important and influential series of Penguin Modern Poets had featured Thomas in the very first volume. I’d owned that, more, at least the first ten volumes in the series, for years. Penguin Modern Poets 10: The Mersey Sound—Roger McGough, Adrian Henri and Brian Patten—was the bestseller, which took everyone by surprise. Where did my copies go? I’m not sure. Perhaps they didn’t go anywhere. It was just me that went. In any case, the Thomas poem, ‘A Welsh Landscape’, yes, was in the initial volume.


(R. S. Thomas via The Telegraph)

It was in April 1962 that Penguin Books launched Penguin Modern Poets. Each volume contained representative selections from three poets and that first volume included, together with Thomas, Elizabeth Jennings – and Lawrence Durrell (born on this day, 27 February 1912, in Jalandhar, India). I don’t know how far the series had gone before I came to it but there was a handful of poems of which I recalled parts, sometimes only a few lines, for years.


The Thomas was one and another, in the same volume, was by Durrell. It was called ‘The Parthenon’, dedicated ‘For T. S. Eliot’, and it was the direct, colloquial beginning that stuck in my head:

Put it more simply: say the city
Swam up here swan-like to the shallows,
Or whiteness from an overflowing jar
Settled into this grassy violet space,
Theorem for three hills,

Went soft with brickdust, clay and whitewash,
On a plastered porch one morning wrote
Human names, think of it, men became the roads.[2]

Looking at it now, of course, I’m struck by more details: the conversational opening phrase followed by the word ‘say’; the artful sibilants, ‘swam’ to ‘swan’ then, with the modifying ‘like’, shifting to ‘shallows’. The word ‘jar’ in a grassy space would prompt me to look back at Keats’s ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’ via Wallace Stevens, whose ‘Anecdote of the Jar’ begins:

I placed a jar in Tennessee,
And round it was upon a hill.
It made the slovenly wilderness
Surround that hill.[3]

This is purely because of the strong recollection of one of my lecturers—surely John Reid?—reading the Stevens poem and looking encouragingly out at his audience: ‘What does that remind you of? What’s Stevens doing there?’ Pause. Then, with a kind of resonant despair: ‘It’s Keats! The urn!’ Packed rows of blank faces gave back whatever was the equivalent then of ‘Yeah, whatever’.

Durrell’s insertion of the word ‘Theorem’ is a nice touch too. He refers often to scientific or mathematical matters, a continuum or simultaneity here, a Freudian slap there, his range of interests always extended beyond the narrowly ‘artistic’. Firmly established in Sommières, he played with the ideas of opposing characteristics of North and South, discerning in France’s great figures ‘a pattern of talents: for scientists, philosophers and thinkers tend to be of northern stock, while the poets, artists and men of action come from the Mediterranean southern fringes.’[4] From Corfu in the mid-1930s, he wrote to his friend Alan Thomas, ‘What do you read when you spend a wet Monday alone? Myself I read one of the sciences.’ But he slyly added: ‘The most exact one to date is demonology. It is fun to follow the growth of science out of magic and demonology, and see it declining again in our time back to magic, its parent.’[5]

Whenever I find myself quoting one of those ‘Cypriot Greek proverbs’ that Durrell used as epigraphs to several chapters in Bitter Lemons, such as ‘A fool throws a stone into the sea and a hundred wise men cannot pull it out’, I’m reminded that, a little further on, he casually notes that, ‘No Greek can resist aphorism; its form will make him believe it to be true, even if it is false.’[6]

A bit more R. S. Thomas followed that early reading of the poems—and a lot more Durrell. The novels, the travel books, essays, letters; plus the connected stuff, the related writers, the sacred places. Greece, Alexandria, Provence. Miller, Cavafy, Seferis, Anaïs Nin. And, of course, the stimulus of conversation, a decade and a half in the office with my friend Andrew, a thoroughgoing Durrellian.


(‘Darling Anaïs, I do feel for you in your cutoffness, and there seems nothing to say to you that will make you less conscious of the distance of light and air which lies between us; the war goes bitter and deep in me – it makes everything taste of ash.’—Letter from Durrell in Greece, quoted in The Journals of Anaïs Nin: Volume Three, 15.
Portrait of Anaïs Nin by the wonderful Brassaï [Gyula Halász, 1899-1984], 1932.)

Durrell was so prolific that, inevitably, some of the writing is a bit hit and miss. But with that range of cultures and countries and curiosities there are plenty of highlights, often cropping up in unexpected places or small-scale pieces or, say, in departures and returns. He writes of April 1941 when, lying ‘on the pitch-dark deck of a caique nosing past Matapan towards Crete’, he thinks back to ‘that green rain upon a white balcony, in the shadow of Albania’, with ‘a regret so luxurious and so deep that it did not stir the emotions at all. Seen through the transforming lens of memory the past seemed so enchanted that even thought would be unworthy of it.’[7] And revisiting Corfu, long afterwards: ‘As for the people . . . Memory does not grow older by a second per thousand years in Greece. Step off the ship and everywhere you will fall upon remembered faces, be instantly recognized and embraced: and I don’t mean only by friends, but by everyone who remembers you in that once, nearly twenty years ago, you gave his son a lesson or let him shine your shoes. Because they remember you they possess you, and you belong to them.’ And then, ‘there is nothing to do but surrender yourself. Strong-willed men break down and cry like babies. No good. The steady flow of hospitality ends only when you are lovingly hospitalized or carried aboard a departing ship on a stretcher.’[8]

Again, rereading The Alexandria Quartet a while back, with that slight nervousness attendant on a revisiting of a past favourite, was as provoking and pleasurable as I hoped it would be. Durrell’s rarely less than diverting, even when he’s being exasperating, a thought that occurred to me when deeply implicated in the more than 1300 pages of The Avignon Quintet, with its maddening hall of mirrors, characters repeatedly dissolving into novelists writing other characters, who are then revealed to be characters in someone else’s novel, while I mutter, ‘Cut it out, Larry’, every ten pages – but read on. ‘There is only trial and error on a journey like this, and no signposts’, as Durrell wrote on another occasion.[9]

Joyeux anniversaire, Larry. Or even, Aürós aniversari.

The International Lawrence Durrell Society site is here:



[1] R. S. Thomas, ‘Welsh Landscape’, Collected Poems: 1945-1990 (London: Dent, 1993), 37.

[2] Lawrence Durrell, Collected Poems 1931-1974 (London: Faber and Faber, 1985), 134.

[3] Wallace Stevens, The Collected Poems (New York: Vintage Books, 1982), 76.

[4] Lawrence Durrell, Caesar’s Vast Ghost: Aspects of Provence (London: Faber and Faber, 1990), 26.

[5] Alan G. Thomas, editor, Spirit of Place: Mediterranean Writings (1969; London : Faber and Faber, 1988), 47.

[6] Lawrence Durrell, Bitter Lemons (London: Faber and Faber, 1959), 152, 235.

[7] Lawrence Durrell, Prospero’s Cell (1945; London: Faber and Faber, 1962), 133.

[8] Lawrence Durrell, ‘Oil for the Saint: Return to Corfu’, Holiday, Philadelphia, (October 1966), in Spirit of Place, 286, 290.

[9] Lawrence Durrell, The Black Book (1938; London: Faber and Faber, 1977), 233.


Foxes, Graces, Fatal Flowers

Maitland, Paul Fordyce, 1863-1909; Boats Moored on the Thames

(Paul Fordyce Maitland, Boats Moored on the Thames: York Museums Trust)

On a cold and blue and almost cloudless day, I pass through the park, between the bobbing magpies. Once you recognise the sight and sound of them, they’re everywhere. In our small garden yesterday, I watched a magpie take into its beak three, four, five suet pellets, and was put in mind of the fox.

Six or seven years ago, looking out of the window of my mother’s first-floor flat in Sutton, I would sometimes see foxes jogging along beside the railway line, about fifty metres away. At the end of the short garden was a garage with a flat roof and the downstairs neighbour used to throw food up onto it. One morning a fox appeared there – the roof was accessible from a low wall nearby. It took up items of food into its long jaws, meat and vegetables, five, six, seven pieces and, at the last, added a whole egg. Then it made its way down off the roof and emerged at the side of the track, all the food still apparently in place, undamaged, before padding off in the direction of home where, presumably, its cubs were waiting.

There are times when something occupying our minds or strongly present for a while—and it might be anything, from a car, a song or a woman’s name to a painting, a terrace of houses or a body of writing—exerts a powerful centripetal force. Details of things seen or heard fly to it and stick like burrs. Sounds and sights, images, phrases, connect with an audible click.

Since I’m reading or, mostly, rereading Penelope Fitzgerald’s books at present, when I walked in the park yesterday and heard the skirl of bagpipes launching into ‘Amazing Grace’, it was enough to recall the novel I’d just finished. Offshore, which won the Booker Prize in 1979, is set on the barges moored on Chelsea Reach and is dedicated ‘To Grace and all who sailed in her’. Grace is the name of the central character Nenna James’s barge, as it was the name of Fitzgerald’s, ‘a battered, patched, caulked, tar-blackened hulk’. The ‘great consolation was that a Thames barge, because of the camber of the deck, never sinks completely.’ On this point, Fitzgerald remarked, she could ‘give evidence, because we went down twice, and on both occasions the deck stayed just above water’, although Grace was finally ‘towed away to the Essex marshes to be broken up.’[1] After one of those disasters, Fitzgerald ‘went back to her teaching the next day, looking more than usually dishevelled, and said to her class: “I’m sorry I’m late, but my house sank.”’[2]


Similarly, thoughts of that fox recalled Fitzgerald’s letter in response to Frank Kermode’s review of her final novel, The Blue Flower, which centres on the life of the German Romantic poet Friedrich von Hardenberg, who wrote as ‘Novalis’. ‘I hope you won’t mind me writing to thank you for your review of The Blue Flower. I started from D. H. Lawrence’s “fatal flower of happiness” at the end of The Fox, having always wondered how DHL knew it was blue, and never quite managed to find out all I wanted to, partly because Novalis’ letters to Sophie have disappeared, buried in her grave I daresay.’[3]

Kermode had written of Fitzgerald: ‘She has the gift of knowing, or seeming to know, everything necessary, and as it were knowing it from the inside, conveying it by gleams and fractions, leaving those who feel so disposed to make it explicit.’ And, of the object of Fritz’s quest, ‘The visionary blue flower dominates his imagination, but in the waking life of Fritz von Hardenberg the part of the flower was played by Sophie von Kühn’.[4]

Sophie was the twelve-year-old girl with whom the poet fell in love. They became engaged on her thirteenth birthday but she died of tuberculosis just two years later. Novalis himself died before reaching thirty.

The end of ‘The Fox’ has ‘poor March’ musing on how, ‘The more you reached after the fatal flower of happiness, which trembles so blue and lovely in a crevice just beyond your grasp, the more fearfully you became aware of the ghastly and awful gulf of the precipice below you, into which you will inevitably plunge, as into the bottomless pit, if you reach any further. You pluck flower after flower – it is never the flower.’[5]

And the ending of Offshore? The two weakest characters, drunk and more than usually incapable, drift off in the storm, when the anchor comes clear and the mooring-ropes pull free under the strain. ‘It was in this way that Maurice, with the two of them clinging on for dear life, put out on the tide.’[6]

A craft that should be firmly linked to those of its close neighbours becoming unmoored and drifting off into the open sea because of intoxicated incompetence. Not a fable for our time, obviously.


[1] Penelope Fitzgerald, ‘Curriculum Vitae’, in A House of Air: Selected Writings, edited by Terence Dooley with Mandy Kirkby and Chris Carduff (London: Harper Perennial, 2005), 477-478.

[2] Hermione Lee, Penelope Fitzgerald: A Life (London: Chatto and Windus, 2013), 158.

[3] Penelope Fitzgerald to Frank Kermode, 3 October [1995], in So I Have Thought of You: The Letters of Penelope Fitzgerald, edited by Terence Dooley (London: Fourth Estate, 2008), 453.

[4] Frank Kermode, ‘Dark Fates’, review of The Blue Flower, London Review of Books, 17, 19 (5 October, 1995), 7.

[5] D. H. Lawrence, ‘The Fox’, in The Complete Short Novels, edited by Keith Sagar and Melissa Partridge (London: Penguin Books, 2000), 203.

[6] Penelope Fitzgerald, Offshore (1979; London: Everyman, 2003), 131.


Education, chaos, Henry Adams


(Henry Adams at his desk. Massachusetts Historical Society via Wikipedia: photograph by Marion Hooper Adams, 1883.)

‘Said Mr Adams, of the education,
Teach? at Harvard?
Teach? It cannot be done.
and this I had from the monument’

So Ezra Pound, in the first and longest of The Pisan Cantos.[1] That ‘monument’ was the philosopher George Santayana: born in Spain, he went to the United States at the age of eight, later studied at Harvard and taught there for many years before returning to Europe for the last forty years of his long life.

‘Mr Adams’ was not the John Adams to whom Pound so frequently referred, often pairing him with Thomas Jefferson; nor the historian Brooks Adams but his elder brother Henry Adams (born 16 February 1838), also historian—and novelist, and autobiographer.

In early 1939, Pound had put together four quotations, from John Adams, Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln and section 8 of the American Constitution, as an Introductory Text Book, which he asserted ‘should be taught in all American universities as the basis of a true American culture.’[2] Towards the end of that year, he called on Santayana when the latter was in Venice. As David Moody surmises, ‘Possibly feeling rather talked at as by an over-excited teacher’, he told Pound the anecdote about Henry Adams which found its way into the Cantos.[3] But Noel Stock is surely correct in saying that, while Pound seems to make the story apply to Harvard in particular, Santayana in his autobiography implies a more general statement about teaching.[4]

‘Never before had Adams been able to discern the working of law in history, which was the reason of his failure in teaching it, for chaos cannot be taught.’[5] So Adams—writing of himself in the third person, as he does throughout his book—defines the problem. Santayana looked back to that meeting in Persons and Places: ‘“So you are trying to teach philosophy at Harvard,” Mr Adams said’, adding ‘“I once tried to teach history there but it can’t be done. It isn’t really possible to teach anything.”’ Santayana commented dryly, ‘This may be true, if we give very exacting meanings to our terms; but it was not encouraging.’[6]


(Ernest and Mary Fenollosa, via )

For Pound, the main link with Henry Adams—about whom he is not particularly complimentary—is the figure of Ernest Fenollosa, whose notes and direct translations, given to Pound by Fenollosa’s widow, Mary, enabled both the Noh plays and the poems of Cathay; and whose ideas expressed in The Chinese Written Character as a Medium for Poetry had a lasting influence upon Pound.

Chapter XX of Adams’ Education is headed ‘Failure (1871); Chapter XXI is headed ‘Twenty Years After (1892). In that large and gaping temporal space, Adams was married to Marion Hooper, known as ‘Clover’ (a talented amateur photographer), in 1872; she committed suicide in December 1885. In the late spring of 1886, Adams, in company with the artist John La Farge, set off westward to Japan. After a week in Tokyo, they moved to a small house, belonging to a Buddhist priest, in the hills, close to the summer villa of Ernest and Mary Fenollosa in Nikko. La Farge emerged from his stay with drawings, sketches and other material for future use—the book, An Artist’s Letters from Japan, and a printed version in the same year of a talk centred on Hokusai—but Adams seems never to have really engaged with Japan.


(Magnolia by John La Farge, 1860)

In September, Adams and La Farge sailed back across the Pacific to San Francisco. Lawrence Chisolm remarks that, ‘For Adams, return was a prelude to years of wandering, until at last, in The Education of Henry Adams, he transformed the story of his personal searches into a history of Western man.’[7]

‘His first step, on returning to Washington’, Adams wrote, ‘took him out to the cemetery known as Rock Creek, to see the bronze figure which St. Gaudens had made for him in his absence’ (329). This was the sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens; and that ‘bronze figure’ was a memorial to Adams’ wife Clover. Adams discusses his own, and others’, responses to the figure but doesn’t allude to the reason for its being there at all. Robert Hughes suggests that this may in fact have been one legacy of Japan: its inspiration ‘seems to have been a sixth-century wooden figure sheathed in bronze which he saw in the convent of Chugu-ji’.[8]


(Augustus Saint-Gaudens, Adams Memorial (1886-1891), Rock Creek, Washington)

Adams once noted that ‘One sees what one brings’ (387)—and he brought an extensive knowledge of artistic and religious history to the moment when ‘he found himself lying in the Gallery of Machines at the Great Exposition of 1900, his historical neck broken by the sudden irruption of forces totally new’ (382). He had seen, at the Louvre and at Chartres, what he judged ‘the highest energy ever known to man’, exercising ‘vastly more attraction over the human mind than all the steam-engines and dynamos ever dreamed of’ (384-385), yet the unprecedented speed and extent of new scientific and technological developments represented now, in 1900, ‘a new avalanche of unknown forces’ which would require ‘new mental powers to control. If this view was correct, the mind could gain nothing by flight or by fight; it must merge in its sensual multiverse, or succumb to it’ (463).

Familiar modernist concerns: speed, fragmentation, instability, multiplicity – but Adams gets in quite early.

(There was an intriguing novel called Panama by Eric Zencey, which sets Henry Adams in Paris in 1892, investigating the disappearance of a young woman connected with the Panama Canal bribery scandal. I’m slightly alarmed to see that it’s over twenty years since I read it.)


[1] The Cantos of Ezra Pound, fourth collected edition (London: Faber and Faber, 1987), 433.

[2] Ezra Pound, Selected Prose 1909-1965, edited by William Cookson (London: Faber and Faber, 1973), 129; A. David Moody, Ezra Pound: Poet: A Portrait of the Man and His Work: Volume II: The Epic Years 1921–1939 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014), 299.

[3] A. David Moody, Ezra Pound: Poet: A Portrait of the Man and His Work: Volume III: The Tragic Years 1939-1972 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015), 7.

[4] Noel Stock, The Life of Ezra Pound (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1974), 478.

[5] Henry Adams, The Education of Henry Adams (1918; New York: The Modern Library, 1931), 363: page numbers in brackets refer to this edition.

[6] George Santayana, Persons and Places: The Background of My Life (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1944), 234.

[7] Lawrence W. Chisolm, Fenollosa, the Far East and American Culture (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1963), 75.

[8] Robert Hughes, American Visions: The Epic History of Art in America (London: The Harvill Press, 1997), 244.


That public-school frame of mind – perhaps


‘So the great need of our time being the saving of time, any soul that can give us very quick, irrefutable and consummate pictures confers a great boon on humanity’, Ford Madox Ford wrote. ‘Joseph Conrad gave you Malaysia, South American republics, the Secret Service, the pre-Soviet efforts of Russian revolutionaries, the Congo, the Sea — and above all the English public school frame of mind.’[1]

Ah yes, that frame of mind. Conrad was a little less than six months dead when this essay appeared but a decade earlier, in the first year of the Great War, Ford had written of how he was ‘in a sense an unfortunate man—unfortunate in the sense that all men of forty and less, the world over, are unfortunate. For I came into, and took very seriously, English public-school life at a time when the English public-school spirit—in many ways the finest product of a civilisation—was already on the wane. I took its public traditions with extraordinary seriousness—the traditions of responsibilities, duties, privileges, and no rights.’[2] This was in a work of propaganda, written for his friend, the Liberal politician Charles Masterman, then in charge of the War Propaganda Bureau at Wellington House, its team of writers primarily concerned to oppose German propaganda in the United States. Ford had in fact attended a boarding-school in Folkestone, then, as a day-boy, University College School in Gower Street—but that tradition, that frame of mind, yes, he was probably familiar enough with it, one way or another.


(Benedict Cumberbatch as Christopher Tietjens in the BBC/HBO series of Parade’s End)

Christopher Tietjens, in his rather unhinged exchange with General Campion, states that ‘it is not a good thing to belong to the seventeenth or eighteenth centuries in the twentieth. Or really, because it is not good to have taken one’s public-school’s ethical system seriously. I am really, sir, the English public schoolboy. That’s an eighteenth-century product.’[3]

‘Have you read The Dawn Watch?’ my wife’s sister asked as we circled the piles of books in Waterstones. I said I hadn’t, though I’d looked at it several times, most recently in the past few minutes, and seen a couple of reviews. ‘I just don’t know if I’d read it’, I said, ‘I think it’s a bit peripheral to what really interests me at the moment.’ She regarded me steadily. ‘You’ve already bought it, haven’t you?’ I said, hearing the laboured grinding of my brain’s gears and wondering why I’d been so slow. And, when she nodded, ‘Well, that’s different’, I said hurriedly, ‘if it’s a present.’ She said helpfully: ‘It absolves you of the responsibility—’ ‘Exactly’, I said, ‘exactly.’


(Conrad, aged sixteen, 1874)

My slight reluctance might seem odd, given my intense interest in the period of history in which Conrad flourished, the writers with whom he associated, the themes that his work is concerned with, the fact that some of my Fordian friends are also card-carrying Conradians. Because of those things, in turn, I’ve read, over many years, all of Conrad’s fiction and some of his other writings too; plus a handful of biographical and critical works. Come to think of it, I’m pretty sure that I actually taught a Conrad text once—inevitably Heart of Darkness, which is, I have to say, an ideal seminar text: how can you not have an opinion about it? Still, the fact remains that he’s one of those writers that I’ve never liked quite as much as I think I should—given all the reasons for reading him in the first place. Entirely my fault, no doubt, no doubt. And there’s another thing. . .

After a certain age—it must vary wildly, depending on character—one begins to think in finite terms. Not calculating at every point, I mean, but in certain contexts, trips, holidays, meetings with friends or relatives who live inconveniently far off. . . books. Some book people, mainly but not exclusively male, I suppose, have lists. Books to read, books to reread, books to buy or borrow. They estimate, approximate, do sums. This many a year and say, this many years, that means. . . To those not similarly afflicted—or those that have not yet reached that certain age—such appraisal and conjecture can seem a little morbid. So it’s best not to say, when a title is suggested,  well I have a list of one thousand seven hundred and ninety-three titles and that’s not on it. There are books that will be published over the next ten or fifteen or twenty years and you need a margin. But it’s a fine balance. Like those people who are inundated with invitations at Christmas or New Year, hold out for even better offers, miscalculate and spend the evening at home with a bottle of indifferent wine, you must take care not to overplay your hand. . .


And so I’ve just begun to read Maya Jasanoff’s The Dawn Watch: Joseph Conrad in a Global World. And, needless to say, I am already hooked. Jasanoff is an award-winning historian—‘History is like therapy for the present: it makes it talk about its parents’—and you can see why: so I feel I’m in safe hands. And, early on, she remarks that ‘Conrad’s novels are ethical injunctions. They meditate on how to behave in a globalizing world, where old rulebooks are becoming obsolete, but nobody’s yet written new ones.’[4] And that ‘ethical injunctions’ is pretty close to some of Ford’s pronouncements about his old friend and collaborator. So, now embarked with Jasanoff, I still feel within hailing distance of Fordian shores. But there’s a goodish distance to go and I may yet find myself in quite uncharted waters. . .


[1] Ford Madox Ford, ‘From a Paris Quay (II)’, New York Evening Post Literary Review, 3 January 1925, 1-2, reprinted in Critical Essays, edited by Max Saunders and Richard Stang (Manchester: Carcanet Press, 2002), 269-271 (269).

[2] Ford Madox Ford, When Blood is Their Argument: An Analysis of Prussian Culture (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1915), 301.

[3] Ford Madox Ford, No More Parades (1925; edited by Joseph Wiesenfarth, Manchester: Carcanet Press, 2011), 236.

[4] Maya Jasanoff, The Dawn Watch: Joseph Conrad in a Global World (London: William Collins, 2017), 6, 9.