Taking some lines for a walk: Ford, Conrad, Novalis

(Ford by Hoppé; Conrad via New York Public Library)

On this day in 1913, Ford Madox Ford published an essay in The New Freewoman, the middle incarnation of three journals edited wholly or in part by the suffragist and radical activist Dora Marsden. She started The Freewoman: A Weekly Feminist Review (1911-1912) with her friend Mary Gawthorpe; in the latter half of 1913, she edited what had become The New Freewoman – Rebecca West (who had got her start in The Freewoman) was literary editor; finally, it became The Egoist, with Harriet Weaver as editor (and primary financial backer) and Marsden as contributing editor, running from January 1914 to December 1919 and famously publishing some key modernist texts (by Joyce, Wyndham Lewis, Pound and Eliot).[1]

Dora-Marsden

Dora Marsden apparently necessitating the attention of several big strong men:
http://spartacus-educational.com/WmarsdenD.htm

Ford’s essay, ‘The Poet’s Eye’, unsurprisingly bore a strong resemblance to the ‘Preface’ to his Collected Poems, published towards the end of that year. Much of it discussed his view of the differences between poetry and prose, the first being for him quite uncontrollable, ‘words in verse form’ coming into his head from time to time and being written down ‘quite powerlessly and without much interest, under the stress of certain emotions.’ With prose, ‘that conscious and workable medium’, it was ‘a perfectly different matter.’

Ford is actually arguing that the ‘literary jargon’ to which English poetry is wedded, together with the narrow assumptions of what constitutes the suitable material of poetry, renders it incapable of dealing with modern life, ‘so extraordinary, so hazy, so tenuous with, still, such definite and concrete spots in it’. Poetry in English was, of course, on the cusp of extraordinary change: Pound’s Ripostes the previous year had included ‘The Return’ and T. E. Hulme’s poems; Des Imagistes would follow in 1914, as would W. B. Yeats’s Responsibilities; Cathay and Eliot’s ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’ in 1915. But, at the time of his writing, there was still a strong and widespread adherence to what Ford termed ‘the sure cards of the poetic pack’.

‘I may really say’, Ford asserted, ‘that for a quarter of a century I have kept before me one unflinching aim—to register my own times in terms of my own time, and still more to urge those who are better poets and better prose writers than myself to have the same aim. I suppose I have been pretty well ignored; I find no signs of my being taken seriously. It is certain that my conviction would gain immensely as soon as another soul could be found to share it. But for a man mad about writing this is a solitary world, and writing—you cannot write about writing without using foreign words—is a métier de chien.’[2]

Ford was precocious—but perhaps not to quite that degree: a literal ‘quarter of a century’ would have made him fourteen. His first book was published shortly before his eighteenth birthday. But there are some splendidly recurrent phrases here, I mean ones that resonate in minds that have grazed in Fordian fields. I remember Donald Davie writing about a phalanx of details in Pound’s Canto 80, pausing to remark that ‘Anyone is free to decide that life is too short for such unriddlings; others (I speak from experience) may develop a taste for them.’[3] This is not such an unriddling but certainly a related pleasure—or vice.

Novalis

(Friedrich von Hardenberg: Novalis)

‘It is certain that my conviction would gain immensely as soon as another soul could be found to share it.’ Yes, ‘recurrent’ is an apt word here. In 1900, William Blackwood published Lord Jim by Joseph Conrad, its epigraph reading: ‘“It is certain my conviction gains infinitely, the moment another soul will believe in it.”—Novalis.’ Cedric Watts’ note points out that in the German original, the word means ‘opinion’ rather than ‘conviction’, that Conrad was probably using the translation by Thomas Carlyle in On Heroes, Hero-Worship and the Heroic in History, and that an alternative version appears in another Carlyle book, Sartor Resartus, which Conrad has his character Marlow read in his novella Youth. Watts also notes that Conrad quotes Novalis’ aphorism again in A Personal Record.[4]

Lord Jim was published during the intense period of collaboration between Ford and Conrad which eventually produced The Inheritors (1901), Romance (1903) and The Nature of a Crime (1909; 1924). It was in the September of 1898 that the two men met and , in the following month, Conrad and his family moved into Pent Farm, Postling, Kent, sublet to them by Ford. A quarter of a century later, Ford recalled of that time: ‘Conrad’s conviction restored life to the fainting Pent: it breathed once more: the cat jumped off the window sill; the clock struck four’: this immediately preceding the arrival of W. H. Hudson—their first meeting—who would be of immense importance to Ford, though in less immediately evident ways than Conrad.[5]

Use what’s at hand: ‘pent’, wonderful. Ford’s fictional ambitions were both fired and freed in the course of the collaboration, while ‘the bulk of [Conrad’s] greatest fiction—the completed Lord Jim, Heart of Darkness, Nostromo, and The Secret Agent—was written while collaborating with Ford.’[6]

In 1915, in the second of Ford’s propaganda books, he notes in the ‘Preface’, ‘It is certain that my conviction gains immensely as soon as another soul can be found to share it.’[7] The following year, writing to Conrad from a Red Cross hospital in Rouen, he commented, ‘Since I have been out here this time I have not had one letter from one living soul. So one’s conviction does not get much from wh[ich]. to gain anything!’ By 1921, when Ford was writing to Harriet Monroe to acknowledge the Poetry prize awarded to him for A House (1921), the quote from Novalis (not named here) had become ‘the immortal dictum: “It is certain that my conviction gains immensely as soon as another soul can be found to share it”’[8] and the precise wording recurs in a 1927 essay about Ford’s memories of New York.[9]

One clear implication of these instances is that, while Ford—at least trilingual—could have read, and translated for himself, the lines from Novalis, he didn’t: though perhaps, even if he’d done so, he might have persisted with the version he associated with Conrad. But it’s also very striking, and surely poignant, that Ford, editor as well as writer, closely connected with so many groups of writers and artists, from the late 1890s through the English Review crowd, Imagism, Vorticism, Paris in the 1920s, New York and Tennessee in the 1930s, had that constant need for another soul to share his conviction. ‘He needed more reassurance than anyone I have ever met’, Stella Bowen remembered.[10] ‘Until the arrival of such “uncomfortables” as Wyndham Lewis, the distressful D. H. Lawrence, D. Goldring, G. Cannan, etc., I think Ford had no one to play with’, Ezra Pound wrote—an oddly selected cast but with a grain of truth, nevertheless.[11]

Hokusai

Those phrases, ‘a man mad about writing’ and ‘a métier de chien’ in Ford’s essay also have their histories. Describing himself as ‘an old man mad about writing’, Ford pointed to the artist Hokusai who called himself ‘an old man mad about painting’: he used the phrase or variations on it several times.[12] That ‘métier de chien’ is, again, associated particularly with Conrad: ‘For Conrad hated writing more than he hated the sea. . . . Le vrai métier de chien. . . . ’ but employed and alluded to in various contexts.[13] Then later references to the Shepherd’s Bush Exhibition and that phrase, ‘We are the heirs of all the ages’. . . But no, the comments on the essay would threaten to rival, in length at least, the essay itself. Perhaps another time, another walk, another conviction. ‘Taking a line for a walk’ – that was Paul Klee, I think. Another kind of line but the phrase would probably serve: taking a few Fordian lines for a walk. Yes, why not?

 
References

[1] Detailed on the indispensable Modernist Journals Project website: http://modjourn.org/index.html

[2] Ford Madox Ford, ‘The Poet’s Eye’, New Freewoman, I, 6 (1 September 1913), 107-110.

[3] Donald Davie, ‘Ezra Pound Abandons the English’ (1975), reprinted in Studies in Ezra Pound (Manchester: Carcanet Press, 1991), 236.

[4] Joseph Conrad, Lord Jim, edited by Robert Hampson with an introduction and notes by Cedric Watts (London: Penguin Books, 1989), 41, 353; see also Ian Watt, Conrad in the Nineteenth Century (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1979), 40 and n.

[5] Ford Madox Ford, Joseph Conrad: A Personal Remembrance (London: Duckworth, 1924), 155.

[6] Max Saunders, Ford Madox Ford: A Dual Life, two volumes (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996), I, 117. Alan Judd observes that, ‘Most of Conrad’s best work was written during periods of their intimacy’: Ford Madox Ford (London: Collins, 1990), 63.

[7] Ford Madox Ford, Between St. Dennis and St. George: A Sketch of Three Civilisations (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1915), vi.

[8] Ford Madox Ford, Letters of Ford Madox Ford, edited by Richard M. Ludwig (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1965), 80, 136. E. M. Forster was at it too, quoting the same aphorism of an unnamed ‘mystic’: Howards End (1910; edited by Oliver Stallybrass, London: Penguin Books, 1989).

[9] Ford Madox Ford, New York Is Not America (London: Duckworth, 1927), 91.

[10] Stella Bowen, Drawn From Life (London: Collins, 1941), 80.

[11] Ezra Pound, ‘Ford Madox (Hueffer) Ford; Obit’, in Selected Prose 1909-1965, edited by William Cookson (London: Faber and Faber, 1973), 433.

[12] Ford Madox Ford, The March of Literature: From Confucius to Modern Times (London: Allen & Unwin, 1939), vi: Conrad is named on the last page (850) of the text. Nicholas Delbanco’s essay on this book is titled ‘An Old Man Mad about Writing’: Joseph Wiesenfarth, History and Representation in Ford Madox Ford’s Writings (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2004), 219-231. In A Mirror to France (London: Duckworth, 1926), for instance, Ford is ‘an old man mad about Provence’ (208).

[13] Ford Madox Ford, Joseph Conrad, 113, 255; Thus to Revisit (London: Chapman & Hall, 1921), 57; Return to Yesterday: Reminiscences 1894-1914 (London: Victor Gollancz, 1931), 292; The Simple Life Limited by ‘Daniel Chaucer’ (John Lane, 1911), 73.

 

Feeling sheepish

Lambs-gazing

Outside the back door: the familiar plant pots; the collapsing shed; the teetering bird table that caters to blackbirds, magpies, blue tits. Working keenly enough at the thinning, clearing, preparations for the new season’s plants, the Librarian is, nevertheless, a little wistful: she is missing the sheep.

Close to the Black Mountains, we stayed in a cottage six hundred years old. People were smaller in those days, Robin of Locksley’s chum Little John notwithstanding. I think my skull had significant contact with wood six times in all: twice to remember to duck as I went in or out between kitchen and terrace; twice more to remember to stay ducked, since the total breadth of solid wood to be negotiated before straightening was more than twelve inches; and, say, twice accounted for by thinking of, or looking at, something else as I approached the doorway.

The noise of that world was its height when you could just make out the sound of the tractor in the field across the valley. Otherwise, you heard only sheep, birdsong—and bees interrogating the crevices in the slate wall which bordered the terrace below the orchard. At times, especially at day’s end, you heard nothing. The sound of silence.

‘As the truest society approaches always nearer to solitude, so the most excellent speech finally falls into silence.’[1] So wrote Henry Thoreau, who was not, perhaps, that crazy about society. Still, for our first three days in border country, we went nowhere and saw nobody—and loved it.

Holiday-reading

Did I take anything to read? I did. The Librarian’s gathering was a separate matter but didn’t consist of many fewer books.

As for sheep—literary sheep—I recalled the curious sentence in Ford Madox Ford’s memoir of Joseph Conrad: ‘In all our ten thousand conversations down the years we had only these two themes over which we quarrelled: as to the taste of saffron and as to whether one sheep is distinguishable from another.’ Hmm. The saffron affair came down to Conrad’s declaration that saffron had no flavour but was merely a matter of colouring, against Ford’s assertion that saffron was strongly flavoured. And one sheep distinguishable from another?

There was one more bone of contention mentioned later: the matter of official honours. ‘The reader should understand that this matter is one which divides forever—into sheep and goats—the world of the arts. There are some few artists who will accept Academic honours; to the majority of those who are really artists the idea is abhorrent, and those who accept such honours betray their brothers. To this majority Conrad had enthusiastically belonged. You had Flaubert who refused, you had Zola who all his life sought, academic distinction. For Conrad there had used to be no question as to which to follow. Now he had followed Zola.’[2]

As for the burning question of whether one sheep is distinguishable from another – on the basis of extensive research conducted over the last week, occasionally with a glass in my hand, I have an answer ready: yes.

 

 

References

[1] Henry David Thoreau, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers; Walden; The Maine Woods; Cape Cod (New York: Library of America, 1985), 318.

[2] Ford Madox Ford, Joseph Conrad: A Personal Remembrance (London: Duckworth, 1924), 29-30, 69.

 

That public-school frame of mind – perhaps

Dawn-Watch

‘So the great need of our time being the saving of time, any soul that can give us very quick, irrefutable and consummate pictures confers a great boon on humanity’, Ford Madox Ford wrote. ‘Joseph Conrad gave you Malaysia, South American republics, the Secret Service, the pre-Soviet efforts of Russian revolutionaries, the Congo, the Sea — and above all the English public school frame of mind.’[1]

Ah yes, that frame of mind. Conrad was a little less than six months dead when this essay appeared but a decade earlier, in the first year of the Great War, Ford had written of how he was ‘in a sense an unfortunate man—unfortunate in the sense that all men of forty and less, the world over, are unfortunate. For I came into, and took very seriously, English public-school life at a time when the English public-school spirit—in many ways the finest product of a civilisation—was already on the wane. I took its public traditions with extraordinary seriousness—the traditions of responsibilities, duties, privileges, and no rights.’[2] This was in a work of propaganda, written for his friend, the Liberal politician Charles Masterman, then in charge of the War Propaganda Bureau at Wellington House, its team of writers primarily concerned to oppose German propaganda in the United States. Ford had in fact attended a boarding-school in Folkestone, then, as a day-boy, University College School in Gower Street—but that tradition, that frame of mind, yes, he was probably familiar enough with it, one way or another.

Cumberbatch-Tietjens

(Benedict Cumberbatch as Christopher Tietjens in the BBC/HBO series of Parade’s End)

Christopher Tietjens, in his rather unhinged exchange with General Campion, states that ‘it is not a good thing to belong to the seventeenth or eighteenth centuries in the twentieth. Or really, because it is not good to have taken one’s public-school’s ethical system seriously. I am really, sir, the English public schoolboy. That’s an eighteenth-century product.’[3]

‘Have you read The Dawn Watch?’ my wife’s sister asked as we circled the piles of books in Waterstones. I said I hadn’t, though I’d looked at it several times, most recently in the past few minutes, and seen a couple of reviews. ‘I just don’t know if I’d read it’, I said, ‘I think it’s a bit peripheral to what really interests me at the moment.’ She regarded me steadily. ‘You’ve already bought it, haven’t you?’ I said, hearing the laboured grinding of my brain’s gears and wondering why I’d been so slow. And, when she nodded, ‘Well, that’s different’, I said hurriedly, ‘if it’s a present.’ She said helpfully: ‘It absolves you of the responsibility—’ ‘Exactly’, I said, ‘exactly.’

Conrad_1874

(Conrad, aged sixteen, 1874)

My slight reluctance might seem odd, given my intense interest in the period of history in which Conrad flourished, the writers with whom he associated, the themes that his work is concerned with, the fact that some of my Fordian friends are also card-carrying Conradians. Because of those things, in turn, I’ve read, over many years, all of Conrad’s fiction and some of his other writings too; plus a handful of biographical and critical works. Come to think of it, I’m pretty sure that I actually taught a Conrad text once—inevitably Heart of Darkness, which is, I have to say, an ideal seminar text: how can you not have an opinion about it? Still, the fact remains that he’s one of those writers that I’ve never liked quite as much as I think I should—given all the reasons for reading him in the first place. Entirely my fault, no doubt, no doubt. And there’s another thing. . .

After a certain age—it must vary wildly, depending on character—one begins to think in finite terms. Not calculating at every point, I mean, but in certain contexts, trips, holidays, meetings with friends or relatives who live inconveniently far off. . . books. Some book people, mainly but not exclusively male, I suppose, have lists. Books to read, books to reread, books to buy or borrow. They estimate, approximate, do sums. This many a year and say, this many years, that means. . . To those not similarly afflicted—or those that have not yet reached that certain age—such appraisal and conjecture can seem a little morbid. So it’s best not to say, when a title is suggested,  well I have a list of one thousand seven hundred and ninety-three titles and that’s not on it. There are books that will be published over the next ten or fifteen or twenty years and you need a margin. But it’s a fine balance. Like those people who are inundated with invitations at Christmas or New Year, hold out for even better offers, miscalculate and spend the evening at home with a bottle of indifferent wine, you must take care not to overplay your hand. . .

Joseph_Conrad

And so I’ve just begun to read Maya Jasanoff’s The Dawn Watch: Joseph Conrad in a Global World. And, needless to say, I am already hooked. Jasanoff is an award-winning historian—‘History is like therapy for the present: it makes it talk about its parents’—and you can see why: so I feel I’m in safe hands. And, early on, she remarks that ‘Conrad’s novels are ethical injunctions. They meditate on how to behave in a globalizing world, where old rulebooks are becoming obsolete, but nobody’s yet written new ones.’[4] And that ‘ethical injunctions’ is pretty close to some of Ford’s pronouncements about his old friend and collaborator. So, now embarked with Jasanoff, I still feel within hailing distance of Fordian shores. But there’s a goodish distance to go and I may yet find myself in quite uncharted waters. . .

References

[1] Ford Madox Ford, ‘From a Paris Quay (II)’, New York Evening Post Literary Review, 3 January 1925, 1-2, reprinted in Critical Essays, edited by Max Saunders and Richard Stang (Manchester: Carcanet Press, 2002), 269-271 (269).

[2] Ford Madox Ford, When Blood is Their Argument: An Analysis of Prussian Culture (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1915), 301.

[3] Ford Madox Ford, No More Parades (1925; edited by Joseph Wiesenfarth, Manchester: Carcanet Press, 2011), 236.

[4] Maya Jasanoff, The Dawn Watch: Joseph Conrad in a Global World (London: William Collins, 2017), 6, 9.