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.

 

A Visit to ‘The Enemy’: Wyndham Lewis Up North

Manchester-early

(Manchester, early morning)

To Manchester, primarily to see the Wyndham Lewis exhibition or perhaps—depending on which witness was consulted—to visit Chetham’s and John Rylands libraries; or even to take full advantage of room service in the hotel.

I was last in Manchester almost exactly thirteen years ago and my strongest memories from that visit were of extraordinarily impressive public buildings, friendly people and a vibrant city centre which felt good to walk around. Nothing has changed for me in those respects, and there is still that positive feeling as you walk around the centre, despite some of the trouble that Manchester has had to weather recently.

Coming from Bristol, we could only lament that city’s lost opportunities as we sampled the Metrolink on a tram out to the Quays and Imperial War Museum North.

IWM-North

(IWM North)

And so to Wyndham Lewis: Life, Art, War. This is a tremendous exhibition, covering the whole of Lewis’s career but also, invaluably, including much of the related, contextual artistic work: designs from Roger Fry’s Omega Workshops, paintings by Vorticist allies, and ending with Michael Ayrton’s poignant portrait of the elderly—and blind—Lewis wearing his eyeshade.

Portrait of Wyndham Lewis 1955 by Michael Ayrton 1921-1975

(Michael Ayrton, Wyndham Lewis, 1955: Tate © Estate of Michael Ayrton)

Some of the Lewis artworks I’d seen before, at an exhibition in Cardiff. Having dug out the catalogue by Jane Farrington (with contributions by John Rothenstein, Richard Cork and Omar Pound), I see that it was in 1980, that it actually started in Manchester (not, as I mistakenly thought, London) and that A Battery Shelled (1919) wasn’t included in that exhibition. I believe the only piece that didn’t make the move was the famous and controversial portrait of T. S. Eliot, which had to return home to Durban, so I was glad to catch up with it here.

I do remember the almost overwhelming impact of walking into that space in the National Museum of Wales in Cardiff and seeing the remarkable range of his work for the first time, a range that I’d never really suspected before, an effect that was heightened by the fact that, when I viewed the exhibition, I was alone for much of that time. Walking around the IWM exhibition the other day, in fact, there were few enough people for each of us to take our time and see things properly, and to go back and look again—increasingly rare in recent years: in several other exhibitions I’ve been to lately, you’d have to stand on a stepladder to see half of the exhibits over the heads of the crowds.

WL-Exhbtn

Whether I’d seen them before or not, the pieces I found myself scribbling the titles of on this occasion included Smiling Woman Ascending a Stair (c.1911-12), The Vorticist (1912), The Crowd (1914-15), Two Missionaries (1917), Figures in the Air (1927), The Surrender of Barcelona (1936) and, of course, A Battery Shelled (1919)—the scale and force of that canvas draws you back for a second or third viewing. I still find several of the portraits hugely impressive: Eliot and Pound, Edith Sitwell, Naomi Mitchison in particular, the instantly recognisable figure of Nancy Cunard – and portraits of Lewis’s wife Froanna, one of them, the superb 1938 The Mexican Shawl, more usually to be found back in Bristol.

Lewis, Wyndham, 1882-1957; Mexican Shawl

Wyndham Lewis, The Mexican Shawl
© Wyndham Lewis Memorial Trust / Bridgeman Images. Photo credit: Bristol Museums, Galleries & Archives

But, again, some of the indispensable elements for me were the extras: the journals (Blast, The Tyro, The Enemy), the books (including Lewis’s astonishingly ill-judged titles of the 1930s) and the artworks by others: one of my favourites being Jessica Dismorr’s Abstract Composition (1915).

Abstract Composition c.1915 by Jessica Dismorr 1885-1939

There are also works by Wadsworth, Bomberg, Atkinson, and the wonderful William Roberts painting, The Vorticists at the Restaurant de la Tour Eiffel: Spring, 1915, with Lewis looming centrally and a little larger than everyone else. Then, too, the Gaudier-Brzeska pieces: the Horace Brodzky, yes, but primarily the stunning Bird Swallowing a Fish: once you’ve seen the bomb or torpedo in the shape of that fish, you never get past it again.

Bird Swallowing a Fish c.1913-4, cast 1964 by Henri Gaudier-Brzeska 1891-1915

Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, Bird Swallowing a Fish (Tate, 1913-14, cast in bronze 1964).

While, on the face of it, you could conjure up few pairings so unlike one another as Lewis and Henry Thoreau, I do hear echoes of ‘The Enemy’ in the essay that Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote after his friend’s death: ‘There was something military in his nature, not to be subdued, always manly and able, but rarely tender, as if he did not feel himself except in opposition. He wanted a fallacy to expose, a blunder to pillory, I may say required a little sense of victory, a roll of the drum, to call his powers into full exercise.’[1] The critic Michael Levenson wrote of ‘the modernist urge towards dualistic opposition and radical polarities’ and one of the leading modernists asserted that ‘The history of the world is the history of temperaments in opposition.’[2] Lewis was, certainly, always in opposition.

Which consideration brings us, inevitably, to the thorny ‘problem’ of Lewis’s politics, the troublesome positions brought about by the confrontational stance of the man that Auden called ‘That lonely old volcano of the Right’.[3] The issue is confronted frankly and illuminatingly by participants in the very good video at the end of the exhibition: they include Richard Slocombe, author of the accompanying catalogue; the doyen of Lewis studies, Paul Edwards; and there’s an excellent contribution from our friend Nathan Waddell (a Fordian as well as a Lewisian).

Wyndham Lewis: Life, Art, War runs to the end of the year and is emphatically well worth a visit.

References

[1] Ralph Waldo Emerson, ‘Thoreau’, in Selected Essays, edited by Larzer Ziff (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1982), 396.

[2] Michael H. Levenson, A Genealogy of Modernism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986), ix; Ezra Pound, ‘Provincialism the Enemy’, in Selected Prose 1909-1965, edited by William Cookson (London: Faber and Faber, 1973), 169.

[3] W. H. Auden, ‘Letter to Lord Byron’ (1937), in The English Auden: Poems, Essays and Dramatic Writings, 1927-1939, edited by Edward Mendelson (London: Faber, 1977), 198.

 

First Post, Next Post

FP-Front

A parcel arrives with copies of the Newsletter from the Ford Madox Ford Society, which will be sent out over the next few days to the homes and offices of the faithful—even to a few of the lapsed, if that lapsing is of recent enough date.

To post First Post I need a lot of C5 envelopes, so set off on the two-mile walk to the stationer that we used pretty regularly for fifteen years, ten minutes away from the old offices. But I find it gone. Stationery, no longer stationary, has fled. Should I have checked before leaving home? Probably, given the recent examples of things assumed to be stable and enduring proving to be nothing of the kind.

Still, maybe tomorrow, if I manage to score a lunch date with the woman of my dreams. For many years, there’s been a stationer on the main road below her workplace. If it can just hang on twenty-four hours, those copies could soon be on their way.

Ford Madox Ford Society: http://www.fordmadoxfordsociety.org/

 

 

News, percentages, violin solos

Jordaens, Jacob, 1593-1678; An Allegory of Fruitfulness

Jacob Jordaens, An Allegory of Fruitfulness (1620-9)
© The Wallace Collection

Another week, another cornucopia of good news. Worrying noises—surely the first ever—from the White House. A Hollywood scandal rippling out, worsening and darkening as it does so, women everywhere rolling their eyes, taking in the film world, industry, local and national government, science, academe, business, retail and every media outlet going, unable or unwilling even to feign surprise. ‘Wait—you’re saying that some men in positions of power actually misuse that power to exploit and sexually abuse women? Truly?’ Meanwhile, for the delectation of the British public, talks in Brussels (official slogan: ‘Down we go!’) have paused to allow both sides to parse thoroughly the words ‘deadlock’ and ‘impasse’.

On Thursday, The Times Literary Supplement arrives. The NB column on the back page discusses a recently published ‘literary plebiscite’ called Goodbye Europe: Writers and artists say farewell. At one point, I read: ‘Fifty-two per cent of British voters chose to vote Leave.’

No, they didn’t. Fifty-two per cent of those who voted on the day of the referendum may have done but this represented around thirty-seven per cent of the electorate. So nearly two-thirds of the British electorate did not vote to leave the European Union. None of this changes the result: however ill-advised it was to call a referendum at all, with no safeguards—such as requiring a true majority of the electorate or agreement among all the constituent parts of the United Kingdom—and amidst a blizzard of misinformation, the result was what it was. Still, I object to the constant swilling about of such phrases as ‘the will of the people’ and ‘the British people have spoken’ to imply a collective, wall-to-wall, shoulder-to-shoulder-with-linked-arms determination to exit the EU. I confess that I tire too of the constant pretence that the referendum itself—and the recent General Election—were centrally concerned with ‘the Nation’ or ‘the British people’ when they were merely chapters in the continuing story of Conservative Party infighting. But that’s another issue.

Wodehouse

Thankfully, there are brighter spots in the world, such as P. G. Wodehouse’s The Mating Season, which I happened to be reading (aloud) last night, where it cheered me to find the Reverend Sidney Pirbright described as ‘A tall, drooping man, looking as if he had been stuffed in a hurry by an incompetent taxidermist’; and Bertie Wooster’s brisk review of Miss Eustacia Pulbrook’s violin solo: ‘It was loud in spots and less loud in other spots, and it had that quality which I have noticed in all violin solos, of seeming to last much longer than it actually did.’

Indignant violinists, please note: Mr Wodehouse is not currently on social media.

 

Ghost-seers and revenants

Shields, Frederick James, 1833-1911; Hamlet and the Ghost

(Frederick James Shields, Hamlet and the Ghost: Manchester Art Gallery)

Saturday’s Guardian carried a paperback review of Lisa Morton’s Ghosts: A Haunted History. It begins: ‘Nearly half of Americans believe in ghosts; the worldwide figure is almost certainly higher’, and adds that Morton shows belief in ghosts to be ‘nearly universal, though the form taken by the “undead spirit” varies across time and space.’[1]

It’s certainly a remarkably prevalent word – and idea – in our culture, in most cultures. Ghostwriter, ghost story, Ghostbuster, ghost train, ghost town, ghost of a chance, give up the ghost, to look like a ghost, ghosts walking over our graves, the ghost in the machine. The Holy Ghost: the Divine Spirit, the third person of the trinity, the Holy Spirit, closer there to the German geist. Ford Madox Ford remembered telling his confessor about his difficulty in conceiving, let along believing in, that ‘Third Person of the Trinity’. The old priest sensibly replied: ‘“Calm yourself, my son, that is a matter for theologians. Believe as much as you can”.’[2]

The poet Thomas Campbell recalled meeting the celebrated astronomer William Herschel in Brighton, in September 1813, feeling that he’d been ‘conversing with a supernatural intelligence’. Herschel completely perplexed him by saying that many distant stars had probably ceased to exist ‘millions of years ago’, ‘and that looking up into the night sky we were seeing a stellar landscape that was not really there at all. The sky was full of ghosts.’[3]

I’d tended to assume that fear of ghosts in the old sense had sensibly diminished in the more than four hundred years since Hamlet and the other witnesses had no doubts at all about what they were seeing when the ghost of the late king appeared to them, or the two hundred and fifty years since James Boswell was so unsettled by talk of ghosts: ‘This was very strong. My mind was now filled with a real horror instead of an imaginary one. I shuddered with apprehension. I was frightened to go home’.[4]

Had interest not steadily shifted to the observer rather than the observed? Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw is an obvious example; and Algernon Blackwood, in the preface to his collected stories, wrote: ‘My interest in psychic matters has always been the interest in questions of extended or expanded consciousness. If a ghost is seen, what is it interests me less than what sees it?’[5]

Ghosts_Almeida

(Ghosts at the Almeida Theatre via The Telegraph)
Lesley Manville as Helene Alving and Jack Lowden as Oswald Alving.

Henrik Ibsen disliked Ghosts as the title chosen by William Archer for his translation of the play into English. Richard Eyre, discussing his 2013 version, rendered the Norwegian Gengangere as ‘“a thing that walks again”, rather than the appearance of a soul of a dead person’ but pointed out that ‘Againwalkers’ was ungainly and the alternative, ‘Revenants’ he found ‘both awkward and French. Ghosts has a poetic resonance to the English ear.’
https://www.theguardian.com/stage/2013/sep/20/richard-eyre-spirit-ibsen-ghosts

Awkward? Arguably. French, most certainly. The 2004 film, Les Revenants, I’ve seen translated as They Came Back, while the recent television series based on it is called The Returned. In any case, the poetic resonance of ‘ghosts’ is certainly true enough in this English ear.

Unsurprisingly, the ‘theatre of war’—‘“theatre” is good. There are those who did not want / it to come to an end’[6]—is a flourishing site of wraiths, phantoms, visitants, revenants and vanishings. ‘Ghosts were numerous in France at that time’, Robert Graves wrote, recalling the second year of the First World War. Later, staying near Harlech at the large Tudor house of the Nicholson family—Graves married Nancy Nicholson, sister of Ben, third child of the painter William Nicholson and his wife Mabel—Graves remembered, ‘It was the most haunted house that I have ever been in, though the ghosts were invisible except in the mirrors.’[7]

Lucy_Masterman

(By Source (WP:NFCC#4), Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=51483551)

From France in 1916, Ford Madox Ford wrote to Lucy Masterman, wife of the Liberal politician, then running the British War Propaganda Bureau (Wellington House): ‘Why does nobody write to me? Does one so quickly become a ghost, alas!’[8]

And two and a half years after the Armistice, Siegfried Sassoon, thinking about the war, pulled out his war notebooks and paused on a diary entry of 30 June 1916. ‘The diary makes me realise that I shall never partake of another war. It makes me wonder whether five years ago was real. “Gibson’s face in the first grey of dawn . . . ” Gibson is a ghost but he is more real to-night than the pianist who played Scriabine with such delicate adroitness. I wish I could “find a moral equivalent for war”. To-night I feel as if I were only half-alive. Part of me died with all the Gibsons I used to know.’[9]

Rapid and colossal changes, in agriculture, in urban sprawl, in transport, in technology, in population density, in the widespread loss of natural habitats, the accelerating extinction of species, the rampant carelessness of planning and development, combine to engender common but unpredictable sensations of loss, an uneasiness, an unfocused search for the missing. ‘Our landscape is full of ghosts’, Anna Pavord writes, ‘of hands that have twitched and pulled it into sheep runs and cattle folds, bridleways and burial mounds. It is one of its great strengths.’[10] And Helen Macdonald wrote that ‘The hawk and I have a shared history of these fields. There are ghosts here, but they are not long-dead falconers. They are ghosts of things that happened.’[11]

The self, of course, can become a ghost, or feel like one. Writing to William Maxwell in early 1940, Sylvia Townsend Warner remarked: ‘Being a writer makes one a ghost before one’s time—the kind of ghost that likes a libation. War—or rather a state of things that antedates war—makes one feel more ghostly still’.[12] John Banville’s narrator refers to the self as an indistinct black shape, ‘like the shape that no one at the séance sees until the daguerreotype is developed. I think I am becoming my own ghost.’[13]

STW2

(Sylvia Townsend Warner via  http://sylviatownsendwarner.tumblr.com/)

How many of us are never haunted, by remembered faces, voices, names, the lives unlived, places unvisited, old friends misplaced, acquaintances not pursued, desired lovers untried? We may not use the word ‘ghost’, of course. But sometimes one of the most poignant experiences of the ghostly is not the dead friend or relative or lover, the spirit reluctant to leave building, battlefield or landscape—but the life that was never quite there at the outset, the lost because never held, the almost-life, as in the poem by Julia Copus, her narrator straining to see the longed-for sign of a successful IVF treatment:

She takes it all in, like a small, controlled explosion:
here is the inch-long stiff, absorbent pad –
a stopped tongue, the damp on it still; and the plastic housing

with its cut-out windows. And here is the latex strip
(two lines for yes), the single band of purple
and beside it the silvery ghost of a second line

willed into being – frail as the arm of a sea-frond
trailed in the ocean – but failing to darken or turn
into more than a watermark.[14]

 

References

[1] P. D. Smith, ‘Out in paperback’ column, which I cannot find online: Guardian review supplement (7 October 2017), 9.

[2] Ford Madox Ford, Provence (London: Allen & Unwin, 1938), 140.

[3] Richard Holmes, The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science (London: Harper Collins, 2008), 210.

[4] Boswell’s London Journal, 1762-1763, edited by Frederick A. Pottle (London: William Heinemann, 1950), 214.

[5] The Tales of Algernon Blackwood (London: Martin Secker, 1938), xi.

[6] ‘Canto LXXVIII’, The Cantos of Ezra Pound, fourth collected edition (London: Faber and Faber, 1987), 477.

[7] Robert Graves, Goodbye to All That (1929 edition; Harmondsworth: Penguin, 2014), 157, 342; Sanford Schwartz, William Nicholson (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004), 179-180.

[8] Letter of 6 September 1916: Letters of Ford Madox Ford, edited by Richard M. Ludwig (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1965), 74.

[9] Siegfried Sassoon, Diaries 1920-1922, edited by Rupert Hart-Davis (London: Faber and Faber, 1981), 73.

[10] Anna Pavord, Landskipping: Painters, Ploughmen and Places (London: Bloomsbury 2016), 43.

[11] Helen Macdonald, H is for Hawk (London: Jonathan Cape, 2014), 240.

[12] Michael Steinman, editor, The Element of Lavishness: Letters of Sylvia Townsend Warner and William Maxwell, 1938-1978 (Washington: Counterpoint, 2001), 8.

[13] John Banville, The Sea (London: Picador, 2006), 194.

[14] Julia Copus, ‘Ghost’, in The World’s Two Smallest Humans (London: Faber and Faber, 2012), 50.

‘We poets in our youth’

Redcliffe_Church_via_OBI.tumblr

(George Shepherd, Via https://www.oldbookillustrations.com/ )

‘The weather was brilliant’, the Reverend Francis Kilvert recorded in his diary, Friday 24 October 1873, when he attended the Bristol Music Festival. ‘We walked first to St Mary Redcliffe Church and remained to service in the beautiful Lady Chapel at 11 o’clock.’[1]

This imposing church, some of it dating back to the twelfth century, is about a mile from where I sit at this moment. Bristol boasts a giddily multifarious literary-historical line-up, those who have lived, visited or worked here ranging from Richard Hakluyt, Maria Edgeworth and Thomas Lovell Beddoes to Walter Savage Landor, Angela Carter and Charles Tomlinson. Edmund Burke was Member of Parliament, Humphry Davy experimented with laughing gas (often on himself) and Daniel Defoe may have met Alexander Selkirk, the ‘original’ of Robinson Crusoe, in a tavern in King Street. But traces of English Romanticism show up particularly strongly in any blood sample taken from the city’s literary history, and St Mary Redcliffe’s is a name that recurs often.

On this day, 4 October, in 1795, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, poet—recently, though briefly, having served with the Fifteenth Light Dragoons under the name Silas Tomkyn Comberbache—was married to Miss Sara Fricker in St Mary Redcliffe. He was not quite twenty-three, she a year or two older. The marriage would not be a conspicuous success but, in and around this year, Coleridge was meeting and often enchanting other figures who would be crucially important to his life and art.

‘SOUTHEY! thy melodies steal o’er mine ear
Like far-off joyance, or the murmuring
Of wild bees in the sunny showers of Spring –
Sounds of such mingled import as may cheer

The lonely breast, yet rouse a mindful tear’.[2]

Coleridge and Southey first met in Oxford in June 1794. Coleridge and his travelling companion, Joseph Hucks, had just begun a walking tour which would extend to more than five hundred miles in just over a month. The three-day stopover was transformed into a three-week stay, essentially because of this encounter between Coleridge and the twenty-year-old Southey, who ‘wrote bad poetry at tremendous speed’ and, though a self-proclaimed atheist and democrat, ‘with strong Jacobin sympathies’, was at that stage destined for the church.[3] Southey was a Bristol man, born above the family draper’s shop in Wine Street in August 1774, educated at Westminster School and then Balliol College. Coleridge’s friendship with him—like his friendships with several other men of letters—would be prone to convulsions, smarts and sorties but it started out with a tremendous velocity.

Coleridge

(Coleridge, 1975, by Peter Vandyke: © National Portrait Gallery)

By the time he and Hucks moved on from Oxford, Coleridge had established with Southey plans for a community on the banks of the Susquehanna river in Pennsylvania, which would sustain itself through farming (two or three hours’ daily labour) and would be grandly based on the principles of ‘Pantisocracy’, a Coleridgean coining, from Greek roots, meaning, more or less, government by all. The ‘astonishing’ speed with which this all happened ‘was testimony not only to the transforming effect they had on one another, but to the very weak foundations upon which the whole enterprise rested.’[4]

Within the next three months, Coleridge would meet Thomas Poole, radical, philanthropist and essayist, then living in Bristol, who would become a lifelong friend; and his future wife, Sara Fricker.

‘My gaze! Proud towers, and Cots more dear to me,
Elm-shadowed Fields, and prospect-bounding Sea.
Deep sighs my lonely heart: I drop the tear:
Enchanting spot! O were my Sara here.’[5]

In August and September, Coleridge composed other poems looking forward to his marriage: ‘The Eolian Harp’, the first of his celebrated ‘Conversation’ poems; and ‘Lines Written at Shurton Bars’, in which he ‘even dares to anticipate metaphorically the soon-to-be-enjoyed sexual congress with Sara (‘And so shall flash my love-charg’d eye/ When all the heart’s big ecstasy/ Shoots rapid through the frame!’).[6]

Still, there were hints for Sara of the absences and unreliability to come:

‘O Peace, that on a lilied bank dost love
To rest thine head beneath an olive tree,
I would, that from the pinions of thy dove
One quill withouten pain ypluck’d might be!
For O! I wish my Sara’s frowns to flee,
And fain to her some soothing song would write,
Lest she resent my rude discourtesy,
Who vowed to meet her ere the morning light,
But broke my plighted word—ah! false and recreant wight!’[7]

In August or September 1795, Coleridge met William Wordsworth, in Bristol: most likely at the house of John Pinney, a hugely wealthy merchant whose fortune was founded on sugar and slaves.

(The University of Bristol Library Special Collections include the Pinney family papers: accounts, letter-books, family and estate papers, mainly relating to Dorset and the West Indies, 1650-1986. See https://www.bristol.ac.uk//library/resources/specialcollections/archives/#pinney )

WW-Robert-Hancock-1798

(William Wordsworth, 1798, by Robert Hancock: © National Portrait Gallery)

In that same busy period, he quarrelled with Southey: though they were reconciled in the autumn of the following year, their Pantisocracy scheme, hardly surprisingly, fell through. And, less than six weeks after the Coleridge wedding, on 13 November 1795, Southey also married—also in St Mary Redcliffe Church. His bride was Edith Fricker, a sister of Coleridge’s wife.

In later years, when the Southeys lived in Keswick, at Greta Hall, they also supported Sara Coleridge and her children. And where was Coleridge then? In London, perhaps; or Germany; or South Wales; or Scotland; or Malta; or Sicily; or Italy. In September 1798, Lyrical Ballads, the landmark volume by Wordsworth and Coleridge, was published in Bristol by Joseph Cottle. Thereafter, Coleridge nursed an increasingly hopeless love for Sara Hutchinson (whom he addressed in print as ‘Asra’, not quite an unbreakable code), sister to Mary—whom Wordsworth would marry in 1802; there were quarrels and reconciliations; unfinished poems; accusations of plagiarism; lectures, marathon conversations, table-talk—and opium.

The early celebration of French revolutionary principles fell entirely away in the cases of both Wordsworth and Coleridge—and fell away even more steeply, perhaps, in that of Robert Southey, with whom Byron’s ‘Dedication’ to Don Juan was concerned (the first two Cantos appeared in 1819), though he had begun his ‘Preface’ with a swipe at Wordsworth’s unintelligibility and here jabbed at Coleridge’s recent preoccupations.

Byron-Thomas-Phillips

(Byron by Thomas Phillips)

Bob Southey! You’re a poet – Poet Laureate,
And representative of all the race;
Although ‘tis true that you turned out a Tory at
Last, yours has lately been a common case.
And now my epic renegade, what are ye at
With all the Lakers, in and out of place?
A nest of tuneful persons, to my eye
Like ‘four and twenty blackbirds in a pye,

Which pye being opened they began to sing’
(This old song and new simile holds good),
‘A dainty dish to set before the King’
Or Regent, who admires such kind of food.
And Coleridge too has lately taken wing,
But like a hawk encumbered with his hood,
Explaining metaphysics to the nation;
I wish he would explain his explanation.[8]

There were major achievements still to come from Coleridge, though, barring his restless revising, few of these were in the field of poetry, after the first years of the nineteenth century, and some—the Notebooks—would be barely visible in his lifetime. Wordsworth too, after the publication of Poems in Two Volumes (1807), is generally viewed in terms of poetic decline. In ‘Resolution and Independence’, written in the first half of 1802, though not published until 1807, Wordsworth’s narrator thinks of Chatterton, ‘the marvellous Boy’, whose brief life and tragic death were inextricably linked to St Mary Redcliffe Church, where his father was sexton and found the papers in the Muniment Room which led to Chatterton’s ‘discovery’ of the poet Thomas Rowley.[9] The same stanza concludes with two famous lines:

We Poets in our youth begin in gladness;
But thereof comes in the end despondency and madness.[10]

And yes, ‘sadness’ would have scanned—and would have rhymed too. But it just wouldn’t have cut the mustard, somehow. . .

References

[1] Francis Kilvert, Kilvert’s Diary, edited by William Plomer, Three volumes (London: Jonathan Cape, 1938, reissued 1969). Volume Two (23 August 1871—13 May 1874), 386.

[2] ‘To Robert Southey of Balliol College, Oxford, Author of the “Retrospect”, and Other Poems’, in Samuel Taylor Coleridge, The Complete Poems, edited by William Keach (London: Penguin Books, 1997), 74.

[3] Richard Holmes, Coleridge: Early Visions (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1989), 61-62.

[4] Tom Mayberry, Coleridge and Wordsworth: The Crucible of Friendship, revised edition (Stroud: Sutton Publishing, 2000), 22-23.

[5] ‘Lines composed while climbing the left ascent of Brockley Coomb, Somersetshire, May, 1795: Coleridge, The Complete Poems, 80.

[6] Rosemary Ashton, The Life of Samuel Taylor Coleridge (Oxford: Blackwell, 1997), 74-75; Coleridge, The Complete Poems, 87-88, 89-91.

[7] ‘Lines in the manner of Spenser’: Coleridge, The Complete Poems, 81.

[8] Lord Byron, Don Juan, edited by T. G. Steffan, E. Steffan and W. W. Pratt (London: Penguin Books, 1996), 37, 41. Southey accepted the post of Poet Laureate in 1813. Byron had assisted Coleridge financially, sending him £100 in February 1816: Ashton, The Life of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, 295. On the Pye joke, see an earlier post: https://reconstructionarytales.blog/2017/08/21/sorrows-joys-magpies/

[9] On Chatterton, see Richard Holmes, ‘Thomas Chatterton: The Case Re-opened’, in Sidetracks: Explorations of a Romantic Biographer (London: Harper Collins, 2000), 5-50; Alistair Heys, editor, From Gothic to Romantic: Thomas Chatterton’s Bristol (Bristol: Redcliffe Press, 2005).

[10] William Wordsworth, edited by Stephen Gill (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), 232.

 

A Turn around the Cemetery

Arnos-Vale-1

2 October. Taking time away from news bulletins detailing mass murder, police brutality, terrorism and gross political irresponsibility, I take a turn around the cemetery, where the dead seem quite peacefully disposed.

They were calmer times in Westmorland, even though Britain and France were at war, when Dorothy Wordsworth recorded details of her day (and William’s) that Thursday, 2 October 1800. ‘A very rainy morning. We walked after dinner to observe the torrents. I followed Wm to Rydale, he afterwards went to Butterlip How. I came home to receive the Lloyds. They walked with us to see Churnmilk force and the Black quarter. The black quarter looked marshy, and the general prospect was cold, but the Force was very grand. The Lychens are now coming out afresh. I carried home a collection in the afternoon. We had a pleasant conversation about the manners of the rich—avarice, inordinate desires, and the effeminacy unnaturalness and the unworthy objects of education. After the Lloyds were gone we walked—a showery evening. The moonlight lay upon the hills like snow.’[1]

In Arnos Vale, I can hear, from far off, the workmen busy at the end of Sydenham Road. Wind buffets the trees. A woman in dark glasses walks three dogs towards me, one black, two matching white. We exchange half-smiles, nothing too risky.

Arnos-Vale-2

The wind pauses and the birdsong is more audible. Two, three Red Admirals in as many minutes pass me. The wind was only drawing breath. Gathered again, it gusts, leans, stills. There’s a sudden rush of children’s voices as the doors of the nearby school slap open and they spill into the playground.

On another 2 October, 1940, into the second year of another war, Josie Brinton wrote from Alexandria to her mother in Tennessee, ‘I know how worried you must be and it’s useless to tell you not to be but what else can I say. If you saw the carefree life everyone leads here you’d wonder what all the excitement was about’. Italian troops had crossed the border from Libya into Egypt three weeks earlier. Josie went on to recount the story current in Alexandria that ‘in the Mediterranean now all the English sailors had to do was lean over the side of their ships and shout “waiter” to have an Italian submarine come to the surface!’[2]

Alexandria-1940

(Alexandria, 1940 via histclo.com)

I used to be friends with a man who drove a Volkswagen Beetle. Drivers of this car would salute—or at least, acknowledge—one another, hooting, flashing their lights or simply waving. As a consequence, the whole world seethed with Beetle drivers: they were everywhere. Just so, romantic love will narrow all the people in the world to women with red hair or blue dresses, to men with slight stoops or yellow scarves. Now the streets are full of men of about my age, all equipped with rucksacks exactly like mine, all walking purposefully (when I am) or sauntering unhurriedly, without direction (when I am).

But there are no such men in the cemetery today: men with matching dogs, yes, but nothing more (I have no dog to match). And I notice again how often here the magpies are in pairs, as though companionship were more necessary, or at least a little more desirable, in the company of the dead.

References

[1] Journals of Dorothy Wordsworth, edited by Mary Moorman (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1973), 41.

[2] Michael Haag, Alexandria: City of Memory (Yale University Press, 2004), 180.