A little mad about good letters

(Elizabeth Bishop)

On 8 July 1971, Elizabeth Bishop wrote to her friends Arthur Gold and Robert Fizdale: ‘I have to get to Cambridge early in September to arrange my new flat—and do some work on my new seminar, on “Letters”!’ She mentioned Jane Carlyle, Anton Chekhov, ‘my Aunt Grace’, John Keats, a letter found in the street, and asked for suggestions, ‘just on the subject of letters, the dying “form of communication.”[1]

‘Dying’ — already, fifty years ago.  My pronounced appetite for reading letters must be nearly as old, from Ackerley to Zukofsky. Is that a clue to why, though? Remnants, often receptacles, of a disappearing world, the attraction of the receding, the vanishing, the casualties of cultural, social and economic history. Prose is often just written – letters are at least always written to, addressed to, someone, an individual, which seems to offer something to grasp, to hang onto. They may appear written with eventual publication in mind, as is sometimes the case with diaries. But they’re often revealing and go to forming the autobiography that the writer may have declined to write, or never got around to writing.

I like, too, the ways in which letters themselves become the subject of letters, or of anecdotes (in letters), strands of biography or criticism. ‘Historians don’t go where sources don’t lead,’ Maya Jasanoff remarks, ‘which means they usually stop at the door to somebody’s mind. Even when diaries or letters seem to “tell all,” historians typically treat what happened as one thing, and what somebody made of it as another. Novelists walk right in and roam freely through a person’s feelings, perceptions and thoughts. What happened is what you make of it. That, Conrad argued, could make fiction the truer record of human experience.’[2] In his preface to Lawrence Durrell’s ‘Mediterranean’ writings, Alan Thomas mentioned that: ‘The debt of future literary scholars to Hugh Gordon Porteous might well have been greater, for he received many letters from fellow poets and accumulated a good deal of material when writing his excellent life of Wyndham Lewis. He sorted all this original material into two groups, important and less important. Unfortunately, he placed the former in a paper bag similar to the kind he used for the disposal of garbage. He returned home one evening to find that his charlady had given this to the dustmen.’[3]

To J. Howard Woolmer (21 March 1997), Penelope Fitzgerald wrote: ‘How nice to get one of your laconic letters which say exactly what you mean and no more – and after all that’s what letters are for.’[4] Twenty years before, she had recorded the rather gloomy scenario of the painter Edward Burne-Jones burning ‘many hundreds of letters, though he hated to lose Swinburne’s.’[5]

One of the earliest bestsellers that I recall when I started in the book trade was The First Cuckoo, an anthology of letters to the Times and Claire Tomalin, in her biography of Thomas Hardy, noted among the Reverend Henry Moule’s many activities that ‘He wrote letters to The Times about the potato.’[6]

(Sylvia Townsend Warner via NYRB editions)

Sylvia Townsend Warner reflected more than once on the value—and the mutual pleasure—of letters. To William Maxwell, she remarked: ‘The people who were attached to me might, however, like a collected volume of my Letters. I love reading Letters myself, and I can imagine enjoying my own.’[7] And, to David Garnett, little more than a week earlier: ‘You enjoy my letters, I enjoy yours. We are like those Etruscan couples who sit conversing on their tomb. We belong to an earlier and more conversational world, and tend to finish our sentences and tie up our shoelaces.’[8]

My favourites volumes would include:
D. H. Lawrence, without a doubt.
Guy Davenport, correspondence with Hugh Kenner and with James Laughlin
Letters between James Salter and Robert Phelps.
Sylvia Townsend, correspondence with William Maxwell, with David Garnett, with anybody.
Patrick White.
Edward Fitzgerald – and Penelope Fitzgerald, come to that.
Eudora Welty, to Maxwell again and to Ross Macdonald.
Nancy Mitford.
Elizabeth Bishop herself.

I am currently spending a great deal of time peering at Ford Madox Ford’s often execrably handwritten letters – or staring at words and phrases in previously published versions that annotation has smoothly sidestepped thus far. What is that? Quotation? Misprint? Misremembering? Joke? And what does that mean? The shocking news—I jest but it would, I suspect, be genuinely shocking to some people—is that not everything exists on the world wide web. Not every book and journal has been digitised—even when they have been, often in fuzzy scans, the original books have misprints, missing pages, wrong pagination, transposed chapters, startling variations between UK and US editions.

Ford, recalling Hokusai, an old man mad about painting, ‘humbly’ wrote himself down as a man ‘a little mad about good letters’.[9] There are certainly some good letters above his signature. So this promises to be endless fun. Almost endless, that is, since a deadline will certainly come calling.

Notes

[1] Elizabeth Bishop, One Art: The Selected Letters, edited by Robert Giroux (London: Pimlico, 1996), 544.

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

[3] Alan G. Thomas, editor, Spirit of Place: Mediterranean Writings (1969; London : Faber and Faber, 1988), 13.

[4] Penelope Fitzgerald, So I Have Thought of You: The Letters of Penelope Fitzgerald, edited by Terence Dooley (London: Fourth Estate, 2008), 365.

[5] Penelope Fitzgerald, Edward Burne-Jones (London: Michael Joseph, 1975), 227.

[6] Claire Tomalin, Thomas Hardy: The Time-Torn Man (London: Viking, 2006), 50.

[7] Letter of 23 June 1976, Michael Steinman, editor, The Element of Lavishness: Letters of Sylvia Townsend Warner and William Maxwell, 1938-1978 (Washington: Counterpoint, 2001), 301.

[8] Richard Garnett, editor, Sylvia and David: The Townsend Warner/ Garnett Letters (London: Sinclair-Stevenson, 1994), 213.

[9] Ford Madox Ford, Ancient Lights and Certain New Reflections (London: Chapman and Hall, 1911), 296.

The local exotic


‘Come, come, now, my blonde darling, I may not have written for a little longer than usual, but it couldn’t have been that “over a month” you mention. And you mustn’t worry about not hearing from me now and then. A lot of things can happen in a wartime Army to make writing difficult, and they don’t all have to be bad. If anything should happen to me, the good old USA would notify you, your name and address are on my dog tag. (The new dog tags, not yet issued to us, have no name and address of next-of-kin on them.)’

Dashiell Hammett was sending reassurances (after a fashion) from the Aleutians to his older daughter Mary, in February 1944.[1] Over a month! Still, it was, as he says, the Aleutians in wartime. ‘Darling’, Ford Madox Ford wrote to Stella Bowen in November 1918, ‘I haven’t had a word from you for three days—& you can imagine how long a time that seems to me’.[2]

There are people now that we haven’t had a word from for six months, people that we haven’t seen for a year – or more. So how would this work? That the people we haven’t seen for the longest period are the ones we most want to see? Of course not – or not necessarily. We are, after all, human animals, so we have, most of us, some of us, a few of us, lived in that magical state where we miss people the moment they leave us, more, even before they leave us since we can predict the moment when that separation will occur and feel it on our skin before it happens.

I see that people are pining away for the loss of a sight of Athens, Paris, New York, Sydney, Prague, Bilbao. I have been to some, though not all, of those places but, to be frank (to be earnest), the places I am plagued by pictures of—unannounced, unprompted, unasked for—are palpably absurd. Absurd and banal and not to be mentioned in the context of these discussions of exotic and far-flung locations.  They are the corners of streets not far from here; the road leading to a park in Bath; the hill running down to the Librarian’s parents’ home; a lane in Clifton, three miles away.


The local is lodged in my brain in a way that those others are not. Even the marvels of that apartment in Prague, that we talked of this evening. Even the baguette and Brie and glass of red wine on a pavement in Paris, bringing to mind the letter that Ford Madox Ford writes to Henry Goddard Leach, the editor of Forum and Century, in 1938, about the pieces he is thinking of drafting: ‘Another I meditate treating very soon is simply the fact that France—from the point of view of culture and the arts—manages everything so infinitely better than either branch of Anglo-Saxondom that the sooner we acknowledge the fact the sooner we shall be out of the wood.’[3]

And that was it, more or less. I remember thinking at the time, as I sat on that pavement in Paris: If we can’t even manage to provide bread and cheese and a glass of wine at this sort of level, how the hell can we manage anything else?

The answer was, of course: we can’t. And so it proved. Proves. Has proven. Will prove. Will prove to have proven.


Notes


[1] Selected Letters of Dashiell Hammett, 1921-1960, edited by Richard Layman with Julie M. Rivett (Washington, D.C.: Counterpoint, 2001), 281-282.

[2] Correspondence of Ford Madox Ford and Stella Bowen, edited by Sondra J. Stang and Karen Cochran (Bloomington & Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1994), 38.

[3] Ford Madox Ford, Letters of Ford Madox Ford, edited by Richard M. Ludwig (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1965), 288.

Edward Fitzgerald: a Life in Letters

Edward-Fitzgerald

‘Oh this wonderful wonderful world, and we who stand in the middle of it are all in a maze.’—Letter to Bernard Barton, 11 April 1844.

In 1922, modernism’s annus mirabilis, Virginia Woolf confided to her diary that she had made up her mind that she was not going to be popular. ‘My only interest as a writer lies, I begin to see, in some queer individuality: not in strength, or passion, or anything startling; but then I say to myself, is not “some queer individuality” precisely the quality I respect? Peacock, for example: Borrow; Donne; Douglas, in Alone, has a touch of it. Who else comes to mind immediately? FitzGerald’s Letters.’ She added that, ‘People with this gift go on sounding long after the melodious vigorous music is banal.’[1]

People of a bookish bent tend to know one or two things about Edward FitzGerald: the most generally known one is that he translated the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám; the second thing, also pretty widely known now, is that A. C. Benson’s book about FitzGerald, published in the English Men of Letters series in 1909, which includes the lines, ‘Here he sits, in a dry month, old and blind, being read to by a country boy, longing for rain’, lay behind the famous beginning of T. S. Eliot’s ‘Gerontion’:

Here I am, an old man in a dry month,
Being read to by a boy, waiting for rain.

‘I can recall clearly enough’, Eliot wrote, a decade after The Waste Land, ‘the moment when. at the age of fourteen or so, I happened to pick op a copy of Fitzgerald’s Omar which was lying about, and the almost overwhelming introduction to a new world of feeling which this poem was the occasion of giving me. It was like a sudden conversion; the world appeared anew, painted with bright, delicious and painful colours.’[2]

TSE-VW-1924-OM-NPG

(Lady Ottoline Morrell, T. S. Eliot and Virginia Woolf (1924): © National Portrait Gallery)

Most recently, I find a small slip of paper lodged in my old proof copy of W. G. Sebald’s Rings of Saturn, scrawled all over with a couple of dozen one- or two-word notes: names, from literature and history, on which Sebald’s mind has seized until the point is made, the connection or association teased out, the story told. Thomas Browne, Rembrandt, Dunwich, Ashburnham, Michael Hamburger, Middleton, sugar and art, Merton, the Ashburys, Chateaubriand, herrings, silk, the storm of 16 October 1897, Felixstowe, Orfordness – and Edward FitzGerald.[3]

sebald-rings-of-saturn-british-edition

(Jacket of UK edition, W. G. Sebald, The Rings of Saturn)

FitzGerald was born on 31 March 1809. On the death of his grandfather in 1818, his mother was reputed to be the wealthiest commoner in England. After grammar school and Cambridge, he eventually furnished a cottage on the edge of the family estate at Boulge Hall in Suffolk. Two years later, after describing a typical day, he could add, with justice, ‘But such as life is, I believe I have got hold of a good end of it.’[4] He married reluctantly – and briefly: less than a year later, he and his wife Lucy concluded that the marriage was a failure and decided to separate. In 1864, FitzGerald moved to Woodbridge. He numbered among his friends, acquaintances and correspondents George Borrow, Thomas Carlyle, the poet George Crabbe’s son (also George), the actress and writer Fanny Kemble, Alfred and Frederick Tennyson, and William Makepeace Thackeray. At Woodbridge, he read, continued to write marvellous letters and visit his circle of friends.

It was in 1856 that one of those friends, E. B. Cowell, had begun transcribing portions of the Ouseley MS of Omar Khayyám’s Rubáiyát, which he’d recently discovered in the Bodleian; in July of that year, he gave FitzGerald the complete transcript. The following year, Cowell, by then in India, sent a transcript of the Calcutta MS of the Rubáiyát. FitzGerald submitted a translation to Fraser’s Magazine but later retrieved it and determined to publish it himself, having two and hundred and fifty copies printed, of which he reserved forty for his own use. It appeared in late March 1859 but failed to sell. It was discovered in the bookseller Bernard Quaritch’s ‘penny-box’ by W. H. Thompson and by Whitley Stokes, a Celtic scholar, who bought other copies and gave one to Dante Gabriel Rossetti. From Rossetti, the circle of appreciation widened, taking in George Meredith, Swinburne, William Morris, Edward Burne-Jones and, through him, his nephew, Rudyard Kipling. Ruskin also read it, quoting a stanza of the poem in a letter to Mrs Simon and remarking, ‘I wish the old Persian could see how much better I write for love of him.’[5] Famously, Ezra Pound would recall, in the context of Burne-Jones and Rossetti that ‘The English Rubaiyat was still-born/ In those days.’[6]

Myself when young did eagerly frequent
Doctor and Saint, and heard great Argument
About it and about: but evermore
Came out by the same Door as in I went.

Dulac_Rubaiyat

(Edmund Dulac, one of twenty colour illustrations to the Rubáiyát, 1909)

A second edition of the Rubáiyát appeared in 1866, a third in 1872, a fourth in 1879, resulting in a great many changes over that time; FitzGerald translated other Persian poems, as well as Calderon, Aeschylus and others. Other translations of the Rubáiyát appeared in the 1880s and 1890s.

If a loaf of wheaten bread be forthcoming,
A gourd of wine, and a thigh-bone of mutton,
And then if thou and I be sitting in the wilderness—

This is, apparently, a literal translation by Edward Heron-Allen (1899) of the lines that FitzGerald translated as ‘A Jug of Wine, a Loaf of Bread—and Thou/ Beside me singing in the Wilderness—’ (II, 308 n.11). No wonder, then, that Ezra Pound, who had condensed twelve lines of poetry translated from the Chinese by H. A. Giles to a three-line work plus, indispensably, the title (‘Fan-Piece, for her Imperial Lord’), was so receptive to the qualities of FitzGerald’s Rubáiyát.[7]

Ah, fill the Cup: – what boots it to repeat
How Time is slipping underneath our Feet:
Unborn TO-MORROW, and dead YESTERDAY,
Why fret about them if TO-DAY be sweet![8]

To his friend W. F. Pollock, FitzGerald wrote in 1846: ‘I have been all my life apprentice to this heavy business of idleness; and am not yet master of my craft; the Gods are too just to suffer that I should’ (I, 550). Though no stranger to the capital he was rarely at ease there. ‘Though I had to run to London several times, I generally ran back as fast as I could; much preferring the fresh air and the fields to the smoke and ‘“the wilderness of monkeys”’ in London’ (II, 56). FitzGerald was hit hard by the deaths of two close friends, particularly that of Kenworthy Browne who died in a riding accident, crushed by his horse. It was the death of Browne, the editors of his letters remark, ‘that finally made London intolerable to FitzGerald. The two had visited the city together frequently and the memory of his friend so haunted FitzGerald in streets and taverns as to “fling a sad shadow over all”’(I, 4).

Then too, for all his enjoyment of the English countryside, time could hang heavy even in Suffolk. ‘Oh, if you were to hear “Where and oh where is my Soldier Laddie gone” played every three hours in a languid way by the Chimes of Woodbridge Church, wouldn’t you wish to hang yourself? On Sundays we have the “Sicilian Mariners’ Hymn”—very slow indeed. I see, however, by a Handbill in the Grocer’s Shop that a Man is going to lecture on the Gorilla in a few weeks. So there is something to look forward to.’ (II, 411-412). And one of my favourites, in a letter to Mrs Charles Allen in 1857. ‘I always think a Nation with great Estates is like a Man with them:—more trouble than Profit: I would only have a Competence for my country as for myself’ (II, 296). Hurrah for a Competence.

; Old Jessup's Quay, Woodbridge

(Thomas Churchyard, Old Jessup’s Quay, Woodbridge. Photo credit: Colchester and Ipswich Museums Service: Ipswich Borough Council Collection)

His focus was increasingly on sailing, on his boat, on all things maritime—‘My chief amusement in Life is Boating, on River and Sea’ (II, 400). In August 1875, he wrote to Cowell, ‘I have not been very well all this Summer, and fancy that I begin to “smell the Ground,” as Sailors say of the Ship that slackens speed as the Water shallows under her. I can’t say I have much care for long Life: but still less for long Death: I mean a lingering one’ (III, 592-593).

FitzGerald died on 14 June 1883 and is buried in the churchyard of St Michael & All Angels, Boulge, Suffolk.[9]

References

[1] Entry for Saturday 18 February: The Diary of Virginia Woolf, Volume 2: 1920-24, edited by Anne Olivier Bell, assisted by Andrew McNeillie (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1981), 168. A footnote mentions that Norman Douglas’s Alone had appeared in late 1921; and that Woolf possessed the seven volumes of the 1902 Letters and Literary Remains of Edward Fitzgerald

[2] T. S. Eliot, The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism (1933; London: Faber and Faber, 1964), 33.

[3] See W. G. Sebald, The Rings of Saturn, translated by Michael Hulse (London: The Harvill Press, 1998), 195-207, on the FitzGerald family.

[4] To John Allen, 28 April, 1839. The Letters of Edward FitzGerald, edited by Alfred McKinley Terhune and Annabelle Burdick Terhune, four volumes (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1980), I, 224. All references in text to this edition.

[5] The Letters of John Ruskin: Volume I, 1827-1869, edited by E. T. Cook and Alexander Wedderburn (London: George Allen, 1909), 455.

[6] Ezra Pound, ‘Yeux Glauques’ (Hugh Selwyn Mauberley VI), Personae: The Shorter Poems of Ezra Pound, edited by Lea Baechler and A. Walton Litz (New York: New Directions, 1990), 189.

[7] Hugh Kenner, The Pound Era (London: Faber and Faber, 1972), 197.

[8] Quotations from the first edition, the text used in The Penguin Book of Victorian Verse (London: Allen Lane, 1997), selected and edited by Daniel Karlin, who subsequently produced the Oxford World Classics edition of the Rubáiyát (2009).

[9] A visit to the grave by T. F. Powys is the starting-point for a fascinating discussion of the Fitzgerald–Sebald–Powys connection in Stephen Batty’s ‘“To grasp this sorry Scheme of Things”’: Theodore Francis Powys & the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám’, The Powys Journal, XXI (2011), 71-95.