Election mode

Géricault-Raft-Medusa

(Théodore Géricault, The Raft of the Medusa: Louvre)

Now is the winter of our disconnect. Or not.

‘Hora novissima, tempora pessima sunt — vigilemus’, the twelfth-century monk Bernard of Cluny wrote, ‘These are the last days, the worst of times: let us keep watch’. His poem, De Contemptu Mundi (On Contempt for the World) was around 3000 lines long, in an elaborate metre with many internal rhymes. It attacked various failings and abuses in the contemporary world, interspersed with rapturous descriptions of the heavenly Jerusalem.

We are in election mode. Or the end of days, some say. ‘Leading politicians openly lying through their teeth’, the Librarian observes, watching the evening news. ‘When did that change?’

I don’t know the answer. I’m old enough to remember politicians resigning when they were caught out and shown to have lied to their colleagues and the electorate. But now – they don’t seem to bother much. I recall a piece in The Guardian a few weeks back by Catherine Fieschi. ‘We need to stop asking why voters believe populists’ untruths and why they let themselves be repeatedly swindled by them – because they don’t and they aren’t. The purpose of populist lying is not to be believed. Only very belatedly do we seem to be grasping that the politics of lying and shameless behaviour are powerful elements in populism’s corrosive ideology.’
https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/sep/30/europe-populist-lie-shamelessly-salvini-johnson

Yes. I feel: no more excuses. This is where we are. The Tory press, i.e., most of the British press, is frothing away about internal Labour struggles, or the time Mr Corbyn had a postcard from a Hamas leader, or the dangers of taxing rich, tax-evading bastards properly, or how Marxist-Trotskyist-Maoist-Leninist something or other was. And yes, I’m immensely tired of quarrels over ideological purity or who is betraying the revolution or who said or did what to whom and when. I wish Her Majesty’s Opposition had opposed instead of sticking their hands in their pants, I wish they’d formulated the proper response to Brexit, the Tory project to make this country smaller, poorer, meaner and nastier but far more vulnerable to predatory foreign companies.

Knit-your-own-cat

And yet – this is where we are. On one side: Johnson, Rees-Mogg, Raab, Patel, the hostile environment, dismantling and flogging off of the NHS, a weakening of workers’ rights, food safety and environmental standards; a little more broadly: Farage, Banks, Cummings, all the dodgy friends and backers; a little more broadly still: Trump, Bolsonaro, Erdogan, Modi, Orbán, Duterte, Salvini, the AfD, the Bannon playbook – and Putin. On the other side – by this time, I hardly care as long as there is another side: but let’s say a Labour Party that I have a few quarrels with, the Greens, the SNP, the Liberal Democrats (that I have more quarrels with): still, a lot of people that I could be in the same room with while still managing to keep my dinner down.

Anyone that thinks that there is ever – ever – going to be a political party that they agree with in every particular is deranged or simple-minded. ‘Elsewhere’, Marina Hyde observes, ‘imbecility remains a key battleground, with debate over which party is fielding the more extravagantly or malevolently stupid candidates.’
https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/nov/08/boris-johnson-control-tories-election-campaign-leader

Indeed. Nevertheless, there can no longer be any difficulty about which side you’re one and which one you wish to be associated with. A pretty stark choice. This will be the one you’re stuck with – only for a few decades but still. . .

 

 

‘Face to face with nature’: Richard Jefferies

p757.jpg
(Richard Jefferies/Edward Thomas, © Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS via Times Literary Supplement)

(‘By standing face to face with nature, and not from books, I have convinced myself that there is no design and no evolution. What there is, what was the cause, how and why, is not yet known; certainly it was neither of these.’—The Story of My Heart)

Noticing that it is Richard Jefferies’ birthday (1848-1887), I was reminded of an essay I wrote for an intellectual history module, on the utopian ideas of Jefferies, William Morris and Samuel Butler, the specific books mentioned being Morris’s News From Nowhere, Butler’s Erewhon and After London by Jefferies. I must have been, certainly became, extraordinarily enthusiastic about it because I consumed an absurd amount of reading matter, given the significance of the essay in the context of the whole course: and the bulk of that extra reading was of Jefferies.

He published around twenty books in his lifetime—he died at the age of thirty-eight, so living no longer than Guillaume Apollinaire, Felix Mendelssohn, George Gershwin or Federico García Lorca. He wrote a great deal about rural life, the changing countryside and farming practices: The Amateur Poacher, The Gamekeeper at Home, Hodge and His Masters; also novels, the children’s classic, Bevis: The Story of a Boy, and a remarkable autobiographical work, The Story of My Heart, perhaps the most marked example of Jefferies’ mystical or pantheistic strain

‘How strange that condition of mind’, he wrote there, ‘which cannot accept anything but the earth, the sea, the tangible universe!’ And, ‘There is an immense ocean over which the mind can sail, upon which the vessel of thought has not yet been launched.’ Asserting that, ‘Now, today, as I write, I stand in exactly the same position as the Caveman. Written tradition, systems of culture, modes of thought, have for me no existence’, he would repeat that ‘the divine beauty of flesh is life itself to me’.[1]

Coate-Farm

(Coate Farm: https://richardjefferies.wordpress.com/ )

In 1909, Edward Thomas published his biography of Jefferies, mentioning in his preface that he had known Jefferies’ part of Wiltshire (he was born at Coate Farm, near Swindon) for twenty years, ‘and I hope that I have got most of what the country people had to tell about him and his family.’ It’s a thorough, informed and sympathetic portrait. Thomas remarks that ‘Jefferies’ thinking was symptomatic of the age rather than original; it is stimulating because it is personal.’[2] It’s certainly that.

In an 1877 essay (in which I see he mentions ‘Fung-shuy’ – Feng Shui), Jefferies writes: ‘Wherever you can find a single blade of grass, however small, there you stand face to face with the mystery of life, and all the possibilities of existence.’ And, ‘If you should chance to find a blade of grass withering in a rocky place, carry it a little water for the sake of the thoughts that spring from it.’ And in a period when many people were still coming to terms with the evolutionary ideas of Darwin and others: ‘I think that bees, birds and animals would change their apparently immutable habits without hesitation if they found an advantage in doing so.’[3]

In his first chapter, ‘The Country of Richard Jefferies’, Thomas remarks that the Wiltshire and Berkshire Canal which, roughly speaking, was Jefferies’ northern boundary, ‘has now relapsed into barbarism; its stiffened and weedy waters are stirred only by the moorhen, who walks more than she swims across them’ (Richard Jefferies 2). The first part of Jefferies’ After London or Wild England is entitled ‘The Relapse into Barbarism’ and opens with a statement of oral tradition: ‘The old men say their fathers told them that soon after the fields were left to themselves a change began to be visible. It became green everywhere in the first spring, after London ended, so that all the country looked alike.’ A little later, the narrator remarks: ‘Now the mark of a noble is that he can read and write.’ There is a brief ‘Appendix’, ‘The Great Snow’, the headnote describing it as ‘An alternative catastrophe, probably written before 1875’. This edition has an introduction by John Fowles, whose The French Lieutenant’s Woman, published a decade earlier, offered multiple alternative endings. Fowles writes of the several strangenesses of Jefferies’ novel: ‘And strangest of all is the fact that it should be the supposedly “sensitive” nature writer, author in 1883 of a passionate explosion, The Story of My Heart, against machine thinking and machine society, who two years later portrays the miseries of a future world bereft of higher knowledge and technology.’[4]

William_Henry_Hudson

(W. H. Hudson)

Edward Thomas’s biography of Jefferies was dedicated to W. H. Hudson. They had met in 1906 and when Thomas began work on the book in the following year, he asked Hudson to accept the dedication. Towards the end of his life, Hudson would remark that in Thomas ‘he had seen the son he wanted’. There were other curious connections. On 2 November 1900, ‘by a happy chance’, Hudson had lodged in the house at Hurstbourne Tarrant where William Cobbett had begun to write his Rural Rides – on 2 November 1821. In March 1921, when Hudson’s wife Emily died, she was buried in Broadwater cemetery at Worthing, where Richard Jefferies lies.[5]

In 1909, in the course of an appreciation of Hudson, Ford Madox Ford quoted from ‘Thistle-Down’, the opening chapter of Nature in Downland, ‘the first passage of Mr Hudson’s work that we ever read’, Ford noted.[6] He would recur to it several times in his later writings.

Charles, James, 1851-1906; Sussex Downs

(James Charles, Sussex Downs: The Council House, Chichester)

‘When, lying on my back, I gazed up into the blue sky, the air as far as I could see was still peopled with the flying down; and beyond all that was visible to the naked eye, far from the earth still more down was revealed by my glasses—innumerable, faintly seen silvery stars moving athwart the immeasurable blue expanse of heaven.’

A little later in that chapter, Hudson writes of Jefferies, of how, although he was so closely associated with Wiltshire, ‘the Sussex coast country where he found a home powerfully attracted and held him’. He added: ‘Jefferies was much in my mind just now because by chance I happen to be writing this introductory chapter in the last house he inhabited, and where he died, in the small village of Goring, between the sea and the West Sussex Downs.’[7]

‘By chance’. Wonderful. I must reread, at least, After London.

 
Notes

[1] Richard Jefferies, The Story of My Heart (1883; London: Longmans, Green & Co., 1922), 46, 54, 56, 88, 89.

[2] Edward Thomas, Richard Jefferies (1909; London: Faber and Faber, 1978), ix, 294.

[3] Richard Jefferies, ‘Village Hunting’ and ‘Butterfly Corner’, 1887, collected in Landscape and Labour, edited by John Pearson (Bradford-on-Avon: Moonraker Press, 1979), 47, 53.

[4] Richard Jefferies, After London or Wild England (1885; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1980), 1, 32, 243, vii.

[5] Ruth Tomalin, W. H. Hudson: A Biography (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1984), 182, 179, 230.

[6] Ford Madox Ford, ‘The Work of W. H. Hudson’, English Review, II, i (April 1909), 160.

[7] W. H. Hudson, Nature in Downland (London: Longmans, Green & Co., 1900), 14, 16.

‘Falling from a high stool’: Pound, Yeats, Lionel Johnson

 

DPE72F  Ezra_Pound_Coburn.jpg

 

(Lionel Johnson via TLS; Pound c. 1913 by Alvin Langdon Coburn)

Reading Elif Batuman’s novel The Idiot, I came upon this: ‘On the train back, Svetlana told me about a Serbian movie director who had been friends with her father in Belgrade. The director’s wife, an actress, had gone to Paris to make a movie with a young French director. The French director had died tragically by falling off a barstool. “They said it might have been suicide,” Svetlana said.’[1]

The joke here is the improbable means of suicide, of course, but I was reminded of the sixth section of Ezra Pound’s Hugh Selwyn Mauberley, entitled ‘Siena Mi Fe’; Disfecemi Maremma’ [from Dante’s Purgatorio, ‘Sienna made me, Maremma undid me’]:

Among the pickled foetuses and bottled bones,
Engaged in perfecting the catalogue,
I found the last scion of the
Senatorial families of Strasbourg, Monsieur Verog.

For two hours he talked of Gallifet;
Of Dowson; of the Rhymers’ Club;
Told me how Johnson (Lionel) died
By falling from a high stool in a pub . . .[2]

‘Monsieur Verog’ is the poet and critic Victor Plarr, who was librarian of the Royal College of Surgeons from 1897 to his death in 1929, working for much of that time on the library catalogue. He was also a founder member of The Rhymers’ Club, which made him of interest to Pound, having stories to tell of Ernest Dowson (of whom he wrote a memoir), Lionel Johnson, Selwyn Image, Richard Le Gallienne and others.

K. K. Ruthven suggests that Katharine Tynan, the writer and friend of Yeats, ‘seems to have been responsible for the erroneous story that Johnson died after falling from a stool’.[3] Johnson did indeed die of a fall, though it was ‘not in a pub, but on Fleet Street’.[4]

Tynan

(Katharine Tynan via Wikipedia Commons)

Lionel Johnson (1867-1902) was a first cousin of Olivia Shakespeare, mother of Pound’s wife Dorothy. His 1889 poem, ‘Lines to a Lady upon her Third Birthday’, is addressed to Dorothy—‘Dear Cousin: to be three years old,/ Is to have found the Age of Gold’[5]—and Pound wrote the preface to Johnson’s Poetical Works (1915). This was excluded from the American edition and also from later English printings, ‘apparently because it included extensive quotations from notes sent by Lionel Johnson to Katherine Tynan and printed by her after his death in the Dublin Review for October 1907.’ Johnson’s critical comments concerned several of his contemporaries, including Arthur Symons and Richard Le Gallienne, both still alive in 1915.[6] His notes are included, though, in ‘Lionel Johnson’, collected in Pound’s Literary Essays: ‘Baudelaire and Verlaine generally ring true, and their horrors and squalors and miseries and audacities have the value and virtue of touching the reader to something of compassion or meditation. Symons no more does that than a teapot. “This girl met me in the Haymarket, with a straw hat and a brown paper parcel, and the rest was a delirious delight: that girl I met outside a music hall, we had champagne, and the rest was an ecstasy of shame.” That is Symons.’

The teapot is a nice touch.

Pound’s praise foregrounds his explicit awareness that Johnson ‘cannot be shown to be in accord with our present doctrines and ambitions. His language is a bookish dialect, or rather it is not a dialect, it is a curial speech and our aim is natural speech, the language as spoken. We would write nothing that we might not actually say in life—under emotion. Johnson’s verse is full of inversions, but no one has written purer Imagisme than he has, in the line

Clear lie the fields, and fade into blue air.

It has a beauty like the Chinese.’[7]

Walking_on_Path_in_Spring

(Ma Yuan, Walking on a Mountain Path in Spring, 13th century)

Plenty to unpack here. Pound’s ‘our aim is natural speech, the language as spoken’ sits a little uncomfortably with some of his earlier pronouncements. ‘[W]e must have a simplicity and directness of utterance which is different from the simplicity and directness of daily speech, which is more “curial”, more dignified’, he wrote in 1912; and, ‘There are few fallacies more common than the opinion that poetry should mimic the daily speech.’ Again, in that same year: ‘Mr Hueffer is so obsessed with the idea that the language of poetry should not be a dead language, that he forgets it must be the speech of to-day, dignified, more intense, more dynamic, than to-day’s speech as spoken’.[8] By 1914, then, when Pound was writing this introduction, the case was altered. Imagism had happened, Vorticism was happening and—‘a beauty like the Chinese’—the encounter with the Fenollosa notebooks, which resulted in the Noh plays and Cathay, had also engaged and enlarged Pound’s resources.

And that curious word ‘curial’? ‘Of or pertaining to a royal court; having the manners befitting a court; courtly’, the Oxford English Dictionary says. And, perhaps fittingly, ‘Obsolete’.[9] The papal curia – the administrative institutions through which the Catholic Church’s affairs are conducted – is certainly appropriate enough to the Roman Catholic convert Johnson, who introduced his cousin—Alfred Lord Douglas—to Oscar Wilde in the summer of 1891. He rather regretted it later.[10]

Quoting ‘In Memory. II’, the poem beginning:

Ah! fair face gone from sight,
With all its light
Of eyes, that pierced the deep
Of human night!
Ah! fair face calm in sleep.

Ah! fair lips hushed in death!
Now their glad breath
Breathes not upon our air
Music, that saith
Love only, and things fair

Pound presents it as an example of ‘poems as beautiful as any in English’ – though he leaves out some of Johnson’s ‘poetical’ exclamation marks. Those short lines and rhymes in such close proximity make me wonder if there’s any sense of affinity with the Provençal poems of Arnaut Daniel that Pound was translating, such as ‘Can Chai la Fueilla’:

When sere leaf falleth
from the high forkèd tips,
And cold appalleth
dry osier, haws and hips,
Coppice he strips
of bird, that now none calleth.   (Ezra Pound: Poems and Translations, 482)

He attends closely to Johnson the poet, while the man himself is a ghost transmitted to Pound through the spoken and written words of W. B. Yeats. Johnson is central to ‘The Tragic Generation’, a section of Yeats’s autobiographical The Trembling of the Veil. He recalled Johnson reading or speaking aloud ‘in his musical monotone, where meaning and cadence found the most precise elocution, his poem suggested by the Statue of King Charles at Charing Cross. It was as though I listened to a great speech.’

Charles I

(Equestrian statue of Charles I : Wikipedia Commons)

Comely and calm, he rides
Hard by his own Whitehall:
Only the night wind glides:
No crowds, nor rebels, brawl.

Gone, too, his Court: and yet,
The stars his courtiers are:
Stars in their stations set;
And every wandering star.

Alone he rides, alone,
The fair and fatal king:
Dark night is all his own,
That strange and solemn thing.     (Poetical Works of Lionel Johnson, 14)

Yeats wrote of the alcoholic Johnson’s drinking as well as the report that, ‘at the autopsy after his death’, he was discovered ‘never to have grown, except in the brain, after his fifteenth year’.[11] His 1936 broadcast, ‘Modern Poetry’, open with memories of The Rhymers’ Club: ‘Two members of the Club are vivid in my memory’, that is, Johnson and Ernest Dowson. Johnson was ‘determined, erect, his few words dogmatic, almost a dwarf but beautifully made, his features cut in ivory. His thought dominated the scene and gave the Club its character.’ Yeats recalled Johnson’s stories of all the famous statesmen, ecclesiastics and writers he had met and his eventual discovery that Johnson had never met them but had made it all up, that he would sit at night with a glass of whisky at his elbow, ‘imagining the puppets that were the true companions of his mind.’[12]

In the introduction to his selection for The Oxford Book of Modern Verse, Yeats quoted Johnson (‘Life must be a ritual’) and commenced the next section thus:

‘Then in 1900 everybody got down off his stilts; henceforth nobody drank absinthe with his black coffee; nobody went mad; nobody committed suicide; nobody joined the Catholic Church; or if they did I have forgotten.’[13] Stilts, of course, are not the legs of barstools. . .

Circe, by John William Waterhouse

(J.W. Waterhouse, Circe Offering the Cup to Odysseus (Gallery Oldham)

Near the end of Pound’s Mauberley, we read of:

The unforecasted beach:
Then on an oar
read this:

“I was
And I no more exist;
Here drifted
An hedonist.”

It’s often noted that Johnson’s barstool fall earlier in Mauberley echoes the fatal descent of Elpenor in Homer’s Odyssey, drunk, tumbling down a ladder in Circe’s house. The youngest of Odysseus’s men, he is the first shade that Odysseus meets in the underworld. Homer’s Book XI is, of course, the one out of twenty-four that Pound selects as basis for his Canto I, in which Elpenor pleads to Odysseus:

‘But thou, O King, I bid remember me, unwept, unburied,
Heap up mine arms, be tomb by sea-bord, and inscribed:
A man of no fortune, and with a name to come.
And set my oar up, that I swung mid fellows.’

Elpenor’s name will be remembered, firstly, through the actions of the hero Odysseus but primarily through the words of the poet Homer. Mauberley’s name will be remembered through the words of the poet, Pound, who sees aspects of himself in Odysseus and wishes—as poet—to evade Mauberley’s fate and leave him far behind. So too the edition of Johnson’s poems, with Pound’s respectful and often laudatory introduction—which has its own afterlife—sets up an oar above Johnson’s own heaped arms.

 

 

Notes

[1] Elif Batuman, The Idiot (London: Vintage, 2018), 42.

[2] Ezra Pound: Poems and Translations, edited by Richard Sieburth (New York: Library of America, 2003), 553.

[3] K. K. Ruthven, A Guide to Ezra Pound’s Personae (1926) (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983), 136.

[4] John Espey, Ezra Pound’s Mauberley: A Study in Composition (1955; Berkeley: University of California Press, 1974), 92.

[5] Poetical Works of Lionel Johnson (London: Elkin Mathews, 1915), 52. See Ezra Pound and Dorothy Shakespear: Their Letters, 1909-1914, edited by Omar Pound and A. Walton Litz (London: Faber and Faber, 1985), 83-84.

[6] Donald Gallup, Ezra Pound: A Bibliography, revised edition (Charlottesville: University of Press of Virginia, 1983), 140.

[7] Literary Essays of Ezra Pound, edited by T. S. Eliot (London: Faber and Faber, 1960), 365, 362. The phrase ‘under emotion’ recalls Pound’s letter to Harriet Monroe, editor of Poetry in January 1915—‘nothing that you couldn’t, in some circumstance, in the stress of some emotion, actually say’—with a 1937 footnote added to the letter: ‘It should be realized that Ford Madox Ford had been hammering this point of view into me from the time I first met him’: Selected Letters, 1907-1941, edited by D. D. Paige (New York: New Directions, 1971), 49.

[8] Ezra Pound, Selected Prose 1909-1965, edited by William Cookson (London: Faber and Faber, 1973), 41; review of Ford’s High Germany in Brita Lindberg-Seyersted, editor, Pound/Ford: The Story of a Literary Friendship (London: Faber & Faber 1982), 10.

[9] Herbert N. Schneidau, Ezra Pound: The Image and the Real (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1969), discusses the changing status of ‘curial’ in Pound’s prose and the shifts in attitude towards the language as spoken.

[10] Richard Ellmann, Oscar Wilde (London: Penguin Books, 1988), 306.

[11] W. B. Yeats, Autobiographies (London: Macmillan, 1955), 301, 310-311.

[12] W. B. Yeats, Essays and Introductions (London: Macmillan, 1961), 491, 492-493.

[13] W. B. Yeats, ‘Introduction’, The Oxford Book of Modern Verse, 1892-1935 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1936), x, xi.

Differences and pretexts

Crows

To his brother Julian, two months after the end of the First World War, Aldous Huxley wrote that freedom ‘is the only thing in the world worth having and the people who can use it properly are the only ones worthy of the least respect: the others are all madmen, pursuing shadows and prepared at any moment to commit acts of violence. The prospects of the universe seem to me dim and dismal to a degree.’[1]

The Guardian recently reported the results of a poll jointly conducted by academics from Cardiff University and the University of Edinburgh. They found that a majority of voters in England, Wales and Scotland surveyed ‘believe that the possibility of some level of violence against MPs is a “price worth paying” in order to get their way on Brexit’: of the Leave voters who took part in the study, this was true of 71% in England, 60% in Scotland and 70% in Wales. And all this just a little more than three years after the murder of MP Jo Cox by an extreme right-wing terrorist who shouted ‘Britain first!’ Perhaps even more depressing, the majority of remain voters also felt that the risk of violence towards MPs was worth it if it meant the United Kingdom would stay in the EU – 58% in England, 53% in Scotland and 56% in Wales.

(As a cheering footnote, voters overwhelmingly felt that the potential destruction of the country’s farming and fishing industries would also be a price worth paying for getting the result they wanted in the Brexit negotiations.)

https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2019/oct/24/majority-of-voters-think-violence-against-mps-is-price-worth-paying-for-brexit

To-West-Bay-Trees

‘The point to be made about the GREAT TRADE ROUTE’, Ford Madox Ford wrote to E. C. Cumberlege of Oxford University Press on 27 October 1936, ‘is that it is not the book of a meditative gentleman who stands before ruined temples and pours mournful soliloquies on old unhappy things, but as it were the testament of a man usually of action who has spent a long life not only on writing and study but on digging, editing, carpentry, cooking, small holding, fighting both literally and metaphorically and in every kind of intrigue that could advance what he considers to be the cause of good letters…’[2]

Great Trade Route was published by Oxford in January 1937 (and by Allen and Unwin in the United Kingdom). ‘But no sort of civilization is possible’, Ford writes there, ‘when difference of opinions can be considered a pretext for murder . . . or even for physical violence.’[3]

A good many political and social commentators have lately been asking: ‘What sort of country do we want to be?’ Or, perhaps more realistically: ‘What sort of country has this become?’ The answer to the first question must be: better than this. And the second? It’s complicated – at least, we hope so.

 

 

Notes

[1] Letters of Aldous Huxley, edited by Grover Smith (London: Chatto and Windus, 1969), 173-174.

[2] Ford Madox Ford, Letters of Ford Madox Ford, edited by Richard M. Ludwig (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1965), 264.

[3] Ford Madox Ford, Great Trade Route (London: Allen & Unwin, 1937), 291.

Spaniels, Beards, Lapis Lazuli

Delort, Charles Edouard, 1841-1895; Girl with Bagpipes . Long, Edwin, 1829-1891; Girl with Bagpipes

(Two examples of ‘Girl with bagpipes’, by Charles Edouard Delort, The Cooper Gallery, Barnsley; and Edwin Long, Wolverhampton Gallery)

Walking round the park, attempting to commit to memory – again, a few lines having fallen out of one ear – Louis MacNeice’s ‘Bagpipe Music’ (‘It’s no go the Yogi-Man, it’s no go Blavatsky,/ all we want is a bank balance and a bit of skirt in a taxi’).

Men with dogs, women with dogs, men with men and with women, women with women, all with dogs. Sometimes, the people in view are outnumbered by the dogs, though all are outnumbered by the trees – a positive feature of a park, I’d say. This was lunchtime. Earlier in the day, I often pass the man with three spaniels—one Springer, I think, and perhaps two Cavalier King Charles. He wears a Fedora that has seen long service rather than a cap but still fits comfortably into my standard image of the sea-captain. An actor named John Hewer played Captain Birdseye in the television adverts for thirty years (he died in 2008) and is probably the version that I best remember, though his beard was far less luxuriant than that of Captain Spaniels.

Armfield, George, 1810-1893; Spaniels in a Barn Interior

(George Armfield, ‘Spaniels in a Barn Interior: Torre Abbey Museum)

Writing to her brother Warner (‘Dear Badger’) in 1915, Marianne Moore reported: ‘I brought home Hueffer’s [Ford Madox Ford’s] Memories and Impressions, a pearl of a book in which Hueffer tells about the Pre-Raphaelites and his grandfather who looked “exactly like the king of hearts on a pack of cards,” and Morris who said “Mary those six eggs were bad. I ate them but don’t let it happen again.” He says they all looked like old fashioned sea captains and Morris was gratified beyond measure on several occasions at being stopped by sailors and questioned with regard to their shipping with him.’[1]

And so he did. In Ancient Lights, the book’s British title, Ford writes that the members of that ‘old, romantic circle’, the Pre-Raphaelites and those associated with them, ‘seem to me to resemble in their lives—and perhaps in their lives they were greater than their works—to resemble nothing so much as a group of old-fashioned ships’ captains.’ He recalls the last time he met William Morris, who told Ford ‘that he had just been talking to some members of a ship’s crew whom he had met in Fenchurch Street. They had remained for some time under the impression that he was a ship’s captain. This had pleased him very much, for it was his ambition to be taken for such a man.’[2]

Of his collaborator Joseph Conrad, Ford wrote that he ‘never presented any appearance of being a bookish, or even a reading man. He might have been anything else; you could have taken fifty guesses at his occupation, from, precisely, ship’s captain to, say, financier, but poet or even student would never have been among them and he would have passed without observation in any crowd. He was frequently taken for a horse fancier. He liked that.’ And: ‘His ambition was to be taken for—to be!—an English country gentleman of the time of Lord Palmerston.’[3]

Now, of course, writers and artists look and dress much the same as anybody else, as you’d expect. But there was a time when some artists wanted to look like artists – while some wanted to look like anything but. What is it, though, about those sea captains? A maritime nation? All the nice girls love a sailor? J. M. W. Turner was another one, in later life compared to a sailor, a farmer, a coachman, a steamboat captain, a North Sea pilot. Robert Bontine Cunningham Grahame, though—writer, adventurer, first president of the National Party of Scotland in 1928—looked, Douglas Goldring remembered, ‘like a Spanish hidalgo.’[4]

Carola-Rackete

(Not all ship’s captains fit the template: this is Carole Rackete, captain of a rescue ship carrying 40 people, who broke a blockade and courageously docked Sea-Watch 3 on the island of Lampedusa after a two-week standoff with the Italian authorities, and in defiance of a ban imposed by the right-wing interior-minister Matteo Salvini (since replaced)
(Photograph : Sea Watch Mediateam via The Guardian)
https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/jun/29/sea-watch-captain-carola-rackete-arrested-italian-blockade

Conrad had, of course, actually been a ship’s captain; and, if T. S. Eliot looked like a banker or a publishing executive, there was a reason for it. Wallace Stevens no doubt appeared like an insurance executive. Beatrix Potter, after a dozen years of artistic productivity, married and became a farmer, breeding Herdwick sheep and increasingly recognised as an expert in her field: ‘So long as she could live and look like a farmer, she asked no better’.[5]

Ezra Pound, on the other hand, looked like – A Poet. ‘He ordered a snug-waisted full-skirted overcoat of tweed, the blue of delphiniums, and the buttons were large square pieces of lapis lazuli.’[6] Or rather, Ezra ‘would approach with the step of a dancer, making passes with a cane at an imaginary opponent. He would wear trousers made of green billiard cloth, a pink coat, a blue shirt, a tie hand-painted by a Japanese friend, an immense sombrero, a flaming beard cut to a point, and a single, large blue earring.’[7]

Richard Cassell, in conversation with Pound at St. Elizabeths in 1951, recorded that: ‘Ford would take Pound to the drawing rooms of everyone who would accept him, Ford dressed in top hat and swallow-tailed coat, Pound in anybody’s cast-off clothes and old velvet jacket. “The next day, more than likely, Ford would be among his pigs. He was both the lord of the Cinque Ports and a simple farmer.”’[8]

David-Jones.Spectator

(David Jones, via The Spectator)

William Blissett recalled, of one of his visits to David Jones, ‘A couple of anecdotes over tea. Evelyn Waugh (who was very shy and embarrassed if surprised in one of his many kindnesses) took David aside some years ago and remonstrated with him for brushing his hair down over his forehead. “You look like a bloody artist,” he said, to which the only possible reply was, “But I am a bloody artist.”’[9] Waugh, it’s safe to say, did not generally look like a bloody artist. Still, brushing your hair forward certainly requires less financial outlay than tweed or lapis lazuli.

 
Notes

[1] The Selected Letters of Marianne Moore, edited Bonnie Costello, Celeste Goodridge and Cristanne Miller (London: Faber and Faber, 1998), 99.

[2] Ford Madox Ford, Ancient Lights and Certain New Reflections (London: Chapman and Hall, 1911), 17-18.

[3] Ford Madox Ford, Joseph Conrad: A Personal Remembrance (London: Duckworth, 1924), 57-58.

[4] Peter Ackroyd, Turner (London: Vintage 2006), 25-26; Douglas Goldring, South Lodge: Reminiscences of Violet Hunt, Ford Madox Ford and the English Review Circle (London: Constable, 1943), 33.

[5] Margaret Lane, The Tale of Beatrix Potter (1946; Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1962), 173.

[6] Brigit Patmore, My Friends When Young, edited with an introduction by Derek Patmore (London: Heinemann, 1968), 61.

[7] Ford Madox Ford, Return to Yesterday: Reminiscences 1894-1914 (London: Victor Gollancz, 1931), 370.

[8] Richard A. Cassell, ‘A Visit with E. P.’, Paideuma, 8, 1 (1979), 67. One or two of these reported facts should be approached warily, and perhaps with the step of a dancer.

[9] William Blissett, The Long Conversation: A Memoir of David Jones (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1981), 61.

 

Smelling a rat

H-ratting

(Harry, student of current affairs, smelling a rat)

I was thinking again about rats, prompted not only by the current political situation, though that possesses strong indicators, but, in the first instance, by seeing a brown rat—not the endangered black rat—shoot across the garden and, on a later occasion, help itself to seeds on the bird table, having shinned up a long, smooth pole to reach it. I invited the cat to deal with the situation (perhaps you know the story of James Joyce and Ernest Hemingway out on the town in Paris, where the half-blind Joyce would get into fights, be unable to locate his opponent and simply say ‘Deal with him, Hemingway, deal with him!’)—but Harry showed no inclination to do so. It was not a particularly small rat.

The second instance was my nightly reading to the Librarian, not for the first time, Conan Doyle. Devotees of the Sherlock Holmes stories will recall that, in ‘The Adventure of the Sussex Vampire’, Holmes alludes to the giant rat of Sumatra, ‘a story for which the world is not yet prepared.’ Leslie Klinger notes the discovery made by Guy G. Musser and Cameron Newcomb of a species Sundamys infraluteus, weighing in excess of 22 pounds and 24 inches long (including the tail), a discovery reported in a 270-page article in 1983.

Then too there is ‘The Boscombe Valley Mystery’:

‘The Coroner: Did your father make any statement to you before he died?
Witness: He mumbled a few words, but I could only catch some allusion to a rat.
The Coroner: What did you understand by that?
Witness: It conveyed no meaning to me. I thought that he was delirious.’

Later, Watson asks Holmes: ‘What of the rat, then?’ His friend produces a map of the Colony of Victoria (he has wired to Bristol for it the previous night).

‘He put his hand over part of the map. “What do you read?”
“ARAT,” I read.
“And now?” He raised his hand.
“BALLARAT.”’

Aha! That was Charles McCarthy trying to utter the name of his murderer, John Turner, formerly Black Jack of Ballarat. [1]

Rats are affectionately observed or referenced by Colette—‘I have a little Rat [Colette de Jouvenel, otherwise Bel-Gazou, born 3 July 1913], and I have paid the price: thirty hours without respite, chloroform and forceps’[2]—and Kenneth Grahame, whose The Wind in the Willows appeared in 1908, though his rat was a water-vole.

Paul-Bransom-Wind-Willows

(Paul Bransom, from The Wind in the Willows)

The First World War, specifically life in the trenches on the Western Front, introduced new rat-perspectives, from David Jones:

You can hear the silence of it:
you can hear the rat of no-man’s-land
rut-out intricacies,
weasel-out his patient workings,
scrut, scrut, sscrut,
harrow out-earthly, trowel his cunning paw;
redeem the time of our uncharity, to sap his own amphibious paradise.[3]

and from Isaac Rosenberg, in ‘Break of Day in the Trenches’ (‘Only a live thing leaps my hand,/ A queer sardonic rat’).

Rats—and ferrets—bulked fairly large in Ford Madox Ford’s war too. When a French Minister in wartime Paris asked how he could be of use to Second Lieutenant Hueffer, Ford expressed his desire for some ferrets. ‘First of everything in the world—of everything in the whole world!—comes your battalion. And the ferrets of my battalion had all died suddenly; and the last thing they had said to me had been: Don’t forget to get us some ferrets. If you had seen the rats of Locre you would have understood.’ But, he adds, ‘the Minister had not seen the rats of Locre so he had not understood…. ’[4] Closer to the time of that ministerial incomprehension—‘“Quoi,” he asked. “What is a ferret?”’—the Francophile Ford wrote: ‘There are no ferrets in France, not in the Ministries, not in the Jardin des Plantes et d’Acclimatation. That is perhaps a defect of France, but I have perceived no other.’[5]

Another species of entente cordiale had emerged in the sixteenth century, with John Florio’s translation of the Essays of Michel de Montaigne. Sarah Bakewell writes: ‘But while Montaigne always moved forward, Florio winds back on himself and scrunches his sentences into ever tighter baroque spirals until their meaning disappears in a puff of syntax. The real magic happens when the two writers meet. Montaigne’s earthiness holds Florio’s convolutions in check, while Florio gives Montaigne an Elizabethan English quality, as well as a lot of sheer fun.’ So, ‘Where Montaigne writes, “Our Germans, drowned in wine” (nos Allemans, noyez dans le vin), Florio has “our carowsing tosspot German souldiers, when they are most plunged in their cups, and as drunke as Rats”’. And, wonderfully, ‘A phrase which the modern translator Donald Frame renders calmly as “werewolves, goblins, and chimeras” emerges from Floriation as “Larves, Hobgoblins, Robbin-good-fellowes, and other such Bug-beares and Chimeraes” – a piece of pure Midsummer Night’s Dream.’

Miranda_-_The_Tempest_JWW

(J. W. Waterhouse, Miranda)

And yes, as she goes on to say, Shakespeare did know John Florio, ‘was among the first readers of the Essays translation’ and left strong traces of that reading in several of his plays.[6] Or, if not Montaigne, then rats:

A rotten carcase of a butt, not rigg’d,
Nor tackle, sail, nor mast; the very rats
Instinctively have quit it (The Tempest, I, ii)

 

 

Notes

[1] Arthur Conan Doyle, The New Annotated Sherlock Holmes, 2 volumes, edited with notes by Leslie S. Klinger (New York and London: W.W. Norton and Company 2005), II, 556-557; I, 111, 125.

[2] To Georges Wague, mid-July 1913: Colette, Letters from Colette, selected and translated by Robert Phelps (London: Virago Press, 1982), 36.

[3] David Jones, In Parenthesis (1937; London: Faber, 1963), 54.

[4] Ford Madox Ford, No Enemy (1929; edited by Paul Skinner, Manchester: Carcanet Press, 2002), 133.

[5] Ford Madox Ford, ‘Trois Jours de Permission’, in War Prose, edited by Max Saunders (Manchester: Carcanet Press, 1999), 51. The editor points out in his headnote (49) that the ferrets recur in several other Ford works. The story of ‘Ford’s rat’ is in Joseph Conrad (1924), 40-41.

[6] Sarah Bakewell, How To Live: A Life of Montaigne in one question and twenty attempts at an answer (London: Vintage 2011), 277-279.

 

The chosen destination

Lyme130919

The first strikingly cold day—when the heating takes an executive decision to fire itself up—renders the summer immediately distant. Complaints about humidity, the constant swallowing of water to ward off dehydration, the absurdity of pocketless clothes—all fled away. As for our last escape to the sea, that final foray in convincing summer weather, was it a week ago, two, more?

Lyme Regis is the chosen destination these days when we retreat to the sea. Retreat or advance? Katabasis or Anabasis? There are the odd days to recover from, or seek to outdistance, the mental breakdown currently being undergone by the United Kingdom. Otherwise, the more durable points are November, for the Librarian’s birthday, and sometimes, in early June, for the birthday, not of Thomas Hardy (nor that of Edward Elgar, Barbara Pym, John Lehmann or the Marquis de Sade) but of the Librarian’s mother. This involves a good deal of driving, or being driven, through Mr Hardy’s county although, as far as I’m aware, he never mentions Lyme in his writings, despite having visited the town twice, possibly three times.

Stretching eyes west
Over the sea,
Wind foul or fair
Always stood she
Prospect-impressed;
Solely out there
Did her gaze rest
Never elsewhere
Seemed charm to be.[1]

 

Fowles--french-lieutenants-pb    French_lieutenants_woman-film

The town’s more familiar literary associations now are with John Fowles’ long residence in the town and his 1969 novel The French Lieutenant’s Woman, filmed by Karel Reisz in 1981 with a script by Harold Pinter, starring Meryl Streep and Jeremy Irons. In Jane Austen’s Persuasion, Louisa Musgrove falls from the Cobb and suffers a serious concussion. There is also, on a wall in Church Street, a plaque commemorating the occasion, on 11 November 1725, when the novelist Henry Fielding, with the assistance of his servant, tried to abduct Sarah Andrew (a distant cousin of whom he was enamoured), as she was walking to church with Andrew Tucker and his family. That is also, of course, the Henry Fielding who eventually became London’s chief magistrate and, with his half-brother John, founded the Bow Street Runners, the first police force in London.

We walk to the Cobb, sit or lean against the wall, watch the waves, boats, kayaks, swimmers, dogs, walkers and all those people busily engaged with fish and chips. Some places become uncomfortable very quickly when crowded – but somehow Lyme seems not to, perhaps because of the several beaches. And there is not only the sweeping sea view, the harbour, the Cobb itself, but also the public gardens, the beach huts, the sense of cohesion and singleness deriving in part from the steep roads down into Lyme so there’s never the feeling of its merely being on the way to somewhere else.

Lyme has spectacular scenery all around it and a nice spot from which you’re directed to view Charmouth, West Bay, Golden Cap, Portland. The Cobb is Lyme’s famous curving harbour wall, originally dating back to the thirteenth century, and is where the French Lieutenant’s woman stood; it’s certainly where we take our fish and chips—from Herbie’s, among the best you’ll taste but one portion will cater for two people unless their appetites are matters of record with local or national newspapers.

Lyme is first mentioned in 774, in connection with a manor granted to Sherborne Abbey and received a Royal Charter in 1284 from Edward I (6 feet 2 inches and thus ‘Longshanks’). Edward was also known as the ‘Hammer of the Scots’—and was the conqueror of Wales, which caused the poet and artist David Jones, aged twelve and ‘careful that no one was looking’, to spit on his tomb in Westminster Abbey.[2]

William_Hogarth_Coram

(William Hogarth, Thomas Coram: Foundling Museum)

It was the birthplace of Thomas Coram, whose portrait by William Hogarth was presented by the artist in 1740 to the Foundling Hospital which the retired shipwright Coram began , appalled by the numbers of abandoned children in the streets of London. Sir George Somers, discoverer of the Bermudas was also born here: when he died, he was Admiral of the West Virginia Company fleet ‘and accidental inspirer of Shakespeare’s last play, The Tempest.’[3] One of his shipmates, Silvester Jourdain, wrote the first published account of the voyage and the shipwreck, Discovery of the Barmudas: The Isle of Devils, one of the three publications cited by Frank Kermode as being ‘directly relevant to The Tempest.’[4]

The remarkable fossil hunter and palaeontologist Mary Anning is another celebrated Lyme native. Born in 1799 into a poor family, she would operate with marked success in a field dominated by men, at a time when science ‘was still largely the province of the leisured gentleman amateur.’ An increasing numbers of visitors to Lyme, to meet Mary Anning and see her collections included Louis Agassiz and the King of Saxony. Fossil-hunting on the shore there was a hard and often dangerous affair but she had ‘the sharpest eyes in the business’, patience, persistence, courage and physical strength. She discovered Ichthyosaurs, Plesiosaurs, a Pterodactyl, fossil fish and coprolites. She died at the age of 47 and is buried in the churchyard of St Michael the Archangel, which has memorial windows for her and for Thomas Coram.[5]

Mary-Anning-via-BBC

(Mary Anning and her dog Tray via BBC)

On this last visit of the season, Lyme was looking its best, the air clear, the views long, the sea literally dazzling, even distant Portland standing out sharply. On the debit side, the Librarian was the victim of two attacks by Lyme’s already infamous seagulls: bombed once and raided once, the first occasion best not talked about, the second seeing the abrupt and violent theft of her ice-cream, the cornet whittled down to the perfect size and state—then gone, one swoop, one beak.

We already knew that the latest advice was to stare seagulls out – can this really work? But the Lyme seagulls have heard all that stuff in any case: they come from behind or from the side. Try staring me out now, sucker.

Next year: helmets and umbrellas.

 

 
Notes

[1] Thomas Hardy, ‘The Riddle’, The Complete Poems, edited by James Gibson (London: Macmillan, 1976), 448. John Fowles uses this stanza as epigraph to the opening chapter of The French Lieutenant’s Woman.

[2] Thomas Dilworth, David Jones: Engraver, Soldier, Painter, Poet (London: Jonathan Cape, 2017), 15.

[3] John Fowles, A Short History of Lyme Regis (Stanbridge: The Dovecote Press, 2004), 18; also his ‘Islands’, in Wormholes: Essays and Occasional Writings, edited by Jan Relf (London: Jonathan Cape, 1998), 304-309.

[4] The Arden edition of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, edited by Frank Kermode (London: Methuen, 1987), xxvii.

[5] Information from Crispin Tickell, Mary Anning of Lyme Regis, with a foreword by John Fowles (Lyme Regis Philpot Museum, 1996), 11, 18.