‘Falling from a high stool’: Pound, Yeats, Lionel Johnson

 

DPE72F  Ezra_Pound_Coburn.jpg

 

(Lionel Johnson via TLS; Pound c. 1913 by Alvin Langdon Coburn)

Reading Elif Batuman’s novel The Idiot, I came upon this: ‘On the train back, Svetlana told me about a Serbian movie director who had been friends with her father in Belgrade. The director’s wife, an actress, had gone to Paris to make a movie with a young French director. The French director had died tragically by falling off a barstool. “They said it might have been suicide,” Svetlana said.’[1]

The joke here is the improbable means of suicide, of course, but I was reminded of the sixth section of Ezra Pound’s Hugh Selwyn Mauberley, entitled ‘Siena Mi Fe’; Disfecemi Maremma’ [from Dante’s Purgatorio, ‘Sienna made me, Maremma undid me’]:

Among the pickled foetuses and bottled bones,
Engaged in perfecting the catalogue,
I found the last scion of the
Senatorial families of Strasbourg, Monsieur Verog.

For two hours he talked of Gallifet;
Of Dowson; of the Rhymers’ Club;
Told me how Johnson (Lionel) died
By falling from a high stool in a pub . . .[2]

‘Monsieur Verog’ is the poet and critic Victor Plarr, who was librarian of the Royal College of Surgeons from 1897 to his death in 1929, working for much of that time on the library catalogue. He was also a founder member of The Rhymers’ Club, which made him of interest to Pound, having stories to tell of Ernest Dowson (of whom he wrote a memoir), Lionel Johnson, Selwyn Image, Richard Le Gallienne and others.

K. K. Ruthven suggests that Katharine Tynan, the writer and friend of Yeats, ‘seems to have been responsible for the erroneous story that Johnson died after falling from a stool’.[3] Johnson did indeed die of a fall, though it was ‘not in a pub, but on Fleet Street’.[4]

Tynan

(Katharine Tynan via Wikipedia Commons)

Lionel Johnson (1867-1902) was a first cousin of Olivia Shakespeare, mother of Pound’s wife Dorothy. His 1889 poem, ‘Lines to a Lady upon her Third Birthday’, is addressed to Dorothy—‘Dear Cousin: to be three years old,/ Is to have found the Age of Gold’[5]—and Pound wrote the preface to Johnson’s Poetical Works (1915). This was excluded from the American edition and also from later English printings, ‘apparently because it included extensive quotations from notes sent by Lionel Johnson to Katherine Tynan and printed by her after his death in the Dublin Review for October 1907.’ Johnson’s critical comments concerned several of his contemporaries, including Arthur Symons and Richard Le Gallienne, both still alive in 1915.[6] His notes are included, though, in ‘Lionel Johnson’, collected in Pound’s Literary Essays: ‘Baudelaire and Verlaine generally ring true, and their horrors and squalors and miseries and audacities have the value and virtue of touching the reader to something of compassion or meditation. Symons no more does that than a teapot. “This girl met me in the Haymarket, with a straw hat and a brown paper parcel, and the rest was a delirious delight: that girl I met outside a music hall, we had champagne, and the rest was an ecstasy of shame.” That is Symons.’

The teapot is a nice touch.

Pound’s praise foregrounds his explicit awareness that Johnson ‘cannot be shown to be in accord with our present doctrines and ambitions. His language is a bookish dialect, or rather it is not a dialect, it is a curial speech and our aim is natural speech, the language as spoken. We would write nothing that we might not actually say in life—under emotion. Johnson’s verse is full of inversions, but no one has written purer Imagisme than he has, in the line

Clear lie the fields, and fade into blue air.

It has a beauty like the Chinese.’[7]

Walking_on_Path_in_Spring

(Ma Yuan, Walking on a Mountain Path in Spring, 13th century)

Plenty to unpack here. Pound’s ‘our aim is natural speech, the language as spoken’ sits a little uncomfortably with some of his earlier pronouncements. ‘[W]e must have a simplicity and directness of utterance which is different from the simplicity and directness of daily speech, which is more “curial”, more dignified’, he wrote in 1912; and, ‘There are few fallacies more common than the opinion that poetry should mimic the daily speech.’ Again, in that same year: ‘Mr Hueffer is so obsessed with the idea that the language of poetry should not be a dead language, that he forgets it must be the speech of to-day, dignified, more intense, more dynamic, than to-day’s speech as spoken’.[8] By 1914, then, when Pound was writing this introduction, the case was altered. Imagism had happened, Vorticism was happening and—‘a beauty like the Chinese’—the encounter with the Fenollosa notebooks, which resulted in the Noh plays and Cathay, had also engaged and enlarged Pound’s resources.

And that curious word ‘curial’? ‘Of or pertaining to a royal court; having the manners befitting a court; courtly’, the Oxford English Dictionary says. And, perhaps fittingly, ‘Obsolete’.[9] The papal curia – the administrative institutions through which the Catholic Church’s affairs are conducted – is certainly appropriate enough to the Roman Catholic convert Johnson, who introduced his cousin—Alfred Lord Douglas—to Oscar Wilde in the summer of 1891. He rather regretted it later.[10]

Quoting ‘In Memory. II’, the poem beginning:

Ah! fair face gone from sight,
With all its light
Of eyes, that pierced the deep
Of human night!
Ah! fair face calm in sleep.

Ah! fair lips hushed in death!
Now their glad breath
Breathes not upon our air
Music, that saith
Love only, and things fair

Pound presents it as an example of ‘poems as beautiful as any in English’ – though he leaves out some of Johnson’s ‘poetical’ exclamation marks. Those short lines and rhymes in such close proximity make me wonder if there’s any sense of affinity with the Provençal poems of Arnaut Daniel that Pound was translating, such as ‘Can Chai la Fueilla’:

When sere leaf falleth
from the high forkèd tips,
And cold appalleth
dry osier, haws and hips,
Coppice he strips
of bird, that now none calleth.   (Ezra Pound: Poems and Translations, 482)

He attends closely to Johnson the poet, while the man himself is a ghost transmitted to Pound through the spoken and written words of W. B. Yeats. Johnson is central to ‘The Tragic Generation’, a section of Yeats’s autobiographical The Trembling of the Veil. He recalled Johnson reading or speaking aloud ‘in his musical monotone, where meaning and cadence found the most precise elocution, his poem suggested by the Statue of King Charles at Charing Cross. It was as though I listened to a great speech.’

Charles I

(Equestrian statue of Charles I : Wikipedia Commons)

Comely and calm, he rides
Hard by his own Whitehall:
Only the night wind glides:
No crowds, nor rebels, brawl.

Gone, too, his Court: and yet,
The stars his courtiers are:
Stars in their stations set;
And every wandering star.

Alone he rides, alone,
The fair and fatal king:
Dark night is all his own,
That strange and solemn thing.     (Poetical Works of Lionel Johnson, 14)

Yeats wrote of the alcoholic Johnson’s drinking as well as the report that, ‘at the autopsy after his death’, he was discovered ‘never to have grown, except in the brain, after his fifteenth year’.[11] His 1936 broadcast, ‘Modern Poetry’, open with memories of The Rhymers’ Club: ‘Two members of the Club are vivid in my memory’, that is, Johnson and Ernest Dowson. Johnson was ‘determined, erect, his few words dogmatic, almost a dwarf but beautifully made, his features cut in ivory. His thought dominated the scene and gave the Club its character.’ Yeats recalled Johnson’s stories of all the famous statesmen, ecclesiastics and writers he had met and his eventual discovery that Johnson had never met them but had made it all up, that he would sit at night with a glass of whisky at his elbow, ‘imagining the puppets that were the true companions of his mind.’[12]

In the introduction to his selection for The Oxford Book of Modern Verse, Yeats quoted Johnson (‘Life must be a ritual’) and commenced the next section thus:

‘Then in 1900 everybody got down off his stilts; henceforth nobody drank absinthe with his black coffee; nobody went mad; nobody committed suicide; nobody joined the Catholic Church; or if they did I have forgotten.’[13] Stilts, of course, are not the legs of barstools. . .

Circe, by John William Waterhouse

(J.W. Waterhouse, Circe Offering the Cup to Odysseus (Gallery Oldham)

Near the end of Pound’s Mauberley, we read of:

The unforecasted beach:
Then on an oar
read this:

“I was
And I no more exist;
Here drifted
An hedonist.”

It’s often noted that Johnson’s barstool fall earlier in Mauberley echoes the fatal descent of Elpenor in Homer’s Odyssey, drunk, tumbling down a ladder in Circe’s house. The youngest of Odysseus’s men, he is the first shade that Odysseus meets in the underworld. Homer’s Book XI is, of course, the one out of twenty-four that Pound selects as basis for his Canto I, in which Elpenor pleads to Odysseus:

‘But thou, O King, I bid remember me, unwept, unburied,
Heap up mine arms, be tomb by sea-bord, and inscribed:
A man of no fortune, and with a name to come.
And set my oar up, that I swung mid fellows.’

Elpenor’s name will be remembered, firstly, through the actions of the hero Odysseus but primarily through the words of the poet Homer. Mauberley’s name will be remembered through the words of the poet, Pound, who sees aspects of himself in Odysseus and wishes—as poet—to evade Mauberley’s fate and leave him far behind. So too the edition of Johnson’s poems, with Pound’s respectful and often laudatory introduction—which has its own afterlife—sets up an oar above Johnson’s own heaped arms.

 

 

Notes

[1] Elif Batuman, The Idiot (London: Vintage, 2018), 42.

[2] Ezra Pound: Poems and Translations, edited by Richard Sieburth (New York: Library of America, 2003), 553.

[3] K. K. Ruthven, A Guide to Ezra Pound’s Personae (1926) (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983), 136.

[4] John Espey, Ezra Pound’s Mauberley: A Study in Composition (1955; Berkeley: University of California Press, 1974), 92.

[5] Poetical Works of Lionel Johnson (London: Elkin Mathews, 1915), 52. See Ezra Pound and Dorothy Shakespear: Their Letters, 1909-1914, edited by Omar Pound and A. Walton Litz (London: Faber and Faber, 1985), 83-84.

[6] Donald Gallup, Ezra Pound: A Bibliography, revised edition (Charlottesville: University of Press of Virginia, 1983), 140.

[7] Literary Essays of Ezra Pound, edited by T. S. Eliot (London: Faber and Faber, 1960), 365, 362. The phrase ‘under emotion’ recalls Pound’s letter to Harriet Monroe, editor of Poetry in January 1915—‘nothing that you couldn’t, in some circumstance, in the stress of some emotion, actually say’—with a 1937 footnote added to the letter: ‘It should be realized that Ford Madox Ford had been hammering this point of view into me from the time I first met him’: Selected Letters, 1907-1941, edited by D. D. Paige (New York: New Directions, 1971), 49.

[8] Ezra Pound, Selected Prose 1909-1965, edited by William Cookson (London: Faber and Faber, 1973), 41; review of Ford’s High Germany in Brita Lindberg-Seyersted, editor, Pound/Ford: The Story of a Literary Friendship (London: Faber & Faber 1982), 10.

[9] Herbert N. Schneidau, Ezra Pound: The Image and the Real (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1969), discusses the changing status of ‘curial’ in Pound’s prose and the shifts in attitude towards the language as spoken.

[10] Richard Ellmann, Oscar Wilde (London: Penguin Books, 1988), 306.

[11] W. B. Yeats, Autobiographies (London: Macmillan, 1955), 301, 310-311.

[12] W. B. Yeats, Essays and Introductions (London: Macmillan, 1961), 491, 492-493.

[13] W. B. Yeats, ‘Introduction’, The Oxford Book of Modern Verse, 1892-1935 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1936), x, xi.