Milady Millay: or, Edna, come over here.


(Sorting out poetry books on the mistaken assumption that they can be fitted into the space available in such a way that the ones I want will always be at the front. . .but no Millay in any case)

‘I have just finished two volumes of letters—’, Elizabeth Bishop wrote to her friends Kit and Ilse Barker in the autumn of 1953, ‘Hart Crane’s and Edna St. Vincent Millay’s and I don’t know which is more depressing. I suppose his is, it was all over quicker—but she isn’t quite so narcissistic and has some sense of humour, at least.’[1] A couple of months later, writing to Robert Lowell, Bishop agreed with Elizabeth Hardwick about ‘poor E St. V Millay’, in Hardwick’s review of letters by Millay, Hart Crane and Sherwood Anderson in the Partisan Review, ‘Heavens she suffered. But I also suffered reading Hart Crane’.[2]

Edna St. Vincent Millay (1892-1950). I suspect that, while her name may be widely familiar to readers of poetry, she’s not actually read all that much now; maybe more so in the United States, where she used to be extremely popular. Perhaps the name conjures up a particular kind of poetry; or appeals to a particular kind of reader.


(That name: seven syllables, with a saint thrown in. I thought at one point I remembered her name being shoehorned into the lyrics of a song I’d heard but now suspect that I’m thinking of an old song lyric of my own, which managed to incorporate the name of blues and boogie-woogie pianist Champion Jack Dupree, the nickname derived from his boxing days when he fought more than a hundred bouts.)

In her long letter to Lowell of 4-5 April 1962, Bishop wrote: ‘I remember reciting that parody on E St. V Millay to you—“I want to be drowned in the deep sea water (?) I want my body to bump the pier. / Neptune is calling his wayward daughter: / ‘Edna, come over here!’” I asked Dwight Macdonald [Parodies, 1960] why he hadn’t put it in his parody book and he thought it was “dated”, I think he said.’[3]

The question mark is justified since Bishop was quoting from memory and didn’t have the first and last lines of Samuel Hoffenstein’s ‘Miss Millay Says Something Too’ exactly right:

I want to drown in good-salt water,
I want my body to bump the pier;
Neptune is calling his wayward daughter,
Crying ‘Edna, come over here!’

(See )

A good many histories and surveys of the period bypass Millay altogether, though Cary Nelson sets her beside Claude McKay when claiming that the ‘centrality of revolutionary change in traditional forms’ is ‘especially clear in the transformation’ that the two poets ‘worked in the sonnet.’[4]


The sonnet, yes. Here’s ‘Sonnet xlii’:

What lips my lips have kissed, and where, and why,
I have forgotten, and what arms have lain
Under my head till morning; but the rain
Is full of ghosts tonight, that tap and sigh
Upon the glass and listen for reply,
And in my heart there stirs a quiet pain
For unremembered lads that not again
Will turn to me at midnight with a cry.
Thus in the winter stands the lonely tree,
Nor knows what birds have vanished one by one,
Yet knows its boughs more silent than before:
I cannot say what loves have come and gone,
I only know that summer sang in me
A little while, that in me sings no more.

Millay has eight poems in F. O. Matthiessen’s The Oxford Book of American Verse (1950); in David Lehman’s 2006 The Oxford Book of American Poetry, she has six. In Geoffrey Moore’s The Penguin Book of American Verse (revised edition, 1983), she’s down to just two, the 1923 sonnet just quoted and ‘Sonnet cv’ (1931):

Hearing your words and not a word among them
Tuned to my liking, on a salty day
When inland woods were pushed by winds that flung them
Hissing to leeward like a ton of spray,
I thought how off Matinicus the tide
Came pounding in, came running through the Gut,
While from the Rock the warning whistle cried,
And children whimpered, and the doors blew shut;
There in the autumn when the men go forth,
With slapping skirts the island women stand
In gardens stripped and scattered, peering north,
With dahlia tubers dripping from the hand:
The wind of their endurance, driving south,
Flattened your words against your speaking mouth.

No marked modernist experimentation or pioneering divergences; but real skill and an ear well-tuned to that subtle boundary where the effective, well-spaced deployment of alliteration and assonance tips or slips into droning or hammering. The wind is truly driving in from the sea in this poem and not simply in the words that explicitly tell you so.

Millay—or the generally accepted valuation of Millay—seems to have made a later generation of women poets a little uneasy, especially those wanting to explore their own lives and histories in a franker, less inhibited way. Of course, there were—are?—large and lazy assumptions about what ‘women’s poetry’ was and was not. Robert Lowell, in conversation with Ian Hamilton, would name only four women who ‘stand with our best men’: Emily Dickinson, Marianne Moore, Elizabeth Bishop and Sylvia Plath.[5]


Lowell is, of course, often cited—and almost as often damned—for initiating, to a large extent, the ‘confessional’ mode. When Bishop wrote to him in March 1972, expressing her deep concerns about Lowell having used and, crucially, changed letters from Elizabeth Hardwick, she added, ‘In general, I deplore the “confessional”—however, when you wrote LIFE STUDIES perhaps it was a necessary movement, and it helped make poetry more real, fresh and immediate. But now—ye gods—anything goes, and I am so sick of poems about the students’ mothers & fathers and sex-lives and so on. All that can be done—but at the same time one surely should have a feeling that one can trust the writer—not to distort, tell lies, etc.’[6]

Lowell himself was not always comfortable with the work of poets said to be influenced by him, including Anne Sexton—and Sylvia Plath, who readily acknowledged the importance of Lowell’s Life Studies in what she viewed as a ‘breakthrough into very serious, very personal emotional experience, which I feel has been partly taboo.’[7] Plath wrote to her mother in 1956, ‘Ted [Hughes] says he never read poems by a woman like mine; they are strong and full and rich—not quailing and whining like [Sara] Teasdale or simple lyrics like Millay’.[8]

In that same conversation with Ian Hamilton, asked about Anne Sexton, Lowell answered carefully that he knew Sexton well: ‘It would be a test to say what I thought of her.’ But he added, ‘She is Edna Millay after Snodgrass’. ‘After Snodgrass’ meant after—perhaps chronologically but also in the style of—that poet’s 1959 collection, Heart’s Needle: Snodgrass was an acknowledged influence on Lowell’s own move towards a freer and more personal poetry.[9] But ‘Edna Millay’ – alas, alas. Sexton specifically expressed a ‘secret fear’ of being ‘a reincarnation’ of Millay, a poet she considered ‘soggily sentimental’.[10]

‘Soggily sentimental’, though? Some of it may well be, I’ve not ventured that far; best to tread carefully and be selective. Still, you could say that of a great many others, more often than not.

Death devours all lovely things:
Lesbia with her sparrow
Shares the darkness,—presently
Every bed is narrow.


[1] Elizabeth Bishop, One Art: The Selected Letters, edited by Robert Giroux (London: Pimlico, 1996), 272.

[2] Words in Air: The Complete Correspondence between Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell, edited by Thomas Travisano with Saskia Hamilton (London: Faber and Faber, 2008), 148.

[3] Words in Air , 402.

[4] Cary Nelson, ‘Modern American Poetry’, in The Cambridge Companion to American Modernism, edited by Walter Kalaidjian (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 78.

[5] ‘A Conversation with Ian Hamilton’ (1971), in Robert Lowell, Collected Prose (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1990), 287.

[6] Words in Air, 708-709.

[7] Sylvia Plath to a British Council interviewer, quoted by A. Alvarez, The Savage God: A Study of Suicide (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1974), 38.

[8] Sylvia Plath, Letters Home: Correspondence, 1950-1963, selected and edited with a commentary by Aurelia Schober Plath (London: Faber and Faber, 1978), 244.

[9] Steven Gould Axelrod, Robert Lowell: Life and Art (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1979), 97-99.

[10] Quoted by Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar, No Man’s Land: The Place of the Woman Writer in the Twentieth Century, Volume 1: The War of the Words (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1988), 206.


All roses and shadow: Guy Davenport’s Sappho


Reading Guy Davenport’s poems and translations, I paused on one of Sappho’s addresses to the goddess Aphrodite, liking the directness of its call, a sinewy compound of appeal and command:

Come out of Crete
And find me here,
Come to your grove,
Mellow apple trees
And holy altar
Where the sweet smoke
Of libanum is in
Your praise.

Where Leaf melody
In the apples
Is a crystal crash,
And the water is cold.

All roses and shadow,
This place, and sleep
Like dusk sifts down
From trembling leaves.

I paused even longer, I think, on this:

When death has laid you down among his own
And none remember you in all the years to be,
Know, grey among ghosts in that twilight world,
That, offered the roses of Pieria, you refused,
And wander forever in the dark lord Aida’s house
Reticent still, with the blind dead, unknown.[1]


(Guy Davenport, ‘in a somewhat silent, Shakerish mood and garb’, by Jonathan Williams, 1964. Taken from Portrait Photographs , Coracle Press, London, 1979)

Yes. I was reminded of the physical responses to authentic poetry that A. E. Housman famously described in a 1933 lecture. He cites a figure named Eliphaz (in the Book of Job), to whom he ascribes the sentence, ‘A spirit passed before my face: the hair of my flesh stood up.’ He mentions bristling skin, a shiver down the spine; and mentions one of Keats’s letters, in which the poet writes of Fanny Brawne, ‘everything that reminds me of her goes through me like a spear’. Housman is making the point, at some length, that to him poetry seems ‘more physical than intellectual.’[2] Many readers would describe their reactions, rather, as ‘both’, though probably granting that each might apply at different times and in different states of mind or knowing.

Davenport’s translation wears the simple title ‘Vale’, ‘farewell’. The poem is also included in his Seven Greeks, where he gives a little more space to Sappho than to any other of his chosen writers. His note to this poem explains that ‘Aida’ here is Hades and adds: ‘Written, seemingly, to a standoffish girl. Thomas Hardy translates this in a poem called Achtung.’[3]

Achtung? Hardy’s version of Sappho quotes The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám and Shakespeare as epigraphs and runs:

Dead shalt thou lie; and nought
Be told of thee and thought,
For thou hast plucked not of the Muses’ tree:
And even in Hades’ halls
Amidst thy fellow-thralls
No friendly shade thy shade shall company![4]


(Thomas Hardy: Dorset County Museum)

There is no poem called ‘Achtung’ in the index to Hardy’s Collected Poems. The title here is ‘Sapphic Fragment’, which seems reasonable. Two anthologies, The Oxford Book of Classical Verse, edited by Adrian Poole and Jeremy Maule, and Charles Tomlinson’s Oxford Book of Verse in English Translation, point me to more versions of the poem, but they too sternly name Hardy’s translation ‘Sapphic Fragment’. Ah, but there’s one more anthology to check: Confucius to Cummings, edited by Ezra Pound and Marcella Spann. Here’s Sappho and here’s that poem, called here, yes, ‘Achtung’.[5] The Pound connection is often useful when reading Davenport.

The Loeb edition offers: ‘But when you die you will lie there, and afterwards there will never be any recollection of you or any longing for you since you have no share in the roses of Pieria; unseen in the house of Hades also, flown from our midst, you will go to and fro among the shadowy corpses.’ The notes cite Stobaeus and Plutarch to the effect that the poem was addressed to ‘an uneducated woman’, ‘a wealthy woman’ or ‘an uncultured, ignorant woman’.[6]

Still, ‘Written, seemingly, to a standoffish girl’, feels about right to me. ‘Her Aphrodite laughs’, Davenport writes of Sappho, adding, with characteristic sharpness, ‘Sexual frenzy was as respectable a passion to Sappho as rapacious selfishness to an American. Few societies have been as afraid of the body as ours, and in the West none has, within history, been as solicitous as the Greek of its beauty.’[7] And elsewhere, ‘Seems to me that Sappho was the poet of desire.’[8]

Desire, yes.

Percussion, salt and honey,
A quivering in the thighs;
He shakes me all over again,
Eros who cannot be thrown,
Who stalks on all fours like a beast.[9]

‘Vale’—or ‘Achtung’—sets the speaker, the poet who has accepted those Pierian roses, who has drunk deep of the Pierian spring, the fountain of the Muses in Thessaly, against that other, who has not embraced, either directly or through the person of the poet, intimate knowledge of the arts and sciences, who will pass into the shadows of Hades, unmourned and unremembered.

‘Pierian roses’ recalls that man Pound again: in Hugh Selwyn Mauberley, ‘The pianola “replaces” / Sappho’s barbitos’, while in Dr Johnson’s old haunts, Fleet Street has gone to the dogs; or, at least, to stallholders with socks to sell:

Beside this thoroughfare
The sale of half-hose has
Long since superseded the cultivation
Of Pierian roses.[10]


(H. D.)

Sappho’s art, Davenport, comments, ‘belongs to cultural springtimes and renaissance’—hints here of the Persephone theme which increasingly appears to occupy an entire continent in the world of modern literature—and she spoke ‘with Euclidean terseness and authority of the encounters of the loving heart, the infatuated eye’s engagement with flowing hair, suave bodies, moonlight on flowers.’ Her imagery ‘is as stark and patterned as the vase painting of her time’ – ‘Never has poetry been this clear and bright.’ And he quotes, by way of comparison, one of H. D.’s— Hilda Doolittle’s—‘conscious imitations’:

delicate the weave,
fair the thread:

clear the colours,
apple-leaf green,
ox-heart blood-red:

rare the texture,
woven from wild ram,
sea-bred horned sheep:

the stallion and his mare,
unbridled, with arrow pattern,
are worked on
the blue cloth.[11]

This is from a late H. D. poem ‘Fair the Thread’ (topped and tailed), though H. D. did produce translations, or imitations, of several of Sappho’s poems – or, rather, fragments. Sappho’s corpus consists almost entirely of fragments, which are often fleshed out by translators with guesswork and conjecture. They are also used—by poets—as taking-off points for longer, connected poems. One example is Swinburne, whose version of the fragment that Davenport called ‘Vale’ is embedded in the 300-plus lines of ‘Anactoria’, beginning there ‘Thee too the years shall cover’.[12] H. D. herself is another example, though a complicated one: the editor of her Collected Poems cites three early poems which are ‘masked as expansions of fragments of Sappho’, while one of her later critics, referring to those poems explicitly based on Sappho’s ‘fragments’, suggests that H. D.’s ‘textual play’ with Sappho ‘goes far beyond these’.[13]

Sappho’s concision and precision seem peculiarly fitted to excite the minds of the early modernist poets, particularly the Imagists; but then the fragmented state of her work, its blanks and inscrutabilities, bafflements and painstaking decipherments are also very appropriate to the story of modern literature.


(Jacket of Davenport’s long poem, Flowers and Leaves, published by Jonathan Williams in 1966: Ralph Eugene Meatyard, ‘Untitled’, 1959. © The Estate of Ralph Eugene Meatyard.)

One more Davenport-Sappho detail. Writing about his friend, the extraordinary photographer Ralph Eugene Meatyard, Davenport remembered that, ‘Greek nor Latin had he, though he once figured out with a modern Greek dictionary that a lyric of Sappho (which he had set out to read as his first excursion into the classics) had something to do with a truck crossing a bridge.’[14]

The art of the possible. Why not?


[1] Guy Davenport, Thasos and Ohio: Poems and Translations, 1950-1980 (San Francisco: North Point Press, 1986), 32, 33.

[2] A Shropshire Lad and Other Poems: The Collected Poems of A. E. Housman, edited by Archie Burnett, with an introduction by Nick Laird (London: Penguin Books, 2010), 254-255: the whole lecture, ‘The Name and Nature of Poetry’, is reprinted here (231-256). The letter he refers to is to Charles Brown, 1 November 1820: Letters of John Keats, edited by Robert Gittings (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1979), 397.

[3] Guy Davenport, Seven Greeks (New York: New Directions, 1995), 234 n.6. For his introduction, see 4-14 on Sappho, and for translations of her work, 69-116.

[4] Thomas Hardy, The Complete Poems, edited by James Gibson (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1976), 181.

[5] Confucius to Cummings: An Anthology of Poetry, edited by Ezra Pound and Marcella Spann (New York: New Directions, 1964), 18.

[6] Greek Lyric I: Sappho and Alcaeus, edited and translated by David A. Campbell (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1990), 99.

[7] Davenport, Seven Greeks, 9.

[8] W. C. Bamberger, editor, Guy Davenport and James Laughlin: Selected Letters (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 2007), 163.

[9] Davenport, Seven Greeks, 87.

[10] Ezra Pound: Poems and Translations, edited by Richard Sieburth (New York: Library of America, 2003), 550, 556.

[11] Davenport, Seven Greeks, 5.

[12] Algernon Charles Swinburne, Poems and Ballads & Atalanta in Calydon, edited by Kenneth Haynes (London: Penguin Books, 2000), 52.

[13] H. D., Collected Poems 1912-1944, edited by Louis L. Martz (Manchester: Carcanet Press, 1984), xiv; Eileen Gregory, H. D. and Hellenism: Classic Lines (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 148.

[14] Guy Davenport, ‘Ralph Eugene Meatyard’, The Geography of the Imagination (Boston: David R. Godine, 1997), 370.

‘A large expensive audience’; or Charity begins at Lady Sibyl’s home

Eliot  aldous-huxley


Exactly one hundred years ago today, there was a poetry reading, in aid of charity, held at the home of Lady Sibyl Colefax, later a highly successful interior decorator. Those taking part included Aldous Huxley, the actress and later playwright Viola Tree (daughter of Herbert Beerbohm Tree), Robert Nichols, T. S. Eliot and the Sitwells.

In a letter to his mother, some ten days later, Eliot told her: ‘I assisted in a poetry reading last week at the house of some rich person for the benefit of something. A hundred and fifty people were induced to pay 10/6 each, so it was rather a rich audience. Edmund Gosse presided, and a number of “young poets” of whom I believe I was the oldest, read. It was rather amusing, as the audience and most of the poets were very solemn, and I read some light satirical stuff, and some of them didn’t know what to make of it.’[1]

The broad-backed hippopotamus
Rests on his belly in the mud;
Although he seems so firm to us
He is merely flesh and blood.

Flesh and blood is weak and frail,
Susceptible to nervous shock;
While the True Church can never fail
For it is based upon a rock.

Forty years later, reading at Columbia, Eliot remarked: ‘This is a poem which I originally read, I remember, at a poetry reading for the benefit of some Red Cross affair with Sir Edmund Gosse in the chair, and he was profoundly shocked. On the other hand, the late Arnold Bennett liked it better than anything I’d written up to the time of his death, and kept asking me to write “another Hippopotamus.”. . . it’s the only poem of mine which I’ve any reason to suppose that James Joyce ever read.’ Eliot also read ‘A Cooking Egg’ at the charity event and, as Richard Aldington mentions in his autobiography, the poem’s  mention of Sir Alfred Mond provoked ‘a rumpus in the audience’, as Lady Mond ‘sailed indignantly out of the room’.[2]  (In fact, Joyce parodied The Waste Land in a letter to Harriet Weaver; and also wrote of it  in a notebook, ‘T. S. Eliot ends idea of poetry for ladies.’)[3]

(Viola Tree)

Aldous Huxley was a little more expansive about the evening, in a letter of 13 December 1917 to his brother Julian. ‘I spent a strange day yesterday in town—being a performing poet for the sake of charity or something before a large expensive audience of the BEST PEOPLE. Gosse in the chair—the bloodiest little old man I have ever seen—dear Robbie Ross stage-managing, Bob Nichols thrusting himself to the fore as the leader of us young bards (bards was the sort of thing Gosse called us)—then myself, Viola Tree, a girl called McLeod and troops of Shufflebottoms, alias Sitwells bringing up the rear: last and best, Eliot. But oh—what a performance: Eliot and I were the only people who had any dignity: Bob Nichols raved and screamed and hooted and moaned his filthy war poems like a Lyceum villain who hasn’t learnt how to act: Viola Tree declaimed in a voice so syrupy and fruity and rich, that one felt quite cloyed and sick by two lines: the Shufflebottoms were respectable but terribly nervous: the Macleod became quite intoxicated by her own verses: Gosse was like a reciter at a penny reading. The best part of the whole affair was dinner at the Sitwells’ afterwards’.[4]

Nichols was one of the earliest war poets to achieve significant success. He was friends with both Graves and Sassoon—and Huxley, subsequently—and was close at hand when D. H. Lawrence died in March 1930 (Sybille Bedford prints his long letter to Dr Henry Head in her biography of Huxley).[5] Nichols’ poetry hasn’t lasted too well, unable as he was to evade the grip of the poetic conventions of the period even under the unprecedented pressures of the war.

They are bringing him down,
He looks at me wanly.
The bandages are brown,
Brown with mud, red only—
But how deep a red! in the breast of the shirt,
Deepening red too, as each whistling breath
Is drawn with the suck of a slow-filling squirt
While waxen cheeks waste to the pallor of death.
O my comrade![6]


(Robert Nichols)

Aldous Huxley, on the other hand, is barely known as a poet even to those familiar with his novels and essays, though his first four published books were all volumes of poetry. While at Oxford, Robert Graves commented in a letter to Siegfried Sassoon, he had seen ‘a lot of the Garsington people [Lady Ottoline Morrell’s house] who were charming to me, and of the young Oxford poets, Aldous Huxley, Wilfred Childe and Thomas Earp – exceptionally nice people but a trifle decayed, as you might say.’[7]

In the previous year’s The Burning Wheel, Huxley—albeit a trifle decayed—had written ‘A Canal’:

No dip and dart of swallows wakes the black
Slumber of the canal: —a mirror dead
For lack of loveliness remembered
From ancient azures and green trees, for lack
of some white beauty given and flung back,
Secret, to her that gave: no sun has bled
To wake an echo here of answering red;
The surface stirs to no leaf’s wind-blown track. . .[8]

Garsington would loom larger for Sassoon a few months later when he went to consult Philip and Ottoline Morrell and ask their advice about his intended protest. Sassoon’s famous statement followed soon after his meeting in London with Bertrand Russell and Middleton Murry. Psychiatric treatment with W. H. R. Rivers at Craiglockhart—and a meeting with the young Wilfred Owen—beckoned.


[1] Valerie Eliot and Hugh Haughton, editors, The Letters of T. S. Eliot. Volume I: 1898–1922, revised edition (London: Faber and Faber, 2009), 240-241.

[2] The Poems of T. S. Eliot. Volume I: Collected and Uncollected Poems, edited by Christopher Ricks and Jim McCue (London: Faber & Faber, 2015), 43, 521, 510. Aldington, Life for Life’s Sake (London: Cassell, 1968), 204.

[3] Richard Ellmann, James Joyce, new and revised edition (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1983), 572, 495.

[4] Aldous Huxley, Letters of Aldous Huxley, edited by Grover Smith (London: Chatto and Windus, 1969), 141.

[5] Sybille Bedford, Aldous Huxley: A Biography (London: Pan Macmillan, 1993), 225-228.

[6] Robert Nichols, ‘Casualty’, in Robert Giddings, The War Poets (London: Bloomsbury, 2000), 84.

[7] Letter of 26 March 1917: In Broken Images: Selected Letters of Robert Graves, 1914-1946, edited by Paul O’Prey (London: Hutchinson, 1982), 66-67.

[8] See Bedford, Aldous Huxley, 67.

Reckoning with David Jones


The David Jones reckoning cannot be long postponed. I was reliably informed that, preparatory to a serious grappling with Jones’s second great long poem The Anathémata, there were tremendously useful essays, collected in The Dying Gaul, published in 1978 and long out of print. I no longer remember which essays they were: perhaps ‘Use and Sign’? Or ‘Art in Relation to War?’

I seem to recall a conversation with Dr Cornelius van Muchey (lately of Sumatra):

Have you read In Parenthesis?

I have, yes. Twice.

Okay with that?

I think. . . yes, pretty much.

Watched the films? Read the biography?

Yes. Yes.

And have you read The Anathémata?

Sort of.

What does that mean?

It means that In Parenthesis is like Ulysses while The Anathémata is more like Finnegans Wake.

Ah. Have you read Finnegans Wake?

Sort of.



I now have a copy of The Dying Gaul.*

‘It was a dark and stormy night, we sat by the calcined wall; it was said to the tale-teller, tell us a tale, and the tale ran thus: it was a dark and stormy night . . . ‘

* And I belatedly see that Faber, presumably taking advantage of the publication of Thomas Dilworth’s biography from Cape, have reprinted in paperback both The Dying Gaul and the wonderful Dai Greatcoat: a self-portrait of David Jones in his letters.

Houses That Jack Built


This is the farmer sowing his corn,
That kept the cock that crowed in the morn,
That waked the priest all shaven and shorn,
That married the man all tattered and torn,
That kissed the maiden all forlorn,
That milked the cow with the crumpled horn,
That tossed the dog,
That worried the cat,
That killed the rat,
That ate the malt
That lay in the house that Jack built.

The accumulative rhyme, ‘The House That Jack Built’ was first published in a 1755 collection, Nurse Truelove’s New-Year’s-Gift: or, The Book of Books for Children. It has ‘probably been more parodied than any other nursery story’, in politics and advertising: but also in literature.[1]

In Canto XVII of Autumn Sequel (1954), Louis MacNeice writes: ‘The reasons and the rhymes/ Of Mother Church and Mother Goose have grown/ Equally useless since we have grown up/ And learnt to call our minds (if minds they are) our own’. Mother Goose might have found something oddly familiar in MacNeice’s later ‘Château Jackson’, included in The Burning Perch (1963) and beginning:

Where is the Jack that built the house
That housed the folk that tilled the field
That filled the bags that brimmed the mill
That ground the floor that browned the bread
That fed the serfs that scrubbed the floors
That wore the mats that kissed the feet
That bore the bums that raised the heads
That raised the eyes that eyed the glass
That sold the pass that linked the lands. . .[2]


Fifteen years earlier, Elizabeth Bishop had visited Ezra Pound in St Elizabeths Hospital in Washington, where Pound had been confined since being found unfit to plead on charges of treason. Bishop was introduced to Pound by Robert Lowell and later, when serving as poetry consultant to the Library of Congress, visited Pound—who called her ‘Liz Bish’, a name she much disliked—regularly.[3]

First published in 1956 but dated by Bishop as 1950, her remarkable poem ‘Visits to St Elizabeths’ begins with an instantly recognisable rhythm and form:

This is the house of Bedlam.

This is the man
that lies in the house of Bedlam.

Its final stanza—it’s a poem of 78 lines—runs:

This is the soldier home from the war.
These are the years and the walls and the door
that shut on a boy that pats the floor
to see if the world is round or flat.
This is a Jew in a newspaper hat
that dances carefully down the ward,
walking the plank of a coffin board
with the crazy sailor
that shows his watch that tells the time
of the wretched man
that lies in the house of Bedlam.[4]

Though Bishop referred to this more than once as her ‘Pound poem’,[5] she told Anne Stevenson that ‘the characters are based on the other inmates of St. E[lizabeth]’s [ . . . ] One boy used to show us his watch, another patted the floor, etc.—but naturally it’s a mixture of fact and fancy.’[6]

In the course of one of his most brilliant essays, ‘The House That Jack Built’, first given as a paper to inaugurate the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library’s Center for the Study of Ezra Pound and His Contemporaries on 30 October 1975 (it would have been Pound’s ninetieth birthday but he had died three years earlier), Guy Davenport begins by recreating John Ruskin’s writing of Letter XXIII of Fors Clavigera, almost exactly one hundred years before Pound’s death. The letter is indeed dated 24 October 1872.[7]


Photo credit: David Driscoll:

Davenport describes Fors as ‘a kind of Victorian prose Cantos’, but his interest in that particular letter is indicated by Ruskin’s title: ‘The Labyrinth’ and perhaps the footnote, which reads: ‘A rejected title for this letter was “The House that Jack Built”’. Ruskin writes about ‘the great Athenian squire’, Theseus, among much else, before reaching the cathedral door at Lucca, on which are engraved several Latin sentences, many centuries old, which Ruskin translates as: ‘This is the labyrinth which the Cretan Dedalus built, out of which nobody could get who was inside, except Theseus: nor could he have done it, unless he had been helped with a thread by Adriane, all for love’. And that statement, ‘This is the labyrinth which the Cretan Dedalus built’, can, Ruskin says, be reduced from medieval sublimity to the rather more popular ‘This is the House that Jack Built’. He analyses the symbols, considers coins, justice and other matter ‘until he can triumphantly identify the Minotaur with greed, lust, and usury’. At one point, Davenport observes that Ruskin ‘is just getting warmed up’.[8]

The same might be said of Davenport, who will, in the course of the remainder of the essay, range over Olson, Joyce, Ovid, William Carlos Williams, Pavel Tchelitchew, Zukofsky, Leonardo da Vinci, Henri Rousseau, Picasso, Apollinaire, Brancusi, Michael Ayrton (maker of labyrinths), Wilbur Wright and others: but mainly Ezra Pound. Davenport is one of the most acute readers of Pound. One of the others, Hugh Kenner, concluded his magisterial The Pound Era with the statement that ‘Thought is a labyrinth.’[9] Indeed.


(Guy Davenport by Jonathan Williams, via Jacket magazine:

A labyrinth is certainly one in which we may be hopelessly and helplessly lost, sometimes unsure of whether we have passed this way before or even repeatedly – unless we have a thread. ‘All for love.’ Love is a good thread, undoubtedly. And there are others.

Davenport writes at one point of the frescoes in the Palazzo Schifanoia, painted for the Este family. Yeats once recalled Pound’s telling him that the frescoes had  provided a basic outline for the scheme of his epic poem. Davenport continues: ‘The Cantos do indeed follow the triumphs, the seasons, and the activities of the seasons. To know the triumphs we must know the past, which is told in many tongues in many places; to know the past we descend, like Odysseus, into the House of Hades and give the blood of our attention (as translators, historians, poets) so that the dead may speak. To know the seasons we must understand metamorphosis, for things are never still, and never wear the same mask from age to age. The contemporary is without meaning while it is happening: it is a vortex, a whirlpool of action. It is a labyrinth.’ And he concludes that ‘The clue to this labyrinth, Pound knew, was history.’[10]

‘Labyrinthine’ might mean complex or endless, perhaps needlessly convoluted. Coleridge referred to De Quincey’s mind as ‘at once systematic and labyrinthine’.[11] Yeats wrote that : ‘A man in his own secret meditation / Is lost among the labyrinth that he has made / In art or politics’.[12] But it can be a point of focus, a positive necessity. The novelist Nicholas Mosley writes: ‘The idea that to make sense of one’s life one has to tell of the bad things as well as the good at least to oneself is at the back of much of this story: without a recognition of darkness as well as light there is no pattern; without pattern there is no chance of glimpsing a path through the maze. And without this what is the point of life, what is its wonder?’[13]



[1] See The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes, edited by Iona and Peter Opie (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995), 229-232.

[2] Louis MacNeice, Collected Poems, edited by Peter McDonald (London: Faber and Faber, 2007), 448-449, 580.

[3] Brett C. Millier, Elizabeth Bishop: Life and the Memory of It (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995), 199, 220.

[4] Elizabeth Bishop, Poems, Prose, and Letters, edited by Robert Giroux and Lloyd Schwartz (New York: Library of America, 2008), 127-129.

[5] Words in Air: The Complete Correspondence between Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell, edited by Thomas Travisano with Saskia Hamilton (London: Faber and Faber, 2008), 201, 345.

[6] Bishop, Poems, Prose, and Letters, 853.

[7] ‘Letter 23. The Labyrinth’: Fors Clavigera, II, 394. The Ruskin Library and Research Centre at Lancaster University has digitized and made generally available the monumental 39-volume Cook and Wedderburn edition (1903-1912) of the Works of John Ruskin. A stupendous project, wonderfully achieved:

[8] Guy Davenport, The Geography of the Imagination (London: Picador, 1984), 45-47.

[9] Hugh Kenner, The Pound Era (London: Faber, 1972), 561.

[10] Davenport, The Geography of the Imagination, 56.

[11] Collected Letters of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, III: 1807-1814, edited by E. L. Griggs (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1959), 205, quoted by Alethea Hayter, Opium and the Romantic Imagination (London: Faber and Faber, 1971), 234.

[12] W. B. Yeats, ‘Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen’, Collected Poems, second edition (London: Macmillan, 1950), 235.

[13] Nicholas Mosley, Efforts at Truth: An Autobiography (London: Minerva, 1996), 187.


Tristan Corbière


Tristan Corbière was born (christened Édouard) in Finistère on 18 July 1845; he died in 1875, aged twenty-nine.

My knowledge of him is sketchy. He admired those engaged in the seafaring life, sailors and fishermen, and used a lot of sailors’ slang. Died of tuberculosis, hardly known as a writer; his poems were included in Verlaine’s collection of Les poètes maudits in 1884; he was later a strong influence on both Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot—who wrote a poem, in French, called simply ‘Tristan Corbière’.[1]

To be honest, the major intervention of Corbière in my life was not actually the poet but a racehorse, although it was because the horse bore the name of the poet that I actually placed a bet and picked a winning horse for the only time in my life—and the Grand National, at that. 1983: Corbiere (without the accent, I believe), trained by Jenny Pitman, ridden by Ben de Haan, a chestnut gelding with a broad white blaze coming through at 13/1. Had that white blaze been a silver blaze, things would have been even more literary but a French poet was enough to part me from my money—though not for long.[2]


Most of Corbiére’s poems are too long to quote entire and, I’d surmise, damned tricky to render into English since they rhyme very solidly and are extremely demotic, with a lot of slang and wordplay: ‘Corbiére’s controlled disorder permitted his mélange of mystical and bawdy, cynical and sentimental elements’.[3] Here’s the beginning of ‘Au Vieux Roscoff: Berceuse en Nord-Ouest mineur’:

Trou de flibustiers, vieux nid
A corsaires! – dans la tourmente,
Dors ton bon somme de granit
Sur tes caves que le flot hante…

Ronfle à la mer, ronfle à la brise;
Ta corne dans la brume grise,
Ton pied marin dans les brisans . . .
– Dors: tu peux fermer ton oeil borgne
Ouvert sur le large, et qui lorgne
Les Anglais, depuis trois cents ans.

The redoubtable Val Warner, who translates the poems in The Centenary Corbière and also supplies a detailed, learned and highly informative 55-page introduction, offers this, ‘To Old Roscoff: Lullaby in North-west Minor’, as:

A hole for buccaneers, old nest
Of freebooters! – in the tempest,
Sleep your heavy granite slumber
Over your cellar haunted by the combers . . .

Snore with the breeze, snore with the waters;
Through the grey fog your horn high,
Your sea legs in the breakers . . .
– Sleep: you can close your single flashing eye
Open on the open sea, where you’ve peered
For the English, for three hundred years.[4]

Warner’s introduction thoroughly explores the afterlife of Corbiére’s work and its tendency to crop up in a wide range of Anglo-American literary contexts, closing with the dedication in John Berryman’s Love & Fame (1971):

To the memory of
the suffering lover & young Breton master
who called himself ‘Tristan Corbière’

(I wish I versed with his bite)[5]



[1] Written about 1917: eventually published in Inventions of the March Hare: Poems 1909-1917 (London: Faber and Faber, 1996).

[2] The first story in the Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes collection (1892), notable for the ‘curious incident of the dog in the night-time’ conversation and the wonderfully direct conversational opening (‘“I am afraid, Watson, that I shall have to go,” said Holmes, as we sat down together to our breakfast one morning.””)

[3] The Centenary Corbière, translated with an introduction by Val Warner (Manchester: Carcanet Press, 2003), lviii. The first edition appeared in 1974, i.e., in time to mark the centenary of his death.

[4] The Centenary Corbière, 110-111.

[5] The Centenary Corbière, lix.

Remembering ‘Adlestrop’



On 24 June 1914, a train drew up at a country station on the main Great Western Railway line which ran from London to Oxford, Worcester and Malvern (the station finally closed in 1966, a victim of the Beeching report, more suitably termed ‘the Beeching axe’, which brought about the closure of a great many railways and the loss of local services on a huge scale). Among the passengers were Edward Thomas and his wife Helen, on their way to visit Robert Frost and his wife Elinor in Ledbury.

Thomas wrote in his field notebook for that day: ‘Then we stopped at Adlestrop, through the willows could be heard a chain of blackbirds songs at 12.45 and one thrush and no man seen, only a hiss of engine letting off steam.’

When the poem was written around six months later, he commented in a later notebook: ‘Train stopping outside station at Adlestrop June 1914.’[1] A memory refreshed.

Yes. I remember Adlestrop –
The name, because one afternoon
Of heat the express-train drew up there
Unwontedly. It was late June.[2]

Four stanzas; four lines in each, rhyming abcb. This must be one of the most familiar poems in English, certainly among British readers. Voted number twenty in one survey I saw, it emerged as joint third in the most-requested poems on Radio 4’s Poetry Please programme over some thirty-five years, beside Dylan Thomas’s ‘Fern Hill’ and behind Robert Frost’s ‘Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening’ and Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s sonnet, ‘How Do I Love Thee? Let Me Count the Ways’.

The first stanza of ‘Adlestrop’ strikes me as a delicious example of lines that you’ve looked at a dozen times and never really seen. It begins with ‘Yes.’ A question has been asked but it’s one we don’t hear. Does the poet interrogate himself or is it an unseen and unidentified interlocutor or is the reader the implied questioner? And then: the speaker remembers Adlestrop but not, apparently, the place; only the name. He remembers, in fact, the sign, ‘Adlestrop’ because the express train drew up there ‘unwontedly’. That last word was, in an earlier draft, ‘unexpectedly’; at another stage, ‘Against the custom’ or ‘against its custom’.[3] William Cooke links the close of the poem with a passage in a prose work by Thomas, Beautiful Wales, published ten years earlier.[4] Jean Moorcroft Wilson sees the ‘germ’ of the poem in the first chapter of The Heart of England (1906).[5] Thomas ‘conflated details from different stops’.[6] Does it matter? Frankly, no. The abiding mystery is: how does it work? This short, apparently simple poem, composed of unremarkable language, no striking rhymes, that clings to the memory like a burr. How is it done? It’s a question asked, of course, of all effective art. One item of interest is precisely that ‘unwontedly’: ‘exactly the word he wanted’, Matthew Hollis remarks.[7] Yes. I had thought, vaguely, that it meant ‘unwillingly’, against one’s instincts or inclinations but ‘unwonted’ means only unaccustomed or unusual. The train drawing up there ‘unwontedly’ was something distinctive, marking the occasion out. He ‘emphasizes the unusual nature of the stop, which in turn creates a slight sense of unease.’[8]

edward thomas 1913_14_small

(Thomas in 1913-1914, via Edward Thomas Fellowship:

I noted earlier that the poem begins with ‘Yes’. But, in fact, like Pound’s ‘In a Station of the Metro’ or several poems by Marianne Moore, it begins quite definitely with the title. ‘Adlestrop’. The name occurs three times: title, opening line and eighth line (‘Adlestrop – only the name’). Thomas ‘wrings from the name “Adlestrop”, by suspending it at the line-end, a series of unspoken associations with ideal rural communities.’ But ‘when he returns halfway through the poem to repeat that “What I saw / Was Adlestrop – only the name”, it is a signal for those associations to accelerate away from his reach.’[9] Ideal rural communities? Another critic suggests that, in the poem, ‘a scene glimpsed in a brief moment from a stationary train seems to open upon an ever-widening prospect of England’s central counties. These are common sights of the English countryside, but the moment is visionary’. It is, he adds, ‘an ideal England mirrored in the stillness and solitude of the poet’s mind’.[10] Elsewhere, it’s described as ‘the definitive English idyll.’[11]

Only a poem of permanent interest and value could, I suppose, generate such a wealth of interpretation and exegesis. The apparent simplicity is, of course, central to the challenge that so many readers find there. But one thing that strikes me and that seems often to be  absent from discussions of the poem is that, while, in June 1914, this country was not at war with Germany, in January 1915 it was. Thomas enlisted in July 1915, after an intense struggle, influenced to some extent by Robert Frost’s poem, ‘The Road Not Taken’, itself prompted in part by Frost’s experience of Thomas’s indecisiveness.[12] And if ‘Adlestrop’ was ‘an idyll’ or concerned to present ‘an ideal England’, it was in direct and active response to the forces that threatened it. Asked what it was that he was fighting for, Thomas famously ‘picked up a pinch of earth and answered: “Literally, for this”’.[13]


(Eleanor Farjeon)

So Ford Madox Ford’s persona, the poet Gringoire, voices similar concerns in No Enemy: ‘“I wonder,” Gringoire asked again that evening, “if other people had, like myself, that feeling that what one feared for was the land – not the people but the menaced earth with its familiar aspect.”’[14] In her notes to another Thomas poem, ‘The Manor Farm’, Edna Longley quotes Thomas’s essay ‘England’: ‘I believe . . . that all ideas of England are developed, spun out, from such a centre into something large or infinite, solid or aëry . . . that England is a system of vast circumferences circling round the minute neighbouring points of home’.[15] This is a conviction—a crucial one—that crops up in many literary contexts: that the national or universal, the abstract, the grandiose, must begin from the local, the concrete, the known.

That fifth line, ‘The steam hissed. Someone cleared his throat’, may conjure memories of the climactic scene of the film of The Railway Children, whereby Jenny Agutter reduced grown men to tears, but given our wealth of retrospective images, I think also of battlefields wreathed in smoke or mist, poor visibility, an image real enough but itself a metaphor for the blindness or at least uncertain vision of those directing, prosecuting and suffering the Great War.

And for that minute a blackbird sang
Close by, and round hum, mistier,
Farther and farther, all the birds
Of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire.

(Yes. I remember ‘Adlestrop’.)



[1] Edward Thomas, The Annotated Collected Poems, edited by Edna Longley (Tarset, Northumberland: Bloodaxe Books, 2008), 176.

[2] Thomas, The Annotated Collected Poems, 51. This was one of sixteen poems that Thomas wrote between 4 January and 23 January 1915: Jean Moorcroft Wilson, Edward Thomas: From Adlestrop to Arras (London: Bloomsbury, 2015), 310.

[3] See Longley, The Annotated Collected Poems, 177, on ‘unwontedly’.

[4] William Cooke, Edward Thomas: A Critical Biography (London: Faber & Faber, 1970), 121-122.

[5] Wilson, Edward Thomas: From Adlestrop to Arras, 151.

[6] The Annotated Collected Poems, 176.

[7] Matthew Hollis, Now All Roads Lead to France: The Last Years of Edward Thomas (London: Faber, 2012), 204.

[8] Wilson, Edward Thomas: From Adlestrop to Arras, 314.

[9] Andrew Motion, The Poetry of Edward Thomas (London: The Hogarth Press, 1991), 4.

[10] Michael Kirkham, The Imagination of Edward Thomas (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986), 116.

[11] Stan Smith, Edward Thomas (London: Faber & Faber, 1986), 11.

[12] Hollis, Now All Roads Lead to France, 232-236.

[13] Eleanor Farjeon, Edward Thomas: The Last Four Years (Stroud: Sutton Publishing, 1997), 154.

[14] Ford, No Enemy: A Tale of Reconstruction (1929; edited by Paul Skinner, Manchester: Carcanet Press, 2002), 26.

[15] The Annotated Collected Poems, 165: the essay is in The Last Sheaf (London: Jonathan Cape, 1928).