‘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
(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]

Nichols

(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.

References

[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

DJ-Books

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.

Ah.

Dying-Gaul

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

The_house_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]

Bishop

https://www.poets.org/poetsorg/poet/elizabeth-bishop

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]

Beinecke-Stacks

Photo credit: David Driscoll: http://beinecke.library.yale.edu/collections

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.

GD_JW_via_Jacket

(Guy Davenport by Jonathan Williams, via Jacket magazine:
http://jacketmagazine.com/38/jwb01-davenport.shtml)

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]

Yes.

References

[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: http://www.lancaster.ac.uk/depts/ruskinlib/Pages/Works.html

[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_Corbiere_portrait

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]

Centenary-Corbiere

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]

 

References

[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’

Adlestrop-station

(Via http://www.urban75.org/blog)

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:
http://www.edward-thomas-fellowship.org.uk/home.html)

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]

Farjeon

(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’.)

 

References

[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).

‘Camerado! this is no book’

walt-whitman

Walt Whitman—‘an American, one of the roughs, a kosmos’[1]
https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems-and-poets/poets/detail/walt-whitman

‘Camerado, this is no book,
Who touches this touches a man’—Walt Whitman, ‘So Long!’[2]

In the summer of 1945, a prisoner in the Disciplinary Training Center in Pisa, Ezra Pound, at the end of his tether (‘au bout de mes forces’), came across a copy of The Pocket Book of Verse, edited by Morris Speare and first published in 1940:

That from the gates of death
that from the gates of death: Whitman or Lovelace
found on the jo-house seat at that
in a cheap edition! [and thanks to Professor Speare]
hast’ou swum in a sea of air strip
through an aeon of nothingness,
when the raft broke and the waters went over me[3]

In April 1913, Pound had published ‘A Pact’.

I make a pact with you, Walt Whitman—
I have detested you long enough.
I come to you as a grown child
Who has had a pig-headed father;
I am old enough now to make friends.
It was you that broke the new wood,
Now is a time for carving
We have one sap and one root—
Let there be commerce between us.[4]

Not exactly a ringing endorsement for a poet who will throw you a lifeline thirty years later. One can see why Pound was included in the list of those ‘arbiters of current taste’ that, in John Berryman’s words, ‘have generally now declared themselves in favour of Whitman; but always reluctantly and with a certain resentment or even contempt. I am not,’ Berryman goes on, ‘able to feel these reservations myself’, and then: ‘I like or love Whitman unreservedly’.[5]

Randall Jarrell (never better than when he is enthusing about someone or something) wrote that: ‘To show Whitman for what he is one does not need to praise or explain or argue, one needs simply to quote.’ Jarrell does, at length and with great effect. And again, ‘Not many poets have written better, in queerer and more convincing and more individual language, about the world’s gliding wonders’. And again, ‘In modern times, what controlling, organising, selecting poet has created a world with as much in it as Whitman’s, a world that so plainly is the world?’ Perhaps just one more: ‘The thereness and suchness of the world are incarnate in Whitman as they are in few other writers.’[6]
claude-cahun-sylvia-beach

(Sylvia Beach 1919 by Claude Cahun, via http://www.artnet.fr/)

Sylvia Beach (proprietor of Shakespeare & Co., first publisher of Joyce’s Ulysses), wrote of her Aunt Agnes visiting Whitman in Camden, where manuscripts were strewn all over the floor. Her aunt was with a friend, Alys Smith, who later married Bertrand Russell. Earlier visitors had included Henry Thoreau who, on 10 November 1849, went to Brooklyn with Bronson Alcott to meet Whitman, while, according to one of Whitman’s biographers, Bram Stoker also paid a visit and later ‘used Whitman as the model for the murderous count in Dracula’.[7]

It’s just short of 200 years since Walt Whitman was born, 31 May, at West Hills, Long Island; 162 since his copyright was registered (15 May 1855) and 795 copies of Leaves of Grass printed, 200 of them with embossed green cover and gilded lettering, while the remainder were bound more cheaply.[8]

Walt-Whitman-2

(Walt Whitman: via The Guardian)

He was prolific, sometimes heroic, sometimes verbose, sometimes ridiculous, often magnificent. I tend towards Berryman’s sentiment here: unreservedly, why not? Jarrell is not uncritical—‘only a man with the most extraordinary feel for language, or none whatsoever, could have cooked up Whitman’s worst messes’—but he grasps what is perhaps the salient point about Whitman: while we are too often steered towards ‘gems’, the glittering phrases, the quotable lines, some poets need to be approached and seen and held more largely. Quoting section 36 of Song of Myself, Jarrell comments: ‘There are faults in this passage, and they do not matter’.[9] Yes. (It occurs to me at this juncture that, setting these three—Whitman, Berryman, Jarrell—together, I achieve not only an assembly of fine poets but a trio, a triumvirate, a trinity of profusely bearded Americans.)

JohnBerryman_TomBerthiaume  RandallJarrell_poets.org

(John Berryman; Randall Jarrell; both via Academy of American Poets (https://www.poets.org/): John Berryman photo credit: Tom Berthiaume)

Apart from the pulling and hauling stands what I am,
Stands amused, complacent, compassionating, idle, unitary,
Looks down, is erect, or bends an arm on an impalpable certain rest,
Looking with side-curved head curious what will come next,
Both in and out of the game and watching and wondering at it.[10]

‘If you want me again look for me under your boot-soles’, Whitman wrote towards the end of ‘Song of Myself’. And again: ‘Failing to fetch me at first keep encouraged, / Missing me one place search another, / I stop somewhere waiting for you.’[11]

Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)[12]

And he does. As we do, which is really the point.

There is a wonderful resource, the Walt Whitman Archive, at: http://www.whitmanarchive.org/
Co-directed by Ed Folsom and Kenneth M. Price and published by the Center for Digital Research in the Humanities, at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, it offers published works, letters, manuscripts, biography, criticism, pictures, Civil War notebooks and journalism, and much else. They have also digitized—good grief—the whole nine volumes of Horace Traubel’s With Walt Whitman in Camden.

 

References

[1] Song of Myself (1855 edition), printed as Appendix 4 of Walt Whitman: The Complete Poems, edited by Francis Murphy (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1986), 698.

[2] Walt Whitman: The Complete Poems, 513.

[3] The Cantos of Ezra Pound, fourth collected edition (London: Faber and Faber, 1987), 512-513. The last lines refer to the sequence in The Odyssey (Book V) where Odysseus, having left Calypso’s island on a raft, is shipwrecked through the malice of the god Poseidon and saved through the intervention of the goddess Leucothea.

[4] Ezra Pound: Poems and Translations (New York: Library of America, 2003), 269.

[5] Berryman, ‘“Song of Myself”: Intention and Substance’, in The Freedom of the Poet (New York: Farrar. Straus & Giroux, 1976), 227.

[6] Jarrell, Poetry and the Age ([1955] London: Faber & Faber, 1973), 107, 110, 119, 122.

[7] Sylvia Beach, Shakespeare and Company, new edition (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1991), 20; Jerome Loving, Walt Whitman: The Song of Himself (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999), 422-426, 445.

[8] Paul Zweig, Walt Whitman: The Making of the Poet (Harmondsworth: Penguin 1986), 231.

[9] Jarrell, Poetry and the Age, 110, 116.

[10] Whitman, Song of Myself, Section 4. This is the 1891-1892 ‘deathbed’ edition, in Walt Whitman: The Complete Poems, 66-67.

[11] Song of Myself, Section 52; and the last lines: The Complete Poems, 124.

[12] Song of Myself, Section 51: The Complete Poems, 123.

 

Dawn chorus and aubades

Woken by the bird chorus at 04:15, I note that it’s a new record for this month, having previously been woken at 05:15 and 04:45. They’ll be waking me the previous evening before too long. Since we are still, so to speak, between cats, we have—with curious logic—set up a bird table in our small back garden. The regular visitors are blackbirds, blue tits, and beautiful—if omnivorous and scavenging—magpies, plus the occasional sparrow. Perhaps this dawn choir is an expression of avian gratitude.

Magpie_rspb.org

(Magpie via https://www.rspb.org.uk/ )

There was a distinct dawn-related genre in Provençal troubadour literature: the aube or aubade, poems or songs announcing, or in praise of, the dawn—though the Troubadour poets sometimes lamented the dawn’s arrival since it meant the parting of the lovers.

The appeal of first light (or, sometimes, darkness) has endured. Philip Larkin’s ‘Aubade’ begins: ‘I work all day, and get half-drunk at night./ Waking at four to soundless dark, I stare.’[1]

The first stanza of William Empson’s fine ‘Aubade’ runs:

Hours before dawn we were woken by the quake.
My house was on a cliff. The thing could take
Bookloads off shelves, break bottles in a row.
Then the long pause and then the bigger shake.
It seemed the best thing to be up and go.[2]

(Nine more stanzas with just a bare handful of run-on lines; also a quite intricate pattern of repetition.)

Empson_via_New_Directions

(William Empson via New Directions Publishing)

Ezra Pound’s second book, A Quinzaine for this Yule, was dedicated to ‘The Aube of the West Dawn’; he wrote and translated several aubades.

In No More Parades (the second of the volumes of Ford Madox Ford’s Parade’s End), Sylvia Tietjens has turned up at the Rouen base camp where her husband Christopher is charged with moving troops up the line.

He added: “I shall have to be up in camp before four-thirty to-morrow morning. . . . ”
Sylvia could not resist saying:
“Isn’t there a poem . . . Ah me, the dawn, the dawn, it comes too soon! . . . said of course by lovers in bed? . . . Who was the poet?”
[ . . . ]
[Tietjens] then said in his leisurely way:
“There were a great many poems with that refrain in the Middle Ages…. You are probably thinking of an albade by Arnaut Daniel, which someone translated lately. . . . An albade was a song to be sung at dawn when, presumably, no one but lovers would be likely to sing. . . . ”
“Will there,” Sylvia asked, “be anyone but you singing up in your camp to-morrow at four?”[3]

The lines that Sylvia quotes are most likely from Pound’s ‘Alba Innominata’, a translation based on the anonymous Provençal poem, ‘En un vergier sotz fue’. Its five verses and ‘Envoi’ all end (apart from one slight variation) with the line ‘Ah God! Ah God! That dawn should come so soon!’[4]

Lark_in_Morning_

Ford and Pound had met in April 1909, through the novelist May Sinclair, and Pound’s third volume, Personae, appeared in that same month. His first important periodical publication in this country was in the pages of the English Review, edited by Ford: ‘Sestina: Altaforte’, in the issue of June 1909. ‘Alba Innominata’ was included in Pound’s next volume, Exultations, published in October 1909.

At the end of 1920, Pound and his wife Dorothy moved to Paris and, in late 1922, Ford and Stella Bowen also moved to France, first to St-Jean-Cap-Ferrat, then Paris. In early 1925, they took a cottage in the village of Guermantes, about an hour’s train travel from Paris. No More Parades was begin in October 1924 and, in that same month, Pound and his wife Dorothy moved permanently to Rapallo, in Italy

Six years after his novel was published, Ford would recall Pound’s early years in London when the poet, ‘looking down his nose would chuckle like Mephistopheles and read you a translation from Arnaut Daniel. The only part of that albade that you would understand would be the refrain: “Ah me, the darn, the darn it comes toe sune!”’[5]

 

References

[1] Larkin, Collected Poems, edited by Anthony Thwaite (East St Kilda: The Marvell Press and London: Faber, 2003), 190.

[2] Empson’s poem is taken from Contemporary Verse, edited by Kenneth Allott (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1950), 157.

[3] Ford, No More Parades (1925; edited by Joseph Wiesenfarth, Manchester: Carcanet Press, 2011), 134-135.

[4] Ezra Pound: Poems and Translations (New York: Library of America, 2003), 120; and see Richard Sieburth’s note, 1262.

[5] Ford, Return to Yesterday: Reminiscences 1894-1914 (London: Victor Gollancz, 1931), 388.