‘Every sort of faith’

Blake-wheel-of-fire

(William Blake, from Jerusalem)

In a letter to his publisher Ben Huebsch (11 May 1959) about his new novel, Riders in the Chariot (1961), Patrick White wrote: ‘What I want to emphasise through my four “Riders” – an orthodox refugee intellectual Jew, a mad Erdgeist [Earth spirit] of an Australian spinster, an evangelical laundress, and a half-caste aboriginal painter – is that all faiths, whether religious, humanistic, instinctive, or the creative artist’s act of praise, are in fact one.’[1]

‘Faith’ is a word that’s caught my attention recently: there have often been children’s chalked drawings on the paths of the park, which I find oddly heartening; but also small blue flags inscribed with pithy sayings, planted at various points beside the wide left-hand path and near the bases of trees, which I find a little less so.

‘Keep faith’, one of them advised. Yes, but in what, with what? For the religiously inclined, it’s probably clear enough, but for the rest of us? Faith—trust—in government or the existing financial and social systems or the quality of electoral choices has not been possible for quite some time. And I get the impression that the word itself is used less often now – less often than its opposite, surely.

Ernest_Dowson

(Ernest Dowson)

The poet Ernest Dowson was faithful to his Cynara ‘in my fashion’, unable to shake free of an obsessive love, though it was the prostitute he lay with ‘last night’ who prompted the comparison:

All night upon mine heart I felt her warm heart beat,
Night-long within mine arms in love and sleep she lay;
Surely the kisses of her bought red mouth were sweet;
But I was desolate and sick of an old passion,
When I awoke and found the dawn was grey:
I have been faithful to thee, Cynara! in my fashion.[2]

D. H. Lawrence’s The Rainbow was suppressed, prosecuted and banned in 1915. Seven years later, he was writing Kangaroo. There’s a moment in the later novel when Harriett Somers asks her husband Richard: “Who is there that you feel you are with, besides me—or who feel themselves with you?”

‘And at the same moment he looked up and saw the rainbow fume beyond the sea. But it was on a dark background like a coloured darkness. The rainbow was always a symbol to him—a good symbol: of this peace. A pledge of unbroken faith, between the universe and the innermost. And the very moment he said “No one,” he saw the rainbow for an answer.’[3]

Wright of Derby, Joseph, 1734-1797; Landscape with a Rainbow

(Joseph Wright of Derby, Landscape with a Rainbow: Derby Museum and Art Gallery)

Innermost. An adjective seemingly called into urgent Lawrentian service as a noun. Katherine Mansfield was thinking of action around then, writing to Middleton Murry from Menton in 1920 that she sometimes wondered whether ‘the act of surrender is not one of the greatest of all’, one of the most difficult. ‘Can it be accomplished or even apprehended except by the aristocrats of this world? You see its so immensely complicated. It “needs” real humility and at the same time an absolute belief in ones own essential freedom. It is an act of faith. At the last moments like all great acts it is pure risk. This is true for me as a human being and as a writer. Dear Heaven how hard it is to let go—to step into the blue.’[4]

Thomas Merton—poet, monk, writer on comparative religions—remarked in his journal (New York, May 30, 1940): ‘Instead of having faith, which is a virtue, and therefore nourishes the soul and gives it a healthy life, people merely have a lot of opinions, which excite the soul but don’t give it anything to feed it, just wear it out until it falls over from exhaustion.’[5]

By way of contrast, John Cowper Powys observed of his brother Llewellyn Powys:  ‘To be as certain as he was that there is no God and no immortality and no Moral Law, is, I think, a rarer human phenomenon than most of us realize. I take it that the normal human mood—it is certainly my own mood—is to alternate between faith shaken by rational doubts, and doubt shaken by irrational faith; in other words, to be an illusioned or disillusioned agnostic.’[6]

Rousseau, Henri, 1844-1910; Surprised!

(Henri Rousseau, Surprised! – National Gallery)

Guy Davenport argued that ‘[Henri] Rousseau and Flaubert simply record, and hold to a faith, wholly new in art, that the scene has its meaning inherent in it.’[7] Ford Madox Ford had also cited Flaubert when he touched on faith in an essay some seventy years earlier: ‘whatever the French school had or hadn’t, they had faith – the faith that, if they turned out good art, sociology and the rest would follow. That is what Flaubert meant when he said that if his countrymen had read L’Education Sentimentale France would have been spared the horrors of the débâcle.’[8]

Faith was an abiding, or at least recurrent, concern to Ford, not least because he was a Roman Catholic himself—converted in 1892, just before his nineteenth birthday—but also because several of his novels concerned the Tudor (the Fifth Queen trilogy) and Jacobean (The “Half-Moon”) periods, so such phrases as ‘the old faith’ and ‘the new faith’ crop up many times.

One early Ford poem was entitled ‘The Old Faith to the Converts’:

When the world is growing older,
And the road leads down and down and down,
And the wind is in the bare tree-tops
And the meadows sodden with much rain,
Seek me here in the old places,
And here, where I dwell, you shall find me,’
Says the old Faith we are leaving.[9]

In a more secular context, Ford would later assert: ‘I owe a great deal to Conrad. But most of all I owe to him that strong faith—that in our day and hour the writing of novels is the only pursuit worth while for a proper man.’[10]

Long after the end of the First World War and close to the beginning of a second, Ford wrote: ‘Faith, in short, died after the war—every sort of faith.’[11] And he repeated this to Henry Goddard Leach, editor of Forum and Century, in early 1938: ‘The War, that is to say, got rid of Faith, Loyalty, Courage and all the other big words as motives for human action….’[12]

Tonks, Henry, 1862-1937; An Underground Casualty Clearing Station, Arras

(Henry Tonks, An Underground Casualty Clearing Station, Arras: photo credit Imperial War Museum)

But perhaps Ford’s most memorable use of the word is in a fictional context, its import quite explicitly unclear to Christopher Tietjens, who is describing to his wife Sylvia his experiences in a Casualty Clearing Station after suffering the effects of a shell blast: ‘“but the fellow who was strangling me was what I wanted to tell you about. He let out a number of ear-piercing shrieks and lots of orderlies came and pulled him off me and sat all over him. Then he began to shout ‘Faith!’ He shouted: ‘Faith! … Faith! … Faith!…’ at intervals of two seconds, as far as I could tell by my pulse, until four in the morning, when he died…. I don’t know whether it was a religious exhortation or a woman’s name, but I disliked him a good deal because he started my tortures, such as they were. . . . There had been a girl I knew called Faith. Oh, not a love affair: the daughter of my father’s head gardener, a Scotsman. The point is that every time he said Faith I asked myself ‘Faith … Faith what?’ I couldn’t remember the name of my father’s head gardener.”’[13]

‘Faith what?’ It’s a good question. I imagine we each have our own answer.
Notes

[1] Patrick White, Letters, edited by David Marr (London: Jonathan Cape, 1994), 153.

[2] Dowson, ‘Non Sum Qualis Eram Bonae Sub Regno Cynarae’, in Ian Fletcher, editor, British Poetry and Prose, 1870-1905 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987), 377. The title, from Horace’s Odes, IV, translates as ‘I am not what once I was under kind/ Cynara’s reign.’

[3] D. H. Lawrence, Kangaroo, edited by Bruce Steele, with an introduction and notes by Mac Daly (Cambridge edition, 1994; London: Penguin, 1997), 155.

[4] Katherine Mansfield, Selected Letters, edited by Vincent O’Sullivan (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990), 186.

[5] Thomas Merton, A Secular Journal (London: Hollis & Carter, 1959), 58.

[6] John Cowper Powys, introduction to Llewellyn Powys, A Baker’s Dozen (1941; London: Village Press, 1974), 15.

[7] Davenport, ‘What Are These Monkeys Doing?’ in Every Force Evolves a Form (San Francisco: North Point Press, 1987), 20.

[8] Ford Madox Ford, ‘Literary Portraits – VII. Mr. Percival Gibbon and “The Second-Class Passenger’: Outlook, XXXII (25 October 1913), 571. The ‘débâcle’ is the Franco-Prussian war and the upheaval that immediately followed it.

[9] In Poems for Pictures and for Notes of Music (1900): Collected Poems (London: Max Goschen, 1913 [dated 1914]), 142.

[10] Ford Madox Ford, Return to Yesterday: Reminiscences 1894-1914 (London: Victor Gollancz, 1931), 185.

[11] Ford Madox Ford, Provence (London: Allen & Unwin, 1938), 315.

[12] Ford Madox Ford, Letters of Ford Madox Ford, edited by Richard M. Ludwig (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1965), 287.

[13] Ford Madox Ford, Some Do Not. . . (1924; edited by Max Saunders, Manchester: Carcanet Press, 2010), 210.

 

On not getting all the words back

Chimborazo-Guardian

(Chimborazo, Ecuador, via The Guardian)

In July 1919, Robert Graves wrote to Edmund Blunden, having been shown some of his published work by Siegfried Sassoon. Did Blunden have anything to offer for the Owl, the quarterly Graves was co-editing with W. J. Turner? Turner was the Australian-born poet and critic, best-remembered now, perhaps, for his poem ‘Romance’ (it begins: ‘When I was but thirteen or so/ I went into a golden land,/ Chimborazo, Cotopaxi/ Took me by the hand’).

Blunden sent several poems which Graves then forwarded to Turner to look at. ‘“Pan Grown Old” is my favourite’, Graves commented. ‘May I presume for a moment? Titles aren’t your strong suit. All this Pan business is played out anyway. Why not call it “A Country God” and remove that rather Unenglish “complex” from the reader’s eye?’[1]

‘All this Pan business’ had certainly been a significant cultural feature of the period before the First World War, in the work of E. M. Forster, D. H. Lawrence, Arthur Machen, Saki, Edgar Jepson, and in Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows, among others.[2] Blunden accepted the suggested change of title. The revised version of the poem published in the Owl was included in The Waggoner and other poems (1920). It begins:

When groping farms are lanterned up
And stolchy ploughlands hid in grief,
And glimmering byroads catch the drop
That weeps from sprawling twig and leaf,
And heavy-hearted spins the wind
Among the tattered flags of Mirth,—
Then who but I flit to and fro,
With shuddering speech, with mope and mow,
And glass the eyes of Earth?[3]

Longmuir, Alexander Davidson, c.1843-1891; Ploughing after a Shower

(Alexander Davidson Longmuir, Ploughing after a Shower: Aberdeen Art Gallery & Museums)

My eye is caught by ‘mope and mow’ mainly because it’s not ‘mop and mow’—Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable has ‘grimaces’, with a sidelong glance at the Dutch moppen, ‘to pout’—familiar to me from Ford Madox Ford’s books. ‘Mopping and mowing’ crops up in Violet Hunt’s The Last Ditch and a couple of times in Virginia Woolf’s Between the Acts. It occurs twice in Charlotte Bronte’s Villette too, and the note in my Oxford World’s Classics edition points to Shakespeare’s King Lear, though there (IV, i) it’s ‘mocking and mowing’ – as it is in Blunden’s ‘De Bello Germanico’.[4] Ford, and probably Violet Hunt, most likely took it from Christina Rossetti’s Goblin Market—‘Puffing and blowing,/ Chuckling, clapping, crowing,/ Clucking and gobbling,/ Mopping and mowing’—Rossetti being the nineteenth-century poet whom Ford most admired.[5]

Rossetti_goblin_market

My other eye is fixed on ‘stolchy’. In a remarkably detailed compendium of notes on The Lyttelton Hart-Davis Letters, George Lyttelton is quoted (1 March 1956) as having mentioned that the Oxford English Dictionary didn’t know about ‘stolchy’. Lyttelton copied the opening lines of Blunden’s poem into his commonplace book.
https://lyttelton-hart-davis.site123.me/

Elsewhere, a discussion of W. H. Auden’s habit of roaming through the OED for material has an example: “‘A Bad Night”, subtitled “A Lexical Exercise”, is an obvious example of a dictionary-inspired poem. It is crammed with words lifted from OED which, out of context, are virtually unintelligible: hirple, blouts, pirries, stolchy, glunch, sloomy, snudge, snoachy, scaddle etc.’
https://oed.hertford.ox.ac.uk/literary-sources/writers-and-dictionaries/auden-and-the-oed/

So ‘stolchy’ is there now, in the constantly-updated Oxford English Dictionary? I go online and look. Joseph Wright’s English Dialect Dictionary has it as a verb, ‘to tread down, trample, to walk in the dirt’; and a 1772 manual of husbandry, Ellis’s Practical Agriculture, Volume II, has the adjective. But no, it isn’t in the OED. Still, Wright, whose six-volume work appeared between 1898 and 1905, already has it as ‘obsolete’ then.

99t/47/huty/14061/41

(Robert Bridges via History Today)

Robert Bridges—then Poet Laureate and, famously, editor of the poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins—in a 1921 tract for the Society of Pure English, The Dialectical Words in Blunden’s Poems, remarked: ‘“Stolchy” is so good a word that it does not need a dictionary.’ Perhaps, to the modern ear, it’s close enough to ‘squelchy’ not to require further explanation but Blunden evidently felt that it had a quite specific application: perhaps ground not only wet but trodden down, usually by cattle, then subjected to still more rain. On the way back from seeing Armando Iannucci’s The Personal History of David Copperfield, the ground in the park was, hmm, stolchy; and there was, too, a bit in the film about dialect, usually humorous, and mainly in the mouth of James Steerforth.

Dialect—variations in speech peculiar to place or social group—is not archaism—language fallen out of current use—though the one can become the other. Ezra Pound remembered that, ‘when I was just trying to find and use modern speech, old Bridges carefully went through Personae and Exultations and commended every archaism (to my horror), exclaiming “We’ll git ’em all back; we’ll git ’em all back.”’[6]

He is there again in the Pisan Cantos:

“forloyn” said Mr Bridges (Robert)
“we’ll get ’em all back”
meaning archaic words (80/507)

Pound’s attitude towards such words, and those who used them, tended to fluctuate. Against his praise of Gabriele D’Annunzio, one might set Ford’s comments, as he traced what he saw as the decline of English poetry (while ‘what is wanted of a poet is that he should express his own thoughts in the language of his own time’): ‘The other day I was listening to an excellent Italian conférencier who assured an impressed audience that Signor D’Annunzio is the greatest Italian stylist there has ever been, since in his last book he has used over 2,017 obsolete words which cannot be understood by a modern Italian without the help of a medieval glossary.’[7]

Let’s not get them all back.

 
Notes

[1] Letter of 12 July 1919: Robert Graves, In Broken Images: Selected Letters of Robert Graves, 1914-1946, edited by Paul O’Prey (London: Hutchinson, 1982), 112, 113; Barry Webb, Edmund Blunden: A Biography (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1990), 114.

[2] See W. R. Irwin, ‘The Survival of Pan’, in PMLA, LXXVI, 3 (June 1961), 159-167.

[3] Edmund Blunden, ‘A Country God’, in Selected Poems, edited by Robyn Marsack (Manchester: Carcanet Press, 1993), 32-33.

[4] Charlotte Brontë, Villette, edited by Margaret Smith and Herbert Rosengarten (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990), 195, 300, 633n; Blunden, Fall In, Ghosts: Selected Prose, edited by Robyn Marsack (Manchester: Carcanet Press, 2014), 12.

[5] Though Ford also used ‘minced and mowed’ in The Fifth Queen (London: Penguin Books, 1999), 101; ‘mopped and mowed’ in A Man Could Stand Up— (1926; edited by Sara Haslam, Manchester: Carcanet Press, 2011), 68 and n., where other usages are detailed; and ‘miching and mowing’ in Provence (London: Allen & Unwin, 1938), 87 and Mightier Than the Sword (London: Allen and Unwin, 1938), 264, 265, 266.

[6] Ezra Pound, Selected Letters, 1907-1941, edited by D. D. Paige (New York: New Directions, 1971), 179.

[7] Ford Madox Ford, Ancient Lights and Certain New Reflections (London: Chapman and Hall, 1911), 52, 53.

 

Ditching

Richards, Albert, 1919-1945; Anti-Tank Ditch

(Albert Richards, Anti-Tank Ditch (1939): © Russell-Cotes Art Gallery & Museum)

In the last few years of my walking to work every day, it became almost as dangerous as crossing the roads. This was only partly to do with the chronic neglect of paths, pavements and walkways by the local council, financially starved as it was by central government; as much, or more, to do with the traffic on the pavement. Almost hit by heedless kids on scooters one morning, I was then almost hit by their mother, who was cycling briskly along the middle of the pavement. Then I had to avoid a small boy fiddling with some game and blind to the world. I remember thinking that it was hardly surprising if heedless kids raised by heedless adults turn into heedless adults themselves. But why, I wondered, sidestepping another heedless fool fiddling with his music selection, do more of these people not simply tumble into ditches? The answer, of course, is was that we have too few ditches. There is so much . . . material, of various kinds, that could be, that should be, tumbled into ditches. I thought then that one of my first reforms, when the time comes, will be to introduce far more ditches.

Old English, of Germanic origin, I gather, related to dyke and, more broadly, both to the trench and the mound of earth produced by the digging.

It was apparently Lord Curzon, ex-Viceroy of India, ‘surely one of the most brilliantly pompous men in England’, who said: ‘We will die in the last ditch before we give in’, when confronting the Parliament Bill which would lessen the power of the House of Lords. This was in May 1911, at the luncheon table of the splendidly-named Lord Willoughby de Broke, who, George Dangerfield commented in his classic The Strange Death of Liberal England, ‘had quite a gift for writing, thought clearly, and was not more than two hundred years behind his time.’[1] The Conservative party would soon divide into Ditchers and Hedgers, the hardliners who refused any compromise and the realists who believed that accepting some reform might avert or at least delay defeat.

A few years later, the narrator of Violet Hunt’s 1918 novel (with many details of interest for those readers closely acquainted with her lover, Ford Madox Ford) remarks: ‘For I suppose we aristocrats are, literally, in the Last Ditch!’[2]

Immodest-Violet

Ditches were on many people’s minds just then, not least those of the survivors of the Western Front. Eric Leed pointed out in his celebrated study No Man’s Land that the soldier was treated ‘as his society customarily treats a corpse – buried, forced to lie immobile in a pit or ditch.’ He is ‘identified with the earth, with pollution and corruption.’ He added that ‘The most unsettling feature of the landscape of war, for many combatants, lay in the constant transgression of those distinctions that preserve both order and cleanliness.’[3]

A hundred years on from the Great War, anyway, ditches are suddenly topical again. Our current Prime Minister, declining to return to Brussels to request an extension beyond 31 October of the United Kingdom’s exiting the European Union, said that he’d ‘rather be dead in a ditch.’ So, somewhere, a ditch is surely being prepared, or furnished or perhaps, as we say far too often these days, curated in readiness for that performance.

 
Notes

[1] George Dangerfield, The Strange Death of Liberal England (London: Constable, 1936), 43, 42. The title of his third chapter is ‘Their Lordships Die in the Dark’.

[2] Violet Hunt, The Last Ditch (London: Stanley Paul, 1918), 14.

[3] Eric J. Leed, No Man’s Land: Combat and Identity in World War I (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979), 17, 18.

 

Belief: a world of a word

Knox, Archibald, 1864-1933; 'In preachings of apostles faiths of confessors'

(Archibald Knox, ‘“In preachings of apostles faiths of confessors” (from Knox’s illuminated manuscript “The Deer’s Cry” or “Saint Patrick’s Hymn”’: Manx Museum, Douglas, Isle of Man)

Sitting before the evening news, the Librarian remarks that, if we’d been told ten or fifteen years ago that the world would be like this—the Artic and the Amazon forest on fire, the extreme Right resurgent in Europe again, the widespread mainstream dissemination of racist and supremacist views, this country’s prolonged and painful foundering, the President of the United States in a snit because he couldn’t buy another country and suggesting nuclear strikes to combat hurricanes—we wouldn’t have believed it.

Believe. What a world of a word. ‘I do not believe in Belief’, E. M. Forster wrote in his 1939 essay, ‘What I Believe’. And, ‘Faith, to my mind, is a stiffening process, a sort of mental starch, which ought to be applied as sparingly as possible. I dislike the stuff’.[1] I also own a curious volume called What I Believe, edited by Mark Booth, ‘curious’ not in its contributors (W. H. Auden, Albert Einstein, Jacques Maritain, Rebecca West, Bertrand Russell and, yes, Martin Sheen among them) but in its publishing history, issued in Britain by Firethorn Press, ‘an imprint of Waterstone and Company Limited’, of 193 Kensington High Street, London W8. A Waterstones branch is still at that address, thirty-five years on.

What-I-Believe

‘The brute necessity of believing something so long as life lasts does not justify any belief in particular’, George Santayana wrote.[2] And Shirley Jackson’s observation seems increasingly pertinent: ‘The question of belief is a curious one, partaking of the wonders of childhood and the blind hopefulness of the very old; in all the world there is not someone who does not believe something. It might be suggested, and not easily disproven that anything, no matter how exotic, can be believed by someone.’[3] These days, of course, that ‘anything’ is believed with greater volume and stridency.

T. S. Eliot famously declared of the essays in For Lancelot Andrewes: Essays on Style and Order, that: ‘The general point of view may be described as classicist in literature, royalist in politics, and anglo-catholic in religion.’[4] The previous year, he had published ‘A Note on Poetry and Belief’, responding to an essay by I. A. Richards: ‘But I cannot see that poetry can ever be separated from something which I should call belief, and to which I cannot see any reason for refusing the name of belief, unless we are to reshuffle names altogether.’[5] Responding to Eliot’s musing about what his friend ‘believed’, Ezra Pound recommended reading Confucius and Ovid, but advanced a few years later to a more precise statement: ‘I believe the Ta Hio.’[6] This—The Great Learning—became, some years later, Ta Hsio: The Great Digest, its most often quoted lines (certainly by me) perhaps: ‘Things have roots and branches; affairs have scopes and beginnings. To know what precedes and what follows, is nearly as good as having a head and feet.’[7]

Certain beliefs—and I pause on the ironic savour of the word ‘certain’ in this context—are, or have been, pretty well obligatory. Northrop Frye writes that: ‘The Christian mythology of the Middle Ages and later was a closed mythology, that is, a structure of belief, imposed by compulsion on everyone. As a structure of belief, the primary means of understanding it was rational and conceptual, and no poet, outside the Bible, was accorded the kind of authority that was given to the theologian. Romanticism, besides being a new mythology, also marks the beginning of an “open” attitude to mythology on the part of society, making mythology a structure of imagination, out of which beliefs come, rather than directly one of compulsory belief.’[8]

I recall, quite specifically, the moment in which I ceased to be a Christian believer, though I may not have then become a Romantic. It was a bright, dry Sunday morning in a village a few miles from Bath. I boarded at a nearby college, though continuing to attend school in the city and, every Sunday morning, the boarders were ferried by the college’s ramshackle coach to the village church. While I stood on the side of the hot road, that belief fell off me like a solid object, as though I’d dropped a stone or a coin, one I wouldn’t bend to pick up again.

‘Lord, I believe’, the father cries out in St Mark’s Gospel, ‘help thou mine unbelief’ (Mark 9: 24).

Palma il giovane, Jacopo, 1544/1548-1628; Saint Mark

(Jacopo Palma il giovane, Saint Mark: Hatton Gallery)

Anne Carson writes:

‘Where does unbelief begin?
When I was young

there were degrees of certainty.
I could say, Yes I know that I have two hands.
Then one day I awakened on a planet of people whose hands
occasionally disappear—’[9]

Religious belief clearly doesn’t require buildings and clerical collars. In Of Human Bondage, Somerset Maugham’s Norah tells Philip that she doesn’t believe in ‘churches and parsons and all that’ – but, she adds, ‘I believe in God, and I don’t believe He minds much about what you do as long as you keep your end up and help a lame dog over a stile when you can.’[10] There are, too, very individual manifestations of God. ‘Binding up these sheaves of oats’, Ronald Duncan wrote in his record of wartime smallholding, ‘I am certain I believe in oats. The stalks falling behind the cutter which we draw behind an old car, the monk binding methodically, the new members binding enthusiastically, women with coloured scarves round their heads are gleaning and one cannot glean ungracefully. If one cannot see God in an oatfield one will never see. For, here is the whole of it.’[11]

Palmer, Samuel, 1805-1881; The Gleaning Field

(Samuel Palmer, The Gleaning Field: Tate)

Kate Atkinson writes of Jackson Brodie in her recent novel: ‘He didn’t let the fact that he was brought up as a Catholic interfere with his beliefs.’[12] Beliefs or faith? In what I suspect has now become my favourite Penelope Fitzgerald novel, she writes of the feast of St Modestus, patron saint of printing, and the blessing of the ikons by the parish priest. ‘Because I don’t believe in this, Frank thought, that doesn’t mean it’s not true.’ Then: ‘Perhaps, Frank thought, I have faith, even if I have no beliefs.’[13]

As to the secular world, who can say? Faith in facts, in political systems, in international law, in human rights? Belief seems sometimes rampant, sometimes inert, stunned, left for dead. It’s a long time since Proust wrote: ‘Facts do not find their way into the world in which our beliefs reside; they did not produce our beliefs; they do not destroy them; they may inflict on them the most constant refutations without weakening them.’[14] Remembering the Queen’s Silver Jubilee, now more than forty years ago, Lavinia Greenlaw asserted that ‘England was no longer England, at least not the England it persisted in believing itself to be.’[15]

And now? Here we are. There they are. So I turn to the Librarian and say yes, I believe you’re right.

 

Notes

[1] E. M. Forster, Two Cheers for Democracy (London: Edward Arnold, 1951), 77.

[2] W. H. Auden and Louis Kronenberger, The Faber Book of Aphorisms: A Personal Selection (London: Faber and Faber, 1964), 334.

[3] Shirley Jackson, The Sundial (1958; London: Penguin, 2015), 33.

[4] T. S. Eliot, ‘Preface’, For Lancelot Andrewes: Essays on Style and Order (London: Faber and Gwyer, 1928), ix.

[5] T. S. Eliot, ‘A Note on Poetry and Belief’, The Enemy, 1 (January 1927) 15-17.

[6] Ezra Pound, ‘Credo’ (1930) in Selected Prose 1909-1965, edited by William Cookson (London: Faber and Faber, 1973), 53; ‘Date Line’ (1934) in Literary Essays of Ezra Pound, edited by T. S. Eliot (London: Faber and Faber, 1960), 86.

[7] Ezra Pound, Confucius. The Unwobbling Pivot; The Great Digest; The Analects (New York: New Directions, 1969), 29.

[8] Northrop Frye, A Study of English Romanticism (Brighton: The Harvester Press, 1983), 16

[9] Anne Carson, ‘The Glass Essay’ in Glass, Irony & God (New York: New Directions, 1995), 31.

[10] Somerset Maugham, Of Human Bondage (1915; Penguin Books, 1963), 318. Readers of Ford Madox Ford nod sagely at this point—‘I remember my grandfather laying down a rule of life for me. He said: “ Fordie, never refuse to help a lame dog over a stile.”’ See Ancient Lights and Certain New Reflections (London: Chapman and Hall, 1911), 197.

[11] Ronald Duncan, Journal of a Husbandman (London: Faber 1944), 52-53.

[12] Kate Atkinson, Big Sky (London: Transworld, 2019), 10.

[13] Penelope Fitzgerald, The Beginning of Spring (London: Everyman, 2003), 378.

[14] Marcel Proust, The Way by Swann’s, translated by Lydia Davis (London: Allen Lane, 2002), 149.

[15] Lavinia Greenlaw, The Importance of Music to Girls (London: Faber & Faber, 2017), 114.

Positive Blossoming

Blossom

A large bumble bee, having perhaps misread the calendar, veers about in our small garden. The plump, intellectually challenged grey cat, perched on a stone pillar, dabs in its general direction with an ineffectual paw. The grey cat is still in recovery mode, having all but fallen from the fence just now, scrabbling frantically, clutching and scraping, hauling itself back only to be plunged into embarrassment by finding me watching its antics from the kitchen table, where I sat over a fat volume.

‘“I’ve seen fire and I’ve seen rain,” I recall James Taylor singing over and over on the news radio station between updates on the 1978 Mandeville and Kanan fires, both of which started on October 23 of that year and could be seen burning toward each other, systematically wiping out large parts of Malibu and Pacific Palisades, from an upstairs window of my house in Brentwood.’[1]

Oddly, I’d been thinking of James Taylor myself the previous day, when I passed trees in the park already in blossom. I say ‘already’ but, if they were autumn cherry, they’d be blossoming fitfully from November to March. Almond blossom? Not sure.

Blossom, anyway. Meteorologically, spring has started, psychologically not so much, though, when the breeze quickens and becomes something else, the Romantics among us murmur: ‘O, Wind,/ If Winter comes/ Can Spring be far behind?’[2]

Sweet-baby-James

James Taylor’s ‘Blossom’ was the second track on the second side of his second album, Sweet Baby James, melodic and, as they say, reassuringly unthreatening, though not without its darker tints. It’s one of two tracks on the album—the other was ‘Country Road’—on which Randy Meisner, founder member of The Eagles, played bass.

The word ‘blossom’ is one of those whose syllables seem to act out the actions and qualities associated with it. Ivor Gurney wrote of his beloved Gloucestershire, ‘where Spring sends greetings before other less happy counties have forgotten Winter and the snow. Where the talk is men’s talk, and eyes of folk are as soft as the kind airs. The best roads in England, the finest cider, the richest blossom in the most magical orchards, beauty content in security, strength quiet in confidence controlled, blood mixed of plain and hill, Welsh and English; are not these only of my county, my home?’ Though he added—he was writing to Marion Scott from near Tidworth in March 1916—‘And yet were I there the canker in my soul would taint all these.’[3]

Blossom fits with sweet reasonableness into contexts of ironic undercurrent and ambiguity, say, the final stanza of Henry Reed’s ‘Naming of Parts’:

They call it easing the Spring: it is perfectly easy
If you have any strength in your thumb: like the bolt,
And the breech, and the cocking-piece, and the point of balance,
Which in our case we have not got; and the almond-blossom
Silent in all of the gardens and the bees going backwards and forwards,
For today we have naming of parts.[4]

And here is the narrator of V. S. Naipaul’s The Enigma of Arrival, blossom a part of his learning to read the English landscape and its complicated history:

‘When I grew to see the wild roses and hawthorn on my walk, I didn’t see the windbreak they grew beside as a sign of the big landowners who had left their mark on the solitude, had preserved it, had planted the woods in certain places (in imitation, it was said, of the positions at the battle of Trafalgar – or was it Waterloo?), I didn’t think of the landowners. My mood was purer: I thought of these single-petalled roses and sweet-smelling blossom at the side of the road as wild and natural growths.’[5]

Brett, Dorothy Eugenie, 1883-1977; D. H. Lawrence

Dorothy Brett, D. H. Lawrence
© National Portrait Gallery, London. Photo credit: National Portrait Gallery, London

For D. H. Lawrence, it seems a symbol of a stage on the road to moral growth: ‘You have to suffer before you blossom in this life’, Lettie tells George in The White Peacock. ‘When death is just touching a plant, it forces it into a passion of flowering.’[6] His short story, ‘The Last Laugh’, centring on an encounter with Pan ends with a faint scent of almond blossom in the air[7]—and Pan is not only a recurrent element in Lawrence’s work but crops up all over the place at that time: from E. M. Forster to The Wind in the Willows. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, what Lawrence sees as our separation from the natural world finds blossom on the casualty list as he gets into his stride in the last year of his life:

‘Sex is the balance of male and female in the universe, the attraction, the repulsion, the transit of neutrality, the new attraction, the new repulsion, always different, always new. The long neuter spell of Lent, when the blood is low, and the delight of the Easter kiss, the sexual revel of spring, the passion of midsummer, the slow recoil, revolt, and grief of autumn, greyness again, then the sharp stimulus of winter, of the long nights. Sex goes through the rhythm of the year, in man and woman, ceaselessly changing: the rhythm of the sun in his relation to the earth.’ [ . . . ] This is what is the matter with us. We are bleeding at the roots, because we are cut off from the earth and sun and stars, and love is a grinning mockery, because, poor blossom, we plucked it from its stem on the tree of Life, and expected it to keep on blooming in our civilised vase on the table.’[8]

Cherry-Blossom-Japan-Guide

(Via www.japan-guide.com )

When it comes to national obsessions, some Western countries might do better to look to Japan: ‘Residents of Kochi Prefecture in the Shikoku region will be the first to see cherry blossoms of the Somei-Yoshino tree this year, as early as March 18, according to a forecast by an Osaka-based meteorological company that predicts Japan’s iconic sakura may bloom earlier than usual’, the Japan Times reported:
https://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2019/01/15/national/cherry-blossoms-across-japan-forecast-arrive-earlier-usual-2019/#.XH-WyFP7RQM

I don’t pitch my own interest and enthusiasm quite that high but I’ll still lean towards the positive side: new growth, new life, new beauty. Some news as good news. ‘The positive side’—here, now, England, March 2019.

Remarkable.

 
References

[1] Joan Didion, ‘Fire Season’, in We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Live: Collected Nonfiction (New York: Knopf, 2006), 656.

[2] Percy Bysshe Shelley, ‘Ode to the West Wind’, The Complete Poetical Works of Percy Bysshe Shelley, edited by Thomas Hutchinson (London: Oxford University Press, 1909), 574.

[3] Ivor Gurney, Collected Letters, edited by R. K. R. Thornton (Mid Northumberland Arts Group & Carcanet Press 1991), 75.

[4] Henry Reed, ‘Naming of Parts’, in Collected Poems (Manchester: Carcanet Press, 2007), 49.

[5] V. S. Naipaul, The Enigma of Arrival: A Novel in Five Sections (1987; London: Pan McMillan, 2002), 20.

[6] D. H. Lawrence, The White Peacock (1911; Cambridge University Press, edited by Andrew Robertson, Cambridge 1983), 28.

[7] D. H. Lawrence, ‘The Last Laugh’, in The Collected Short Stories of D. H. Lawrence (London: William Heinemann, 1974), 587-602.

[8] D. H. Lawrence, ‘A Propos of “Lady Chatterley’s Lover”, in Phoenix II: Uncollected, Unpublished and Other Prose Works by D. H. Lawrence, Collected and Edited with an Introduction and Notes by Warren Roberts and Harry T. Moore (London: William Heinemann, 1968), 504.

 

Owl’s Eyes

Owls

My daughter’s flight from Barcelona, due late in the evening, is delayed by two hours, so I sit up, well beyond my usual bedtime. ‘Night-owl’, people used to say, certainly my mother used to say, of those who kept late hours, though Edward Hopper’s famous 1942 painting of four people in a diner keeping very late hours, ‘the classic film noir Hopper’, as Robert Hughes calls it, is entitled Nighthawks.[1]

Nighthawks

(Edward Hopper, Nighthawks: The Art Institute of Chicago; Friends of American Art Collection)

Owls, though, I associate with at least three firsts in my life: in the pages of the brief travel journal I kept on my first trip to Greece some twenty years ago, I see several mentions of the call of the Scops owl, the Eurasian (or Common) Scops owl, known to a generation of young (and older) readers of J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books because Ron Weasley’s owl is a Scops. Similar in some ways to a Scops and, apparently, sometimes mistaken for it, is the Little Owl, Athene noctua, sacred owl of Athena. The goddess with the grey eyes, she was traditionally described as. When James Joyce talked to Sylvia Beach of his eye problems and mentioned glaucoma, Beach remembered: ‘It was the first time I had ever heard of this disease, with its beautiful name. “The gray owl eyes of Athena,” said Joyce.’[2] So said the author of Ulysses but, apparently, while Homer uses the word for an ‘owl’ (skops) only once, glaukopis—derived from glaux, the generic term for ‘owl’—occurs some ninety times in his work. It may have meant ‘sharp-eyed’ or ‘with gleaming eyes’.[3]

SB-JJ

(Sylvia Beach and James Joyce via The Washington Times)

I was working on my thesis when my supervisor, the poet Charles Tomlinson, mentioned in conversation that John Ruskin had discussed the meaning of glaukopis in a book called The Queen of the Air (1869). ‘In her prudence, or sight in darkness, she is “Glaukopis,” owl-eyed’, he wrote of Athena. And a little later, Glaukopis ‘chiefly means grey-eyed: grey standing for a pale or luminous blue; but it only means “owl-eyed” in thought of the roundness and expansion, not from the colour; this breadth and brightness being, again, in their moral sense, typical of the breadth, intensity, and singleness of the sight in prudence’.[4]

I’d been reading Ezra Pound on Allen Upward and the pages to which Charles had directed me evolved into a large part of my first published essay.[5] Upward regarded with a severely critical eye the attempts of scholars thus far ‘to understand the word glaukopis, given to the goddess Athene. Did it mean blue-eyed, or gray-eyed, or—by the aid of Sanskrit—merely glare-eyed? And all the time they had not only the word glaux staring them in the face, as the Athenian name for owl, and the name of ox-eyed Hera to guide them, but they had the owl itself cut at the foot of every statue of Athene, and stamped on every coin of Athens, to tell them that she was the owl-eyed goddess, the lightning that blinks like an owl. For what is characteristic of the owl’s eyes is not that they glare, but that they suddenly leave off glaring, like lighthouses whose light is shut off. We may see the shutter of the lightning in that mask that overhangs Athene’s brow, and hear its click in the word glaukos. And the leafage of the olive, whose writhen trunk bears, as it were, the lightning’s brand, does not glare, but glitters, the pale under face of the leaves alternating with the dark upper face, and so the olive is Athene’s tree, and is called glaukos. Why need we carry owls to Oxford?’[6] (The many owls that were in Athens gave rise to the saying, ‘To bring owls to Athens’, an early forerunner of the English phrase, ‘to take coals to Newcastle’.)

Athenes-Owl

The novelist Violet Hunt, who often received Ezra Pound at South Lodge, her home on Campden Hill Road, had an owl named Ann Veronica, after the novel by H. G. Wells, ‘a very pretty little owl’ but—‘She died untimely.’[7] The owl was part of a menagerie that included a bulldog, nine Persian cats, and several parrots that ‘shrieked “Ezra! Ezra!” whenever they saw him bouncing up the walk.’[8] Hunt’s partner for a decade was, of course, Ford Madox Ford, the other main focus of my research: the rest of my essay linked Upward and his double vortex, or waterspout, with Ford’s 1913 novel The Young Lovell. Ford published almost eighty books in his lifetime but the first of them all was a fairy tale called The Brown Owl, its frontispiece created by his grandfather, the painter Ford Madox Brown.

Brown_Owl_FMB

The mountains being so tall
And forcing the town on the river,
The market’s so small
That, with the wet cobbles, dark arches and all,
The owls
(For in dark rainy weather the owls fly out
Well before four), so the owls
In the gloom
Have too little room
And brush by the saint on the fountain
In veering about.[9]

 
References

[1] Robert Hughes, American Visions: The Epic History of Art in America (London: The Harvill Press, 1997), 427.

[2] Sylvia Beach, Shakespeare and Company, new edition (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1991), 39.

[3] Michael Ferber, A Dictionary of Literary Symbols (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), 146. Liddell and Scott’s Greek Lexicon has ‘epithet of Minerva’—Roman goddess identified with Greek Athene—‘with gleaming eyes’.

[4] The Works of John Ruskin, Library Edition, Volume XIX: The Cestus of Aglaia and The Queen of the Air with Other Papers and Lectures on Art and Literature, 1860–1870, edited by E. T. Cook and Alexander Wedderburn (London: George Allen, 1905), 306, 381.

[5] Paul Skinner, ‘Of Owls and Waterspouts’, Paideuma, 17, 1 (Spring 1988), 59-68.

[6] Allen Upward, The New Word: An Open Letter addressed to the Swedish Academy in Stockholm on the meaning of the word IDEALIST (New York: Mitchell Kennerley, 1910), 238.

[7] Violet Hunt, The Flurried Years (London: Hurst and Blackett, 1926), 109.

[8] Barbara Belford, Violet: The Story of the Irrepressible Violet Hunt and her Circle of Lovers and Friends—Ford Madox Ford, H. G. Wells, Somerset Maugham, and Henry James (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1990), 166-167.

[9] Ford Madox Ford, ‘In the Little Old Market-place’, Selected Poems, edited and introduced by Max Saunders (Manchester: Carcanet Press, 1997), 68.

 

Sargent, Lavishness, Girls and Herrings

Vernon Lee 1881 by John Singer Sargent 1856-1925

(John Singer Sargent, Vernon Lee, 1881, Tate Gallery)

John Singer Sargent: American; born on 12 January 1856 in Florence; later lived in Paris and London, where he died in 1925. The novelist James Salter once told an interviewer: ‘Someone said that I write the way Sargent painted. Sargent based his style on direct observation and an economical use of paint—which is close to my own method.’[1]

Two of my strong likings may connect then, Sargent’s pictures and Salter’s prose. I have hugely pleasurable memories of the 2015 John Singer Sargent show at the National Portrait Gallery, Sargent: Portraits of Artists and Friends. Reviewing that show, Jackie Wullschlager wrote in the Financial Times that: ‘Virtuosity made Sargent’s fortune, but his formal portraiture, its grand manner and lavish brushwork derived from Velázquez and Frans Hals, never fully persuaded critical opinion.’

sargents

http://www.npg.org.uk/whatson/sargent/home.php

I do recall that a few of the more formal portraits– mainly of American sitters – worked less well, when there seemed less reciprocal current between artist and subject. But the vast majority were superbly successful. When there are fewer restraints on what Sargent is obliged or moved to do, the technical mastery that is always there soars and sweeps. There are wonderful details, a finger, a buttonhole, the faintest touch of whiteness on a lip, and moments of dizzying poise as the brushstrokes, never losing their hold on the recognised and recognisable world, edge towards abstraction, in parts, fluid and swift.

Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose 1885-6 by John Singer Sargent 1856-1925

(John Singer Sargent, Carnation-Lily-Lily-Rose: Tate Britain)

Here are some lines from Hart Crane:

A goose, tobacco and cologne—
Three winged and gold-shod prophecies of heaven,
The lavish heart shall always have to leaven
And spread with bells and voices, and atone
The abating shadows of our conscript dust.[2]

hart-crane

Hmm, never a quick read. Or should it be? How to read. An Ezra Pound title. How to read Ezra Pound? For Hugh Kenner, that question was illuminated by hearing Pound talk, the speed (or slowness) and rhythms of his speech. Donald Davie wrote of reading the Cantos at two speeds, once fast and once slow: ‘so the verse-lines of the Cantos have to be read fast for their meanings, but slow for their sounds’.[3] That’s probably how best to read Ulysses too: once at a canter, not worrying about every word or phrase, just gorging on the language and laughing a lot. Then roll your sleeves up.

‘The lavish heart’, though. Lavish brushwork, lavish heart.

There used to be a regular feature in – was it The Guardian? – in which some notable person would be presented with a list of questions, one of which was ‘What is your favourite word?’ I used to run idly over a number of possibilities. My words of the moment varied, of course: resonance, tessellated, desolation, susurrate, imago, though I liked, always, the word ‘girl’, which I knew wouldn’t do at all, being immediately suspect in the twenty-first century, not to mention a chunk of the twentieth, though it seems to recur now in every other new book title.

Another choice for me would be ‘lavish’. ‘Après mot le deluge’, in James Joyce’s little poem for his friend Eugene Jolas, fits this, the old French lavasse meaning deluge of rain, the Latin lavare meaning to wash. Outpouring, then, but always with the sense of profusion, extravagance, overabundance. It also has a couple of positive literary links for me. First is Louis MacNeice’s wonderful ‘Bagpipe Music’, which I have, once again, managed to commit to memory (I think), having mislaid a few lines for a while:

Willie Murray cut his thumb, couldn’t count the damage,
Took the hide of an Ayrshire cow and used it as a bandage.
His brother caught three hundred cran when the seas were lavish,
Threw the bleeders back in the sea and went upon the parish.

Farquharson, David, 1839-1907; The Herring Fleet Leaving the Dee, Aberdeen

(David Farquharson, The Herring Fleet Leaving the Dee, Aberdeen: Aberdeen Art Gallery & Museums)

‘Cran’ refers, apparently, to a measure of capacity for herrings just landed in port. Chambers Dictionary (of Edinburgh) specifies 37½ gallons, wonderfully specific. I assume this is because that, in turn, equals 300 pints.

Second is the phrase that William Maxwell employs in the introduction to his edition of Sylvia Townsend Warner’s Letters, and which, in turn, provides the title of Michael Steinman’s edition of the letters between Warner and Maxwell: The Element of Lavishness. ‘The personal correspondence of writers feeds on left-over energy,’ Maxwell noted. ‘There is also the element of lavishness, of enjoying the fact that they are throwing away one of their better efforts, for the chances of any given letter’s surviving are fifty-fifty, at most. And there is the element of confidence–of the relaxed backhand stroke that can place the ball anywhere in the court that it pleases the writer to have it go.’

element-of-lavishness

This is still high among my favourite volumes of letters between two writers (along with Warner–Garnett, Maxwell–Welty, Garnett–White and even Davenport–Laughlin or Salter–Phelps, though completion of the Davenport-Kenner correspondence may shake up the league table). Warner to Maxwell, 4 October 1953: ‘My old friend, Jane Ann, died the week before, all in a flash, and though death cannot close an inn when there is not another within sixteen miles of it, I rang up her brother thinking I would put off, and only changed my mind when he said, She had everything planned for you. So not to go there would have been an impiety. Life has never seemed such a fleeting thing as it did in that house, the same chairs, the same cut glass dishes, the stuffed fox and the prize curling-stone in their old place, the same brand of matches in the bedroom candlesticks, the same voices in the tap-room, the same smell in the early morning of the hills and the river outside and porridge cooking inside. Everything was so familiar, I might have been dead myself.’

And once more, 26 March 1971: ‘I hope your cold is better and the kettle put by –though I have nothing against kettles. I remember many happy days with them in my childhood, with my father coming with story-books & champagne. Champagne for everything above the waist, brandy for anything below it, was the medicinal way; and I am still a credit to his theory.’[4]

An element of lavishness indeed.

 

References

[1] Salter, interview with Edward Hirsch, Paris Review, 127 (Summer 1993).

[2] Hart Crane, ‘For the Marriage of Faustus and Helen’, Complete Poems and Selected Letters, edited by Langdon Hammer (New York: Library of America, 2006), 23.

[3] Hugh Kenner, ‘Retrospect: 1985’, in The Poetry of Ezra Pound (1951; Lincoln, University of Nebraska Press, 1985), 3-4; Davie, Pound (London: Fontana, 1975), 90.

[4] William Maxwell, ‘Introduction’ to Sylvia Townsend Warner, Letters  (London: Chatto & Windus, 1982), viii; Michael Steinman, editor, The Element of Lavishness: Letters of Sylvia Townsend Warner and William Maxwell, 1938-1978 (Washington: Counterpoint, 2001), 44, 219.