‘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.

‘England have my bones’

(T. H. White on Alderney: BBC)

‘Heaven take my soul, and England keep my bones!’ are Arthur’s last words in Shakespeare’s King John (IV.iii.10), as he leaps from a castle wall. T. H. White, author of The Goshawk and The Once and Future King (another Arthur), among many other books, had a slightly different version, the last four words of which gave him the title of his 1936 volume: ‘God keep my soul/ And England have my bones.’ It ended up, he said, as ‘a book about the tangible side of country life’, adding that: ‘Fishermen will be maddened by the flying, aviators by the snakes, zoologists by the instructions for playing darts.’ Trying to imagine ’the kind of person who will bear with every digression’, he concluded that, should such a person exist, ‘he will be an amateur like myself: a reader with a forgiving mind, not a critical one: somebody not fascinated by sherry parties, who can see the point of an England defined by negatives.’[1]

White’s letter to David Garnett (his second) asking Garnett to look at England Keep My Bones marked the beginning of their nearly thirty-year friendship, ‘a friendship which, reversing the usual order, ripened into acquaintance’, Sylvia Townsend Warner explained, ‘for they met seldom, and never for long at a time. In fact, they were better apart. When they met, they got on each other’s nerves.’

(Sylvia Townsend Warner via NYRB; and her biography of White)

But then, with strangers, as another friend remembered, White ‘could be quite odious; rude and suspicious if he thought they were lionizing them, still more if he thought they weren’t; shouting down anyone who disagreed with his more preposterous assertions or even ventured to interrupt.’[2]

White’s book is often lyrical, but also marked by frequently pugnacious or arresting statement—‘Nowadays we don’t know where we live, or who we are’ (3), ‘I felt happy and interested, as if I had been condemned to death’ (20-21), and ‘Even sitting in the same chair rots one’s soul. Decent men ought to break all their furniture every six months’ (65). There are curious anecdotes and details, such as the origins of Lewis Carroll’s Mad Hatter (42) and, writing of ‘the shire’ in which he lives, located about half-way between ‘the doze of Norfolk and the fierce friendliness of Gloucestershire’ (4), he notes that it boasted the first recorded beheading and the last person to be gibbeted (110). But there are also evocative statements such as ‘Falling in love is a desolating experience, but not when it is with a countryside’ (22), which seem expressly designed to be plundered by people like me – and have been. The book’s devotion to ‘outdoor pursuits’ prompted the reviewer James Agate to remark—quite understandably, I think—‘It is about subjects in which I am not even faintly interested. It is entrancing’ (quoted by Warner, 87).

It was on this day 85 years ago, 18 August 1935, that White scored 180 with three darts—‘for the first and last time in three or four thousand games of darts’—in The Rose and Crown at Burwash, ‘of which the proper pronunciation is Burridge’ as Henry James remarked to Ford Madox Ford (who already knew).[3] ‘It was not a landlord’s board’, White added, by which I take him to mean that if the target areas for the highest scoring darts are slightly enlarged there is a correspondingly larger chance of successful, happy, and thus higher-spending, punters. ‘Burwash’ may, though, be pronounced ‘Burrish’: it certainly was by a helpful National Trust volunteer, to whom I put the specific question on my one visit to Bateman’s, the fine Jacobean house in which Rudyard Kipling—a story of whom was the occasion of James’s pronouncing the name to Ford—made his home between 1902 and his death in 1936. I bought a bag of flour from the 17th century—and still working—mill which could at that time be seen in action most Wednesday and Saturday afternoons.

(Batemans: National Trust)

The setting is remarkable: the house itself, the garden, the 1928 Rolls Royce Phantom 1 – and the mill. Kipling installed a turbine generator in 1902 and, in the autumn of that same year, published a short story, ‘Below the Mill Dam’. The story, collected in Traffics and Discoveries (1904), largely comprises a conversation between the cat and the rat and is widely seen as a political fable expressing Kipling’s dislike of the attitudes and policies exemplified by Arthur Balfour. David Gilmour, author of The Long Recessional: The Imperial Life of Rudyard Kipling, thinks the cat is Balfour (or at least talks like him): ‘there is no problem identifying the prototype of the Grey Cat’.[4]

That memorable visit to East Sussex was heavily Ford Madox Ford-related: he lived for years in the area, and his books—ten, fifteen, twenty years later—are saturated with its place-names and roads and buildings and outlooks. But, with an hour or two to spare in the afternoon, with Bateman’s on the route back to the station, Kipling-world became irresistible. Perhaps I’ll get back there – sometime – for a longer, slower look.

Notes

[1] England Have My Bones (1934; London: Macdonald Futura, 1981), v-vi.

[2] Sylvia Townsend Warner, T. H. White: A Biography (New York: Viking, 1968), 86; John Verney in the ‘Foreword’, 6.

[3] Ford, Return to Yesterday (London: Gollancz, 1931), 7.

[4] David Gilmour, The Long Recessional: The Imperial Life of Rudyard Kipling (London: John Murray, 2002), 181.

Name changer: Ford Madox (Hueffer) Ford

FMF-GS-viaNYRB

(The good soldier via New York Review of Books)

‘June’, Paul Simon wrote—and Art Garfunkel sang—‘will change her tune/ In restless dreams she’ll prowl the night’. In June 1919, Ford Madox Hueffer moved a little beyond melody and changed his surname.

‘Yesterday I changed my name by deed poll from Hueffer to Ford’, he wrote to his agent on 5 June, ‘partly to oblige a relative & partly because a Teutonic name is in these days disagreeable & though my native stubbornness would not let me do it while the war was on, I do not see why I shd. go on being subjected to the attacks of blackmailers indefinitely.’

To his friend the Liberal politician C. F. G. Masterman, he wrote on 28 June that the novelist Violet Hunt, with whom he had lived for several years, had refused to sever relations with people who had been denouncing him to the police as a German agent and ‘stating, on her authority, various other untruths to my disadvantage.’ Consequently, he ‘took a labourer’s cottage in the country where I am still.’ And, ‘Today I have changed my name by deed-poll to “Ford.”’

To the novelist and later art critic Herbert Read, he wrote that he’d changed his name by deed-poll on 28 June ‘to please a relative from whom I have expectations; & in order to escape from the attentions of the Society of the neighbourhood’.[1]

The apparent disparity in the dates is explained by the petition being lodged on 4 June and the legal process being actually completed on 28 June.[2]

Names were, of course, always remarkably unstable in Ford’s life. In Violet Hunt’s memoirs, he is ‘Joseph Leopold’ (his Catholic baptismal names), to Ezra Pound he is ‘Forty Mad-Dogs Hueffer’ or ‘Freiherr von Grumpus ZU und VON Bieberstein’. Then too he chooses to adopt quite a few pseudonyms in the course of his career, from the early ‘Fenil Haig’ through ‘Baron von Aschendrof’ and ‘Daniel Chaucer’ to ‘Faugh an-Ballagh Faugh’, the name with which he signed a letter—not long before he died—complaining about a lukewarm review of Joyce’s Finnegans Wake which, Ford wrote, ‘stands up across the flat lands of our literatures as does the first Pyramid across the sands of Egypt’.

(Stella Bowen, mid-20s: Carl A. Kroch Library, Cornell University; Stella Bowen, Vegetable Still Life)

‘The year 1919 was certainly an annus mirabilis’ Richard Aldington remembered, ‘if you take the “mirabilis” ironically.’[3] For Ford, one of the year’s main points would be the official end of his war service: ‘Darling’, he wrote to Stella Bowen on 7 January 1919, ‘I was gazetted out of the Army this morning—so I might walk out this minute’—in fact he didn’t, for another week.[4] Another major factor was his seriously beginning to write again. And there was Stella herself, the young Australian painter whom he had met in the autumn of 1917—their daughter Julie was born in November 1920—and with whom he would live for most of the next ten years. ‘In June’, Ford wrote to his mother in early July, ‘I set up house with another lady.’[5]

House but also garden; flowers and many vegetables; pigs (Anna and Anita); an old mare; chickens; a goat called Penny, ‘because it had a certain facial resemblance to Mr. Pound’, ‘a drake that someone called Fordie’, a dog named Beau. ‘These beasts had a great dislike of being left alone, so that when I went out I was followed by dog, drake and goat—sometimes for great distances. A little later I acquired a black pig. This animal was also companionable, but I thought my procession would look too noticeable if she were added to it.’[6]

Ford was also a cook and hugely interested in food. Coming up next year is a special edition of Last Post: A Literary Journal from the Ford Madox Ford Society, devoted to that: Ford and Food (a broader and deeper subject than you might think), for which we’re already inviting proposals.

Meanwhile, for closet Ford Madox Ford fans—are there such people? Come on out!—the Ford Society website now has the first two issues of the journal freely available online:
http://www.fordmadoxfordsociety.org/last-post-open-access.html

 

 

Notes

[1] Ford Madox Ford, Letters of Ford Madox Ford, edited by Richard M. Ludwig (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1965), 93, 95, 98.

[2] Max Saunders, Ford Madox Ford: A Dual Life, two volumes (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996), I, 1.

[3] Richard Aldington, Life for Life’s Sake (London: Cassell, 1968), 225.

[4] Correspondence of Ford Madox Ford and Stella Bowen, edited by Sondra J. Stang and Karen Cochran (Bloomington & Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1993), 53-54.

[5] Saunders, A Dual Life, II, 72.

[6] Ford Madox Ford, It Was the Nightingale (London: Heinemann, 1934), 104-105.

 

‘Every sort of faith’

Blake-wheel-of-fire

(William Blake, from Jerusalem)

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

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

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

Ernest_Dowson

(Ernest Dowson)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rousseau, Henri, 1844-1910; Surprised!

(Henri Rousseau, Surprised! – National Gallery)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Swallowing Venus

St-Marks

(St Mark’s Square, Venice. Photograph: Manuel Silvestri/Reuters: via The Guardian)

An end to March, then. Looking back, it was as recently as 28 February that Greta Thunberg visited Bristol and I decided against trying to attend the rally because of the vast crowds thronging the streets. Now photographs from around the world show us places empty of people: from Piccadilly Circus to St Mark’s Square in Venice, from Gaobeidian, Beijing to Market Square, Frankfurt. That the distance from there to here is just a little over four weeks is dizzying and almost impossible to grasp securely. I’m reminded that a decade after the Boer War—‘that never to be sufficiently accursed war’—Ford Madox Ford wrote that it ‘set, as it were, an iron door between the past and the present.’ Perhaps more appositely, he remarked that it ‘appears to me like a chasm separating the new world from the old.’[1]

Across that chasm, we see the ghosts of former lives, the normal that no longer exists and may not do so again. Among strange doublenesses, it’s both reassuring and immensely sad that approaching figures in a quiet park veer off on a different trajectory, twenty or thirty metres ahead of us, if we haven’t already begun to do the same. At the dinner table, we wonder aloud how long it will be before we browse in shops again without anxiety, or move comfortably among crowds, or visit dentists and hairdressers. The answers vary from ‘maybe six months’ to ‘probably never’.

In ancient Rome, the festival of Venus Verticordia or Venus Genetrix ran for three days from the first day of April. The preceding night, 31 March, occasioned the 93-line poem the Pervigilium VenerisThe Eve of Venus or The Vigil of Venus, its authorship and date of composition uncertain.[2]

Swallow-BBC

(Swallow: via BBC)

One of the most familiar bits of the poem is lodged in the closing lines of the most famous modern poem, among the fragments that one of The Waste Land’s voices has shored against his or her ruin:

‘Quando fiam uti chelidon [When shall I be as the swallow]—O swallow swallow’

The story of Philomela, raped by Tereus, king of Thrace, who cut out her tongue so she might not make the dreadful story known to her sister Procne, the wife of Tereus—which she does at last through another voice, the tale told in a tapestry—runs from Homer and Aeschylus through Ovid and on through great swathes of English literature, as detailed in the expansive notes in the Ricks and McCue edition of Eliot’s poems.[3]

In the myth, the sisters kill Itylus, son of Tereus and Procne, cook him and feed him to Tereus. When he is told what they’ve done, he sets off in murderous pursuit of them: but the gods save them, turn Philomela into a nightingale and Procne into a swallow.

Swinburne’s ‘Itylus’ takes the form of a monologue by Philomela:

Swallow, my sister, O sister swallow,
How can thine heart be full of the spring?
A thousand summers are over and dead.
What hast thou found in the spring to follow?
What has thou found in thine heart to sing?
What wilt thou do when the summer I shed?[4]

In 1868, Dante Gabriel Rossetti published a sonnet, ‘Venus Verticordia (for a picture)’ – the picture was commissioned in 1863 and finally sent to John Mitchell of Bradford in the autumn of 1869.

Rossetti-Venus-Verticordia

(Rossetti, Venus Verticordia: Russell-Cotes Art Gallery, Bournemouth)

She hath the apple in her hand for thee,
Yet almost in her heart would hold it back;
She muses, with her eyes upon the track
Of that which in thy spirit they can see.
Haply, ‘Behold, he is at peace,’ saith she;
‘Alas! the apple for his lips,—the dart
That follows its brief sweetness to his heart,—
The wandering of his feet perpetually!’

A little space her glance is still and coy;
But if she give the fruit that works her spell,
Those eyes shall flame as for her Phrygian boy.
Then shall her bird’s strained throat the woe foretell,
And her far seas moan as a single shell,
And through her dark grove strike the light of Troy.[5]

In 1936, Ford wrote to Allen Tate: ‘Is there, by the bye, any decent translation of the XELIDON [swallow] song? If there isn’t, I think I’d have a shot at it. Isn’t it the most beautiful thing that was ever made…or is that one of my sexagenarian delusions?’[6]

Tate did translate the Pervigilium Veneris as ‘The Vigil of Venus’ (1943). In his preface, he wrote that he had come upon the poem in about 1917 ‘in the usual way’ (in Walter Pater’s Marius the Epicurean), looked up the Latin text and was disappointed, because his ‘adolescent revolt’ against the influence of Swinburne made it impossible ‘to read properly any poem about pagan love.’ He didn’t look at the poem again until about 1930, when he ‘tried to work out a translation of the famous refrain’, an attempt that failed. He returned to it in the fall of 1942, and this time translated the entire poem.

Tate’s preface ends with his acknowledgements: to Robert Lowell, ‘for constant criticism’ and, for the translation of the first line of stanza XXI, to his wife Caroline Gordon, the novelist and short story writer:

Now the tall swans with hoarse cries thrash the lake:
The girl of Tereus pours from the poplar ring
Musical change—sad sister who bewails
Her act of darkness with the barbarous king!

And that famous refrain? The Latin is: Cras amet qui nunquam amavit, quique amavit cras ame. There are, Ford noted, many translations. Tate has ‘Tomorrow may loveless, may lover tomorrow make love.’[7]

Ford’s own ‘free rendering’ was: ‘He that has never loved, let him love tomorrow; the lusty lover, let him love again.[8]

Now April beckons. The cruellest month, some say. We can only hope not.

 
Notes

[1] Ford Madox Ford, Ancient Lights and Certain New Reflections: Being the Memories of a Young Man (London: Chapman & Hall, 1911), 175, 154.

[2] Bonnie Blackburn and Leofranc Holford-Strevens, The Oxford Companion to the Year (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), 139.

[3] The Poems of T. S. Eliot. Volume I: Collected and Uncollected Poems, edited by Christopher Ricks and Jim McCue (London: Faber & Faber, 2015), 705-706.

[4] Algernon Charles Swinburne, Poems and Ballads & Atalanta in Calydon, edited by Kenneth Haynes (London: Penguin Books, 2000), 45.

[5] The Poetical Works of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, edited with a preface by William Rossetti (London: Ellis and Elvey, 1893), 360.

[6] Letters of Ford Madox Ford, edited by Richard M. Ludwig (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1965), 259.

[7] Allen Tate, Collected Poems, 1919-1976 ((New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1977), 145, 149, 161.

[8] Ford Madox Ford, The March of Literature: From Confucius to Modern Times (London: Allen & Unwin, 1939), 277.

 

‘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.

 

Last Posting

The still life, Guy Davenport observed in Objects on a Table: Harmonious Disarray in Art and Literature, ‘likes puns and double meanings’.

So too, among many others, did James Joyce (‘yung and easily freudened’), Ezra Pound – and Ford Madox Ford. One of the attractions of Last Post as a title for our Ford journal, certainly to my mind, was its many possible interpretations. I’d also edited the first critical edition of Ford’s novel of that title (the final volume of the Parade’s End tetralogy) where I’d discussed some of those interpretations,* so it was always going to be close to my heart.

My copies of the second issue of Last Post have just arrived—after long delays of the kind familiar to journal editors everywhere, I suspect—and I’m very glad to see it. The first issue is now open access and freely downloadable from the Ford Madox Ford Society website: http://www.fordmadoxfordsociety.org/

Just lately it seems that the most obviously timely writer is the sixteenth-century Thomas Nashe (‘In Time of Pestilence’):

Rich men, trust not in wealth,
Gold cannot buy you health;
Physic himself must fade;
All things to end are made;
The plague full swift goes by;
I am sick, I must die—
Lord, have mercy on us!

Beauty is but a flower
Which wrinkles will devour;
Brightness falls from the air;
Queens have died young and fair;
Dust hath closed Helen’s eye;
I am sick, I must die—
Lord, have mercy on us!

I’m sometimes made a little uneasy by attempts to make various historical figures (including writers) ‘relevant’ to our times: it’s often impressive enough if they were relevant to their own. But I find Ford inexhaustibly interesting both in revealing social, political and artistic facets of his own time and—smallholder, environmentalist, cultural commentator as well as creative artist—often illuminating aspects of ours too. So there’s plenty of scope for many more issues – and Last Post 3 is shaping up pretty well.

[* Among the ‘posts’: the Latin for ‘after’ or ‘since’ (‘post-war’), horse-racing, mail, support, the point at which a soldier is stationed when on duty, boundary marker, furniture and—these days—blogging. ‘Last’ takes us into the realms of cobblers, cargoes, endurance and contemporaneity. Taken together, they speak of communications and, of course, the bugle call signalling the order to retire for the night as well as the final farewell at military funerals and at remembrance services.]

In search of stars

van-gogh-starry_night

(Vincent van Gogh, Starry Night: https://www.vangoghgallery.com/painting/starry-night.html )

Walking part-way to the station with the Librarian, who’s catching a painfully early train to London, I’m reminded how hard it is to see stars in the night sky now in a city awash with lights: streetlamps, headlights, office buildings, traffic lights and illuminated road signs. There was an occasion, years back, when I lay on my back on the grass of the Downs along with several colleagues, all of us slightly the worse for wear, marvelling at the number and brilliance of visible stars, all making over again the usual discovery that the longer you look the greater the number you can see. Now, just once, on the yellow bridge spanning our tidal river, swiftly running just now, in a brief oasis of relative darkness, I could glimpse a mere handful of stars above me.

‘Goodbye, my dears, and bless you all, and again thank you for your cheering letters, like stars in a dark night’, the poet and composer Ivor Gurney wrote from Park House Camp on Salisbury Plain, where his battalion arrived in February 1916.[1] And elsewhere: ‘Dewy are the stars against their dark cloth/ And infinitely far that star Capella/ That calls to poetry.’[2]

Gurney was a walker, by day and by night, under sun, rain or stars. Sixty years later, Charles Tomlinson wrote:

Driving north, I catch the hillshapes, Gurney,
Whose drops and rises – Cotswold and Malvern
In their cantilena above the plains –
Sustained your melody: your melody sustains
Them, now – Edens that lay
Either side of this interminable roadway.
You would recognize them still, but the lanes
Of lights that fill the lowlands, brim
To the Severn and glow into the heights.
You can regain the gate: the angel with the sword
Illuminates the paths to let you see
That night is never to be restored
To Eden and England spangled in bright chains.[3]

Gurney-ODNB

(Ivor Gurney via Oxford Dictionary of National Biography)

In Ford Madox Ford’s 1933 novel The Rash Act, Henry Martin ‘imagined that it was like that when you are dead. You were motionless in black space. There would of course be great stars. Wherever it was perfectly black the light of the stars pierced the blackness. From the bottom of a deep, dry well in Indiana he had once seen the constellation of Cassiopeia though the sun was torrid above between the well-head and the sky.’[4]

Seven years earlier, Ford had made a similar point, though in a rather different context: ‘Twice he had stood up on a rifleman’s step enforced by a bullybeef case to look over—in the last few minutes. Each time, on stepping down again, he had been struck by that phenomenon: the light seen from the trench seemed if not brighter, then more definite. So, from the bottom of a pit-shaft in broad day you can see the stars.’[5]

Literature and painting seethe with stars: stars for distance, for coldness, for brightness, for fate, for navigation, for glory, for innumerability, deities and signals and portents. Bacchus flung Ariadne’s crown into the heavens where it became the constellation Corona Borealis and Titian paints those brilliant stars above her head.

Titian, c.1488-1576; Bacchus and Ariadne

(Titian, Bacchus and Ariadne: National Gallery)

More than once, I’ve thought of James Joyce’s famous phrase, ‘The heaventree of stars hung with humid nightblue fruit’,[6] as epitomising style – style capitalised or italicised, perhaps even in block capitals. Though I’ve seen this linked to the end of Dante’s Inferno, all three volumes of his Divine Comedy end with ‘stelle’ and both translations I have at home end with ‘stars’: the prose translation by John D. Sinclair and the verse translation, in terza rima, triple rhyme, by Laurence Binyon.

William Blissett recorded of a 1971 conversation that the poet and painter David Jones ‘was staying with Laurence Binyon when he was translating Dante, and one day a letter came from Ezra Pound. Binyon was puzzled, but David could see at a glance that
!!!!!!
meant “jolly good” or “jolly bad”, and
??????
meant “I wonder”. He drew these slowly on a cigarette packet.’[7]

Harry-Night-Sky

(Harry gazing: star-seekers come in all shapes and sizes)

Stellar: of the stars. I’m sure I’ve quoted before Richard Holmes’ recounting of the poet Thomas Campbell meeting the great astronomer William Herschel in Brighton in 1813, perplexed by Herschel’s saying that many distant stars had probably ceased to exist ‘millions of years ago’, ‘and that looking up into the night sky we were seeing a stellar landscape that was not really there at all. The sky was full of ghosts.’[8] So too in Helen DeWitt’s novel, The Last Samurai, it’s said of George Sorabji: ‘He was obsessed with distance. He had read of stars whose light had left them millions of years ago, and he had read that the light we see may come from stars now dead. He would look up and think that all the stars might now be dead; he thought that they were so far away there would be no way to know.
‘It was as if everything might really already be over.’[9]

Emma_Lavinia_Gifford

(Emma Hardy)

Thomas Hardy’s first wife, Emma Lavinia Gifford, in the City of Light on her honeymoon trip in 1874, wrote excitedly in her travel diary: ‘“Place de la Concorde first seen by moonlight! . . . Stars quite put out by Parisian lamps.”’[10]

Nearly forty years later, when she herself was eclipsed, her husband, in one of the remarkable poems of 1912-1913, wrote:

Soon will be growing
Green blades from the mound,
And daisies be showing
Like stars on the ground,
Till she form part of them[11]

Still, it seems that, as well as those dedicated journeys to experience true darkness and to breathe clean air, we must now add one more: expeditions in search of stars.

 

 

Notes

[1] Stars in a Dark Night: The Letters of Ivor Gurney to the Chapman Family, edited by Anthony Boden (Gloucester: Alan Sutton, 1986), 50.

[2] Ivor Gurney, ‘Fragment’, in Collected Poems, edited with an introduction by P. J. Kavanagh, revised edition (Manchester: Carcanet Press, 2004), 90.

[3] ‘To Ivor Gurney’, in Charles Tomlinson, New Collected Poems (Manchester: Carcanet Press, 2009), 380-381.

[4] Ford Madox Ford, The Rash Act (1933; Manchester: Carcanet Press, 1982), 157.

[5] Ford Madox Ford, A Man Could Stand Up— (1926; edited by Sara Haslam, Manchester: Carcanet Press, 2011), 59-60.

[6] James Joyce, Ulysses (1922; London: The Bodley Head, revised edition, 1969), 819.

[7] William Blissett, The Long Conversation: A Memoir of David Jones, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1981), 72. Pound corresponded with Binyon over many years and published a complimentary review of his Inferno: ‘Hell’, in Literary Essays of Ezra Pound, edited by T. S. Eliot (London: Faber and Faber, 1960), 201-213.

[8] Richard Holmes. The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science (London: Harper Collins, 2008), 210.

[9] Helen DeWitt, The Last Samurai (London: Vintage, 2001), 349.

[10] Emma’s diary quoted by Claire Tomalin, Thomas Hardy: The Time-Torn Man (London: Viking, 2006), 143.

[11] ‘Rain on a Grave’, Thomas Hardy, The Complete Poems, edited by James Gibson (London: Macmillan, 1976), 341.

 

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.