Tristan Corbière


Tristan Corbière was born (christened Édouard) in Finistère on 18 July 1845; he died in 1875, aged twenty-nine.

My knowledge of him is sketchy. He admired those engaged in the seafaring life, sailors and fishermen, and used a lot of sailors’ slang. Died of tuberculosis, hardly known as a writer; his poems were included in Verlaine’s collection of Les poètes maudits in 1884; he was later a strong influence on both Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot—who wrote a poem, in French, called simply ‘Tristan Corbière’.[1]

To be honest, the major intervention of Corbière in my life was not actually the poet but a racehorse, although it was because the horse bore the name of the poet that I actually placed a bet and picked a winning horse for the only time in my life—and the Grand National, at that. 1983: Corbiere (without the accent, I believe), trained by Jenny Pitman, ridden by Ben de Haan, a chestnut gelding with a broad white blaze coming through at 13/1. Had that white blaze been a silver blaze, things would have been even more literary but a French poet was enough to part me from my money—though not for long.[2]


Most of Corbiére’s poems are too long to quote entire and, I’d surmise, damned tricky to render into English since they rhyme very solidly and are extremely demotic, with a lot of slang and wordplay: ‘Corbiére’s controlled disorder permitted his mélange of mystical and bawdy, cynical and sentimental elements’.[3] Here’s the beginning of ‘Au Vieux Roscoff: Berceuse en Nord-Ouest mineur’:

Trou de flibustiers, vieux nid
A corsaires! – dans la tourmente,
Dors ton bon somme de granit
Sur tes caves que le flot hante…

Ronfle à la mer, ronfle à la brise;
Ta corne dans la brume grise,
Ton pied marin dans les brisans . . .
– Dors: tu peux fermer ton oeil borgne
Ouvert sur le large, et qui lorgne
Les Anglais, depuis trois cents ans.

The redoubtable Val Warner, who translates the poems in The Centenary Corbière and also supplies a detailed, learned and highly informative 55-page introduction, offers this, ‘To Old Roscoff: Lullaby in North-west Minor’, as:

A hole for buccaneers, old nest
Of freebooters! – in the tempest,
Sleep your heavy granite slumber
Over your cellar haunted by the combers . . .

Snore with the breeze, snore with the waters;
Through the grey fog your horn high,
Your sea legs in the breakers . . .
– Sleep: you can close your single flashing eye
Open on the open sea, where you’ve peered
For the English, for three hundred years.[4]

Warner’s introduction thoroughly explores the afterlife of Corbiére’s work and its tendency to crop up in a wide range of Anglo-American literary contexts, closing with the dedication in John Berryman’s Love & Fame (1971):

To the memory of
the suffering lover & young Breton master
who called himself ‘Tristan Corbière’

(I wish I versed with his bite)[5]



[1] Written about 1917: eventually published in Inventions of the March Hare: Poems 1909-1917 (London: Faber and Faber, 1996).

[2] The first story in the Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes collection (1892), notable for the ‘curious incident of the dog in the night-time’ conversation and the wonderfully direct conversational opening (‘“I am afraid, Watson, that I shall have to go,” said Holmes, as we sat down together to our breakfast one morning.””)

[3] The Centenary Corbière, translated with an introduction by Val Warner (Manchester: Carcanet Press, 2003), lviii. The first edition appeared in 1974, i.e., in time to mark the centenary of his death.

[4] The Centenary Corbière, 110-111.

[5] The Centenary Corbière, lix.

The Mark on the Wall


(Carrington and Stephen Tomlin via

Writing to Leonard Woolf on 17 July 1917, Lytton Strachey praised the inaugural production from the Hogarth Press. This was ‘Two Stories’, one each by Virginia (‘The Mark on the Wall’) and Leonard (‘Three Jews’), with four woodcuts by Carrington. To Carrington, two days earlier, Strachey wrote: ‘The Woolf booklet has come – but probably you’ve seen it. Damn them – they haven’t put enough ink on your cuts. I adore the snail. Virginia I consider a genius.’

Now to Leonard, Strachey wrote: ‘The “Two Stories” was a most cheering production. I never could have believed it possible. My only criticism is that there doesn’t seem to be quite enough ink. Virginia’s is, I consider, a work of genius.’[1]


Via Echoes from the Vault: a blog from the Special Collections of the University of St Andrews

The machining and inking had been Leonard’s responsibility; Virginia’s the typesetting, binding and distribution. Carrington’s (unsigned) woodcuts earned her fifteen shillings.[2] Virginia had written to her on 13 July: ‘We like the wood cuts immensely. It was very good of you to bring them yourself—We have printed them off, and they make the book much more interesting than it would have been without. The ones I like best are the servant girl and the plates and the Snail.’[3]

‘The Mark on the Wall’ is a little less than seven pages in my copy of the short fiction.[4] It was clearly significant for Woolf: more than a dozen years later, she wrote to Ethel Smyth, ‘I shall never forget the day I wrote The Mark on the Wall—all in a flash, as if flying, after being kept stone breaking for months.’[5] A breakthrough, then: and ‘a work of genius’?


Perhaps it is. It’s certainly ingeniously suggestive and brilliantly keeps in play the definite and the indefinite. That mark on the wall is both. Though unidentified until the end of the story, it’s an apparently fixed point from which to take off on imaginative flights or to trawl through memory. That juggling is present from the first line: ‘Perhaps it was the middle of January in the present year that I first looked up and saw the mark on the wall.’

‘Perhaps’. It starts with uncertainty: and the middle of a month is fairly definite but not exact. ‘I first looked up’—might the narrator have seen it before, say, looking downwards at it? But the second sentence is key: ‘In order to fix a date it is necessary to remember what one saw.’ So the material—and the source of what is written, the memory—is immediately transposed into a visual key. Commenting first on the ‘mock-precision, the pseudo-historicism of the story’s method’, Sue Roe notes that ‘the mode is pictorial; and the history invoked resides in the history of painting, rather than that of literature.’[6] Roe then draws upon Kenneth Clark’s description of Leonard da Vinci’s comments in his Treatise on Painting about such phenomena as firelight—and stains on walls—as stimulants to the free play of imagination.[7] And Woolf’s story not only takes off from that mark on the wall, indulging in the free play of her imagination but the story itself provokes something similar in the reader. We bring to it half-remembered or half-recognised references, books, pictures. Did Woolf place them there—or do we? Readers recognise this fruitful uncertainty when faced with all manner of stories, novels and poems, of course, but the effect is very pronounced here, I think.

So, while ‘Tumbling head over heels in the asphodel meadows’ might vaguely recall Homer’s Odyssey, look how that sentence ends: ‘like brown paper parcels pitched down a shoot in the post office!’ The dictionary firmly asserts that ‘shoot’ is a recognised alternative to ‘chute’—but still, ‘shoot in the post office’, a year after the Easter Rising in Dublin and the occupation of the General Post Office on O’Connell Street, is bound to catch some people’s attention. It certainly caught mine.

Then the dust on the mantelpiece, ‘the dust which, so they say, buried Troy three times over, only fragments of pots utterly refusing annihilation, as one can believe’ (84). This surely glances—or does it?—at the excavations of Heinrich Schliemann in the 1870s, who claimed to have discovered ancient Troy, granting material meaning to Greek words and phrases that had survived in texts as disembodied signifiers but could now be attached to jewellery, armour, cups and masks. ‘As his discoveries persisted, more and more Homeric words came to mean something producible, something belonging to the universe of the naturalistic novelist.’[8]


(Sophia, Heinrich Schliemann’s wife, wearing treasures recovered at Hisarlik)

Also striking is the example of the person or place or process glimpsed from the train window that Woolf’s narrator invokes to convey the abruptness with which she was separated from the ‘very interesting people’ who ‘had this house before us’—this recalls such specific examples as Ford Madox Ford’s The Soul of London, where he writes of ‘so many little bits of uncompleted life’, of how ‘the constant succession of much smaller happenings that one sees, and that one never sees completed, gives to looking out of train windows a touch of pathos and of dissatisfaction.’[9] There is an ingrained human desire to see the end of stories: and this frustrates that desire. Much modernist art and literature, though, does so in order to provoke a different desire, subject to a different kind of satisfaction. The closed narrative, in literature as in life, seals off the innumerable other possibilities. As Declan Kiberd observes of Ulysses, ‘Joyce seeks to capture not just the openness but also the randomness of life, something which it is almost impossible to do in a neat narrative.’[10]

But the glimpse from the window of the speeding train can stand for a central feature of modern art: in an age of transformational technological and scientific change, that art is increasingly marked by the unstable, the fragmentary, the minute, the unfamiliar. And we, the readers, the viewers, the listeners must, to a greater extent than ever before, fit those fragments together and shape a meaning for ourselves.

So I experience a faint but strengthening suspicion that a reader might, if so minded, see here, in miniature, not only much of Woolf’s career—at this stage, she’s published only one novel—but also, in miniature, a great deal of modern, or modernist, writing. There’s the uncertainty of genre: in what sense is it ‘a story’, or autobiography, or an essay? Then the folding of a fiction into a fiction, the narrator picturing a man, a scene but deciding that this ‘historical fiction’ is dull and doesn’t interest her, so she imagines another narrative, in which she enters a room and joins a discussion. There’s the instability that attaches to the statement or assertion immediately undermined or countermanded, the firmness of outlines thinning and dissolving. There’s the playfulness and punning of words like ‘reflections’, both thoughts and looking-glasses: ‘As we face each other in omnibuses and underground railways we are looking into the mirror; that accounts for the vagueness, the gleam of glassiness, in our eyes’ (85).

And what of the war, often treated obliquely in her novels? The phrase ‘since the war’ occurs almost exactly halfway through the story, after a discussion of ‘a few of the things lost in our lifetime’ (84) and the ‘military sound’ of the word ‘generalisation’. Then the narrator mentions ‘those barrows on the South Downs which are, they say, either tombs or camps.’ And, ‘Of the two I should prefer them to be tombs, desiring melancholy like most English people, and finding it natural at the end of a walk to think of the bones stretched beneath the turf. . . . ’ (86).

And then, of course, the irruption of the second voice onto the page, announcing the intention to go out and buy a newspaper: ‘“Though it’s no good buying newspapers . . . . Nothing ever happens. Curse this war; God damn this war!”’ (89).


(Snail: woodcut by Carrington: via

And, at the last, the snail. Symbol of slowness, in this maelstrom of rapid thought and quicksilver phrases; an image of fragility with its brittle shell, yet remarkably enduring, certainly throughout this tale; and a shell that is spiral, a turning and winding about a central axis.

A work of genius—very likely.



[1] The Letters of Lytton Strachey, edited by Paul Levy (London: Penguin Books, 2006), 358.

[2] Hermione Lee, Virginia Woolf (London: Chatto & Windus. 1996), 364.

[3] Virginia Woolf, The Question of Things Happening: Collected Letters II, 1912-1922 (London: The Hogarth Press, 1980), 162.

[4] The Complete Shorter Fiction of Virginia Woolf, edited by Susan Dick, second edition (Orlando: Harcourt, 1989), 83-89: page numbers in brackets.

[5] Letter of 16 October 1930: A Reflection of the Other Person: Collected Letters IV, 1929-31 (London: The Hogarth Press, 1981), 231.

[6] Sue Roe, ‘The Impact of Post-Impressionism’, in The Cambridge Companion to Virginia Woolf, edited by Sue Roe and Susan Sellers (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 175. Roe has just been discussing another short piece (or pair of very short pieces), ‘Blue & Green’, both strikingly visual.

[7] Roe, ‘The Impact of Post-Impressionism’, 176-177.

[8] See Hugh Kenner, The Pound Era (London: Faber, 1972), 42-44, on the significance of Schliemann’s discoveries for the author of Ulysses.

[9] Ford, The Soul of London (1905), collected in England and the English, edited by Sara Haslam (Manchester: Carcanet Press, 2003), 40, 41.

[10] Declan Kiberd, Ulysses and Us: The Art of Everyday Living (London: Faber and Faber, 2009), 154.


Making Hay


Hay-on-Wye, a small town in the Welsh Marches, has a couple of dozen bookshops—and, curiously, that’s more or less the number of books that we bought during our stay there.

There are probably two useful guidelines in such a situation: firstly, if you’re trying to cull the absurd quantity of books in your house, don’t choose a place famous as ‘the town of books’ in which to spend a few days; secondly, if you do go anyway, don’t pretend that you’re not going to buy books while you’re there. Take a list rather than scrabble around to produce one, on a creased half-sheet of paper, while moaning ‘I can’t think, I’ve gone blank’, in the face of acres of packed shelving.


We simply needed—one of us rather more than the other—a change of scene and a chance to relax. It was certainly a change; and she did relax. Hay was a good choice: the right size, the right location, the right atmosphere; a couple of good places to eat; some fine walks within easy reach. The rented apartment was ideally placed and pleasant to be in: unfussily but well furnished and equipped. Looking out on a castle, its high wall often lined with jackdaws, suited me pretty well.


There are some indifferent, and a few very good, bookshops among Hay’s two dozen. Richard Booth’s Bookshop (and café and cinema) is extraordinary but our best haul was probably in the Hay Cinema Bookshop—and the laurel wreath, appropriately, must go to the wonderful Poetry Bookshop.

(Poetry Bookshop via


‘Here shall he see no enemy but winter and rough weather’


(Our house in Queen’s Avenue, Singapore, 1960s)

‘It was a day in that season when the sun bolsters a fallen wing with a show of soaring, a day of heat and light. Light so massive stout brick walls could scarcely breast it when it leaned upon them; light that seemed to shiver windows with a single beam; that crashed against the careless eye like rivets.’[1]

No, never hot like that here; in any case, our weather is reverting to a more typical summer temperature: around 23C today (73.4F), after several instances lately of the level tipping over 30C. I noticed a few days ago that Arizona had registered 48C (118.4F) and wondered briefly how life forms other than cacti, rocks and sand could function in such heat, before recalling that people manage such temperatures well enough in large parts of the world: if anything, we’re the odd ones out, given our ‘temperate maritime’ climate. Then, too, I remembered landing at Tehran airport in nineteen sixty-something, when the temperature was in the region of 120 degrees Fahrenheit and the tarmac was sticking to our shoes.

Years ago, when I started researching the literature and history of, roughly, the 1890-1939 period, I would peer into the indispensable Annual Register. This told me that, in 1911, the thermometer at Greenwich reached 97F on July 22. I remember it mentioned the USA, ‘the intense heat of the summer, repeatedly passing 100F in New England and the Middle West’. On 9 August, the temperature over much of England reached 95F. at South Kensington it was 97F and at the Royal Observatory, Greenwich, 100F – ‘the highest shade temperature ever registered in England’. That English summer was generally the hottest since 1868 and the sunniest on record, though those particular records only dated back thirty years.[2] Nowadays, we can point to Faversham, in Kent, in 2003: a champion 38.5C (101.3F).


(Hugh Kenner)

Why 1911 in particular? Well, Ford Madox Ford published four books that year—though he did exceed that total on more than one occasion.[3] Also, I was intrigued by the unadorned assertion by Hugh Kenner that the summer of 1911 ‘was the hottest since 1453.’[4] Unadorned but not unreferenced: ‘Ford’s hyperbole’, Kenner’s note reads, ‘but Marianne Moore, in Paris with her mother, remembered that heat for 50 years. “One of the hottest summers the world has ever known.”’[5]

Ford’s hyperbole, no doubt, though the claim actually occurs in a book credited to the novelist Violet Hunt, Ford’s then lover. He does, however, contribute an introduction and two chapters, together with numerous footnotes in which he ‘corrects’ her statements. ‘So you have here a book of impressions,’ Ford writes in his introduction, carefully registering his admiration for ‘the kindly, careless, inaccurate, and brilliantly precise mind of the author’.[6]


(Ford and Violet Hunt at her cottage in Selsey)

Why 1453? Any personal significance as far as Ford is concerned escapes me for the moment. But it’s certainly a significant date in world history: the French victory at the Battle of Castillon effectively brought to an end the Hundred Years War, while the Byzantine Empire also came to a close when Constantinople fell to the forces of the Ottoman Empire.

As to the hot weather—though one person’s sweltering day is another’s mild one—while I get a bit twitchy in anything much more than twenty degree heat these days, as a child in Singapore, in a tropical climate, with a consistently high temperature (somewhere between high twenties and low-to-mid thirties Celsius, I’d say), together with very high humidity—and three times the average UK rainfall—I was fine. Fine? I was just dandy. In the afternoons, while the British civil servants worked in airy offices with huge ceiling fans and memsahibs lay on their beds under mosquito nets until it was time for tea, children my age rode their bicycles for miles or played cricket on concrete pitches. The weather was what it was and people acclimatised and adapted to it.

So it’s partly a matter of age; and partly that, while people will still remark on unusually hot or cold weather, for the most part, it’s accepted as something that can’t be changed and must be put up with. And in literature, it often becomes a metaphor for what is simply there. So Private Williams, in Carson McCullers’ Reflections in a Golden Eye, ‘accepted the Captain as fatalistically as though he were the weather or some natural phenomenon.’[7] Arnold Bennett’s Sophia ‘had accepted Gerald as one accepts a climate.’[8] And in D. H. Lawrence’s story about a fateful relationship between a Prussian captain and his orderly, ‘the officer and his commands he took for granted, as he took the sun and the rain.’[9]

Given the ending of that story, it was a little too much taken for granted, a little too much accepted. If in doubt—resist.



[1] Henry Roth, Call It Sleep (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1989), 259.

[2] Annual Register, 1911, Part II, 29, 31, 32, 62.

[3] 1907, 1913 and 1915.

[4] Kenner, The Pound Era (London: Faber and Faber, 1975), 80.

[5] The Pound Era, 567. Kenner cites Moore’s interview in Paris Review, 26 (Summer-Fall, 1961), 46.

[6] Violet Hunt, The Desirable Alien, with two chapters by Ford Madox Ford (London: Chatto & Windus, 1913), 294, x.

[7] Carson McCullers, The Complete Novels (New York: Library of America, 2001), 390.

[8] Arnold Bennett, The Old Wives’ Tale (1908; Harmondsworth, 1983), 361.

[9] ‘The Prussian Office’, in D. H. Lawrence, The Collected Short Stories of D. H. Lawrence (London: William Heinemann, 1974), 91. With unfortunate timing, The Prussian Officer and Other Stories had been published on 26 November 1914, less than three months after the outbreak of war.


Sociable introverts, unite!


Photo: Brookie Maxwell, via

William Maxwell once wrote to Sylvia Townsend Warner about Lady Ottoline Morrell, whose memoirs he was reading: ‘she is a sociable introvert, like me, and life is not easy for such but it is bound to be interesting’.[1] Though less sociable than his wife Emily, Maxwell had ‘a genius for intimacy, a genius for making one feel singular and worthy and interesting, even [ . . . ] in rooms full of other people.’[2] It’s hardly exceptional, of course, for artists to be most comfortable in small groups or with individuals, a preference often intimately connected with their desire to practice that art in the first place.


I’ve been taking my own model of sociable introversion out into the world: firstly, to Birmingham University on Friday, to listen to three very interesting papers primarily on Ford Madox Ford; and then to take part in a panel presentation, also concerned with Ford, unsurprisingly. I was impressed by the other panellists and mildly dissatisfied with myself, which seems, on balance, the right way round.

Then, on Saturday evening, to At-Bristol, where a large crowd gave an enthusiastic welcome to Naomi Klein in conversation with Andrew Kelly, Bristol Festival of Ideas director, and then answering questions from the audience. Very impressive and articulate, she discussed the issues addressed in her new book, No Is Not Enough: Defeating the New Shock Politics, written in a few months, contrary to her usual practice. It’s ‘a guide to resistance in the age of Trump, grounded in the idea that simply resisting oppression is insufficient. We must decide as a society, Klein argues, not merely what atrocities we will not tolerate, but what we are prepared to build instead.’[3]


So, at Saturday’s event, Klein was concerned to contextualise Donald Trump, ‘not an aberration but the logical extension of the worst and most dangerous trends of the past half-century’, and to identify the ways in which those trends use political and economic crises as pretexts for forcing through policies damaging to the welfare state, regulatory safeguards and environmental controls. She then moved beyond critique to measures for resistance and the importance of envisioning the society we actually want to live in.


Sunday was to be no more than a trip to the garden centre because, apparently, we needed more compost. A large sack, better make it two. A couple more pots and yes, some Nemesia. And a trellis for the clematis. One large or – better, two small ones, I think. Before that, though, the Andrew Marr Show came on to the BBC: always likely to provoke my wife into noisy heckling, as on this occasion. Yesterday’s blameworthy inanities emanated from Michael Gove, busily asserting that those who don’t benefit from a university education shouldn’t have to contribute to the costs of higher education, an argument that may go down well with some people for up to five seconds unless they apply some intelligent thought to it.

There are two basic arguments here: firstly, that nearly everyone that pays tax at all will contribute to some services or sectors from which they don’t directly benefit: those who don’t have children will pay a portion of their taxes to the schools budget and people who always go by train will pay a portion of their taxes towards the building and maintenance of motorways and other road systems. It’s called, yes, general taxation. Secondly, every time you go to the doctor, take a prescription, drive through a tunnel or over a bridge, go into an office block or a hotel or step into a lift, you benefit from the doctor, the pharmacist, the microbiologist, the engineer, the architect, the chemist who went to university and studied and acquired expertise. If they get a higher-paid job as a result of that university education, they pay more tax – to the benefit of everyone (if you have responsible and equitable governance). Who would seriously argue that a nation does not benefit, as a whole, from having as great a proportion as possible of its citizens well-informed, capable of critical analysis, trained in problem-solving, educated?

We urgently need to change some narratives: around welfare, around tax, around housing, around education, around transport, around public provision. And we need to get well clear of the assumption that things are as they are because there’s no alternative. There is always an alternative: things are as they are because someone made a choice, someone prioritised one thing over another, someone signed the paper.

The hand that signed the paper felled a city;
Five sovereign fingers taxed the breath,
Doubled the globe of dead and halved a country;
These five kings did a king to death.[4]


[1] In a letter of 8 April, 1964: Michael Steinman, editor, The Element of Lavishness: Letters of Sylvia Townsend Warner and William Maxwell, 1938-1978 (Washington: Counterpoint, 2001), 139. Maxwell must have been reading Ottoline: The Early Memoirs of Lady Ottoline Morrell, edited by Robert Gathorne-Hardy (London: Faber, 1963).

[2] Paul Fox, ‘A Story in the Dark’, in A William Maxwell Portrait: Memories and Appreciations, edited by Charles Baxter, Michael Collier and Edward Hirsch (New York: W. W. Norton, 2004), 48-52 (49). See also, in the same volume, Donna Tartt’s ‘Mr Maxwell’, 19-33.

[3] Laurie Penny, ‘Take Back the Power’, an interview with Naomi Klein, New Statesman (30 June—6 July 2017), 35.

[4] Dylan Thomas, ‘The Hand That Signed the Paper’, The Poems, edited by Daniel Jones (London: Dent, 1971), 66.

Sounds of silence—sounds and silence.


(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.


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, 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.


(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]



[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


‘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).