Camelot and St Cecilia

Sea-2

You don’t need an alarm clock in a pitch-dark Dorset bedroom if you can draw on the services of a cat with breakfast on his mind. Tucked away a little here but fifteen minutes’ walk brings you down to the sea, dead calm early in the week, less so later.

A little under seventy miles across the English Channel is Alderney, in the Bailiwick of Guernsey. The northernmost of the Channel Islands, it was the home from 1946 of T. H. White, author of The Goshawk and The Once and Future King, plus more than twenty other books, even though he died at the age of fifty-seven.

From 3 Connaught Square, Alderney, on 22 November 1950, White wrote to his friend David Garnett: ‘The reason why I am sober is that last Friday the 1st lieutenant of our local submarine threw me out of a window while we were amiably conversing about ju-jitsu. He did not mean any harm, and in fact has done nothing but good, as I fell on my head. It has altered something inside. I was unconscious for hours.’[1]

 

White

(T. H. White)

My Fridays are not like that – though I’m not a total stranger to ‘amiably conversing’. Garnett was a friend of long standing and plays a large part in the biography of White by Sylvia Townsend Warner, also a friend of Garnett. In 1949, a man called Wren Howard of Jonathan Cape visited White and, feeling a bulky object under the settee cushion on which he was sitting, extracted the typescript of The Goshawk, a record of White’s attempt to train a hawk in the mid-1930s. Howard read it, took it back to London and wanted Cape to publish it. White was reluctant; Garnett then read it and agreed that it should be published, whereupon White wrote to Howard: ‘If Bunny Garnett says that the Hawk book is really good, I will consent to publishing. I have not read it since I wrote it, long before the war.’[2]

David-Garnett

(David ‘Bunny’ Garnett)

White and his Hawk book are a major thread running through Helen Macdonald’s H is for Hawk. She refers to the period in which White drafted the book, the collective impulse to recover and draw upon England’s history and domestic culture. ‘It was a movement that celebrated ancient sites and folk traditions. It delighted in Shakespeare and Chaucer, in Druids, in Arthurian legend. It believed that something essential about the nation had been lost and could be returned, if only in the imagination. White, caught up on this conservative, antiquarian mood, walked with his hawk and wrote of ghosts, of starry Orion naked and resplendent in the English sky, of all the imaginary lines men and time had drawn upon the landscape. By the fire, his hawk by his side, he brooded on the fate of nations.’[3]

Richard_Burton_and_Julie_Andrews_Camelot

(Richard Burton and Julie Andrews in Camelot: Wikipedia Commons)

The fate of nations. White’s Arthurian stories reminded me of the Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe musical based on them, Camelot, directed by Moss Hart and hugely successful on Broadway, starring Richard Burton and Julie Andrews. In turn, ‘Camelot’ became inextricable from the administration of John F. Kennedy, following Jackie Kennedy’s 1963 Life interview, when she quoted lyrics from the Lerner-Loewe production. And today is, of course, the 56th anniversary of Kennedy’s assassination, the day on which Aldous Huxley and C. S. Lewis both died too, though a little overshadowed then by events in Dallas. Just thirty years later, it was Anthony Burgess’s turn (he was born in the same year as Kennedy).

It’s also Saint Cecilia’s Day, she being the patron saint of musicians. On 25 July 1914, in his regular column in Outlook, Ford Madox Ford quoted John Dryden’s ‘Less than a god they said there could not dwell…’[4]
This is from the third stanza of ‘Song for St Cecilia’s Day, 1687’:

What passion cannot Music raise and quell?
When Jubal struck the chorded shell
His listening brethren stood around,
And, wondering, on their faces fell
To worship that celestial sound.
Less than a god they thought there could not dwell
Within the hollow of that shell
That spoke so sweetly and so well.
What passion cannot Music raise and quell?

Woodville, Richard Caton, 1856-1927; Marshal Ney at Eylau

(Richard Caton Woodville, Marshal Ney at Eylau: Tate)

In 1928, Ford would publish a novel called A Little Less Than Gods, about Marshal Ney and Napoleon’s hundred days, its writing intimately involved with the history of the Ford–Joseph Conrad relationship. The Dryden poem is quoted, or rather, slightly misquoted, in Chapter V.[5] In his final book, The March of Literature, Ford quoted the whole stanza and commented that, for him, it was ‘the most pleasurable verse in all English poetry’, adding: ‘It further confirms our argument that English poetry depends upon music and died when music died in England.’[6]

That’s a nice example of the Ford who so admired the ‘sweeping dicta’ of his friend Arthur Marwood, partial model for Christopher Tietjens in Parade’s End. And T. H. White was not immune to the habit, writing in 1950:

‘I believe that the peak of British culture was reached in the latter years of George III: that the rot began to set in with the “Romantics”: that the apparent prosperity of Victoria’s reign was autumnal, not vernal: and that now we are done for.’[7]

Hmm. . . ‘now we are done for’. Still, make a note of that. Just in case.

 
Notes

[1] David Garnett, editor, The White/Garnett Letters (London: Jonathan Cape, 1968), 246.

[2] Sylvia Townsend Warner, T. H. White: A Biography (New York: Viking, 1968), 243.

[3] Helen Macdonald, H is for Hawk (London: Jonathan Cape, 2014), 104.

[4] Ford Madox Ford, ‘Literary Portraits—XLVI. Professor Cowl and “The Theory of Poetry in England”’, Outlook, XXXIV (25 July, 1914), 110.

[5] Ford Madox Ford, A Little Less Than Gods (London: Duckworth, 1928), 108.

[6] Ford Madox Ford, The March of Literature: From Confucius to Modern Times (London: Allen & Unwin, 1939), 605.

[7] T. H. White, The Age of Scandal (1950; Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 2000), 17.

 

His tongue partly in his cheek – realism or not

White

On 14 June 1940, T. H. White, who had been in Ireland since the previous year, wrote from Healion’s Hotel, Belmullet, Co. Mayo, to his friend David Garnett. ‘Ireland is in a most amusing condition just now. Everybody has noticed in the last 3 days that there is a war on: it is too ridiculous.’ He went on: ‘Lord Dunsany said to me six months ago that we are like children on the beach at Howth, quarrelling about what shape our sand castle is to be, while all the time the tide is coming in.’ Then: ‘I wonder if I wrote to you about Dunsany? I made friends with him when I was in Meath. He is not a patch on his wife, who remarked in a tone of acute nostalgia, à propos of a Daimler which they had once owned: “Ah, that was a splendid car. It was simply riddled with bullets.”’[1]

White had lunched with Lord Dunsany at Dunsany Castle, ‘an ugly Victorian gothic structure in a very beautiful park’, and thought him ‘a decent, amusing, interested, selfish, vain, enlightened fellow’.[2]

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

(Via www.buildingsofireland.ie )

Dunsany died in 1957, having published more than ninety books in practically every genre, though he was best-known as a writer of fantasy, his most celebrated title being The King of Elfland’s Daughter. He had been a significant donor to the Abbey Theatre, worked with Lady Gregory and W. B. Yeats, and his work was extraordinarily well-regarded in the period of the First World War.

In November 1953, White, now living on Alderney, wrote to Garnett about the recently published The Golden Echo, the first volume of Garnett’s autobiography.

‘Far the best of your character pictures are of course the safely dead: Lawrence and the charming Ford.’ He added, ‘If there is a chance in the next volume, do give us some more of Ford’s relative truths. What a kinship I feel for him! All my truths are relative. He must surely have had his tongue partly in his cheek?’[3]

David-Garnett

(David Garnett)

Partly often, yes, and wholly sometimes. To what extent, I wonder, when he used the occasion of reviewing Dunsany’s Five Plays for a prolonged meditation on realism, in the course of which he produced one or two of the critical remarks most often revisited by Ford enthusiasts.

Passing general remarks about Ireland and the Irish is risky at the best of times but in the spring of 1914, it was frankly hazardous. Ford declared that while the Irish were as humourless and joyless and materialist as anyone else, they had impressed upon ‘the bemused world’ the conviction that all the Irish ‘are passionate pilgrims journeying through a material world with their eyes on the great stars of heaven, with the verses of the old poets on their lips and gallant thoughts in the hearts of them’.[4]

All this was a disquisition on literary technique, Ford went on, ‘for what is literature but the producing of illusions?’ And, ‘for the producing of an illusion there is nothing like an Irishman.’ Dunsany’s great conjuring trick for Ford was to imagine himself ‘to represent the revolt against realism’, while in fact he did nothing of the sort, ‘since he is one of the chief realists of them all.’ And ‘we need realists very badly, because this world is so much too much with us. It is too much with us, and it is an extraordinarily unreal mirage. Yes, just a mirage.’ Ford describes the stones in the drive, a broken bucket in the orchard, the rain against the window, the baker coming in at the front gate. ‘But all that is really mirage; there is nothing real about the stones or the discarded bucket, or the rain, or the baker coming in at the gate. Myself, my own self, is miles away – thirty miles away, thinking of things how different – how utterly different!’

Ford Madox Ford, 1915
Ford Madox Ford, 1915

(The good soldier via NYRB)

And the future is to ‘the artist who, by rendering the stones and the bucket and the baker and the Daily Telegraph that is lying on the sofa, will give the world the image of that kingdom of heaven that is behind it all.’

‘I rather fancy’, Ford remarks, ‘that the Cubists and the Futurists and the rest of the movement that is trying to get away from representational art are trying to put the kingdom of heaven too directly on to canvas’.

Yes, the way to heaven is via the earth; the way to transcendence is via the real. Begin with the fantastic and you find you’re holding a one-way ticket ­– fine if that was the plan, if not, not. I’ve always liked realism plus, the world that seems solid enough, seems familiar enough, until you try to lean on it. With a little of what Muriel Spark called ‘the mental squint’. And Ford, with the body in one place and the mind somewhere quite other. Or, indeed, Mr Joyce, Mr Germ’s Choice, whose great novel is – what, precisely? Modernist, realist, naturalist, expressionist, surrealist, symbolist, postmodernist, mythic, epic, not a novel at all. If Dublin were destroyed in an earthquake, it could be rebuilt using Ulysses as a blueprint, its author thought. Yes, realism with a reach like that.

References

[1] David Garnett, editor, The White/ Garnett Letters (London: Jonathan Cape, 1968), 70.

[2] Letter to Ray Garnett, in The White/ Garnett Letters, 45; Sylvia Townsend Warner, T. H. White: A Biography (New York: Viking, 1968), 141.

[3] The White/ Garnett Letters, 264.

[4] All quotations from Ford Madox Ford, ‘Literary Portraits-XXXI. Lord Dunsany and “Five Plays”, Outlook, XXXIII (11 April 1914), 494-495; reprinted in Critical Essays, edited by Max Saunders and Richard Stang (Manchester: Carcanet Press, 2002), 142-146.