Peacocks, cats, poets

mcdiarmid-peacock
(Thomas Hardy: Dorset County Museum)

On 2 June 1912, Thomas Hardy was seventy-two years old and his birthday was marked by a visit to Max Gate by Henry Newbolt and William Butler Yeats (the only guests), for the purpose of presenting Hardy with a gold medal from the Royal Society of Literature. As Lucy McDiarmid writes in her book centring on the famous visit by a shoal of poets to Wilfred Scawen Blunt nineteen months later, ‘Before the peacock dinner, there was the cat dinner.’ She refers here to Mrs Thomas Hardy’s cats at the gold medal visit.[1]

The event had its awkward moments. Hardy determinedly discussed architecture at great length with Newbolt who, recalling the occasion, commented: ‘Through his conversation I could see and hear Mrs Hardy giving Yeats much curious information about the two very fine cats, who sat to right and left of her plate on the table itself’. Prior to the presentation, Hardy ‘invited’ Emma to leave the room, despite Newbolt and Yeats requesting that she be allowed to stay. ‘But Hardy insisted and she made no further appeal but gathered up her cats and her train with perfect simplicity and left the room.’ After the addresses by Newbolt and Yeats, Hardy—who had already given a copy of his speech to the newspapers, adding a note to say that he’d delivered it to his guests—explained that he couldn’t now make them party to a falsehood by failing to do so. He then read his acceptance speech aloud.[2]

Mrs-Hardy-cat

(Mrs Hardy and a cat: Dorset County Museum)

The ‘peacock dinner’ was the occasion, on 18 January 1914, when Yeats, Pound and several other poets (Victor Plarr, Sturge Moore, Richard Aldington, F. S. Flint) visited Wilfred Scawen Blunt at Newbuildings, Sussex, presented him with a small marble casket made by Henri Gaudier-Brzeska and ate roast peacock. ‘Quite what they were honouring him for’, Helen Carr comments, ‘even Blunt remained unsure.’[3] In the photograph commemorating the occasion, the poets are nicely grouped by age, Plarr (50), Sturge Moore (43) and Yeats (48) on one side of Blunt, with Pound (28), Aldington (19) and Flint (26) on the other.

Pound-Yeats-Blunt

(A pride of poets: Via The New Yorker)

In May 1914, the journal Poetry (Foreign Correspondent: E. Pound) published ‘The Peacock’ by W. B. Yeats:  

What’s riches to him

That has made a great peacock

With the pride of his eye?
The wind-beaten, stone-grey,

And desolate Three-rock

Would nourish his whim.
Live he or die

Amid wet rocks and heather,

His ghost will be gay
Adding feather to feather

For the pride of his eye.[4]

This arose, then, not from the visit to Newbuildings Place but, Hugh Kenner suggested, from the 1903 biography of James McNeill Whistler by Elizabeth Robins Pennell and Joseph Pennell, which recorded Whistler’s sentiments about the artist and ‘riches’, as well as his proposal for ‘“a great peacock ten feet high”’. The poem was written on 23 November 1913, at Stone Cottage, in Coleman’s Hatch in Sussex, where Pound was acting as secretary to Yeats, duties which consisted largely of him reading aloud to the older poet who often had problems with his eyesight. [5]

peacock-room

(Harmony in Blue and Gold: The Peacock Room, by James McNeill Whistler and Thomas Jeckyll, translocated to the Freer Gallery of Art, Washington, DC: via The Smithsonian)

More than thirty years later, sitting in the Disciplinary Training Center in Pisa, Pound remembered that first winter with Yeats in Stone Cottage at the edge of Ashdown Forest. As Wordsworth would walk up and down the garden path, composing aloud, so Yeats would walk around in the cottage, voicing the words, trying out vowel sounds and rhythms and intonations. Pound wrote, in Canto 83:

There is fatigue deep as the grave.
The Kakemono grows in flat land out of mist
    sun rises lop-sided over the mountain
        so that I recalled the noise in the chimney
as it were the wind in the chimney
    but was in reality Uncle William
downstairs composing
that had made a great Peeeeacock
    in the proide ov his oiye
    had made a great peeeeeeecock in the. . .
made a great peacock
    in the proide of his oyyee

proide ov his oy-ee
as indeed he had, and perdurable

Pound then adds: ‘a great peacock aere perennius’: ‘more lasting than bronze’, Horace wrote in one of his odes (III, xxx).[6]

In the first of the Pisan Cantos, Canto 74, among the ‘lordly men’ that were ‘to earth o’ergiven / these the companions’, Yeats is there, of course—so too was Victor Plarr, one of those peacock dinner poets, along with Ford Madox Ford, James Joyce, Edgar Jepson, Maurice Hewlett—and Sir Henry Newbolt:

Fordie that wrote of giants
and William who dreamed of nobility
            and Jim the comedian singing:
                 “Blarrney castle me darlin’
                 you’re nothing now but a StOWne”

and Plarr talking of mathematics
            or Jepson lover of jade
Maurie who wrote historical novels
                        and Newbolt who looked twice bathed
                                    are to earth o’ergiven.
(74/432-433)

Thomas Hardy, with whom Pound had exchanged a few letters in the last decade of Hardy’s life,[7] is present too, a little later:

So that leaving America I brought with me $80
            and England a letter of Thomas Hardy’s
            and Italy one eucalyptus pip
from the salita that goes up from Rapallo
                                    (if I go)
(80/500)

Leaving Italy? He is in a prison camp near Pisa – but, after all, he is in another country, another Italy.

But to have done instead of not doing
            this is not vanity
To have, with decency, knocked
That a Blunt should open
                        To have gathered from the air a live tradition
or from a fine old eye the unconquered flame
This is not vanity
            Here error is all in the not done,
all in the diffidence that faltered . . .
(81/521-522)

 


Notes


[1] Lucy McDiarmid, Poets and the Peacock Dinner: The Literary History of a Meal (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014), 14.

[2] Newbolt quoted by Claire Tomalin, Thomas Hardy: The Time-Torn Man (London: Viking, 2006), 307.

[3] Helen Carr, The Verse Revolutionaries: Ezra Pound, H.D. and the Imagists (London: Jonathan Cape, 2009), 625.

[4] W. B. Yeats, The Poems, edited by Daniel Albright (London: Everyman, 1994), 172.

[5] Hugh Kenner, A Colder Eye: The Modern Irish Writers (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1984), 77; James Longenbach, Stone Cottage: Pound, Yeats and Modernism (New York: Oxford University Press, 1990), 51.

[6] Horace, The Complete Odes and Epodes, translated by David West (Oxford: Oxford University Press), 108.

[7] Patricia Hutchins, ‘Ezra Pound and Thomas Hardy’, The Southern Review (Winter 1968),  90-104.

A plague on all your books – or some of them

Turner, Joseph Mallord William, 1775-1851; The Tenth Plague of Egypt

(J. M. W. Turner, Tenth Plague of Egypt: Tate Britain)

I’ve seen several reading lists of pandemic- or virus-related books lately, some of the titles familiar to me, if not already sitting in the pile on the nearby chest of drawers: Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year, Boccaccio’s Decameron, a couple of books by John Christopher, Katherine Anne Porter’s ‘Pale Horse, Pale Rider’, written in the 1930s—she herself, hospitalised with Spanish flu in the 1918-19 pandemic, had almost died—and, of course, Camus’ The Plague. They’re ready and waiting just in case I want to read all about it – again.

I haven’t done so yet. I know a lot of people have found it hard to concentrate on reading in the current circumstances. I don’t have that exact problem but I am reading pretty erratically, dipping into things, sampling anthologies, drifting onto other things, attention or stamina flagging too quickly. And, in the course of that grazing, I’ve stumbled over a striking number of instances of plague or reminders of things I’ve come across before.

I did remember that the Black Death ‘came in a ship through the Dorset port of Melcombe Regis’, on 24 June 1348—which seems remarkably precise[1]—and I’d recently come across Llewellyn Powys’ remark, in ‘A Montacute Field’, that my current home, Bristol, ‘was in the fourteenth century the second city of England, and, with the exception perhaps of Norwich, it became more plague-stricken than any other town of the realm.’[2] I also knew that Michel de Montaigne, who began a four-year term as Mayor of Bordeaux in 1581, ‘escaped the plague, which killed nearly half the inhabitants of the city.’[3]

Montaigne

Then, a couple of weeks ago, turning the pages of a history of Tudor England, I found: ‘In 1485 a new and terrifying epidemic had swept through England, and only England. This was the sweating sickness; sudor Anglicus, the “English sweat”.’[4]

The sixteenth century’s sufferings are generally better-known, probably because of Mr Shakespeare in the later part of it. Not that the earlier part was all gas and gingerbread. ‘The years 1527 and 1528’, Alexandra Harris writes, ‘were the wettest anyone could remember, with sodden spring fields jeopardizing crops and breeding illness. The sweating sickness arrived in the summers, apparently unleashed by the warmth; it reached epidemic proportions in 1528, inflicting hellish microclimates on its victims in their final hours.’[5]

‘If not technically endemic,’ Susan Brigden notes, ‘plague was recurrent in Tudor England’.[6] Certainly, in Maggie O’Farrell’s new novel, Hamnet, plague is tragically central to the family of a literary man working in the London playhouses while they remain in Stratford-on-Avon. ‘For the pestilence to reach Warwickshire, England, in the summer of 1596, two events need to occur in the lives of two separate people, and then these people need to meet.’[7]  They did. They do.

But I’ve also been dipping into an anthology of English ghost stories – and here was Arthur Gray, in ‘The True History of Anthony Ffryar’: ‘The summer of 1551 was a sad time in Cambridge. It was marked by a more than usually fatal outbreak of the epidemic called “the sweat”, when, as Fuller says, “patients ended or mended in twenty-four hours.”’ A little further on and Edith Wharton’s ‘Mr Jones’ has a plaque appended to a sarcophagus in a country chapel, ‘“Born on May 1st, 1790, perished of the plague at Aleppo in 1828.”’[8]

One more: R. H. Mottram’s Geoffrey Skene who, arriving at Dunkirk, ‘enquired for Uncle. It took him all the afternoon. By accident he heard that he was in that Canadian hospital on the dunes where hundreds lay, stricken by influenza, while they waited for the boat to take them home.’[9]

Samuel_Pepys

(Samuel Pepys)

If the virus is everywhere in the world now, viruses have been just about everywhere in literature too, an element in a great many people’s history and in many writers’ real and imagined nightmares. As the current English government eases the lockdown—very prematurely, in many people’s view—I notice this in Samuel Pepys’ diary: ‘Then comes Mr Caesar, my boy’s lute-master, whom I have not seen since the plague before, but he hath been in Westminster all this while very well – and tells me how, in the heighth of it, how bold people there were to go in sport to one another’s burials. And in spite to well people, would breathe in the faces (out of their windows) of well people going by.’[10] Something unpleasantly familiar there.

So end with Flannery O’Connor, writing to Elizabeth Bishop, 1 June 1958.’We went to Europe and I lived through it but my capacity for staying at home has now been perfected, sealed & is going to last me the rest of my life.’[11]

You may be on to something there, Ms O’Connor.

 
Notes

[1] Michael Wood, In Search of England (London: Viking, 1999), 239.

[2] A Baker’s Dozen, with an introduction by John Cowper Powys and decorations by Gertrude Mary Powys (1941; London: Village Press, 1974), 86.

[3] Stuart Hampshire, introduction to Montaigne’s The Complete Works: Essays, Travel Journal, Letters, translated by Donald Frame (New York: Everyman, 2003), xvi.

[4] Susan Brigden, New Worlds, Lost Worlds: The Rule of the Tudors (London: Allen Lane, 2000), 26.

[5] Alexandra Harris, Weatherland: Writers and Artists Under English Skies (London: Thames & Hudson, 2015), 90.

[6] Brigden, New Worlds, 298.

[7] Maggie O’Farrell, Hamnet (London: Tinder Press, 2020), 166.

[8] The Oxford Book of English Ghost Stories, edited by Michael Cox and R. A. Gilbert (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), 278, 355.

[9] R. H. Mottram, The Spanish Farm Trilogy (London: Chatto and Windus, 1927), 547.

[10] Samuel Pepys, entry for 12 February 1666, in The Shorter Pepys, edited by Robert Latham (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1993), 582-583.

[11] Flannery O’Connor, Collected Works, edited by Sally Fitzgerald (New York: Library of America, 1988), 1073.

 

Differing degrees

Domenico_Remps_-_Cabinet_of_Curiosities

Another kind of cabinet: (Domenico Remps, Cabinet of Curiosities)

I don’t actually know anybody who thought that the British – English, rather – government was handling the Covid-19 pandemic well, so have no one to ask whether recent events have changed their minds. Nor can I think of anyone who would have been surprised to learn just how much contempt Messrs Johnson and Cummings, along with those supine members of the cabinet, feel for the general public, so can’t gauge any shift in opinion there either. All I know for sure is that, given the clear evidence that protecting the nation’s health is not the prime minister’s first priority—and given the latest, wildly premature lockdown easings—I’m well advised to stick to my current strategy, which is to steer clear of anyone that I don’t already live with. Even that will get  harder as the weather warms up, now that people have been shown how the rules can be bullied or bent into a more personally convenient shape.

So I’ll continue to read, cook, try to write – and find other diversions in the early morning walks, the stand-off between a magpie and a crow which seemed to go on for hours – and Harry’s early occupation of his favourite plant pot.

Wed-2705

Journal, Tuesday 29 May 1764. ‘At three Tissot [a medical doctor] carried me to the Utrecht Bedlam. The poor creatures were almost all silly. They were mostly going about loose. They called me the King of England. I was amused with this scene. Tissot said mankind were all mad and differed only in degrees.’ (Boswell in Holland, 1763-1764, edited by Frederick A. Pottle, London: William Heinemann, 1952, 256.)

Degrees, perhaps, M. Tissot, but very large ones in some cases.

 

 

A little problematic: Julian Grenfell’s ‘Into Battle’

Machine-gun

(Colt Manufacturing Company, ‘Maxim-Vickers Machine Gun,’ Digital History 511: Theory & Practice, http://library.ccsu.edu/dighistFall16/items/show/92 : accessed 25 May, 2020)

In May 1973, during one of William Blissett’s visits to the poet David Jones, they discussed the recent special edition of Poetry Wales (Winter 1972), devoted to Jones: ‘The article on I[n]. P[arenthesis]. had the same fault as the chapter in Jon Silkin’s book [Out of Battle], more acutely because more simple-minded: it judges war writing ultimately, but solely, on its pacifistic force and outcome.’[1]

I was reminded of this by the anniversary of the death of Julian Grenfell, who died of his injuries on 26 May 1915, at the age of 27. The eldest son of Lord and Lady Desborough, educated at Eton and Balliol College, sportsman and huntsman, he published very few poems but one of them, which appeared in The Times the day after his death (along with his obituary), became hugely popular. It was called ‘Into Battle’:

The naked earth is warm with spring,
And with green grass and bursting trees
Leans to the sun’s kiss glorying,
And quivers in the loving breeze;
And Life is Colour and Warmth and Light
And a striving evermore for these;
And he is dead who will not fight,
And who dies fighting has increase.

The fighting man shall from the sun
Take warmth, and life from the glowing earth;
Speed with the light-foot winds to run,
And with the trees a newer birth;
And when his fighting shall be done,
Great rest, and fulness after dearth.

All the bright company of Heaven
Hold him in their high comradeship –
The Dog-star and the Sisters Seven,
Orion’s belt and sworded hip.

The woodland trees that stand together,
They stand to him each one a friend;
They gently speak in the windy weather;
They guide to valley and ridge’s end.

The kestrel hovering by day,
And the little owls that call by night,
Bid him be swift and keen as they –
As keen of sound, as swift of sight.

The blackbird sings to him ‘Brother, brother,
If this be the last song you shall sing,
Sing well, for you will not sing another;
Brother, sing!’

In dreary doubtful waiting hours,
Before the brazen frenzy starts,
The horses show him nobler powers;
O patient eyes, courageous hearts!

And when the burning moment breaks,
And all things else are out of mind,
And Joy of Battle only takes
Him by the throat and makes him blind –

Through joy and blindness he shall know,
Not caring much to know, that still
Nor lead nor steel shall reach him so
That it be not the Destined Will.

The thundering line of battle stands,
And in the air Death moans and sings;
But Day shall clasp him with strong hands,
And Night shall fold him in soft wings.

Forty-six lines: eight rhyming quatrains, very regular apart from that line, ‘Brother, sing!’, and preceded by a sonnet. Title aside, the first six lines—romantic, sensuous, even sensual—certainly don’t prepare you for the seventh and eighth. While there are no archaisms of the ‘thee’ and ‘thou’ type, some of the uses to which capital letters are put are striking, the spelling of ‘fulness’ hints – to me – at the Shakespearean and ‘dearth’ is not that common, though it had recently occurred in Rupert Brooke’s ‘War Sonnet III – The Dead’ (‘Blow, bugles, blow! They brought us, for our dearth,/ Holiness, lacked so long, and Love, and Pain’). ‘Day’ and ‘Night’ in the final quatrain are prepared for by the owl and the kestrel (ll.23-24), which—‘Bid him be swift and keen as they’—commune directly with ‘the fighting man’, as do the trees.

Evening-Landscape-Owls

(Samuel Lucas, Evening Landscape with Owls: North Hertfordshire Museum)

Tim Kendall terms ‘Into Battle’ ‘one of the finest and most problematic poems of the War’, ‘a celebration of the Homeric “fighting man”.’[2] It is ‘problematic’ because it doesn’t fit our ideas of what a Great War poem should be. We know that there was a great deal of bad poetry published, especially in the early stages of the war, and we know the platitudes, raucous patriotism and painful pieties to be found in them. They can be safely disregarded in favour of the later biting satires on generals and their staff, the powerful indictment of waste and needless slaughter, the damning of politicians that had brought this about, the elegy for lost friends and comrades in a pointless and senseless conflict. But here is a poem that seems to have all the ‘wrong’ attitudes—or none of the ‘right’ ones—yet is consummately well-done.

Grenfell’s biographer Nicholas Mosley writes of ‘Into Battle’ that it is ‘almost unique amongst poems of the First World War in that it shows no outrage against war and yet its luminousness and serenity do not seem false. Because it is a poem about love of life in time of war, it was once much loved; later, when there was peace and life was again loved less, it was loved less too.’[3]

(Julian and his mother and brother; Julian Grenfell: from Nicholas Mosley’s Julian Grenfell, Persephone Books)

Robert Giddings remarked that Grenfell’s poem ‘is significant not because it is a great poem, but because it captures the curious rapture with which it was still possible to write about the war.’ He termed it ‘a neutral poem’ because it doesn’t concern itself with English honour or German infamy, concluding: ‘It is probable that 1915 was the last year in which such a war poem would be found acceptable by the British public.’[4]

This seems to stray into one of the myths about the Great War, that there were distinct and clear-cut phases: the naïve, ignorant and patriotic idealism of 1914-1915, followed by the shock of prolonged trench warfare and the trauma of the Somme, after which every poet wrote with bitter outrage and the reading public spurned any writer that made positive noises about the conflict. Yet the First World War, like most wars, was complex; and responses to it varied hugely and continuously and for long after its conclusion. How could it be otherwise? It’s often pointed out that Grenfell had been a professional soldier, serving in South Africa and India, and had been at the front for several months before he wrote ‘Into Battle’. Then too, far from being blissfully ignorant of the realities of war when he wrote his famous sonnets, Rupert Brooke had witnessed the bloody retreat from Antwerp—’That was like Hell, a Dantesque Hell, terrible. But there—and later—I saw what was a truer Hell. Hundreds of thousands of refugees’.[5]

In his anthology of Great War poetry, Jon Silkin included ‘Into Battle’ as one of a necessary sample of ‘famous’ poems, adding that his anthology offered ‘mostly what the editor prefers and a little of what he believes other people, a great many other people, have liked, even loved, as they responded to the horror and pity of war.’ Some poems were marked with an asterisk to indicate that they were part of that ‘little’: one of those starred was Grenfell’s.[6] In Out of Battle, Silkin wrote that, ‘Although the popularity of “Into Battle” was due to its coincidence with patriot fervour, it is not properly speaking a “war poem” but a release in verse of Grenfell’s predatoriness’, though he adds that war ‘is central for the enactment of that predatoriness’.[7]

Perhaps Grenfell’s poem is disturbing in part because while it is a ‘war poem’ it is not about this war. It doesn’t damn the war he’s taking part in—it barely mentions it—and seems to appropriate the natural world as the intimate companion of the fighting man; worse, in many ways, it is presented as a private and wholly personal affair. Elizabeth Vandiver writes that ‘Grenfell’s “fighting man” is not concerned with duty or with the cause of freedom (or anything else); indeed, one of the most notable aspects of “Into Battle” is its complete omission of any mention of a particular enemy. For Grenfell, the enemy is necessary only to provide the setting in which a warrior proves his prowess.’[8] And elsewhere she states that, for Grenfell, ‘the point was the Homeric aristeia (an individual warrior’s moment of outstanding glory) in its own right; the war merely provided a context in which the warrior could flourish.’[9]

David-Jones.Spectator

(David Jones via The Spectator)

I find that pretty convincing – and reminiscent of the ways in which David Jones’s In Parenthesis (1937) troubled some critics: his setting the First World War in a larger historical context, the allusions to Agincourt and Malory, and Dai Greatcoat as the archetypal soldier rather than dwelling on the unprecedented particularities of this war. In his preface, Jones wrote:

for I think the day by day in the Waste Land, the sudden violences and the long stillnesses, the sharp contours and unformed voids of that mysterious existence, profoundly affected the imaginations of those who suffered it. It was a place of enchantment. It is perhaps best described in Malory, book iv, chapter 15—that landscape spoke “with a grimly voice” [ . . . ] I suppose at no time did one so much live with a consciousness of the past, the very remote and the more immediate and trivial past, both superficially and more subtly.[10]

In June 1909, Ford Madox Ford’s English Review published Ezra Pound’s ‘Sestina: Altaforte’ (‘The Bloody Sestina’), his Bertrans de Born eager for combat and bloodshed:

I have no life save when the swords clash.
But ah! when I see the standards gold, vair, purple, opposing
And the broad fields beneath them turn crimson,
Then howl I my heart nigh mad with rejoicing.[11]

Bertrans too aligns his warlike self with the natural world: ‘hot summer’, ‘winds shriek through the clouds’, ‘I love to see the sun rise blood-crimson’. Nor is he particularly welcoming towards those who will not fight: ‘The man who fears war and squats opposing/ My words for stour, hath no blood of crimson/ But is fit only to rot in womanish peace’.

In later reprints of The Spirit of Romance, Pound added a footnote to his pages describing the ‘war songs’ of Bertrans: ‘This kind of thing was much more impressive before 1914 than it has been since 1920.’[12]

A perfectly reasonable comment, enabled by long retrospect, by survival. Grenfell’s poem was written and published in 1915. It’s often assumed that, if he and Rupert Brooke had lived through the war, they would have manifested radically different attitudes towards it. It’s quite possible, even likely ­– but not certain. Would Edward Thomas, Wilfred Owen, Isaac Rosenberg and T. E. Hulme have written quite differently had they survived? Would Gaudier-Brzeska have accepted commissions for small sculptures of family pets to make ends meet? If Antonio Sant’Elia had lived to complete architectural projects, would they have looked like his drawings or utterly different?

Like a lot of counterfactual questions, variably interesting and wholly unanswerable in any definitive sense. ‘Into Battle’ is an impressive—if ‘problematic’—poem, expressive of the time in which it was written and, crucially, of the sensibility, the personal and familial history, the character of the poet. In a witty—and perhaps more familiar—take on the war, Grenfell also wrote ‘Prayer for Those on the Staff’: ‘The Staff is working with its brains,/ While we are sitting in the trench,/ The Staff the universe ordains/ (Subject to Thee and General French).’ Not problematic at all.

 

 

Notes

[1] William Blissett, The Long Conversation: A Memoir of David Jones (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1981), 119.

[2] Poetry of the First World War: An Anthology, edited by Tim Kendall (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), 108.

[3] Nicholas Mosley, Julian Grenfell: His life and the times of his death, 1888-1915 (London: Persephone Books, 1999), 383.

[4] Robert Giddings, The War Poets (London: Bloomsbury, 2000), 47, 49, 50.

[5] To Leonard Bacon, 11 November 1914, The Letters of Rupert Brooke, edited by Sir Geoffrey Keynes (London: Faber and Faber, 1968), 632.

[6] Jon Silkin, ‘Introduction’ to The Penguin Book of First World War Poetry, second edition (London: Penguin Books, 1996), 76.

[7] Jon Silkin, Out of Battle: The Poetry of the Great War (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1978), 72.

[8] Elizabeth Vandiver, Stand in the Trench, Achilles: Classical Receptions in British Poetry of the Great War (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), 186-187.

[9] Elizabeth Vandiver, ‘Early Poets of the First World War’, in The Cambridge Companion to the Poetry of the First World War, edited by Santanu Das (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013), 76.

[10] David Jones, In Parenthesis (1937; London: Faber, 1963), x-xi. In April 1915, Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, in the trenches, wrote to Pound that some of the poems in Cathay, a thousand or more years old, ‘are so appropriate to our case’: Ezra Pound, Gaudier-Brzeska: A Memoir (1916; New York: New Directions, 1974), 68.

[11] English Review, II, iii (June 1909), 419-420; reprinted in Pound’s Exultations (1909).

[12] Ezra Pound, The Spirit of Romance (1910; New York: New Directions, 1968), 48fn.

 

Locked down – and down

Organic-Forms-2

(Walter Poole, Organic Forms 2: private collection)

The combination of lockdown and a crocked back contrives to make whole weeks drain away before you can get a grip on them. My trouble has an eye on the calendar and nips in smartly in case I think it’s waiting for the anniversary of the last bout. So I’ve been spending a good deal of time on the floor lately, wondering why the painkillers seem not to be killing the pain and the various gels are proving themselves laughably ineffective. Perhaps ‘laughably’ is not the word I want.

Every so often, a passing Librarian puts the cat’s dish down in the kitchen, picks up the mail from the mat, ties my shoelaces for me. What if you don’t have a passing Librarian to offer such assistance? Wear slip-ons, I suppose. I’m thankful at least that there’s no visual record of me putting on a pair of socks. I try five or six positions, none of them elegant, because I can never remember which one finally worked last time. The soundtrack too is distressing.

So the floor, yes, on a folded duvet cover which, unfortunately, the cat has taken a liking to. There have been one or two undignified run-ins. At this level, anyway, I can see—and reach— Modern Women’s Stories, an anthology edited by Patricia Craig; Modern Art in Britain 1910-1914, edited by Anna Greutzer Robins; and the Handheld Press edition of Sylvia Townsend Warner’s Of Cats and Elfins: ‘“Surely she has grown smaller,” thought the baker. “Or do my eyes deceive me?” Looking at her more attentively he saw that his daughter had changed into an owl.’[1] Further off, there’s a shockingly miscellaneous pile that I can just about ignore; and closer, the state of the carpet, which I can’t ignore for much longer.

Cats-and-Elfins

It’s a few days now since I attempted the early morning walk. We moved at very different speeds. At one stage, the Librarian paused to photograph something—chalk drawings on the path, a squirrel, an abandoned child’s jacket caught in a bush—until she was a good hundred and fifty metres behind. She ran past me, murmuring ‘Dutch study! Dutch study!’ to which I could offer no adequate response.

So the latest misjudgement in our government’s catalogue of misjudgements has made no difference to me: locked down physically at present as well as by choice. There was already visible evidence of other choices in the park at the weekend: the sort of people who never take their rubbish home with them had been out in force, so bottles, ‘Disposable Barbecue’ packaging, cans, balls of greasy paper and cardboard scraps were scattered everywhere across the grass.

‘Odd’, Edward Dahlberg remarked, ‘one cannot hold onto pleasure but pain stays with you until it has given up its last breath.’[2]

Thanks, Ed.

 
Notes

[1] ‘Bread for the Castle’, Sylvia Townsend Warner, Of Cats and Elfins: Short Tales and Fantasies (Bath: Handheld Press, 2020), 188.

[2] Edward Dahlberg, The Confessions of Edward Dahlberg (New York: George Braziller, 1971), 176.

 

‘Every sort of faith’

Blake-wheel-of-fire

(William Blake, from Jerusalem)

In a letter to his publisher Ben Huebsch (11 May 1959) about his new novel, Riders in the Chariot (1961), Patrick White wrote: ‘What I want to emphasise through my four “Riders” – an orthodox refugee intellectual Jew, a mad Erdgeist [Earth spirit] of an Australian spinster, an evangelical laundress, and a half-caste aboriginal painter – is that all faiths, whether religious, humanistic, instinctive, or the creative artist’s act of praise, are in fact one.’[1]

‘Faith’ is a word that’s caught my attention recently: there have often been children’s chalked drawings on the paths of the park, which I find oddly heartening; but also small blue flags inscribed with pithy sayings, planted at various points beside the wide left-hand path and near the bases of trees, which I find a little less so.

‘Keep faith’, one of them advised. Yes, but in what, with what? For the religiously inclined, it’s probably clear enough, but for the rest of us? Faith—trust—in government or the existing financial and social systems or the quality of electoral choices has not been possible for quite some time. And I get the impression that the word itself is used less often now – less often than its opposite, surely.

Ernest_Dowson

(Ernest Dowson)

The poet Ernest Dowson was faithful to his Cynara ‘in my fashion’, unable to shake free of an obsessive love, though it was the prostitute he lay with ‘last night’ who prompted the comparison:

All night upon mine heart I felt her warm heart beat,
Night-long within mine arms in love and sleep she lay;
Surely the kisses of her bought red mouth were sweet;
But I was desolate and sick of an old passion,
When I awoke and found the dawn was grey:
I have been faithful to thee, Cynara! in my fashion.[2]

D. H. Lawrence’s The Rainbow was suppressed, prosecuted and banned in 1915. Seven years later, he was writing Kangaroo. There’s a moment in the later novel when Harriett Somers asks her husband Richard: “Who is there that you feel you are with, besides me—or who feel themselves with you?”

‘And at the same moment he looked up and saw the rainbow fume beyond the sea. But it was on a dark background like a coloured darkness. The rainbow was always a symbol to him—a good symbol: of this peace. A pledge of unbroken faith, between the universe and the innermost. And the very moment he said “No one,” he saw the rainbow for an answer.’[3]

Wright of Derby, Joseph, 1734-1797; Landscape with a Rainbow

(Joseph Wright of Derby, Landscape with a Rainbow: Derby Museum and Art Gallery)

Innermost. An adjective seemingly called into urgent Lawrentian service as a noun. Katherine Mansfield was thinking of action around then, writing to Middleton Murry from Menton in 1920 that she sometimes wondered whether ‘the act of surrender is not one of the greatest of all’, one of the most difficult. ‘Can it be accomplished or even apprehended except by the aristocrats of this world? You see its so immensely complicated. It “needs” real humility and at the same time an absolute belief in ones own essential freedom. It is an act of faith. At the last moments like all great acts it is pure risk. This is true for me as a human being and as a writer. Dear Heaven how hard it is to let go—to step into the blue.’[4]

Thomas Merton—poet, monk, writer on comparative religions—remarked in his journal (New York, May 30, 1940): ‘Instead of having faith, which is a virtue, and therefore nourishes the soul and gives it a healthy life, people merely have a lot of opinions, which excite the soul but don’t give it anything to feed it, just wear it out until it falls over from exhaustion.’[5]

By way of contrast, John Cowper Powys observed of his brother Llewellyn Powys:  ‘To be as certain as he was that there is no God and no immortality and no Moral Law, is, I think, a rarer human phenomenon than most of us realize. I take it that the normal human mood—it is certainly my own mood—is to alternate between faith shaken by rational doubts, and doubt shaken by irrational faith; in other words, to be an illusioned or disillusioned agnostic.’[6]

Rousseau, Henri, 1844-1910; Surprised!

(Henri Rousseau, Surprised! – National Gallery)

Guy Davenport argued that ‘[Henri] Rousseau and Flaubert simply record, and hold to a faith, wholly new in art, that the scene has its meaning inherent in it.’[7] Ford Madox Ford had also cited Flaubert when he touched on faith in an essay some seventy years earlier: ‘whatever the French school had or hadn’t, they had faith – the faith that, if they turned out good art, sociology and the rest would follow. That is what Flaubert meant when he said that if his countrymen had read L’Education Sentimentale France would have been spared the horrors of the débâcle.’[8]

Faith was an abiding, or at least recurrent, concern to Ford, not least because he was a Roman Catholic himself—converted in 1892, just before his nineteenth birthday—but also because several of his novels concerned the Tudor (the Fifth Queen trilogy) and Jacobean (The “Half-Moon”) periods, so such phrases as ‘the old faith’ and ‘the new faith’ crop up many times.

One early Ford poem was entitled ‘The Old Faith to the Converts’:

When the world is growing older,
And the road leads down and down and down,
And the wind is in the bare tree-tops
And the meadows sodden with much rain,
Seek me here in the old places,
And here, where I dwell, you shall find me,’
Says the old Faith we are leaving.[9]

In a more secular context, Ford would later assert: ‘I owe a great deal to Conrad. But most of all I owe to him that strong faith—that in our day and hour the writing of novels is the only pursuit worth while for a proper man.’[10]

Long after the end of the First World War and close to the beginning of a second, Ford wrote: ‘Faith, in short, died after the war—every sort of faith.’[11] And he repeated this to Henry Goddard Leach, editor of Forum and Century, in early 1938: ‘The War, that is to say, got rid of Faith, Loyalty, Courage and all the other big words as motives for human action….’[12]

Tonks, Henry, 1862-1937; An Underground Casualty Clearing Station, Arras

(Henry Tonks, An Underground Casualty Clearing Station, Arras: photo credit Imperial War Museum)

But perhaps Ford’s most memorable use of the word is in a fictional context, its import quite explicitly unclear to Christopher Tietjens, who is describing to his wife Sylvia his experiences in a Casualty Clearing Station after suffering the effects of a shell blast: ‘“but the fellow who was strangling me was what I wanted to tell you about. He let out a number of ear-piercing shrieks and lots of orderlies came and pulled him off me and sat all over him. Then he began to shout ‘Faith!’ He shouted: ‘Faith! … Faith! … Faith!…’ at intervals of two seconds, as far as I could tell by my pulse, until four in the morning, when he died…. I don’t know whether it was a religious exhortation or a woman’s name, but I disliked him a good deal because he started my tortures, such as they were. . . . There had been a girl I knew called Faith. Oh, not a love affair: the daughter of my father’s head gardener, a Scotsman. The point is that every time he said Faith I asked myself ‘Faith … Faith what?’ I couldn’t remember the name of my father’s head gardener.”’[13]

‘Faith what?’ It’s a good question. I imagine we each have our own answer.
Notes

[1] Patrick White, Letters, edited by David Marr (London: Jonathan Cape, 1994), 153.

[2] Dowson, ‘Non Sum Qualis Eram Bonae Sub Regno Cynarae’, in Ian Fletcher, editor, British Poetry and Prose, 1870-1905 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987), 377. The title, from Horace’s Odes, IV, translates as ‘I am not what once I was under kind/ Cynara’s reign.’

[3] D. H. Lawrence, Kangaroo, edited by Bruce Steele, with an introduction and notes by Mac Daly (Cambridge edition, 1994; London: Penguin, 1997), 155.

[4] Katherine Mansfield, Selected Letters, edited by Vincent O’Sullivan (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990), 186.

[5] Thomas Merton, A Secular Journal (London: Hollis & Carter, 1959), 58.

[6] John Cowper Powys, introduction to Llewellyn Powys, A Baker’s Dozen (1941; London: Village Press, 1974), 15.

[7] Davenport, ‘What Are These Monkeys Doing?’ in Every Force Evolves a Form (San Francisco: North Point Press, 1987), 20.

[8] Ford Madox Ford, ‘Literary Portraits – VII. Mr. Percival Gibbon and “The Second-Class Passenger’: Outlook, XXXII (25 October 1913), 571. The ‘débâcle’ is the Franco-Prussian war and the upheaval that immediately followed it.

[9] In Poems for Pictures and for Notes of Music (1900): Collected Poems (London: Max Goschen, 1913 [dated 1914]), 142.

[10] Ford Madox Ford, Return to Yesterday: Reminiscences 1894-1914 (London: Victor Gollancz, 1931), 185.

[11] Ford Madox Ford, Provence (London: Allen & Unwin, 1938), 315.

[12] Ford Madox Ford, Letters of Ford Madox Ford, edited by Richard M. Ludwig (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1965), 287.

[13] Ford Madox Ford, Some Do Not. . . (1924; edited by Max Saunders, Manchester: Carcanet Press, 2010), 210.

 

Haphazard navigations

Park-early

Harry’s waking earlier now. The lighter mornings must penetrate directly into cats’ bloodstreams. Whatever the reason, he’s there at around 05:30, suggesting breakfast. We hit the park by 05:45.

The walkers who favour the same early hour are there: the Indian couple, with whom we exchange waves and greetings; the man in the red trousers accompanied by the spaniel whose frenetic tail can be seen from space, I surmise, on the lines of the Great Wall of China; the man who clears up rubbish around the perimeter, accompanied by his wonky pooch—‘a John Burningham dog’, the Librarian supplies.

john-burningham-cannonball-simp

(John Burningham’s Cannonball Simp)

Others are a little less welcome.
“Bloody runners.”
“But he’s miles away.”
Miles are so subjective these days. I remember when a mile was a mile.

I seem to have moved from not being able to imagine walking at this time every morning of the foreseeable future to having trouble envisaging not doing it. Desires and longings vary in frequency, duration, intensity though some things recur or remain: to see and touch certain people; to stand looking out at the sea; to walk again on certain paths, in certain lanes.

Hill-Farm-Lane

‘One of my favourite places in the world’, she said.

Following some foolish and wildly irresponsible headlines in Tory tabloids, we are waiting to see whether the government will avoid compounding the earlier errors of locking down too late and too loosely by lifting some restrictions too early. The bass drum of ‘following the science’ is still beaten daily, as though that science were a single, solid, clearly defined object, not unlike an ice-cream van.

‘One definition of an expert is someone who understands better than most how little he or she knows’, Ian Leslie wrote in the New Statesman recently. ‘The governor of New York, Andrew Cuomo, has remarked that his scientific advisers preface every answer with “I don’t know”. The scientists know little about how infectious Covid-19 is, why it kills some people and barely bothers others, whether it returns to those whom it has already visited, whether and how it will mutate, or the best way to treat it. They are desperately trying to work out the best way to handle it, but it is like navigating in a snowstorm when every instrument is faulty.’
https://www.newstatesman.com/politics/uk/2020/04/politicians-must-do-more-simply-listen-expert-advice-they-need-challenge-it

Noting that life is not, like fiction, navigation, Penelope Lively observed in Making It Up (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 2006, 136): ‘There is no shrewd navigator, just a person’s own haphazard lurching from one decision to another. Which is why life so often seems to lack the authenticity of fiction.’

That ‘a person’s’ could surely be enormously extended.

Visits from The Strange

Allan, Andrew, 1863-1942; Thistledown

(Andrew Allan, Thistledown: Glasgow Museums Resource Centre)

Yesterday, two goldfinches in a tree beside the uphill path through the park. Gulls, pigeons, starlings, sparrows and blackbirds also, singing in a purer air among the hawthorn. ‘Dutch study’, the Librarian murmured once as a cyclist moved along a parallel path, referring to the joint Belgian-Dutch research project which concluded ‘that for walking the distance of people moving in the same direction in 1 line should be at least 4–5 meters, for running and slow biking it should be 10 meters and for hard biking at least 20 meters. Also, when passing someone it is advised to already be in different lane at a considerable distance e.g. 20 meters for biking.’
https://medium.com/@jurgenthoelen/belgian-dutch-study-why-in-times-of-covid-19-you-can-not-walk-run-bike-close-to-each-other-a5df19c77d08

Burne-Jones, Edward, 1833-1898; The Beguiling of Merlin

(Edward Burne-Jones, The Beguiling of Merlin: photo credit, Lady Lever Art Gallery)

My current social distance is 25 metres, to be on the safe side. Beyond the early morning walk, age and circumstances mean that the only contribution I can realistically make is to stay at home, out of the health professionals’ way, and take no chances. With a small back garden and the wider expanse of the park nearby, I have the luxury of making such choices. Many don’t, as is clearer every day, the fault lines of social and economic inequality—the gaping holes that ten years of austerity, cuts and closures and underfunding, have left in the social structure—painfully apparent. The blunders made by the government in the early stages of its response to the crisis are also increasingly clear.
https://www.newstatesman.com/2020/04/eleven-days-may-have-tragically-cost-uk-fight-against-coronavirus

Today: steady rain. But a parcel arrives, sensibly placed on the doorstep by the postman, who knocks and retreats. My order has arrived from the excellent Handheld Press, started a few years back by the writer and academic Kate MacDonald. Beautifully designed books, superbly packaged and received in two working days from my placing the order: post free too.
https://www.handheldpress.co.uk/

Handheld-titles

And we go on. ‘Nothing, perhaps, is strange’, Rose Macaulay wrote, ‘once you have accepted life itself, the great strange business which includes all lesser strangenesses.’[1] Jonathan Williams was more proactive: ‘I love to visit The Strange like some people love to visit The Country, as I say over and over again.’[2]

Now The Strange has ferociously visited all of us, is mutating into many forms, some of them mimicking the ordinary, habits of strangeness bedding down, the same people in the park at six in the morning, that couple, that runner with her dog, the spaniel man, the man who picks up rubbish as he tours the perimeter. Some days, some moments, are stranger than others. Every so often, taking what have now become the habitual precautions, washing your hands yet again, wiping down door handles, quarantining envelopes, packages, food wrapped in plastic, you catch your own eye in the mirror and ask what the hell you’re doing and what you’ve become.

Probably more disturbing is the widespread evidence that a great many people not only expect things to ‘go back to how they were before’ but believe that to be a desirable outcome. Are we so lacking in ambition? Are those tens of thousands of lost lives, including many medical and other frontline staff, not worth more than that? Might it not be an opportunity to begin repairing and rebuilding the country? Or do we simply not have any contemporary politicians with the necessary qualities?

‘O God, I could be bounded in a nutshell’, Hamlet says, ‘and count myself a king of infinite space, were it not that I have bad dreams’ (Hamlet, II, ii).

Hacker, Arthur, 1858-1919; Sir John Martin-Harvey (1863-1944), as 'Hamlet'

(Arthur Hacker, Sir John Martin-Harvey as ‘Hamlet’: Museum of London)

Infinite space is itself a dream just lately – and yes, I’ve been having a few bad ones myself, probably in the company of at least twenty or thirty million other people in this country and who knows how many more worldwide. Tens of millions of bad dreams, not so much nightmares as creeping unease, unsettling encroachments, an impermeable sense of threat, figures in doorways, dark cars waiting where they really shouldn’t be. ‘There is at least one spot in every dream at which it is unplumbable’, Sigmund Freud wrote, ‘a navel, as it were, that is its point of contact with the unknown.’[3] At least one, yes. And all those dreams must add up to a lot of negative energy. Or is the arithmetic quite different? Does it account in part for the immense weariness that seems to be affecting so many people now, even the ones working from home? Or is that down to their online meetings, ten times as tiring as those old face-to-face ones?

Goya-Los-caprichos.jpgDuendecitos-

(Francisco de Goya, Los caprichos: Duendecitos)

After a visit to an injured colleague, feeling unsettled, Inspector Maigret ‘did not go home, although he lived only 500 metres from there, in Boulevard Richard Lenoir. He began walking, because he needed to walk, needed to feel the indifferent crowd brush against him.’[4]

Yes, that is familiar, less so recently but for years, the desire to be one of a crowd, any crowd, the mass, the many, included, immersed, incorporated and invisible. Less keen these days, unsurprisingly, on crowds and certainly on being brushed against by anyone that I can’t personally vouch for, currently one woman and one cat.

 
Notes

[1] Rose Macaulay, Crewe Train (1926; New York, Carroll & Graf, 1986), 30.

[2] Jonathan Williams, ‘“Who Knows the Fate of His Bones?”’, in Blackbird Dust: Essays, Poems, and Photographs (New York: Turtle Point Press, 2000), 189.

[3] Freud, The Interpretation of Dreams, translated by James Strachey, edited by Angela Richards (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1976)  186, fn2.

[4] Georges Simenon, A Man’s Head (1931; translated by David Coward, London: Penguin Books, 2014), 51.

A whole bottle

Wines

In an article from 1962, ‘Ladies’ Halves’, after detailing recent occasions on which a wine waiter has produced a half-bottle of the requested wine (since he’s serving two women dining together), Elizabeth David recalls ‘the steward on the Edinburgh-London express a few years ago who yelled at me across the rattling crockery and two other bemused passengers, “A bottle, madam? A whole bottle? Do you know how large a whole bottle is?”’

Reading this over breakfast, two thoughts occurred to me: firstly, the several occasions on which the Librarian and I have remarked to one another how small wine bottles are these days; secondly: Prague.

It was, alarmingly, sixteen years ago. We had one or two practical problems at the time – the fridge had died and the drain was blocked – from which we made our escape. Nerudova, Mala Strana. A long room which looked out over the Romanian embassy. A well-equipped kitchen, I noted at the time, except for a kettle, toaster, corkscrew, plug for the sink, colander and other peripheral items.

There were crowds, especially on and around the Charles Bridge, of course, but almost everywhere: crowds of friends, tourists, students, and, above all, the tour parties, ten, twenty, thirty, even forty strong: Germans particularly, and Japanese, but French and Italian, English and American.

Long walks in the Jewish quarter; the old cemetery with the leaning stones roped in, a moment of excitement at the sight of Rabbi Löw’s grave – the inventor of the Golem – and pebbles placed on the headstone. Golden Lane, to look at Kafka’s house at Number 22, the lane, the whole area, awash with people. Then lunch at the café on the square. A good mozzarella and roasted vegetable sandwich. We decide to try the white wine. ‘Is it Czech? White wine?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘Could we try a bottle?’ Polite pause. ‘A bottle?’ It would make a good pub sign: The Incredulous Waiter. We have a bottle, in its ice bucket. When I pour again, I pass the crucial point at which it’s worth saving, and pour the whole lot in. The waiter, whose task this probably is, disapproves. ‘Now it will get warm.’ But it didn’t really have much chance to do that.

Ah, Prague. Or Paris. Or, indeed, Sherborne. When shall we three meet again?

 

 

Browsing Glaucus

Pound-Personae-1909 Pound-CEP-ND

Leafing through Peter Jay’s edition of The Greek Anthology—borrowed from the library, so likely to be with me for a while—its translators ranging from Fleur Adcock and Guy Davenport to Tony Harrison and Peter Whigham, I came across Glaukos – not, a note explains, Glaukos of Athens but Glaukos of Nikopolis (‘perhaps the suburb of Alexandria’). This is translated by Clive Sansom:

No, not earth, nor a stone slab,
But the whole vast surface of the ocean that you see
Is Erasippus’ tomb.
He and his ship drowned together. – Where
And in what unknown depths his bones wander
Seabirds alone can tell.[1]

I like the neat manner in which the close relationship of man and ship is conveyed; and the suggestion that the bones ‘wander’, the voyager never still even in death. Who the seabirds might tell is, of course, a separate question.

In classical literature and mythology, Glaukos or Glaucus crops up several times, including in the Iliad; he is also the son of Sisyphus who ends up being eaten by his own mares, possibly because Aphrodite was in a snit with him. But the best-known is probably the fisherman who ate a magical herb and was transformed into a sea-god. He was later renowned for his prophecies. The story of his doomed love for Scylla is told by Ovid, as is the moment of his ‘sea change’:

I picked some stalks and chewed
What I had picked. The juice, the unknown juice,
Had hardly passed my throat when suddenly
I felt my heart-strings tremble and my soul
Consumed with yearning for that other world.
I could not wait. “Farewell”, I cried, “farewell,
Land never more my home”, and plunged beneath
The waves.[2]

Spranger_Galucus-Scylla

(Bartholomeus Spranger, Glaucus and Scylla)

Glaucus is mentioned by Dante – and that mention, from the Paradiso, is the epigraph of Ezra Pound’s ‘An Idyl for Glaucus’, included in his third volume, Personae, published on 16 April 1909.

Pound’s poem is a dramatic monologue, which has ‘invented the lover who witnessed Glaucus’ transformation’, David Moody writes, ‘but does not know how to follow him, and who is left astray in the mortal world in which she can no longer be at home.’[3]

I sought long days amid the cliffs thinking to find
The body-house of him, and then
There at the blue cave-mouth my joy
Grew pain for suddenness, to see him ’live.
Whither he went I may not come, it seems
He is become estranged from all the rest,
And all the sea is now his wonder-house.

She suspects that ‘each time they come/ Up from the sea heart to the realm of air/ They are more far-removèd from the shore’. Once he plucks some grass and bids her eat it before abruptly leaping back into the sea. Then:

I wonder why he mocked me with the grass.
I know not any more how long it is
Since I have dwelt not in my mother’s house.
I know they think me mad, for all night long
I haunt the sea-marge, thinking I may find
Some day the herb he offered unto me.

And, at the end:

I am quite tired now. I know the grass
Must grow somewhere along this Thracian coast,
If only he would come some little while and find it me.[4]

Anglo-Saxon-K

This is still early Pound: there are numberless inversions, archaisms and ‘poeticisms’ but the power and force of some of the work—including ‘An Idyl for Glaucus’—is undeniable. While ‘The Seafarer’ is two and a half years away, Hugh Witemeyer remarks of an earlier poem in the volume, ‘At the Heart O’ Me, A. D. 751’, that it was Pound’s ‘earliest experiment with Anglo-Saxon diction and meter’. Do this poem’s ‘body-house’ and ‘wonder-house’ point in the same direction?[5]

Perhaps. But then Pound read a great deal of Rudyard Kipling’s work and I remember that the opening lines of Kim are: ‘He sat, in defiance of municipal orders, astride the gun Zam-Zammah on her brick platform opposite the old Ajaib-Gher—the Wonder House, as the natives call the Lahore Museum.’ So perhaps not.

The influences tumble over one another in the first years, sometimes fighting like rats in a sack, but he’ll gradually outdistance Pre-Raphaelites, Aesthetes, Symbolists and others—not abandoning or jettisoning them but absorbing them into a stronger and more expansive poetic framework. Dante and Ovid will last the course, though: the experience of the underworld, the reaching for paradise and the lure of transformation.

 

Notes

[1] Peter Jay, editor, The Greek Anthology and Other Ancient Greek Epigrams: A selection in modern verse translations (London: Allen Lane, 1973), 154.

[2] Ovid, Metamorphoses, translated by A. D. Melville (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987), 323.

[3] A. David Moody, Ezra Pound: Poet: A Portrait of the Man and His Work: Volume I: The Young Genius 1885–1920 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), 90-91.

[4] ‘An Idyl for Glaucus’, in Collected Early Poems of Ezra Pound, edited by Michael John King (London: Faber and Faber, 1977), 83-85.

[5] Hugh Witemeyer, The Poetry of Ezra Pound: Forms and Renewal, 1908-1920 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1981), 117.