‘A Lady Asks Me’

Italian (Venetian) School; Portrait of an Unknown Young Woman; Bristol Museums, Galleries & Archives; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/portrait-of-an-unknown-young-woman-189206

‘A Lady asks me’, as Ezra Pound begins Canto 36, borrowing from his own translation of Guido Cavalcanti’s ‘Donna mi prega’, ‘I speak in season’. In fact, here, the season is undeniably autumn – and it’s the Librarian, asking what I’m finding the worst thing about the pandemic – ‘apart, obviously, from huge numbers of people dying’.

I know already that she misses, often very keenly, her library, the beautiful physical space itself and her colleagues—the greetings on a staircase, words exchanged in a corridor, on the phone or round the edge of a door, those brief moments that, tabulated and totalled, make up a significant proportion of any working day, both qualitatively and quantitatively.

For me, though, the shape of the days is much less changed. I read, I write, I walk, I cook, I feed the cat. The things that huge numbers of my fellow-citizens are apparently frantic for don’t really bother me. In another age, we would go to the cinema occasionally and to restaurants a little more often: but a large part of going out to eat—and of being in the cinema—is being able to relax. I certainly couldn’t relax in those settings at the moment, so why would I do it? Going on holiday: yes, but we’d be doing the same things, just in a different setting and at a substantial cost, and the logistics of any such trip make my head hurt. I’d really like to walk by the sea again – but now, as always, I don’t want to do it in the company of several thousand others.

There’s a world out there of worsening political chaos, lethal incompetence, thousands of avoidable deaths (and how many more in the United States, whose president is waging war against his own country); after the schools failures, now the universities fiasco, students imprisoned while administrators rearrange deckchairs on an ever more steeply tilting deck amidst ignorant comments from politicians and tabloid journalists.

Louis MacNeice writes in Autumn Journal:

It is this we learn after so many failures,
The building of castles in sand, of queens in snow,
That we cannot make any corner in life or in life’s beauty,
That no river is a river which does not flow.

Even in lives superficially unchanged or little changed, this has changed. Life at present does not flow. Watching moving water, the fact of it moving becomes less and less its dominant feature; the currents that make our own lives flow are often invisible, unremarked. So perhaps one of the worst things is the simplest. We can go out, we can walk, other people can and do take buses or trains – but never now in an untroubled way, never wholly spontaneous, never unthinking, never without watchfulness, wariness, a readiness to take evasive measures. It’s the old literary metaphor of the poem as a field of action, of moving through hostile territory, always on the qui vive. A potentially productive conceit, you might argue, but probably not how you want to live your – civilian – life.

On this day in 1916, Ford Madox Ford published a piece called ‘Trois Jours de Permission’, about a three-day leave granted to him a little earlier that year, which he spent in Paris, much of it waiting for some grand fromage or other. ‘Yes, one learns to wait’, Ford wrote. ‘The most impatient temperament, somewhere in France, will be strait-waistcoated into inaction, into introspection.’

So here I am, somewhere in England, inactive and introspective, waving goodbye to September – though mentally active and prospective enough to expect little better of October. . .

‘Inversions of phrase’

(Thomas Hardy, 1899)

It being August, and some nights seeming unusually long, I was reminded of the short Thomas Hardy poem, ‘An August Midnight’, written at Max Gate in 1899.[1]

I 
A shaded lamp and a waving blind,
And the beat of a clock from a distant floor:
On this scene enter—winged, horned, and spined—
A longlegs, a moth, and a dumbledore;
While ’mid my page there idly stands
A sleepy fly, that rubs its hands… 

II 
Thus meet we five, in this still place,
At this point of time, at this point in space.
— My guests besmear my new-penned line,
Or bang at the lamp and fall supine.
“God’s humblest, they!” I muse. Yet why?
They know Earth-secrets that know not I.

Only twelve lines, seemingly simple enough, but not without interest. A small drama, which ‘this scene’ emphasises. Four indefinite articles in the first two lines – and one definite article, tied to the word ‘beat’, in the most strongly stressed line of the poem, because of those two strategic monosyllables, ‘beat’ and ‘clock’. ‘Dumbledore’ might momentarily trip up the Harry Potter generation; and commentators on the poem don’t always agree: is it a bumblebee or a cockchafer – or cockchafter? F. B. Pinion says bumblebee, Claire Tomalin says ‘a cockchafter or maybug’.[2]

(Cockchafer via http://www.newforestexplorersguide.co.uk/)

I pause on ‘Thus meet we five’, partly because of the implied equalising of the lives involved here, partly because of the inversion of natural word order and partly because of the number in this context. One of the mystic numbers, as Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable explains, the pentad ‘being the sum of 2 and 3, the first even and first odd compound. Unity is God alone, i.e. without creation. Two is diversity, and three (being 1 and 2) is the compound of unity and diversity, or the two principles in operation since creation, and representing all the powers of nature.’

The conjunctions of ‘still’ and ‘point’ (and time and space) prompt a forward glance to T. S. Eliot’s ‘Burnt Norton’: ‘At the still point of the turning world’ and:

Except for the point, the still point,
There would be no dance, and there is only the dance.
I can only say, there we have been: but I cannot say where.
And I cannot say, how long, for that is to place it in time.

‘I muse’ is another of these teasing touches, Hardy being his own muse, providing context, content, then text himself, from the materials in his immediate vicinity, the subjects of his poem entering the poet’s territory, the page, physically—‘My guests besmear my new-penned line’—as well as in the mind and memory. Tomalin comments on Hardy’s ‘appreciation that life is lived on different scales’, that the poem ‘shows him at his most tender, at ease in what still sometimes seemed to him to be God’s creation’.

The poem ends: ‘They know Earth-secrets that know not I.’ Pinion remarks that: ‘The inversion of the last line is perhaps an extreme example of the awkwardness and disregard for sound that Hardy sometimes accepted for the sake of verse pattern.’

Inversion: a change in order or position, a recurring theme in critical commentary, mainly but not always with reference to modern poets who, it’s implied, should know better or should, at least, reflect the habits of their own day. We expect to find it in Victorian poetry but not in modern poetry. Where—when—does the change come?

‘Poetry must be as well written as prose. Its language must be a fine language, departing in no way from speech save by a heightened intensity (i.e. simplicity)’, Ezra Pound wrote in January 1915, in a letter often cited, to Harriet Monroe, editor of Poetry magazine. ‘There must be no book words, no periphrases, no inversions. It must be as simple as De Maupassant’s best prose, and as hard as Stendhal’s.’[3]

(Harriet Monroe, 1920)

Ford Madox Ford, whose ideas this letter largely repeated (as Pound himself subsequently acknowledged), had written in 1905 of how modern poets were barred from certain subjects by that dialect then accepted as the proper language for poetry. ‘We wait, in fact, for the poet who, in limpid words, with clear enunciation and without inverted phrases, shall give the mind of the time sincere frame and utterance.’[4] Twenty years on and Ford, in some ‘Notes for a Lecture on Vers Libre’, explained: ‘You see I hate—and I hated then—inversions of phrase. A line like A sensitive plant in a garden grew filled me with hot rage. If the chap wanted to say that a sensitive plant grew in a garden, why didn’t he say it—or if he could not find a rhyme for garden, let him for Heaven’s sake hold his peace.’[5]

Did Pound and Ford not use ‘inversions of phrase’ in their early poetry? Of course they did. But in the quest for both modernity itself and a definition of modernity which could separate your tribe from the others (and occasionally be brandished like a broadsword), word order—along with archaisms, ‘hath’, ‘thou’—was an early bone of contention (and remains so). Often, of course, the driving factor was the need for a rhymeword, until that need too fell away for many. And the First World War brought its own complications, the urgency and intensity of the subject matter sometimes crowding out concern with technique or ‘modernity’—besides, some of the soldier-poets died so young that they had little time to dwell on them.

Here’s Charles Sorley, probably in 1915 – he was killed by a sniper in October of that year at the Battle of Loos, aged twenty, and the manuscript of this poem was found by his father among Sorley’s personal effects:

When you see millions of the mouthless dead
Across your dreams in pale battalions go,
Say not soft things as other men have said,
That you’ll remember. For you need not so.
Give them not praise.[6]

The inversions are probably not what you’d first notice there…


Ford ended, in Buckshee, with very free and colloquial verse:

We shall have to give up watering the land
Almost altogether.
The maize must go.
But the chilis and tomatoes may still have
A little water.

Pound, in some respects, circled round upon himself, his concerns, images – and diction, the earliest sometimes bleeding into the latest. Canto CX begins: ‘Thy quiet house’ and, a few lines on:

Hast’ou seen boat’s wake on sea-wall,
                        how crests it?

And some just kept going regardless, such as the prolific, popular and long-lived Walter de la Mare. His biographer noted that the critic Forrest Reid advised de la Mare to aim for simplicity of expression, however subtle the thought. ‘He thought this, with some justice, de la Mare’s greatest temptation, and condemned his inversions as a growing mannerism [ . . . ] De la Mare defended himself rather vaguely on the grounds that inversion either came off or it didn’t, and could not be defended or attacked on principle. He doubted anyway “whether ordinary talk is necessarily the best or most forcible or most attractive form of expression”’.[7]

(Walter de la Mare)

And yes, opening the book almost at random, de la Mare’s 1950 volume begins with ‘Here I sit, and glad am I’. There’s ‘The Changeling’: ‘Come in the dark did I’ and ‘Here’: ‘Forgave I everything’. Although I also catch sight of ‘Unwitting’:

This evening to my manuscript
Flitted a tiny fly;
At the wet ink sedately sipped,
Then seemed to put the matter by,
Mindless of him who wrote it, and
His scrutinizing eye –
That any consciousness indeed
Its actions could descry! . . .

Silence; and wavering candlelight;
Night; and a starless sky.[8]

Half a century apart, poets working late, their pages encroached upon by insect visitors.

Hardy’s last line doesn’t jar that much to me, probably because the inversion—as is not unusual—produces that flickering moment of uncertainty to offset it, as if, as well as the narrator not knowing those Earth-secrets, they don’t know him either.

First rule of poetic inversion: there’s no absolute rule.



Notes

[1] Thomas Hardy, The Complete Poems, edited by James Gibson (London: Macmillan, 1976), 113.

[2] F. B. Pinion, A Commentary on the Poems of Thomas Hardy (London: Macmillan, 1976), 51; Claire Tomalin, Thomas Hardy: The Time-Torn Man (London: Viking, 2006), 281.

[3] Ezra Pound, Selected Letters, 1907-1941, edited by D. D. Paige (New York: New Directions, 1971), 48-49.

[4] ‘A Literary Causerie: On Some Tendencies of Modern Verse’, Academy, 69 (23 September 1905), 982-984, reprinted in Critical Essays, edited by Max Saunders and Richard Stang (Manchester: Carcanet Press, 2002), 28-32.

[5] Ford Madox Ford, ‘Notes for a Lecture on Vers Libre’ (1920s), in Critical Writings, edited by Frank MacShane (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1964). The words quoted are from Shelley’s ‘The Sensitive Plant’.

[6] Charles Sorley, ‘[When you see millions of the mouthless dead]’, in Poetry of the First World War: An Anthology, edited by Tim Kendall (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), 191.

[7] Theresa Whistler, The Life of Walter de la Mare: Imagination of the Heart (London: Duckworth, 2003), 323-324.

[8] Walter de la Mare, Collected Poems (London: Faber and Faber, 1979), 349-355.

End fact, try – fiction?

Jane-Seymour

(Hans Holbein, Jane Seymour, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna)

Reading of a world nearly five hundred years back in Hilary Mantel’s The Mirror & the Light, you still trip over occasional reminders of the current one: Henry VIII’s new queen, Jane Seymour, has not yet been crowned and the king has talked of a midsummer ceremony. ‘But now there are rumours of plague and sweating sickness. It is not wise to allow crowds in the street, or pack bodies into indoor spaces.’ Even so, ‘The Seymours, of course, urge the king to take the risk.’

Nearly five hundred pages into Mantel’s novel, the name of Thomas Culpeper first occurs: ‘A young man’, ‘The young fellow’.[1] This Culpeper—and the historical one, his age, appearance, character, the stage at which he first encountered Catherine (or Katharine) Howard—who sashays in a little later—sits a little askew with a recent reading of Ford Madox Ford’s Fifth Queen trilogy.

FMF-Fifth-Queen

There, Culpeper—spelt ‘Culpepper’—is introduced early, in conversation between Nicholas Udal and one of the King’s guards and is seen shortly afterwards, leading the mule on which Katharine Howard rides. This Culpeper is cousin to Katharine, rich, aggressive, a braggart, a roaring, swaggering, drunken fellow.[2]

In the first place, I often need to remind myself just how young some of these people were. Culpeper was around twenty-seven when he was executed at Tyburn; Catherine Howard, her birthdate also a little uncertain, was in her late teens, probably eighteen, when she was put to death. Christina of Denmark, subject of Holbein’s marvellous portrait, was widowed at the age of thirteen and was still only sixteen when Henry VIII, after the death of Jane Seymour, tried to secure Christina in marriage.

christina

(Hans Holbein, Christina of Denmark, National Portrait Gallery)

In the second place, wonderfully irresolvable, those relations between history and fiction. Noting that Henry James ‘claims for the novelist the standing of the historian’, Joseph Conrad writes of his belief that ‘the claim cannot be contested, and that the position is unassailable. Fiction is history, human history, or it is nothing. But it is also more than that; it stands on firmer ground, being based on the reality of forms and the observations of social phenomena, whereas history is based on documents, and the reading of print and handwriting—on second-hand impressions. Thus fiction is nearer truth [ . . . ] A historian may be an artist too, and a novelist is a historian, the preserver, the keeper, the expounder, of human experience.’[3]

Making-History-New

I was reminded of this by Seamus O’Malley’s discussion of it in his excellent Making History New. He adds that Conrad ‘here desires to defend fiction by comparing it with history, first equating the two, then drawing them apart, then finally bringing them back together’. [4]

In a collection published in 1922, year of Ulysses and The Waste Land, the philosopher George Santayana wrote of ‘those more studious daylight fictions which we call history or philosophy’.[5] Writing more recently of – again – Joseph Conrad, Maya Jasanoff remarked that: ‘Historians don’t go where sources don’t lead, which means they usually stop at the door to somebody’s mind. Even when diaries or letters seem to “tell all,” historians typically treat what happened as one thing, and what somebody made of it as another. Novelists walk right in and roam freely through a person’s feelings, perceptions and thoughts. What happened is what you make of it. That, Conrad argued, could make fiction the truer record of human experience.’[6] And it is not only novelists who ‘walk right in’, as Laura Cummings observes, writing that ‘paintings are fictions, and self-portraits too; there is not a novelist alive who does not believe it possible to enter the mind and voice of someone else, real or imaginary, and the same is true of painters.’[7]

Conrad-via-New-Statesman

(Joseph Conrad via The New Statesman)

I doubt whether there’s wholesale agreement about what ‘fiction’ is – or, perhaps more pertinently, what it isn’t. It certainly doesn’t always stay within its supposed boundaries. In the 1995 ‘Introduction’ to a reissue of his novel Crash, J. G. Ballard wrote: ‘We live in a world ruled by fictions of every kind — mass-merchandizing, advertising, politics conducted as a branch of advertising, the pre-empting of any original response to experience by the television screen. We live inside an enormous novel. It is now less and less necessary for the writer to invent the fictional content of his novel. The fiction is already there. The writer’s task is to invent the reality.’[8] Twenty-five years on and such fictions have become more widespread, more insidious, more inseparable from, and indistinguishable in, the fabric of the nation, this nation, all nations.

‘Unlike history,’ Penelope Fitzgerald wrote, ‘fiction can proceed with confidence.’[9]  It can – but often it doesn’t. Innumerable writers have seized on the battlefield aspects of their art, entering the field always on the qui vive, the poem as a field of action, entering enemy territory, looking for cover. Yet the writer, if not in control, has some measure of control, and perhaps the loss of that is sometimes, often, the writer’s choice. Life is not, Penelope Lively observes, like fiction in that ‘[t]here is no shrewd navigator, just a person’s own haphazard lurching from one decision to another. Which is why life so often seems to lack the authenticity of fiction.’[10]

Bertran_de_Born

‘But there is’, William Maxwell wrote, ‘always a kind of truth in those fictions which people create in order to describe something too complicated and too subtle to fit into any conventional pattern.’[11] In Ezra Pound’s ‘Near Perigord’, faced with conflicting evidence and the warring interpretations of Bertrans de Born’s motives and priorities in the canzone he wrote for Maent of Montaignac (‘Is it a love poem? Did he sing of war?’), the Poundian voice counsels: ‘End fact, try fiction.’ And he does:

Let us say we see
En Bertrans, a tower room at Hautefort,
Sunset, the ribbon-like road lies, in cross-light,
South towards Montaignac, and he bends at a table
Scribbling, swearing between his teeth; by his left hand
Lie little strips of parchment covered over,
Scratched and erased with al and ochaisos.
testing his list of rhymes, a lean man. Bilious?
With a red straggling beard?
And the green cat’s eye lifts towards Montaignac.[12]

The poem ends, though, with Bertrans’ own voice, perhaps ‘designed’, as David Moody writes, ‘to show how the dramatic monologue outdoes both “fact” and “fiction”.’[13] As with any first-person narrator, the speaker of the dramatic monologue encloses the reader or listener. There is no outside information to help us with the gauging of truthfulness or reliability. We can only look for clues, slippages, gaps and contradictions – and perhaps assume that the narrator is always claiming, for himself or herself, the benefit of the doubt.

Notes

[1] Hilary Mantel, The Mirror & the Light (London: Fourth Estate, 2020), 192, 486.

[2] Ford Madox Ford, The Fifth Queen (London: Penguin Books, 1999), 23-24, 36ff.

[3] Joseph Conrad, ‘Henry James’, Notes on Life and Letters (London: j. M. Dent, 1921), 20-21.

[4] Seamus O’Malley, Making History New: Modernism and Historical Narrative (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015), 24.

[5] George Santayana, Soliloquies in England and Later Soliloquies ([1922] Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1967), 1.

[6] Maya Jasanoff, The Dawn Watch: Joseph Conrad in a Global World (London: William Collins, 2017), 10-11.

[7] Laura Cumming, A Face to the World: On Self-Portraits (London: Harper Press, 2010), 93.

[8] J. G. Ballard, Crash (1973; London: Fourth Estate, 2011).

[9] Penelope Fitzgerald, ‘Why I Write’, in A House of Air: Selected Writings, edited by Terence Dooley with Mandy Kirkby and Chris Carduff (London: Harper Perennial, 2005), 508.

[10] Penelope Lively, Making It Up (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 2006), 136.

[11] William Maxwell, Time Will Darken It (1948; in Early Novels and Stories, New York: Library of America, 2008), 771.

[12] ‘Near Perigord’, in Ezra Pound: Poems and Translations, edited by Richard Sieburth (New York: Library of America, 2003), 302-308.

[13] A. David Moody, Ezra Pound: Poet: A Portrait of the Man and His Work: Volume I: The Young Genius 1885–1920 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), 306.

Consulting the oracle

HK

With a lockdown birthday doggedly nearing, and required by the Librarian to come up with suggestions for a present she might give me, I settled on a book called Joyce’s Voices, which has several points in its favour. It’s by Hugh Kenner, and one of the few titles of his that I don’t already own. It’s a blessedly slim volume, which will take up very little of the very little space available. Then, too, it’s neatly designed and clearly-printed, a paperback reissue from the redoubtable Dalkey Archive Press of the original 1978 edition, which was largely based on the T. S. Eliot Memorial Lectures that Kenner gave at the University of Kent in Canterbury in 1975.

I’ve just been moving warily through the final proof of the third issue of Last Post: A Literary Journal from the Ford Madox Ford Society, so was reminded of Kenner struggling with the page proofs of The Pound Era and writing to Guy Davenport: ‘It is demoralizing to find “viligance” for “vigilance” in a line one has already read 4 times.’[1]

Indeed. That in itself recalled my discovering The Pound Era a hundred or so years ago and making my naïve and youthful pencilled notes against unfamiliar terms (of which there were quite a few). ‘Frightfulness’ I have scrawled beside ‘Schrecklichkeit’, having never come across it then (I’ve come across it a good many times since), and ‘first five books of Old Testament’ against the adjective ‘Pentateuchal’. The one I recall most easily came in the chapter ‘Inventing Confucius’, concerned with Pound’s extraordinary and hugely productive dealings with Chinese ideograms. Kenner describes one ‘lucky hit’ and goes on: ‘He was not always that fortunate, but that was thereafter his method: follow the crib, and when it flags, haruspicate the characters.’[2] My inelegantly written note: ‘haruspicate – to foretell events from inspection of entrails of animals’.

I reflected that, while Canto I’s Tiresias doesn’t examine the entrails of that sacrificed sheep, he does drink its blood, ‘for soothsay’ – and his forecast of Odysseus’ future is pretty much on the money.

In an earlier book, partly based, like Joyce’s Voices, on a series of lectures, Kenner wrote of Flaubert’s Bouvard and Pécuchet, ‘So the scientific character of the novel, its quest for the ideal type, the general law, was to turn upon itself like a haruspex scrutinizing his own entrails.’[3]

Hughkenner

(Hugh Kenner by Walter Baumann, via The Ezra Pound Society)

Haruspices, the Etruscan soothsayers, interpreted the will of the gods primarily by examining the entrails of sacrificial victims. ‘The science of augury certainly was no exact science’, D. H. Lawrence wrote in 1932. ‘But it was as exact as our sciences of psychology or political economy. And the augurs were as clever as our politicians, who also must practise divination, if ever they are to do anything worth the name.’ He added that, whatever your personal path, there was ‘no other way when you are dealing with life’, it all came to the same thing in the end. ‘Prayer, or thought, or studying the stars, or watching the flight of birds, or studying the entrails of the sacrifice, it is all the same process, ultimately: of divination. All it depends on is the amount of true, sincere, religious concentration you can bring to bear on your object. An act of pure attention, if you are capable of it, will bring its own answer.’[4]

We are all augurs now, or we might as well be. I can’t recall a time in which there was a greater sense of unmooring, of instability, of frankly unknowing. Who can guess what next week offers, or next month, let alone further ahead? We may as well glean what we can from birds’ patterns of flight or the nature of lightning strikes, though, given recent history, we’re unlikely to stray with unearned optimism into the assumption that an equitable and well-ordered world is coming down the track.

Phersu_from_the_painted_walls_of_the_tomb_of_the_Augurs_at_Tarquinia,_525-500_BCE,_Etruscan
(Phersu, from the painted walls of the tomb of the Augurs at Tarquinia)

There was, to be sure, a brief moment in which many people thought that, however bad the situation brought about by the Covid-19 pandemic, there were at least glimpses of possible routes towards improvement, in social inequalities, in reducing pollution, in rethinking political and economic structures in the broadest terms. But the rising levels of traffic, of pollution, of thoughtless social behaviour, suggest that we are already falling back, rapidly and heavily.

Still, I have Kenner on Joyce to look forward to. And in that connection, I think of another letter he wrote to Davenport: ‘Whenever I bring a new car on its 1st trip across the continent I expect a Joycean oracle. In 1956 I passed, on June 16, through Bloom, Kansas. That car subsequently rolled up 112,000 miles without so much as a valve job. This time the odometer turned 1904 on June 16, and the night’s stop was at 1922. We shall see what this double augury portends.’[5]

 

Notes

[1] Letter of 21 June 1971, Questioning Minds: The Letters of Guy Davenport and Hugh Kenner, edited by Edward M. Burns, two volumes (Berkeley: Counterpoint Press, 2018), II, 1357.

[2] Hugh Kenner, The Pound Era (London: Faber and Faber, 1972), 450.

[3] Hugh Kenner, The Stoic Comedians: Flaubert, Joyce, and Beckett (1962; Berkeley: University of California Press, 1974), 29.

[4] D. H. Lawrence, Etruscan Places, in D. H. Lawrence and Italy (London: Penguin Books, 1997), 54-55.

[5] Letter of 29 June 1962, Questioning Minds, I, 144.

Peacocks, cats, poets

mcdiarmid-peacock
(Thomas Hardy: Dorset County Museum)

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

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

Mrs-Hardy-cat

(Mrs Hardy and a cat: Dorset County Museum)

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

Pound-Yeats-Blunt

(A pride of poets: Via The New Yorker)

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

What’s riches to him

That has made a great peacock

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

And desolate Three-rock

Would nourish his whim.
Live he or die

Amid wet rocks and heather,

His ghost will be gay
Adding feather to feather

For the pride of his eye.[4]

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

peacock-room

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 


Notes


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Machine-gun

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Evening-Landscape-Owls

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

David-Jones.Spectator

(David Jones via The Spectator)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Notes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Browsing Glaucus

Pound-Personae-1909 Pound-CEP-ND

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

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

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

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

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

Spranger_Galucus-Scylla

(Bartholomeus Spranger, Glaucus and Scylla)

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

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

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

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

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

And, at the end:

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

Anglo-Saxon-K

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

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

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

 

Notes

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

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

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

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

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

 

‘Swinburne my only miss’

EP-Pisa-viaWallStJournalNPG x81998; Algernon Charles Swinburne by Elliott & Fry

(Pound in the dispensary at the DTC via Wall Street Journal; Algernon Charles Swinburne by John McLanachan: Wikipedia Commons)

It’s the first day of official lockdown in the UK, a little looser as yet than in some other countries but a large stride in what had become a necessary direction.

In an earlier and rather different instance of containment—the Disciplinary Training Center near Pisa in 1945—remembering those days ‘before the world was given over to wars’, Ezra Pound wrote: ‘Swinburne my only miss’. To his parents, in the Spring of 1909, the literary traveller (who would seek out W. B. Yeats, meet most other leading writers and ‘glare’ at Henry James across a room) had remarked that ‘Swinburne happens to be stone deaf with a temper a bit the worse for wear, so I haven’t continued investigation in that direction.’[1]

Less than three weeks after that letter, on 10 April 1909, Swinburne died. ‘He grafted on to epic volume a Berserker rage: he was a man of fine frenzies’, Ford Madox Ford wrote in the May 1909 issue of The English Review,[2] seeming to allude to Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, in which Theseus asserts that ‘The lunatic, the lover, and the poet/ Are of imagination all compact’:

The poet’s eye, in a fine frenzy rolling,
Doth glance from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven,
And as imagination bodies forth
The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen
Turns them to shapes, and gives to airy nothing
A local habitation and a name. (V.i.12-17)

Fuseli, Henry, 1741-1825; Titania and Bottom

(Henry Fuseli, A Midsummer Night’s Dream: Tate)

Ford’s obituary note on Swinburne is generous – but he certainly didn’t regard rage and frenzy as ideal writerly qualities. He once described what he termed ‘the view of their profession held by what it is convenient to call the Typical English Writer of the pre-Moonrise period. You sit down; you write; the vine leaves are in your hair; you forget mundane tribulations; gradually intoxication steals over you. Sometimes you stumble into sense; sometimes you do not.’[3] Nearly thirty years later, borrowing Jean Cocteau’s remark about Victor Hugo, Ford would describe the painful progress of his ‘weary eyes’ and ‘enfeebled mind’ through ‘rivulets of print between top and bottom of a page’ of Swinburne’s verse: ‘And then in exasperated protest: “That page is mad. . . . It thinks it’s Swinburne!”’[4]

Ford disliked the notion of the inspired, even intoxicated poet; he disliked inversions, needless profusions of rhymewords and, with regard to Victorian poets in particular, was dismayed by the sheer quantity of stuff that they disgorged. His doubts about Swinburne at least were shared wholly or in part by other writers, including Browning, Matthew Arnold and A. E. Housman.[5]

‘Love of sound and especially of rhyme persuaded [Swinburne] to a somewhat lighter use of words than is common among great poets’, Edward Thomas wrote, a couple of years after Swinburne’s death. ‘Space would be wasted by examples of words produced apparently by submission to rhyme, not mastery over it. The one line in “Hesperia”: “Shrill shrieks in our faces the blind bland air that was mute as a maiden”, is enough to illustrate the poet’s carelessness of the fact that alliteration is not a virtue in itself.’[6]

In Ford’s The Good Soldier, the narrator, John Dowell, recalls of Edward Ashburnham that: ‘Once, in the hall, when Leonora was going out, Edward said, beneath his breath—but I just caught the words: “Thou hast conquered, O pale Galilean.”’ Interestingly, Dowell then adds: ‘It was like his sentimentality to quote Swinburne.’[7]

The line is from Swinburne’s ‘Hymn to Proserpine’, which laments the ousting of the pagan gods and goddesses by the Christian faith:

Thou hast conquered, O pale Galilean; the world has grown grey from thy breath;
We have drunk of things Lethean, and fed on the fullness of death.
Laurel is green for a season, and love is sweet for a day;
But love grows bitter with treason, and laurel outlives not May.[8]

FMF-Good-Soldier

‘Sentimental’ or ‘sentimentalist’ is applied to Edward Ashburnham more than two dozen times in this short novel. Early on, speculating on what so many people, particularly women, see in Ashburnham, Dowell wonders too what he even talks to them about. ‘Ah, well, suddenly, as if by a flash of inspiration, I know. For all good soldiers are sentimentalists—all good soldiers of that type. Their profession, for one thing is full of the big words, courage, loyalty, honour, constancy’ (28).

That phrase ‘a flash of inspiration’ may prompt us to caution but I think there is a parallel between what Edward Thomas called ‘submission to rhyme, not mastery over it’, and an unthinking adherence to preferences or forms of thought or behaviour without review or scrutiny. We grow out of things, we adapt, develop and change: this may mean leaving behind some youthful tastes and assumptions, not clinging to them for wrong reasons. John Buchan, late in life, reflected on those ‘oddments’ which are ‘carried over from youth’, the memory of them recalling ‘blessed moments’ with which we associate them. He terms it ‘pure sentimentality, but how many of us are free from it?’ He goes on: ‘My memory is full of such light baggage. Stanzas of Swinburne, whom I do not greatly admire, remind me of summer mornings when I shouted them on a hill-top, and still please, because of the hill-top, not the poetry.’[9]

VH_FMF_Selsey

(Ford and Violet Hunt at Selsey)

Ford is one of the recurrent figures in Pound’s Pisan Cantos and elsewhere in Canto 80, after the mention of ‘the mass of preraphaelite reliques/ in a trunk in a walled-up cellar in Selsey’—a reference to the West Sussex cottage, owned by Violet Hunt, where she and, very often, Ford spent a good deal of time—we read: ‘“Tyke ’im up to the bawth” (meaning Swinburne)’ (80/508).

In ‘Swinburne versus his Biographers’ (1918), Pound had launched with even more orthographic gusto into his Cockney performance, citing: ‘Swinburne at the Madox Browns’ door in a cab, while the house-keeper lectures the cabman: “Wot! No, sir, my marster is at the ’ead of ’is table carving the j’int. That’s Mr. Swinburne—tike ’im up to the barth”’.[10]

Through his grandfather, Ford knew both Swinburne and Theodore Watts-Dunton, who cared for Swinburne during the last thirty years of the poet’s life. Pound’s line derives from Ford’s writing—or, more likely, conversation—recalling the anecdotes about his grandfather’s housemaid, Charlotte Kirby. In Ancient Lights, Ford recalls her telling him: ‘“I was down in the kitchen waiting to carry up the meat, when a cabman comes down the area steps and says: ‘I’ve got your master in my cab. He’s very drunk.’ I says to him— “and an immense intonation of pride would come into Charlotte’s voice—” ‘My master’s a-sitting at the head of his table entertaining his guests. That’s Mr. —. Carry him upstairs and lay him in the bath.’”

A later version has Ford overhearing the conversation himself – and the blank is filled in: ‘At last she brought out composedly the words:
“That’s Mr. Swinburne. Help me carry him upstairs and put him in the bath.”
And that was done.’[11]

Ford_Madox_Brown

(Ford Madox Brown)

Ford explains that his grandfather, the painter Ford Madox Brown, ‘whose laudable desire it was at many stages of his career to redeem poets and others from dipsomania, was in the habit of providing several of them with labels upon which were inscribed his own name and address. Thus, when any of these geniuses were found incapable in the neighbourhood they would be brought by cabmen or others to Fitzroy Square’ (Ancient Lights 12).

In his essay on Swinburne—one of Pound’s early enthusiasms but one which he now felt he could see in a clearer perspective[12]—Pound is frank about what he sees as Swinburne’s defects while also extolling his virtues: ‘we can, whatever our verbal fastidiousness, be thankful for any man who kept alive some spirit of paganism and of revolt in a papier-mâché era’. While he remarks that ‘No man who cares for his art can be deaf to the rhythms of Swinburne, deaf to their splendour, deaf also to their bathos’, there are signs of familiar—and not, perhaps, strictly ‘literary’—Poundian preoccupations of that period. One is that ‘paganism’ (and lack of enthusiasm for the Christian faith) of ‘Hymn to Proserpine’; another is made clear by the assertion that his essays ends on: Swinburne’s ‘magnificent passion for liberty—a passion dead as mutton in a people who allow their literature to be blanketed by a Comstock and his successors; for liberty is not merely a catchword of politics, nor a right to shove little slips of paper through a hole. The passion not merely for political, but also for personal, liberty is the bedrock of Swinburne’s writing’ (Literary Essays 294).

LR-Oct-17

(The Modernist Journals Project (Searchable database). Brown and Tulsa Universities, ongoing)

Pound’s long essay on Henry James, published a few months later, would praise James in part along the same lines: ‘the hater of tyranny’, author of ‘book after early book against oppression’, with ‘outbursts in The Tragic Muse, the whole of The Turn of the Screw, human liberty, personal liberty, the rights of the human individual against all sorts of intangible bondage!’ (Literary Essays 296). D. H. Lawrence’s The Rainbow had been suppressed in 1915; in October 1917, the issue of the Little Review containing Wyndham Lewis’s ‘Cantleman’s Spring Mate’ had been seized by the U.S. postal authorities and the same periodical’s serialising of Joyce’s Ulysses would soon lead to more censorship difficulties, culminating in a trial in early 1921.[13] In that climate, Pound’s celebration of a ‘passion for liberty’ in artists he admires is hardly surprising but the tribute to Swinburne is nevertheless a genuine and powerful one.

 
Notes

[1] The Cantos of Ezra Pound, fourth collected edition (London: Faber and Faber, 1987), 82/523, 80/506; letters dated 21 February 1912 and c. 24 March 1909: Ezra Pound to His Parents: Letters 1895–1929, edited by Mary de Rachewiltz, David Moody and Joanna Moody (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), 273, 165.

[2] The English Review (May 1909), 193-194: reprinted in Ford Madox Ford, Critical Essays, edited by Max Saunders and Richard Stang (Manchester: Carcanet Press, 2002), 71-72. Ford wrote a two-part essay entitled ‘The Poet’s Eye’ in 1913.

[3] Ford Madox Ford, Thus to Revisit (London: Chapman & Hall, 1921), 9.

[4] Ford Madox Ford, Portraits from Life (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1937), 194.

[5] All mentioned by Kenneth Haynes in his edition of Swinburne’s Poems and Ballads & Atalanta in Calydon (London: Penguin Books, 2000), xiv-xv.

[6] Edward Thomas, A Language not to be Betrayed: Selected Prose, edited by Edna Longley (Manchester: Carcanet Press, 1985), 43.

[7] Ford Madox Ford, The Good Soldier: A Tale of Passion (1915; edited by Max Saunders, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), 190. A nice detail here is that Swinburne’s maternal grandfather was the third Earl of Ashburnham.

[8] ‘Hymn to Proserpine (After the Proclamation in Rome of the Christian Faith)’, Haynes, Poems, 55-61. Daniel R. Barnes comments that ‘Leonora, as the agent of orthodox Catholicism, has triumphed over [Edward Ashburnham’s] own paganism’. See ‘Ford and the “Slaughtered Saints”: A New Reading of The Good Soldier’, Modern Fictions Studies, XIV, 2 (Summer 1968), 168.

[9] John Buchan, Memory Hold-the-Door (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1940), 202-203.

[10] Literary Essays of Ezra Pound, edited by T. S. Eliot (London: Faber and Faber, 1960), 290.

[11] Ford Madox Ford, Ancient Lights and Certain New Reflections (London: Chapman and Hall, 1911), 11-12; Portraits from Life, 187.

[12] For the youthful enthusiasm, see Collected Early Poems of Ezra Pound, edited by Michael John King (London: Faber and Faber, 1977), 40-43, 261; and Christoph de Nagy, The Poetry of Ezra Pound: The Pre-Imagist Stage (Bern: Francke, 1960), on Pound seeing Swinburne as ‘the poet of human destiny’, who asked ‘the final questions about the fate of man’ rather than the erotic or perverse poet; also as the poet of ‘liberation’ (73, 74).

[13] That ‘pale Galilean’ crops up in Ulysses, as do a good many other Swinburne references: see index to Don Gifford, with Robert J. Seidman, Ulysses Annotated: Notes for James Joyce’s Ulysses, revised and expanded edition (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989). There’s also a lot of Swinburne in Lawrence’s work, not least in Lady Chatterley’s Lover, largely because of his constant recurrence to the Persephone myth.

 

On not getting all the words back

Chimborazo-Guardian

(Chimborazo, Ecuador, via The Guardian)

In July 1919, Robert Graves wrote to Edmund Blunden, having been shown some of his published work by Siegfried Sassoon. Did Blunden have anything to offer for the Owl, the quarterly Graves was co-editing with W. J. Turner? Turner was the Australian-born poet and critic, best-remembered now, perhaps, for his poem ‘Romance’ (it begins: ‘When I was but thirteen or so/ I went into a golden land,/ Chimborazo, Cotopaxi/ Took me by the hand’).

Blunden sent several poems which Graves then forwarded to Turner to look at. ‘“Pan Grown Old” is my favourite’, Graves commented. ‘May I presume for a moment? Titles aren’t your strong suit. All this Pan business is played out anyway. Why not call it “A Country God” and remove that rather Unenglish “complex” from the reader’s eye?’[1]

‘All this Pan business’ had certainly been a significant cultural feature of the period before the First World War, in the work of E. M. Forster, D. H. Lawrence, Arthur Machen, Saki, Edgar Jepson, and in Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows, among others.[2] Blunden accepted the suggested change of title. The revised version of the poem published in the Owl was included in The Waggoner and other poems (1920). It begins:

When groping farms are lanterned up
And stolchy ploughlands hid in grief,
And glimmering byroads catch the drop
That weeps from sprawling twig and leaf,
And heavy-hearted spins the wind
Among the tattered flags of Mirth,—
Then who but I flit to and fro,
With shuddering speech, with mope and mow,
And glass the eyes of Earth?[3]

Longmuir, Alexander Davidson, c.1843-1891; Ploughing after a Shower

(Alexander Davidson Longmuir, Ploughing after a Shower: Aberdeen Art Gallery & Museums)

My eye is caught by ‘mope and mow’ mainly because it’s not ‘mop and mow’—Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable has ‘grimaces’, with a sidelong glance at the Dutch moppen, ‘to pout’—familiar to me from Ford Madox Ford’s books. ‘Mopping and mowing’ crops up in Violet Hunt’s The Last Ditch and a couple of times in Virginia Woolf’s Between the Acts. It occurs twice in Charlotte Bronte’s Villette too, and the note in my Oxford World’s Classics edition points to Shakespeare’s King Lear, though there (IV, i) it’s ‘mocking and mowing’ – as it is in Blunden’s ‘De Bello Germanico’.[4] Ford, and probably Violet Hunt, most likely took it from Christina Rossetti’s Goblin Market—‘Puffing and blowing,/ Chuckling, clapping, crowing,/ Clucking and gobbling,/ Mopping and mowing’—Rossetti being the nineteenth-century poet whom Ford most admired.[5]

Rossetti_goblin_market

My other eye is fixed on ‘stolchy’. In a remarkably detailed compendium of notes on The Lyttelton Hart-Davis Letters, George Lyttelton is quoted (1 March 1956) as having mentioned that the Oxford English Dictionary didn’t know about ‘stolchy’. Lyttelton copied the opening lines of Blunden’s poem into his commonplace book.
https://lyttelton-hart-davis.site123.me/

Elsewhere, a discussion of W. H. Auden’s habit of roaming through the OED for material has an example: “‘A Bad Night”, subtitled “A Lexical Exercise”, is an obvious example of a dictionary-inspired poem. It is crammed with words lifted from OED which, out of context, are virtually unintelligible: hirple, blouts, pirries, stolchy, glunch, sloomy, snudge, snoachy, scaddle etc.’
https://oed.hertford.ox.ac.uk/literary-sources/writers-and-dictionaries/auden-and-the-oed/

So ‘stolchy’ is there now, in the constantly-updated Oxford English Dictionary? I go online and look. Joseph Wright’s English Dialect Dictionary has it as a verb, ‘to tread down, trample, to walk in the dirt’; and a 1772 manual of husbandry, Ellis’s Practical Agriculture, Volume II, has the adjective. But no, it isn’t in the OED. Still, Wright, whose six-volume work appeared between 1898 and 1905, already has it as ‘obsolete’ then.

99t/47/huty/14061/41

(Robert Bridges via History Today)

Robert Bridges—then Poet Laureate and, famously, editor of the poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins—in a 1921 tract for the Society of Pure English, The Dialectical Words in Blunden’s Poems, remarked: ‘“Stolchy” is so good a word that it does not need a dictionary.’ Perhaps, to the modern ear, it’s close enough to ‘squelchy’ not to require further explanation but Blunden evidently felt that it had a quite specific application: perhaps ground not only wet but trodden down, usually by cattle, then subjected to still more rain. On the way back from seeing Armando Iannucci’s The Personal History of David Copperfield, the ground in the park was, hmm, stolchy; and there was, too, a bit in the film about dialect, usually humorous, and mainly in the mouth of James Steerforth.

Dialect—variations in speech peculiar to place or social group—is not archaism—language fallen out of current use—though the one can become the other. Ezra Pound remembered that, ‘when I was just trying to find and use modern speech, old Bridges carefully went through Personae and Exultations and commended every archaism (to my horror), exclaiming “We’ll git ’em all back; we’ll git ’em all back.”’[6]

He is there again in the Pisan Cantos:

“forloyn” said Mr Bridges (Robert)
“we’ll get ’em all back”
meaning archaic words (80/507)

Pound’s attitude towards such words, and those who used them, tended to fluctuate. Against his praise of Gabriele D’Annunzio, one might set Ford’s comments, as he traced what he saw as the decline of English poetry (while ‘what is wanted of a poet is that he should express his own thoughts in the language of his own time’): ‘The other day I was listening to an excellent Italian conférencier who assured an impressed audience that Signor D’Annunzio is the greatest Italian stylist there has ever been, since in his last book he has used over 2,017 obsolete words which cannot be understood by a modern Italian without the help of a medieval glossary.’[7]

Let’s not get them all back.

 
Notes

[1] Letter of 12 July 1919: Robert Graves, In Broken Images: Selected Letters of Robert Graves, 1914-1946, edited by Paul O’Prey (London: Hutchinson, 1982), 112, 113; Barry Webb, Edmund Blunden: A Biography (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1990), 114.

[2] See W. R. Irwin, ‘The Survival of Pan’, in PMLA, LXXVI, 3 (June 1961), 159-167.

[3] Edmund Blunden, ‘A Country God’, in Selected Poems, edited by Robyn Marsack (Manchester: Carcanet Press, 1993), 32-33.

[4] Charlotte Brontë, Villette, edited by Margaret Smith and Herbert Rosengarten (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990), 195, 300, 633n; Blunden, Fall In, Ghosts: Selected Prose, edited by Robyn Marsack (Manchester: Carcanet Press, 2014), 12.

[5] Though Ford also used ‘minced and mowed’ in The Fifth Queen (London: Penguin Books, 1999), 101; ‘mopped and mowed’ in A Man Could Stand Up— (1926; edited by Sara Haslam, Manchester: Carcanet Press, 2011), 68 and n., where other usages are detailed; and ‘miching and mowing’ in Provence (London: Allen & Unwin, 1938), 87 and Mightier Than the Sword (London: Allen and Unwin, 1938), 264, 265, 266.

[6] Ezra Pound, Selected Letters, 1907-1941, edited by D. D. Paige (New York: New Directions, 1971), 179.

[7] Ford Madox Ford, Ancient Lights and Certain New Reflections (London: Chapman and Hall, 1911), 52, 53.

 

Counting cats to get a quorum

Clark-Civilisation Orage-Critic

(Sir Kenneth Clark, Civilisation)

One hundred years ago today, The New Age, under the editorship of A. R. Orage—he preferred a French pronunciation, though his family pronounced it ‘Orridge’ and Violet Hunt said his real name was ‘“Horridge” from Liverpool’—published the third instalment of Ezra Pound’s ‘The Revolt of Intelligence’. ‘The more I see of nations the more I loathe them’, Pound wrote, ‘the more I learn of civilisation the more I desire that it exist and that such scraps of it as we have should be preserved for us and for our successors.’ And he added: ‘I do not expect the electorate either in England or America to begin instanter the quest of quality in their chosen representatives.’[1]

Civilisation. The state of being civilised, my dictionary says, helpfully. Culture; cultural condition or complex. And civilise? To reclaim from barbarism; to instruct in arts and refinements.

Kenneth Clark’s series of that name ran for thirteen episodes, fifty years ago. Critics now would focus on its perceived shortcomings: too male, too pale, too European and so on but it was extraordinarily successful and influential in its time. The buildings, the statues, the paintings, a rich, assured historical panorama. Solid?

‘“You think that a wall as solid as the earth separates civilisation from barbarism’, Lumley says in John Buchan’s The Power-House. ‘“I tell you the division is a thread, a sheet of glass. A touch here, a push there, and you bring back the reign of Saturn.”’[2]

A touch and a push. It’s always been easier to lay waste to things than to build them: every child with toy bricks to play with learns that pretty early. ‘All civilisation has proceeded from cities and cenacles’, Pound wrote. Cenacle: a group or coterie, sometimes applied to the room in which the Last Supper was held. Not a big crowd, for sure.[3] In a 1967 letter to Hugh Kenner from his home in Lexington, Kentucky, Davenport reported a conversation with the classical scholar, Donald Carne-Ross: ‘He calculates civilization as being able to sustain itself among eight people as a minimum. You have to count cats to get a quorum at this outpost.’[4]

With his customary scepticism, the poet and playwright (and farmer and pacifist) Ronald Duncan once wrote: ‘The assiduous cultivation of kitchen-gardens is the only realistic alternative to the singing of Rule Britannia. We cannot have it both ways. Civilisation may have followed the trade-routes, but so did syphilis.’[5]

There is, to be sure, endless room for argument about shades of meaning here, some of them very familiar and longstanding: ‘civilised’, ‘culture’, ‘barbarism’, ‘arts’, though they tend to be largely unexamined by some of the very people up to their necks in the stuff.

Dorothy-Thompson-1934

(Dorothy Thompson, 1934)

Looking back to the 1930s, Sarah Churchwell cites articles by the journalist Dorothy Thompson when she writes: ‘Hitler came to power “largely because so-called civilized people did not believe that he could”, Thompson warned [Saturday Evening Post, May and June 1933]. The problem was that they complacently assumed that their idea of civilisation was “greatly cherished by all men”, who agreed that their culture, a “complex of prejudices, standards and ideas”, had been “accumulated at the cost of great sacrifice” over centuries.
‘Instead, the intellectual elite needed to understand that “this culture is, actually, to the vast masses no treasure at all, but a burden”. And if economic conditions deteriorated, leaving those people resentful, “hungry and idle”, they would only view such “civilizations as a restraining, impeding force”.
‘At which point, they would identify smashing the system as freedom.’[6]

I set out to cheer myself up and look what happens.

 
Notes

[1] Pound/Lewis: The Letters of Ezra Pound and Wyndham Lewis, edited by Timothy Materer (London: Faber and Faber, 1985), 299; Pound, ‘The Revolt of Intelligence’, III, New Age, XXVI, 7 (18 December, 1919), 106.

[2] Buchan, The Power-House (written and serialised 1913, published in book form 1916; Edinburgh: B&W Publishing, 1993), 38.

[3] Pound, ‘On Criticism in General’, Criterion, I, 2 (January 1923), 143.

[4] Questioning Minds: The Letters of Guy Davenport and Hugh Kenner, edited by Edward M. Burns, two volumes (Berkeley: Counterpoint Press, 2018), II, 896.

[5] Ronald Duncan, All Men Are Islands: An Autobiography (London: Rupert Hart-Davis, 1964), 249.

[6] Sarah Churchwell, Behold, America: A History of America First and the American Dream (London: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2018), 184.