Four-posted

Barber, Alfred R., 1841-1925; Four Rabbits

Rabbit Quartet
(Alfred Barber, Four Rabbits: Stockport Heritage Services)

Glancing over the titles I’d borrowed from the university library—on my infrequent visits, I tend to range widely and sometimes incoherently—I was struck by a quite unintended recurrence: Four archetypes, The fourth imagist, The letters of D. H. Lawrence: Volume 4, W. H. Auden’s Prose: Volume 4, 1956-1962. Four fours. (There was, in fact, a trickster: a fifth title, by Patrick White, although—fittingly enough—it was called Three uneasy pieces).

 Four-square. The sign of four. In August 1889, less than two years after the debut of Sherlock Holmes in A Study in Scarlet, Arthur Conan Doyle had dinner at the Langham Hotel with Joseph Marshall Stoddart, the editor of Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine, Thomas Patrick Gill, former editor and M.P—and friend of Charles Stuart Parnell—and Oscar Wilde. The dinner resulted in two short novels appearing in Lippincott’s: Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray and Conan Doyle’s The Sign of Four (its magazine title added a second definite article: ‘The Sign of the Four; or, The Problem of the Sholtos’).

Doyle-Sign-of-Four

The story begins with the famous scene of Holmes injecting himself with cocaine (‘a seven-per-cent solution’)—and ends with him reaching up for the cocaine-bottle—touches on Watson’s publication of A Study in Scarlet and Holmes’s own published works (on types of tobacco ash, the tracing of footsteps, the influence of a trade upon the form of a hand), demonstrates the difference between observation and deduction, and introduces the Baker Street Irregulars, the tracker dog Toby and the woman who will become Watson’s wife, Miss Mary Morstan (‘I have never looked upon a face which gave a clearer promise of a refined and sensitive nature’, the doctor decides). All this as well as tales of the Indian Mutiny and a narrative excursion to the Andaman Islands. Conan Doyle also acknowledged the part played by the Langham Hotel: it is from here that Captain Morstan has so mysteriously disappeared.[1]

The Earth may be round but much of it’s quadriform –‘the four corners of the earth’ is familiar enough. Four elements, four seasons (for some of us); also dimensions, estates and (coming up fast on the inside) horsemen of the apocalypse. Franklin D. Roosevelt proposed four fundamental freedoms, though Harry Truman fooled around with them, replacing freedom from want and freedom from fear with ‘a promise of “freedom of enterprise”.’[2] According to Fernand Braudel, the world population doubled in four centuries (the fifteenth to the eighteenth); it does so now in more like four decades.[3] Ovid had described four ages of man; Thomas Love Peacock wrote of four ages of poetry: iron, gold, silver and brass. Modern poetry too had its ages and ‘that egregious confraternity of rhymesters’—the Lake Poets, primarily Wordsworth, Coleridge and Southey—were guilty of ‘conjuring up a herd of desperate imitators’, who had in turn ‘brought the age of brass prematurely to its dotage’.[4]

Four-ages-of-man

‘The four ages of man’, Bartholomaeus Anglicus (Royal 17 E III, f. 80): © The British Library

‘The grand object of travelling’, Samuel Johnson declared, ‘is to see the shores of the Mediterranean. On those shores were the four great Empires of the world; the Assyrian, the Persian, the Grecian, and the Roman.—All our religion, almost all our law, almost all our arts, almost all that sets us above savages, has come to us from the shores of the Mediterranean.’[5] Other fours that spring or schlep to mind include Ronald Duncan, ‘I have always needed the assistance of at least four women—and thought they were happy if they were too busy to complain’,[6] and Hugh Kenner’s discussion of Ezra Pound mulling over the opening of the Cantos, pondering ‘a chord that should comprise four of history’s beginnings: the earliest English (“Seafarer” rhythms and diction), the earliest Greek (the Nekuia), the beginnings of the 20th-century Vortex, and the origins of the Vortex we call the Renaissance, when once before it had seemed pertinent to reaffirm Homer’s perpetual freshness.’[7] And there is Lawrence Durrell’s epigraph to Justine, the first volume of The Alexandria s Quartet, a quotation from Freud (a letter to Wilhelm Fliess in 1899): ‘I am accustoming myself to the idea of regarding every sexual act as a process in which four persons are involved. We shall have a lot to discuss about that.’ Unsurprisingly, I’d say.

My own record on quartets and tetralogies is distinctly patchy. Brass, wind, string? Not many, a very superficial acquaintance given the range of choice. But Durrell, yes, T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets and Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels and T. H. White’s The Once and Future King, yes. Updike’s Rabbit books, almost there, Michael Moorcock’s The Cornelius Quartet, ditto, Yukio Mishima’s The Sea of Fertility, a bit. Paul Scott’s Raj Quartet, not at all, pretty close once or twice but never quite seized the moment; and the same goes for L. H. Myers, The Near and the Far.

On the other hand, when we come to Ford Madox Ford’s Parade’s End – I’d say I’m more than covered. ‘Bridge was his only passion; a fortnight every year was what, in his worn-out life, he got of it. On his holiday he rose at ten. At eleven it was: “A four for the Father.” From two to four they walked in the forest. At five it was: “A four for the Father.” [ . . . ] The other four played on solemnly.’

Fordian fours. No Enemy is not part of a tetralogy but the temptation’s there; and, after all, if I were to throw in Ford’s other immediate postwar writings (the ones that remained unpublished), ‘True Love & a G. C. M.’, ‘Mr Croyd’ plus one of the two other typescripts intimately related to it—‘That Same Poor Man’ and ‘The Wheels of the Plough’—I have a foursome.[8]

‘So Gringoire had four landscapes, which represent four moments in four years when, for very short intervals, the strain of the war lifted itself from the mind. They were, those intermissions of the spirit, exactly like gazing through rifts in a mist.’

Bring on those intermissions of the spirit, those rifts in the mist.

 
References

[1] Arthur Conan Doyle, The Sign of Four, in The New Annotated Sherlock Holmes: The Novels, edited with notes by Leslie S. Klinger (New York and London: W.W. Norton and Company 2006), 209-381.

[2] Sarah Churchwell, Behold, America: A History of America First and the American Dream (London: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2018), 285-286.

[3] Fernand Braudel, Civilization and Capitalism, 15th – 18th Century. Volume I: The Structures of Everyday Life: The Limits of the Possible, translated from the French; revised by Sîan Reynolds (London: Fontana Books 1985), 31.

[4] Peacock, The Four Ages of Poetry, quoted in Stephen Prickett, ‘Romantic Literature’, The Romantics, edited by Prickett (London: Routledge, 2016), 243.

[5] James Boswell, Life of Johnson, edited by R. W. Chapman, revised by J. D. Fleeman, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1980), 742.

[6] Ronald Duncan, All Men Are Islands: An Autobiography (London: Rupert Hart-Davis, 1964), 187.

[7] Hugh Kenner, The Pound Era (London: Faber and Faber, 1972), 349.

[8] The apparent confidence with which I list these is, of course, entirely based on the second volume of Max Saunders’ Ford Madox Ford: A Dual Life (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996).

Ghost-seers and revenants

Shields, Frederick James, 1833-1911; Hamlet and the Ghost

(Frederick James Shields, Hamlet and the Ghost: Manchester Art Gallery)

Saturday’s Guardian carried a paperback review of Lisa Morton’s Ghosts: A Haunted History. It begins: ‘Nearly half of Americans believe in ghosts; the worldwide figure is almost certainly higher’, and adds that Morton shows belief in ghosts to be ‘nearly universal, though the form taken by the “undead spirit” varies across time and space.’[1]

It’s certainly a remarkably prevalent word – and idea – in our culture, in most cultures. Ghostwriter, ghost story, Ghostbuster, ghost train, ghost town, ghost of a chance, give up the ghost, to look like a ghost, ghosts walking over our graves, the ghost in the machine. The Holy Ghost: the Divine Spirit, the third person of the trinity, the Holy Spirit, closer there to the German geist. Ford Madox Ford remembered telling his confessor about his difficulty in conceiving, let along believing in, that ‘Third Person of the Trinity’. The old priest sensibly replied: ‘“Calm yourself, my son, that is a matter for theologians. Believe as much as you can”.’[2]

The poet Thomas Campbell recalled meeting the celebrated astronomer William Herschel in Brighton, in September 1813, feeling that he’d been ‘conversing with a supernatural intelligence’. Herschel completely perplexed him by 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.’[3]

I’d tended to assume that fear of ghosts in the old sense had sensibly diminished in the more than four hundred years since Hamlet and the other witnesses had no doubts at all about what they were seeing when the ghost of the late king appeared to them, or the two hundred and fifty years since James Boswell was so unsettled by talk of ghosts: ‘This was very strong. My mind was now filled with a real horror instead of an imaginary one. I shuddered with apprehension. I was frightened to go home’.[4]

Had interest not steadily shifted to the observer rather than the observed? Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw is an obvious example; and Algernon Blackwood, in the preface to his collected stories, wrote: ‘My interest in psychic matters has always been the interest in questions of extended or expanded consciousness. If a ghost is seen, what is it interests me less than what sees it?’[5]

Ghosts_Almeida

(Ghosts at the Almeida Theatre via The Telegraph)
Lesley Manville as Helene Alving and Jack Lowden as Oswald Alving.

Henrik Ibsen disliked Ghosts as the title chosen by William Archer for his translation of the play into English. Richard Eyre, discussing his 2013 version, rendered the Norwegian Gengangere as ‘“a thing that walks again”, rather than the appearance of a soul of a dead person’ but pointed out that ‘Againwalkers’ was ungainly and the alternative, ‘Revenants’ he found ‘both awkward and French. Ghosts has a poetic resonance to the English ear.’
https://www.theguardian.com/stage/2013/sep/20/richard-eyre-spirit-ibsen-ghosts

Awkward? Arguably. French, most certainly. The 2004 film, Les Revenants, I’ve seen translated as They Came Back, while the recent television series based on it is called The Returned. In any case, the poetic resonance of ‘ghosts’ is certainly true enough in this English ear.

Unsurprisingly, the ‘theatre of war’—‘“theatre” is good. There are those who did not want / it to come to an end’[6]—is a flourishing site of wraiths, phantoms, visitants, revenants and vanishings. ‘Ghosts were numerous in France at that time’, Robert Graves wrote, recalling the second year of the First World War. Later, staying near Harlech at the large Tudor house of the Nicholson family—Graves married Nancy Nicholson, sister of Ben, third child of the painter William Nicholson and his wife Mabel—Graves remembered, ‘It was the most haunted house that I have ever been in, though the ghosts were invisible except in the mirrors.’[7]

Lucy_Masterman

(By Source (WP:NFCC#4), Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=51483551)

From France in 1916, Ford Madox Ford wrote to Lucy Masterman, wife of the Liberal politician, then running the British War Propaganda Bureau (Wellington House): ‘Why does nobody write to me? Does one so quickly become a ghost, alas!’[8]

And two and a half years after the Armistice, Siegfried Sassoon, thinking about the war, pulled out his war notebooks and paused on a diary entry of 30 June 1916. ‘The diary makes me realise that I shall never partake of another war. It makes me wonder whether five years ago was real. “Gibson’s face in the first grey of dawn . . . ” Gibson is a ghost but he is more real to-night than the pianist who played Scriabine with such delicate adroitness. I wish I could “find a moral equivalent for war”. To-night I feel as if I were only half-alive. Part of me died with all the Gibsons I used to know.’[9]

Rapid and colossal changes, in agriculture, in urban sprawl, in transport, in technology, in population density, in the widespread loss of natural habitats, the accelerating extinction of species, the rampant carelessness of planning and development, combine to engender common but unpredictable sensations of loss, an uneasiness, an unfocused search for the missing. ‘Our landscape is full of ghosts’, Anna Pavord writes, ‘of hands that have twitched and pulled it into sheep runs and cattle folds, bridleways and burial mounds. It is one of its great strengths.’[10] And Helen Macdonald wrote that ‘The hawk and I have a shared history of these fields. There are ghosts here, but they are not long-dead falconers. They are ghosts of things that happened.’[11]

The self, of course, can become a ghost, or feel like one. Writing to William Maxwell in early 1940, Sylvia Townsend Warner remarked: ‘Being a writer makes one a ghost before one’s time—the kind of ghost that likes a libation. War—or rather a state of things that antedates war—makes one feel more ghostly still’.[12] John Banville’s narrator refers to the self as an indistinct black shape, ‘like the shape that no one at the séance sees until the daguerreotype is developed. I think I am becoming my own ghost.’[13]

STW2

(Sylvia Townsend Warner via  http://sylviatownsendwarner.tumblr.com/)

How many of us are never haunted, by remembered faces, voices, names, the lives unlived, places unvisited, old friends misplaced, acquaintances not pursued, desired lovers untried? We may not use the word ‘ghost’, of course. But sometimes one of the most poignant experiences of the ghostly is not the dead friend or relative or lover, the spirit reluctant to leave building, battlefield or landscape—but the life that was never quite there at the outset, the lost because never held, the almost-life, as in the poem by Julia Copus, her narrator straining to see the longed-for sign of a successful IVF treatment:

She takes it all in, like a small, controlled explosion:
here is the inch-long stiff, absorbent pad –
a stopped tongue, the damp on it still; and the plastic housing

with its cut-out windows. And here is the latex strip
(two lines for yes), the single band of purple
and beside it the silvery ghost of a second line

willed into being – frail as the arm of a sea-frond
trailed in the ocean – but failing to darken or turn
into more than a watermark.[14]

 

References

[1] P. D. Smith, ‘Out in paperback’ column, which I cannot find online: Guardian review supplement (7 October 2017), 9.

[2] Ford Madox Ford, Provence (London: Allen & Unwin, 1938), 140.

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

[4] Boswell’s London Journal, 1762-1763, edited by Frederick A. Pottle (London: William Heinemann, 1950), 214.

[5] The Tales of Algernon Blackwood (London: Martin Secker, 1938), xi.

[6] ‘Canto LXXVIII’, The Cantos of Ezra Pound, fourth collected edition (London: Faber and Faber, 1987), 477.

[7] Robert Graves, Goodbye to All That (1929 edition; Harmondsworth: Penguin, 2014), 157, 342; Sanford Schwartz, William Nicholson (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004), 179-180.

[8] Letter of 6 September 1916: Letters of Ford Madox Ford, edited by Richard M. Ludwig (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1965), 74.

[9] Siegfried Sassoon, Diaries 1920-1922, edited by Rupert Hart-Davis (London: Faber and Faber, 1981), 73.

[10] Anna Pavord, Landskipping: Painters, Ploughmen and Places (London: Bloomsbury 2016), 43.

[11] Helen Macdonald, H is for Hawk (London: Jonathan Cape, 2014), 240.

[12] Michael Steinman, editor, The Element of Lavishness: Letters of Sylvia Townsend Warner and William Maxwell, 1938-1978 (Washington: Counterpoint, 2001), 8.

[13] John Banville, The Sea (London: Picador, 2006), 194.

[14] Julia Copus, ‘Ghost’, in The World’s Two Smallest Humans (London: Faber and Faber, 2012), 50.