Thomas Hardy – Family Matters

IMG_3458At the end of May this year I finally visited Max Gate, the house that the great English writer Thomas Hardy designed and had built in Dorchester for himself and his wife, Emma. I suppose I should confess that I went there primarily to see the attic.  I should, of course, have really wanted to soak up the room where Hardy created Tess and Jude, to see the bedroom where the great man died (and where they savagely cut out his heart and put it in a biscuit tin) and to look out of that window in his final study just as he would have done when (in his stocking feet and shawl) he sat and wrote his wonderful poetry.  But I’ll own up.  I really wanted to have a look at the attic.

Some (though not the Hardy-smitten) may ask – “why so?”  And the answer, of course, is that it is in this attic that his wife, Emma, spent pretty much the last ten plus years of her life.  The National Trust volunteer at the Hardy birthplace cottage in Brockhampton had said: “well it’s not really an attic.”  But you know what?  It is.

Emma wasn’t confined there, like the crazy Bertha Mason in Jane Eyre (though some did question Emma’s sanity).  Far from it.   It was a painful voluntary separation.  But, heck, what can you do to get yourself some sort of life when you are eclipsed by the great man of English literature with his constant train of visitors, with folk peering over the garden wall trying to get a glimpse of him, and with the various literary groupies paying calls and trying to catch his eye?  It would not be surprising for anyone to become a little paranoid, particularly given her husband’s well known flirtations.

I suppose that being a veteran of a long marriage myself, I can allow myself the privilege of looking at how other folk have coped.  And for the Victorian celebs like Hardy (and, one might add, Charles Dickens) it seems a fair cop since their marital travails were (like those of the much less interesting celebs of today) more or less public property.

When the Hardys moved in to the house in 1885, Tom was approaching the top of his game as a novelist.  Far from the Madding Crowd had propelled him to stardom and he’d recently completed the marvellous Mayor of Casterbridge.  The house (subsequently expanded) was a substantial residence for a man of substance.  A little dowdy, may be, but he was in this respect, it seems, a man of his time and he had a soft spot for the solid Victorian villa, despite Charles Harper – one of Hardy’s early topographers – having extolled the virtues of quaint Dorset thatch and noting that only “foolish folk” – “seek to be… ‘up to date'”.

And in his up-to-date house, periodically being modernised and extended, Hardy seems to have had peripatetic studies.  First writing in one room, then another and then another, where Emma (unless Tom wasn’t there) feared to tread.  He seems to have been so curmudgeonly towards her that she wasn’t even allowed to borrow his books. For Emma, I guess, there was nowhere to go, and once there was the attic she was up there like a shot (though she must have struggled with the steep narrow stairs).  A single bed in one little room, a space to think and work in another little room.  The great man could have the rest of the house and she would appear on occasion when protocol required.  But one still can’t ignore the fact that the lady of the house had to live (and die) in the attic.

It wasn’t always doom and gloom and they must have had some fun on their frequent cycling trips together (though they didn’t have a tandem), but the troubled marriage now had its physical separation. As Emma herself had advised – “keeping separate a good deal was a way of dealing with crises.”  But this physical manifestation of keeping separate was routine, not a crisis.

So, living in the same house, Emma and Tom saw each other intermittently, and, as one memoir noted, in the later stages they did not speak, even when together at meals, and Tom was often eating in his study anyway.  Second wife-in-waiting Florence Dugdale – insidiously, it seems, in the confidence of  Emma as well as Tom – visited frequently in the final years of Emma’s life and Tom was on occasion heading off to the Suffolk coast and elsewhere to be with her. Florence even had a friend’s flat available in London for her and Tom to pursue their liaison.

To add to the marital strife there was serious angry bitterness between Emma and Hardy’s family and in the last years of her life Emma was composing her “black” diaries full of bile about her spouse which the anguished Tom found after her death and burnt. The atmosphere in the house must have become pretty dire. Emma’s behaviour was regarded as increasingly eccentric and she became the butt of many disparaging comments. How could she be such an embarrassment to the great man? Denys Kay-Robinson in his well-researched book on the marriage (The First Mrs Thomas Hardy) is more sympathetic to Emma than many and he doesn’t mince his words about Max Gate describing it at the outset as “the gaol he [Tom] had specially built” for Emma.

Emma struggled to cope with life as the wife of a celebrity and to establish her own integrity and identity in the marital melee.  It can’t have been easy for her and the troubled state of her mind was hardly surprising.  Physically she had the attic, but mentally, where could she go for refuge?  And then, of course, to crown the difficulties for her there were the great man’s dalliances and infatuations.  He seemed to have done what he could – sometimes beyond what he should – to further the literary ambitions of his young paramours, but steadfastly ignored poor old Emma’s scribblings.

His novels and stories tell tales of marital and sexual strife and disharmony, with predatory males taking advantage of innocent maids, and hapless males like Jude succumbing to feminine wiles.  Curiously in the 1890s Tom shaved off his respectable Victorian beard and took to sporting a waxed moustache like his own character, Alec d’Urbeville, the cad who preyed on Tess, with his moustachio’d stage villain appearance.  Photographs of Emma show her middle-aged and thoroughly buttoned up, while Tom’s attentions wandered to Rosamund Tomson, to Florence Henniker, to Agnes Grove and ultimately to Florence Dugdale.  Serial dalliances.  No wonder Emma, roundly criticised for not supporting her great man, was driven mentally to distraction and physically to the attic.IMG_3836

One view is that she should have gritted her teeth and rejoiced at the privilege of being the great man’s wife.   A rather naive view, I think.  Humiliated at times by Tom’s carryings-on, she was not loth in turn inexpertly to try to humiliate him.   And the last of the dalliances, Florence Dugdale, had her comeuppance in the end since once Emma died, Tom drove Florence spare by devoting much of his energy to recovering his love for Emma and revering her memory.  Emma was “his late espoused saint”, as the unremittingly hostile Florence scathingly put it.

So what on earth possessed the great man to pursue his late-life infatuations?  Was he really so hopelessly flattered as younger women beat a path to his door?  Jude-like did he lay down his books unable to resist?  I prefer to look at this in the round.  Anyone reading a biography of Hardy’s life will be struck how, even as a young man, he was driven to pursue affairs with women.  There were a series of relationships or attempted relationships (some very evident, some less so) before he met and fell in love with Emma.  The older Hardy’s infatuations simply followed in the wake of the younger Hardy’s flirtations.  Denys Kay-Robinson – in his book on Emma – even goes so far as to hint that one motive for Hardy moving to London as a young man might well have been that it was there he could experience the thrills of the seamier side of the metropolis and he asks – are we really to believe he never sampled the wares?

There are intriguing questions yet to be answered and perhaps best left alone.  After all, even these days we begrudgingly acknowledge that celebrities are entitled to a bit of private life.  For one, such as I, blown over by this great man’s work, it seems almost sacreligious – (I know,  it is not the right word for Hardy) – to intrude so much into the private affairs of his marriage with Emma.  And I fear to step.  But, of course, his writing invites us there.  The poems that he wrote about women, about love, and the outpouring of verse after Emma’s death, take us deep into the private life he lived.  So with the tiny attic now empty, its small single bed without an occupant, the stricken Tom sat in his study below and discovered how much he was bereft; and how he now had to steel himself to face the “dark undying pain” of his lost love.

November 2017

The main book I’ve referred to in this blog is The First Mrs Thomas Hardy by Denys Kay-Robinson, published by Macmillan, London 1979

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I’ve also mentioned The Hardy Country by Charles G. Harper, published by Adam and Charles Black, London 1904

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Back on the trail of Thomas Hardy’s Jude – the missing cottage

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I’d been meaning for some time to trek up again towards Fawley – the Marygreen which was the home of the young Jude in Thomas Hardy’s famous novel, Jude the Obscure. The recent May sunshine gave me the excuse to abandon domestic chores and head up towards the Ridgeway, the wonderful “white road” (Hardy) where (in H. W. Timperley’s words) the normal self is enlarged and the influence of the sky is out of proportion to the modest altitude.  I wanted, in particular, to pay a visit to something which no longer existed.  “How typical”, my family would have muttered to themselves as I headed out of the door.  “He’s off to look at something that’s not there!”

And so I trekked an oft-trod route up to Letcombe Bassett (Cresswell), past the cress beds where the much maligned Arabella hurled the private part of a dead pig over the fence into Jude’s face, up the steep incline across the fields where Jude and Arabella courted, and on to the “white road”.  It was certainly white that day, with no rain for some weeks and the strong sun baking the path bright and hard.  At the point where the Ridgeway meets the main Wantage-Hungerford highway (A338) I turned south on to the road and after three-quarters of a mile, dodging traffic, I ventured into the edge of a field of corn on the west side of the road.  An entirely unremarkable spot to the hundreds of folk in cars who drive past here everyday and, I suspect, to most other folk, but not of course to those well versed in Hardy’s remarkable tale of Jude for, as tour no. 10 of the Thomas Hardy Society pamphlets puts it:  “this is where Hardy placed Jude and Arabella’s cottage, in which the pig-killing took place.  There was once a cottage here, but nothing now marks the spot”.  Well, for a moment, at least, I was marking it.

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I know it’s sad and I ought to get out more, as they say, but I’d been wondering about this cottage for months.  Was there really ever a cottage there?  If so, where exactly and what manner of cottage was it?  Why would someone put a cottage there, in the middle of nowhere?  Was there really nothing there any more?  Okay, I know it is a book of fiction, but Hardy needed real places to centre his fictional world and this spot was no different.

From Part 1 Chapter 9 of the novel we know the location to be “a lonely roadside cottage between the Brown House [on the Ridgeway] and Marygreen [Fawley]”; and topographical guides to Hardy, written by folk a lot more knowledgeable of the subject than I, locate it at the junction where the path from Fawley heading north meets the main road.  This is the path across the fields which Jude routinely treads when he heads north out of Fawley and wants to get to anywhere at all. It is a real path, is still there and is still used (well, by me at any rate).  I confess that weeks earlier I had already dragged my poor wife out to this spot when visiting a nearby location by car and she gamely joined me in scouring the corners of the fields immediately either side of the junction where the footpath meets the main road.  Was there any trace of anything to indicate a cottage which might have been there more than a hundred years ago?  There were some decent sized rocks along the boundary of the path which, I supposed, could have been (or not) the remnants of some structure, a wall or foundations perhaps, but nothing else at all.

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Once I was home again this (literally) “field visit” prompted me to engage in more bookish research.  Bertram C. A. Windle’s splendid little book, The Wessex of Thomas Hardy, first published in 1906 only ten years after Jude’s publication (and, of course, during Hardy’s lifetime) doesn’t tell us which side of the path the cottage was on, but it does tell us that a cottage had been there but at that time was already “ruined”.  The book  provides a most useful footnote: “since these lines were written this cottage has been pulled down, nothing but the foundations, surrounded by a hedge and some pine trees, now remaining”.

The Thomas Hardy Society pamphlet locates the cottage at the junction alongside the road on the north side of the path to Fawley.  (I shouldn’t have been looking south of the path.)  So with this in mind I got my maps out and also began reading (yet again) Part 1 of Jude.  Interestingly as well as a reference to the location of the cottage in Part 1 Chapter 9 (the marriage to Arabella and its aftermath), there is in Part 1 Chapter 7 (the first date with Arabella) reference to Jude walking the path and “passing the few unhealthy fir-trees and cottage where the path joined the highway”.  And there is also an interesting further prequel in Part 1 Chapter 2 when the schoolboy Jude, smarting at his dismissal and from the beating by Farmer Troutham treads the path “till the track joined the highway by a little clump of trees”.  So no mention of a cottage this first time (the pressures of serialisation create a slight continuity issue perhaps), but the trees are there again.

So what do we have?  A cottage, fir trees, a hedge and we can add to these the other details in the novel which form the background to the break-up of Jude’s unhappy marriage – a vegetable garden with a gate accessible from the road and a pig sty.  The cottage may be a “half-furnished hut”, but it had a bedroom, an upstairs and downstairs, and a fireplace with a copper and a blower.  That the cottage was immediately next to the road, there is little doubt.  When Jude grabs hold of Arabella to stop her mistreating his books she goes out of the door and “into the highway”, whereupon she exaggerates and denounces his abuse to passers-by.

And so I turned to the reprinted old hard copy maps that I have.  The one published between 1817 and 1828 shows the path up from Fawley, but no structures at the junction with the main road.  The 1919 map similarly shows no buildings.  However, when I look at the map published 1897-1899, opposite the milestone (3 miles to Wantage), north of the path from Fawley and just south of another track which cuts north-west across the road, I detect the black smudge of what could be a building immediately on the western side of the road.  So I went on line and, thanks to the marvellous digital availability of the Ordnance Survey county series maps, I discovered I wasn’t mistaken.

The 1879 map of Berkshire shows a definite structure in that spot and, what is more, adjacent to it are the distinctive map symbols for coniferous trees.  So there we likely have it just as it is described in the novel – the cottage and the fir trees.  What is more, the structure immediately adjacent to the road is even identified upon the map as the Letcombe Regis T.P.  So this would have been the turnpike and toll cottage located on the main road.  Sure enough, a bit of further research on turnpikes.org.uk confirms the existence of the Letcombe Regis toll house “opp. Black Bushe, beside path to Fawley”.  Interestingly there are a couple of other buildings around here also.

The 1882 map has the structure still present.  But by the 1899 map, while the coniferous trees are still marked on the triangular piece of land, there are no longer structures.  The cottage has gone.  Maps over the succeeding years see also the disappearance of the fir trees seemingly replaced by non-coniferous trees and eventually the disappearance of any evidence of a discrete patch of land.  The disappearance of this cottage on the maps seems to tally chronologically with the other evidence of its demolition; the timing of its disappearance also fitting in neatly with the end of the turnpike roads and the winding up of the turnpike trusts in the 1870s.  The cottage was there and will have been seen by Hardy when he was conceiving and writing Jude and will have disappeared not long afterwards.

I have as yet found no pictures of the Letcombe Regis turnpike or toll house, but what might it have looked like?  Such a structure in this part of the country could well have been of  brick,  would have fronted immediately upon the road for the collection of tolls, and traditionally, it seems, would have provided sufficient accommodation for the family of the turnpike keeper, a vegetable plot and (yes you’ve guessed it)… a pig sty.

So there I was on that fine day, searching a field for something that might still suggest an old cottage.  And what do I find?  I find ploughed up bits of broken brick right along the spot where the cottage would have been, stretching for several yards.

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It was early evening when I trekked back along the Ridgeway and then down into Wantage.  I paused at the top, as ever, to gaze across the Vale to Oxford in the distance in the vain hope of  seeing Jude’s “heavenly Jerusalem”.  It was clear and I had binoculars.  Garsington – yes.  Blackbird Leys and Cowley – yes.  Wood Farm, Risinghurst and Shotover Hill – yes.  But the main part of the city with its colleges and the shining spots upon the spires…?  They seemed to be lying unseen in the dip, as usual, with only the cranes of the West Gate development poking above the rise.  And then I thought I saw just a glimpse, faintly revealed, miraged in the peculiar atmosphere.  And I walked on, blissfully, singing Blake’s Jerusalem loudly.

A couple of hours later I wearily sat down at the kitchen table and opened my rucksack.  “What on earth have you got there, you silly man?”  my wife enquired.  “Don’t ask,” I said.  “It’s too complicated.”


 

Postcript – 21st June 2017

I finally got round to looking at Hermann Lea’s Thomas Hardy’s Wessex, first published in 1913.  Lea was among the early topographers of Hardy’s world and one of those with whom Hardy co-operated.   Here is how Lea describes his own visit to the cottage (p.50):

“…here we meet with disappointment; real as it has been and as it is remembered – starved fir-trees and all – it was completely destroyed by fire some twenty years ago, and only the site on which it stood can now be pointed out by the local residents.”

Mmm…  Real and remembered, fir trees and all.  The site can be pointed out by local residents…  I suppose that must be me now.  But hang on a moment.  Something new here – “completely destroyed by fire some twenty years ago”.  I’ll need to start looking for scorch marks on the old bricks.  Surely if an old toll house was completely destroyed by fire in the 1890s there would be some newspaper report somewhere.  Surely?  I’ll add this to my “to do list”.

 

Walking in the footsteps of Jude

 

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I walk for pleasure.  A trek of a few miles or so from my house across the downlands to the Ridgeway and back is one of the joys of my retirement.  The history I know speaks to me at each step I take.  In my younger days I would run, pounding out of me the frustrations of stressful work, and my runs were more anger management than reflection.  But now I walk and think; and it is not just the history that speaks to me but literature too, since where I now walk  was the haunt of many literary folk and is the backdrop to one of greatest of novels in the English language, Jude the Obscure by Thomas Hardy.

Most educated folk could name half a dozen or so of the main characters of Hardy’s novels, but for me it is not just the characters that live in my mind but also the landscape they inhabit and their treks across this landscape.  For as well as the heroes and heroines of Hardy, his other main characters are geography and walking.  Lots of folk have written about this; and the more I look the more I find. But for me it’s personal; because I hike these trails so often.  Hardy knew the landscapes, of course, and made a thing of them.  As he wrote: “the description of these backgrounds has been done from the real – that is to say, has something real for its basis, however illusively treated”.  So, whatever Hardyesque “imaginings” emerge from his wonderful landscapes, when you walk these paths “done from the real” you walk with Tess and with Jude.

Of course, the notion of walking has changed drastically over the past 150 years.  Walking across the countryside for most folk now is a leisure activity, performed to ensure health and wellbeing;  but in the time of poor country folk like Jude and Tess walking was a practical necessity and Tess, for example, would think nothing of getting up at three o’clock in the morning to walk thirty miles. True, the industrial revolution and the arrival of the railways put a different perspective on things (another theme in Hardy’s works) and both Jude and Tess take advantage, but the practical necessity of walking still looms enormously large.

So when I reach for my battered copy of Jude, I also reach for my ordnance survey (OS) maps and not just the modern ones, since it is difficult to trace the walks of this unfortunate character unless you know the lie of his landscape as well as ours.  I try to track his first encounters with the buxom Arabella Donn – the treks from Wantage (Alfredston) and Fawley (Marygreen) to Letcombe Bassett (Cresswell).  I had often assumed that Jude would have taken the well-marked trail just north-west of his home in Fawley to join the Ridgeway before dropping down to Letcombe Bassett, but most curiously the OS map of the time [1897-1900] doesn’t even show this major path, (even more curiously the earlier OS map [1817-1830] does show it).  I have even proudly taken visitors along the path saying this is the way Jude would have gone to make that fateful second encounter.  Wrongly, I’m afraid.  He would, in fact, have taken the path north-east by the concave field and on to what is now the main road.  What happened to the path to make it go missing between 1830 and well into the 20th century, I do not know.  It is a large thoroughfare.  Perhaps some local historian may be able to shed light on this.  The path doesn’t even feature in the 1919 map.

I also, inevitably, track Jude’s “suicide walk” when, back with the indomitable Arabella in Christminster (Oxford), a sick man and desperate to see the ethereal Sue, he takes the train to Wantage Road station (alas no more) and, with the help of the steam tramway (also no more) to Alfredston (Wantage) town, he walks in the pouring rain to Marygreen (Fawley) and back again.  It is a long uphill trek along the main road south out of Wantage, past the site of the old workhouse, and even when you get to the milestone near the ridge where he carved his initials as a young man, there is still some way to go.

Hardy called him “Jude the Obscure”, but on this trip he must have been anything but “obscure”.  Indeed he struck a curious figure, “oddly swathed”, as Hardy writes, in a long great-coat and blanket, “pale as a monumental figure in alabaster and much stared at by other passengers”.  Jude the stone mason seems to have chiselled out his own persona and he is now not so much Jude the Obscure, as Jude the Pathetic.  And then we have the bizarre encounter with Sue in the Marygreen (Fawley) church. This is the last time ever he will see the love of his life who has also trapped herself in a loveless marriage and he comes out with things like: “You dear, sad, soft, most melancholy wreck of a promising human intellect”, “[you] only are indulging in the luxury of emotion raised by an affected belief”. We can just hear the giggling at the back of the creative writing class as the teacher says – “come on Tom, I think you need to work a little bit more on the dialogue”.  But, of course, Hardy has it right on the button, because this is the poor abject Jude.  And as Hardy has Arabella say when Jude finally gets home:  “What a curious chap you are!” “Lord – you do talk lofty!  Won’t you have something warm to drink” (which of course, Jude, being Jude, declines). The poor fellow even fails in his suicide walk, recovering and going back to work before he finally succumbs to his lonely pathetic demise.

In pursuit of his chimerical dons of Oxford and the elusive Sue,  Jude fails to cope with the real Donn (Arabella), that “woman of rank passions”, despite marrying her twice. For me, in my wonderings and wanderings about Jude and his landscape, it is the strong survivor Arabella who now often emerges as the ultimate heroine of the tale.

What a stark, pathetic figure Jude will have made on that lonely final walk, on his train journey and as he endured his long wait on the platform while changing trains at Didcot station.  How his fellow passengers will have stared at him and wondered.  There is so much unsaid in Hardy’s terse and factual account of his journey back. “To get home he had to travel by a steam tramcar, and two branches of railway, with much waiting at a junction.”  Poor gullible, honourable Jude!  But what of me?   Who also traced a humble step briefly into an Oxford college.  Who reverently pauses by the milestone just to check if there really is any trace of Jude’s chiselled initials and to work out how he could have spread his blanket to rest in the driving rain.  Even when waiting at Didcot station I see his ghostly alabaster form soaked to the skin, wrapped in his blanket, its edges trailing on the station platform as it hangs from his weak grasp.

Hardy draws me in and won’t let me go.  His imaginings become mine and haunt the landscape I inhabit making it richer every day.  And yet the critical onslaught against this book put an end to Hardy’s novel writing.  He cared.  He couldn’t face any more of it.  How many other great novels did we lose because of this?  Perversely, of course, we all gained in the end, because Hardy now turned with increasing conviction to his verse; and alongside my battered copy of Jude also sit several volumes of his outstanding poetry, including the stark Dead Man Walking which brings me back once more to Jude as he stands waiting at the station platform to all intents and purposes defeated and already dead.

“I am but a shape that stands here,/A pulseless mould,/A pale past picture, screening/Ashes gone cold.

 

 

 

 

Two “War Poets” – George Rostrevor Hamilton & Alfred Dodd

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I wandered into my local second-hand bookshop this week. I try not to go in too often because I end up coming away with a pile of books and my shelves at home are already overflowing.  So I went in with the firm view that if I looked for anything at all it would at least just be stuff I’m already interested in and I wouldn’t get diverted.

Okay.  So I half succeeded.  On the stuff I’m interested in I pulled out a first edition of  some Thomas Hardy poems which was reasonably priced (because it was a second impression) and it now sits happily on my shelves with the few other green-backed TH monogrammed volumes that I have collected.  But, of course, half succeeding is half failing and on the “don’t get diverted” front I was too readily diverted and came away with a small volume of poetry called Apollyon and Other Poems of 1940 by George Rostrevor Hamilton. I paid a fiver but was attracted to it a) because I’d never heard of this writer and b) because inside were two autographs of poems, newspaper cuttings from The Times of 1940 (including the title poem Apollyon which it seems The Times published) and a St. Theresa’s Book-mark (“Patient endurance attaineth to all things”).  I’m not sure how many years of endurance – patient or otherwise – may be left to me but I think I should adopt this as my motto and hope for the best; the book-mark was probably worth the fiver in itself.

The two autographs are in a different hand, so which one, if either, is the author’s autograph is problematical. Both are of poems from the volume, one is signed G. Rostrevor Hamilton, the other is dated contemporaneously and signed G.R.H.. I’d plump for the latter if I had to and could probably, if sufficiently motivated, check from autographs held elsewhere.  So what of Rostrevor Hamilton?  University of Oxford, civil servant, prolific, religious, knighted, long-lived (1888-1967), director of the Poetry Book Society, Vice-President of the Royal Society of Literature; correspondent and collaborator with the good and the great – he even put together an anthology of topographical poetry with the much-loved John Arlott. He apparently counted the proportion of definite articles in Auden’s verse as a method of critique (take the hit, the muse!)  Though he was probably ahead of his time in this critical approach.  One might unkindly and perhaps a little unfairly see him as a literary functionary.

The poems in Apollyon were written in that fateful year of 1940  – Dunkirk, Battle of Britain – and Rostrevor Hamilton is doing his poetic bit for the war effort.  This is the Home Guard of the pedestrian poetic front, poems struggling but failing to stretch beyond their times and circumstances. Indeed one poem is called From the Home Front and laments how those in trenches “endure” while “we, having fed, turn on the news at nine./ Give us humility, Lord, in the armchair.”  A sort of  “Who do you think you are kidding, Mr Hitler!” only genuinely of their time, a little less fun and curiously – or so it seems to me – confident that in the end God will choose the right side.  There’s faith for you.  And although the “boys yet at school… [are] doomed to the disorder/Of a wrecked world…” “Yet with the strange lightness of heart shall you journey,/The weights of our illusion cast away,/Riding to deadly fight as to a tourney,/Carrying the gospel of a different day.”

Rostrevor Hamilton explains his approach in the preface: “During the first months of the War I came to feel more and more strongly the inadequacy of the standards by which we have lived – too lukewarm a religion, too mellow and comfortable a morality.”  Hence the stirring anthem to battle in Apollyon calling on God to “teach us extremes” and the call for the heart to “be angered” in the poem Anger. The battle with Hitler is the battle with the Devil; and Dr Goebbels “shall find that Evil is withstood/By ultimate, unconquered Good.”  Though the veterans of Dunkirk would, I suspect, find little solace in the single couplet poem B.E.F.: “Outmassed, by none outclassed, these men fought on,/Threatened by darkness, by no light outshone”; a poem written on 29th May, the day my 22-year-old father was desperately trying to get off the beaches, having walked across France for days seeing dozens die around him as they fled in absolute chaos.  Miraculously the next day my dad, having got off the beach, survived a direct hit on the Paddle Steamer, the Gracie Fields, so perhaps for him evil was indeed withstood by unconquered good.

Rostrevor-Hamilton was in his fifties when this volume was written and, obviously,  not involved in the combat.  He was, however, in earlier days a poet of the Great War and some of his verse (for example, the curious A Cross in Flanders) has been anthologised as such, though not widely.  It was while looking for – and failing to find – other examples of his work in anthologies in my small library – i.e. my converted garage – that I encountered another volume of “war poetry” which I had bought in a moment of weakness a few months ago and had as yet miserably failed to read.  Since I couldn’t find any more Rostrevor Hamilton I plucked from my shelf The Ballad of the Iron Cross by Alfred Dodd which I bought in an Oxfam on-line sale for £20 – a snip (seriously).  I retreated to my bed with this slim tome and happily became absorbed.

The book itself (my copy is a handsome red half-leather first edition with gilt titling to a banded spine and a gilt top edge) was published in 1918 and carries seven short poems as well as the ballad of the title.  Like the Rostrevor Hamilton volume it carries a preface by the author on similar themes – the courage of the fighting man and the struggle against evil.  It is also penned from the perspective of the outsider and in praise of those “fellows, who, in our stead, have boldly entered the Pit of Dreadful Night to fight with wild beasts and powers of the air”.  Dodd’s ballad does not seem to have been anthologised, perhaps because of its length, nor has his sympathetic pastiche of Rupert Brooke’s The Soldier which concludes this book, yet the poems in this volume stretch out meaningfully beyond their time and circumstance.

For me this is a gem of a book.  I find it difficult to understand how the ballad and the other poems do not seem to have found a more recent hard-back publisher (though print-on-demand copies can be purchased).  All the few poems in this book are memorable:  The Girl-Widow – a happy antidote to Rostrevor Hamilton’s A Cross in Flanders; The Stronghold Within – a many-layered paean to the strength of love (“The world recedes, all pain is o’er,/And LOVE, the guardian, locks the door”); the strength of the free spirit in The Lion Heart (“The bars of fate, the shade of death,/Can rob nor bar me from my goal;/Uncurbed I rule o’er mind and breath,/The lonely monarch of my soul”); and the powerful anger and bitterness of Commercialism and (with the nod to Thomas Gray) “The Mute Inglorious Miltons”.

The Ballad of the Iron Cross itself seems to me to be crying out for an illustrated edition such as the wonderful editions of Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner which Dodd consciously imitates (even with the added gloss) and he references the Rime in the ballad itself. Filling over 36 pages in this slim volume, it is split into six cantos, seems to mimic the free verse, stanzas, metre and rhyming schemes of the Rime and introduces that strong supernatural element which was the hallmark of Coleridge’s ballad.  In the preface, Dodd tells us that the poem “is based, in its essentials , on actual fact narrated… by a soldier who had won the V.C.”, though the action in which the soldier seized the Iron Cross from his German foe in a single-handed combat with bayonets was not the action which won the Victoria Cross.  “It describes events that actually happened in the life of a soldier”.  The ballad tells the arrival in a provincial town of the hero and his Victoria Cross, the welcome of the crowd, the later conversation with the narrator of the poem – a childhood friend – who amidst the revelry has seen “o’er his head a CROSS – blood-red -/That sinister ghost-gleams flaunted,/And I read in his look writ as plain as a book,/The V.C. Tommy was haunted”.  He advises the soldier to “destroy the blasted Cross” to avoid the haunting, but the soldier is stubborn and will not: “To yield to fear that souvenir,/I never will agree”.  Unlike for the ancient mariner, for our V.C. hero there is hardly a sniff of redemption as he is driven mad by the haunting:

“He doth not wear his khaki coat,/Flecked by war’s muddy sea,/A waistcoat strait they’ve placed on him,/ From which he’ll ne’er be free; His mind is stained with khaki dye,/A raving maniac, he.”

Dodd has explained his aesthetic approach in his preface:  “while the narrative is continued through the various cantos, there are quietly introduced suggestions, reflections, social, philosophic, psychic, and theological problems.  These, I think, naturally arise out of the story.  To have suppressed them would have destroyed, to a large extent, the true function of poetry – which should not only seek to interest the reader, but to kindle his imagination, arouse his emotions, quicken his idealism, and provoke thought that will ultimately lead to action.”  In a way this echoes Rostrevor Hamilton’s aims, but Dodd’s ballad transcends and, for me, puts him right there with  other more renowned war poets.  And the story of the seizing of the Prussian soldier’s Iron Cross was indeed based on fact.  One just has to read the accounts of the amazing war exploits of Thomas “Todger” Alfred Jones VC, DCM – though Dodd’s hero’s sorry fate of asylum and madness appears to be an invention since Jones lived to 1956 apparently keeping his medals, and no doubt, the Iron Cross with them, in a kitchen drawer.  A quick search of the internet gives lots of information.

What a find this volume was for me and what a further twist in the tail I found when I did some cursory research on Alfred Dodd.  A freemason, he does not seem to have been been prolific as poet, though I’ve seen reference to one other very rare volume of his verse.  However – and though I may be making the same unconfirmed assumptions as others –  this must surely be the same Dodd who spent more than 30 years researching and writing on the life of Sir Francis Bacon, publishing much of his research; and he was firmly of the view – and explains why – that Bacon was not only the son of Queen Elizabeth 1st, but also the author of Shakespeare’s works.  But that’s another oft rehearsed story and one I’m not about to embark upon here.

The books I’ve been blogging on are:

Apollyon and other Poems of 1940 by George Rostrevor Hamilton, published by William Heinemann Ltd, London 1941

The Ballad of the Iron Cross by Alfred Dodd, published by Erskine MacDonald Ltd, London 1918