Friday, 31 July 2015

Help for Heroes? A Handy Guide to Oxford (1915)

 ‘Most of you, I suppose, entered Oxford from the railway station in the western suburbs, and a guidebook ought, therefore, to begin with a description of the things you will see coming up Park End Street, New Road, Queen Street and High Street.’  Thus begins A Handy Guide to Oxford, published by O.U.P one hundred years ago this summer – a centenary that should not, I think, go unremarked. From the start, the author has a specific readership in mind:

But I gather that you were usually so much occupied in abusing the uneven surface of these streets, while you were being jolted to your Hospital, that you had little chance of admiring the County Jail, the Assize Court or the Canal Wharf [….] But you must not be too hard on the City of Oxford for your jolting; we cannot afford to repair our roads in war-time, and most of the men who normally repair them are gone to fight.

Here is a vade mecum with a difference: ‘This little book,’ claimed its author, C.R.L.Fletcher, ‘was specially written as a guide for the wounded, in June 1915, when I was attached to the Third Southern General Hospital, as Tobacconist-in-Chief and Matron’s head Fag. The profits of sale were given to the Fund for supplying Tobacco to the wounded in that Hospital.’ He is not joking.

Fletcher was a don at Magdalen, and even today his old college is ambivalent about their former Fellow: ‘His views were far from progressive and are best described as imperialist, conservative and strongly opposed to co-educational teaching – he refused to admit any women to his lectures’. According to Magdalen’s website, Fletcher’s volume of Reminiscences ‘regarded West Indians as lazy, sentiments mirrored in his A School History of England (1911), written with Rudyard Kipling, which claimed that all Spaniards were vindictive and all Irish ungrateful.’

Fletcher clearly wears his prejudices without apology, but he quickly warms to the task of describing and explaining the University to men who would never normally have found themselves there. He is keen to point out that Oxford, too, is playing its part in the war. Explaining the function of the Examination Schools in the High Street – which had by then been become the city’s main military hospital – he describes how, only a year earlier,

In those rooms in which the nurses give you such tender care, young men were writing for their lives, six hours a day [….] Most of those young men are now either in the trenches in Flanders, France or Turkey, or drilling recruits of the New Armies preparatory to going; and many of them have already fallen asleep upon the Bed of Honour.

‘Writing for their lives’ ...  fighting for their lives; No Man’s Land … ‘the Bed of Honour’ – such phrases perhaps suggest Fletcher’s difficulty, in 1915, of finding language appropriate to the realities of war.  Describing the colleges, however, he’s on safer ground, happily mixing history and Common Room gossip, with occasional architectural comments thrown in. Modern architecture provokes his wrath (for Fletcher, modern means anything after Sir Christopher Wren): the Victorian architect William Butterfield is condemned as ‘the worst architect in English history’. Butterfield’s Keble College (1871), he claims, is ‘the crowning triumph of his style – a style hardly equalled for ugliness even in America.’

Not content with that sally, Fletcher has another thrust at Butterfield a few pages later. Here, after extolling the beauty of Merton, one of Oxford’s oldest colleges, he announces that

The prospect of the whole college from the south is spoiled by only one thing, the very ugly pile of new buildings erected on the site of the ‘Grove’ in 1864 by that same Butterfield who filled up the cup of his iniquity seven years later by perpetrating Keble College.

Poor Butterfield! But Fletcher’s architectural eye could sometimes spot a good building even in unpromising places:

In the depth of the slums which surround the remnants of the Castle one occasionally meets fine old houses mouldering to decay; one of the finest in Oxford is situated in Paradise Square, in the heart of the populous and squalid parish of St Ebbe’s ….

The most unexpected, and (as it seems to me) revealing page of the Handy Guide to Oxford, is its preface, a pastiche of Pilgrim’s Progress. Likening the wounded soldier arriving in Oxford to Bunyan’s Mr Great-heart, and the Kaiser’s army to the evil Apollyon, Fletcher begins thus:

And I saw in my dream how Mr Greatheart came to Oxford city, to be healed of the wounds he had gotten in the fight against Apollyon. When he had lain a month there, tended by Christiana and Mercy and Faith and the other sisters whose names are writ in the Book of Life, when, I say, his hurts began to be on an healing, [sic] he made shift to go abroad betwixt his crutches to view that city.

Now Bunyan’s Great-heart was ‘a strong man, so he was not afraid of a lion’, but this latter-day namesake, venturing out of the Examination Schools (renamed the 3rd Southern General Hospital) and looking up and down the High, is at a loss to know one college from another, until

… there met him presently a man with white hair who spake very civilly to him thus, “Mr Greatheart, you have saved me and this my city from Apollyon, and I shall reckon it an honour if you would take this one small book that I have made for your sake.

The white-haired man is of course Fletcher himself, and the book he proffers – one of the quirkiest, yet also one of the most telling, publications of 1915 – is his Handy Guide to Oxford

… which the other thankfully took and thrust in his bosom; for what with the manage of his crutch he lacked an hand to hold it as he hobbled away. And the white-haired man went upon his way and Mr Greatheart saw him no more.

Adrian Barlow

C.R.L. Fletcher, A Handy Guide to Oxford (Oxford: O.U.P. 1915; reprinted 1925). All quotations above are from the 1925 edition. I am grateful to my friend Brian Cairns for introducing me to this remarkable little book.

[Illustrations: (i) The Examination Schools in the High Street, Oxford; requisitioned as the 3rd Southern Counties Hospital during the First World War; (ii) Keble College, Oxford, by William Butterfield, 1871.

 I have written about Oxford before:

Saturday, 4 July 2015

In the Captain’s Tower: Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot

Writing about TS Eliot and his second wife, Valerie, as I did recently, has made me reflect upon the fifty-year friendship between Eliot and Ezra Pound, and especially about that relationship at the end of their lives.  Long-lasting friendships, glimpsed in old age, have a particular poignancy in literature, nowhere seen better than in Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part 2, where Falstaff, Justice Shallow and Master Silence sit in a Gloucestershire orchard reminiscing about old conquests, famous revels (‘We have heard the chimes at midnight, Master Shallow’) and dead friends. There is something of the same elegiac note in Pound’s recollections of Eliot, memorably caught by the poet Robert Lowell in his sonnet, ‘Ezra Pound’:

Eliot dead, you saying,
‘Who’s left alive to understand my jokes?
My old brother in the arts … besides, he was a smash of a poet.

‘My old brother in the arts ….’ One could equally think of them as brothers in arms. This is how Anthony Rudolf sees them. Writing in Silent Conversations (2013), and echoing Bob Dylan, he comments that

The mutual respect of Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot is touching: Eliot’s ‘Il miglior fabbro’ and Pound’s homage; ‘… Later, on his own hearth, a flame tended, a presence felt’.  Up there in the captain’s tower, these two great poets, fighting or not, cast long shadows over contemporary reading (and therefore writing)) even at this late date.

Rudolf is a poet and translator, a publisher, critic and teacher.  Pound in his time was all these too, but a poet above all, as Rudolf is – which is why he is able to reject, with authority, F.R. Leavis’s  claim that Pound’s only great poem is Hugh Selwyn Mauberley, by comparison with which the Cantos entirely fail to measure up:

I cannot agree that Pound’s versification is boring and that he has no creative theme. What about memory and language, loss and disgrace?

What indeed? It would be hard to think of any writer of the 20th century who has contemplated his own isolation and disgrace with a more implacable self-scrutiny than Ezra Pound:

As a lone ant from a broken ant-hill
from the wreckage of Europe, ego scriptor.  (Canto LXXVI)

While Pound was incarcerated for twelve years in Washington’s Government Hospital for the Insane (though never tried for treason, let alone convicted) Eliot led the campaign for his release, along with Robert Frost and Archibald MacLeish. His Nobel Prizewinner status helped. When Pound was finally allowed back to Italy, despairing at the failure of his life’s work (‘my errors and wrecks lie about me’, Canto CXVI) it was Eliot who sent letters – ‘Dear Old Ez …’ -  reassuring him his work was not a ‘botch’ (Pound’s word). And after Eliot’s death it was Valerie who publicly thanked Pound for having been ‘a wondrous necessary man’ to her husband.

They never lost faith in each other. As Peter Ackroyd has said:

In many ways they had both been so much alike: the nervous, magpie-like intelligence, the pedagogical aspirations, the Yankee toughness combined with the shuddering sensitivity. They had both lived through the great period of modern literature and had survived its passing: they were in a sense foreigners, out of joint with their time.

 I was introduced to Pound’s poetry by Basil Bunting, who had known Pound well in the 1920s and 1930s at Rapallo (Pound’s Italian base; here in the years before the Second World War he presided over a literary court in exile). Bunting was Poet in Residence at Durham , when I was a student there. I got to know him well, and he talked much about Pound, trying to teach me the lessons Pound had taught him about how to write well. At this time, too, I made other friends who had known Pound and who continued to admire him as a poet, acknowledging the honesty with which he faced up to his disgrace:

Pull down thy vanity
Thou art a beaten dog beneath the hail,
A swollen magpie in a fitful sun,
Half black half white
Nor knowst’ou wing from tail
Pull down thy vanity
How mean thy hates
Fostered in falsity,
Pull down thy vanity …. (Canto LXXXI)

Not everyone, however, in the early 1970s was prepared to forgive Pound. Tucked into my copy of Pound’s Selected Prose 1909-1965 (edited by William Cookson and published in 1973) I found recently a TLS review I’d kept of the book: the writer - still anonymous in those days - launches an atrabilious attack on Pound.  Denouncing him as ‘a notorious traitor’, he asserts that ‘Behind everything that Pound wrote is a set of hideous delusions’, dismisses the Cantos as ‘drivel’, and cites with approval Maurice Bowra’s conclusion that “Pound after all the fuss and trouble, is nothing but a bore, and an American bore.”

This amounts to an attempt to write Pound out of the history of Modernism, indeed out of history altogether – a man beneath contempt and beneath consideration. So it is important to spell out again just one of the reasons Pound still matters: without him there would have been no Waste Land. When I first met Basil Bunting, he was reading The Invisible Poet: T.S. Eliot, and he began our conversation by asking if I knew this book by Hugh Kenner. ‘No,’ I confessed, ‘but I am reading The New Poetic: Yeats to Eliot by CK Stead.’ Would I recommend it, asked Bunting. Yes, I said firmly – and I have been reading and recommending Stead ever since. Here’s a comment from Book Self (2008) where Stead explains the immediate impact of Valerie Eliot’s book:

One thing that became clear was that Eliot had not been exaggerating when he gave generous credit to Pound for rescuing the poem. Pound’s work on it had pulled The Waste Land together and determined its dominant tone and colour.

Giving credit where credit is due. And Pound’s final word on Eliot?

Let him rest in peace. I can only repeat, but with the urgency of 50 years ago: READ HIM.

Adrian Barlow

·                 Robert Lowell’s poem, ‘Ezra Pound’ can be found in Robert Lowell’s Poems (ed. Jonathan Raban; London, Faber & Faber, 1974) p.133.
·      Anthony Rudolf, Silent Conversations (London: Seagull Books, 2013, pp.218, 220. You can read my review of this book, which originally appeared in the English Association Newsletter (Winter 2013, No.204), here.  The ‘Captain’s tower’ echoes Bob Dylan’s ‘Desolation Row’: ‘And Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot / Fighting in the Captain’s Tower...'  
·      The anonymous TLS review from which I quote was entitled ‘Fragments of cracker’ and was published 16 March 1973, p.292.
·      Peter Ackroyd’s comment on Eliot and Pound comes from his biography T.S. Eliot (London: Hamish Hamilton, 1984) p.330.
·      For an account of Pound’s incarceration in St Elizabeth’s Hospital, Washington DC, I recommend the opening chapter of  Eustace Mullins, This Difficult Individual: Ezra Pound (1961) which can be accessed online.
·      Quotations, as indicated, from Ezra Pound, The Cantos, (4th collected edition; London: Faber & Faber, 1987)
·      C.K. Stead’s comments on Pound, Eliot and The Waste Land , quoted here, are in Book Self (New Zealand: Auckland University Press, 2008), p.5
·      Valerie Eliot’s borrowed description of Pound as ‘a wondrous necessary man’ (originally Beatrice’s description of de Flores in Middleton’s The Changeling) is included in her Acknowledgements to The Waste Land: a Facsimile and Transcript (London: Faber & Faber, 1971) p.xxxi
·      Pound’s last published word on Eliot  (first published as ‘For T.S.E.’ in The Sewanee Review, Winter 1966) is reprinted as the final item in Ezra Pound Selected Prose 1909-1965 (ed. William Cookson; London: Faber & Faber, 1973, p.434