Perversity, perhaps

(Francis Carco; Jean Rhys)

In ‘A Feeling for Ice’, Jenny Diski describes the moment in her trip to Antarctica when the ship approaches St Andrew’s Bay, ‘the great penguin treat of the trip.’ She notes the ‘legion of black faces and orange beaks pointed out to sea facing in our direction, seeming to observe our arrival.’

‘One day, once a year or so, black rubber dinghies approach, and a handful of people come to the Bay, believing that the penguins are watching them arrive. For the penguins, it’s just another day of standing and staring. They parted slightly to make way for us, but they still stood looking out to sea.’[1]

Looking out to sea, looking in to see. Out there, of course, the days go by, sometimes galloping, sometimes on hands and knees – but generally not hanging around. ‘Time is different at different times in one’s life’, Doris Lessing observed. ‘A year in your thirties is much shorter than a child’s year – which is almost endless – but long compared with a year in your forties; whereas a year in your seventies is a mere blink.’[2]

(Photography by Edward Curtis)

Yes, those earlier days are denser, more numerous. There was a time in the United States when the buffalo numbered tens of millions; by the late nineteenth century, they could be counted in hundreds. In 1849, Francis Parkman had observed of the Western Dakota that the buffalo ‘supplies them with almost all the necessaries of life’, adding: ‘When the buffalo are extinct, they too must dwindle away.’[3] Peter Benson’s Isabel’s Skin is not upbeat on the matter of days— ‘Days come and days pass, and it is too easy to think you know what happened. People change and you think you knew who they were, who you were and how you reached the place you find yourself in, but you know nothing’—but more so when it comes to books, which ‘sleep, awake, open, and sometimes even change a life. They move like herds of animals across dust plains and leave clouds in the sky.’[4]

Red letter days, black letter days, some anonymous, some named. Last Friday was my mother’s one hundredth birthday – or would have been had she hung on just seven more years. When she had trouble recalling which day of the week it was, we hung a calendar on her wall. Now, since I retired, I can usually answer a query of that kind correctly – as long as I don’t have to give too snappy a response.

Named days. On All Hallows’ Eve, and on All Saints’ Day—I suspect that they won’t be marching in, and certainly not here—we walked between the showers, often accompanied by a furious wind as we began the long circuit of the cemetery. Then a few days of wetter weather, the grass of the park beginning to feel spongy, never quite drying out. And this morning a misleading blaze of blue through almost leafless branches at the back of the house where the tortoiseshell cat high-steps along our fence.


‘How odd Memory is – in her sorting arrangements’, the narrator of Walter de la Mare’s unsettling story ‘All Hallows’ remarks, ‘How perverse her pigeon-holes.’[5]

Perverse! The very word is like a bell, tolling me back. . . Well, here’s Guy Davenport, admirer of—and expert on—Ezra Pound’s poetry: ‘Pound’s strategy in choosing the materia and dynamics for The Cantos is at least consistent: reduced to a law it is this: In every subject to be treated, choose the matter which most perversely exemplifies it.’ He adds that it’s a good rule for a poet determined to be original. ‘When, however, the rule tyrannizes its manipulator, its perversity ceases to be strategic, and much in the poem that rings false can be traced to this simple rule.’[6]

Patrick White has a character resolving a theological dispute: ‘Then the old man, who had been cornered long enough [by the young evangelist], saw, through perversity perhaps, but with his own eyes. He was illuminated.  
‘He pointed with his stick at the gob of spittle.  
‘“That is God,” he said.’[7]

Still, the word’s primary nudge, for a Ford Madox Ford reader, is towards Perversité by Francis Carco or, rather, the vexed history of its translation. Carco was a poet, dramatist and novelist, and a pilot during the First World War, when he had an affair with Katherine Mansfield, who stayed with him in the spring of 1915 and drew on that time for at least two of her stories, one of them Je ne parle pas français.

Ford’s affair with Jean Rhys had various consequences for both parties: one of them was his securing for Rhys the job of translating Carco’s novel. As Carole Angier records, ‘This last kindness Ford had done her ended no better than the others: for when Perversity was published in 1928, the translation was credited not to Jean but to Ford. She was angry and upset about this for a long time, convinced that once again he had deliberately exploited and betrayed her. In fact, in this affair she hadn’t been Ford’s victim but that of the publisher, Pascal Covici. Ford had clearly named her as translator from the start, both to Covici and to others; but Covici had evidently decided that the book would sell better with Ford’s name on it.’[8]

Rhys’s own version, nearly forty years after its publication, emerged in a letter to Francis Wyndham, to whom she mentioned that she’d received a letter from Arthur Mizener, asking if she had any letters from Ford—which Cornell University would willingly buy—and also about the translation of Perversité. ‘I did that ages ago’, Rhys wrote to Wyndham, ‘and when it appeared my agent wrote to ask about it, for I hadn’t been told that I was “ghosting”. It was Covici the publisher’s fault, and I know Ford did his best to put things right. Then the book was banned and I heard no more about it. Mr Mizener said that a lot of ink had been spilled, which surprised me, for several people knew I was doing it at the time. I wasn’t very pleased with the translation for it had to be done in a hurry and there was a good deal of slang.’[9]


Arthur Mizener—not in person but by way of his biography of Ford—cropped up in a recent walk. Conversation with the Librarian in parks and cemeteries tends to begin with—or recur to—those perennial themes and questions: is this the worst government that either of us can remember? Yes. How was it news to so many people that the present administration is thoroughly corrupt? Don’t know. Can the country ever recover from the damage they’ve done, are doing, will continue to do to it? Probably not. But then there are trees, birds, other people, weather, food, wine and books.

On this occasion, I rambled on for a while about Arthur Mizener’s biography of Ford, which I’d been re-reading. Although frequently assailed by anecdotes, alleged insights, snippets of research and the like, the Librarian’s interest in Ford is primarily, let’s say, by association, though she was getting along swimmingly with Parade’s End until she reached the final volume, Last Post – the one I edited, of course. Still, the fresh air, the surroundings, the rhythm of walking, together fostered a tolerant attention, so I rattled on.

Fordians tend to have a problem with Mizener. He did a lot of research and produced a great deal of valuable information – but ended up not liking Ford very much, often put the worst possible construction on his actions and reactions, and rarely believed a word he said. But what had struck me on reading the book again after a long hiatus was that Mizener seemed unfamiliar with what a novelist actually does—and, in fact, what anybody does to a greater or lesser degree. When he pointed out, rather censoriously, Ford’s recasting of experiences, rearranging the elements of a story, lightening or darkening materials, retelling an anecdote with variations, I found myself pencilling in the margins ‘But – Art!’ or ‘Fiction! Fiction!’ or silently shouting: That’s his job! or He’s a writer! or even (appallingly appropriative, I know) Me too!

None of which, obviously, will prevent my snaffling whatever useful details I can glean for my own purposes from his—or, indeed, anybody else’s—endnotes.

Not to do so would be sheer perversité.


Notes

[1] Jenny Diski, Why Didn’t You Just Do What You Were Told? (London: Bloomsbury, 2020), 103, 104. The essay was first published in January 1997.

[2] Doris Lessing, Walking in the Shade (1997; London: Fourth Estate, 2013), 32-33.

[3] Francis Parkman, The Oregon Trail (1849; edited by David Levin, Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1982), 199.

[4] Peter Benson, Isabel’s Skin (Richmond: Alma Books, 2013), 19, 123.

[5] Walter de la Mare, Short Stories, 1895-1926, edited by Giles de la Mare (London: Giles de la Mare Publishers Limited, 1996), 339.

[6] Guy Davenport, Cities on Hills: A Study of I–XXX of Ezra Pound’s Cantos (Ann Arbor, Michigan: UMI Research Press, 1983), 257. The book was a revision of Davenport’s 1961 PhD thesis.

[7] Patrick White, The Tree of Man (1955; Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1961), 476.

[8] Carole Angier, Jean Rhys: Life and Work (London: Andre Deutsch, 1990), 164.

[9] Rhys to to Wyndham, 28 January [1966]: Jean Rhys: Letters, 1931-1966, edited by Francis Wyndham and Diana Melly (London: André Deutsch, 1984), 294-295.

Scholars and other fungi

(John Wainwright, Still Life with Mushrooms, Calderdale Metropolitan Borough Council)

Browsing the latest issue of the London Review of Books, I came across this, in Colin Burrow’s notice of the new Christopher Ricks book, Along Heroic Lines: ‘The line between seeing things (in the sense of observing things which are there) and seeing things (in the sense of imagining things which are not there) is a finer one in literary criticism than it is in life in general.’[1]

I was drafting a piece the other day that took off from the word ‘scholar’ (but also the word ‘mushrooms’)’, before realising that I would be straying into areas more thoroughly covered in the next issue of Last Post: A Literary Journal from the Ford Madox Ford Society – so desisted. 

Still, that talk of ‘lines’ recalled the toothsome passage from Anne Carson that I’d previously turned up: ‘A scholar is someone who takes a position. From which position, certain lines become visible. You will at first think I am painting the lines myself; it’s not so. I merely know where to stand to see the lines that are there. And the mysterious thing, it is a very mysterious thing, is how these lines do paint themselves. Before there were any edges or angles or virtue—who was there to ask the questions? Well, let’s not get carried away with exegesis. A scholar is someone who knows how to limit himself to the matter at hand.’[2]

I’m not sure that Dominick Medina, in John Buchan’s The Three Hostages, can be said to do that. ‘“He is a deity of les jeunes and a hardy innovator”, MacGillivray says. “Jolly good, too. The man’s a fine classical scholar.”’ But the matter in hand for Medina—‘an Irish patriot crossed with a modern poet—a modern poet who resembles a cross between A. E. Housman and T. S. Eliot rather more than he resembles W. B. Yeats’—is his role as the villain of the novel, which keeps him pretty busy.[3] Rudyard Kipling—no mean Latinist himself, with a lifelong devotion to Horace—suggested that:  ‘One learns more from a good scholar in a rage than from a score of lucid and laborious drudges’.[4]

(A few Buchan books)

Tricky word, ’scholar’ – at one time, it was often understood to mean simply someone who could read and write – which may bring to mind the famous, or infamous, lines from William Butler Yeats:

Bald heads forgetful of their sins,
Old, learned, respectable bald heads
Edit and annotate the lines
That young men, tossing on their beds,

Rhymed out in love’s despair
To flatter beauty’s ignorant ear.

They’ll cough in the ink to the world’s end;
Wear out the carpet with their shoes
Earning respect; have no strange friend;
If they have sinned nobody knows.
Lord, what would they say
Should their Catullus walk that way?[5]

Others are more generous or, at least, discriminating. The narrator of Jane Gardam’s Crusoe’s Daughter remembers of her teenage self: ‘I could understand the whole of Middlemarch. The passion for a scholar. It was a bit like Jo marrying Dr Bhaer in Little Women: you felt sick about it, but you understood.’[6]

Now that is certainly recognisable – feeling sick about things but understanding: more or less a basic requirement these days, to be sure. And it occurs to me that there are aspects of the scholarly life which are insufficiently appreciated. Reading the second volume of Simone de Beauvoir’s autobiography, I learned that, through her acquaintance with Michel Collinet, whom she met in Rouen, she discovered that André Gide ‘was a highly skilled performer with a yo-yo. This was the current craze and extraordinarily popular. People walked down the streets yo-yo in hand, and Sartre practised from morning to night, with sombre perseverance.’[7] I found this oddly cheering. Between being and nothingness lies – the yo-yo.

(Simone de Beauvoir via the New York Times)

Ford scholars hold at arm’s length the suspicion – the conviction? – that our man would recoil in horror from our activities. They may also, of course, recall Ford’s famous remarks on Impressionism, ‘which exists to render those queer effects of real life that are like so many views seen through bright glass—through glass so bright that whilst you perceive through it a landscape or a backyard, you are aware that, on its surface, it reflects a face of a person behind you. For the whole of life is really like that; we are almost always in one place with our minds somewhere quite other.’[8]

That is, we can see and take note of that – probable – unease, while also looking through it and beyond it, to the greater good, the promised land of complete and annotated Ford Madox Ford. You’ll love it when it’s finished, Fordie! You have our word. . .

In the meantime, scholars on mushrooms (and more)! See Last Post, issue 5 (due soon).

Notes

[1] Colin Burrow, ‘Ti tum ti tum ti tum”, London Review of Books, 43, 19 (7 October 2021), 10.

[2] Anne Carson, ‘The life of towns: Introduction’, in Plainwater: Essays and Poetry New York: Vintage, 2000), 93.

[3] John Buchan, The Three Hostages (1924; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995), 51; Karl Miller, ‘Introduction’, x. Medina is in the western part of Saudi Arabia; its ‘Prophet’s Mosque’ is a major Islamic pilgrimage site. The word itself is Arabic for ‘town’ and often refers to the ancient native quarter in North African cities, usually a walled area with many narrow streets.

[4] Rudyard Kipling, Something of Myself (1937; London: Penguin Books, 1987), 51.

[5] W. B. Yeats, ‘The Scholars’ (1915): The Poems, edited by Daniel Albright (London: Everyman, 1994), 190, and see notes, 563-564.

[6] Jane Gardam, Crusoe’s Daughter (1985; London: Abacus, 2012), 79.

[7] Simone de Beauvoir, The Prime of Life, translated by Peter Green (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1965), 120.

[8] Ford Madox Ford, Critical Writings, edited by Frank MacShane (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1964), 41.

Lesson one, lessen won

 (Alfred Sisley, The Bell Tower at Noisy-le-Roi, Autumn’: The Burrell Collection)

In the absence of coherent or effective guidance from government, people are edging back to offices, often cautiously or tentatively, not knowing what to expect, what is expected of them or how others will behave. The Librarian also ventures in, for the first time in eighteen months, to explore the lay of the land.

‘I think that’s “lie of the land”’, I say.

She thinks not. Naturally, having an iPad to hand, she looks the phrase up and begins reading: the current situation, the features of an area. Yes, yes. She gets to ‘North American: lay’ and I make a gesture intended to signify that I rest my case. It means the same thing, she explains, while I point out that we are not North American but English.

‘I’m receptive and welcoming to other cultures’, the Librarian remarks, clearly regarding this as a knockout blow.

Left with Harry the cat and the collected and uncollected works of Ford Madox Ford, I gauge the lie of the land. The first lesson of research is—there must be almost as many versions as there are researchers. One lesson could be: keep things tidy. Or, at least, tidy things up every so often. Lessening chaos, in fact. Lesson and its homophone, lessen, offer one of those minor distractions or deflections so necessary to the diversion from Work. Writers will often sharpen twenty pencils, polish windows, vacuum an already-vacuumed carpet, anything to put off the moment of naked confrontation with a naked sheet of paper. Thinking about words, though, is surely in a different category: a diversion that may prove productive, that may turn out to be no diversion at all, like Ford Madox Ford’s ‘digressions’.


(Research: lesson one)

These make a long, intricate—digressive—trail through his work. I first thought ‘path’ but a path, laid out, is very simple to follow; ‘trail’ implies a little more effort, a little more awareness. So the early Ford of the English Review period (1908-1910) praises, neither for the first nor the last time, Joseph Conrad and Henry James, as the pre-eminent imaginative writers of the day, in his view. But he goes on to point out: ‘The defect of each as an artist is his too close engrossment in the affair he has in hand. In each case this leads to what is called digressions.’ (A digression might be offered at this point by mentioning that on or beside the trail that the ‘digression’ hunter is cautiously negotiating, other figures may sometimes be glimpsed, pursuing an ‘engrossment’ trail.) Ford explains that James, in his desire ‘to build up round his figures an immense atmosphere of the complexities of relationships’, sometimes ‘loses hold’ of ‘the faculty of selection’. In Conrad, it leads to excessive ‘justification’ (another trail), the minute details deployed to thicken and strengthen the reality of the character or situation depicted, by a writer who—sometimes—seems not to know when to stop with those details.[1]


By the 1930s, considering the lengths to which the novelist must go to seize and retain the attention of a reader, Ford observed that: ‘Of course, you must appear to digress. That is the art which conceals your Art.’ Since the reader, ‘you should premise, will always dislike you and your book’, he or she will welcome a digression which countenances removing attention from the book, such as lunch or a ringing doorbell. So provide your reader with what appear to be digressions, Ford advises. ‘But really not one single thread must ever escape your purpose.’ and then: ‘I am—I may hazard the digression!—using that principle of technique in writing this book.’[3]

A few years later, noting how he wanted to inspire in his reader a sense of the whole sweep of the journey and inspire them with a ‘feeling of its oneness’, he offered an example of a digression serving practical and positive ends, recalling his time spent lecturing British troops and finding that ‘a sudden digression from the subject in hand would very much waken group attentions that were beginning to wander.’[4]

As to what lessons actually lessen: ignorance, darkness, certainly – until you reach that point at which you know just enough to begin to grasp how much there is to know and how little of it you will ever learn. This realisation may be a crushing disappointment or powerfully liberating, depending on character. Samuel Johnson might have looked into almost every book that came off the press: you will not. In a long lifetime of relentless, intensive reading, you could read perhaps half as many books as are published in a single year in the United Kingdom. The most accomplished linguist might hope to master well under 1% of the world’s languages. Henry Adams remarked that ‘the profoundest lessons are not the lessons of reason; they are sudden strains that permanently warp the mind.’[5]

(Henry Adams: photograph by Marian Hooper Adams)

Perhaps ‘warp’ is not that encouraging. Try Aldous Huxley: ‘The most important lesson of history . . . is that nobody ever learns history’s lesson.’[6] A more recognisable scepticism, even textbook stuff. Perhaps something a little more literary, then. Joan Didion: ‘My father advised me that life itself was a crap game: it was one of the two lessons I learned as a child. The other was that overturning a rock was apt to reveal a rattlesnake. As lessons go those two seem to hold up, but not to apply.’[7]

Talking to a friend the other day, we were having that conversation, not new but perhaps more frequent lately, about the need for people who saw and felt and viewed and valued things as we did to stick together, to look out for one another and to stand up for what we believed in. I was reminded briefly of James Salter on Graham Greene, an observation more than forty years old that has not lost its relevance. ‘Like Malraux, he asks to be read as a political writer and has set his fiction firmly in that world. The lesson in the books of Graham Greene is the great lesson of the times: one must take sides.’[8]

There’s a lesson we can all learn from. When I say ‘all’, of course, I mean those I want on my side.


Notes


[1] Ford Madox Ford, The Critical Attitude (London: Duckworth, 1911), 89-90.

[2] Ford Madox Ford, Henry James: A Critical Study (London: Martin Secker, 1914), 161.

[3] Ford Madox Ford, It Was the Nightingale (London: Heinemann, 1934), 192-193.

[4] Ford Madox Ford, Great Trade Route (London: Allen & Unwin, 1937), 46.

[5] Henry Adams, The Education of Henry Adams (1918; New York: The Modern Library, 1931), 108.

[6] Aldous Huxley, Science, Liberty and Peace (1947), quoted in Sybille Bedford, Aldous Huxley: A Biography (London: Pan Macmillan, 1993), 451.

[7] Play It As It Lays (1970), in Joan Didion: The 1960s & 70s, edited by David L. Ulin (New York: Library of America, 2019), 524.

[8] James Salter, ‘Like a Retired Confidential Agent, Graham Greene Hides Quietly in Paris’ (January 1976), in Don’t Save Anything: Uncollected Essays, Articles, and Profiles (Berkeley: Counterpoint, 2017), 29.

Mistakes, various

Setting for Highland Steer

(Walter G. Poole, Setting for Highland Steer)

‘In a time of coronavirus, small mistakes can have outsize consequences.’
https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/mar/07/coronavirus-a-disease-that-thrives-on-human-error

On 4 March 1956, Eudora Welty wrote to William Maxwell about the play of her novel The Ponder Heart (the letter begins, promisingly: ‘I’ve missed you from the time I got on the train with the carrots’). Maxwell and his wife Emmy had joined Welty for the opening night’s festivities in February. She admired the acting, though commenting that ‘[t]he lines still don’t connect with the story, to me’. She closed her letter: ‘Of course I realize now what was wrong with the whole project of the play, having someone else writing it for me (not particularly that one, any play). That’s nothing for a middleman to do, and no wonder it stood all our hair on end. All things that matter in this life are first-hand and direct and person-to-person. Our mistakes had better belong to us.’[1]

Reading that last sentence, it struck me—not for the first time—that one of the most noticeable features of the last decade or two has been the absolute mania for avoiding blame or taking responsibility, for covering backs and always having scapegoats handy. Companies, institutions of all kinds, right up to the highest levels of government: nobody there ever does anything wrong, never makes a mistake, nothing is ever their fault—it was always someone else: him, her, them, those scroungers, those stirrers, those paupers, those immigrants, those others.

Hunt, William Holman, 1827-1910; The Scapegoat

(William Holman Hunt, The Scapegoat: Lady Lever Art Gallery)

Mistake. To take wrongly. Unsurprisingly, it can seem harder to identify such errors in our own lives than in those of others, or the wider world, and may require the long retrospective view. ‘When I was young’, Penelope Fitzgerald wrote, ‘I took my father and my three uncles for granted, and it never occurred to me that everyone else wasn’t like them. Later on I found that this was a mistake, but after all these years I’ve never quite managed to adapt myself to it. I suppose they were unusual, but I still think that they were right, and in so far as the world disagrees with them, I disagree with the world.’

And elsewhere: ‘“It is the death of the spirit we must fear” is Carr’s epigraph, this time for The Harpole Report. The death of the spirit is to lose confidence in one’s own independence and to do only what we are expected to do. At the same time, it is a mistake to expect anything specific from life. Life will not conform.’[2]

Yes, life is a stubborn and uncooperative beast sometimes. Cesare Pavese didn’t conform either, even in the mistakes he made, as Natalia Ginzburg recalled: ‘Pavese committed errors more dangerous than ours. Because our mistakes were caused by impulse, rashness, stupidity and naïvety, whereas Pavese’s mistakes arose from prudence, shrewdness, calculation and intelligence. Nothing is more dangerous than errors of this kind. They can be fatal, as indeed they were for him, because from the path on to which one strays out of shrewdness it is difficult to turn back.’[3]

Hugh Kenner argued that ‘Dante’s coda to the Odyssey was made possible by his not having read it; he was able to suppose therefore that Odysseus was driven by lust for knowledge’, before asking: ‘Is the life of the mind a history of interesting mistakes?’ He added then, since he was discussing Ernest Fenollosa and Ezra Pound’s use of Fenollosa’s studies, ‘More pertinently: is the surest way to a fructive western idea the misunderstanding of an eastern one?’[4]

Well. Surely the point at which to nod to Miroslav Holub:

Some mistakes are now mistakes
others are still virtues
.[5]

 
Notes

[1] Suzanne Marrs, editor, What There Is to Say, We Have Said: The Correspondence of Eudora Welty and William Maxwell (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011), 93, 95.

[2] Penelope Fitzgerald, ‘Curriculum Vitae’ and ‘Precious Moments Gone’ (introduction to the Penguin edition of J. L. Carr’s A Month in the Country’), both in A House of Air: Selected Writings, edited by Terence Dooley with Mandy Kirkby and Chris Carduff (London: Harper Perennial, 2005), 469, 386.

[3] Natalia Ginzburg, The Things We Used to Say, translated by Judith Woolf (Manchester: Carcanet Press, 1997), 190.

[4] Hugh Kenner, The Pound Era (London: Faber and Faber, 1972), 230.

[5] Miroslav Holub, ‘The root of the matter’, translated by Ian Milner, in The Fly, translated by Ewald Osers, George Theiner, Ian and Jarmila Milner (Newcastle: Bloodaxe Books, 1987), 84.

 

‘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.