‘Inversions of phrase’

(Thomas Hardy, 1899)

It being August, and some nights seeming unusually long, I was reminded of the short Thomas Hardy poem, ‘An August Midnight’, written at Max Gate in 1899.[1]

A shaded lamp and a waving blind,
And the beat of a clock from a distant floor:
On this scene enter—winged, horned, and spined—
A longlegs, a moth, and a dumbledore;
While ’mid my page there idly stands
A sleepy fly, that rubs its hands… 

Thus meet we five, in this still place,
At this point of time, at this point in space.
— My guests besmear my new-penned line,
Or bang at the lamp and fall supine.
“God’s humblest, they!” I muse. Yet why?
They know Earth-secrets that know not I.

Only twelve lines, seemingly simple enough, but not without interest. A small drama, which ‘this scene’ emphasises. Four indefinite articles in the first two lines – and one definite article, tied to the word ‘beat’, in the most strongly stressed line of the poem, because of those two strategic monosyllables, ‘beat’ and ‘clock’. ‘Dumbledore’ might momentarily trip up the Harry Potter generation; and commentators on the poem don’t always agree: is it a bumblebee or a cockchafer – or cockchafter? F. B. Pinion says bumblebee, Claire Tomalin says ‘a cockchafter or maybug’.[2]

(Cockchafer via http://www.newforestexplorersguide.co.uk/)

I pause on ‘Thus meet we five’, partly because of the implied equalising of the lives involved here, partly because of the inversion of natural word order and partly because of the number in this context. One of the mystic numbers, as Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable explains, the pentad ‘being the sum of 2 and 3, the first even and first odd compound. Unity is God alone, i.e. without creation. Two is diversity, and three (being 1 and 2) is the compound of unity and diversity, or the two principles in operation since creation, and representing all the powers of nature.’

The conjunctions of ‘still’ and ‘point’ (and time and space) prompt a forward glance to T. S. Eliot’s ‘Burnt Norton’: ‘At the still point of the turning world’ and:

Except for the point, the still point,
There would be no dance, and there is only the dance.
I can only say, there we have been: but I cannot say where.
And I cannot say, how long, for that is to place it in time.

‘I muse’ is another of these teasing touches, Hardy being his own muse, providing context, content, then text himself, from the materials in his immediate vicinity, the subjects of his poem entering the poet’s territory, the page, physically—‘My guests besmear my new-penned line’—as well as in the mind and memory. Tomalin comments on Hardy’s ‘appreciation that life is lived on different scales’, that the poem ‘shows him at his most tender, at ease in what still sometimes seemed to him to be God’s creation’.

The poem ends: ‘They know Earth-secrets that know not I.’ Pinion remarks that: ‘The inversion of the last line is perhaps an extreme example of the awkwardness and disregard for sound that Hardy sometimes accepted for the sake of verse pattern.’

Inversion: a change in order or position, a recurring theme in critical commentary, mainly but not always with reference to modern poets who, it’s implied, should know better or should, at least, reflect the habits of their own day. We expect to find it in Victorian poetry but not in modern poetry. Where—when—does the change come?

‘Poetry must be as well written as prose. Its language must be a fine language, departing in no way from speech save by a heightened intensity (i.e. simplicity)’, Ezra Pound wrote in January 1915, in a letter often cited, to Harriet Monroe, editor of Poetry magazine. ‘There must be no book words, no periphrases, no inversions. It must be as simple as De Maupassant’s best prose, and as hard as Stendhal’s.’[3]

(Harriet Monroe, 1920)

Ford Madox Ford, whose ideas this letter largely repeated (as Pound himself subsequently acknowledged), had written in 1905 of how modern poets were barred from certain subjects by that dialect then accepted as the proper language for poetry. ‘We wait, in fact, for the poet who, in limpid words, with clear enunciation and without inverted phrases, shall give the mind of the time sincere frame and utterance.’[4] Twenty years on and Ford, in some ‘Notes for a Lecture on Vers Libre’, explained: ‘You see I hate—and I hated then—inversions of phrase. A line like A sensitive plant in a garden grew filled me with hot rage. If the chap wanted to say that a sensitive plant grew in a garden, why didn’t he say it—or if he could not find a rhyme for garden, let him for Heaven’s sake hold his peace.’[5]

Did Pound and Ford not use ‘inversions of phrase’ in their early poetry? Of course they did. But in the quest for both modernity itself and a definition of modernity which could separate your tribe from the others (and occasionally be brandished like a broadsword), word order—along with archaisms, ‘hath’, ‘thou’—was an early bone of contention (and remains so). Often, of course, the driving factor was the need for a rhymeword, until that need too fell away for many. And the First World War brought its own complications, the urgency and intensity of the subject matter sometimes crowding out concern with technique or ‘modernity’—besides, some of the soldier-poets died so young that they had little time to dwell on them.

Here’s Charles Sorley, probably in 1915 – he was killed by a sniper in October of that year at the Battle of Loos, aged twenty, and the manuscript of this poem was found by his father among Sorley’s personal effects:

When you see millions of the mouthless dead
Across your dreams in pale battalions go,
Say not soft things as other men have said,
That you’ll remember. For you need not so.
Give them not praise.[6]

The inversions are probably not what you’d first notice there…

Ford ended, in Buckshee, with very free and colloquial verse:

We shall have to give up watering the land
Almost altogether.
The maize must go.
But the chilis and tomatoes may still have
A little water.

Pound, in some respects, circled round upon himself, his concerns, images – and diction, the earliest sometimes bleeding into the latest. Canto CX begins: ‘Thy quiet house’ and, a few lines on:

Hast’ou seen boat’s wake on sea-wall,
                        how crests it?

And some just kept going regardless, such as the prolific, popular and long-lived Walter de la Mare. His biographer noted that the critic Forrest Reid advised de la Mare to aim for simplicity of expression, however subtle the thought. ‘He thought this, with some justice, de la Mare’s greatest temptation, and condemned his inversions as a growing mannerism [ . . . ] De la Mare defended himself rather vaguely on the grounds that inversion either came off or it didn’t, and could not be defended or attacked on principle. He doubted anyway “whether ordinary talk is necessarily the best or most forcible or most attractive form of expression”’.[7]

(Walter de la Mare)

And yes, opening the book almost at random, de la Mare’s 1950 volume begins with ‘Here I sit, and glad am I’. There’s ‘The Changeling’: ‘Come in the dark did I’ and ‘Here’: ‘Forgave I everything’. Although I also catch sight of ‘Unwitting’:

This evening to my manuscript
Flitted a tiny fly;
At the wet ink sedately sipped,
Then seemed to put the matter by,
Mindless of him who wrote it, and
His scrutinizing eye –
That any consciousness indeed
Its actions could descry! . . .

Silence; and wavering candlelight;
Night; and a starless sky.[8]

Half a century apart, poets working late, their pages encroached upon by insect visitors.

Hardy’s last line doesn’t jar that much to me, probably because the inversion—as is not unusual—produces that flickering moment of uncertainty to offset it, as if, as well as the narrator not knowing those Earth-secrets, they don’t know him either.

First rule of poetic inversion: there’s no absolute rule.


[1] Thomas Hardy, The Complete Poems, edited by James Gibson (London: Macmillan, 1976), 113.

[2] F. B. Pinion, A Commentary on the Poems of Thomas Hardy (London: Macmillan, 1976), 51; Claire Tomalin, Thomas Hardy: The Time-Torn Man (London: Viking, 2006), 281.

[3] Ezra Pound, Selected Letters, 1907-1941, edited by D. D. Paige (New York: New Directions, 1971), 48-49.

[4] ‘A Literary Causerie: On Some Tendencies of Modern Verse’, Academy, 69 (23 September 1905), 982-984, reprinted in Critical Essays, edited by Max Saunders and Richard Stang (Manchester: Carcanet Press, 2002), 28-32.

[5] Ford Madox Ford, ‘Notes for a Lecture on Vers Libre’ (1920s), in Critical Writings, edited by Frank MacShane (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1964). The words quoted are from Shelley’s ‘The Sensitive Plant’.

[6] Charles Sorley, ‘[When you see millions of the mouthless dead]’, in Poetry of the First World War: An Anthology, edited by Tim Kendall (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), 191.

[7] Theresa Whistler, The Life of Walter de la Mare: Imagination of the Heart (London: Duckworth, 2003), 323-324.

[8] Walter de la Mare, Collected Poems (London: Faber and Faber, 1979), 349-355.

Peacocks, cats, poets

(Thomas Hardy: Dorset County Museum)

On 2 June 1912, Thomas Hardy was seventy-two years old and his birthday was marked by a visit to Max Gate by Henry Newbolt and William Butler Yeats (the only guests), for the purpose of presenting Hardy with a gold medal from the Royal Society of Literature. As Lucy McDiarmid writes in her book centring on the famous visit by a shoal of poets to Wilfred Scawen Blunt nineteen months later, ‘Before the peacock dinner, there was the cat dinner.’ She refers here to Mrs Thomas Hardy’s cats at the gold medal visit.[1]

The event had its awkward moments. Hardy determinedly discussed architecture at great length with Newbolt who, recalling the occasion, commented: ‘Through his conversation I could see and hear Mrs Hardy giving Yeats much curious information about the two very fine cats, who sat to right and left of her plate on the table itself’. Prior to the presentation, Hardy ‘invited’ Emma to leave the room, despite Newbolt and Yeats requesting that she be allowed to stay. ‘But Hardy insisted and she made no further appeal but gathered up her cats and her train with perfect simplicity and left the room.’ After the addresses by Newbolt and Yeats, Hardy—who had already given a copy of his speech to the newspapers, adding a note to say that he’d delivered it to his guests—explained that he couldn’t now make them party to a falsehood by failing to do so. He then read his acceptance speech aloud.[2]


(Mrs Hardy and a cat: Dorset County Museum)

The ‘peacock dinner’ was the occasion, on 18 January 1914, when Yeats, Pound and several other poets (Victor Plarr, Sturge Moore, Richard Aldington, F. S. Flint) visited Wilfred Scawen Blunt at Newbuildings, Sussex, presented him with a small marble casket made by Henri Gaudier-Brzeska and ate roast peacock. ‘Quite what they were honouring him for’, Helen Carr comments, ‘even Blunt remained unsure.’[3] In the photograph commemorating the occasion, the poets are nicely grouped by age, Plarr (50), Sturge Moore (43) and Yeats (48) on one side of Blunt, with Pound (28), Aldington (19) and Flint (26) on the other.


(A pride of poets: Via The New Yorker)

In May 1914, the journal Poetry (Foreign Correspondent: E. Pound) published ‘The Peacock’ by W. B. Yeats:  

What’s riches to him

That has made a great peacock

With the pride of his eye?
The wind-beaten, stone-grey,

And desolate Three-rock

Would nourish his whim.
Live he or die

Amid wet rocks and heather,

His ghost will be gay
Adding feather to feather

For the pride of his eye.[4]

This arose, then, not from the visit to Newbuildings Place but, Hugh Kenner suggested, from the 1903 biography of James McNeill Whistler by Elizabeth Robins Pennell and Joseph Pennell, which recorded Whistler’s sentiments about the artist and ‘riches’, as well as his proposal for ‘“a great peacock ten feet high”’. The poem was written on 23 November 1913, at Stone Cottage, in Coleman’s Hatch in Sussex, where Pound was acting as secretary to Yeats, duties which consisted largely of him reading aloud to the older poet who often had problems with his eyesight. [5]


(Harmony in Blue and Gold: The Peacock Room, by James McNeill Whistler and Thomas Jeckyll, translocated to the Freer Gallery of Art, Washington, DC: via The Smithsonian)

More than thirty years later, sitting in the Disciplinary Training Center in Pisa, Pound remembered that first winter with Yeats in Stone Cottage at the edge of Ashdown Forest. As Wordsworth would walk up and down the garden path, composing aloud, so Yeats would walk around in the cottage, voicing the words, trying out vowel sounds and rhythms and intonations. Pound wrote, in Canto 83:

There is fatigue deep as the grave.
The Kakemono grows in flat land out of mist
    sun rises lop-sided over the mountain
        so that I recalled the noise in the chimney
as it were the wind in the chimney
    but was in reality Uncle William
downstairs composing
that had made a great Peeeeacock
    in the proide ov his oiye
    had made a great peeeeeeecock in the. . .
made a great peacock
    in the proide of his oyyee

proide ov his oy-ee
as indeed he had, and perdurable

Pound then adds: ‘a great peacock aere perennius’: ‘more lasting than bronze’, Horace wrote in one of his odes (III, xxx).[6]

In the first of the Pisan Cantos, Canto 74, among the ‘lordly men’ that were ‘to earth o’ergiven / these the companions’, Yeats is there, of course—so too was Victor Plarr, one of those peacock dinner poets, along with Ford Madox Ford, James Joyce, Edgar Jepson, Maurice Hewlett—and Sir Henry Newbolt:

Fordie that wrote of giants
and William who dreamed of nobility
            and Jim the comedian singing:
                 “Blarrney castle me darlin’
                 you’re nothing now but a StOWne”

and Plarr talking of mathematics
            or Jepson lover of jade
Maurie who wrote historical novels
                        and Newbolt who looked twice bathed
                                    are to earth o’ergiven.

Thomas Hardy, with whom Pound had exchanged a few letters in the last decade of Hardy’s life,[7] is present too, a little later:

So that leaving America I brought with me $80
            and England a letter of Thomas Hardy’s
            and Italy one eucalyptus pip
from the salita that goes up from Rapallo
                                    (if I go)

Leaving Italy? He is in a prison camp near Pisa – but, after all, he is in another country, another Italy.

But to have done instead of not doing
            this is not vanity
To have, with decency, knocked
That a Blunt should open
                        To have gathered from the air a live tradition
or from a fine old eye the unconquered flame
This is not vanity
            Here error is all in the not done,
all in the diffidence that faltered . . .



[1] Lucy McDiarmid, Poets and the Peacock Dinner: The Literary History of a Meal (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014), 14.

[2] Newbolt quoted by Claire Tomalin, Thomas Hardy: The Time-Torn Man (London: Viking, 2006), 307.

[3] Helen Carr, The Verse Revolutionaries: Ezra Pound, H.D. and the Imagists (London: Jonathan Cape, 2009), 625.

[4] W. B. Yeats, The Poems, edited by Daniel Albright (London: Everyman, 1994), 172.

[5] Hugh Kenner, A Colder Eye: The Modern Irish Writers (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1984), 77; James Longenbach, Stone Cottage: Pound, Yeats and Modernism (New York: Oxford University Press, 1990), 51.

[6] Horace, The Complete Odes and Epodes, translated by David West (Oxford: Oxford University Press), 108.

[7] Patricia Hutchins, ‘Ezra Pound and Thomas Hardy’, The Southern Review (Winter 1968),  90-104.

In search of stars


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

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

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

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

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


(Ivor Gurney via Oxford Dictionary of National Biography)

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

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

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

Titian, c.1488-1576; Bacchus and Ariadne

(Titian, Bacchus and Ariadne: National Gallery)

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

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


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

Stellar: of the stars. I’m sure I’ve quoted before Richard Holmes’ recounting of the poet Thomas Campbell meeting the great astronomer William Herschel in Brighton in 1813, perplexed by Herschel’s saying that many distant stars had probably ceased to exist ‘millions of years ago’, ‘and that looking up into the night sky we were seeing a stellar landscape that was not really there at all. The sky was full of ghosts.’[8] So too in Helen DeWitt’s novel, The Last Samurai, it’s said of George Sorabji: ‘He was obsessed with distance. He had read of stars whose light had left them millions of years ago, and he had read that the light we see may come from stars now dead. He would look up and think that all the stars might now be dead; he thought that they were so far away there would be no way to know.
‘It was as if everything might really already be over.’[9]


(Emma Hardy)

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

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

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

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




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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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