Weather or not


Rain is skittering on the windows above my head. Rain again, the reign of rain. Tip tap. Or is it dot dash? Is it, perhaps, messaging? There’s a solid twenty-first-century word. Are you messaging, rain?

It might say: I can keep this up all day. Or even: I can keep this up forever, even after your stupid, aggressive, greedy, self-destructive species has wiped itself off the face of the earth. To which I reply: Too harsh by far. Lots of us are not like that at all. To which the rain says: So how did all you intelligent, peaceful, progressive, constructive people let this happen? To which I reply: I must go shopping now. . .

Yes, August! High summer, as comedians say. Colossal price hikes from us, as travel companies say, if quietly. In continental Europe, the weather is easing for some, though Italy and parts of the Balkans are still in the grip of a heat wave and parts of Greece too would still be uncomfortable for me. My younger daughter writes from Barcelona that it’s been twenty minutes since she had something to drink: she must go in search of fluids. Some British holidaymakers, warned away from swimming pools and beaches in Italy or Southern Spain must be a little confused to find themselves casting longing glances in the direction of home, where our weather forecasters try to vary the menu a little but with limited options. Sunshine and showers. Maybe sunshine between the showers. Showers this morning will give way to heavy rain in places. Rain, rain, rain.


August. William Cobbett, travelling early in that month in 1823, through southern English counties, rode into bad weather:

‘But, alas! Saint Swithin had begun his works for the day before I got on top of the hill. Soon after the two turnip-hoers had assured me that there would be no rain, I saw, beginning to poke up over the South Downs (then right before me) several parcels of those white, curled clouds that we call Judges’ Wigs. And they are just like Judges’ wigs. Not the parson-like things which the Judges wear when they have to listen to the dull wrangling and duller jests of the lawyers; but those big wigs which hang down about their shoulders, when they are about to tell you a little of their intentions, and when their very looks say, “Stand clear!” These clouds (if rising from the South West) hold precisely the same language to the great-coatless traveller. Rain is sure to follow them.’[1]

St Swithin’s day, if thou dost rain,
For forty days it will remain;
St Swithin’s day, if thou be fair,
For forty days ‘twill rain nae mair.

An idea already current in the fourteenth century, apparently.[2] In a wholly or largely agricultural economy, weather is a crucial matter. We had an industrial revolution; agriculture’s proportionate contribution to the national economy has diminished hugely; but we are still, famously, preoccupied with our weather.

There have been periods in our history when other topics fought for—and, briefly, achieved—ascendancy. But those periods have usually coincided with wars. Mollie Panter-Downs, writing in August 1941, remarked on the weather being ousted as the primary subject of conversation. ‘Everyone talks about food.’[3]


(Soldiers of an Australian 4th Division field artillery brigade, near Hooge in the Ypres salient, 29 October 1917: photograph by Frank Hurley, who famously accompanied Mawson and Shackleton on expeditions to the Antarctic but was also official photographer with Australian forces in both World Wars. Australian War Memorial,  collection number E01220.)

War and weather, particularly extreme weather, have been frequently discussed just lately because of the centenary of the Third Battle of Ypres, better known as Passchendaele (July–November 1917), when relentless and prodigious rainfall, the heaviest for thirty years, turned the battlefield into a lethal quagmire, where men and horses drowned in great pools of foul water.

‘“That agony returns,”’ Edmund Blunden wrote. ‘On July 31 the worst and most hated of the British offensives was begun, against all reason, all around or nearly all around Ypres. Reason had had no luck for weeks before’.[4]


(Canadian Stretcher Bearers carry wounded through the mud: Imperial War Museum)

There were moments of individual, rainy luck—rain or, rather, its cessation. Ernst Jünger wrote of a shell hitting the collapsing farmhouse which he’d sheltered in earlier that day because it was raining; now, without rain, he has stayed outside: ‘That’s the role of chance in war. More than elsewhere, small causes can have a vast effect.’[5]

Not long after that war, in fact, we find weather, specifically the implausible dream of prolonged, fine English weather advanced as characteristic of utopian politics, when the Dowager Duchess of Denver (not that Denver), mother of Dorothy Sayers’ detective Lord Peter Wimsey, in conversation with Inspector Parker, is admiring the handsomeness of Sir Julian Freke: ‘just exactly like William Morris, with that bush of hair and beard and those exciting eyes looking out of it—so splendid, these dear men always devoted to something or other—not but what I think socialism is a mistake—of course it works with all those nice people, too good and happy in art linen and the weather always perfect—Morris, I mean, you know—but so difficult in real life.’[6]

One of my teachers, a Buddhist, used to assure me that there was no such thing as ‘bad weather’—there was only weather. Yes, we need to be—one can’t, in all conscience, use the word ‘robust’ since it has been so misused and degraded by politicians recently—stalwart, doughty, if not weatherproof. As Doctor Johnson said to Doctor Brocklesby: ‘The weather indeed is not benign; but how low is he sunk whose strength depends upon the weather!’[7]



[1] William Cobbett, Rural Rides, ed. George Woodcock (1830 edition; Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1983), 123.

[2] Steve Roud, The English Year: A Month-by-Month Guide to the Nation’s Customs and Festivals, from May Day to Mischief Night (London: Penguin Books, 2006), 244.

[3] Mollie Panter-Downes, London War Notes, edited by William Shawn; new preface by David Kynaston (London: Persephone Books, 2014), 194.

[4] Edmund Blunden, Fall In, Ghosts: Selected War Prose, edited with an introduction by Robyn Marsack (Manchester: Carcanet Press, 2014), 129.

[5] Ernst Jünger, Storm of Steel, translated by Michael Hofmann (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 2004), 196.

[6] Dorothy L. Sayers, Whose Body? (1923; London: New English Library, 1968), 93.

[7] James Boswell, Life of Johnson, edited by R. W. Chapman, revised by J. D. Fleeman, introduction by Pat Rogers (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1980), 1338.


Ford Madox Ford’s Fourth of August

Ford Madox Ford, 1915

The Good Soldier: Ford in 1915 by E. O. Hoppé: National Portrait Gallery via New York Review of Books

4 August commemorates not only a flurry of artistic birthdays—Shelley, Pater, W. H. Hudson, Knut Hamsun, Louis Armstrong—and a clutch of significant dates for relatives of artists—the wedding of D. H. Lawrence’s sister Ada, the birthday of Stanley Spencer’s sister Florence, the birthday of Violet Hunt’s sister Venice, named after The Stones of Venice by John Ruskin, her godfather—but, probably above all else, Britain’s 1914 declaration of war, Sir Edward Grey’s ultimatum to Germany having expired.

‘All that was left was to wait for midnight (eleven o’clock, British time). At nine o’clock the government learned, through an intercepted but uncoded telegram sent out from Berlin, that Germany had considered itself at war with Britain from the moment when the British ambassador had asked for his passports.’[1]

On the day that war was declared, the Bradford Daily Argus ‘suggested that “it will be in the kitchens that the pinch will be chiefly felt but that difficulty may be overcome by deleting the more dainty dishes”.’[2] An admirable prediction but, as things turned out, a little wide of the mark.

For readers of Ford Madox Ford, there are supplementary significances. In The Good Soldier alone, he mentions 4th August sixteen times; in other writings he refers to it more than a dozen times, frequently in conjunction with the name of the village of Gemmenich, the point at which German troops crossed the Belgian border that morning


The recurrence of the date in The Good Soldier is a well-established mystery. The novel was published in London and New York by John Lane, in March 1915. The first section of the novel, then still entitled ‘The Saddest Story’, had appeared in the June 1914 issue of Blast: Review of the Great English Vortex. Tantalisingly, although the published section includes one mention of ‘August’, the excerpt ends a chapter and a half before the novel’s first specific reference to 4th August, which comes at the very beginning of Part II of the published text.

We can’t be sure, and are unlikely to become so, exactly when the novel was finished. It seems likely that a coincidental mention of 4th August was, in the course of revision, and after the war had started, made central to the novel, as noted by two of The Good Soldier’s most recent editors.[3] As Martin Stannard remarks elsewhere, ‘Trying to reconstruct the textual history of a Ford novel is like trying to establish the details of a dream.’[4]

There are dreams enough in The Good Soldier. Early on in the novel, the narrator, in a wonderful passage, proposes to ‘imagine myself for a fortnight or so at one side of the fireplace of a country cottage, with a sympathetic soul opposite me. 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.’[5] (As usual, I’m tempted to analyse and comment upon almost every word here with the possible exceptions of ‘at’ and ‘a’, though I’m not sure that even those can safely be left unexamined.) Spoken rather than written, an illusion maintained until very near the end (‘I am writing this, now, I should say, a full eighteen months after the words that end my last chapter’).[6] Intriguing, then, to find this:

‘But the fellow talked like a cheap novelist.—Or like a very good novelist for the matter of that, if it’s the business of a novelist to make you see things clearly. And I tell you I see that thing as clearly as if it were a dream that never left me.’[7]


Carcassonne, late 19th century: Fonds Eugène Trutat, via Wikipedia

And this, the wonderful conjunction of the specific (‘Carcassonne’) and the indefinite (‘some people’):

‘I don’t mean to say that I sighed about her or groaned; I just wanted to marry her as some people want to go to Carcassonne.

Do you understand the feeling—the sort of feeling that you must get certain matters out of the way, smooth out certain fairly negligible complications before you can go to a place that has, during all your life, been a sort of dream city?’[8]

Yes, suffice to say that there are plenty of mysteries and diversions in this short novel other than the date of its completion or its repeated reference to 4th August.



[1] Barbara Tuchman, The Guns of August and The Proud Tower, edited by Margaret MacMillan (New York: Library of America, 2012), 155.

[2] Denis Winter, Death’s Men: Soldiers of the Great War (London: Penguin Books, 1979), 23.

[3] Ford, The Good Soldier, edited by Max Saunders (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), xxxviii-xl; edited by Martin Stannard, second edition (New York and London: W. W. Norton, 2012), 192-193 and ‘Textual Appendices’, 216, 220.

[4] Stannard, ‘The Good Soldier: Editorial Problems’, in Robert Hampson and Max Saunders (eds), Ford Madox Ford’s Modernity, International Ford Madox Ford Studies 2 (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2003), 147.

[5] The Good Soldier, edited by Max Saunders, 18.

[6] The Good Soldier, 178.

[7] The Good Soldier, 89. The phrase ‘to make you see things clearly’ is a reference to Joseph Conrad’s ‘Preface’ to The Nigger of the “Narcissus”’, in Typhoon and Other Tales (New York: Signet Classics, 1962), 21.

[8] The Good Soldier, 97. See my ‘“Speak Up, Fordie!”: How Some People Want to Go to Carcassonne’, in Sara Haslam, editor, Ford Madox Ford and the City, International Ford Madox Ford Studies 4 (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2005), 197-210.


August and blackberrying

Orpen, William, 1878-1931; Harvest

William Orpen, Harvest (1918), © Imperial War Museum.
The ambiguities of autumn enlarged: war and peace, life and death.

August. High summer, though you’d hardly know it as the rainclouds roll over the house and the showers come and go. The first day of August, in fact. Lammas, hlafmaesse, ‘loaf-mass’. First fruits, harvest. Hurry into your local church with the bread and the wheat.[1] ‘After Lammas corn ripens as much by night as by day.’[2]

The harvest (a word related in origin to ‘autumn’) has been, is still, quite literally a matter of life and death for a great many people. It’s been a rich source for the horror genre too, both on the screen and on the page (Stephen King, Thomas Tryon, The Harvest, Dark Harvest, Blood Harvest, and more, no doubt). And it has its visionary or mystical moments. Poet and playwright Ronald Duncan, a pacifist, ran a co-operative farm in Devon during the Second World War. He recalled of an August day in 1940 that, ‘Binding up these sheaves of oats, I am certain I believe in oats. The stalks falling behind the cutter which we draw behind an old car, the monk binding methodically, the new members binding enthusiastically, women with coloured scarves round their heads are gleaning and one cannot glean ungracefully. If one cannot see God in an oatfield one will never see. For, here is the whole of it.’[3]


West Mill, Welcombe, Devon:

‘Standing there in the morning happiness,’ T. H. White recalled, ‘with a saffron sky in the east and the moon in the south-west still lemon yellow, beside a field where the harvest had already begun, one saw in the mind’s eye the imaginary lines all over England: the roads coming up macadamized to the invisible threads, and going on as stone, the ditches suddenly changing from cut to uncut, the parishes and territories and neighbours’ landmarks: all slept at peace now, all this beautiful achievement of cooperation and forethought among our fathers who were at peace also, in dust.’[4]


Over the years, William Faulkner’s 1932 novel, Light in August provoked a good deal of discussion over the meaning of its title. Lena Grove is heavily pregnant at the novel’s opening and Faulkner was once asked at the University of Virginia whether his title did indeed refer to a ‘colloquialism for the completion of a pregnancy’. He said no, it was to do with the peculiar quality of light in that month.[5] In his biography of Faulkner, Joseph Blotner tells of the novelist sitting with his wife Estelle in the late afternoon. ‘“Bill,” she said, “does it ever seem to you that the light in August is different from any other time of the year?”’ In this account, Faulkner goes directly to his worktable, crosses out his working title for the novel, ‘Dark House’ and replaces it with ‘Light in August’. It has to be said, though, that Faulkner was largely responsible for the later uncertainty over the ‘meaning’ of his title.[6]

This morning, I noticed a tiny stain on the shoulder of the shirt I wore yesterday: blackberry juice. We’d been wading in among the brambles and nettles for the second time in a few days. Blackberrying is ‘the one almost universal act of foraging to survive in our industrialised island’, Richard Mabey writes.[7] The country in the city, so to speak. We pick them on a path which certainly isn’t hidden. There’s a fair amount of traffic but only by foot and bicycle—there’s no motor traffic nearby which is the main consideration, since we object to being poisoned. Still, it’s odd that quite a few passers-by seem baffled by what we’re doing and hurry their children past. (‘What are they doing, mummy?’ ‘Picking delicious free food, dear, I’ve no idea why.’) Blackberry and apple crumble: even the words taste good.

Gash, Walter Bonner, 1869-1928; Two Girls Picking Blackberries*

Walter Bonner Gash, Two Girls Picking Blackberries
© Alfred East Art Gallery Permanent Collection

Late August, given heavy rain and sun
For a full week, the blackberries would ripen.
At first, just one, a glossy purple clot
Among others, red, green, hard as a knot.
You ate that first one and its flesh was sweet
Like thickened wine: summer’s blood was in it
Leaving stains upon the tongue and lust for

The speaker in Heaney’s poem recalls how quickly the blackberries would rot. ‘Each year I hoped they’d keep, knew they would not.’[8]


And we have thorn pricks, nettle stings, stained hands. Still—two and a half kilos of blackberries in the freezer. Kilos! What am I saying? That may be a little too foreign for these troubled time. Say five and a half pounds, avoirdupois—but there I go again. . .

I have, though, called to mind a story that Ford Madox Ford told, which seems to me to hint at why some people chose the option that they did in last year’s referendum (and perhaps in more than one election since). Ford was, for a brief time, working on a small farm on the outskirts of Philadelphia. His employer eventually hired another worker, which released Ford from his labours. He was stopping up a wasp’s nest one day, while the hired man was on the roof, fixing the shingles.

I heard him call:
“I’m coming down now.”
I said: “Wait while I fetch a ladder.” When I came back he was lying on the ground.
He said: “I’ve bruck me leg.”
I said: “What did you jump for?”
He answered: “Wal, I thought I’d see.”[9]



[1] Steve Roud, The English Year: A Month-by-Month Guide to the Nation’s Customs and Festivals, from May Day to Mischief Night (London: Penguin Books, 2006), 260-261.

[2] Bonnie Blackburn and Leofranc Holford-Strevens, The Oxford Companion to the Year (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), 315.

[3] Ronald Duncan, Journal of a Husbandman (London: Faber and Faber, 1944), 52-53.

[4] T. H. White, The Goshawk (1951; Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1975), 39.

[5] Cleanth Brooks, William Faulkner: The Yoknapatawpha Country (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1966), 375.

[6] Joseph Blotner, William Faulkner : A Biography, two volumes (London: Chatto & Windus, 1974), I, 702 and ‘Notes’, 102.

[7] Richard Mabey, Flora Britannica (London: Sinclair-Stevenson, 1996), 183.

[8] Seamus Heaney, ‘Blackberry-Picking’, Death of a Naturalist (1966; London: Faber and Faber, 2006), 8.

[9] Ford, Return to Yesterday: Reminiscences 1894-1914 (London: Victor Gollancz, 1931), 166-167.

Lawrence Outside England


(The Tinners Arms, Zennor)

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

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

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


(Lawrence; Katherine Mansfield; Frieda; John Middleton Murry via

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Butterflies in ruins

Small White - Male

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

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

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

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


Olympia via

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Curran, Amelia, 1775-1847; Percy Bysshe Shelley

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

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

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

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

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

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


Rolling Stones on stage, Hyde Park, 5 July 1969

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.