Backward glances

Backward-Glance

(My local backward glance)

Not far into Edith Wharton’s The Spark, one of the novellas in her 1924 volume, Old New York, I came across the young narrator’s query to Jack Alstrop about what Harvey Delane, a figure of great interest to him, has done in his life: ‘Alstrop was forty, or thereabouts, and by a good many years better able than I to cast a backward glance over the problem.’[1]

I was reading Old New York just then because of a hint from Guy Davenport (this story, ‘about a man who had known Whitman in the war’), and my attention had snagged on that phrase ‘backward glance’.[2]

In 1962, Allen Tate published an article responding to a new book of poems, The Long Street, by his friend of long standing, Donald Davidson. Its title was ‘The Gaze Past, The Glance Present: Forty Years After The Fugitive’. This last was the influential journal, published in the early twenties, which centred on poets and scholars at Vanderbilt University in Tennessee. Several of those writers associated with it (Davidson, Tate, Robert Penn Warren) were later part of the group called the Agrarians.

Ford-Gordon-Biala-Tate
(Caroline Gordon; Janice Biala; Ford Madox Ford; Allen Tate: Summer 1937, via Cornell University Library: https://digital.library.cornell.edu/catalog/ss:550910 )

Tate’s title indicated what he regarded as the disproportionate extent of Davidson’s steady backward gazing, his ‘opposition of an heroic myth to the secularization of man in our age’ – though Tate himself tended to see the fall of the South very much in mythic terms.[3]

Nearly twenty years earlier, another piece by Tate, ‘The New Provincialism’, had asserted that, ‘With the war of 1914-1918, the South re-entered the world—but gave a backward glance as it stepped over the border: that backward glance gave us the Southern renascence, a literature conscious of the past in the present.’[4]

That phrase in turn perhaps looked back a decade to Edith Wharton’s 1934 autobiography, A Backward Glance, which itself looked back to Walt Whitman. ‘A Backward Glance O’er Travel’d Roads’ appeared in 1888 as a preface to November Boughs and was incorporated into the collected volume, Leaves of Grass, in the following year.

Wharton-Backward-Glance

Remembering an occasion on which someone had spoken of Whitman in the company of Henry James and herself, Wharton recounts how it was ‘a joy to discover that James thought him, as I did, the greatest of American poets. “Leaves of Grass” was put into his hands, and all that evening we sat rapt while he wandered from “The Song of Myself” to “When lilacs last in the door-yard bloomed” (when he read “lovely and soothing Death” his voice filled the hushed room like an organ adagio), and thence let himself be lured on to the mysterious music of “Out of the Cradle”, reading, or rather crooning it in a mood of subdued ecstasy till the fivefold invocation to Death rolled out like the knocks in the opening bars of the Fifth Symphony.’[5]

Wharton-via-BBC

(Edith Wharton via the BBC)

Whitman would die four years after his 1888 essay. ‘So here I sit gossiping in the early candlelight of old age—I and my book—casting backward glances over our travel’d roads.’ The roads are those to and through and from his great book, the difficulties of publication, the financial failure of his work, the critical attacks that have been made upon it. Yet the glance is just that: as so often, Whitman’s gaze is, in fact, to the future. ‘I look upon Leaves of Grass, now finish’d to the end of its opportunities and powers, as my definitive carte visite to the coming generations of the New World, if I may assume to say so.’[6]

Walt-Whitman

In ‘Crossing Brooklyn Ferry’ (1856), Whitman writes:

Others will enter the gates of the ferry and cross from shore to shore,
Others will watch the run of the flood-tide,
Others will see the shipping of Manhattan north and west, and the heights of Brooklyn to the south and east,
Others will see the islands large and small;
Fifty years hence, others will see them as they cross, the sun half an hour high,
A hundred years hence, or ever so many hundred years hence, others will see them,
Will enjoy the sunset, the pouring-in of the flood-tide, the falling-back to the sea of the ebb-tide.

It avails not, time nor place—distance avails not,
I am with you, you men and women of a generation, or ever so many generations hence,
Just as you feel when you look on the river and sky, so I felt,
Just as any of you is one of a living crowd, I was one of a crowd,
Just as you are refresh’d by the gladness of the river and the bright flow, I was refresh’d,
Just as you stand and lean on the rail, yet hurry with the swift current, I stood yet was hurried,
Just as you look on the numberless masts of ships and the thick-stemm’d pipes of steamboats, I look’d. [7]

As the White Queen remarks in Through the Looking-Glass, ‘“It’s a poor sort of memory that only works backwards”.’[8]

Alice_and_white_queen

(Alice and the White Queen by John Tenniel)

People have occasionally remarked in my hearing that there’s ‘no use in looking back’, that they ‘live in the moment, always in the present tense’. Well, that’s just dandy, they might see a tail or a trunk but they won’t be seeing the whole elephant any time soon. The backward glance is indispensable, I think, as resource, as collaborator, as partner; though best not, perhaps, as master. It’s all in the proportions. Francis Bacon observed that ‘There is no excellent beauty that hath not some strangeness in its proportion.’[9] There are, though, strangenesses that appear to have little or no acquaintanceship with beauty.

It has been, in any case, a remarkable few years for backward glances and gazes, and for fixed, demented backward—and forward—stares too. ‘Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,’ George Santayana wrote, this famous aphorism inscribed on a plaque at Auschwitz.[10] In that context, of course, it’s very clear what past is being alluded to and the way in which it is and should be viewed. Elsewhere, though, pasts have a great many questions to answer and are subject to warring interpretations. Some of these are unambiguously wrong but others will continue to brawl like rats in a sack. We can only wait with keen interest, if not a great deal of optimism, to see what is glimpsed and held from now in some future backward glance.

 
Notes

[1] Edith Wharton, The Spark, in Novellas and Other Writings, edited by Cynthia Griffin Wolff (New York: Library of America, 1990),451.

[2] Guy Davenport, ‘Walt Whitman and Ronald Johnson’, The Hunter Gracchus and Other Papers on Literature and Art (Washington: Counterpoint, 1996), 250.

[3] Allen Tate, Memories and Essays Old and New 1926-1974 (Manchester: Carcanet, 1976), 36.

[4] Allen Tate, The Man of Letters in the Modern World (London: Thames and Hudson, 1957), 330-331.

[5] Wharton, A Backward Glance in Novellas and Other Writings, 923.

[6] Whitman: Complete Poetry and Collected Prose, edited by Justin Kaplan (New York: Library of America, 1982), 656.

[7] Whitman: Complete Poetry and Collected Prose, 308-309.

[8] Lewis Carroll, The Annotated Alice: The Definitive Edition, edited by Martin Gardner (London: Allen Lane, 2000), 206.

[9] Bacon, ‘Of Beauty’, Essays, edited by Ernest Rhys (London: Dent, 1932), 129.

[10] Santayana, The Life of Reason. I: Reason in Common Sense (New York: Scribner’s, 1905), 284.

 

Bombs, planes, larks and mere delight

Gurney-ODNB FMF-GS-viaNYRB

(Ivor Gurney via Oxford DNB; Ford Madox Ford via New York Review of Books)

The poet Ivor Gurney wrote to his friend and sponsor Marion Scott (21? June 1916): ‘High up in the air like harmless gnats British aeroplanes are sailing – but No Germans – and ever and again as they come round in their circles lovely little balls of white fleece, or dark fleece or occasionally ruddy, gather in their track and up above and below. But they take about as much notice as of so many peas.’ And, in a second letter of the same date: ‘Tonight an aeroplane has been sailing high up in the blue – right over the German lines, and occasionally leaving at his back a flock of tiny white clouds; looking so innocent as they unfold, that unless one has caught the tiny flash of the explosion it is perfectly impossible to think that these are anything but the tiny clouds of Summer W H D loves to sing of.’[1]

This reminded me that, also in that summer of 1916, Second Lieutenant Ford Madox Hueffer—later Ford—arrived in France. In No Enemy: A Tale of Reconstruction, written partly in that year (but mostly in 1919), his persona, Gringoire, recalls a day on which he and other officers ‘sprawled about on the bare hillside with the downland winds running over the grasses just as they do in Sussex on a cloudless day.’ Then:

induced as the eye was to look into the pellucid sky, there became visible a number—some one counted fourteen—of tiny, shining globes. They appeared to be globes, because there was a fresh wind blowing straight from them and they turned end on. So, but slowly and incessantly heaving, did the immense one close at hand; a spider’s network of cordage went with its movements. Tiny and incredibly pretty, like films of gold dust floating in blue water and like peach blossom leaves—yes, incredibly pretty in the sunlight—airplanes were there. Because the—just as pretty—little mushrooms that existed suddenly in the sky, beside the sunlit dragonflies and peach blossoms, were pearly white, one officer said:
“Hun planes!”[2]

FokkerDIIsingleseatfighter.flickr

Flying machines were still a relatively new phenomenon then, something that many people would still not yet have seen. But I’ve been reading lately the poems and prose of Keith Douglas, killed in Normandy on 9 June 1944, so just three days after the Allied landings, at the age of twenty-four. Douglas served in the desert war as a tank commander and, early in his classic narrative, Alamein to Zem Zem, there’s this:

Up above in the clear sky a solitary aeroplane moved, bright silver in the sunlight, a pale line of exhaust marking its unhurried course. The Bofors gunners on either side of us were running to their guns and soon opened a rapid, thumping fire, like a titanic workman hammering. The silver body of the aeroplane was surrounded by hundreds of little grey smudges, through which it sailed on serenely. From it there fell away, slowly and gracefully, an isolated shower of rain, a succession of glittering drops. I watched them descend a hundred feet before it occurred to me to consider their significance and forget their beauty. The column of tanks trundled forward imperturbably, but the heads of their crews no longer showed. I dropped down in the turret and shouted to Evan who was dozing in the gunner’s seat: “Someone’s dropping some stuff.” He shouted back a question and adjusted his earphones. “Bombs!” I said into the microphone.[3]

Douglas-viaWarPoetsAssoc

(Keith Douglas in the desert via War Poets Association)

The bright silver of the plane is noted but that impression of beauty given to the poet’s eye derives from the shower of bombs it drops. Douglas, unsurprisingly, was well acquainted with the poets of the First World War, particularly Wilfred Owen and Isaac Rosenberg – his ‘Desert Flowers’ begins:

Living in a wide landscape are the flowers—
Rosenberg I only repeat what you were saying—
the shell and the hawk every hour
are slaying men and jerboas, slaying

the mind: but the body can fill
the hungry flowers and the dogs who cry words
at nights, the most hostile things of all.[4]

I wondered, then, if there might be an element of reversal there, looking back to Rosenberg’s ‘Returning, we hear the larks’:

Lo! Heights of night ringing with unseen larks:
Music showering on our upturned listening faces.

Death could drop from the dark
As easily as song—

But song only dropped[5]

A comparison of the passage from Alamein to Zem Zem with the earlier draft shows some interesting revisions: the published version adds ‘imperturbably’ to the tanks trundling forward; and in that last line, ‘I said’ replaces ‘I shouted’, clearly choosing to avoid the repetition; ‘and forget their beauty’ was earlier ‘as well as their beauty’.[6]

All three writers note and record the beauty while variously showing themselves aware of the purpose and true meaning of what they’re looking at. The disruptive effect of that ‘Hun planes!’ of Ford finds its echo in Douglas’s ‘Bombs!’, while Gurney’s observations demonstrate a consistent awareness of what he’s looking at. Douglas, though, foregrounds the conscious reinstating of that borderline between observed beauty and understanding of what is observed: ‘I watched them descend a hundred feet before it occurred to me to consider their significance and forget their beauty’—or ‘as well as their beauty’.

So, two qualities held in the mind; or entertained sequentially. If the latter, that neat sequence is like a demonstration of the terms of the debate about subjective and objective judgements, of what Elizabeth Prettijohn refers to as ‘free beauty’, which is ‘altogether independent of interests or ends’, and ‘dependent beauty, ‘in which our response to the object is influenced by considerations other than the mere delight we experience in contemplating it.’[7]

Certainly, in the cases of the Ford and the Douglas, though other considerations are massing in the background, I’d say I’m happy enough in the first instance with mere delight.

 

Notes

[1] Ivor Gurney, Collected Letters, edited by R. K. R. Thornton (Mid Northumberland Arts Group & Carcanet Press 1991), 100, 102. W. H. Davies has a poem called ‘Clouds’: ‘My Fancy loves to play with Clouds/ That hour by hour can change Heaven’s face;/ For I am sure of my delight, / In green or stony place’. His ‘When the Cuckoo sings’ begins, ‘In summer, when the Cuckoo sings,/ And clouds like greater moons can shine’.

[2] Ford Madox Ford, No Enemy (1929; edited by Paul Skinner, Manchester: Carcanet Press, 2002), 31-32.

[3] Keith Douglas, Alamein to Zem Zem (1946; edited and introduced by Desmond Graham, London: Faber and Faber, 1992), 27.

[4] The Complete Poems of Keith Douglas, edited by Desmond Graham (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1979), 102.

[5] Isaac Rosenberg (21st Century Oxford Authors), edited by Vivien Noakes (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), 113; Desmond Graham notes that there was no copy of Rosenberg’s poems among Douglas’s books but that he had as a school prize Ian Parsons’ The Progress of Poetry (1936), which contained a good selection of Rosenberg’s work: Graham, Keith Douglas, 1920-1944: A Biography (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1974), 277, note to page 188.

[6] See ‘Abandoned draft, revising part of Alamein to Zem Zem’, in Keith Douglas: A Prose Miscellany, compiled and introduced by Desmond Graham (Manchester: Carcanet Press, 1985), 107.

[7] Elizabeth Prettejohn, Beauty and Art 1750-2000 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), 50 – she is here referring back to Kant’s The Critique of Judgement.

Play up, play up and play the game!

Operation-Overlord-Wiki

6 June 1944, and the Battle of Normandy begins as Operation Overlord gets underway. The news coverage of the seventy-fifth anniversary has been unsurprisingly extensive and has featured some remarkable veterans, most inevitably in their nineties now, and some extraordinarily moving testimony. And, of course, several commentators and columnists have remarked on the painful ironies of the occasion, that vast military operation to liberate Europe marked by cooperation, expansion and alliance—apart from Britain, the United States and Canada, there were also service personnel from Poland, Greece, Norway, New Zealand, Australia, the Netherlands, Czechoslovakia, France and Belgium—set against the assumptions and values currently espoused by many in Britain and the United States, of separation, closure and isolation.

Our local D-Day connection is with Bristol’s Clifton College, founded in 1862, which became, for part of the Second World War, the British headquarters of the United States First Army. In October 1943, General Omar Bradley moved to Clifton and the college Council Room became the centre of invasion planning.

Clifton College boasts an extraordinary list of old boys (mainly boys: its co-educational history is relatively brief), from Trevor Howard, Michael Redgrave and John Cleese to Roger Fry, Peter Lanyon and Henry Tonks. Ford Madox Ford’s Christopher Tietjens, in Parade’s End, has attended Clifton, together with his friend Vincent Macmaster – but then Arthur Marwood, Ford’s friend and the partial model for Tietjens, did go there. Other Clifton-educated writers were Joyce Cary, L. P. Hartley, Geoffrey Household – and Henry (later Sir Henry, knighted in 1915) Newbolt, born 6 June 1862 (he died the year before the Second World War began). Among his contemporaries were Arthur Quiller-Couch (‘Q’, editor of the Oxford Book of English Verse among many other volumes), Francis Younghusband and Newbolt’s ‘lifetime friend’ Douglas Haig, the revered and reviled Field Marshal Haig, commander of the British Expeditionary Force from 1915 until the war’s bloody end. Paul Fussell, in his seminal The Great War and Modern Memory, remarks that, ‘To Newbolt, the wartime sufferings of such as Wilfred Owen were tiny—and whiny—compared with Haig’s’.[1]

Clifton-College

(Clifton College, via https://www.tes.com/)

Newbolt became head of school in 1881 (he was called to the Bar in 1887 and practised for a dozen years). His poem ‘The Chapel’ presents a father talking to his son; the second stanza runs:

To set the cause above renown,
To love the game beyond the prize,
To honour, while you strike him down,
The foe that comes with fearless eyes;
To count the life of battle good,
And dear the land that gave you birth,
And dearer yet the brotherhood
That binds the brave of all the earth.[2]

Newbolt attended the initial meeting that Charles Masterman held at Wellington House, first home of the War Propaganda Bureau. It took place on the afternoon of 2 September 1914 and the writers gathered there included James Barrie, Arnold Bennett, Robert Bridges, G. K. Chesterton, Arthur Conan Doyle, John Galsworthy, Thomas Hardy, John Masefield and H. G. Wells. Kipling and Quiller-Couch, though unable to attend in person, sent messages offering their service. Ford Madox Ford didn’t attend but subsequently wrote two idiosyncratic propaganda volumes for his friend Masterman.[3]

It’s hardly a surprise that, to literary men returning from the trenches or the ‘theatre of war’, who had seen and heard and suffered the devastating effects of mechanised warfare as well as the tactical and strategic policies pursued by those who had such weapons at their disposal, Newbolt was a handily compressed version of all they had learned to reject, mistrust and disbelieve. Wilfred Owen, who fought and died in France, wrote ‘Dulce et decorum est’; Ezra Pound, though a non-combatant, wrote in Hugh Selwyn Mauberley (1920):

Died some pro patria, non dulce non et decor . . .

walked eye-deep in hell
believing in old men’s lies, then unbelieving
came home, home to a lie,
home to many deceits,
home to old lies and new infamy;

usury age-old and age-thick
and liars in public places.[4]

Newbolt3

(Henry Newbolt via http://historywebsite.co.uk/)

Newbolt’s most famous poems now are probably ‘Drake’s Drum’ and ‘Vitaï Lampada’, the latter ‘a public-school favourite since 1898’, Fussell observes, and one that demonstrates the classic equation between war and sport. ‘Fox-hunting, the sport of kings with only twenty per cent. of the danger of war!’ a character in Ford’s Last Post reflects, perhaps remembering R. S. Surtees’ Handley Cross (1843), ‘it’s the sport of kings, the image of war without its guilt, and only twenty-five per cent of its danger’, and even William Somerville, ‘The Chase’ (1735), ‘the sport of kings; / Image of war, without its guilt.’[5] Newbolt opts for cricket:

Gore, Spencer, 1878-1914; The Cricket Match

(Spencer Gore, The Cricket Match, 1909: The Hepworth Wakefield

There’s a breathless hush in the Close to-night—
Ten to make and the match to win—
A bumping pitch and a blinding light,
An hour to play and the last man in.

The second stanza switches to war in the Sudan, the unsuccessful attempt to relieve Gordon at Khartoum:

The sand of the desert is sodden red,—
Red with the wreck of a square that broke;—
The Gatling’s jammed and the Colonel dead,
And the regiment blind with dust and smoke.
The river of death has brimmed his banks,
And England’s far, and Honour a name,
But the voice of a schoolboy rallies the ranks:
“Play up! play up! and play the game!”[6]

Abu-Klea
(https://www.britishbattles.com/war-in-egypt-and-sudan/battle-of-abu-klea/ )

And, in the final stanza:

This is the word that year by year,
While in her place the school is set,
Every one of her sons must hear,
And none that hears it dare forget.
This they all with a joyful mind
Bear through life like a torch in flame,
And falling fling to the host behind—

“Play up! play up! and play the game!”

Newbolt’s career was marked by literary popularity, eminence in public service and significant governmental influence, including on the policy pursued in Ireland. He became Controller of Telecommunications at the Foreign Office and was made a Companion of Honour in 1922. Still, I like to recall Ezra Pound’s account of a conversation he had, pre-1914, of course, with Maurice Hewlett, poet and novelist, who had likened Newbolt’s poems to ‘The Ballads’.

E. P. BUT (blanks left for profanity) . . . it, Hewlett, look at the line:
‘He stood the door behind’,
(blanks for profanity) you don’t find lines like that in Patrick Spence.
Hewlett: But, but I don’t mean an OLDE ballad, I mean an—eh—eighteenth-century ballad.
E. P., But (blanks left for profanity), Hewlett, the man is a contemporary of Remy de Gourmont!
Hewlett: Ungh!! Unh nnh eh, I don’t suppose he has thought of that. (Long pause)
Hewlett: (continues very slowly): I don’t suppose, eh, I had either.’[7]

 

 
References

[1] Paul Fussell, The Great War and Modern Memory (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1975), 26.

[2] ‘Clifton Chapel’, The Oxford Book of English Verse, 1250-1918, edited by Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1966), 1066 (yes, really).

[3] Peter Buitenhuis, The Great War of Words: British, American and Canadian Propaganda and Fiction, 1914-1933 (Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 1987), 14.

[4] Ezra Pound: Poems and Translations, edited by Richard Sieburth (New York: Library of America, 2003), 551.

[5] Ford Madox Ford, Last Post (1928; edited by Paul Skinner, Manchester: Carcanet Press, 2011), 12fn.

[6] Fussell, Great War and Modern Memory, 25-26.

[7] Ezra Pound, ‘Harold Monro’, in Polite Essays (1937; Plainview, New York: Books for Libraries Press, 1966), 11.

 

‘Gather the welcome signs’: Whitman, Joyce, Kafka

walt-whitman

Given that it’s Walt Whitman’s two hundredth birthday, I meant to write about that ‘good gray poet’; but then, hundreds if not thousands of people will be commenting on Whitman, stressing his concentration on democracy and America, even quoting a bit of his poetry; and, in any case, I’ve been distracted today by the machinations and opaque absurdities of banks – and also by the important business of settling in Harry,  a recent addition to the household.

Cat-stareBirdwatching

Quick, quick, said the bird. Here’s a bit of poetry:

Warble me now for joy of lilac-time, (returning in reminiscence,)
Sort me O tongue and lips for Nature’s sake, souvenirs of earliest
summer,
Gather the welcome signs, (as children with pebbles or stringing
shells,)
Put in April and May, the hylas croaking in the ponds, the elastic
air,
Bees, butterflies, the sparrow with its simple notes,Blue-bird and darting swallow, nor forget the high-hole flashing his golden wings[1]

I was thinking, anyway, of James Augustine Aloysius Joyce and Franz Kafka. On 2 February 1926, Sylvia Beach, proprietor of the Shakespeare & Company bookshop and first publisher of James Joyce’s Ulysses, held a party for the fourth birthday of the novel (and its author’s own forty-fourth birthday). Both she and Joyce wore eye patches for the occasion. Joyce suffered consistently from eye problems for many years; Sylvia, more specifically, was suffering an obstruction of the lacrimal ducts, having strained her eyes while working, with Adrienne Monnier, on a translation of Walt Whitman’s unpublished speech, ‘The Eighteenth Presidency’. Sylvia, a member of the newly formed Walt Whitman Committee of Paris, had suggested a Whitman exhibition at the bookshop, with manuscripts, photographs and early editions. At the Ulysses party, Joyce had quoted some Whitman. Now he announced: ‘I am going to Stratford-on-Odéon’, before attending the opening of the Whitman exhibit, to a private audience, on 20 April 1926.[2]

Sylvia’s Aunt Agnes had once visited Whitman in Camden, where manuscripts, letters and much else was strewn all over the floor.[3] Her aunt was with a friend, Alys Smith, who later married Bertrand Russell. ‘Whitman was anything but the style’, Sylvia wrote later. ‘“The Crowd” couldn’t put up with him, especially after T. S. Eliot aired his views about Walt. Only Joyce and the French and I were still old-fashioned enough to get along with Whitman. I could see with half an eye Whitman’s influence on Joyce’s work – hadn’t he recited some lines to me one day?’[4]

Kafka-via-Guardian

(Franz Kafka via The Guardian)

As is often noticed, ‘old Whiteman self’ turns up in both Finnegans Wake and—‘Do I contradict myself? Very well then, I contradict myself’—Ulysses.[5] If Mr Eliot was unconvinced, and Messrs Pound and Lawrence conflicted, there were, quite apart from the French and Mr Joyce, admirers everywhere. In Prague, Franz Kafka gave a copy of the German translation of Leaves of Grass to his young friend, Gustav Janouch, praising Whitman as one of ‘the greatest formal innovators in the modern lyric.’ He went on: ‘The formal element in Walt Whitman’s poetry found an enormous echo throughout the world. Yet Walt Whitman’s significance lies elsewhere. He combined the contemplation of nature and of civilization, which are apparently entirely contradictory, into a single intoxicating vision of life, because he always had sight of the transitoriness of all phenomena. He said: “Living is the little that is left over from dying.” So he gave his whole heart to every leaf of grass.’[6]

beachandjoyce-newyorker

(Sylvia Beach and James Joyce)

Four years after the Whitman exhibition, another American arrived in Paris, who was also an enthusiast. Henry Miller would later write: ‘For me Walt Whitman is a hundred, a thousand, times more America than America itself’; and, of Dostoievsky and Whitman: ‘for me they represent the peaks in modern literature.’ To the photographer Brassaï, Miller remarked: ‘You know that one of my gods is Walt Whitman. The cosmological scope of his vision no doubt owes a great deal to the “vastness” of the American continent. Whitman was dreaming of a new race on the scale of that land, an earthly paradise. Despite everything about American life that’s been spoiled, that potentiality still exists. I’m convinced of it.’[7]

Happy-Rock.jpg

Paul Zweig registered the noticeable trait among leading modern poets of bringing ‘the unpoetic’ into poetry, pointing to Pound, Rilke, Eliot and Williams: ‘But in this area, Whitman is the master. Apparently there was nothing he could not use: his personal knowledge of house building, Italian opera, Olmsted’s lessons on astronomy, the world atlas.’[8]

Master Whitman posed a problem for many poets, especially American poets. How to avoid and evade the legacy of ‘the great American poet’? Interestingly, in an essay on Wallace Stevens, Hugh Kenner observed that: ‘Nonsense freed both Eliot and Stevens from a poet they longed to be freed from: Whitman. It permitted an American to manipulate the rituals of certified Poetry (the resonant turn of phrase, the mighty line) without sounding the way Whitman had made Tennyson sound, provincial. Whitman’s was no longer the only way around an Anglophile provincialism.’[9]

In a 2008 lecture, the poet Michael Longley said that, throughout fifty years of writing, ‘when the creative buzz comes on, I have felt sizeable, capacious like Walt Whitman; but when I’ve written the poem and typed it out I realise that I am still Emily Dickinson – the pernickety Emily who, when asked for her opinion of Leaves of Grass, said of Whitman, “I never read his book ­ but was told that he was disgraceful.”’

Emily-Dickinson

Longley went on to say that he had worshipped Emily Dickinson since his university days. He had read Whitman ‘of course’ but ‘the penny has only recently dropped. How could I have managed without him for so long?’[10]

Well, yes. How could anybody?

A line in long array where they wind betwixt green islands,
They take a serpentine course, their arms flash in the sun—hark
to the musical clank,
Behold the silvery river, in it the splashing horses loitering stop to
drink,
Behold the brown-faced men, each group, each person a picture,
the negligent rest on the saddles,
Some emerge on the opposite bank, others are just entering the
ford—while,
Scarlet and blue and snowy white,
The guidon flags flutter gayly in the wind.

‘Whitman’s excitement carries weight because he realized that a man cannot use words so unless he has experienced the facts that they express, unless he has grasped them with his senses.’[11]

 

 

Notes

[1] ‘Warble for Lilac-Time’, Walt Whitman: The Complete Poems, edited by Francis Murphy (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1986), 400.

[2] Noel Riley Fitch, Sylvia Beach and the Lost Generation: A History of Literary Paris in the Twenties and Thirties (New York & London: Norton, 1983), 225-231.

[3] Guy Davenport, ‘Horace and Walt in Camden’, in The Death of Picasso: New and Selected Writing (Washington: Shoemaker & Hoard, 2003), 196-197.

[4] Sylvia Beach, Shakespeare and Company, new edition (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1991), 20, 128.

[5] James Joyce, Finnegans Wake (New York: The Viking Press, 1945), 263; Ulysses (1922; London: The Bodley Head, revised edition, 1969), 19.

[6] Gustav Janouch, Conversations with Kafka, translated by Goronwy Rees, second revised and enlarged edition (New York: New Directions, 1971),167.

[7] Henry Miller, The Books in My Life (New York: New Directions, 1957), 104, 221; Brassaï, Henry Miller, Happy Rock, translated by Jane Marie Todd (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002), 55.

[8] Paul Zweig, Walt Whitman: The Making of the Poet (Harmondsworth: Penguin 1986), 93.

[9] Hugh Kenner, ‘Seraphic Glitter: Stevens and Nonsense’, in Historical Fictions (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1995), 165.

[10] Michael Longley, ‘A Jovial Hullabaloo’, in Sidelines: Selected Prose, 1962-2015 (London: Enitharmon Press, 2017), 314.

[11] F. O. Matthiessen, American Renaissance: Art and Expression in the Age of Emerson and Whitman (1941; New York: Oxford University Press, 1968), 518.

 

Making Hay: a visit to The Poetry Bookshop

Hawthorn

Midway through our week in the Anglo-Welsh border country—wonderful setting, indifferent weather—we take advantage of the fact that we are less than twenty miles from Hay-on-Wye (‘the Book Town of Wales’) where we stayed a couple of years ago and brought home an alarming number of secondhand volumes needing shelf space.

The main event is going back to The Poetry Bookshop. I say ‘back’ but since we were last there, the shop has moved, to a more central position in Hay. The owners, Christopher and Melanie Prince, now stock new titles as well as secondhand. Theirs is the only specialist poetry bookshop in the country. There may be others elsewhere in the world, I don’t know, nor do I feel any need to since the stock here is astonishingly good, ranging from the obscure contemporary to the major classic and modern—I think books by and about William Blake, for instance, take up three shelves. But, not having planned this or prepared for it, I fidget, exhale noisily, pick up and put down a dozen volumes, from George Barker to Alun Lewis, browse the Pound shelves and lapse into staring blankness. Then I remember James Merrill.

A while ago, in the course of an unearthing, I turned up an old stray copy of The Hudson Review, dating back to 1972. It led off with poems by Octavio Paz, included four translations of Osip Mandelstam by W. S. Merwin and Clarence Brown and, the reason for its being in my possession in the first place, a twenty-page essay by Richard Pevear, ‘Notes on the Cantos of Ezra Pound’. I had no clear memory of it—my reading must have coincided with thesis research—but my pencil marks are in evidence: ‘Pound’s poetry has its source in “the noblest of the senses,”, the eyes’, ‘The Greek word for truth, aletheia, means unveiling’, ‘there is nothing fictional, nothing mythological, nothing allegorical in the Cantos’, and the remark that, while Homer makes use of the devices of oral poetry (as have many writers of literary epics since), Pound, ‘on the other hand, makes use of the devices of print, not only in the lay-out of the page, but in his basic technique of the suppression of narrative links, which presupposes a fixed text.’ This looked back, I suspect, to an earlier statement that, ‘There is a feeling of wholeness in the Cantos that is very hard to explain.’ I must have frowned over some of this a good deal at the time but the item that struck me when I brought the journal back into the light of day was Merrill’s ‘Days of 1935—a long poem’. The narrator remembers himself as a child, the news on the radio about the Lindberghs’ kidnapped and murdered baby—Richard Hauptmann’s trial took place in early 1935—and imagining his own kidnapping in a long, detailed narrative:

On the Lindbergh baby’s small
Cold features lay a spell, a swoon.
It seemed entirely plausible
For my turn to come soon,

For a masked and crouching form
Lithe as tiger, light as moth,
To glide towards me, clap a firm
Hand across my mouth,

Then sheer imagination ride
Off with us in its old jalopy,
Trailing bedclothes like a bride
Timorous but happy.

HR

Elegant, accomplished, the form seeming very traditional—regular and capitalised lines, rhymes!—in contrast with most of the stuff I was reading at the time. Then too, the main influences or affinities – Henry James, Proust, even Stevens – were not quite the usual suspects for my favoured poets then either. Reviewing Merrill’s Selected Poems in the New York Times (7 November 2008), August Kleinzahler observed: ‘Many readers will find the poetry mannered. It is, by design. The poet is an aesthete, a dandy in the Baudelairean sense, unabashedly so.’ He added that Merrill ‘enjoys creating the sorts of atmospheres found more often in novels than in poetry, and a number of his poems are narratives in miniature, tiny blank verse novels of manners.’

Your village touched us by not knowing how.
Even as we outdrove its clear stormlight
A shower of self-belittling brilliants fell.
Miles later, hours away, here are rooms full
Of things you would have known: pump organ, hymnal,
Small-as-life desks, old farm tools, charter, deed,
Schoolbooks (Greek Grammar, A Canadian Reader),
Queen Mary in oleograph, a whole wall hung
With women’s black straw hats, some rather smart
—All circa 1915, like the manners
Of the fair, soft-spoken girl who shows us through.
Although till now she hasn’t heard of you
She knows these things you would have known by heart
And we, by knowing you by heart, foreknew.

Merrill-CP

Merrill cropped up several times in the course of other reading: in the letters of Elizabeth Bishop and a biography of her—the lines above are the opening of one of the poems that Merrill wrote to her, the elegiac ‘Overdue Pilgrimage to Nova Scotia’—and in Timothy Materer’s Modernist Alchemy, picked up for the sake of Yeats and Pound but which also pays attention to Merrill because of the famous use of an Ouija board in the making of his enormous poem, The Changing Light at Sandover. And I came across other poems of his, mainly in anthologies, which showed a wide range of styles and forms. So a few relevant facts had lodged in my mind: he’d written a lot, some of it very impressive – and I didn’t have any of his books. Until now.

So, the Librarian having snagged a couple of posters by Jackie Morris—and a few Virago titles in Addyman Books later—I was also pretty restrained, limiting myself to the Peter Russell collection of essays on Pound, read decades ago but not previously owned – and the Merrill Collected Poems, a modest volume of a little under 900 pages. Even so, it still excludes The Changing Light at Sandover. Another time, perhaps. . .

 

 

Radical calendar, pronouns, rats’ alley

March-poster

It’s a Radical Calendar for us this year, each page headed by a stirring quotation to put fire into the bellies of those fighting for justice, equality and other unfashionable things. (I have an exhortatory poster on the wall behind me, come to think of it: that particular ‘March’ is not the name of a month.)

https://www.radicalteatowel.co.uk/

January’s legend was from Percy Bysshe Shelley’s ‘The Masque of Anarchy’, written in 1819, after the massacre at Peterloo:

Rise like Lions after slumber
In unvanquishable number,
Shake your chains to earth like dew
Which in sleep had fallen on you –
Ye are many – they are few.

That last line is now more widely familiar because of its adoption as a Labour Party slogan. It’s also one that I’ve tended to misremember as ‘We are many – they are few’. A little risky for the eldest – legitimate – ­ son of the MP Sir Timothy Shelley to designate himself one of the many, you might think. But of course he doesn’t, distancing himself from both the ‘Ye’ and the ‘they’, reasonably enough given his belief that poets, as the unacknowledged legislators of the world, can’t easily be positioned within any conventional constituency.

But then – who can? ‘The others’, no doubt. The deployment of such pronouns – ‘we’, ‘you’, ‘they’, ‘us’ – has probably never been a simple matter. It sure as hell isn’t now. Ironically, as this country becomes more conformist and more tribal and more wedded to willed simplicities, the issue is becoming thornier by the day.

February boasted a mention of Benjamin Lay (1682-1759), the four feet tall Anglo-American Quaker humanitarian and abolitionist, vegetarian and author of around two hundred pamphlets. And that chimed in nicely with the book I was reading at the time, Madge Dresser’s Slavery Obscured: The Social History of the Slave Trade in an English Provincial Port, the port in question being Bristol, of course.

Calendar

March offers a sliver of John Dryden’s Absalom and Achitophel:

Nor is the people’s judgment always true:
The most may err as grossly as the few.

Indeed. Then under 29 March is printed the notice: ‘Brexit Day’. The news has now come through about how well it all went this afternoon. It was diverting to learn that, before that particular piece of parliamentary business, Liam Fox, urging his Westminster colleagues to vote the prime minister’s deal through, was warning that they would undermine faith in mainstream politics by creating a ‘chasm of distrust’ if they failed to do so. Yes, really: that Liam Fox; and ‘would undermine faith in mainstream politics’ and would create distrust. There’s a man with his finger on the pulse of current attitudes towards ‘mainstream politics’.

So where are we (them, us)? One speaker in T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land remarked:

I think we are in rats’ alley
Where the dead men lost their bones

That’s definitely a possibility. Or is our whole planet a speck of dust beneath the fingernail of a trickster god unimaginably vast? There’s another one.

Will we ever come back from this, whatever happens now? Probably not. Still, I do enjoy having people with mad eyes explain to journalists that if X, Y or Z doesn’t happen, there’s ‘a risk of no Brexit at all’.

I think that’s a risk we’re—me, us, some of them—prepared to take. So why not just revoke Article 50? That, by the way, is called ‘a clean non-Brexit’.

 

Soil, bones, grass

Buson-narrow-road-deep-north

(Yosa Buson, Narrow Road to the Deep North)

I was reading Bashō, who wrote: ‘I went to see the Atsuta Shrine, but it had been reduced to utter ruins. Walls had crumbled and dry grasses were standing among the falling blocks.’[1]

Grass as witness to decay, deterioration, disappearance. Or grass signifying growth, fertility, recovery. Times, circumstances, characters.

For A. E. Housman, born on this day in 1859, it could be positive, as in ‘Spring Morning’:

Now the old come out to look,
Winter past and winter’s pains,
How the sky in pool and brook
Glitters on the grassy plains.

But, as Nick Laird writes in the introduction to the Penguin edition of Housman’s poems, ‘Like Webster, Housman was much possessed by death’—death and lads would cover a lot of it, in fact—so there is also:

The sigh that heaves the grasses
Whence thou wilt never rise
Is of the air that passes
And knows not if it sighs.[2]

Robert Frost, also born on this day, in 1874, published one of his most famous poems, ‘The Road Not Taken’, in August 1915. It is, as Frost himself said, ‘a tricky poem – very tricky’, and the poet seems to have had his friend Edward Thomas in mind when he wrote it.[3] The narrator of Frost’s poem looks down one path as far as possible before it bends into the undergrowth:

Then took the other, as just as fair
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that, the passing there
Had worn them really about the same.

‘About the same’ – and both paths covered in freshly fallen leaves anyway.[4]

One more: on this day, in 1892, Walt Whitman died, the great poet of Leaves of Grass, thinking not only of graves but also of growth, expansion, burgeoning power.

Buson-Basho

(Yosa Buson, Matsuo Bashō)

For Ezra Pound’s Li Po, in eighth-century China, grass grows over the piled bones of the dead:

Bones white with a thousand frosts,
High heaps, covered with trees and grass;
Who brought this to pass?
Who has brought the flaming imperial anger?
Who has brought the army with drums and with
kettle-drums?
Barbarous kings.[5]

Lucille, in A Place of Greater Safety, Hilary Mantel’s novel about the French Revolution, looks to a future which will evidence recognisably similar signs: ‘With all the desperate passions in our heads and bodies, one day these walls will split, one day this house will fall down. There will be soil and bones and grass, and they will read our diaries to find out what we were.’[6]

rousseau-portrait-of-pierre-loti

(Henri Rousseau, Portrait of Pierre Loti, 1891)

In his translator’s note to Pierre Loti’s 1917 pamphlet, L’Outrage des barbaresThe Trail of the Barbarians (1918), Ford Madox Ford disagreed with Loti’s use of the word ‘irreparable’, believing that the land in France would indeed recover, thanks to its ‘little industries’ and its traditions of husbandry: ‘ . . . I am more sure than Mr Loti that the grass is already moving that shall cover the graveyards and the rusty heaps of recovered provinces.’[7]

Still, circling back to Bashō, I find: ‘When a country is defeated, there remain only mountains and rivers, and on a ruined castle in spring only grasses thrive. I sat down on my hat and wept bitterly till I almost forgot time.’[8]

As we know, not all a country’s defeats are military – nor even caused by external forces.
References

[1] Matsuo Bashō, ‘The Records of a Weather-exposed Skeleton’, in The Narrow Road to the Deep North and other travel sketches, translated by Nobuyuki Yuasa (London: Penguin Books, 1966), 59.

[2] A Shropshire Lad and Other Poems: The Collected Poems of A. E. Housman, edited by Archie Burnett, with an introduction by Nick Laird (London: Penguin Books, 2010), 102, xi, 114.

[3] As discussed by Matthew Hollis, Now All Roads Lead to France: The Last Years of Edward Thomas (London: Faber, 2012), 233-236.

[4] The Poetry of Robert Frost, edited by Edward Connery Lathem (London: Jonathan Cape, 1977), 105.

[5] ‘Lament of the Frontier Guard’, in Cathay (1915): Ezra Pound: Poems and Translations, edited by Richard Sieburth (New York: Library of America, 2003), 254.

[6] Hilary Mantel, A Place of Greater Safety (London: Penguin Books, 1993), 722.

[7] Ford Madox Ford, War Prose, edited by Max Saunders (Manchester: Carcanet Press, 1999), 191.

[8] Bashō, Narrow Road to the Far North, 118.