Sounds of silence—sounds and silence.

THE ARMISTICE DAY, NOVEMBER 1918

(Crowd awaiting news of signing of the Armistice in Paris, 11 November 1918.)
Imperial War Museum © IWM (Q 69705)

Sitting reading in an upstairs room, I’m hardly conscious of the quiet. Most of the time, I would have to strain my ears to hear the noise of traffic on the main road at the far end of our street. At the nearer end, there’s a park, popular and well-used but not generating the kind of noise that carries very far. Some people, I know, are made uncomfortable by a complete absence of sound—if such a thing exists in a twenty-first-century city. I lean the other way and think myself lucky not to have to shut out extraneous noise. Silence is not a neutral quality, any more than sound: we bring to it our personality, our training, our conditioning, our education, our predilections, our choices. The things we like or admire are often most clearly defined by contrast with the things that we don’t like or admire. Note that the louder the music playing in the car that just passed you, the worse it was. Quite unlike the music you play when you’re driving in your car.

blue-highways

Alex Ross’s book on twentieth-century music—‘Listening to the Twentieth Century’— was published ten years ago and entitled The Rest is Noise; while Hamlet’s last words, if not sounds, are ‘The rest is silence’.[1] ‘Speech is silver, silence is golden’, an old proverb says, urging the wisdom of biting your tongue and keeping your own counsel. And silence has traditionally been seen, certain among British men of a certain class, as a sign of strength of character. No doubt it enhances our ability to hear, sometimes others, sometimes ourselves. William Least Heat-Moon recalled the words of Brother Patrick Duffy, whom he met in Georgia: ‘When I go quiet I stop hearing myself and start hearing the world outside me. Then I hear something very great.’[2] And  an inner silence, or calm, can surely be a source of strength, as Robert Louis Stevenson remarked: ‘Quiet minds cannot be perplexed or frightened, but go on in fortune or misfortune at their own private pace, like a clock during a thunderstorm.’[3]

To the east of Avesnes on the morning of 11th November 1918, the noise was deafening. Then, at 11:00 A.M., it stopped and ‘the sudden quietness made us all feel dazed—almost stunned—and it was some time before anyone spoke. We who were left just stood gazing into space. It was rather like one feels in regaining consciousness after an anaesthetic.’

This is Gunner James Davidson of the 50th Divisional Trench Mortar Battery: his 1978 letter to the BBC is being quoted by Stanley Weintraub in his fine account of the end of the Great War.[4]

Such noise—in volume, in intensity, in duration—as that inflicted by the Great War had not previously been known. In 1900, Ford Madox Ford had written, at the end of his large volume on The Cinque Ports: ‘But I have sometimes thought that, in the end, a time will come, when the brain of man—of humanity all the world over—will suddenly grow unable to bear with the hurry and turmoil that itself has created.’[5] Sixteen years later, as he would subsequently recall, during the Battle of the Somme, ‘in pitch blackness, in the midst of gunfire that shook the earth I did once pray to the major Heavenly powers that my reason might be preserved.…’[6]

Anne_Bradstreet

(Anne Bradstreet, 1612(?)–1672)

All of us, or most of us, begin with a cry—

‘drencht & powerful, I did it with my body!’ John Berryman has Anne Bradstreet say. And, a little later: ‘Blossomed Sarah, and I/ blossom. Is that thing alive? I hear a famisht howl.’[7]

and end in silence.

Into our earlier silences, noise comes, must be accommodated, incorporated, used. Henry David Thoreau, ‘self-appointed inspector of snow storms and rain storms’, marvellously sets against one another the penetrating sound of the locomotive whistle and the solitude and stillness in which, for the most part, he sits. Thoreau is indeed a noted connoisseur of both sound and soundlessness. There are, as he says, ‘many fine things which we cannot say if we have to shout.’[8]

The sound of the railway would become background noise; as would the noise of the car and, eventually, the noise of the aeroplane. Now we move through walls of sound, seas of sound, and are largely unaware of them. In the early years of the twentieth century, Don Gifford remarks, ‘most people regarded the telephone as a medium for messages that were rather more urgent than casual talk.’[9] Now the loudness of a mobile telephone call in a public place is generally an index of its triviality, its banality.

Just as darkness is no longer darkness as our grandparents knew it, so silence is rarely noiseless now. In his splendid novel, The Broken Lands, based on the tragic Franklin expedition of 1845-8, Robert Edric writes at one point: ‘They passed into a stillness and an emptiness that even the flocks of following birds seemed to acknowledge in their silence.’[10] A hundred and forty years later, on a hill above Bristol, I thought that I was surrounded by silence until I concentrated on what was not and eventually compiled a list of nineteen separate and identifiable sounds.

Fra_Angelico_St._Dominic

(Not Ambrose but Fra Angelico’s S. Dominic. Still, a saint reading.)

I still read poetry aloud—but tend to ensure that I’m on my own when I do so. It helps both remembering and understanding and, of course, used to be simply how it was done. Alberto Manguel discusses Saint Augustine’s account of St Ambrose reading—remarkably—to himself and in silence. ‘Augustine’s description of Ambrose’s silent reading (including the remark that he never read aloud) is the first definite instance recorded in Western literature.’[11]

Looking almost as far back into (literary) history—and in another country—Arthur Cooper, writing of the 8th-century poet Li Po, notes that poems were always sung or chanted: there was ‘no notion of reading poems silently till perhaps a thousand years later’.[12] This was the poet whom Ezra Pound called Rihaku, following the Japanese form of the name in the notebooks of Ernest Fenollosa, original source of the poems in Cathay and the Noh plays which so enthused W. B. Yeats and led to his writing At the Hawk’s Well. A few years later, Pound would write in Canto 21 of ‘Another war without glory, and another peace without quiet.’[13]

 

References

[1] William Shakespeare, Hamlet, V, ii, l.363; edited by Harold Jenkins (London: Routledge, 1989), 416. The First Folio had, after ‘silence’, ‘O, o, o, o, o.’

[2] William Least Heat-Moon, Blue Highways: A Journey into America (London: Picador, 1984), 88.

[3] Stevenson, Travels with a Donkey in the Cevennes and Selected Travel Writings, edited by Emma Letley (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992), 71.

[4] Stanley Weintraub, A Stillness Heard Around the World: The End of the Great War, November 1918 (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987), 223.

[5] Ford, The Cinque Ports (Edinburgh and London: William Blackwood and Sons, 1900), 372.

[6] Ford, It Was the Nightingale (London: Heinemann, 1934), 100.

[7] Berryman, Homage to Mistress Bradstreet and Other Poems (London: Faber and Faber, 1959), 17.

[8] Thoreau, Walden, edited by J. Lyndon Shanley (Princeton and London: Princeton University Press, 1974), 18, 141.

[9] Don Gifford, The Farther Shore: A Natural History of Perception (London: Faber, 1990), 61.

[10] Robert Edric, The Broken Lands (London: Jonathan Cape 1992), 41.

[11] Alberto Manguel, A History of Reading (London: Flamingo, 1997), 42-43; and see Saint Augustine, Confessions, translated by Henry Chadwick (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), 92-93.

[12] Arthur Cooper, Li Po and Tu Fu (Penguin, 1973), 32.

[13] The Cantos of Ezra Pound, fourth collected edition (London: Faber and Faber, 1987), 98.

Vale, Ford Madox Ford

FMF-via_Arts_Desk

‘I am the Knight of London, your Majesty.’

‘London, London; where’s that?—I’ve never heard of it.’

‘London is the capital city of England.’

‘But where is England?’ she asked.

‘I had thought that every one had heard of England,’ he said. ‘However, as no report of England has ever reached your ears, I will tell your Majesty. The British Islands, of which England is one, are a set of small islands off the west coast of Europe. They are composed of England, Scot—’

But here the Princess interrupted him.—The Brown Owl (1891)

 

The only satisfactory age in England! … Yet what chance had it to-day? Or, still more, to-morrow? In the sense that the age of, say, Shakespeare had a chance. Or Pericles! or Augustus!

Heaven knew, we did not want a preposterous drum-beating such as the Elizabethans produced—and received. Like lions at a fair…. But what chance had quiet fields, Anglican sainthood, accuracy of thought, heavy-leaved, timbered hedgerows, slowly creeping plough-lands moving up the slopes? … Still, the land remains….

The land remains…. It remains! … At that same moment the dawn was wetly revealing; over there in George Herbert’s parish…. What was it called? … What the devil was its name? Oh, Hell! … Between Salisbury and Wilton…. The tiny church…. But he refused to consider the plough-lands, the heavy groves, the slow highroad above the church that the dawn was at that moment wetly revealing—until he could remember that name…. He refused to consider that, probably even to-day, that land ran to … produced the stock of … Anglican sainthood. The quiet thing!

But until he could remember the name he would consider nothing….

He said:

“Are those damned Mills bombs coming?”—A Man Could Stand Up— (1926)

 
Ford Madox Ford, novelist, poet, critic, editor, Englishman, Londoner and European (born in Merton, Surrey, 17 December 1873; died in Deauville, 26 June 1939).

 

Remembering ‘Adlestrop’

Adlestrop-station

(Via http://www.urban75.org/blog)

On 24 June 1914, a train drew up at a country station on the main Great Western Railway line which ran from London to Oxford, Worcester and Malvern (the station finally closed in 1966, a victim of the Beeching report, more suitably termed ‘the Beeching axe’, which brought about the closure of a great many railways and the loss of local services on a huge scale). Among the passengers were Edward Thomas and his wife Helen, on their way to visit Robert Frost and his wife Elinor in Ledbury.

Thomas wrote in his field notebook for that day: ‘Then we stopped at Adlestrop, through the willows could be heard a chain of blackbirds songs at 12.45 and one thrush and no man seen, only a hiss of engine letting off steam.’

When the poem was written around six months later, he commented in a later notebook: ‘Train stopping outside station at Adlestrop June 1914.’[1] A memory refreshed.

Yes. I remember Adlestrop –
The name, because one afternoon
Of heat the express-train drew up there
Unwontedly. It was late June.[2]

Four stanzas; four lines in each, rhyming abcb. This must be one of the most familiar poems in English, certainly among British readers. Voted number twenty in one survey I saw, it emerged as joint third in the most-requested poems on Radio 4’s Poetry Please programme over some thirty-five years, beside Dylan Thomas’s ‘Fern Hill’ and behind Robert Frost’s ‘Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening’ and Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s sonnet, ‘How Do I Love Thee? Let Me Count the Ways’.

The first stanza of ‘Adlestrop’ strikes me as a delicious example of lines that you’ve looked at a dozen times and never really seen. It begins with ‘Yes.’ A question has been asked but it’s one we don’t hear. Does the poet interrogate himself or is it an unseen and unidentified interlocutor or is the reader the implied questioner? And then: the speaker remembers Adlestrop but not, apparently, the place; only the name. He remembers, in fact, the sign, ‘Adlestrop’ because the express train drew up there ‘unwontedly’. That last word was, in an earlier draft, ‘unexpectedly’; at another stage, ‘Against the custom’ or ‘against its custom’.[3] William Cooke links the close of the poem with a passage in a prose work by Thomas, Beautiful Wales, published ten years earlier.[4] Jean Moorcroft Wilson sees the ‘germ’ of the poem in the first chapter of The Heart of England (1906).[5] Thomas ‘conflated details from different stops’.[6] Does it matter? Frankly, no. The abiding mystery is: how does it work? This short, apparently simple poem, composed of unremarkable language, no striking rhymes, that clings to the memory like a burr. How is it done? It’s a question asked, of course, of all effective art. One item of interest is precisely that ‘unwontedly’: ‘exactly the word he wanted’, Matthew Hollis remarks.[7] Yes. I had thought, vaguely, that it meant ‘unwillingly’, against one’s instincts or inclinations but ‘unwonted’ means only unaccustomed or unusual. The train drawing up there ‘unwontedly’ was something distinctive, marking the occasion out. He ‘emphasizes the unusual nature of the stop, which in turn creates a slight sense of unease.’[8]

edward thomas 1913_14_small

(Thomas in 1913-1914, via Edward Thomas Fellowship:
http://www.edward-thomas-fellowship.org.uk/home.html)

I noted earlier that the poem begins with ‘Yes’. But, in fact, like Pound’s ‘In a Station of the Metro’ or several poems by Marianne Moore, it begins quite definitely with the title. ‘Adlestrop’. The name occurs three times: title, opening line and eighth line (‘Adlestrop – only the name’). Thomas ‘wrings from the name “Adlestrop”, by suspending it at the line-end, a series of unspoken associations with ideal rural communities.’ But ‘when he returns halfway through the poem to repeat that “What I saw / Was Adlestrop – only the name”, it is a signal for those associations to accelerate away from his reach.’[9] Ideal rural communities? Another critic suggests that, in the poem, ‘a scene glimpsed in a brief moment from a stationary train seems to open upon an ever-widening prospect of England’s central counties. These are common sights of the English countryside, but the moment is visionary’. It is, he adds, ‘an ideal England mirrored in the stillness and solitude of the poet’s mind’.[10] Elsewhere, it’s described as ‘the definitive English idyll.’[11]

Only a poem of permanent interest and value could, I suppose, generate such a wealth of interpretation and exegesis. The apparent simplicity is, of course, central to the challenge that so many readers find there. But one thing that strikes me and that seems often to be  absent from discussions of the poem is that, while, in June 1914, this country was not at war with Germany, in January 1915 it was. Thomas enlisted in July 1915, after an intense struggle, influenced to some extent by Robert Frost’s poem, ‘The Road Not Taken’, itself prompted in part by Frost’s experience of Thomas’s indecisiveness.[12] And if ‘Adlestrop’ was ‘an idyll’ or concerned to present ‘an ideal England’, it was in direct and active response to the forces that threatened it. Asked what it was that he was fighting for, Thomas famously ‘picked up a pinch of earth and answered: “Literally, for this”’.[13]

Farjeon

(Eleanor Farjeon)

So Ford Madox Ford’s persona, the poet Gringoire, voices similar concerns in No Enemy: ‘“I wonder,” Gringoire asked again that evening, “if other people had, like myself, that feeling that what one feared for was the land – not the people but the menaced earth with its familiar aspect.”’[14] In her notes to another Thomas poem, ‘The Manor Farm’, Edna Longley quotes Thomas’s essay ‘England’: ‘I believe . . . that all ideas of England are developed, spun out, from such a centre into something large or infinite, solid or aëry . . . that England is a system of vast circumferences circling round the minute neighbouring points of home’.[15] This is a conviction—a crucial one—that crops up in many literary contexts: that the national or universal, the abstract, the grandiose, must begin from the local, the concrete, the known.

That fifth line, ‘The steam hissed. Someone cleared his throat’, may conjure memories of the climactic scene of the film of The Railway Children, whereby Jenny Agutter reduced grown men to tears, but given our wealth of retrospective images, I think also of battlefields wreathed in smoke or mist, poor visibility, an image real enough but itself a metaphor for the blindness or at least uncertain vision of those directing, prosecuting and suffering the Great War.

And for that minute a blackbird sang
Close by, and round hum, mistier,
Farther and farther, all the birds
Of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire.

(Yes. I remember ‘Adlestrop’.)

 

References

[1] Edward Thomas, The Annotated Collected Poems, edited by Edna Longley (Tarset, Northumberland: Bloodaxe Books, 2008), 176.

[2] Thomas, The Annotated Collected Poems, 51. This was one of sixteen poems that Thomas wrote between 4 January and 23 January 1915: Jean Moorcroft Wilson, Edward Thomas: From Adlestrop to Arras (London: Bloomsbury, 2015), 310.

[3] See Longley, The Annotated Collected Poems, 177, on ‘unwontedly’.

[4] William Cooke, Edward Thomas: A Critical Biography (London: Faber & Faber, 1970), 121-122.

[5] Wilson, Edward Thomas: From Adlestrop to Arras, 151.

[6] The Annotated Collected Poems, 176.

[7] Matthew Hollis, Now All Roads Lead to France: The Last Years of Edward Thomas (London: Faber, 2012), 204.

[8] Wilson, Edward Thomas: From Adlestrop to Arras, 314.

[9] Andrew Motion, The Poetry of Edward Thomas (London: The Hogarth Press, 1991), 4.

[10] Michael Kirkham, The Imagination of Edward Thomas (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986), 116.

[11] Stan Smith, Edward Thomas (London: Faber & Faber, 1986), 11.

[12] Hollis, Now All Roads Lead to France, 232-236.

[13] Eleanor Farjeon, Edward Thomas: The Last Four Years (Stroud: Sutton Publishing, 1997), 154.

[14] Ford, No Enemy: A Tale of Reconstruction (1929; edited by Paul Skinner, Manchester: Carcanet Press, 2002), 26.

[15] The Annotated Collected Poems, 165: the essay is in The Last Sheaf (London: Jonathan Cape, 1928).

Another day, another dolour

Punch_via_archive.org

(Punch via archive.org)

The weather has broken—or relented, at least. Ten degrees Celsius, a fresh breeze, and the world shifts, just a little. I set off on a shopping trip, taking my life in my hands to cross the road beyond the supermarket car park, reflecting not for the first time that, were the official driving examination to include a rigorous intelligence test component, and were drivers re-tested every five or ten years, as they should be, the roads would be virtually empty—which would be nice. Ah, the automobile: ‘the machine that stole the city’s rationale for being, and made us all gypsies and barbarians camping in the ruins of the one unit of civilization which man has thus far evolved.’[1]

In the wider world, the days, as Charles Bukowski once wrote, run away like wild horses over the hills. Never more so than just lately, when the landscape is violently altered every time we look—and rarely for the better. (Bukowski also wrote: ‘I am not out to destroy all the white race— / only a small part of it: / myself’. Always look on the bright side of life, as the song goes).[2]

Dylan_Blonde_on_Blonde

‘Now people just get uglier/ And I have no sense of time’, as Bob Dylan phrased it in another song, though he did offer a logical reason for that development:

Now the rainman gave me two cures
Then he said, “Jump right in”
The one was Texas medicine
The other was just railroad gin
And like a fool I mixed them
And it strangled up my mind[3]

Mixed drinks: strangled mind. Easy enough to remember, although, casting about for explanations recently, we can’t always be citing mixed drinks, alas.

Just two weeks since the General Election. A lot of posters are still up in the windows of houses that I pass and I’ve been struck again by the fact that, though walking in several different areas around the city over the past few weeks, I’ve never seen a single Conservative poster. Shy Tories indeed. Of the rest, I’ve spotted a few Liberal Democrat posters, a few Green Party posters, a lot of Labour ones and even a Rosa Luxemburg quotation: ‘Before a revolution happens, it is perceived as impossible; after it happens, it is seen as having been inevitable.’

Goya_The_sleep_of_reason

(Goya, The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters, 1799: Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY)

We sit and watch the news. The lethal disgrace of social housing. The looming catastrophe of Brexit. The ‘risky and expensive’ Hinkley Point.[4] The glaring results of cuts to local services, to police forces, to safety inspectors. The fatal obsession with ‘red tape’. These things are often viewed and discussed as single, discrete elements but, once they are perceived to be parts of a pattern, the colossal scale of error and misdirection, the weakening and near-disappearance of responsible governance, over a period of years, becomes painfully evident.

As the editorial in the New Statesman sums up: ‘For too long, Britain has been defined by grotesque inequality and a political culture that venerates deregulation, deep cuts to public spending, a shrinking state and untrammelled free markets.’ And again: ‘Where austerity does not threaten life, it impairs its quality: unrepaired roads, uncollected bins and closed libraries, gyms and children’s centres. Private wealth and public squalor.’[5]

NS

Most city dwellers now, not even in the poorer parts of the city, have only to walk out of their front doors and look around to see the truth of this.

 

References

[1] Guy Davenport, ‘The Symbol of the Archaic’, in The Geography of the Imagination (London: Picador, 1984), 19. See Davenport’s letter ‘To the Drivers of Lexington’ held at the Harry Ransom Center, via The Paris Review: https://www.theparisreview.org/blog/2016/02/24/from-the-guy-davenport-collection/

[2] In the title poem of The Days Run Away Like Wild Horses Over the Hills (Santa Barbara: Black Sparrow Press, 1969), 116.

[3] ‘Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again’ (Blonde on Blonde, 1966).

[4] The National Audit Office: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-40372613

[5] ‘After Grenfell’, New Statesman (23–29 June, 2017), 3.

On learning something new: bakers, pepper, striving and abiding

Apsley_Cherry-Garrard

(Apsley Cherry-Garrard: photography by Herbert Ponting via Wikipedia)

Working on the principle of learning something new—ideally something useful—every day or so, I now know that the two bakers nearest to me both shut on a Monday. I found this out, of course, not before walking to them (in opposite directions) but afterwards. Still, once returned from a third baker (located in a third direction), I felt that the daily exercise requirement had been achieved.

Now a new insight: remarkably, in temperatures of 30° (86° in American money) or more, even reading about Antarctic explorers living—and dying—in terrifyingly low temperatures doesn’t actually make me feel any cooler.[1] By ‘terrifyingly low’, I mean, say, minus 76° Fahrenheit.[2] Still I sweltered. Nevertheless, there were many details that I was glad to learn: for example, that, before leaving home, Herbert Ponting, the expedition’s photographer, ‘had been told that pepper was a great thing to keep your feet warm, and he had brought a case of cayenne to put in his boots.’ I also found out that Apsley Cherry-Garrard (‘Cherry), author of The Worst Journey in the World, had chosen, for the inscription to go on the commemorative cross erected on Observation Hill, near Hut Point, the final line of Tennyson’s ‘Ulysses’: ‘To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.’ When the bodies of Scott, Bowers and Wilson were found in their tent, Wilson still had with him the copy of Tennyson’s poems, in a green leather binding, that Cherry had lent him. Wilson’s widow, Oriana, later offered to return the book to Cherry but he insisted she keep it.[3]


As a vast number of movie watchers will recognise, this is also the last line of the extract that Judi Dench as ‘M’ quotes at the Intelligence and Security Committee hearing in Skyfall, the 2012 James Bond film directed by Sam Mendes:

We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven; that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.[4]

In ‘Ulysses’, the lines she quotes are preceded by the speaker’s assertion that, ‘Though much is taken, much abides’. Painfully apposite, you might say: rather too much has been taken of late—yet, still, much abides.

References

[1] This was Robert Falcon Scott’s second—and for five men, including Scott himself, fatal—expedition, on Terra Nova, 1910-1913.

[2] Apsley Cherry-Gerrard, The Worst Journey in the World (1922; London: Picador, 1994), 253: ‘The day lives in my memory as that on which I found out that records are not worth making.’

[3] Sara Wheeler, Cherry: A Life of Apsley Cherry-Gerrard (London: Jonathan Cape, 2001), 81, 149, 142, 159, quoting Cherry’s journal. In his published volume, Cherry mentions ‘a book which I had lent Bill for the journey’, without specifying it: The Worst Journey in the World, 498.

[4] Tennyson: A Selected Edition, edited by Christopher Ricks (Harlow: Longman Group, 1989), 145.

An Unfinished Woman?

Lillian-Hellman

(Lillian Hellman: CPL Archive/Everett/Rex Features via The Guardian)

Cynthia Nixon recently won the 2017 Tony Award for ‘Best Performance by an Actress in a Featured Role in a Play’ for The Little Foxes by Lillian Hellman, whose birthday it is today (20 June 1905 – 30 June 1984).

Hellman’s reputation has taken a ferocious hammering since her death (it was fairly ferocious before), focusing mainly on her veracity, questions which were brought starkly into view by her feud with Mary McCarthy and the multi-million dollar lawsuit she brought against McCarthy: it was dropped by her heirs after Hellman died a month before the case came to court.

‘Everyone’s memory is tricky,’ Hellman commented once, ‘and mine’s a little trickier than most.’[1]

See Sarah Churchwell’s piece (about the revival of The Children’s Hour and about Hellman’s ‘legendarily unreliable’ memoirs) here:
http://www.theguardian.com/stage/2011/jan/22/lillian-hellman-childrens-hour-sarah-churchwell

There’s been a good deal of discussion about where memoir ends and autobiography begins, about lies and fabrications, about selecting, concealing or exaggerating facts. For instance, Hellman claimed that she didn’t join the Communist Party but she did (that was an easy one to check, as it turned out). Her spat with McCarthy was as much about their respective political histories—and personalities—as anything else.

Fiction, history, memory, truth: who could ever get tired of this stuff? Raphael Samuel wrote that ‘Like history, memory is inherently revisionist and never more chameleon than when it appears to stay the same.’[2] Lawrence Durrell wrote in Prospero’s Cell of a past seen through ‘the transforming lens of memory’.[3] John Fowles’ biographer wrote that his ‘factual memory was poor as an adult, while his associative memory was abundantly fertile and plastic’ and, in her preface, comments: ‘Although I suspect that Fowles sometimes does lie to interviewers, particularly when he is bored or the interviewer is especially irritating, I learned to regard his interview narratives as different from deliberate lying. They were the product of what I call fertile forgetting. The personal past is forgotten or suppressed but returns through imagination in the writer’s fiction, often in a different shape.’[4] And Julian Barnes observed that ‘Memory is identity.’[5] Two such solid and stable things conjoined there, to be sure. And after all, Hellmann’s memoirs are so entertaining and often so very funny, that I can’t work up the apparently required volume of indignation.

Dorothy Parker

One of my favourite Hellman stories (quite a popular choice, I suspect) is one that she retells of Dorothy Parker in An Unfinished Woman. The story was related to her by Peter Feibleman, who was with Dorothy at the funeral of her husband, Alan Campbell (they married each other twice).

‘Among the friends who stood with Dottie on those California steps was Mrs Jones, a woman who had liked Alan, had pretended to like Dottie, and who had always loved all forms of meddling in other people’s troubles. Mrs. Jones said, “Dottie, tell me, dear, what I can do for you.”
Dottie said, “Get me a new husband,”
There was a silence, but before those who would have laughed could laugh, Mrs. Jones said, “I think that is the most callous and disgusting remark I ever heard in my life.”
Dottie turned to look at her, sighed, and said gently, “So sorry. Then run down to the corner and get me a ham and cheese on rye and tell them to hold the mayo.”’[6]

 

References
[1] Conversations with Lillian Hellman, edited by Jackson R. Bryer (Jackson & London: University Press of Mississippi, 1986), 195.
[2] Samuel, Theatres of Memory (London: Verso, 1996), x.
[3] Durrell, Prospero’s Cell (1945; Faber 1962), 133. Cf. ‘A Landmark Gone’, in Orientations, I, 1, Forces Quarterly edited by G. S. Fraser, Cairo (n.d. but war years), reprinted in Alan G. Thomas, editor, Lawrence Durrell, Spirit of Place: Mediterranean Writings (1969; London : Faber and Faber, 1988), 189.
[4] Eileen Warburton, John Fowles : A Life in Two Worlds (London: Jonathan Cape, 2004), 17, xii.
[5] Barnes, Nothing to be Frightened of (London: Jonathan Cape, 2008), 140.
[6]  Lillian Hellman, Three: An Unfinished Woman; Pentimento; Scoundrel Time (Boston: Little, Brown & Co., 1979), 248.

Very fine swans indeed

Swans.1

In Pavannes and Divisions, his prose collection of June 1918, Ezra Pound included ‘A Retrospect’, a group of ‘early essays and notes’, gathered from a period of some four or five years. Towards the close, under the heading ‘Only Emotion Endures’, Pound wrote: ‘Surely it is better for me to name over the few beautiful poems that still ring in my head than for me to search my flat for back numbers of periodicals and rearrange all that I have said about friendly and hostile writers.’[1]

The poets he names are, for the most part, predictable: Yeats, William Carlos Williams, Richard Aldington, H. D., Ford Madox Ford, James Joyce; and, of course, T. S. Eliot (‘I am almost a different person when I come to take up the argument for Eliot’s poems’). Two others are rather less expected: Alice Corbin, for instance, who, as well as a poet, was associate editor of Poetry magazine, for which Pound served as foreign correspondent, writing to her often in the 1912-1917 period.[2] He mentions her ‘One City Only’, which he himself published in his Catholic Anthology, 1914-1915. The second he alludes to—‘another ending “But sliding water over a stone”’—is ‘Love me at last’, published in Poetry in December 1914:
https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poetrymagazine/browse?contentId=12993

The other slightly surprising inclusion is Padraic Colum—surprising, I mean, because, once again, this is a poet with a very traditional style yet with an evident appeal to Pound, even though he has been through the Imagist and Vorticist periods and publishes early versions of the first three Cantos in the summer of 1917. Indeed, it’s Colum whom he names first of all: ‘The first twelve lines of Padraic Colum’s “Drover”; his “O Woman shapely as a swan, on your account I shall not die”’.

The ‘first twelve lines’ of Colum’s ‘A Drover’ are:

To Meath of the pastures,
From wet hills by the sea,
Through Leitrim and Longford
Go my cattle and me.
I hear in the darkness
Their slipping and breathing.
I name them the bye-ways
They’re to pass without heeding.
Then the wet, winding roads,
Brown bogs with black water;
And my thoughts on white ships
And the King o’ Spain’s daughter.

Very simple; the kind of inversion (‘Go my cattle and me’) that you’d expect to set Pound’s teeth on edge. Yet this is quite skilled stuff: the subtle lengthening of lines to avoid the thud of the metronome; a light alliteration that never hits you over the head; the varies use of feminine line-endings; the twelfth line’s hint at a traditional children’s rhyme. Another twenty-four lines, though, beginning: ‘O! farmer, strong farmer!’ are less appealing, a bit more prone to poeticism and cliché.

The other poem, ‘I Shall Not Die’, begins:

O woman, shapely as the swan,
On your account I shall not die:
The men you’ve slain — a trivial clan —
Were less than I.
I ask me shall I die for these —
For blossom teeth and scarlet lips —
And shall that delicate swan-shape
Bring me eclipse?[3]

The swan, Michael Ferber notes, ‘has long been one of the most popular birds in poetry, not least because of the association of swans with poets themselves.’[4] There has certainly been an astonishing procession of literary swans, hardly surprising if the swan is the bird both of Apollo (god of poetry and music) and of Venus, goddess of love: from classical literature through to Shakespeare (the swan of Avon), Pope, Shelley, Elizabeth Barrett Browning and others. Among modern poets, the poet of swans is surely Yeats, who draws on the complex mythological links between Leda, Helen of Troy— long a Yeatsian symbol for Maud Gonne—and Clytemnestra in ‘Leda and the Swan’.[5] A swan is there too in that volume’s title poem, ‘The Tower’ when, mindful of death (in a section beginning ‘It is time that I wrote my will’), Yeats writes of ‘the hour’

When the swan must fix his eye
Upon a fading gleam,
Float out upon a long
Last reach of glittering stream
And there sing his last song.

Perhaps most memorable is the title poem of the wonderful 1919 volume, The Wild Swans at Coole. The weight and balance of those lines, ostensibly unremarkable language, in five six-line stanzas:

The trees are in their autumn beauty,
The woodland paths are dry,
Under the October twilight the water
Mirrors a still sky;
Upon the brimming water among the stones
Are nine-and-fifty swans.

There are phrases in this poem that echo lines in ‘Easter 1916’, which will appear in Michael Robartes and the Dancer in 1921 but which Yeats himself dates ‘September 25, 1916’—he held it back for political rather than poetical reasons.[6]

Yeats_Lady_Gregory.Coole.1915

(Yeats and Lady Gregory, Coole Park, 1915: http://yeats2015.com/event/major-exhibition-explores-w-b-yeats-connections-with-the-west/ )

The attractions of the swan for the poet are evident enough, I think: its colour, the purity of whiteness but with that intense dash of black and yellow on its bill; the grace of the curve and sweep of its body and wings and neck, the extraordinary spectacle of its landing on water; the size and strength and grandeur of it; the long history, traditions, myths and symbols attached to the bird: in brief, beauty and transformation.[7]

Transformation. I have a vague childhood memory of Danny Kaye, who’d starred as the title character in the 1952 Hollywood musical, Hans Christian Anderson, singing one of the songs from the film: ‘The Ugly Duckling’. There was an album of the songs released subsequently but I may simply have heard it played on the radio: it was internationally successful at the time. The duckling outsider turns out, of course, to be a very fine swan indeed (‘Me, a swan?’ ‘I am a swan’).

Danny_Kaye_HCA

In 1959, Ezra Pound wrote from Rapallo to William Cookson, who had just launched, in close association with Pound, Agenda, the highly influential poetry magazine (still current). At the top of the letter is a suggested ‘Motto for Agenda No 3 or 4’: ‘How can anyone go antisemite in a world that contains Danny Kaye’.[8]

I picture Cookson opening that letter and reading that line; then lowering his forehead to beat it softly but repeatedly against the desktop. But perhaps not.

 

References

[1] Reprinted in Literary Essays of Ezra Pound, edited by T. S. Eliot (London: Faber & Faber, 1960), 14: all quotations from the same page.

[2] See The Letters of Ezra Pound to Alice Corbin Henderson, edited by Ira B. Nadel (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1993).

[3] Selected Poems of Padraic Colum, edited by Sanford Sternlicht (New York: Syracuse University Press, 1989), 41-42, 24.

[4] Michael Ferber, A Dictionary of Literary Symbols (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), 214.

[5] See A. Norman Jeffares, A New Commentary on the Poems of W. B. Yeats (London: The Macmillan Press, 1984), 247-249.

[6] Collected Poems of W. B. Yeats (London: Macmillan London Ltd., 1950), 223, 147, 204. ‘Easter 1916’, though privately printed in an edition of twenty-five, ‘stayed out of public circulation’ until its publication in the New Statesman (23 October 1920): see R. F. Foster, W. B. Yeats: A Life. II. The Arch-Poet (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003), 58-64.

[7] On the complex, often destructive—and class-ridden—history of the swan, see Mark Cocker and Richard Mabey, Birds Britannica (London: Chatto & Windus, 2005), 60-69.

[8] ‘Some Letters to William Cookson 1956-1970’, Agenda, 17, 3-4 — 18, 1 (3 issues: Autumn-Winter-Spring, 1979/80) ‘Twenty-First Anniversary Ezra Pound Special Issue’, 39.