Delirium, poetry, snacks

There was a time when Penguin published a series of modern European poets (and Penguin Modern Poets and a lot of anthologies). They still publish poets, of course, but they were giants in those days, and a great many people read for the first time, in slim Penguin paperbacks, such luminaries as Akhmatova, Apollinaire, Prévert, Miroslav Holub, Ungaretti, Quasimodo, Yevtushenko, Montale, Rilke, Blok, a volume of four Greek poets—and who could fault the selection of Cavafy, Elytis, Gatsos and Seferis?

Even in such glittering company, Miroslav Holub stood out a little for me. A scientist (immunologist), a Czech, writing often in very short lines, sometimes reminiscent of William Carlos Williams’ ‘three-ply line’.[1] The Penguin edition came out fifty years ago but a later Bloodaxe collection included some of the translations from that edition, by George Theiner and Ian Milner. Some of the older translations have stuck in my head for years: ‘In the microscope’, ‘The root of the matter’, Žito the magician’, ‘Wings’ and, perhaps particularly, ‘Love’.

Two thousand cigarettes.
A hundred miles
from wall to wall.
An eternity and a half of vigils
blanker than snow.

Tons of words
old as the tracks
of a platypus in the sand.

A hundred books we didn’t write.
A hundred pyramids we didn’t build.

Sweepings.
Dust.

Bitter
as the beginning of the world.

Believe me when I say
it was beautiful.[2]

I lay in bed roughing out another version during my recent bout of flu, from which I’m gradually emerging: ‘Two thousand tissues/ a hundred hacking coughs from hour to hour/ Believe me when I say/ it was delirious’. The Librarian, still recovering from her own bad case of flu, was shoved unceremoniously into the role of nurse-helper. Initially a little shell-shocked by such unaccustomed role reversal, she rose to the occasion to the extent of coffees, hot lemon drinks and a visually spectacular sandwich, delivered to the accompaniment of eloquent words of encouragement (‘Good luck with that’).

Macdonald-Four-Later      Lowry-Under

The coughing, the delirium, the headaches, even the catarrh, all finally diminish. But time is often out of joint. Taking to my bed mid-evening, seemingly on the point of collapse, I get up again at 01:30, having woken at fifteen-minute intervals for the past hour and now feeling wide awake. Downstairs, I rotate hot drinks and snacks, and tuck into a Ross Macdonald novel. ‘Late afternoon sunlight spilled over the mountains to the west. The light had a tarnished elegiac quality, as if the sinking sun might never rise again. On the fairway behind the house the golfers seemed to be hurrying, pursued by their lengthening shadows.’[3]

Suit the book to the illness or at least to the stage on the road to wellness. I remember being ill and feverish, many years ago, while reading Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano. Coincidentally, there was a dramatisation of the book on the radio and I lay in bed listening to it—deliriously. Lowry’s novel is itself hallucinatory and to the voices already in my head were added those coming over the airwaves. Altogether that accumulation of deliriums, if that’s the right plural, produced a pronouncedly weird effect. I wasn’t sure who was in the worst state, Lowry or his central character Geoffrey Firmin or me. I’ve since read Under the Volcano again (when in rude health) and whittled those candidates down a bit.

References

[1] Paul Mariani, William Carlos Williams: A New World Naked (New York: W. W. Norton, 1990), 539-540; Hugh Kenner, The Pound Era (London: Faber and Faber, 1972), 542.

[2] ‘Love’, translated by Ian Milner, in Miroslav Holub, The Fly (Newcastle upon Tyne: Bloodaxe Books, 1987), 40.

[3] Ross Macdonald, The Instant Enemy, in Four Later Novels, edited by Tom Nolan (New York: Library of America, 2017), 413.

 

The Heights of Poetry

Haydon-WW-Helvellyn
(Wordsworth by Benjamin Haydon, © National Portrait Gallery, London)

‘Great writers in our time have tended to be tall,’ the six-feet-four Hugh Kenner remarks in the context of his first meeting with the five-feet-ten Ezra Pound. ‘T. S. Eliot, five-eleven-and-a-half—a figure I obtained after bumping my head on his six-foot office door. W. B. Yeats and James Joyce, each five-eleven; Sam Beckett, six-two. Save for psychic height, the physical Pound was a midget among giants.’[1]

Such considerations have cropped up before. I find—dear, dear, the Internet again—that Havelock Ellis, physician, sexologist, eugenicist, in an 1897 article, ‘Genius and Stature’, and his 1904 book, A Study of English Genius, asserted that men of genius—sorry, women, not this time—tended to be either shorter than average or, more frequently, taller than average. Those of average height scored markedly less well and the findings were complicated by the social class of the subjects (the poorer classes, unsurprisingly, tended to be physically smaller). In 1885, a certain Henry Troutbeck claimed to have examined Chaucer’s remains during the preparations for Robert Browning’s burial: he was five feet six inches (not bad for the fourteenth century, surely). Alas, further investigation showed that Browning’s grave was far enough away from Chaucer’s to to make this a bit implausible; then, too, it seems that, in any case, ‘the location of Chaucer’s bones remains somewhat doubtful.’[2]

Certainly, poets come in all sizes. Measuring them precisely is a tricky business, though Benjamin Haydon, when beginning his portrait of Wordsworth on Helvellyn, surveyed the poet in detail and found him to be exactly 5 feet 9⅞ inches tall. (He also did a drawing of him ‘with and without his false teeth.’)[3] Alexander Pope, apparently, came in at four feet six inches, while Edith Sitwell measured around six feet—or five feet eleven inches, by official reckoning.[4] On 20 October 1915, Wilfred Owen underwent his second medical examination at the Artists’ Rifles headquarters. A year earlier, his height of five feet five inches would have disqualified him but the standard had been lowered since then. He officially entered the British Army the following day.[5] Keats was around five feet and one inch—‘around’? Timothy Hilton has him at 5’ 0¾” , as does Robert Gittings, while Andrew Motion has ‘five feet and a fraction of an inch’—but what fraction?[6] And Keats was how much shorter than Charles Olson?

charles_olson_writing_at_black_mountain_college
(Charles Olson writing at Black Mountian College)

Olson (born 27 December 1910) was roughly six foot eight or nine, Robert Creeley wrote; or six feet seven inches, as some say; twenty-one inches taller than Keats, Guy Davenport remarks (‘in his stocking feet taller by half again than Alexander the Great’), which would make him six feet ten inches.[7] Damned tall, anyway, large, everything about him large, the ambition, the format of the volumes of Maximus poems from Cape Goliard, vocabulary, geographical and historical reach.

Sometimes he’s absurdly overpitched, sometimes opaque, sometimes just crazy, sometimes inspired, sometimes visionary. Sometimes he’s just on the money.

Try:

What has he to say?
In hell it is not easy
to know the traceries, the markings
(the canals, the pits, the mountings by which space
declares herself, arched, as she is, the sister,
awkward stars drawn for teats to pleasure him, the brother
who lies in stasis under her, at ease as any monarch or
a happy man[8]

or

It is undone business
I speak of, this morning,
with the sea
stretching out
from my feet

or

I am not at all aware
that anything more than that
is called for. Limits
are what any of us
are inside of

or, ah:

The upshot is
(and this the books did not tell us) the race
does not advance, it is only
better preserved[9]

George Butterick, the Olson scholar who edited the Collected Poems (nearly 650 pages of non-Maximus poems) and The Maximus Poems for the University of California Press, cites in this connection Emerson’s ‘Self-Reliance’: ‘Society never advances. It recedes as fast on one side as it gains on the other. It undergoes continual changes [… ] but this change is not amelioration. For every thing that is given, something is taken.’[10]

T. S. Eliot, along similar—though not the same—lines wrote that the artist must ‘be quite aware of the obvious fact that art never improves, but that the material of art is never quite the same’. And that the mind of Europe ‘is a mind which changes, and that this change is a development which abandons nothing en route, which does not superannuate either Shakespeare, or Homer, or the rock drawing of the Magdalenian draughtsmen.’[11]

On a more individual note, David Jones, putting on his wall in 1958 a drawing of a dancing bear he’d produced in 1903, at the age of seven, wrote to a friend: ‘“It’s much the best drawing I’ve ever done, which shows how, in the arts, there ain’t no such thing as getting better as you get older!”’ Again, in 1967, Jones wrote of this drawing, ‘there are few of my subsequent works which I prefer to that.’[12] The assertion held in a wider perspective in Jones’s case too. Though moved and impressed by books that he read by Teilhard de Chardin, he thought Teilhard’s ‘idea of evolution towards union with God naïve — like any belief in general progress. In art, for example, “Picasso is no improvement over Lascaux.”’[13]

Jones-dancing-bear
(David Jones, ‘The Bear’ (1903), via Apollo magazine)

Is that true? Individually, the issue is complicated by a general acceptance of the fact that advancing age must inevitably be accompanied by a loss of powers—but it’s a fact often confounded by extraordinary artistic performances from writers and painters in their seventies, eighties and even nineties: among others, Georgia O’Keeffe, Charles Tomlinson, Rose Macaulay, Sybille Bedford, W. B. Yeats, Titian, Thomas Hardy, Penelope Fitzgerald, Isak Dinesen, Louise Bourgeois, Ezra Pound—and David Jones himself.

And more generally? Those of us who grew up with the unexamined optimism common enough in those days, a version of the Whig interpretation of history (the inevitable and continuing advance of progress over the forces of reaction) have had rude awakenings enough in this new age of unreason. As for the arts—it’s a good, a constant question. In the essay already quoted, Eliot wrote: ‘Someone said: “The dead writers are remote from us because we know so much more than they did”. Precisely, and they are that which we know.’ That actually accounts for a large part of the confident assertion that painters, poets, novelists—and critics—are better or smarter or more profound than those in earlier periods: they are simply positioned later in history. Our own age knows a great deal that people in the early twentieth and nineteenth and eighteenth centuries didn’t know; but we’d be fools to think that those earlier ages didn’t know a great many other things that are completely lost to us now.

It has to be said, though, that, as a general rule, we’re taller than they were.

References

[1] Hugh Kenner, The Elsewhere Community (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000), 35.

[2] Thomas A. Prendergast, Chaucer’s Dead Body: From Corpse to Corpus (London: Routledge, 2003), 106, 108, 59.

[3] See Alethea Hayter, A Sultry Month: Scenes of London Literary Life in 1846 (London: Robin Clark 1992), 142-143.

[4] Pope mentioned in Hugh Kenner’s review of Maynard Mack’s Alexander Pope: A Life (1986), in Historical Fictions (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1995), 253; ‘Sitwell’s passport recorded her height as five feet eleven but she was often reported as being well over six feet’: Rosemary Hill, ‘No False Modesty’, a review of Richard Greene, Edith Sitwell: Avant-Garde Poet (London: Virago Press, 2011), in London Review of Books, 33, 20 (20 October 2011), 25.

[5] Dominic Hibberd, Wilfred Owen: A New Biography (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2002), 164.

[6] Timothy Hilton, Keats and his World (London: Thames & Hudson, 1971), 56; Robert Gittings, John Keats (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1971), 135; Andrew Motion, Keats (London: Faber and Faber, 1997), 36.

[7] Robert Creeley, ‘Introduction’ to Charles Olson, Selected Writings (New York: New Directions, 1966), 1; Guy Davenport, ‘Olson’, in The Geography of the Imagination (Boston: David R. Godine, 1997), 80.

[8] Charles Olson, ‘In Cold Hell, in Thicket’, in The Collected Poems of Charles Olson, edited by George F. Butterick (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997), 155. The reference here is to the Egyptian sky-goddess Nut, arching over and around her earth-god brother and lover Geb (‘her starry belly was painted inside the sarcophagi of Egyptian kings’): Robert von Hallberg, Charles Olson: The Scholar’s Art (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1978), 145.

[9] Charles Olson, The Maximus Poems, edited by George F. Butterick (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985), 57, 21, 59.

[10] George Butterick, A Guide to the Maximus Poems of Charles Olson (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1980), 86. See Ralph Waldo Emerson, Essays and Lectures, edited by Joel Porte (New York: Library of America, 1983), 279—I’ve quoted very slightly more than Butterick does.

[11] Eliot, ‘Tradition and the Individual Talent’, in Selected Essays, third enlarged edition (London: Faber and Faber, 1980), 16.

[12] Thomas Dilworth, David Jones: Engraver, Soldier, Painter, Poet (London: Jonathan Cape, 2017), 11; David Jones, ‘A Note to the Illustrations’, Agenda, Vol. 5, Nos. 1-3, Special David Jones issue (Spring-Summer, 1967), 2.

[13] Dilworth, David Jones, 314.

 

Sleep and his brother

Archer, James, 1823-1904; La mort d'Arthur

(James Archer, La mort d’Arthur: Manchester Art Gallery)

Commanded by ‘Zeus the cloud-gatherer’, Apollo ‘did exactly as he was told’.

He carried Sarpedon out of the line of fire,
Washed him properly in a stream, in running water,
And rubbed supernatural preservative over him
And wrapped him up in imperishable fabrics
And handed him over to the speedy chaperons,
Sleep and his twin brother Death, who brought him
In no time at all to Lycia’s abundant farmland.’[1]

Michael Longley is rendering here a part of Homer’s Book XVI of the Iliad. What Zeus says to his son Apollo about another of his sons, Sarpedon, almost exactly repeats what Zeus’s wife Hera has earlier said to her husband when he expressed his wish to rescue Sarpedon from the murderous attention of Patroclus. Hera, reasonably enough, pointed out that, were he to save Sarpedon from his battlefield death, then other gods and goddesses might feel a little aggrieved, since many ‘sons of the immortals’ were engaged in the fight. Essentially, she says, while Zeus has the power to reprieve Sarpedon, to do so ‘would upset the balance of the world’.[2]

Running soldiers, vase, 6th century BC Attic (Greek) (detail)

Sleep and death. With characteristic elegance, Alice Oswald writes:

Sarpedon the son of Zeus
Came to this unseen ungrowing ground
Came from his cornfields from his leafy river
From his kingdom of paths and apple groves
And was killed by a spear
Then for a long time he lay crumpled as linen
Until two soft-voiced servants Sleep and Death
Carried him home again[3]

Richmond Lattimore has them as ‘swift messengers’[4] but I rather like that explicit characterisation of them as servants rather than masters. Given the acceptance of fate and its workings, what could be more natural than sleep or, indeed, death?

In Finland, I gather, 27th July is Sleepy Head Day, when the last person sleeping in the house tends to be doused with water. The tradition dates back to the Middle Ages and is supposedly related to the legend of the Seven Sleepers of Ephesus, who hid in a cave to escape religious persecution and woke centuries later. There are long sleeps, absurdly long sleeps—and mythical sleeps. Legend insists that King Arthur and his knights are not dead but only sleeping until they are needed again. Malory wrote: ‘Yet som men say in many p[art]ys of Inglonde that kynge Arthur ys nat dede but h[ad] by the wyll of oure Lord Jesu into another place; and men say that he shall com agayne, and he shall wynne the Holy Crosse.’[5] Tracing the ways in which Arthur’s memory was kept alive, through oral tradition, folk tales and ballads, to flourish in Victorian Britain, in Morris, Swinburne and most evidently in Tennyson’s Idylls of the King, Peter Ackroyd suggests that this is ‘the true significance of Arthur: by not dying, by being perpetually reborn, he represents the ideas of the English imagination.’[6]

Marguerite_Yourcenar

(Marguerite Yourcenar)

Some are deprived of the sleep they desire: Alethea Hayter writes of the opium addict that: ‘He is unable to sleep, and sometimes seems to be waiting for someone who never comes.’[7] For others, sleep is not wanted at all. The narrator of Michael Ondaatje’s novel remarks that ‘Sleep is a prison for a boy who has friends to meet. We were impatient with the night, up before sunrise surrounded the ship.’[8] Sleep has its risks and dangers, its shifting borders. ‘But what interests me here’, Marguerite Yourcenar has her emperor Hadrian say, ‘is the specific mystery of sleep partaken of for itself alone, the inevitable plunge risked each night by the naked man, solitary and unarmed, into an ocean where everything changes, the colors, the densities, and even the rhythm of breathing, and where we meet the dead.’[9] And the Old Gypsy Woman says to the narrator of Antonio Tabucchi’s Requiem, ‘Listen, my dear, this can’t go on, you can’t live in two worlds at once, in the world of reality and the world of dreams, that kind of thing leads to hallucinations, you’re like a sleepwalker walking with your arms outstretched, and everything you touch becomes part of your dream’.[10]

One of my favourite sleeping anecdotes occurs in a Sylvia Townsend Warner letter to her friend George Plank. ‘I will sit down to tell you about two very old & distant cousins of mine, brother & sister, who live together. She is in her nineties: he is a trifle younger. They were sitting together, he reading, she knitting. Presently she wanted something, and crossed the room to get it. She tripped, & fell on her back. So she presently said: Charlie, I’ve fallen & I can’t get up. He put down his book, turned his head, looked at her, and fell asleep.’[11]

So there’s that to look forward to.
References

[1] Michael Longley, ‘Sleep & Death’, Snow Water (London: Jonathan Cape, 2004), 42.

[2] Malcolm M. Willcock, A Companion to the Iliad (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1976), 185.

[3] Alice Oswald, Memorial (London: Faber and Faber, 2011), 61.

[4] Homer, The Iliad of Homer, translated by Richmond Lattimore (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1961), 348, line 671.

[5] The Works of Sir Thomas Malory, edited by Eugène Vinaver (London: Oxford University Press, 1964), 873.

[6] Peter Ackroyd, Albion (London: Chatto & Windus, 2002), 118.

[7] Alethea Hayter, Opium and the Romantic Imagination (London: Faber, 1971), 69.

[8] Michael Ondaatje, The Cat’s Table (London: Vintage Books, 2012), 30.

[9] Marguerite Yourcenar, The Memoirs of Hadrian, translated by Grace Frick, with Yourcenar (1951; Penguin Books, 2000), 26.

[10] Antonio Tabucchi, Requiem, translated by Margaret Jull Costa (London: Harvill, 1994), 25.

[11] Letter of 14 February, 1960: Sylvia Townsend Warner, Letters, edited by William Maxwell (London: Chatto & Windus, 1982), 180.

 

Winter solstice; nothing political

Lights2

Winter solstice. The shortest, least lighted day. The darkest hour before the dawn, and all that. So we can expect some brightening soon? Answers on a speck of dust, please, to a post office box located somewhere out in mid-ocean.

Is it possible, on such a day, not to stray into political lament or harangue in this new age of unreason, at the end of what feels like a very long year or rather, eighteen months, which is how long it is since, in Jonathan Meades’ summary, ‘[t]he aim of the 52 per cent that shot itself in the foot was so poor that it also shot the 48 per cent.’?[1]

Face-to-the-world

It’s possible. Difficult but possible, if only by concentrating on quite other things, such as the obvious advantage of new bookshelves in the kitchen being the option of browsing while the kettle boils or the grill heats up. You might gather useful, or useless, or at least diverting facts such as that Gustave Courbet had himself photographed more than any other nineteenth-century French painter.[2] Or, say, insights into the problems of novel-writing:

Unstrung-Harp

‘Several weeks later, the loofah trickling on his knees, Mr Earbrass mulls over an awkward retrospective bit that ought to go in Chapter II. But where? Even the voice of the omniscient author can hardly afford to interject a seemingly pointless anecdote concerning Ladderback in Tibet when the other characters are feverishly engaged in wondering whether to have the pond at Disshiver Cottage dragged or not.’[3]

Or, say, this cheering news of the use to which Mary Cassatt put her share of the 1879 Impressionist exhibition’s earnings: ‘[ . . . ] Mary bought a Monet and a Degas; by that time she already owned pictures of Pissarro, Renoir, Sisley, and Monet; her impulse, like Degas’, was ever to put money not earmarked for necessities, into pictures.’[4] I’m thinking how pleasant it would be: not needing to be rich, simply having the good taste to want ‘a Monet and a Degas’ and, of course, to have that sense of priorities.

21 December, something cheering. Let me see. Yes, that day in 1944, Sylvia Townsend Warner writes to Ben Huebsch of Viking Press about her wonderful novel The Corner That Held Them, reviewed by Kate Macdonald earlier this year here:

https://katemacdonald.net/2017/05/22/sylvia-townsend-warner-the-corner-that-held-them/

‘At this moment you should have up to p.182. I have killed off a lot more ladies in the next bit you will get, so much creating and killing off makes me feel as providential as Providence. Ralph, however, is still with us. He is to live into an old age serene and bright and die without a pang of conscience.’ Four months later, she writes to him to say: ‘It will be long—about 180,000 I believe. It is also what one calls powerful. If dropped from a suitable height it would wipe out the state of Vermont.’[5]

confucius

(Confucius: K’ung Fu-Tse)

Meanwhile, reflecting—obviously, not at all in a political way—on the news of the day, of altogether too many recent days, an extract from Ezra Pound’s ‘Canto XIII’ pops into my head:

And Kung raised his cane against Yuan Jang,
Yuan Jang being his elder,
For Yuan Jang sat by the roadside pretending to
be receiving wisdom.
And Kung said “You old fool, come out of it,
“Get up and do something useful.”
And Kung said
“Respect a child’s faculties
“From the moment it inhales the clear air,
“But a man of fifty who knows nothing
Is worthy of no respect.”[6]

References

[1] Jonathan Meades, ‘In the loop: The gulf between the arts and art: a personal view’ (edited text of a speech given at the annual dinner of the Royal Academy of Arts in London), Times Literary Supplement (20 October 2017), 14.

[2] Laura Cumming, A Face to the World: On Self-Portraits (London: Harper Press, 2010), 194.

[3] Edward Gorey, The Unstrung Harp; or, Mr Earbrass Writes a Novel, in Amphigorey: Fifteen Books by Edward Gorey (New York: Perigee Books, 1981), unpaginated.

[4] Nancy Hale, Mary Cassatt: A biography of the great American painter (New York: Doubleday, 1975), 94.

[5] Sylvia Townsend Warner, Letters, edited by William Maxwell (London: Chatto & Windus, 1982), 88, 92.

[6] The Cantos of Ezra Pound, fourth collected edition (London: Faber and Faber, 1987), 58-59.

 

Snow’s up

Rackham-WindWillows-Snow

(Arthur Rackham, illustration to The Wind in the Willows)

‘What’s up, Ratty?’ asked the Mole.
Snow is up,’ replied the Rat briefly; ‘or rather, down. It’s snowing hard.’

Looking out of the upstairs window of the flat in which we’re staying for the weekend, I remark that it seems to be snowing.
‘It just looks like it’, the Librarian calls from the bedroom, ‘It’s the light.’
I peer through the glass again, ‘No. I think it’s definitely snowing. Have a look for yourself.’
She looks. ‘It’s snowing!’
I say, ‘Yes, that’s what—’
‘It’s snowing!’

And it is. In Bristol, we see snow almost as rarely as we see responsible national governance. Here in Walthamstow, apparently, the weather has no such inhibitions.

‘We have to walk to the station’, I point out to the snow-loving Librarian. ‘In these shoes.’ My shoes are perfectly comfortable but, in the event of slippery surfaces, they laugh weakly and surrender me to the elements without a qualm.
The Librarian regards me patiently before explaining: ‘It’s snowing! It’s snowing!’

It is.

To the north, even in parts of Gloucestershire, snow has been falling meaningfully. Gloucestershire often catches what Bristol doesn’t (though Bristol has, in the past, been classified as part of Gloucestershire, then Avon, and now as both city and county):

The day fails, sky drags with unfallen snow;
the hours, already, of the plough and of the crow.
All we can do here is say nothing and move on.[1]

Great for kids, less good for travellers, for livestock, for the transport business. Very good for photographers, artists, poets.

It is this we learn after so many failures,
The building of castles in sand, of queens in snow,
That we cannot make any corner in life or in life’s beauty,
That no river is a river which does not flow.[2]

As a symbol, snows knocks a lot of other natural phenomena into a cocked hat. Hugh Kenner mentions the lines in the Iliad which rhyme snow with ‘hurtling missiles’ and notes that passage’s ‘rhyme’ with the snowfall at the end of James Joyce’s story, ‘The Dead’.[3] Alice Oswald, in her brilliant ‘excavation’ of the Iliad, has this:

Like snow falling like snow
When the living winds shake the clouds into pieces
Like flutters of silence hurrying down
To put a stop to the earth at her leafwork[4]

Snowprints

But then, remembering reports from friends in Wisconsin, Illinois and Pennsylvania over the years, our snow tends to be comparatively puny, apart from in the Scottish highlands and a handful of other—mainly upland—areas. As Alexandra Harris mentions, Wyndham Lewis, in the first Blast manifesto, cursed ‘the flabby sky that can manufacture no snow, but / can only drop the sea on us in a drizzle like a poem by Mr Robert Bridges’. The Bridges poem, ‘London Snow’, with its large flakes ‘Stealthily and perpetually settling and loosely lying, / Hushing the latest traffic of the drowsy town’, just wouldn’t have cut the explosive mustard for The Enemy.[5]

In The Waste Land, T. S. Eliot famously wrote that

Winter kept us warm, covering
Earth in forgetful snow, feeding
A little life with dried tubers.

Interestingly, in a 1936 letter to Ottoline Morrell, he commented that ‘the winter is to me a warm and anaesthetic season’.[6]

En route to Walthamstow Central, the snow is still falling, so fresh and relatively easy to walk on, even for those with slyly treacherous shoes. I trudge steadily, maintaining momentum. The Librarian is somewhere behind me, taking photographs. Of snow, yes. Photographs of snow.

References

[1] Josephine Balmer, ‘Malvern Road Station, Cheltenham’, in The Word for Sorrow (Cambridge: Salt Publishing, 2009), 8.

[2] Louis MacNeice, ‘Autumn Journal’, in Collected Poems, edited by Peter McDonald (London: Faber, 2007), 102.

[3] Hugh Kenner, The Pound Era (London: Faber and Faber, 1972), 92, citing Philip Damon’s 1961 book, Modes of Analogy in Ancient and Mediaeval Verse.

[4] Alice Oswald, Memorial: An Excavation of the Iliad (London: Faber, 2011), 18.

[5] Wyndham Lewis, editor, Blast: Review of the Great English Vortex (London: John Lane, 1914), 12; Alexandra Harris, Weatherland: Writers and Artists Under English Skies (London: Thames & Hudson, 2015), 331.

[6] The Poems of T. S. Eliot. Volume I: Collected and Uncollected Poems, edited by Christopher Ricks and Jim McCue (London: Faber & Faber, 2015), 55, 604.

 

Hallowmas, ducks, poets

Hodder, Albert, 1845-1911; Bolling Mill near the Brewery, Bridport, Dorset

(Albert Hodder, Bolling Mill near the Brewery, Bridport, Dorset, 1900;
The Coach House: Photo credit: Bridport Museum Trust)

The first of November: All Saints’ Day, Allhallows Day, Hallowmas, Hollantide.

If ducks do slide at Hollantide,
at Christmas they will swim;
if ducks do swim at Hollantide,
at Christmas they will slide.[1]

Briefly: keep an eye on the ducks.

On Tuesday 1 November 1892, Olive Garnett reported to her diary: ‘To-day being All Saint’s Day Mamma called on Christina Rossetti with pink & white heath, her favourite flower. Miss Rossetti wishes nothing to be said about her state of health, life or anything else. She has heart disease & absolute quiet is indispensable. Practically she has left the world already.’[2]

(In fact, she lived another two years, dying on 29 December 1894, aged sixty-four.)

My heart is like a singing bird
Whose nest is in a water’d shoot;
My heart is like an apple-tree
Whose boughs are bent with thickset fruit;
My heart is like a rainbow shell
That paddles in a halcyon sea;
My heart is gladder than all these
Because my love is come to me.[3]

Goblin Market, published in 1862, was an artistic and critical success of the kind dangerously liable to make everything that follows seem something of an anti-climax. The poem continues to provoke an astonishing range of interpretations, from Christian allegories of temptation and redemption through discussions of the marriage market and the constraints on talented and artistic women to debates about lesbian sexuality. There’s a wonderful collision between the way in which Rossetti is often seen—the ascetic  Christian poet who turned down suitors for religious reasons—and the lush and sensual language she uses in Goblin Market:

She cried “Laura,” up the garden,
“Did you miss me?
Come and kiss me.
Never mind my bruises,
Hug me, kiss me, suck my juices
Squeezed from goblin fruits for you,
Goblin pulp and goblin dew.
Eat me, drink me, love me;
Laura, make much of me:
For your sake I have braved the glen
And had to do with goblin merchant men.”[4]

Christina-Rossetti
(Christina by brother Dante Gabriel, c.1866: ©Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge)

1 November is also the birthday of two poets with strong connections to the First World War, though both lived on into the 1970s. David Jones was born on this date in 1895. He had begun writing In Parenthesis (though it wasn’t published until 1937) when Edmund Blunden’s Undertones of War, another classic work about the war, appeared in 1928:

‘Fine days succeeded, and moonlit nights, temperate nights with their irresistible poetry creating a silver lake in the borders of Thiepval’s lunatical wood, a yellow harvest on the downs towards Mesnil the mortuary.’[5]

Blunden was born exactly one year after Jones, 1 November 1896. He was awarded the Military Cross in the same month twenty years later.

At the noon of the dreadful day
Our trench and death’s is on a sudden stormed
With huge and shattering salvoes, the clay dances
In founts of clods around the concrete sties
Where still the brain devises some last armour
To live out the poor limbs.[6]

Siegfried Sassoon told David Jones, when they met and talked in 1964, that, however hard he tried, he couldn’t get the Great War out of his system; and that this was also true of Blunden. Jones said it was true for him too. He told his friend Harman Grisewood he was glad that Sassoon thought highly of Undertones of War, ‘which I’ve felt to be one of the very best of those various accounts of that infantry war.’[7]

Jones, David, 1895-1974; Portrait of a Maker
David Jones, Portrait of a Maker [Harman Grisewood], 1932 © trustees of the David Jones estate. Photo credit: Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales

Born within a year of one another, dying in the same year (1974) and both largely shaped by their experiences in the Great War, they yet remained very different writers: Blunden with his devotion to English literature of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, to the pastoral tradition, to Englishness in its many forms and guises, whether villages, prose or cricket; Jones emerging as one of the major modernists, in both literature and the visual arts, often drawing on materials less familiar to the general reader: Welsh myth, Arthurian romance, the experiences of Roman legionaries in Britain, details of Catholic ritual.

‘It is extremely difficult, if not impossible, for us to see the wood in which we find ourselves for the trees against which we break our heads and in the tangle of which we break our hearts.’[8] 

References

[1] Bonnie Blackburn and Leofranc Holford-Strevens, The Oxford Companion to the Year (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), 440.

[2] Barry C. Johnson, editor, Tea and Anarchy! The Bloomsbury Diary of Olive Garnett, 1890-1893 (London: Bartletts Press, 1989), 132-133.

[3] Christina Rossetti, ‘A Birthday’, Poems and Prose, edited by Jan Marsh (London: Everyman, 1994), 60.

[4] Rossetti, Poems and Prose, 174.

[5] Blunden, Undertones of War (1928; Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1982), 116.

[6] Blunden, ‘Third Ypres: A Reminiscence’, Selected Poems, edited by Robyn Marsack (Manchester: Carcanet Press, 1993), 50.

[7] Thomas Dilworth, David Jones: Engraver, Soldier, Painter, Poet (London: Jonathan Cape, 2017), 328; René Hague, editor, Dai Greatcoat: A self-portrait of David Jones in his letters (London: Faber and Faber, 1980), 210.

[8] David Jones, ‘Art and Democracy’, in Epoch and Artist (1959; London: Faber, 1973), 96.

 

 

Dylan, Dai Greatcoat and Welshness

Dylan-Caitlin-via-Telegraph

(Dylan Thomas and his wife Caitlin via The Telegraph)

Dylan Thomas (born 27 October 1914) was probably my first poetic crush or obsession or, let’s say, preoccupation. No doubt I had others of a non-poetic kind and it was not solely as a spectator that I approached Thomas: I myself was to be a poet in the Thomas mode – a lord of language but also comedian, raconteur, champion drinker, roaring boy. I can see now that I actually read relatively few of Thomas’s poems: I just read them a lot. They were, for the most part, the ones that remain the best known and most often cited: ‘The force that through the green fuse drives the flower’, ‘Light breaks where no sun shines’, ‘I see the boys of summer’, ‘After the funeral’, ‘When all my five and country senses see’, ‘The hunchback in the park’, ‘A Refusal to Mourn the Death, by Fire, of a Child in London’, ‘Fern Hill’, ‘Do not go gentle into that good night’, and perhaps especially then, ‘Poem in October’ (I won’t worry too much about the indented lines, which will vanish when I post this):

It was my thirtieth year to heaven
Woke to my hearing from harbour and neighbour wood
And the mussel pooled and the heron
Priested shore
The morning beckon
With water praying and call of seagull and rook
And the knock of sailing boats on the net webbed wall
Myself to set forth
That second
In the still sleeping town and set forth.[1]

When I became aware of the scheme in ‘Prologue’, written especially for the 1952 Collected Poems—the two central lines rhyme, then the lines on either side of those and so back to the first and last lines—I admired that excessively for a time. (Then thought it a gimmick, mere ‘technique’ – and now simply like the poem.)

We tend to grow wary of youthful enthusiasms; we may encounter contrary or negative views of their objects; we may hug them protectively to ourselves and try to sustain them; but often other things crowd in to absorb our attention and the early enthusiasms—or infatuations or passions—are deprived of air and light and can’t always be resuscitated. Yet they’re not always gone for good. Sometimes we come back to them, years later, perhaps on quite other terms, and establish different but often surprisingly strong relations.

DJ-outside-Faber

(David Jones outside the Faber offices: http://www.david-jones-society.org/david-jones.html )

My most recent poetic preoccupation, still current in fact, is with David Jones. It’s a point of interest that, while Dylan Thomas was actually Welsh, born in Swansea—though much of his material is not substantially or conspicuously Welsh—David Jones, though he had a Welsh father, was born in Brockley, south-east London, spent very little time actually in Wales, but was hugely interested in Welsh history and literature. A great deal of his work, concerned with ‘the matter of Britain’, deals with themes of Welsh antiquity, mythology, language. Of course, both Dylan Thomas, ‘the Rimbaud of Cwmdonkin Drive’, and David Jones speak in the accents of upper-class Englishmen.

(The remarkable 1965 interview—two hours of film edited down to around twenty minutes—between Jones and Saunders Lewis, produced by Tristram Powell, is available here: http://www.david-jones-society.org/research-resources.html
(Also accessible through this site are the three invaluable films about Jones by the late Derek Shiel)

Despite the prevalence of Welsh matter in David Jones’s work, he tends to be viewed—when he’s not being neglected or overlooked, which is still too often the case—in relation to British modernism. This can seem something of a drawback for those seeking to establish a distinct strain of Welsh modernism and situate Dylan Thomas centrally within it: ‘If modernism in Britain was largely imported – think of James, Conrad, Pound, and Eliot – it was heavily Irish-influenced [presumably Joyce and Yeats]. Predictably, the Welsh variety has been seen solely in terms of its input to the definition of British (i.e., English) modernism, in the shape of David Jones. Although its anomalousness and belatedness are arguably a sign of writing which deals with the condition of Welshness, concentration on Jones’ high modernism (endorsed by Eliot, and publication by Faber) has led critics away from Welsh modernism.’[2]

David Jones told William Blissett that he’d met Dylan Thomas on three occasions: ‘twice he was drunk and unreachable, though amusing, the other time sober, and they talked at some length about Welsh metres, in complete accord.’[3] Thomas Dilworth points out that, on this last occasion, 30 March 1953, David Jones did ‘most of the talking since Thomas knew little about it.’ Thomas regarded Jones with ‘“great reverence”’, and ‘expressed huge admiration for him as a poet’, while Jones thought that Dylan Thomas ‘invigorated English through an underlying sense of Celtic language’.[4]

Both of David Jones’s major poems, In Parenthesis and The Anathemata were dramatised on the BBC, and Dylan Thomas performed in both recordings. In 1946, David Jones went to the basement flat in Albany Street of his friend Douglas Cleverdon to hear the first broadcast of Cleverdon’s adaptation of In Parenthesis; and listened to the following evening’s repeat with his friends Harman and Margaret Grisewood. He felt that the actors, including Richard Burton and Emrys Jones, wrongly stressed words and exaggerated emotions. Jones ‘hated it, broke down, and went to bed for a week.’[5] But Dylan Thomas, who delivered Dai Greatcoat’s boast, seems to have escaped the author’s censure. And in 1954, a year after Dylan’s death, when Douglas Cleverdon’s version of The Anathemata was repeated on Friday 26 November, Jones wrote to his friend Jim Ede: ‘It’s a peculiar thing. They sweated on it, but of course, from my point of view, it is all over-dramatized etc. etc. etc.—one or two bits not so bad—Dylan Thomas said his [pre-recorded] bits beautifully and the Welsh women in Part VII are all right.’[6]

I read In Parenthesis for the first time more than thirty years ago but feel that I’m only now beginning to see David Jones properly for the first time; reading Dylan Thomas and experiencing that intoxication—language as if mainlined, shot straight into the vein—even longer ago than that, I think that seeing him for the second time, though less enthralling than the first, may, in the end, prove even more rewarding.

 
References

[1] Dylan Thomas, The Poems, edited and introduced by Daniel Jones (London: J. M. Dent & Sons, 1971), 176-177.

[2] John Goodby and Christopher Wigginton, ‘Dylan Thomas’ modernism’, in Alex Davis and Lee M. Jenkins, Locations of Literary Modernism: Region and Nation in British and American Modernist Poetry (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 99.

[3] Conversation dated 25 September 1970: William Blissett, The Long Conversation: A Memoir of David Jones (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1981), 57.

[4] Thomas Dilworth, David Jones: Engraver, Soldier, Painter, Poet (London: Jonathan Cape, 2017), 276.

[5] Dilworth, David Jones, 239.

[6] René Hague, editor, Dai Greatcoat: A self-portrait of David Jones in his letters (London: Faber and Faber, 1980), 164.