Toiling optimists

(Thomas Fenwick, Late Autumn Landscape: University of Edinburgh)

A new month, the first of the meteorological autumn. On 2 September 1774, the naturalist Gilbert White observed that: ‘Many birds which become silent about Midsummer reassume their notes again in September; as the thrush, blackbird, wood-lark, willow-wren, &c.; hence August is by much the most mute month, the spring, summer, and autumn through. Are birds induced to sing again because the temperament of autumn resembles that of spring?’[1] Birds here, particularly the bluetits, are certainly singing, though a little warily. Still, who would not be wary just now?

The trees in the parks had already been misled into thinking that autumn had arrived. The weather generally has dried again, with a warm, slightly unhealthy feel to the breeze. The constants remain. . . constant – that is, the workmen, still, after months, making those thunderous noises of drilling and hammering that you associate with the beginnings of a job like that, not the late stages. Surely by now it should be no louder than the seductive murmur of a paintbrush on skirting-board or garden fence, the feathering of a soft broom, the occasional faint squeal of a cloth on clean glass. As well as the workmen, of course, the howl of ambulance sirens and the relentless overhead roar of damned aeroplanes, each one shaving just a little more off the lifespan of homo sapiens on this earth.

As for the news—from time to time, the Librarian, referencing the late Leonard Cohen just a little too appositely, will inquire, in passing: ‘You Want It Darker’? My response is most often ‘God, no!’ while, inside my mildly floundering but at-straw-grasping mind, another refrain runs: ‘It’s not dark yet but it’s getting’ there.’[2] Really, monsieur D.? Not there yet? O, optimist! But that was, of course, twenty-five years ago, which can make all the difference in the life histories of failed states.

What do you find to boast of in our age,
To boast of now, my friendly sonneteer,
And not to blush for, later? By what line
Do you entrain from Mainz to Regions saner?
Count our achievements and uplift my heart;
Blazen our fineness. Optimist, I toil
Whilst you crow cocklike.

So Ford Madox Ford began a poem, ‘Canzone à la Sonata’, dedicated to ‘E. P.’, that is, Ezra Pound, then in Giessen, the German town in which Ford stayed while pursuing a madcap scheme to secure a divorce from his wife under German law by qualifying for citizenship of that country. It was the setting for the famous ‘Giessen roll’, Ford diving headlong to the floor and writhing about in agony in response to the archaisms in Pound’s new collection of poems. The poem’s title indicates its target: ‘canzone’, a poetic form, not a style. It guys, as Ford often did, the conventional picture of the inspired and youthful lyric poet, and queries the price of exclusion paid by the optimistic singer. His inquiring ‘By what line/ Do you entrain from Mainz to Regions saner’ alludes to the poetic line but also employs an image that Ford would recur to often: the use of the railway journey as intersection of illusory stability, permanence, stasis and radical circumstantial alteration, whether in personal relationships or the larger configurations of history. Indeed, a poem called ‘In the Train’ occurs four pages earlier than ‘Canzone’ in the published volume, High Germany. By early 1912, in fact, Ford was perfectly aware of the threat from Germany, though his own history of involvement with that country was already immensely complicated and soon to become more so.

Optimist –  so many shades of meaning, interpretation, claim or confession there. People with their glasses half-full, half-empty – surely, just order another drink, to be on the safe side. The word defines not only individuals but eras: ‘It is difficult to think of an important Edwardian optimist’, Samuel Hynes wrote. ‘So that if “Edwardian” is to be used as an adjective identifying a literary tone, that tone must be one of social awareness and anxious concern.’[3]

More positively, it can evoke recovery, rebuilding, resurgence. Doris Lessing, remembering her arrival in Britain in the early 1950s, wrote: ‘There was still that post-war effervescence, the feeling that suppressed energies were exploding, the arrival of working-class or at least not middle-class talent into the arts, and, above all, the political optimism, which has so completely evaporated.’[4] More upbeat too was Margery Allingham’s view of her detective, Albert Campion, seeing in that extraordinary individual the virtues of the ordinary man (which, of course, enabled him to perform the feats of detection and deduction that qualified him to serve as her central character): ‘The optimism of a healthy mind is indefatigable, however, and as time went on even Campion began to see the events here recorded from that detached distance so often miscalled true perspective.’[5]

I am, of course, keeping my own optimism firmly within bounds: a true perspective in a healthy mind, as they say. Possibly.


[1] Gilbert White, The Illustrated History of Selborne (London: Macmillan, 1984), 94.

[2] Bob Dylan, ‘Not Dark Yet’, Track 7 on Time Out of Mind (1997).

[3] Samuel Hynes, ‘Introduction: A Note on “Edwardian”’, in Edwardian Occasions: Essays on English Writing in the Early Twentieth Century (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1972), 8.

[4] Doris Lessing, Walking in the Shade (1997; London: Fourth Estate, 2013), 280.

[5] Margery Allingham, Death of a Ghost (London: Penguin Books, 1942), 176.

Backing the inevitable

(Henri Rousseau, Surprised!, National Gallery)

As the Chinese Year of the Ox prepares to shuffle off in favour of the Year of the Tiger, more locally I have the Year of the Back – or no, that’s too downbeat, even for me. Say: the Month of the Back. Or, as I noted in my sporadically-kept diary, ‘The Back is back.’ Following in what has, unfortunately, become an irregular traditional practice—2013, 2015, 2019 and 2020—I am devoting twenty minutes each morning to putting my socks on. A schooling in patience, so to speak.

Initially, the cat looked suspicious and a little bewildered to have the Librarian preparing and serving his food—that bowl on the floor being just too far away for me—but is becoming reconciled. As is she. Probably. Perhaps.

When it comes to the serious work, though, the problem is that, like a bad toothache, a wrecked back tends to occupy the mind and resents any incursions by such brittle beasts as research or writing. But I can read more rovingly, so I do that: Mary Gaitskill, C. L. R. James, Annie Ernaux, Jane Gardam – and Byron’s Don Juan. Writing to poet-publisher James Laughlin in 1993, Guy Davenport told him: ‘I’ve been rereading (for the whatevereth time) Don Juan, which may be the funniest poem in English—certainly the greatest stylistic tour de force. It’s proof enough that God doesn’t read our books that Byron didn’t get to finish it. Juan was to have become a ranting Methodist in Yorkshire.’[1] Nearly sixty years earlier, W. H. Auden had, at the age of twenty-nine:

Just read Don Juan and I found it fine.
I read it on the boat to Reykjavik
Except when eating or asleep or sick.[2]

I remembered a brief exchange with the poet and artist David Jones that William Blissett recorded:

 ‘“Bugger old age.” 
“Is that your final word today?” 

Jones lived to—almost—seventy-nine. In the half-century since his death, of course, our expectations are a little greater. (Or were, until the recent downturn, often the sign of governments with fatally wrong priorities.)

Still, physically at least, deterioration is written into everybody’s contract. A quotation was long lodged in my head from Henry Miller, which I had trouble finding, not least because, it transpires, I had the word order slightly wrong. I’m reminded now that ‘We resist only what is inevitable’ is from Miller’s 1957 Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymus Bosch, one of those statements that seems to shunt the reader or listener straight to the opposite or corollary statement, here, that we don’t resist what is not inevitable—and which, arguably, might be changed or averted through resistance. That would accord with the view of Miller famously presented by George Orwell in ‘Inside the Whale’, which begins and ends with Miller, to whom Orwell ascribes ‘a sort of mystical acceptance of thing-as-it-is.’ Orwell then runs through just what such acceptance includes in the mid-twentieth century—concentration camps, Hitler, Stalin, press censorship, political murders and the rest—but argues that Miller’s general attitude, nevertheless, is ‘“Let’s swallow it whole”’.[4]

(David Jones, from The Book of Jonah )

Inevitability, then, most famously that of death and taxes, according to Benjamin Franklin, though my Oxford Dictionary of Quotations points to Daniel Defoe as precedent, more or less. For the rich, of course, in this country and surely many others, paying tax seems to be optional if you have that sort of moral threshold, that sort of accountant and offshore accounts already set up – but no government, however supine or conflicted, has yet managed to legislate against the Grim Reaper or to arrange loopholes for its friends.

Endings, anyway. As Annie Ernaux has it, ‘The time that lies ahead of me grows shorter. There will inevitably be a last book, as there is always a last lover, a last spring, but no sign by which to know them.’[5] And D. H. Lawrence wrote to Catherine Carswell, ‘One can tell what will happen, more or less. Some things one knows inwardly, and infallibly. But the how and the why are left to the conjunction of circumstances.’[6]

Lawrence, in fact, dwelt often on inevitability. ‘This is England. One meaning blots out another. So the mines were blotting out the halls. It was inevitable. When the great landowners started the mines, and made new fortunes, they started also their own obliteration from the English countryside. One meaning blots out another.’ And: ‘It had taken Constance a long time to accept the inevitable. The old England was doomed to be blotted out, with a terrifying absoluteness, by a new and gruesome England. It was inevitable.’[7]

This, perhaps, has a distant relative in Aldous Huxley’s pronouncement in a letter to his brother Julian a few months before the Armistice in 1918: ‘Whatever happens, we may be sure it will be for the worst. I dread the inevitable acceleration of American world domination which will be the ultimate result of it all. It was a thing that had got to come in time, but this will hasten its arrival by a century.’[8]

Patrick White’s Voss remarks that: ‘Human behaviour is a series of lunges, of which, it is sometimes sensed, the direction is inevitable.’[9] A little more positively, perhaps, ‘And yes’, Katherine Mansfield wrote to William Gerhardi in March 1922, ‘that is what I tried to convey in The Garden Party. The diversity of life and how we try to fit in everything, Death included. That is bewildering for a person of Laura’s age. She feels things ought to happen differently. First one and then another. But life isn’t like that. We haven’t the ordering of it. Laura says, “But all these things must not happen at once.” And Life answers, “Why not? How are they divided from each other?” And they do all happen, it is inevitable. And it seems to me there is beauty in that inevitability.’[10]

(Ferdinand Brütt, Gartenfest (1900)

There is, lastly—or firstly—the consciously literary. Ford Madox Ford wrote, in a piece on Joseph Conrad, of ‘the great faculty of this author – that he can make an end seem inevitable, in every instance, the only possible end.’[11]

More than a decade later, and returning to the subject—and the writer—at greater length, Ford wrote of ‘all that is behind the mystic word “justification.” Before everything a story must convey a sense of inevitability: that which happens in it must seem to be the only thing that could have happened. Of course a character may cry, “If I had then acted differently how different everything would now be.” The problem of the author is to make his then action the only action that character could have taken. It must be inevitable, because of his character, because of his ancestry, because of past illness or on account of the gradual coming together of the thousand small circumstances by which Destiny, who is inscrutable and august, will push us into one certain predicament.’[12]

‘One certain predicament.’ There’s a neat summary. My current predicament is, though, gradually easing. Of course, that’s a subjective assessment. Subjective? ‘This word has made considerable progress in England during the year you have been away’, Edward Fitzgerald wrote to his friend Frederick Tennyson (7 June 1840), ‘so that people begin to fancy they understand what it means.’[13]

I fancy it means that I no longer have to read Don Juan while lying on the bedroom floor.


[1] W. C. Bamberger, editor, Guy Davenport and James Laughlin: Selected Letters (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 2007), 146.

[2] Letter to Lord Byron, in W. H. Auden and Louis MacNeice, Letters from Iceland (London: Faber and Faber, 1937), 18.

[3] William Blissett, The Long Conversation: A Memoir of David Jones (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1981), 108.

[4] George Orwell, A Patriot After All: 1940-1941, edited by Peter Davison, revised and updated edition (London: Secker and Warburg, 2000), 86-115.

[5] Annie Ernaux, A Girl’s Story, translated by Alison L. Strayer (London: Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2020), 17.

[6] Letters of D. H. Lawrence III, October 1916–June 1921, edited by James T. Boulton and Andrew Robertson (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984), 24.

[7] D. H. Lawrence, The First and Second Lady Chatterley Novels, edited by Dieter Mehl and Christa Jansohn (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), 366.

[8] Aldous Huxley, Letters of Aldous Huxley, edited by Grover Smith (London: Chatto and Windus, 1969), 160.

[9] Patrick White, Voss (London: Eyre & Spottiswoode, 1957), 16-17.

[10] Katherine Mansfield, Selected Letters, edited by Vincent O’Sullivan (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990), 250.

[11] Ford Madox Ford, ‘Joseph Conrad’, English Review (December 1911), 82.

[12] Ford Madox Ford, Joseph Conrad: A Personal Remembrance (London: Duckworth, 1924), 204.

[13] The Letters of Edward Fitzgerald, edited by Alfred McKinley Terhune and Annabelle Burdick Terhune, four volumes (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1980), I, 250.

Communicable experience: words begin again

Sitting down to write the handful of Christmas cards we sent this year, I found myself oddly inhibited when it came to the notes I’d meant to add—mainly rallying cries or apologies for silences, distances and disappearances. Last year, so much still felt relatively new, baffling, a strangeness that could be conveyed in simple language, with an expectation of a shared response, a reciprocity. To say the same things twelve months later seemed somehow absurd; in fact, any phrase that came to mind appeared wholly banal, quite pointless. Then, too, it required too many assumptions, some quite hazardous, about people’s recent history and present circumstances. So, either a five-page letter or nothing at all – beyond best wishes for next year – hardly, when it came to it, a difficult choice.

I thought of the famous observation of Walter Benjamin, ‘Was it not noticeable at the end of the [First World] war that men returned from the battlefield grown silent—not richer, but poorer in communicable experience?’ He has been discussing the loss of ‘the ability to exchange experiences’, one reason for this being that ‘experience has fallen in value.’ Our picture of both the external world and the moral world have undergone ‘changes which were never thought possible.’ He goes on:

A generation that had gone to school on a horse-drawn streetcar now stood under the open sky in a countryside in which nothing remained unchanged but the clouds, and beneath these clouds, in a field of force of destructive torrents and explosions, was the tiny, fragile human body.[1]

It’s very easy to look at this and think ah, yes, mechanized warfare, dramatic scientific and technological changes, transport and communications revolutions, all very historical, all very back then. Despite the massive volume of commentary—largely because of it, perhaps—we find it harder to grasp the speed and impact of some of the changes occurring in our own historical period, in part because as things develop and change increasingly quickly, we accommodate, allow for and absorb those changes increasingly quickly too. The internet—we fret if it takes more than a few seconds to respond to a search term. And if we should actually draw a complete blank? ‘If it’s not on the internet it doesn’t exist’—I remember an American librarian ascribing this assumption to college students who frequented the library, some ten or fifteen years ago now. We see many programmes, essays, articles devoted to the phenomenon of social media, especially the aggressive and destructive aspects of it. Were there always this many repellent people? Have they been created or merely enabled by the internet, because before it existed they would have had to write a letter, address an envelope and stick a stamp on it? Incredible advances in medicine: why do so many people reject them out of hand? Questions pretty simple, answers less so.

But Benjamin’s ‘communicable experience’? Men returned from the battlefield, even had they wished to, could rarely find the vocabulary to convey the enormity, intensity and sheer unprecedented nature of what some of them had seen, heard and suffered. That surely differs fundamentally from our situation now. These last two years, there has been a good deal of shared, or at least common, experience. Not as common as it was originally represented as being: the—sometimes literally—murderous inequalities that obtain in this country (among others) meant that, while some glided, many others crashed and burned. Still, there were elements of a society under siege which were at least recognised by most of us.

Helen Macdonald recently articulated with her usual lucidity some familiar if often inchoate thoughts, firstly about the dual speed of time, passing ‘far more slowly than it did before’ but also ‘running far too fast’, secondly with the unvarnished statement that: ‘Most of us began this pandemic thinking that life would return to normal. We all now know that this is a fiction; nothing will return to what it was before.’[2] And I nod, yes, though I’d baulk at that ‘all now know’. A lot of New Statesman readers, maybe. More broadly, I suspect the rule of division still holds sway. I see I wrote a little earlier of ‘our situation’. But once more particularised than ‘the human animal’, that ‘our’ is a little shaky.

We’re told, on an almost daily basis, that we live now in a divided country, a fractured society. The nation splits along fault lines of class or age or education or information sources. Brexit showed up the real cracks and some of the reactions to the pandemic, or measures intended to combat that pandemic, have revealed some more, frequently new pressures on earlier, still suppurating wounds—which are often, in fact, the most troubling.

(Cherry-Garrard and pony:

The biographer of Apsley Cherry-Garrard, a member of the Terrra Nova expedition, travelling with Scott on that doomed journey to the Antarctic in 1910, and author of The Worst Journey in the World, observes that:

Many of those who had served felt, after the war, that the world had been everlastingly divided into those who had been there, and those who had not. To Cherry that binary vision had been cast before 1914, and the war only served to polarise it further: those who had been south, and those who had not. His psyche never fully engaged with the war. It was still in the Antarctic.[3]

In a way, things were simpler in the ancient world. Herodotus lived in a world divided into Greeks and barbarians, that is to say, ‘hoi barbaroi’, the non-Greeks.[4] In more recent times, Penelope Fitzgerald’s memorable categories occur in The Bookshop: ‘She blinded herself, in short, by pretending for a while that human beings are not divided into exterminators and exterminatees, with the former, at any given moment, predominating.’[5] And predominate they do, as so much of the twentieth century and, alas, this one too, can testify. Primo Levi, who survived the death camps, later wrote: ‘Those who experienced imprisonment (and, more generally, all persons who have gone through harsh experiences) are divided into two distinct categories, with rare intermediate shadings: those who remain silent and those who speak.’[6]

Personal, temporal. A time to keep silence, and a time to speak, as Ecclesiastes has it. Anne Carson, as ever, has her own take: ‘After a story is told there are some moments of silence. Then words begin again. Because you would always like to know a little more. Not exactly more story. Not necessarily, on the other hand, an exegesis. Just something to go on with. After all, stories end but you have to proceed with the rest of the day. You have to shift your weight, raise your eyes, notice the sound of traffic again, maybe go out for cigarettes.’[7]

In the teeth of it all, we—we?—proceed with the rest of the day, and the words that accompany it. The rain has cleared, the sky has brightened a little. And Fat Santa has not left the building.


[1] Walter Benjamin, ‘The Storyteller: Reflections on the Works of Nikolai Leskov’ (1936), Illuminations: Essays and Reflections, edited and with an introduction by Hannah Arendt (New York: Schocken Books, 1985), 83-84.

[2] Helen Macdonald, ‘The lure of hibernation’, New Statesman (10 December 2021 – 6 January 2022), 44.

[3] Sara Wheeler, Cherry: A Life of Apsley Cherry-Garrard (London: Jonathan Cape, 2001), 189.

[4] Herodotus, The Histories, translated by Aubrey de Sélincourt, revised by John Marincola (London: Penguin Books, 1996), 3.

[5] Penelope Fitzgerald, The Bookshop (1978; London: Everyman, 2001), 29.

[6] Primo Levi, The Drowned and the Saved, translated by Raymond Rosenthal (London: Abacus, 1989), 121.

[7] Anne Carson, ‘Afterword’, in  Plainwater: Essays and Poetry (New York: Vintage, 2000), 88.

Small pleasures, wary smiles, beautiful trees

(Thomas Kyd, The Spanish Tragedy)

Tramping through the park, I mention to the Librarian that small pleasures are underrated. Her sideways glance says—or do I misread it?—‘Why then Ile fit you/ Hieronymo’s mad againe.’ I explain that I’m thinking of the scheme of the Cantos that Ezra Pound conveyed to his father in a letter of April 1927, which begins: ‘A. A. Live man goes down into world of Dead’.[1]

I’d seen this for, what, the twentieth time, more? when rereading an essay by Walter Baumann,[2] that same sentence having turned up in volumes of letters and who knows how many commentaries on the Cantos, beginnings of, progress of, schema of. ‘In another place’, I said, ‘he talks about Odysseus as a live man among duds.’[3] She eyes me warily, though she’s fairly used to this stuff. ‘It finally occurred to me’, I say, ‘the aural closeness of “dead” and “duds”. I’m just wondering if there’s any etymological connection.’ (If it were really of any interest, dozens of Pound scholars would already have noted this, of course: they probably have but I just missed it; they certainly seem to have noticed everything else. But – small pleasures. . . )
She nods. ‘The trees are looking really beautiful at the moment.’
So they are, so they are.

At home, naturally enough, I look up ‘dud’ – and the first dictionary to which I turn offers: ‘Origin unknown’; the second, ‘Middle English, of unknown origin’. Clearly, this won’t do. But here is the blessed Eric Partridge:[4] ‘dud’ is probably influenced by the 17th-20th century dialect term ‘dudman’, a scarecrow – ah, ‘but the word may derive ultimately ex Dutch dood, dead.’ His entry points to Ernest Weekley’s Etymological Dictionary of Modern English. And yes, rather wonderfully, it is that Weekley, Professor of Modern Languages at the University of Nottingham for forty years and husband of Frieda Weekley until a chap called D. H. Lawrence happened by. Weekley was compiler of this often-referred to dictionary plus many other works and lived until 1954, almost a quarter of a century after the death of the man who decamped with his wife.


Small pleasures– or pleasures generally. As Emma Woodhouse explains to her puzzled father: ‘“That is the case with us all, papa. One half of the world cannot understand the pleasures of the other.”’[5]

Three calendar months too late, I remember the words of ‘the Compiler’, in Ford Madox Ford’s No Enemy: ‘And, truly, in all the gardening year – which is all pleasure except for such lets and hindrances as God decrees to you in order that you may remember that you are human – there is no pleasure to equal the pleasures of a mid-September day.’[6] Looking back in 1924 to the far side of the war, further, to the period of collaboration with Joseph Conrad, Ford wrote: ‘one got in those days those small, cheerful pleasures out of life.’[7] And, two years later: ‘there is a really sensuous pleasure in uttering a correct French sentence, as there is in eating good French cookery, the pleasures being very nearly akin.’[8] A man who took his pleasures seriously and knew their precise nature. . .

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Flannery O’Connor’s view of pleasures had, let’s say, a slightly different angle. In a 1952 letter to Sally and Robert Fitzgerald, she wrote: ‘I had to go have my picture taken for the purposes of Harcourt Brace. They were all bad. (The Pictures.) The one I sent looked as if I had just bitten my grandmother and that this was one of my few pleasures, but all the rest were worse.’[9]

(Flannery O’Connor: via )

This was a woman who knew precisely where – on the scale of pleasures – biting your grandmother should be placed.

The other morning, I woke around 04:30, was joined by the cat shortly afterwards and didn’t really get back to sleep before 06:00 arrived, with Harry’s well-established expectations of breakfast. The ninety-minute interlude occasionally strayed into that area of semi-doze in which nonsense confidently presents itself as insight. And yet, and yet, somewhere there is the border, on the other side of which insight and rationality wait with bottled water, sandwiches and encouragement. Which side are you on?

DA, I found myself thinking—as in Datta, Dayadhvam, Damyata—why, those are the initials of Dante Alighieri, who is quoted on The Waste Land‘s very next page.[10]

It hardly needs saying that this is either of world-shattering importance or mere evidence of a man having trouble getting back to sleep. Obviously, I haven’t mentioned it just yet. I am waiting for the next walk – ideally, while the trees are still looking extravagantly beautiful.


[1] Letters of Ezra Pound, 1907-1941, edited by D. D. Paige (London: Faber and Faber, 1951), 285.

[2] Walter Baumann, ‘Ezra Pound and Magic: Old World Tricks in a New World Poem’, in Roses from the Steel Dust: Collected Essays on Ezra Pound (Orono: National Poetry Foundation, 2000), 29.

[3] Ezra Pound, ‘Hell’, a review of Laurence Binyon’s translation of Dante’s Inferno: Literary Essays of Ezra Pound, edited by T. S. Eliot (London: Faber and Faber, 1960), 212.

[4] Eric Partridge, A Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English, 8th edition, edited by Paul Beale (London: Routledge, 1984).

[5] Jane Austen, Emma (1816; edited by James Kinsley, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990), 74.

[6] Ford Madox Ford, No Enemy (1929; edited by Paul Skinner Manchester: Carcanet Press, 2002), 116-117.

[7] Ford Madox Ford, Joseph Conrad: A Personal Remembrance (London: Duckworth, 1924), 39.

[8] Ford Madox Ford, A Mirror to France (London: Duckworth, 1926), 250.

[9] Flannery O’Connor, Collected Works, edited by Sally Fitzgerald (New York: Library of America, 1988), 895.

[10] T. S. Eliot, The Waste Land, lines 400ff and 427, The Complete Poems and Plays (London: Faber and Faber, 1969), 74-75.

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.


[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 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).


[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.


[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.’

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


[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’


(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)

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.

[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, 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]


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.

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.’

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.


(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.


[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.