The Heights of Poetry

(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 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.


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]


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


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]

(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.


[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.


‘A large expensive audience’; or Charity begins at Lady Sibyl’s home

Eliot  aldous-huxley


Exactly one hundred years ago today, there was a poetry reading, in aid of charity, held at the home of Lady Sibyl Colefax, later a highly successful interior decorator. Those taking part included Aldous Huxley, the actress and later playwright Viola Tree (daughter of Herbert Beerbohm Tree), Robert Nichols, T. S. Eliot and the Sitwells.

In a letter to his mother, some ten days later, Eliot told her: ‘I assisted in a poetry reading last week at the house of some rich person for the benefit of something. A hundred and fifty people were induced to pay 10/6 each, so it was rather a rich audience. Edmund Gosse presided, and a number of “young poets” of whom I believe I was the oldest, read. It was rather amusing, as the audience and most of the poets were very solemn, and I read some light satirical stuff, and some of them didn’t know what to make of it.’[1]

The broad-backed hippopotamus
Rests on his belly in the mud;
Although he seems so firm to us
He is merely flesh and blood.

Flesh and blood is weak and frail,
Susceptible to nervous shock;
While the True Church can never fail
For it is based upon a rock.

Forty years later, reading at Columbia, Eliot remarked: ‘This is a poem which I originally read, I remember, at a poetry reading for the benefit of some Red Cross affair with Sir Edmund Gosse in the chair, and he was profoundly shocked. On the other hand, the late Arnold Bennett liked it better than anything I’d written up to the time of his death, and kept asking me to write “another Hippopotamus.”. . . it’s the only poem of mine which I’ve any reason to suppose that James Joyce ever read.’ Eliot also read ‘A Cooking Egg’ at the charity event and, as Richard Aldington mentions in his autobiography, the poem’s  mention of Sir Alfred Mond provoked ‘a rumpus in the audience’, as Lady Mond ‘sailed indignantly out of the room’.[2]  (In fact, Joyce parodied The Waste Land in a letter to Harriet Weaver; and also wrote of it  in a notebook, ‘T. S. Eliot ends idea of poetry for ladies.’)[3]

(Viola Tree)

Aldous Huxley was a little more expansive about the evening, in a letter of 13 December 1917 to his brother Julian. ‘I spent a strange day yesterday in town—being a performing poet for the sake of charity or something before a large expensive audience of the BEST PEOPLE. Gosse in the chair—the bloodiest little old man I have ever seen—dear Robbie Ross stage-managing, Bob Nichols thrusting himself to the fore as the leader of us young bards (bards was the sort of thing Gosse called us)—then myself, Viola Tree, a girl called McLeod and troops of Shufflebottoms, alias Sitwells bringing up the rear: last and best, Eliot. But oh—what a performance: Eliot and I were the only people who had any dignity: Bob Nichols raved and screamed and hooted and moaned his filthy war poems like a Lyceum villain who hasn’t learnt how to act: Viola Tree declaimed in a voice so syrupy and fruity and rich, that one felt quite cloyed and sick by two lines: the Shufflebottoms were respectable but terribly nervous: the Macleod became quite intoxicated by her own verses: Gosse was like a reciter at a penny reading. The best part of the whole affair was dinner at the Sitwells’ afterwards’.[4]

Nichols was one of the earliest war poets to achieve significant success. He was friends with both Graves and Sassoon—and Huxley, subsequently—and was close at hand when D. H. Lawrence died in March 1930 (Sybille Bedford prints his long letter to Dr Henry Head in her biography of Huxley).[5] Nichols’ poetry hasn’t lasted too well, unable as he was to evade the grip of the poetic conventions of the period even under the unprecedented pressures of the war.

They are bringing him down,
He looks at me wanly.
The bandages are brown,
Brown with mud, red only—
But how deep a red! in the breast of the shirt,
Deepening red too, as each whistling breath
Is drawn with the suck of a slow-filling squirt
While waxen cheeks waste to the pallor of death.
O my comrade![6]


(Robert Nichols)

Aldous Huxley, on the other hand, is barely known as a poet even to those familiar with his novels and essays, though his first four published books were all volumes of poetry. While at Oxford, Robert Graves commented in a letter to Siegfried Sassoon, he had seen ‘a lot of the Garsington people [Lady Ottoline Morrell’s house] who were charming to me, and of the young Oxford poets, Aldous Huxley, Wilfred Childe and Thomas Earp – exceptionally nice people but a trifle decayed, as you might say.’[7]

In the previous year’s The Burning Wheel, Huxley—albeit a trifle decayed—had written ‘A Canal’:

No dip and dart of swallows wakes the black
Slumber of the canal: —a mirror dead
For lack of loveliness remembered
From ancient azures and green trees, for lack
of some white beauty given and flung back,
Secret, to her that gave: no sun has bled
To wake an echo here of answering red;
The surface stirs to no leaf’s wind-blown track. . .[8]

Garsington would loom larger for Sassoon a few months later when he went to consult Philip and Ottoline Morrell and ask their advice about his intended protest. Sassoon’s famous statement followed soon after his meeting in London with Bertrand Russell and Middleton Murry. Psychiatric treatment with W. H. R. Rivers at Craiglockhart—and a meeting with the young Wilfred Owen—beckoned.


[1] Valerie Eliot and Hugh Haughton, editors, The Letters of T. S. Eliot. Volume I: 1898–1922, revised edition (London: Faber and Faber, 2009), 240-241.

[2] The Poems of T. S. Eliot. Volume I: Collected and Uncollected Poems, edited by Christopher Ricks and Jim McCue (London: Faber & Faber, 2015), 43, 521, 510. Aldington, Life for Life’s Sake (London: Cassell, 1968), 204.

[3] Richard Ellmann, James Joyce, new and revised edition (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1983), 572, 495.

[4] Aldous Huxley, Letters of Aldous Huxley, edited by Grover Smith (London: Chatto and Windus, 1969), 141.

[5] Sybille Bedford, Aldous Huxley: A Biography (London: Pan Macmillan, 1993), 225-228.

[6] Robert Nichols, ‘Casualty’, in Robert Giddings, The War Poets (London: Bloomsbury, 2000), 84.

[7] Letter of 26 March 1917: In Broken Images: Selected Letters of Robert Graves, 1914-1946, edited by Paul O’Prey (London: Hutchinson, 1982), 66-67.

[8] See Bedford, Aldous Huxley, 67.

Seeing again, making it new


Re-reading an early Ford Madox Ford work recently, I noticed that, while my scrappy and often baffling notes from the previous reading ran to little more than a page, I now have something over ten pages of extracts, cross-references and occasionally more general comments. Should I be impressed or anxious? Was it admirably thorough or mildly deranged? Clearly, this reader had changed substantially in the intervening period and, to that extent, the book itself was changed. Curious, since it had seemed stable enough in its hard covers, more than a century old.

Yet – how stable, exactly, even at the most basic level? It was written by Ford Madox Hueffer, who would subsequently become (in 1919) Ford Madox Ford, in collaboration with Joseph Conrad, who had become a British subject in 1886 and was previously known as Konrad Korzeniowski. It was written when work on their initial collaborative venture, Romance, was already well-advanced but was completed and published first; an unsteady hybrid of science fiction, political satire and roman à clef, it concerned itself with nefarious dealings in a country—‘Greenland’—which was clearly in Africa and, pretty obviously, the Congo Free State of the rapacious King Leopold II of Belgium. As Ford recalled it more than twenty years later: ‘The novel was to be a political work, rather allegorically backing Mr Balfour in the then Government; the villain was to be Joseph Chamberlain who had made the [Boer] war.’[1]


(Joseph Conrad, 1904)

Stability. A key word for those that have followed, with bafflement or appalled disbelief, the mad pantomime of British politics over the past few months. In The Inheritors, we find: ‘I became conscious that I wanted to return to England, wanted it very much, wanted to be out of this; to get somewhere where there was stability and things that one could understand.’[2] Cue a pained smile. ‘Permanence? Stability? I can’t believe it’s gone’, a later Ford narrator lamented.[3] Of course, it was—it is—always already gone. . .

In any case, I find it an intriguing and curious business, this revisiting—of a place, a person, a painting, a book, a film, a piece of music—and finding it so changed. It’s commonplace and banal, yet enduringly mysterious and fascinating. There are, to be sure, many thousands of pages of philosophy, psychology, biology, neurology, physics, optics and more, devoted to just this phenomenon. We’re increasingly comfortable with the idea that the observer alters what is observed, that the slightest shift in position or perspective alters the thing seen. Some of us saw the intriguing 1974 Alan Pakula political thriller, The Parallax View, with Warren Beatty and Paula Prentiss, and looked up the meaning of the title. (‘Parallax, you see. Observed from different angles, Gestalts alter.’)[4] Fifty years before that, in 1923, Wallace Stevens published ‘Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird’.


I was of three minds,
Like a tree
In which there are three blackbirds.

The river is moving.
The blackbird must be flying. [5]

A goodly proportion of those thousands of pages, though, can probably be reduced to just two words of the pre-Socratic philosopher Heraclitus, panta rei, everything flows, flux and change as the essential characteristics of the world.[6] 

T. S. Eliot used two quotations from Heraclitus to preface Four Quartets, the second of them translated as ‘The way up and the way down are one and the same’. Eliot wrote of being ‘much influenced’ by Heraclitus when younger and thought the influence a permanent one. The quotations were, he said, ‘a tribute to my debt to this great philosopher.’[7]

In Little Gidding, the last of the Quartets, Eliot wrote:

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.[8]

See it again but know it for the first time.

Stanley Spencer wrote of his celebrated painting, The Resurrection in Cookham Churchyard: ‘The resurrection is meant to indicate the passing of the state of non-realization of the possibilities of heaven in this life to the sudden awakening to the fact. This is what is inspiring the people as they resurrect, namely the new meaning they find in what they had seen before.’[9]

The Resurrection, Cookham 1924-7 by Sir Stanley Spencer 1891-1959

(Stanley Spencer, The Resurrection in Cookham Churchyard, 1924-1927, © Tate Gallery)

That ‘awakening’ is, again, indissolubly linked to the familiar or, at least, to that which has been seen before. Much of Spencer’s art is ‘religious’ but very idiosyncratically so, ‘visionary’ rather, an art constantly linking back to his feelings about the village of Cookham and its people, his childhood and familial memories and sensations revisited, recaptured and reworked.

Time slips and eddies. We return, retrace, revisit and see again, in thought, in dreams, in conversation. Memories lose their edges, become indistinct, bleed into others. We can’t always predict what has taken root in the mind or the nerves, what doesn’t need to be consciously recovered, what can be held and turned in a glancing light and mysteriously made new.

I could not draw a map of it, this road,
Nor say with certainty how many times
It doubles on itself before it climbs
Clear of the ascent. And yet I know
Each bend and vista and could not mistake
The recognition, the recurrences
As they occur, nor where. So my forgetting
Brings back the track of what was always there
As new as a discovery.[10]



[1] Ford Madox Ford, Joseph Conrad: A Personal Remembrance (London: Duckworth, 1924), 133.

[2] Ford Madox Ford and Joseph Conrad, The Inheritors: An Extravagant Story (1901; Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 1999), 106.

[3] Ford Madox Ford, The Good Soldier: A Tale of Passion (1915; edited by Max Saunders, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), 13.

[4] Hugh Kenner, ‘Joyce on the Continent’, in Mazes (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1995), 114.

[5] Wallace Stevens, The Collected Poems (New York: Vintage Books, 1982), 92, 94.

[6] ‘All things are a flowing,/ Sage Heracleitus says’, Ezra Pound wrote, adding: ‘But a tawdry cheapness/ Shall outlast our days.’ See Hugh Selwyn Mauberley, in Personae: The Shorter Poems of Ezra Pound, edited by Lea Baechler and A. Walton Litz (New York: New Directions, 1990), 186.

[7] The Poems of T. S. Eliot. Volume I: Collected and Uncollected Poems, edited by Christopher Ricks and Jim McCue (London: Faber & Faber, 2015), 907. John Fowles offers: ‘The road up and the road down are the same road’, in The Aristos (London: Pan Books, 1968), the ‘original impulse’ for the book and ‘many of the ideas’ in it having come from Heraclitus (214).

[8] The Poems of T. S. Eliot. Volume I, 208. Another faint connection for John Fowles readers: this is the first marked passage in the poetry anthology which Nicholas Urfe finds on the beach, in The Magus (London: Pan Books, 1968), 60.

[9] Kenneth Pople, Stanley Spencer: A Biography (London: Harper Collins, 1991), 226, citing the Spencer collection in the Tate Archives, reference TA 733.3.1.

[10] Charles Tomlinson, ‘The Return’, New Collected Poems (Manchester: Carcanet Press, 2009), 413.