Ezra Pound, Stella Bowen and ‘the stylist’

Ford-_E_Pound_Rapallo_1932 Stella-Bowen-photo

(Ford Madox Ford and Ezra Pound, Rapallo, 1932; Stella Bowen, 1920s, Cornell)

On 30 October 1885 Ezra Pound was born in Hailey, Idaho. (‘Here he lies, the Idaho kid,/ The only time he ever did.’)[1] On 30 October 1947, Stella Bowen, painter and writer, died at the age of fifty-four, three weeks after the birth of her grandson, leaving her last painting (‘Still Life with Grapes’) unfinished.[2]

Stella met Pound during the First World War, when the studio she shared with her friend Phyllis Reid was lent for a party, to which Pound came. ‘To me’, Stella remembered, ‘he was at first an alarming phenomenon. His movements, though not uncontrolled, were sudden and angular, and his droning American voice, breaking into bomb-shells of emphasis, was rather incomprehensible as he enlightened us on the Way, the Truth, and the Light, in Art.’[3] Thereafter, largely through Pound, she and Phyllis met everyone: Eliot, Yeats, Wyndham Lewis, May Sinclair, Violet Hunt, Arthur Waley, Edward Wadsworth and others, including Ford Madox Ford.

Solitaire

Stella Bowen, Ford Playing Solitaire, Paris 1927
(Private collection: via https://www.awm.gov.au/visit/exhibitions/stella )

By the autumn of 1917, Stella was exchanging letters with Ford, she in London, he still stationed in Redcar, on the Yorkshire coast. They would live together for almost ten years. The first cottage they shared was Red Ford, in Pulborough, ‘a leaky-roofed, tile-healed, rat-ridden, seventeenth-century, five-shilling a week, moribund labourer’s cottage.’[4] ‘Penny, (not Pound) the goat, the sweet corn, Mrs Ford and the hole in the roof are still, here, going strong’, Ford wrote to Herbert Read in June 1920.[5] That summer, they moved to Bedham, ten miles away, while the indispensable Mr Hunt was still working on Coopers Cottage. Pound visited them there, ‘once, just before he and Dorothy migrated to Paris’, Stella remembered.[6] Or, in Ford’s own, lengthier version: ‘And Mr Pound appeared, aloft on the seat of my immense high dog-cart, like a bewildered Stuart pretender visiting a repellent portion of his realms. For Mr Pound hated the country, though I will put it on record that he can carve a sucking pig as few others can.’[7]

Two months before Pound’s visit to Bedham, the poet John Rodker published at The Ovid Press, in a limited edition of 200 copies, Hugh Selwyn Mauberley by ‘E. P.’ The press’s backers included May Sinclair and Pound himself but was primarily financed by Mary Butts, then married to Rodker.[8] Butts was one of the first friends that Stella made when she moved to London, when they both worked on a Children’s Care Committee in the East End.

Mary_Butts

Mary Butts (Photo by Bertram Park, 1919: Beinecke Library, Yale University)

Hugh Selwyn Mauberley is a long poem or suite of poems, numbering eighteen in all. The centre of the work (poems IX and X) is occupied by two poems contrasting different types of writer. The first, ‘Mr Nixon’, is often taken to refer to Arnold Bennett. Pound wrote to Ford that Rodker ‘thinks both he and I will be murdered by people making personal application of necessary literary constructions verging too near to photography.’ He went on: ‘My defence being that “Mr Nixon” is the only person who need really see red, and go hang himself in the potters field or throw bombs through my window.’[9]

A ‘potter’s field’ is generally applied to a burial place for paupers and unidentified strangers but Bennett, famously, was from ‘the Potteries’, his most celebrated novels (certainly up to 1920) all focusing on the ‘Five Towns’, centres of the pottery industry. In his prose collection Instigations, published in April 1920, Pound wrote of Wyndham Lewis’s Tarr (1918): ‘What we are blessedly free from is the red-plush Wellsian illusionism, and the click of Mr Bennett’s cash-register finish.’ When this essay was reprinted many years later, Pound added a footnote to the effect that he’d ‘rather modified his view of part of Bennett’s writing’ when he finally got around to reading The Old Wives’ Tale.[10] Still, three years before Virginia Woolf’s famous essay ‘Mr Bennett and Mrs Brown’, Pound has the same realist novelists in his sights; and there is a clear imputation to Bennett of predominantly mercenary motives.

HSB-Ovid

What other ‘people making personal application of necessary literary constructions verging too near to photography’ might Pound’s poem suggest? The second type of writer in that central pair of poems, is termed ‘the stylist’:

Beneath the sagging roof
The stylist has taken shelter,
Unpaid, uncelebrated,
At last from the world’s welter

Nature receives him,
With a placid and uneducated mistress
He exercises his talents
And the soil meets his distress.

The haven from sophistications and contentions
Leaks through its thatch;
He offers succulent cooking;
The door has a creaking latch.[11]

‘Unpaid, uncelebrated’: a pretty stark contrast with the famous and successful ‘Mr Nixon’. If this draws—as it surely does—on Ford and Stella in their first Sussex cottage, just what does this imply about Pound’s view of Ford at this juncture? There’s sympathy—as you’d expect in a friendship that extended over thirty years—even an acknowledgement of the justification for that withdrawal, that ‘taking shelter’. But I think there are indications of something more, a taking leave, a sense of retrospect or valediction, for all the prominent use here of the present tense.

For himself, Pound feels, despite all the usual frustrations of shrinking periodical outlets, paltry funding, uncooperative editors and the rest, a sense of burgeoning strength after a hugely productive few years, culminating in Homage to Sextus Propertius (1919) and now Hugh Selwyn Mauberley, with the Cantos too definitely under way. As for the others, the ones who mattered to Pound: T. S. Eliot had published Prufrock and Other Observations (1917) and Poems (1919); Wyndham Lewis, like Ford, had been to the war but had also just published Tarr while, since March 1918, The Little Review had been serialising Ulysses by James Joyce, whose A Portrait of the Artist had appeared in 1916 and his Exiles in 1918. And Ford? Since 1915 and his entry into the British army, he had published only a handful of articles and stories, and one volume of poems, On Heaven and Poems Written on Active Service (April 1918). Pound’s brief review of that book was not a positive one (‘Time was when he held a brief for good writing’).[12]

Poem X is a subtle and artful performance, with its long first sentence and feminine rhymes; the polysyllabic ‘sophistications and contentions’ enacting just what ‘the stylist’ has retreated from, set against the plain language in which the—leaking—‘haven’ is described; these, together with the choice of verbs and the forms those verbs take, combine to suggest passivity and diminution. In fact, this is part of a long-running story, Pound always urging the active, the intense, the harder edge against what he felt to be Fordian impressionism’s softer, vaguer character and reliance on the visual. Still, there are hints here that, in Pound’s eyes, Ford’s strongest creative period might be over. Of course, as David Moody remarks, Pound ‘could not know that growing in the stylist’s mind was the best English novel of the Great War, a work of wide-angled and deep truth-telling that would cut to the heart of the war and culminate in a brilliantly written act of post-war reconstruction based on his life in that Sussex country cottage.’[13]

stellabowen-drawnfromlife

But then – a ‘placid and uneducated mistress’. Really? Stella? We may be tempted to see in ‘placid’ further hints of passivity or self-effacement or male constructions of ‘desirable’ qualities, considering at the word’s origins in the verb ‘to please’. And yet. . . the dictionary gives only ‘calm’, ‘not easily upset or excited’. As for education: Stella wrote that Pound ‘took the trouble to occupy himself with our joint education’—Phyllis Reid and Stella herself—and, wondering about his and others’ efforts, she remarked: ‘I can only suppose that they found my complete lack of education something of a novelty! The clean slate.’ Then too, reviewing her relationship with Ford, she recalled that, while he got his cottage, domestic peace and a baby daughter, she herself got out of it ‘a remarkable and liberal education, administered in ideal circumstances’.[14]

In the autumn of 1917, in Imaginary Letters, a series begun by Wyndham Lewis, Pound wrote of an ‘eminently cultured female’ named Elis—and her cousin, ‘who knows “nothing at all” and is ‘ten times better educated.’ She asks him ‘sane’ questions. She is ‘“wholly uneducated”. That is to say I find her reading Voltaire and Henry James with placidity.’[15] In the summer of 1914, Lewis had written that ‘[e]ducation (art education and general education) tends to destroy the creative instinct’ while Pound, in another 1917 piece, wrote that ‘[t]his little American had rotten luck; he was educated – soundly and thoroughly educated’.[16]

No, ‘uneducated’, for both Stella and Pound at this juncture, was not a particularly simple matter. In any case, the friendships continued, apparently untroubled by poems about stylists, mistresses and leaky havens.

References

[1] Rex Lampman’s ‘Epitaph’ is in Pound’s Pavannes and Divagations (1958; New York: New Directions, 1974), vii.

[2] Drusilla Modjeska, Stravinsky’s Lunch (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2000), 169: the painting is reproduced as Plate 15.

[3] Stella Bowen, Drawn From Life (London: Collins, 1941), 48.

[4] Ford Madox Ford, It Was the Nightingale (London: Heinemann, 1934), 9.

[5] Ford, Letters of Ford Madox Ford, edited by Richard M. Ludwig (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1965), 103.

[6] Bowen, Drawn From Life, 81.

[7] Ford Madox Ford, It Was the Nightingale, 138.

[8] See Mary Butts, The Journals of Mary Butts, edited by Nathalie Blondel (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002), 132 and fn.; Nathalie Blondel, Mary Butts: Scenes from the Life (New York: McPherson & Co., 1998), 71-72.

[9] Brita Lindberg-Seyersted, Pound/Ford: The Story of a Literary Friendship (London: Faber & Faber 1982), 36-37.

[10] Literary Essays of Ezra Pound, edited by T. S. Eliot (London: Faber and Faber, 1960), 429 and footnote. In 1937, a letter to Michael Roberts included a reference to ‘nickle [sic] cash-register Bennett’: Ezra Pound, Selected Letters, 1907-1941, edited by D. D. Paige (New York: New Directions, 1971), 296.

[11] Ezra Pound: Poems and Translations, edited by Richard Sieburth (New York: Library of America, 2003), 555.

[12] Lindberg-Seyersted, Pound/Ford, 27.

[13] A. David Moody, Ezra Pound: Poet: A Portrait of the Man and His Work: Volume I: The Young Genius 1885–1920 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), 404.

[14] Bowen, Drawn From Life, 50, 52, 64.

[15] Pound, Pavannes and Divagations, 59, 60.

[16] Lewis, ‘Long Live the Vortex!’, Blast: Review of the Great English Vortex, I (20 June 1914), 7; Pound, ‘Stark Realism: This Little Pig Went to Market’, Pavannes and Divagations, 105.

‘You can almost live upon a view. Almost.’

On 8 May 1923, Ford Madox Ford wrote to his partner—and mother of his third daughter, Julie—the painter, Stella Bowen. He was in Tarascon where he and Bowen had moved late the previous month; she was in Paris.

Stella_Bowen_Paris_1920s

(Stella Bowen; photographer unidentified: Australian War Memorial via Wikipedia)

Stella—an absolutely key figure in Ford’s story—was born Esther Gwendolyn Bowen in North Adelaide, 16 May 1893, (she died in 1947), and moved to England in 1914 after the death of her mother. She studied at the Westminster School of Art and was acquainted with a number of leading painters and writers before she met and fell in love with Ford. Their daughter Julie was born in 1920. Stella later wrote: ‘Julie had a troublesome birth in a London nursing home on November 29th. There seems to be a conspiracy of silence about the horrors of childbearing and a pretty legend that the mother forgets all about it as soon as it is over. The hell she does!’[1]

Ford and Bowen had left Sussex—and England—in late 1922, going firstly to Paris, then on to the Villa des Oliviers, Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat, owned by the poet and editor Harold Monro, who had rented it to them for just £7 a month. They reached the villa on 20 December: ‘perched between Nice and Monte Carlo’, it boasted a spectacular view.[2] ‘You can almost live upon a view’, Bowen later remarked of Coopers at Bedham, the Sussex cottage they had left behind. ‘Almost.’[3]

stellabowen-drawnfromlife

Stella had spent a couple of weeks with Dorothy Pound while Ezra was rooting about in archives in Rimini, researching the Malatesta Cantos. Joining the Pounds in Florence, she also saw paintings in Assisi, Arezzo, Cortona and Siena. Later that spring, Stella took painting lessons in Paris, where she saw the Pounds again and her confidence was badly shaken by Pound’s criticisms of her work and her views on painting.

ford-joyce-pound-quinn

(Ford, left, in Paris in 1923, next to James Joyce, Ezra Pound and the American lawyer and art collector John Quinn)

‘Let us begin with Ezra,’ Ford wrote to her. ‘His criticisms of yourself you simply should not have listened to: they arise solely from a frantic loyalty to W.[yndham] Lewis—and no doubt to Dorothy. He is in fact singularly unintelligent on the aesthetic side of any art—at any rate in conversation. It is only historically that he is sound about anything.—Of course if it doesn’t depress you too much it’s a good thing to listen to gramophonic records of Lewis’s dicta (in wh. Lewis himself doesn’t for a moment believe): but if you do get depressed by it, just don’t listen.’ A little later, he added: ‘Darling: I assure you that you have all the makings of an artist; the only thing you need being a certain self-confidence. If you would attain to that you would see that, even in your work as it is, there is the quality of serenity—of imperturbability’.[4]

Bowen_Villefranche_1923

(Villefranche by Stella Bowen, painted in Cap Ferrat, France, 1923: oil on wood panel  34.6 x 26.7 cm;  private collection via Australian War Memorial)

Pound and Ford were, and remained, friends for thirty years, from their first meeting in April 1909 to Ford’s death in June 1939. They disagreed on a great many literary and artistic matters (among others), a state of affairs clearly indicated by a letter of August 1911 that Pound sent to his parents once he’d reached home after spending time with Ford in the German town of Giessen: ‘Back here at last. I had very little time to myself while with Hueffer, not that there was much work done, but we disagree diametrically on art, religion, politics & all therein implied’.[5]

Ford_Pound_Rapallo_1932

(Ford and Pound in Rapallo, Italy, 1932: © Estate of Janice Biala, New York)

One other striking feature of this brief period in the Ford-Bowen relationship is just how unusual this sojourn in Italy and the weeks in Paris were for Stella. Until Ford began travelling frequently to the United States (around 1926 onwards), they were rarely separated but Bowen had very little time to devote to her own art, either producing it or studying other examples of it, always having to balance the two other major and time-consuming responsibilities in her life. One was caring for Julie and running the household—because the second, inextricable from the first, was enabling Ford to work: and a big part of that was keeping worries and problems, especially financial ones, away from him. It was not simply a matter of sexual politics—Ford was, in many ways, though not all, ahead of his time in this area—but rather that, firstly, the only money they earned  was from Ford’s writing; and then, during these years, Ford was still suffering the after-effects of shell-shock and ‘the nerve tangle of the war’[6] which had impaired his memory. He was about to establish himself, or re-establish himself, as a major writer, with the publication of Some Do Not. . ., the first volume of his masterpiece, Parade’s End; but he was not there just yet. So Stella’s career suffered, certainly in those years, a casualty of Ford’s own: but with so little money available, and with a young child, it was not an easy situation to resolve. Ford was always highly supportive of Stella’s painting but, frequently shielded from anxieties—and thus enabled to work—by Stella’s efforts, he couldn’t quite see why she found it so difficult to do so.[7]

Stella_Bowen_SelfPortrait_c.1928

(Stella Bowen, Self-portrait, painted in Paris, c. 1928, oil on plywood,
45 x 36.8 cm, Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide, gift of Suzanne Brookman, the artist’s niece, 1999)

It was a busy day for Ford, that 8 May 1923. He also wrote (from the splendidly named Hotel Terminus in Tarascon) to his friend and fellow-writer Edgar Jepson, about the novel he’d recently completed, The Marsden Case, enclosing a copy of the book. ‘I hope you’ll like it. I believe that, as “treatment,” it’s the best thing I’ve done’.[8]

Fascinating and accomplished as that novel is, Ford was about to outstrip it to a remarkable degree. The MS of Some Do Not. . . ‘is inscribed as having been completed in “Paris 22.9.23”’—and it was published just over six months later.[9]

 

References

[1] Stella Bowen, Drawn From Life (1941; London: Virago Press, 1994, with a new introduction by Julia Loewe, Ford and Stella’s daughter), 73.

[2] Most of the Fordian biographical details (here and elsewhere) come from Max Saunders, Ford Madox Ford: A Dual Life, two volumes (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996); here, II, 122-123, 127.

[3] Bowen, Drawn From Life, 78.

[4] Correspondence of Ford Madox Ford and Stella Bowen, edited by Sondra J. Stang and Karen Cochran (Bloomington & Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1993), 196, 197.

[5] Mary de Rachewiltz, A. David Moody and Joanna Moody, editors, Ezra Pound to his Parents: Letters 1895-1929 (London: Oxford University Press, 2010), 257. Ford Madox Hueffer changed his name to Ford Madox Ford in June 1919.

[6] To H. G. Wells: Letters of Ford Madox Ford, edited by Richard M. Ludwig (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1965), 154.

[7] There’s a great deal of interesting material on Stella and her relationship with Ford, including some rare images, in the recently-released documentary, It Was the Nightingale: The Unreliable Story of Ford Madox Ford, from Subterracon Films, produced by Paul Lewis, who also co-directed with Ryan Poe, with sound and film design by Kelley Baker: see http://www.subterracon.com/it-was-the-nightingale.html

For more on Stella, see Drusilla Modjeska, Stravinsky’s Lunch (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2000) and Joseph Wiesenfarth, Ford Madox Ford and the Regiment of Women: Violet Hunt, Jean Rhys, Stella Bowen, Janice Biala (Madison, Wisconsin: University of Wisconsin Press, 2005), particularly strong on Stella’s painting. See also the Australian War Memorial site devoted to the retrospective exhibition of Stella’s work, Stella Bowen: Art, Love and War: see https://www.awm.gov.au/exhibitions/stella/

[8] Letters of Ford Madox Ford, 149.

[9] Ford, Some Do Not. . . (1924; edited by Max Saunders, Manchester: Carcanet Press, 2010), lvii, lix, lxxxi.