Snow’s up

Rackham-WindWillows-Snow

(Arthur Rackham, illustration to The Wind in the Willows)

‘What’s up, Ratty?’ asked the Mole.
Snow is up,’ replied the Rat briefly; ‘or rather, down. It’s snowing hard.’

Looking out of the upstairs window of the flat in which we’re staying for the weekend, I remark that it seems to be snowing.
‘It just looks like it’, the Librarian calls from the bedroom, ‘It’s the light.’
I peer through the glass again, ‘No. I think it’s definitely snowing. Have a look for yourself.’
She looks. ‘It’s snowing!’
I say, ‘Yes, that’s what—’
‘It’s snowing!’

And it is. In Bristol, we see snow almost as rarely as we see responsible national governance. Here in Walthamstow, apparently, the weather has no such inhibitions.

‘We have to walk to the station’, I point out to the snow-loving Librarian. ‘In these shoes.’ My shoes are perfectly comfortable but, in the event of slippery surfaces, they laugh weakly and surrender me to the elements without a qualm.
The Librarian regards me patiently before explaining: ‘It’s snowing! It’s snowing!’

It is.

To the north, even in parts of Gloucestershire, snow has been falling meaningfully. Gloucestershire often catches what Bristol doesn’t (though Bristol has, in the past, been classified as part of Gloucestershire, then Avon, and now as both city and county):

The day fails, sky drags with unfallen snow;
the hours, already, of the plough and of the crow.
All we can do here is say nothing and move on.[1]

Great for kids, less good for travellers, for livestock, for the transport business. Very good for photographers, artists, poets.

It is this we learn after so many failures,
The building of castles in sand, of queens in snow,
That we cannot make any corner in life or in life’s beauty,
That no river is a river which does not flow.[2]

As a symbol, snows knocks a lot of other natural phenomena into a cocked hat. Hugh Kenner mentions the lines in the Iliad which rhyme snow with ‘hurtling missiles’ and notes that passage’s ‘rhyme’ with the snowfall at the end of James Joyce’s story, ‘The Dead’.[3] Alice Oswald, in her brilliant ‘excavation’ of the Iliad, has this:

Like snow falling like snow
When the living winds shake the clouds into pieces
Like flutters of silence hurrying down
To put a stop to the earth at her leafwork[4]

Snowprints

But then, remembering reports from friends in Wisconsin, Illinois and Pennsylvania over the years, our snow tends to be comparatively puny, apart from in the Scottish highlands and a handful of other—mainly upland—areas. As Alexandra Harris mentions, Wyndham Lewis, in the first Blast manifesto, cursed ‘the flabby sky that can manufacture no snow, but / can only drop the sea on us in a drizzle like a poem by Mr Robert Bridges’. The Bridges poem, ‘London Snow’, with its large flakes ‘Stealthily and perpetually settling and loosely lying, / Hushing the latest traffic of the drowsy town’, just wouldn’t have cut the explosive mustard for The Enemy.[5]

In The Waste Land, T. S. Eliot famously wrote that

Winter kept us warm, covering
Earth in forgetful snow, feeding
A little life with dried tubers.

Interestingly, in a 1936 letter to Ottoline Morrell, he commented that ‘the winter is to me a warm and anaesthetic season’.[6]

En route to Walthamstow Central, the snow is still falling, so fresh and relatively easy to walk on, even for those with slyly treacherous shoes. I trudge steadily, maintaining momentum. The Librarian is somewhere behind me, taking photographs. Of snow, yes. Photographs of snow.

References

[1] Josephine Balmer, ‘Malvern Road Station, Cheltenham’, in The Word for Sorrow (Cambridge: Salt Publishing, 2009), 8.

[2] Louis MacNeice, ‘Autumn Journal’, in Collected Poems, edited by Peter McDonald (London: Faber, 2007), 102.

[3] Hugh Kenner, The Pound Era (London: Faber and Faber, 1972), 92, citing Philip Damon’s 1961 book, Modes of Analogy in Ancient and Mediaeval Verse.

[4] Alice Oswald, Memorial: An Excavation of the Iliad (London: Faber, 2011), 18.

[5] Wyndham Lewis, editor, Blast: Review of the Great English Vortex (London: John Lane, 1914), 12; Alexandra Harris, Weatherland: Writers and Artists Under English Skies (London: Thames & Hudson, 2015), 331.

[6] The Poems of T. S. Eliot. Volume I: Collected and Uncollected Poems, edited by Christopher Ricks and Jim McCue (London: Faber & Faber, 2015), 55, 604.

 

Carrington and the Quangle-Wangle

Brett_Carrington_Hiles

Carrington, Barbara Hiles, Dorothy Brett, 1911: http://spartacus-educational.com/ARTbrett.htm

To Dorothy Brett, 1 December 1918, Aldous Huxley wrote: ‘I saw Carrington not long ago, just after the armistice, and thought her enchanting; which indeed I always do whenever I see her, losing my heart completely as long as she is on the spot, but recovering it as soon as she is no longer there. We went to see the show at the Omega, where there was what I thought an admirable Gertler and a good Duncan Grant and a rather jolly Vanessa Bell. Carrington and I had a long argument on the fruitful subject of virginity: I may say it was she who provoked it by saying that she intended to remain a vestal for the rest of her life. All expostulations on my part were vain.’[1]

Aldous Huxley and Dora Carrington spent time together at Lady Ottoline Morrell’s Garsington Manor, sleeping on the roof when the heat indoors became unbearable. ‘Strange adventures with birds, and peacocks, and hordes of bees. Shooting stars, other things.’[2] There’s little doubt that Huxley made use of Carrington when creating the character of Mary Bracegirdle in Crome Yellow. To Gerald Brenan in December 1921, Carrington remarked on the character, adding: ‘But it’s a book which makes one feel very very ill. I don’t advise you [to] read it.’[3]

Huxley-Dorothy-Wilding-NPG

Aldous Huxley by Dorothy Wilding, © National Portrait Gallery, London. Probably not the right hat, then: ‘In later years he wore no hat—except occasionally a French beret—but then he still sported a black hat with a very large brim indeed, to all effects a sombrero. “Here”, the St John Hutchinson’s young children would cry when they saw his long form ambling up their garden path, “Here comes the Quangle-Wangle!”’[7]

In January 1919, Carrington experienced what her biographer terms ‘a disturbing dream about a furtive encounter with the creator of the virginal “Mary Bracegirdle” which took place in her mother’s house, only weeks after her father’s death’.[4] Carrington wrote to Strachey: ‘Such a nightmare last night, with Aldous in bed. Everything went wrong, I couldn’t lock the door; all the bolts were crooked. At last, I chained it with a watch chain to two nails. Then I had a new pair of thick pyjamas on and he got so cross because I wouldn’t take them off and they were all scratchy. Everything got in a mess, and he got so angry, and kept trying to find me in the bed by peering with his eye-glass, and I thought all the time how I could account to my mother for the mess on my pyjamas!’[5] 

Carrington, Dora, 1893-1932; Spanish Boy, the Accordion Player

Carrington, Spanish Boy, the Accordion Player, c.1924. (Photo credit: The Higgins Art Gallery & Museum, Bedford)

Carrington’s tendency to make such vivid impressions on those she met meant that confronting fictional versions of herself was a not infrequent ordeal. Gilbert Cannan’s Mendel: A Story of Youth (1916), dedicated to ‘D. C.’, had been a rather more brazen affair, drawing with little disguise on Carrington’s relationship with Mark Gertler: ‘How angry I am over Gilbert’s book! Everywhere this confounded gossip, and servant-like curiosity. It’s ugly, and so damned vulgar. People cannot be vulgar over a work of art, so it is Gilbert’s fault for writing as he did. . . . ’[6]

Carrington-Letters

Lively stuff. The new collection of Carrington’s letters, edited by Anne Chisholm, biographer of Nancy Cunard and Frances Partridge, came out last week. We should finally get to the bookshop in the next few days and secure a copy. Somebody in the house is expecting it for Christmas. Apparently.

References

[1]  Letters of Aldous Huxley, edited by Grover Smith (London: Chatto and Windus, 1969), 172.

[2] To Lytton Strachey, August 1916, Carrington: Letters and Extracts from her Diaries, chosen and with an Introduction by David Garnett (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1971), 35.

[3] Carrington: Letters and Extracts from her Diaries, 200.

[4] Gretchen Gerzina, Carrington: A Life of Dora Carrington, 1893-1932 (London: John Murray, 1989), 141.

[5] Carrington: Letters and Extracts from her Diaries, 127.

[6] Carrington to Gertler, 1 November 1916, in Mark Gertler, Selected Letters, edited by Noel Carrington (London: Rupert Hart-Davis, 1965), 254.

[7] Sybille Bedford, Aldous Huxley: A Biography (London: Pan Macmillan, 1993), 127.

 

A feather in the wind

Sea-1

Between Eype and West Bay, a fierce wind rocks us on the cliff path. A couple of days later, at lunch in the Watch House Café, the sound is almost deafening at times, sails flapping on high and rolling seas. On the slope above the shore, you can lean steeply and confidently into the wind. The sea is foaming, furious, tiny tumbleweeds of spume blown in cartwheels across the sand, thinning to threads of washing suds, smears along the beach.

In a high wind, I often feel as I do when watching a raging sea: a sense of awe at such naked strength and power but also extreme pleasure in the knowledge that they are, precisely, irresistible. No matter how misdirected, demented and destructive human behaviour becomes, the wind will blow, the sea will rise and fall. In such a wind, resistant, your feet solidly planted, you feel your body’s strength but also sense its limits.

Back-to-West-Bay

In An Affair of the Heart, Dilys Powell, the celebrated film critic who also wrote several fine books about Greece, remembered a people called the Perachorans. She was married to the archaeologist Humfry Payne, who, in 1929, was appointed director of the British School of Archaeology in Athens. A year later, he initiated an excavation at Perachora, a settlement on the Gulf of Corinth, and Powell spent a good deal of time in and around the area. She wrote, ‘They grow old, they die, but they are the same. And I reflected with astonishment – for in imagination it is always oneself who is stable in an inconstant world – that I was the feather in the wind.’[1]

It’s a resonant image. Sixty years on, the world is a little more inconstant, a little less stable. Just a little. Still, it’s hardly surprising that the wind has always been a favourite literary symbol, from Homer through to the Romantic poets and beyond, seemingly apposite in a staggering variety of contexts, wind as god, wind as breath, wind as inspiration or omen or threat or simply impersonal force.

‘My thoughts were a great excitement’, W. B. Yeats remembered, ‘but when I tried to do anything with them, it was like trying to pack a balloon into a shed in a high wind.’[2] Indeed, we’ve all experienced that, no doubt. Or something like it. Or vaguely resembling it. Although lately it seems that, even when just a little excited, people tend to take to social media. Sometimes, they bring along thoughts with that excitement.

Karen_Blixen_and_Thomas_Dinesen_1920s

(Karen Blixen with her brother Thomas on the family farm in Kenya in the 1920s)

Karen Blixen, writing of her farm at the foot of the Ngong Hills, sited at an altitude of over six thousand feet that ‘the wind in the highlands blows steadily from the north-north-east. It is the same wind that down the coasts of Africa and Arabia, they name the Monsoon, the East Wind, which was King Solomon’s favourite horse.’[3] And it may well have been: he seems to have had 4000 to choose from, or 40000, depending on the version you settle on. A great many horses, in either case; and a great many wives and concubines too.

Having made our effortful way back from the beach—at an angle of something less than ninety degrees—we sit listening to the howling in the chimney, raising our voices a little. That in turn recalls (of course) the narrator of Ford’s The Good Soldier: ‘And I shall go on talking, in a low voice while the sea sounds in the distance and overhead the great black flood of wind polishes the bright stars.’[4] And it occurs to me to wonder, given the level of noise in this wind, just how much the narrator (‘talking in a low voice’) wanted to be heard; or rather, how much it mattered. Without getting too detailed, if his listener is the now-mad Nancy Rufford it probably doesn’t matter much at all: the murmur of a voice amidst the chorus of the wind will do.

‘Wind in the Work of Ford Madox Ford’. That could be worked up into something, surely. The sentence from The Good Soldier has its traceable ancestry, primarily Ford’s own poem, ‘On Heaven’, which includes the line ‘Through the roar of the great black winds, through the sound of the sea!’[5] And more than twenty years later, at the close of Provence: From Minstrels to the Machine, another strong wind—the mistral this time—plays a central role in the drama, unless it’s a comedy:

Provence.dj

‘And leaning back on the wind as if on an up-ended couch I clutched my béret and roared with laughter. . . .We were just under the great wall that keeps out the intolerably swift Rhone. . . . Our treasurer’s cap was flying in the air. . . . Over, into the Rhone. . . . What glorious fun. . . . The mistral sure is the wine of life. . . . Our treasurer’s wallet was flying from under an armpit beyond reach of a clutching wind . . . . Incredible humour; unparalleled buffoonery of a wind . . . . The air was full of little capricious squares, floating black against the light over the river. . . . Like a swarm of bees: thick. . . . Good fellows, bees. . . .’

A ‘delirious, panicked search’ then begins, for the scattered banknotes (those ‘little capricious squares’), for passports, for citizenship papers. The money that was to finance a year or two of rest has mostly gone. ‘But perhaps the remorseless Destiny of Provence desires thus to afflict the world with my books’, Ford concluded—as if he would ever have willingly stopped writing, mistral or no.[6]

Back in Bristol, it’s oddly calm today. Hardly a flicker in the heaped brown leaves. I type at the top of a page: ‘Calm in the Work of Ford Madox Ford’. Nothing’s come yet.

References

[1] Dilys Powell, An Affair of the Heart (London: Souvenir Press, 1958), 173.

[2] W. B. Yeats, Autobiographies (London: Macmillan, 1955), 41.

[3] Karen Blixen, Out of Africa (1937; Harmondsworth: Penguin 1987), 14.

[4] Ford Madox Ford, The Good Soldier: A Tale of Passion (1915; edited by Max Saunders, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), 18.

[5] Ford Madox Ford, Collected Poems (New York: Oxford University Press, 1936), 8.

[6] Ford Madox Ford, Provence (London: Allen & Unwin, 1938), 367-368.

 

‘Depressed by the world but better in ourselves’.

Letters-LM

In a letter of 3 November 1961, Louis MacNeice wrote to Allen Tate and his wife Isabella: ‘We get more & more depressed by the world but better in ourselves.’[1]

(I could write that to any number of people right now: so half of it is optimistic, no?)

MacNeice had recently moved to a half-time contract with the BBC. He’d begun an affair with Mary Wimbush the previous year and, shortly after he and Mary were involved in a car crash that autumn, MacNeice asked his wife Hedli for a divorce. She refused, supposedly on the advice of ‘their mutual friend’, Allen Tate, who had told Hedli that his wife wouldn’t give him a divorce for five years and he was ‘so grateful to her!’[2]

Tate divorced Isabella Gardiner in 1966 and married Helen Heinz, who survived him (he died in 1979); MacNeice died in 1963. So Tate’s extensive experience of marriage and divorce in late 1961 derived from his relationship with the novelist Caroline Gordon. They married in May 1925, divorced in 1945, remarried the next year and finally divorced again in 1959.

caroline-gordon

(Caroline Gordon via http://porterbriggs.com/)

Gordon’s early mentor was Ford Madox Ford, whom she worked for as secretary in New York in the mid-1920s and remained friends with, in Paris, Provence and Tennessee, for the rest of his life. ‘A few days later Ford heaved a sigh and asked me if I had done any writing. I told him that I had started a novel but that I was going to have to throw it away. He heaved another sigh and said, “You had better let me see it.” I brought him the manuscript a few days later. He read the manuscript through, then said: “Why has nobody told me about this? What were you going to say next?” I recited the sentence. He said, “That is a beautiful sentence. I will write it down.” This procedure was repeated several times. It ended with Ford taking my dictation for three weeks. The result was a novel called Penhally.’[3] Or, as she wrote to her friend Sally Wood, a little nearer to the time: ‘Ford took me by the scruff of the neck about three weeks before I left, set me down in his apartment every morning at eleven o’clock and forced me to dictate at least five thousand words, not all in one morning, of my novel to him. If I complained that it was hard to work with everything so hurried and Christmas presents to buy he observed “You have no passion for your art. It is unfortunate” in such a sinister way that I would reel forth sentences in a sort of panic. Never did I see such a passion for the novel as that man has.’[4]

Ford-Gordon-Biala-Tate

Caroline Gordon; Janice Biala; Ford Madox Ford; Allen Tate: Summer 1937, via Cornell University Library: https://digital.library.cornell.edu/catalog/ss:550910

Gordon would publish eight more novels, as well as several volumes of short stories and criticism, including A Good Soldier: A Key to the Novels of Ford Madox Ford, based on a lecture she gave at the University of California, Davis, in which, recalling her first reading of Ford’s 1913 historical romance, The Young Lovell, she remarked: ‘I have since come to feel that this novel, which is almost unobtainable and has been read by comparatively few people, is the key to Ford’s life work.’[5]

Gordon_Coll_Stories

I find this, in my current reading: ‘We impose connections in a futile attempt to find meaning in a maelstrom of possibilities.’[6]

True enough. Last word for MacNeice, then: with such an embarrassment of riches to choose from, try this, which I only came across the other day and have a liking for, ‘Prologue (to The Character of Ireland)’:

‘Facts have their place of course but should learn to keep it. The feel
Of a body is more than body. That we met
Her, not her, is a chance; that we were born
Here, not there, is a chance but a chance we took
And would not have it otherwise.’[7]

 

 

References

[1] Letters of Louis MacNeice, edited by Jonathan Allison (London: Faber, 2010), 687.

[2] Jon Stallworthy, Louis MacNeice (London: Faber and Faber, 1996), 457.

[3] ‘Caroline Gordon’, in Sondra Stang, editor, The Presence of Ford Madox Ford (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1981), 200; see also Brita Lindbergh-Seyersted, A Literary Friendship: Correspondence Between Caroline Gordon & Ford Madox Ford (Knoxville: The University of Tennessee Press, 1999).

[4] Sally Wood, editor, The Southern Mandarins: Letters of Caroline Gordon to Sally Wood, 1924-1937 (Baton Rouge and London: Louisiana State University Press, 1984), 51.

[5] Caroline Gordon, The Good Soldier: A Key to the Novels of Ford Madox Ford (Davis: University of California Library, 1963), 19.

[6] Iain Sinclair, The Last London: True Fictions from an Unreal City (London: Oneworld, 2017), 18.

[7] Louis MacNeice, Collected Poems, edited by Peter McDonald (London: Faber, 2007), 781.
 

 

 

Hallowmas, ducks, poets

Hodder, Albert, 1845-1911; Bolling Mill near the Brewery, Bridport, Dorset

(Albert Hodder, Bolling Mill near the Brewery, Bridport, Dorset, 1900;
The Coach House: Photo credit: Bridport Museum Trust)

The first of November: All Saints’ Day, Allhallows Day, Hallowmas, Hollantide.

If ducks do slide at Hollantide,
at Christmas they will swim;
if ducks do swim at Hollantide,
at Christmas they will slide.[1]

Briefly: keep an eye on the ducks.

On Tuesday 1 November 1892, Olive Garnett reported to her diary: ‘To-day being All Saint’s Day Mamma called on Christina Rossetti with pink & white heath, her favourite flower. Miss Rossetti wishes nothing to be said about her state of health, life or anything else. She has heart disease & absolute quiet is indispensable. Practically she has left the world already.’[2]

(In fact, she lived another two years, dying on 29 December 1894, aged sixty-four.)

My heart is like a singing bird
Whose nest is in a water’d shoot;
My heart is like an apple-tree
Whose boughs are bent with thickset fruit;
My heart is like a rainbow shell
That paddles in a halcyon sea;
My heart is gladder than all these
Because my love is come to me.[3]

Goblin Market, published in 1862, was an artistic and critical success of the kind dangerously liable to make everything that follows seem something of an anti-climax. The poem continues to provoke an astonishing range of interpretations, from Christian allegories of temptation and redemption through discussions of the marriage market and the constraints on talented and artistic women to debates about lesbian sexuality. There’s a wonderful collision between the way in which Rossetti is often seen—the ascetic  Christian poet who turned down suitors for religious reasons—and the lush and sensual language she uses in Goblin Market:

She cried “Laura,” up the garden,
“Did you miss me?
Come and kiss me.
Never mind my bruises,
Hug me, kiss me, suck my juices
Squeezed from goblin fruits for you,
Goblin pulp and goblin dew.
Eat me, drink me, love me;
Laura, make much of me:
For your sake I have braved the glen
And had to do with goblin merchant men.”[4]

Christina-Rossetti
(Christina by brother Dante Gabriel, c.1866: ©Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge)

1 November is also the birthday of two poets with strong connections to the First World War, though both lived on into the 1970s. David Jones was born on this date in 1895. He had begun writing In Parenthesis (though it wasn’t published until 1937) when Edmund Blunden’s Undertones of War, another classic work about the war, appeared in 1928:

‘Fine days succeeded, and moonlit nights, temperate nights with their irresistible poetry creating a silver lake in the borders of Thiepval’s lunatical wood, a yellow harvest on the downs towards Mesnil the mortuary.’[5]

Blunden was born exactly one year after Jones, 1 November 1896. He was awarded the Military Cross in the same month twenty years later.

At the noon of the dreadful day
Our trench and death’s is on a sudden stormed
With huge and shattering salvoes, the clay dances
In founts of clods around the concrete sties
Where still the brain devises some last armour
To live out the poor limbs.[6]

Siegfried Sassoon told David Jones, when they met and talked in 1964, that, however hard he tried, he couldn’t get the Great War out of his system; and that this was also true of Blunden. Jones said it was true for him too. He told his friend Harman Grisewood he was glad that Sassoon thought highly of Undertones of War, ‘which I’ve felt to be one of the very best of those various accounts of that infantry war.’[7]

Jones, David, 1895-1974; Portrait of a Maker
David Jones, Portrait of a Maker [Harman Grisewood], 1932 © trustees of the David Jones estate. Photo credit: Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales

Born within a year of one another, dying in the same year (1974) and both largely shaped by their experiences in the Great War, they yet remained very different writers: Blunden with his devotion to English literature of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, to the pastoral tradition, to Englishness in its many forms and guises, whether villages, prose or cricket; Jones emerging as one of the major modernists, in both literature and the visual arts, often drawing on materials less familiar to the general reader: Welsh myth, Arthurian romance, the experiences of Roman legionaries in Britain, details of Catholic ritual.

‘It is extremely difficult, if not impossible, for us to see the wood in which we find ourselves for the trees against which we break our heads and in the tangle of which we break our hearts.’[8] 

References

[1] Bonnie Blackburn and Leofranc Holford-Strevens, The Oxford Companion to the Year (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), 440.

[2] Barry C. Johnson, editor, Tea and Anarchy! The Bloomsbury Diary of Olive Garnett, 1890-1893 (London: Bartletts Press, 1989), 132-133.

[3] Christina Rossetti, ‘A Birthday’, Poems and Prose, edited by Jan Marsh (London: Everyman, 1994), 60.

[4] Rossetti, Poems and Prose, 174.

[5] Blunden, Undertones of War (1928; Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1982), 116.

[6] Blunden, ‘Third Ypres: A Reminiscence’, Selected Poems, edited by Robyn Marsack (Manchester: Carcanet Press, 1993), 50.

[7] Thomas Dilworth, David Jones: Engraver, Soldier, Painter, Poet (London: Jonathan Cape, 2017), 328; René Hague, editor, Dai Greatcoat: A self-portrait of David Jones in his letters (London: Faber and Faber, 1980), 210.

[8] David Jones, ‘Art and Democracy’, in Epoch and Artist (1959; London: Faber, 1973), 96.

 

 

Dylan, Dai Greatcoat and Welshness

Dylan-Caitlin-via-Telegraph

(Dylan Thomas and his wife Caitlin via The Telegraph)

Dylan Thomas (born 27 October 1914) was probably my first poetic crush or obsession or, let’s say, preoccupation. No doubt I had others of a non-poetic kind and it was not solely as a spectator that I approached Thomas: I myself was to be a poet in the Thomas mode – a lord of language but also comedian, raconteur, champion drinker, roaring boy. I can see now that I actually read relatively few of Thomas’s poems: I just read them a lot. They were, for the most part, the ones that remain the best known and most often cited: ‘The force that through the green fuse drives the flower’, ‘Light breaks where no sun shines’, ‘I see the boys of summer’, ‘After the funeral’, ‘When all my five and country senses see’, ‘The hunchback in the park’, ‘A Refusal to Mourn the Death, by Fire, of a Child in London’, ‘Fern Hill’, ‘Do not go gentle into that good night’, and perhaps especially then, ‘Poem in October’ (I won’t worry too much about the indented lines, which will vanish when I post this):

It was my thirtieth year to heaven
Woke to my hearing from harbour and neighbour wood
And the mussel pooled and the heron
Priested shore
The morning beckon
With water praying and call of seagull and rook
And the knock of sailing boats on the net webbed wall
Myself to set forth
That second
In the still sleeping town and set forth.[1]

When I became aware of the scheme in ‘Prologue’, written especially for the 1952 Collected Poems—the two central lines rhyme, then the lines on either side of those and so back to the first and last lines—I admired that excessively for a time. (Then thought it a gimmick, mere ‘technique’ – and now simply like the poem.)

We tend to grow wary of youthful enthusiasms; we may encounter contrary or negative views of their objects; we may hug them protectively to ourselves and try to sustain them; but often other things crowd in to absorb our attention and the early enthusiasms—or infatuations or passions—are deprived of air and light and can’t always be resuscitated. Yet they’re not always gone for good. Sometimes we come back to them, years later, perhaps on quite other terms, and establish different but often surprisingly strong relations.

DJ-outside-Faber

(David Jones outside the Faber offices: http://www.david-jones-society.org/david-jones.html )

My most recent poetic preoccupation, still current in fact, is with David Jones. It’s a point of interest that, while Dylan Thomas was actually Welsh, born in Swansea—though much of his material is not substantially or conspicuously Welsh—David Jones, though he had a Welsh father, was born in Brockley, south-east London, spent very little time actually in Wales, but was hugely interested in Welsh history and literature. A great deal of his work, concerned with ‘the matter of Britain’, deals with themes of Welsh antiquity, mythology, language. Of course, both Dylan Thomas, ‘the Rimbaud of Cwmdonkin Drive’, and David Jones speak in the accents of upper-class Englishmen.

(The remarkable 1965 interview—two hours of film edited down to around twenty minutes—between Jones and Saunders Lewis, produced by Tristram Powell, is available here: http://www.david-jones-society.org/research-resources.html
(Also accessible through this site are the three invaluable films about Jones by the late Derek Shiel)

Despite the prevalence of Welsh matter in David Jones’s work, he tends to be viewed—when he’s not being neglected or overlooked, which is still too often the case—in relation to British modernism. This can seem something of a drawback for those seeking to establish a distinct strain of Welsh modernism and situate Dylan Thomas centrally within it: ‘If modernism in Britain was largely imported – think of James, Conrad, Pound, and Eliot – it was heavily Irish-influenced [presumably Joyce and Yeats]. Predictably, the Welsh variety has been seen solely in terms of its input to the definition of British (i.e., English) modernism, in the shape of David Jones. Although its anomalousness and belatedness are arguably a sign of writing which deals with the condition of Welshness, concentration on Jones’ high modernism (endorsed by Eliot, and publication by Faber) has led critics away from Welsh modernism.’[2]

David Jones told William Blissett that he’d met Dylan Thomas on three occasions: ‘twice he was drunk and unreachable, though amusing, the other time sober, and they talked at some length about Welsh metres, in complete accord.’[3] Thomas Dilworth points out that, on this last occasion, 30 March 1953, David Jones did ‘most of the talking since Thomas knew little about it.’ Thomas regarded Jones with ‘“great reverence”’, and ‘expressed huge admiration for him as a poet’, while Jones thought that Dylan Thomas ‘invigorated English through an underlying sense of Celtic language’.[4]

Both of David Jones’s major poems, In Parenthesis and The Anathemata were dramatised on the BBC, and Dylan Thomas performed in both recordings. In 1946, David Jones went to the basement flat in Albany Street of his friend Douglas Cleverdon to hear the first broadcast of Cleverdon’s adaptation of In Parenthesis; and listened to the following evening’s repeat with his friends Harman and Margaret Grisewood. He felt that the actors, including Richard Burton and Emrys Jones, wrongly stressed words and exaggerated emotions. Jones ‘hated it, broke down, and went to bed for a week.’[5] But Dylan Thomas, who delivered Dai Greatcoat’s boast, seems to have escaped the author’s censure. And in 1954, a year after Dylan’s death, when Douglas Cleverdon’s version of The Anathemata was repeated on Friday 26 November, Jones wrote to his friend Jim Ede: ‘It’s a peculiar thing. They sweated on it, but of course, from my point of view, it is all over-dramatized etc. etc. etc.—one or two bits not so bad—Dylan Thomas said his [pre-recorded] bits beautifully and the Welsh women in Part VII are all right.’[6]

I read In Parenthesis for the first time more than thirty years ago but feel that I’m only now beginning to see David Jones properly for the first time; reading Dylan Thomas and experiencing that intoxication—language as if mainlined, shot straight into the vein—even longer ago than that, I think that seeing him for the second time, though less enthralling than the first, may, in the end, prove even more rewarding.

 
References

[1] Dylan Thomas, The Poems, edited and introduced by Daniel Jones (London: J. M. Dent & Sons, 1971), 176-177.

[2] John Goodby and Christopher Wigginton, ‘Dylan Thomas’ modernism’, in Alex Davis and Lee M. Jenkins, Locations of Literary Modernism: Region and Nation in British and American Modernist Poetry (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 99.

[3] Conversation dated 25 September 1970: William Blissett, The Long Conversation: A Memoir of David Jones (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1981), 57.

[4] Thomas Dilworth, David Jones: Engraver, Soldier, Painter, Poet (London: Jonathan Cape, 2017), 276.

[5] Dilworth, David Jones, 239.

[6] René Hague, editor, Dai Greatcoat: A self-portrait of David Jones in his letters (London: Faber and Faber, 1980), 164.

 

Advancement of learning: visiting the library

Rylands-Reading-Room

(John Rylands Reading Room: via www.manchester.ac.uk )

‘Libraries,’ wrote Francis Bacon in 1605, ‘are as the shrines, where all the reliques of the ancient saints, full of true virtue, and that without delusion or imposture, are preserved, and reposed.’ Quoting this, Jennifer Summit, in Memory’s Library: Medieval Books in Early Modern England, presents libraries rather ‘less as inert storehouses of written tradition and rather more as volatile spaces that actively shaped the meanings and uses of books, reading, and the past’.[1]

In Manchester, apart from the Wyndham Lewis exhibition and the Ford Madox Brown murals in the town hall (that attempt failed: there was a one-day event in the Great Hall and it was closed to visitors), Chetham’s and the John Rylands Library were the main items on the menu.

Chethams-3

Chetham’s Library was founded in 1653, established under the terms of the will of Humphrey Chetham, ‘a prosperous Manchester textile merchant, banker and landowner’, and is the oldest surviving public library in Britain. In the superb Reading Room, we paused by the famous desk at which Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels worked, when the latter was employed at his father’s cotton manufacturing firm ­– and giving financial support to the Marx family.

Chethams-1

In the nineteenth century the library moved to specialise in the history and topography of the north west of England. Its holdings include 120,000 printed items, manuscripts and a huge quantity of ephemera: postcards, theatre programmes, posters, broadsheets and music. Among the individual items are Ben Jonson’s copy of Plato, first editions of Newton, Robert Hooke, Johnson’s Dictionary and Milton’s Paradise Lost, and, in manuscript, Horace Walpole’s account of money spent on his house at Strawberry Hill.[2]

Chethams-2

(Volumes of Francis Bacon’s works)

The librarian was properly—and professionally—impressed by all this. So, unprofessionally, was I—but then, who wouldn’t be? And so to the famous John Rylands Library, taking in their Reformation exhibition, with a copy of Luther’s 95 theses, and a handwritten letter from him.
http://www.library.manchester.ac.uk/rylands/whats-on/reformation/

The standard response to the Reading Room in John Rylands was exemplified by the man who came in while I was standing near the exit. ‘Wow’, he said; and once more, for luck, ‘Wow!’ Then the camera phone came out and he clicked continually, like most of the other people there. If I’d thought I could achieve pictures of anything other than light reflected off polished surfaces, I might have done the same. Easier, though, to borrow the Library’s own.

Today is, I notice, the birthday of Elaine Feinstein, poet, biographer, playwright, novelist and translator, who has published over forty books now. Curious the ways by which we come to some writers: relatively recently, I was reading Feinstein’s terrific versions of Marina Tsvetaeva:

this is the last bridge
the last bridging between

water     and firm land
and I am saving these
coins for death
for Charon, the price of Lethe

this     shadow money
from my dark hand I press
soundlessly into
the shadowy darkness of his

shadow money it is
no gleam and tinkle in it
coins for shadows:
the dead have enough poppies[3]

Tsvetaeva

Before Tsvetaeva and her biography of Ted Hughes and scattered pieces in PN Review, it was probably the famous 1959 ‘Letter to Elaine Feinstein’ from Charles Olson (‘Let this swirl—a bit like Crab Nebula—do for now’), addressed to E. B. Feinstein.[4] There was an exhibition at John Rylands Library with some choice morsels from their celebrated collections: they have the Elaine Feinstein archive there:
http://www.library.manchester.ac.uk/search-resources/guide-to-special-collections/atoz/elaine-feinstein-collection/ 
and there were some tantalising examples in a glass cabinet, including a letter from Allen Ginsberg which began ‘Dear Mr Feinstein’ (those initials again).

In Walden, Henry Thoreau remarked that, ‘The finest qualities of our nature, like the bloom on fruits, can be preserved only by the most delicate handling. Yet we do not treat ourselves nor one another thus tenderly.’[5] A good way to preserve the bloom while also strengthening roots and branches, is to light the fire in the belly and brain of boy or girl and set them loose in a library. It’s becoming more difficult, of course, to find one or to find one that’s open or to find one that’s open and has a good stock of books in it. (‘He had read everything’, David Garnett remembered of the novelist and short story writer H. E. Bates, ‘having found most of the world’s literature in Kettering and Rushden public libraries’.)[6]

Governments are notoriously careless or irresponsible about such things and libraries—the common or garden, indispensable neighbourhood libraries—have had a particularly tough time of late, seen by councils of all stripes and sizes as ‘soft’ targets. Those politicians who actually read have their own solid bookshelves, or access to parliamentary facilities, no doubt. But they also seem uncertain about what a library—and, for that matter, a professional librarian—actually is and does. Here’s a clue. A library run by unqualified volunteers is, alas, no longer a library: it has become instead a space containing some books, some computers and some well-meaning people.

Library

(via American Libraries Magazine)

Still, perhaps we have a population as well-educated, knowledgeable and well-informed as it could possibly be? If so, we can probably afford to be so neglectful, ungenerous and short-sighted as to cut education budgets and limit access to learning and run down public libraries, allowing local councils to degrade them as a first response—rather than a last resort—to budget squeezes by central government. If not, not. We should consider, anyway, the possibility that not everybody has access to the internet twenty-four hours a day. Perhaps we should consider another: not everything that people need to know, let alone want to know, is available on the internet in any case, and not every skill can be learned there.

References

[1] Bacon, The Advancement of Learning, address to the King at the opening of the Second Book; Jennifer Summit, Memory’s Library: Medieval Books in Early Modern England (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008), 13.

[2] Details from Chetham’s Library: Three Centuries of the Written Word, edited by Sandra Pisano (London: Scala Arts and Heritage Publishers, reprinted 2016).

[3] Marina Tsvetaeva, ‘Poem of the End’, section 8 (1924), in Selected Poems, translated by Elaine Feinstein, fourth edition (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993), 78-79.

[4] See Charles Olson, The Collected Prose, edited by Donald Allen and Benjamin Friedlander (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997), 250-252.

[5] Henry David Thoreau, Walden, edited by J. Lyndon Shanley (Princeton and London: Princeton University Press, 1974), 6.

[6] David Garnett The Familiar Faces (London: Chatto & Windus, 1962), 100.