Eastering

Rabbits

Easter: ‘the greatest feast of the Church year, celebrating the Resurrection of Christ and the salvation of man’,[1] though it may mean different things to children, to bakers, to rabbits and to chocolatiers. To literary-historical folk, it might mean the death of Edward Thomas or, perhaps more likely, the poetry of William Butler Yeats:

Was it needless death after all?
For England may keep faith
For all that is done and said.
We know their dream; enough
To know they dreamed and are dead;
And what if excess of love
Bewildered them till they died?
I write it out in a verse—
MacDonagh and MacBride
And Connolly and Pearse
Now and in time to be,
Wherever green is worn,
Are changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.[2]

The Easter Rising, Declan Kiberd suggests, ‘is the great, unmentionable fact which hovers behind so many episodes of Ulysses’.[3] I remember being surprised by reading that it was under the dispensation of the Defence of the Realm Act (passed a few days after the war began) that the executions after the Easter Rising were carried out.[4] I’d associated that legislation with censorship, the watering-down of beer and, of course, the shortening of pub opening times to discourage munitions workers and those engaged in other crucial wartime activities from whiling away too many hours in the public bar.

Ford Madox Ford termed the act ‘the unlovely Dora’, commenting that, ‘Even during the war she was offensive and stupid in patches, but one bore with her because it was then expedient and necessary to support authority, however stupid Authority might be.’ But ‘after the war Authority itself became an offence to the Realm.’[5]

The poet Ivor Gurney was Gurney wounded on Good Friday night and sent to the hospital at 55th Infantry Base Depot, Rouen.[6] Three days later, on Easter Monday, Siegfried Sassoon was close enough at Basseux to hear the guns at Arras, where Edward Thomas was killed that morning by the blast from a shell.[7]

Gurney_BBC

(Ivor Gurney via BBC)

Gurney’s poem, ‘The Mangel-Bury’, written a few years later, begins:

It was after war; Edward Thomas had fallen at Arras –
I was walking by Gloucester musing on such things
As fill his verse with goodness; it was February; the long house
Straw-thatched of the mangels stretched two wide wings;
And looked as part of the earth heaped up by dead soldiers
In the most fitting place – along the hedge’s yet-bare lines.
West-spring breathed there early, that none foreign divines.[8]

References

[1] Bonnie Blackburn and Leofranc Holford-Strevens, The Oxford Companion to the Year (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), 622.

[2] ‘Easter 1916’, W. B. Yeats, Collected Poems, second edition (London: Macmillan, 1950), 204.

[3] Declan Kiberd, Ulysses and Us: The Art of Everyday Living (London: Faber and Faber, 2009), 156.

[4] Arthur Marwick, The Deluge, 2nd edition (London: Macmillan, 1991), 77.

[5] Ford Madox Ford, It Was the Nightingale (London: Heinemann, 1934), 84.

[6] Michael Hurd, The Ordeal of Ivor Gurney (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1978)

96.

[7] Harry Ricketts, Strange Meetings: The Poets of the Great War (London: Chatto & Windus, 2010), 101.

[8] Ivor Gurney, Collected Poems, edited with an introduction by P. J. Kavanagh, revised edition (Manchester: Carcanet Press, 2004), 263.

 

A feather in the wind

Sea-1

Between Eype and West Bay, a fierce wind rocks us on the cliff path. A couple of days later, at lunch in the Watch House Café, the sound is almost deafening at times, sails flapping on high and rolling seas. On the slope above the shore, you can lean steeply and confidently into the wind. The sea is foaming, furious, tiny tumbleweeds of spume blown in cartwheels across the sand, thinning to threads of washing suds, smears along the beach.

In a high wind, I often feel as I do when watching a raging sea: a sense of awe at such naked strength and power but also extreme pleasure in the knowledge that they are, precisely, irresistible. No matter how misdirected, demented and destructive human behaviour becomes, the wind will blow, the sea will rise and fall. In such a wind, resistant, your feet solidly planted, you feel your body’s strength but also sense its limits.

Back-to-West-Bay

In An Affair of the Heart, Dilys Powell, the celebrated film critic who also wrote several fine books about Greece, remembered a people called the Perachorans. She was married to the archaeologist Humfry Payne, who, in 1929, was appointed director of the British School of Archaeology in Athens. A year later, he initiated an excavation at Perachora, a settlement on the Gulf of Corinth, and Powell spent a good deal of time in and around the area. She wrote, ‘They grow old, they die, but they are the same. And I reflected with astonishment – for in imagination it is always oneself who is stable in an inconstant world – that I was the feather in the wind.’[1]

It’s a resonant image. Sixty years on, the world is a little more inconstant, a little less stable. Just a little. Still, it’s hardly surprising that the wind has always been a favourite literary symbol, from Homer through to the Romantic poets and beyond, seemingly apposite in a staggering variety of contexts, wind as god, wind as breath, wind as inspiration or omen or threat or simply impersonal force.

‘My thoughts were a great excitement’, W. B. Yeats remembered, ‘but when I tried to do anything with them, it was like trying to pack a balloon into a shed in a high wind.’[2] Indeed, we’ve all experienced that, no doubt. Or something like it. Or vaguely resembling it. Although lately it seems that, even when just a little excited, people tend to take to social media. Sometimes, they bring along thoughts with that excitement.

Karen_Blixen_and_Thomas_Dinesen_1920s

(Karen Blixen with her brother Thomas on the family farm in Kenya in the 1920s)

Karen Blixen, writing of her farm at the foot of the Ngong Hills, sited at an altitude of over six thousand feet that ‘the wind in the highlands blows steadily from the north-north-east. It is the same wind that down the coasts of Africa and Arabia, they name the Monsoon, the East Wind, which was King Solomon’s favourite horse.’[3] And it may well have been: he seems to have had 4000 to choose from, or 40000, depending on the version you settle on. A great many horses, in either case; and a great many wives and concubines too.

Having made our effortful way back from the beach—at an angle of something less than ninety degrees—we sit listening to the howling in the chimney, raising our voices a little. That in turn recalls (of course) the narrator of Ford’s The Good Soldier: ‘And I shall go on talking, in a low voice while the sea sounds in the distance and overhead the great black flood of wind polishes the bright stars.’[4] And it occurs to me to wonder, given the level of noise in this wind, just how much the narrator (‘talking in a low voice’) wanted to be heard; or rather, how much it mattered. Without getting too detailed, if his listener is the now-mad Nancy Rufford it probably doesn’t matter much at all: the murmur of a voice amidst the chorus of the wind will do.

‘Wind in the Work of Ford Madox Ford’. That could be worked up into something, surely. The sentence from The Good Soldier has its traceable ancestry, primarily Ford’s own poem, ‘On Heaven’, which includes the line ‘Through the roar of the great black winds, through the sound of the sea!’[5] And more than twenty years later, at the close of Provence: From Minstrels to the Machine, another strong wind—the mistral this time—plays a central role in the drama, unless it’s a comedy:

Provence.dj

‘And leaning back on the wind as if on an up-ended couch I clutched my béret and roared with laughter. . . .We were just under the great wall that keeps out the intolerably swift Rhone. . . . Our treasurer’s cap was flying in the air. . . . Over, into the Rhone. . . . What glorious fun. . . . The mistral sure is the wine of life. . . . Our treasurer’s wallet was flying from under an armpit beyond reach of a clutching wind . . . . Incredible humour; unparalleled buffoonery of a wind . . . . The air was full of little capricious squares, floating black against the light over the river. . . . Like a swarm of bees: thick. . . . Good fellows, bees. . . .’

A ‘delirious, panicked search’ then begins, for the scattered banknotes (those ‘little capricious squares’), for passports, for citizenship papers. The money that was to finance a year or two of rest has mostly gone. ‘But perhaps the remorseless Destiny of Provence desires thus to afflict the world with my books’, Ford concluded—as if he would ever have willingly stopped writing, mistral or no.[6]

Back in Bristol, it’s oddly calm today. Hardly a flicker in the heaped brown leaves. I type at the top of a page: ‘Calm in the Work of Ford Madox Ford’. Nothing’s come yet.

References

[1] Dilys Powell, An Affair of the Heart (London: Souvenir Press, 1958), 173.

[2] W. B. Yeats, Autobiographies (London: Macmillan, 1955), 41.

[3] Karen Blixen, Out of Africa (1937; Harmondsworth: Penguin 1987), 14.

[4] Ford Madox Ford, The Good Soldier: A Tale of Passion (1915; edited by Max Saunders, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), 18.

[5] Ford Madox Ford, Collected Poems (New York: Oxford University Press, 1936), 8.

[6] Ford Madox Ford, Provence (London: Allen & Unwin, 1938), 367-368.