‘Falling from a high stool’: Pound, Yeats, Lionel Johnson

 

DPE72F  Ezra_Pound_Coburn.jpg

 

(Lionel Johnson via TLS; Pound c. 1913 by Alvin Langdon Coburn)

Reading Elif Batuman’s novel The Idiot, I came upon this: ‘On the train back, Svetlana told me about a Serbian movie director who had been friends with her father in Belgrade. The director’s wife, an actress, had gone to Paris to make a movie with a young French director. The French director had died tragically by falling off a barstool. “They said it might have been suicide,” Svetlana said.’[1]

The joke here is the improbable means of suicide, of course, but I was reminded of the sixth section of Ezra Pound’s Hugh Selwyn Mauberley, entitled ‘Siena Mi Fe’; Disfecemi Maremma’ [from Dante’s Purgatorio, ‘Sienna made me, Maremma undid me’]:

Among the pickled foetuses and bottled bones,
Engaged in perfecting the catalogue,
I found the last scion of the
Senatorial families of Strasbourg, Monsieur Verog.

For two hours he talked of Gallifet;
Of Dowson; of the Rhymers’ Club;
Told me how Johnson (Lionel) died
By falling from a high stool in a pub . . .[2]

‘Monsieur Verog’ is the poet and critic Victor Plarr, who was librarian of the Royal College of Surgeons from 1897 to his death in 1929, working for much of that time on the library catalogue. He was also a founder member of The Rhymers’ Club, which made him of interest to Pound, having stories to tell of Ernest Dowson (of whom he wrote a memoir), Lionel Johnson, Selwyn Image, Richard Le Gallienne and others.

K. K. Ruthven suggests that Katharine Tynan, the writer and friend of Yeats, ‘seems to have been responsible for the erroneous story that Johnson died after falling from a stool’.[3] Johnson did indeed die of a fall, though it was ‘not in a pub, but on Fleet Street’.[4]

Tynan

(Katharine Tynan via Wikipedia Commons)

Lionel Johnson (1867-1902) was a first cousin of Olivia Shakespeare, mother of Pound’s wife Dorothy. His 1889 poem, ‘Lines to a Lady upon her Third Birthday’, is addressed to Dorothy—‘Dear Cousin: to be three years old,/ Is to have found the Age of Gold’[5]—and Pound wrote the preface to Johnson’s Poetical Works (1915). This was excluded from the American edition and also from later English printings, ‘apparently because it included extensive quotations from notes sent by Lionel Johnson to Katherine Tynan and printed by her after his death in the Dublin Review for October 1907.’ Johnson’s critical comments concerned several of his contemporaries, including Arthur Symons and Richard Le Gallienne, both still alive in 1915.[6] His notes are included, though, in ‘Lionel Johnson’, collected in Pound’s Literary Essays: ‘Baudelaire and Verlaine generally ring true, and their horrors and squalors and miseries and audacities have the value and virtue of touching the reader to something of compassion or meditation. Symons no more does that than a teapot. “This girl met me in the Haymarket, with a straw hat and a brown paper parcel, and the rest was a delirious delight: that girl I met outside a music hall, we had champagne, and the rest was an ecstasy of shame.” That is Symons.’

The teapot is a nice touch.

Pound’s praise foregrounds his explicit awareness that Johnson ‘cannot be shown to be in accord with our present doctrines and ambitions. His language is a bookish dialect, or rather it is not a dialect, it is a curial speech and our aim is natural speech, the language as spoken. We would write nothing that we might not actually say in life—under emotion. Johnson’s verse is full of inversions, but no one has written purer Imagisme than he has, in the line

Clear lie the fields, and fade into blue air.

It has a beauty like the Chinese.’[7]

Walking_on_Path_in_Spring

(Ma Yuan, Walking on a Mountain Path in Spring, 13th century)

Plenty to unpack here. Pound’s ‘our aim is natural speech, the language as spoken’ sits a little uncomfortably with some of his earlier pronouncements. ‘[W]e must have a simplicity and directness of utterance which is different from the simplicity and directness of daily speech, which is more “curial”, more dignified’, he wrote in 1912; and, ‘There are few fallacies more common than the opinion that poetry should mimic the daily speech.’ Again, in that same year: ‘Mr Hueffer is so obsessed with the idea that the language of poetry should not be a dead language, that he forgets it must be the speech of to-day, dignified, more intense, more dynamic, than to-day’s speech as spoken’.[8] By 1914, then, when Pound was writing this introduction, the case was altered. Imagism had happened, Vorticism was happening and—‘a beauty like the Chinese’—the encounter with the Fenollosa notebooks, which resulted in the Noh plays and Cathay, had also engaged and enlarged Pound’s resources.

And that curious word ‘curial’? ‘Of or pertaining to a royal court; having the manners befitting a court; courtly’, the Oxford English Dictionary says. And, perhaps fittingly, ‘Obsolete’.[9] The papal curia – the administrative institutions through which the Catholic Church’s affairs are conducted – is certainly appropriate enough to the Roman Catholic convert Johnson, who introduced his cousin—Alfred Lord Douglas—to Oscar Wilde in the summer of 1891. He rather regretted it later.[10]

Quoting ‘In Memory. II’, the poem beginning:

Ah! fair face gone from sight,
With all its light
Of eyes, that pierced the deep
Of human night!
Ah! fair face calm in sleep.

Ah! fair lips hushed in death!
Now their glad breath
Breathes not upon our air
Music, that saith
Love only, and things fair

Pound presents it as an example of ‘poems as beautiful as any in English’ – though he leaves out some of Johnson’s ‘poetical’ exclamation marks. Those short lines and rhymes in such close proximity make me wonder if there’s any sense of affinity with the Provençal poems of Arnaut Daniel that Pound was translating, such as ‘Can Chai la Fueilla’:

When sere leaf falleth
from the high forkèd tips,
And cold appalleth
dry osier, haws and hips,
Coppice he strips
of bird, that now none calleth.   (Ezra Pound: Poems and Translations, 482)

He attends closely to Johnson the poet, while the man himself is a ghost transmitted to Pound through the spoken and written words of W. B. Yeats. Johnson is central to ‘The Tragic Generation’, a section of Yeats’s autobiographical The Trembling of the Veil. He recalled Johnson reading or speaking aloud ‘in his musical monotone, where meaning and cadence found the most precise elocution, his poem suggested by the Statue of King Charles at Charing Cross. It was as though I listened to a great speech.’

Charles I

(Equestrian statue of Charles I : Wikipedia Commons)

Comely and calm, he rides
Hard by his own Whitehall:
Only the night wind glides:
No crowds, nor rebels, brawl.

Gone, too, his Court: and yet,
The stars his courtiers are:
Stars in their stations set;
And every wandering star.

Alone he rides, alone,
The fair and fatal king:
Dark night is all his own,
That strange and solemn thing.     (Poetical Works of Lionel Johnson, 14)

Yeats wrote of the alcoholic Johnson’s drinking as well as the report that, ‘at the autopsy after his death’, he was discovered ‘never to have grown, except in the brain, after his fifteenth year’.[11] His 1936 broadcast, ‘Modern Poetry’, open with memories of The Rhymers’ Club: ‘Two members of the Club are vivid in my memory’, that is, Johnson and Ernest Dowson. Johnson was ‘determined, erect, his few words dogmatic, almost a dwarf but beautifully made, his features cut in ivory. His thought dominated the scene and gave the Club its character.’ Yeats recalled Johnson’s stories of all the famous statesmen, ecclesiastics and writers he had met and his eventual discovery that Johnson had never met them but had made it all up, that he would sit at night with a glass of whisky at his elbow, ‘imagining the puppets that were the true companions of his mind.’[12]

In the introduction to his selection for The Oxford Book of Modern Verse, Yeats quoted Johnson (‘Life must be a ritual’) and commenced the next section thus:

‘Then in 1900 everybody got down off his stilts; henceforth nobody drank absinthe with his black coffee; nobody went mad; nobody committed suicide; nobody joined the Catholic Church; or if they did I have forgotten.’[13] Stilts, of course, are not the legs of barstools. . .

Circe, by John William Waterhouse

(J.W. Waterhouse, Circe Offering the Cup to Odysseus (Gallery Oldham)

Near the end of Pound’s Mauberley, we read of:

The unforecasted beach:
Then on an oar
read this:

“I was
And I no more exist;
Here drifted
An hedonist.”

It’s often noted that Johnson’s barstool fall earlier in Mauberley echoes the fatal descent of Elpenor in Homer’s Odyssey, drunk, tumbling down a ladder in Circe’s house. The youngest of Odysseus’s men, he is the first shade that Odysseus meets in the underworld. Homer’s Book XI is, of course, the one out of twenty-four that Pound selects as basis for his Canto I, in which Elpenor pleads to Odysseus:

‘But thou, O King, I bid remember me, unwept, unburied,
Heap up mine arms, be tomb by sea-bord, and inscribed:
A man of no fortune, and with a name to come.
And set my oar up, that I swung mid fellows.’

Elpenor’s name will be remembered, firstly, through the actions of the hero Odysseus but primarily through the words of the poet Homer. Mauberley’s name will be remembered through the words of the poet, Pound, who sees aspects of himself in Odysseus and wishes—as poet—to evade Mauberley’s fate and leave him far behind. So too the edition of Johnson’s poems, with Pound’s respectful and often laudatory introduction—which has its own afterlife—sets up an oar above Johnson’s own heaped arms.

 

 

Notes

[1] Elif Batuman, The Idiot (London: Vintage, 2018), 42.

[2] Ezra Pound: Poems and Translations, edited by Richard Sieburth (New York: Library of America, 2003), 553.

[3] K. K. Ruthven, A Guide to Ezra Pound’s Personae (1926) (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983), 136.

[4] John Espey, Ezra Pound’s Mauberley: A Study in Composition (1955; Berkeley: University of California Press, 1974), 92.

[5] Poetical Works of Lionel Johnson (London: Elkin Mathews, 1915), 52. See Ezra Pound and Dorothy Shakespear: Their Letters, 1909-1914, edited by Omar Pound and A. Walton Litz (London: Faber and Faber, 1985), 83-84.

[6] Donald Gallup, Ezra Pound: A Bibliography, revised edition (Charlottesville: University of Press of Virginia, 1983), 140.

[7] Literary Essays of Ezra Pound, edited by T. S. Eliot (London: Faber and Faber, 1960), 365, 362. The phrase ‘under emotion’ recalls Pound’s letter to Harriet Monroe, editor of Poetry in January 1915—‘nothing that you couldn’t, in some circumstance, in the stress of some emotion, actually say’—with a 1937 footnote added to the letter: ‘It should be realized that Ford Madox Ford had been hammering this point of view into me from the time I first met him’: Selected Letters, 1907-1941, edited by D. D. Paige (New York: New Directions, 1971), 49.

[8] Ezra Pound, Selected Prose 1909-1965, edited by William Cookson (London: Faber and Faber, 1973), 41; review of Ford’s High Germany in Brita Lindberg-Seyersted, editor, Pound/Ford: The Story of a Literary Friendship (London: Faber & Faber 1982), 10.

[9] Herbert N. Schneidau, Ezra Pound: The Image and the Real (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1969), discusses the changing status of ‘curial’ in Pound’s prose and the shifts in attitude towards the language as spoken.

[10] Richard Ellmann, Oscar Wilde (London: Penguin Books, 1988), 306.

[11] W. B. Yeats, Autobiographies (London: Macmillan, 1955), 301, 310-311.

[12] W. B. Yeats, Essays and Introductions (London: Macmillan, 1961), 491, 492-493.

[13] W. B. Yeats, ‘Introduction’, The Oxford Book of Modern Verse, 1892-1935 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1936), x, xi.

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.