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.

 

A slight pricking of the thumbs

petworth reynolds macbeth & the witches

(Joshua Reynolds, Macbeth and the Witches
National Trust Collections: Petworth House and Park, West Sussex)

‘You’re not very safe around sharp things,’ the Librarian observes, watching me wrestle with sheets of kitchen roll. ‘Put some pressure on it.’

‘Everyone has little accidents in the kitchen,’ I say.

‘Not as often as you do.’

‘dear hemingway’, Ford Madox Ford began a letter in November 1932, ‘(I have cut off the top of my left thumb with a sickle and so cannot put down the capital stop)’. He had conveyed the same news to Ezra Pound, probably a little earlier: ‘i have cut off the top of my left thumb in a gardenin operation and writing is difficult to me’.[1]

No, not that: on this occasion, I merely sliced off several layers of skin from my forefinger, leaving a relatively small wound which, nevertheless, had only one ambition, one aim in life: to bleed. It took quite a while to stop it.

Ford’s letter, though. The first point of interest is that he’s still writing to Ernest Hemingway, with whom he’d fallen out in Paris during the brief life of the transatlantic review. Hemingway included unflattering portraits of Ford and Stella Bowen in The Sun Also Rises (1926) and generally wrote disparagingly about Ford in letters to various correspondents in the intervening years but there was some direct contact in 1932, partly because Ford wrote round to a good many writers, Hemingway among them, soliciting testimonials for a pamphlet issued to accompany the 1933 trade publication of Ezra Pound’s A Draft of XXX Cantos.

Cantos-Testimonials

(Via Peter Harrington Books: https://www.peterharrington.co.uk/authors/p/ezra-pound )

There was also the hugely admiring introduction (dated January 1932) that Ford had written for the Modern Library’s reissue of A Farewell to Arms.[2] Ford’s November 1932 letter acknowledges the copy of Death in the Afternoon that Hemingway has sent him: ‘i have been absorbing instruction from it ever since last night when i got it and shall shortly be able to talk like any aficionado’ (Letters 216). In 1935, Ford published a report for the New York Times on the trial of Bruno Hauptmann for the kidnapping and murder  of the young son of Charles Lindbergh and his wife Anne. The report was headed ‘Trial is Likened to a Bullfight’ and, in Great Trade Route, Ford described how, to his companion Janice Biala, the painter with whom he lived during his last decade, the people she met ‘were of unexampled vindictiveness and ferocity’ toward the defendant. ‘For her it was as if she were in a bull-fight crowd, every member of which would have spat on, if it could, and have tortured, the bull . . . which is not, of course, the attitude of any bull-fight crowd’.[3]

More than thirty years would elapse before the publication of Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast, with its cheerful defamation of several of his contemporaries, including Scott Fitzgerald, Wyndham Lewis, Gertrude Stein and Ford.

Ernst Jünger, in his classic First World War book Storm of Steel, wrote of finding the split thumb of a driver more sickening than wholesale slaughter and mutilation: ‘It’s an example of the way in which one’s response to an experience is actually largely determined by its context.’[4] Another contemporary of Ford’s, C. E. Montague, with a sly nod to the second witch in Shakespeare’s Macbeth—‘By the pricking of my thumbs,/ Something wicked this way comes’ (IV, i)—had the narrator of one of his stories remark: ‘Besides, I had felt a slight pricking in my thumbs, such as usually visits me when I come near an intellectual, even one who is not a burglar.’[5]

NPG 2752; Benjamin Jonson by Abraham van Blyenberch

(Abraham Blyenberch, Ben Jonson: National Portrait Gallery)

The poet and dramatist Ben Jonson presumably experienced something more than ‘a slight pricking’. When he killed the actor Gabriel Spencer in 1598, Jonson pleaded self-defence but also claimed ‘benefit of clergy’, the advantage of literacy being that he was able to read Psalm 51 (in the King James Bible) in Latin. The implication was that, since only members of the clergy could do so, it was inappropriate for them to be tried in a secular court rather than a (more lenient) ecclesiastical one. Possessing the power to save you from an undesirable rendezvous with the public hangman, the Psalm came to be known as the ‘neck verse’. In this instance, Jonson was only (only!) branded on the thumb.[6]

At least the skin on my forefinger will grow back. Probably.

 
Notes

[1] Ford Madox Ford, Letters of Ford Madox Ford, edited by Richard M. Ludwig (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1965), 216; Brita Lindberg-Seyersted, editor, Pound/Ford: The Story of a Literary Friendship (London: Faber & Faber 1982), 112.

[2] Reprinted in Ford Madox Ford, Critical Writings, edited by Frank MacShane (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1964), 127-136.

[3] Ford Madox Ford, Great Trade Route (London: Allen & Unwin, 1937), 198.

[4] Ernst Jünger, Storm of Steel, translated by Michael Hofmann (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 2004), 91.

[5] C. E. Montague, ‘A Fatalist’, in Action (1928; London: Chatto & Windus, Phoenix Library, 1936), 164.

[6] Peter Vansittart, In Memory of England: A Novelist’s View of History (London: John Murray, 1998), 48.

 

Tales of reconstruction

FMF-No-Enemy Kipling-Traffics

The latest Times Literary Supplement (3 January 2020) has a feature in which various writers select a book currently unavailable that they believe warrants reissuing: ‘Some nominations for out-of-print books that deserve to be rediscovered and republished’. Some interesting choices, a few of them enlightening, one or two slightly puzzling in the way they’re presented. Some, though not all, comment briefly on the recent publication history of their selected title. Internet searches have made tracking down secondhand copies a much less strenuous affair, while an increasing number of books now are available, or at least can be ordered, in rather disgusting print on demand versions, the older ones often simply scanned in, so with texts ranging from unreliable to unreadable.

Several books I’d not heard of at all—which was presumably the point, or one of them—and some are triumphantly on the money. Ruth Scurr, for one, with her highlighting of the wonderful Alethea Hayter; and Elizabeth Lowry chooses Kipling’s Traffics and Discoveries, which is a fine collection: she quite rightly mentions ‘They’ and ‘Mrs Bathurst’ and I assumed that they at least would be included in the intriguingly titled Collected Stories from Everyman. The second one is but, bafflingly, while ‘A Sahib’s War’ and ‘“Wireless”’ are, ‘They’ is not. The Everyman is a handsome volume but even 900 pages is not enough to gather up all the best, or a wholly representative range, of Kipling’s stories, as several editors have no doubt discovered.

Still, the main points of interest for this reader were, firstly, the title of the piece: ‘Tales of reconstruction’; and secondly, the book whose subtitle provides the TLS heading: Ford Madox Ford’s No Enemy: A Tale of Reconstruction. It’s chosen by the estimable Alexandra Harris: it was published, as she says, in 1929, and mostly written ten years earlier.

It’s of particular interest because, firstly, that’s where the name of this blog comes from; secondly, because while some of the contributors mention recent reprints, Harris doesn’t add anything to that ‘1929’. There was, though, a 1984 Ecco Press edition, a straight reprint of the original Macaulay edition; then the first UK edition, which I edited for Carcanet Press in 2002. It went out of print a few years back and Carcanet haven’t reprinted it but, after a couple of years when secondhand copies advertised on the ABE website were offered at ridiculous prices, there are several copies currently available for quite reasonable sums.

The Carcanet volume didn’t attract much attention when it appeared, less than I’d expected for the first British edition of a book by a major British writer, after a gap of more than seventy years. A short but invaluable notice from Alan Judd, eminent novelist and biographer of Ford; and a very brief review in the Guardian by someone who seemed to have read the first dozen pages and left it at that. For Alexandra Harris, it is ‘one of the most arrestingly original books I know about the experience of landscape.’ She adds that Ford ‘finds a language of numbness and revelation that anticipates Woolf’s “moments of being”; he works through layers and collages that we might now associate more readily with Sebald.’

That’s well said: though I may be biased, having mentioned Sebald in my 2002 introduction. A very interesting feature anyway: and a few titles I’ll certainly look out for. Perhaps not the Ford though: I seem to have several copies already.