In search of stars

van-gogh-starry_night

(Vincent van Gogh, Starry Night: https://www.vangoghgallery.com/painting/starry-night.html )

Walking part-way to the station with the Librarian, who’s catching a painfully early train to London, I’m reminded how hard it is to see stars in the night sky now in a city awash with lights: streetlamps, headlights, office buildings, traffic lights and illuminated road signs. There was an occasion, years back, when I lay on my back on the grass of the Downs along with several colleagues, all of us slightly the worse for wear, marvelling at the number and brilliance of visible stars, all making over again the usual discovery that the longer you look the greater the number you can see. Now, just once, on the yellow bridge spanning our tidal river, swiftly running just now, in a brief oasis of relative darkness, I could glimpse a mere handful of stars above me.

‘Goodbye, my dears, and bless you all, and again thank you for your cheering letters, like stars in a dark night’, the poet and composer Ivor Gurney wrote from Park House Camp on Salisbury Plain, where his battalion arrived in February 1916.[1] And elsewhere: ‘Dewy are the stars against their dark cloth/ And infinitely far that star Capella/ That calls to poetry.’[2]

Gurney was a walker, by day and by night, under sun, rain or stars. Sixty years later, Charles Tomlinson wrote:

Driving north, I catch the hillshapes, Gurney,
Whose drops and rises – Cotswold and Malvern
In their cantilena above the plains –
Sustained your melody: your melody sustains
Them, now – Edens that lay
Either side of this interminable roadway.
You would recognize them still, but the lanes
Of lights that fill the lowlands, brim
To the Severn and glow into the heights.
You can regain the gate: the angel with the sword
Illuminates the paths to let you see
That night is never to be restored
To Eden and England spangled in bright chains.[3]

Gurney-ODNB

(Ivor Gurney via Oxford Dictionary of National Biography)

In Ford Madox Ford’s 1933 novel The Rash Act, Henry Martin ‘imagined that it was like that when you are dead. You were motionless in black space. There would of course be great stars. Wherever it was perfectly black the light of the stars pierced the blackness. From the bottom of a deep, dry well in Indiana he had once seen the constellation of Cassiopeia though the sun was torrid above between the well-head and the sky.’[4]

Seven years earlier, Ford had made a similar point, though in a rather different context: ‘Twice he had stood up on a rifleman’s step enforced by a bullybeef case to look over—in the last few minutes. Each time, on stepping down again, he had been struck by that phenomenon: the light seen from the trench seemed if not brighter, then more definite. So, from the bottom of a pit-shaft in broad day you can see the stars.’[5]

Literature and painting seethe with stars: stars for distance, for coldness, for brightness, for fate, for navigation, for glory, for innumerability, deities and signals and portents. Bacchus flung Ariadne’s crown into the heavens where it became the constellation Corona Borealis and Titian paints those brilliant stars above her head.

Titian, c.1488-1576; Bacchus and Ariadne

(Titian, Bacchus and Ariadne: National Gallery)

More than once, I’ve thought of James Joyce’s famous phrase, ‘The heaventree of stars hung with humid nightblue fruit’,[6] as epitomising style – style capitalised or italicised, perhaps even in block capitals. Though I’ve seen this linked to the end of Dante’s Inferno, all three volumes of his Divine Comedy end with ‘stelle’ and both translations I have at home end with ‘stars’: the prose translation by John D. Sinclair and the verse translation, in terza rima, triple rhyme, by Laurence Binyon.

William Blissett recorded of a 1971 conversation that the poet and painter David Jones ‘was staying with Laurence Binyon when he was translating Dante, and one day a letter came from Ezra Pound. Binyon was puzzled, but David could see at a glance that
!!!!!!
meant “jolly good” or “jolly bad”, and
??????
meant “I wonder”. He drew these slowly on a cigarette packet.’[7]

Harry-Night-Sky

(Harry gazing: star-seekers come in all shapes and sizes)

Stellar: of the stars. I’m sure I’ve quoted before Richard Holmes’ recounting of the poet Thomas Campbell meeting the great astronomer William Herschel in Brighton in 1813, perplexed by Herschel’s 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.’[8] So too in Helen DeWitt’s novel, The Last Samurai, it’s said of George Sorabji: ‘He was obsessed with distance. He had read of stars whose light had left them millions of years ago, and he had read that the light we see may come from stars now dead. He would look up and think that all the stars might now be dead; he thought that they were so far away there would be no way to know.
‘It was as if everything might really already be over.’[9]

Emma_Lavinia_Gifford

(Emma Hardy)

Thomas Hardy’s first wife, Emma Lavinia Gifford, in the City of Light on her honeymoon trip in 1874, wrote excitedly in her travel diary: ‘“Place de la Concorde first seen by moonlight! . . . Stars quite put out by Parisian lamps.”’[10]

Nearly forty years later, when she herself was eclipsed, her husband, in one of the remarkable poems of 1912-1913, wrote:

Soon will be growing
Green blades from the mound,
And daisies be showing
Like stars on the ground,
Till she form part of them[11]

Still, it seems that, as well as those dedicated journeys to experience true darkness and to breathe clean air, we must now add one more: expeditions in search of stars.

 

 

Notes

[1] Stars in a Dark Night: The Letters of Ivor Gurney to the Chapman Family, edited by Anthony Boden (Gloucester: Alan Sutton, 1986), 50.

[2] Ivor Gurney, ‘Fragment’, in Collected Poems, edited with an introduction by P. J. Kavanagh, revised edition (Manchester: Carcanet Press, 2004), 90.

[3] ‘To Ivor Gurney’, in Charles Tomlinson, New Collected Poems (Manchester: Carcanet Press, 2009), 380-381.

[4] Ford Madox Ford, The Rash Act (1933; Manchester: Carcanet Press, 1982), 157.

[5] Ford Madox Ford, A Man Could Stand Up— (1926; edited by Sara Haslam, Manchester: Carcanet Press, 2011), 59-60.

[6] James Joyce, Ulysses (1922; London: The Bodley Head, revised edition, 1969), 819.

[7] William Blissett, The Long Conversation: A Memoir of David Jones, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1981), 72. Pound corresponded with Binyon over many years and published a complimentary review of his Inferno: ‘Hell’, in Literary Essays of Ezra Pound, edited by T. S. Eliot (London: Faber and Faber, 1960), 201-213.

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

[9] Helen DeWitt, The Last Samurai (London: Vintage, 2001), 349.

[10] Emma’s diary quoted by Claire Tomalin, Thomas Hardy: The Time-Torn Man (London: Viking, 2006), 143.

[11] ‘Rain on a Grave’, Thomas Hardy, The Complete Poems, edited by James Gibson (London: Macmillan, 1976), 341.

 

That parting

Shriek

31 January 2020. A pretty dark day here for the most part, not a lot of light. At midnight we become—officially now—a small, resentful, disunited island, moored off the coast of Europe. So that should make some people happy.

For the rest of us—not so good. Not a question of money though I expect things to get worse, particularly for those already struggling. There were endless, often pointless, arguments about trade, finance, various economic factors. But it was never really about that.

I was thinking of Ezra Pound’s ‘Exile’s Letter’ by ‘Rihaku’ (Li Po):

And if you ask how I regret that parting:
It is like the flowers falling at Spring’s end
Confused, whirled in a tangle.
What is the use of talking, and there is no end of talking,
There is no end of things in the heart.

But thinking also of Robert Creeley’s short poem, ‘Myself’:

I want, if older,
still to know
why, human, men
and women are

so torn, so lost, why hopes cannot
find better world
than this.

 

 

 

On not getting all the words back

Chimborazo-Guardian

(Chimborazo, Ecuador, via The Guardian)

In July 1919, Robert Graves wrote to Edmund Blunden, having been shown some of his published work by Siegfried Sassoon. Did Blunden have anything to offer for the Owl, the quarterly Graves was co-editing with W. J. Turner? Turner was the Australian-born poet and critic, best-remembered now, perhaps, for his poem ‘Romance’ (it begins: ‘When I was but thirteen or so/ I went into a golden land,/ Chimborazo, Cotopaxi/ Took me by the hand’).

Blunden sent several poems which Graves then forwarded to Turner to look at. ‘“Pan Grown Old” is my favourite’, Graves commented. ‘May I presume for a moment? Titles aren’t your strong suit. All this Pan business is played out anyway. Why not call it “A Country God” and remove that rather Unenglish “complex” from the reader’s eye?’[1]

‘All this Pan business’ had certainly been a significant cultural feature of the period before the First World War, in the work of E. M. Forster, D. H. Lawrence, Arthur Machen, Saki, Edgar Jepson, and in Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows, among others.[2] Blunden accepted the suggested change of title. The revised version of the poem published in the Owl was included in The Waggoner and other poems (1920). It begins:

When groping farms are lanterned up
And stolchy ploughlands hid in grief,
And glimmering byroads catch the drop
That weeps from sprawling twig and leaf,
And heavy-hearted spins the wind
Among the tattered flags of Mirth,—
Then who but I flit to and fro,
With shuddering speech, with mope and mow,
And glass the eyes of Earth?[3]

Longmuir, Alexander Davidson, c.1843-1891; Ploughing after a Shower

(Alexander Davidson Longmuir, Ploughing after a Shower: Aberdeen Art Gallery & Museums)

My eye is caught by ‘mope and mow’ mainly because it’s not ‘mop and mow’—Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable has ‘grimaces’, with a sidelong glance at the Dutch moppen, ‘to pout’—familiar to me from Ford Madox Ford’s books. ‘Mopping and mowing’ crops up in Violet Hunt’s The Last Ditch and a couple of times in Virginia Woolf’s Between the Acts. It occurs twice in Charlotte Bronte’s Villette too, and the note in my Oxford World’s Classics edition points to Shakespeare’s King Lear, though there (IV, i) it’s ‘mocking and mowing’ – as it is in Blunden’s ‘De Bello Germanico’.[4] Ford, and probably Violet Hunt, most likely took it from Christina Rossetti’s Goblin Market—‘Puffing and blowing,/ Chuckling, clapping, crowing,/ Clucking and gobbling,/ Mopping and mowing’—Rossetti being the nineteenth-century poet whom Ford most admired.[5]

Rossetti_goblin_market

My other eye is fixed on ‘stolchy’. In a remarkably detailed compendium of notes on The Lyttelton Hart-Davis Letters, George Lyttelton is quoted (1 March 1956) as having mentioned that the Oxford English Dictionary didn’t know about ‘stolchy’. Lyttelton copied the opening lines of Blunden’s poem into his commonplace book.
https://lyttelton-hart-davis.site123.me/

Elsewhere, a discussion of W. H. Auden’s habit of roaming through the OED for material has an example: “‘A Bad Night”, subtitled “A Lexical Exercise”, is an obvious example of a dictionary-inspired poem. It is crammed with words lifted from OED which, out of context, are virtually unintelligible: hirple, blouts, pirries, stolchy, glunch, sloomy, snudge, snoachy, scaddle etc.’
https://oed.hertford.ox.ac.uk/literary-sources/writers-and-dictionaries/auden-and-the-oed/

So ‘stolchy’ is there now, in the constantly-updated Oxford English Dictionary? I go online and look. Joseph Wright’s English Dialect Dictionary has it as a verb, ‘to tread down, trample, to walk in the dirt’; and a 1772 manual of husbandry, Ellis’s Practical Agriculture, Volume II, has the adjective. But no, it isn’t in the OED. Still, Wright, whose six-volume work appeared between 1898 and 1905, already has it as ‘obsolete’ then.

99t/47/huty/14061/41

(Robert Bridges via History Today)

Robert Bridges—then Poet Laureate and, famously, editor of the poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins—in a 1921 tract for the Society of Pure English, The Dialectical Words in Blunden’s Poems, remarked: ‘“Stolchy” is so good a word that it does not need a dictionary.’ Perhaps, to the modern ear, it’s close enough to ‘squelchy’ not to require further explanation but Blunden evidently felt that it had a quite specific application: perhaps ground not only wet but trodden down, usually by cattle, then subjected to still more rain. On the way back from seeing Armando Iannucci’s The Personal History of David Copperfield, the ground in the park was, hmm, stolchy; and there was, too, a bit in the film about dialect, usually humorous, and mainly in the mouth of James Steerforth.

Dialect—variations in speech peculiar to place or social group—is not archaism—language fallen out of current use—though the one can become the other. Ezra Pound remembered that, ‘when I was just trying to find and use modern speech, old Bridges carefully went through Personae and Exultations and commended every archaism (to my horror), exclaiming “We’ll git ’em all back; we’ll git ’em all back.”’[6]

He is there again in the Pisan Cantos:

“forloyn” said Mr Bridges (Robert)
“we’ll get ’em all back”
meaning archaic words (80/507)

Pound’s attitude towards such words, and those who used them, tended to fluctuate. Against his praise of Gabriele D’Annunzio, one might set Ford’s comments, as he traced what he saw as the decline of English poetry (while ‘what is wanted of a poet is that he should express his own thoughts in the language of his own time’): ‘The other day I was listening to an excellent Italian conférencier who assured an impressed audience that Signor D’Annunzio is the greatest Italian stylist there has ever been, since in his last book he has used over 2,017 obsolete words which cannot be understood by a modern Italian without the help of a medieval glossary.’[7]

Let’s not get them all back.

 
Notes

[1] Letter of 12 July 1919: Robert Graves, In Broken Images: Selected Letters of Robert Graves, 1914-1946, edited by Paul O’Prey (London: Hutchinson, 1982), 112, 113; Barry Webb, Edmund Blunden: A Biography (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1990), 114.

[2] See W. R. Irwin, ‘The Survival of Pan’, in PMLA, LXXVI, 3 (June 1961), 159-167.

[3] Edmund Blunden, ‘A Country God’, in Selected Poems, edited by Robyn Marsack (Manchester: Carcanet Press, 1993), 32-33.

[4] Charlotte Brontë, Villette, edited by Margaret Smith and Herbert Rosengarten (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990), 195, 300, 633n; Blunden, Fall In, Ghosts: Selected Prose, edited by Robyn Marsack (Manchester: Carcanet Press, 2014), 12.

[5] Though Ford also used ‘minced and mowed’ in The Fifth Queen (London: Penguin Books, 1999), 101; ‘mopped and mowed’ in A Man Could Stand Up— (1926; edited by Sara Haslam, Manchester: Carcanet Press, 2011), 68 and n., where other usages are detailed; and ‘miching and mowing’ in Provence (London: Allen & Unwin, 1938), 87 and Mightier Than the Sword (London: Allen and Unwin, 1938), 264, 265, 266.

[6] Ezra Pound, Selected Letters, 1907-1941, edited by D. D. Paige (New York: New Directions, 1971), 179.

[7] Ford Madox Ford, Ancient Lights and Certain New Reflections (London: Chapman and Hall, 1911), 52, 53.

 

‘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 Shakespear, 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 [Ford Madox Ford] 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.

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.