Animal to animal


(William Blake’s Tyger)

‘Yes’, William Carlos Williams wrote to Ezra Pound on 14 June 1932, ‘I have wanted to kick myself (as you suggest) for not realizing more about Ford Maddox’s [sic] verse. If he were not so unapproachable, so gone nowadays. I want to but it is not to be done. Also he is too much like my father was – too English for me ever to be able to talk with him animal to animal.’[1]

That phrase would recur more than twenty-five years later, when Williams asked Hugh Kenner whether it might be possible to talk to T. S. Eliot ‘animal to animal’.[2] Ford and Williams became closer in the last year of Ford’s life, when he founded the Friends of William Carlos Williams.[3] Still, animal to animal. . . was there enough common ground for words to mean the same things to both parties? Would each of them even recognise the other’s direction of travel? Were their aims and ideals comparable, perhaps even within touching distance? Could they connect?

Humans and animals, humans as animals, humans becoming animals – it’s a crowded field: Ovid’s transformations, Kipling, Kafka, David Garnett’s Lady into Fox; more recently, the remarkable Sarah Hall: ‘She stops, within calling distance, were he not struck dumb. She looks over her shoulder. Topaz eyes glinting. Scorched face. Vixen.’[4]


We accept we are animals; or no, it’s those others that are animals; some animal traits we see in humans, some human traits in our dogs, cats, horses. ‘Funny buggers the human animals’, David Jones wrote to Tom Burns, while Llewellyn Powys referred to ‘that escaped, brain-mad animal, man’ and, in order to escape the human into a dreamed world, immaterial and eternal, William Butler Yeats wrote:

Consume my heart away; sick with desire
And fastened to a dying animal
It knows not what it is; and gather me
Into the artifice of eternity.[5]

Guy Davenport remarks that, ‘Odysseus declining the stupidities of hallucination and Akhilleus taming the animal within himself end one age of Greece.’ And here is the philosopher George Santayana in a later Davenport story, ‘Dinner at the Bank of England’:

The unexamined life is eminently worth living, were anyone so fortunate. It would be the life of an animal, brave and alert, with instincts instead of opinions and decisions, loyalty to mate and cubs, to the pack. It might, for all we know, be a life of richest interest and happiness. Dogs dream. The quickened spirit of the eagle circling in high cold air is beyond our imagination. The placidity of cattle shames the Stoic, and what critic has the acumen of the cat? We have used the majesty of the lion as a symbol of royalty, the wide-eyed stare of owls for wisdom, the mild beauty of the dove for the spirit of God.[6]


(George Santayana)

Of T. H. White, author of both The Goshawk and The Once and Future King, David Garnett recalled: ‘Tim was not a mere devotee of blood sports, he was a naturalist with a gift for sharing the instincts and prejudices of all the animals he hunted or domesticated. Thus he could really enter into the soul of a hawk, or a fox, or a wild goose, or a badger. His description of Merlin’s education of Arthur in The Sword in the Stone is not a piece of fanciful writing, but full of his own experience.’[7] Patrick White wrote of his character, Miss Hare: ‘Now she recalled with nostalgia occasions when she had lost her identity in those of trees, bushes, inanimate objects, or entered into the minds of animals, of which the desires were unequivocal or honest.’[8] Some ten thousand years before the present, Julia Blackburn writes, ‘A man is preparing to go out hunting. In order to achieve the death of the animal that is to be hunted, he must become the animal. Inhabiting that other body is the first step towards possessing it.’[9]


(Lily James as Natasha in the BBC dramatisation of War and Peace)

That recognised and lived closeness of the worlds of human and animal is certainly an integral part of cultures both ancient and modern. In Tolstoy’s War and Peace, Natasha speaks of recalling memories until one remembers what happened before one was in the world. ‘“That’s metempsychosis,’ said Sonya, who had always been a good scholar and remembered what she learned. “The Egyptians used to believe that our souls once inhabited the bodies of animals, and will return into animals again.”’ And Carlo Levi, exiled by the Mussolini regime to Gagliano in the Lucania region of Italy, wrote: ‘The deities of the state and the city can find no worshippers here on the land where the wolf and the ancient black boar reign supreme, where there is no wall between the world of men and the world of animals and spirits, between the leaves of the trees above and the roots below.’[10]


No wall. So near and yet so far away. Reading aloud, animal to animal, I accept the cat as prospective audience – but he keeps his own counsel and, I notice, makes no comment at all.



[1] Pound/ Williams: Selected Letters of Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams, edited by Hugh Witemeyer (New York: New Directions, 1996), 119.

[2] Hugh Kenner, The Pound Era (London: Faber and Faber, 1972), 19.

[3] Max Saunders, Ford Madox Ford: A Dual Life, two volumes (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996), II, 537-538.

[4] Sarah Hall, ‘Mrs Fox’, in Madame Zero (London: Faber and Faber, 2017), 9.

[5] Letter of 28 August 1940: Dai Greatcoat: a self-portrait of David Jones in his letters, edited by René Hague (London: Faber and Faber, 1980), 104; Llewellyn Powys, Ebony and Ivory ([1923] Redcliffe Press, Bristol, 1983), 30; ‘Sailing to Byzantium’, W. B. Yeats, The Poems, edited by Daniel Albright (London: Everyman, 1994), 240.

[6] Guy Davenport ‘The Dawn of Erewhon’, in Tatlin! Six Stories (New York: Scribner’s, 1974), 200; ‘Dinner at the Bank of England’, in The Cardiff Team: Ten Stories (New York: New Directions, 1996), 13.

[7] David Garnett, The Familiar Faces (London: Chatto & Windus, 1962), 176.

[8] Patrick White, Riders in the Chariot (Harmondsworth: Penguins Books, 1964), 82.

[9] Julia Blackburn, Time Song: Searching for Doggerland (London: Jonathan Cape, 2019), 171.

[10] Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace, translated by Rosemary Edmonds (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1982), 616; Carlo Levi, Christ Stopped at Eboli, translated by Frances Frenaye ([1947] Penguin 2000), 78.


‘Last few days’: bits of paradise


(Ford Madox Ford and Janice Biala via the Times Literary Supplement)

Eighty years ago today, Thursday 25 May 1939, William Carlos Williams, poet and paediatrician of Rutherford, New Jersey, went into New York City to make his farewells to Ford Madox Ford and his partner, the painter Janice Biala. Ezra Pound was also expected to say goodbye but didn’t turn up. Ford and Biala were due to leave on 30 May, aboard the Normandie. Williams ‘knew with his trained medical eye that Ford would soon be dead. Nevertheless, Ford himself, wheezing and overweight, was still optimistic. He was taking a villa on the French coast near Le Havre and invited the Williamses to sail over for the month of August.’

The next day, three and a half thousand miles away, Lawrence Durrell and his wife Nancy, returning to Corfu from England, called in to see Henry Miller in Paris. ‘With a sense of finality, Henry inscribed a copy of Tropic of Capricorn to them with the words, “To Larry and Nancy from Henry – Paris 5/26/39 ‘last few days’”.’


(Nancy Durrell and Lawrence Durrell, family photograph, Joanna Hodgkin, included in Amateurs in Eden: The Story of a Bohemian Marriage, Virago, 2012, via The Guardian)

(Miller’s novel begins: ‘Once you have given up the ghost, everything follows with dead certainty, even in the midst of chaos.’)

Ford fell ill on the voyage to France; he and Biala reached Le Havre on 4 June and moved across the Seine to the port of Honfleur. Three weeks later, on 26 June 1939, Ford died at the age of sixty-five. His death ‘hit Williams hard’, though it was four months before he set down his feelings about Ford in a poem because ‘he deeply mistrusted occasional verse’. Towards the end of October, his poem ‘To Ford Madox Ford in Heaven’ emerged. It was later included in his volume The Wedge (1944) and begins:

Is it any better in Heaven, my friend Ford,
than you found it in Provence?

I don’t think so for you made Provence a
heaven by your praise of it
to give a foretaste of what might be
your joy in the present circumstances.
It was Heaven you were describing there
transubstantiated from its narrowness
to resemble the paths and gardens of a
greater world where you now reside.
But, dear man, you have taken a major
part of it from us.
Provence that you
praised so well will never be the same
Provence to us
now you are gone.

With Europe under threat, Paul Mariani comments, Williams was ‘writing an elegy not only for a man but for a whole world in danger now of disappearing forever.’

Ford’s long poem ‘On Heaven’, written before the First World War, essentially identified that celestial place with his beloved Provence. It became increasingly central to his work in the last decade of his life. In the late work Provence: From Minstrels to the Machine (1935), Ford remarked, ‘If I write of Provence a little as if it were an earthly Paradise the reader must amiably condone what, not being fully in the know, he will consider as a weakness.’

Earthly Paradise was the title that Robert Phelps gave to his skilfully assembled collection of Colette’s autobiographical writings. Colette once observed that, ‘For the hearts which have chosen Provence it takes only July, August, to restore – new, annual unchanging – every astonishment and every bestowal.’ Lawrence Durrell, who spent his last decades, living in Sommières, wrote of catching a glimpse of what Provence must have meant to the ancients: ‘a sort of Tibet-shaped land of paradisiacal luxuriance, remote and at peace’.


(Durrell with Miller – flanked by Richard Aldington and F. J. Temple, Sommières, 1959)

In earlier years, it was Greece that had seemed paradisal to Durrell, not least because it represented release from a stifling England—it did to his wife Nancy as well at the outset, though Durrell’s jealousy and controlling behaviour led to their separation during the Second World War, after they had been forced to flee Greece. For Henry Miller too, his first experience of Greece tasted of heaven in the face of encroaching catastrophe. A few months before the outbreak of war, he went to the Dordogne region: ‘It is the nearest thing to Paradise this side of Greece.’ Arriving at Piraeus in a heat wave in July 1939, he joined Durrell and spent time on Corfu, in Athens and travelling in the Peloponnese. He would later state simply that, ‘Greece is now, bare and lean as a wolf though she be, the only Paradise in Europe.’

The ‘last few days’. But the noises of war were increasingly difficult to ignore. The American Embassy was keen to get its nationals home safely and Miller returned to the United States.

A few years later, in a detention camp a little to the north of Pisa, Ezra Pound wrote:

Le paradis n’est pas artificiel

adding, unsurprisingly:

l’enfer non plus.


A few books

Colette, Looking Backwards: Recollections [Journal à rebours and De ma fenêtre], translated by David Le Vay (London: Peter Owen, 1975)

Lawrence Durrell, Caesar’s Vast Ghost: Aspects of Provence (London: Faber and Faber, 1990).

Ford Madox Ford, Provence (London: Allen & Unwin, 1938).

Joanna Hodgkin, Amateurs in Eden: The Story of a Bohemian Marriage (London: Virago, 2012).

Edmund Keeley, Inventing Paradise: The Greek Journey, 1937-47 (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1999).

Ian MacNiven, Lawrence Durrell: A Biography (London: Faber and Faber, 1998).

Paul Mariani, William Carlos Williams: A New World Naked (New York: W. W. Norton, 1990).

Henry Miller, The Colossus of Maroussi (1941; London: Penguin Books, 1972).

Henry Miller, Tropic of Capricorn (1939; London: John Calder, 1964)

Max Saunders, Ford Madox Ford: A Dual Life, two volumes (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996), II: The After-War World.

William Carlos Williams, The Collected Poems, Volume II: 1939-1962, edited by Christopher MacGowan (Manchester: Carcanet Press, 1988).

William Carlos Williams, Selected Letters, edited by John C. Thirlwall (New York: New Directions, 1969).



Gilbert White of Selborne


(Skylark: )

In Great Trade Route, Ford Madox Ford, recalling a visit to a New Jersey truck farm in the company of William Carlos Williams, commented on the behaviour of a snipe which was distracting the men from the nest to protect its young, an example of what Gilbert White famously termed storgé, using the Greek word for familial or ‘natural’ affection, one of the four Greek terms for ‘love’, along with philia, agape and eros: all were discussed in C. S. Lewis’s book, The Four Loves (1960).[1]

Ford often mentioned Gilbert White of Selborne (born 18 July 1720), the ‘parson-naturalist’, in both fictional and non-fictional contexts. In Parade’s End, White crops up in the first volume, Some Do Not. . .  as Christopher Tietjens spars with Valentine Wannop on their night-ride.


(Gilbert White)

‘He said:
“Where do you get your absurd Latin nomenclature from? Isn’t it phalæna …
She had answered:
“From White . . . The Natural History of Selborne is the only natural history I ever read….
“He’s the last English writer that could write,” said Tietjens.
“He calls the downs ‘those majestic and amusing mountains,’” she said. “Where do you get your dreadful Latin pronunciation from? Phal i i na! To rhyme with Dinah!”
“It’s ‘sublime and amusing mountains,’ not ‘majestic and amusing,’” Tietjens said. “I got my Latin pronunciation, like all public schoolboys of to-day, from the German.”’[2]

Later, in the third volume, A Man Could Stand Up—, Tietjens is in the trenches, where his Sergeant enthusiastically praises the skylark’s ‘Won’erful trust in yumanity! Won’erful hinstinck set in the fethered brest by the Halmighty!’

Tietjens says ‘mildly’ that he thinks the Sergeant has ‘got his natural history wrong. He must divide the males from the females. The females sat on the nest through obstinate attachment to their eggs; the males obstinately soared above the nests in order to pour out abuse at other male skylarks in the vicinity.’

‘“Gilbert White of Selbourne,” he said to the Sergeant, “called the behaviour of the female STORGE: a good word for it.” But, as for trust in humanity, the Sergeant might take it that larks never gave us a thought. We were part of the landscape and if what destroyed their nests whilst they sat on them was a bit of H[igh].E[xplosive]. shell or the coulter of a plough it was all one to them.’

The sergeant is highly sceptical of such sentiments:

‘“Ju ’eer what the orfcer said, Corporal,” the one said to the other. Wottever’ll ’e say next! Skylarks not trust ’uman beens in battles! Cor!”
The other grunted and, mournfully, the voices died out.’

Later in the same volume, Ford recurs to White in Valentine’s own reflections – Ford uses the image or allusion echoed in the thoughts of multiple characters to frequently brilliant effect:

‘Her mother was too cunning for them. With the cunning that makes the mother wild-duck tumble apparently broken-winged just under your feet to decoy you away from her little things. STORGE, Gilbert White calls it!’[3]


(The Wakes, Gilbert White’s house:

In The Farther Shore: A Natural History of Perception, 1798-1984, a superb, rich study of how technological developments since the eighteenth century have affected the ways in which we interpret the world, Don Gifford wrote of how, for Samuel Johnson and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, the ambition to be generally well read, that is, to have a reasonable grasp of all that was being published and made available, ‘was within reach’, and that a community of those sharing that distinction or at least that ambition was ‘at least imagined to be a given among educated men and women.’ His footnote mentions the assumption evident in Gilbert White’s letters that his correspondents shared his acquaintance with Dryden, Pope, Addison, Swift, Gray, Johnson, Hume, Gibbon, Sterne – as well as with the Bible, Virgil, Homer, Horace, the Koran, Chaucer, Shakespeare and Milton. By the mid-80s (when he was writing this book), Gifford adds, ‘the idea of being well read and of belonging to such a community is a joke we have politely learned not to mention except with a shrug of self-deprecation.’

Of course, White’s acquaintance with Pope was not only with the man’s work: he was presented with a copy of Pope’s six-volume translation of the Iliad by the poet himself, when graduating with distinction from Oriel College, Oxford, in 1743.[4]

White’s fascinating and deceptively simple work has embedded itself in English culture in numerous contexts. His genius, as Ronald Blythe remarks, was ‘to revolutionise the study of natural history by noting what exactly lay outside his own back-door.’[5] In his first letter to the Honourable Daines Barrington in June 1769, White wrote, ‘I see you are a gentleman of great candour, and one that will make allowances; especially where the writer professes to be an out-door naturalist, one that takes his observations from the subject itself, and not from the writings of others’ (Selborne 104). He produced hundreds of pages, records of looking and listening and remembering and wondering. Birds, plants, insects, weather, animals, not least the human. ‘My musical friend, at whose house I am now visiting, has tried all the owls that are his near neighbours with a pitch-pipe set at concert-pitch, and finds they all hoot in B flat. He will examine the nightingales next spring’ (Selborne 127).


The local as the universal. A hundred and eighty years after White’s death, William Carlos Williams would note that the poet’s business was ‘to write particularly, as a physician works, upon a patient, in the particular to discover the universal.’ He quoted the line of John Dewey’s that he had come upon by chance, ‘The local is the only universal, upon that all else builds’, commenting elsewhere that, ‘in proportion as a man has bestirred himself to become awake to his own locality he will perceive more and more of what is disclosed and find himself in a position to make the necessary translations.’[6] Williams in Rutherford; Thoreau in Concord; White in Selborne.

Don Gifford points out that, ‘In effect, White’s perspective differs radically from our own because he had no a priori basis for distinguishing between trivial and significant things.’ So, in addition to seeing with his own eyes, White ‘had to see cumulatively, a second order of seeing’. He tells the story of Henry Thoreau reducing Ellery Channing to tears when the two men went out into the woods together: Channing knew so little about what to record that he returned with an empty notebook, desperate and frustrated.[7]

White’s journals were published in 1931 and, Alexandra Harris comments, ‘his work was tirelessly reissued over the next decade.’ But then, in addition to being valued for his ‘timeless qualities’, White was ‘also being used as someone relevant to the present time precisely because the world he knew was disappearing.’[8]

When we read those writers detailing the current decline or disappearance of so much British wildlife, through environmental damage, farming practices and government policies, the parallels hardly need stressing.

On the matter of White’s journals, let your fingers do the running, to this superb resource:

House and garden, café and shop?



[1] Ford Madox Ford, Great Trade Route (London: Allen & Unwin, 1937), 184; Gilbert White, The Illustrated History of Selborne (London: Macmillan, 1984), 114, 133-134.

[2] Ford Madox Ford, Some Do Not. . . (1924; edited by Max Saunders, Manchester: Carcanet Press, 2010), 163-164.

[3] Ford Madox Ford, A Man Could Stand Up— (1926; edited by Sara Haslam, Manchester: Carcanet, 2011), 63, 64, 65, 201.

[4] Don Gifford, The Farther Shore: A Natural History of Perception (London: Faber and Faber, 1990), 158 and n., 5.

[5] Ronald Blythe, Aftermath: Selected Writings 1960-2010, edited by Peter Tolhurst (Norwich: Black Dog Books, 2010), 226.

[6] William Carlos Williams, The Autobiography of William Carlos Williams (New York: New Directions, 1967), 391; Selected Essays (New York: New Directions, 1969), 28.

[7] Gifford, Farther Shore, 10, 11.

[8] Alexandra Harris, Romantic Moderns: English Writers, Artists and the Imagination from Virginia Woolf to John Piper (London: Thames & Hudson 2010), 171, 173.