So Emily Dickinson did title some poems? No… Well… A few… Yes… Sort of…

Image from White Heat by Brenda Wineapple

I have been musing again on the poet Emily Dickinson and the titling – or rather non-titling – of her poems.

It’s rather sad, I know. And at the moment I don’t even have a pandemic Lockdown to blame. Nor this time do I have the excuse of a challenging throwaway comment on untitled poems by my wife to set me on this trail. And I suspect she is unconcerned at this renewed dalliance with the enchanting Dickinson – until, I suppose, more books come flooding through the door, get piled up and cause irritating clutter that glares at her in every room.

It’s a few years now since I first dwelt on this conundrum and, although lots of folk write about the issue, I still have a key reference point in John Mulvihill’s splendidly succinct article “Why Dickinson Didn’t Title”, where he highlights the initially (for me at any rate) rather gnomic “linguistic scepticism” as a way to reaching an answer to the riddle.

From John Mulvilhill’sWhy Dickinson didn’t Title

Notoriously, Dickinson not only did not title her poems, but also did not publish. Okay, there were a few scattered poems published in her lifetime in serial publications – a round ten in all, it seems. (One of these ten also appeared separately in a collection.) The Emily Dickinson Museum website usefully enumerates them. All of these, bar one, when published, were given titles, but not, it seems, of course, by Dickinson. It was largely the rule of editorial convention which applied the rather anodyne titles. So whatever rather conventional titles were chosen, they were chosen, it seems, by the editors of the publications – a matter of course at the time and now, for us, a matter of fact.

The same happens when, after Dickinson’s untimely death in 1886 at the age of 55, her poems are finally gathered and published in the now famous series of three volumes by the inimitable Thomas Wentworth Higginson and the indomitable Mabel Loomis Todd

As well as butchering the poems (perhaps that’s a little harsh) – altering words, “improving” the rhymes, amending Dickinson’s idiosyncratic punctuation – the editors also “regularised” many poems by adding titles. The sensitive Higginson certainly had serious reservations about the intrusive and barbarous editorial assault and at times fought back against the tampering Todd. But the intrusions were evident across all the three “series” of poems. As Brenda Wineapple notes in her marvellous book on the relationship between Higginson and Dickinson, White Heat (p. 292):

‘Regardless, the editors snipped this, sorted that, with Mabel perpetually inclined to alter Dickinson’s subjunctives. And they also “corrected” grammar… spoiling the internal rhyme… and tampering with the meaning…

And as part of the regularisation of Dickinson’s poetry, they added – Wineapple tells us – their “awful” “reductive titles”. We can likely see an example of this titling in the Todd transcription of Dickinson’s poem “A sepal, petal and a thorn…’ (Though to be fair it is worth noting that not all poems were given these “reductive titles” in the early editions. At least in the first London edition of the poems many are still completely untitled.)

The Dickinson manuscript of the poem at the bottom of the pageno title, of course

The image of the Todd manuscript is made publicly available here and the Dickinson manuscript – held by Amherst College – available here. (There is a fascinating whole host of Dickinson manuscripts and transcriptions digitised and – usually – available on line via various resources.)

The first editions of Dickinson’s poetry sold like hot cakes. Perhaps the editorial interventions assisted in smoothing Dickinson’s rough and vibrant edges for the unsuspecting and ill-prepared late nineteenth century public, but the resulting editorial chaos has been taking years to sort out. And now, of course, we know: the titles are a fabrication. Dickinson’s marvellous poetry was consciously untitled by the reclusive poet. She didn’t do titles. And that’s more or less that. Or is it? Because if we look a little closer, it’s not quite the full story.

Indeed, as many commentators acknowledge, there are occasions where Dickinson does consciously give her poems… well what? A name? An identity? A title? Well, it can be a practical matter. If she’s referring to them, when sending them to folk, she has to call them something. And sending them to folk was something she did frequently. Sometimes when writing letters she includes poems which get referenced, sometimes the poems just form part of the general flow of the text she’s writing. Sometimes, it seems, the poem is a letter or the letter is a poem. Her letters, of course, can be as poetic as her poetry, and indeed, are almost just as much an integral part of her artistic output as the poems themselves. This is something which was recognised right at the outset with the publication in 1894 by Todd of a two-volume edition of the Letters of Emily Dickinson. A precursor to this was Higginson’s illuminating publication in The Atlantic in October 1891 where he reflected on his relationship with Dickinson and published some of her correspondence with him. Then later, in 1915, we have more unpublished letters printed in The Atlantic in the endearing portrait of Dickinson by her niece Martha Dickinson Bianchi.

The situation regarding titles is summed up by Thomas H. Johnson who edited the first famous variorum edition of Dickinson’s poems back in the 1950s and is quoted by Mulvilhill in his article. Effectively, it seems, Dickinson herself gave “titles” to 24 poems, the overwhelming majority of these (21 it is said) were for poems which she sent to friends, and of these only two of the “titles” were actually included in the poems themselves. The rest were simply references in the letters which accompanied the poems. The three remaining titles did actually occur in the famous packets or fascicles in which Dickinson recorded her work.

My own paperback copy of The Complete Poems of Dickinson has almost 1800 poems in it. A cursory glance through the pages of this book makes it self-evident that titles are a rare thing indeed.

So I set to and search the 700 plus pages of this volume to try to find that rare species of a Dickinson poem which bears a “title” attached to it apparently sufficiently by her own hand for it be included in her Complete Poems. Needles and haystacks come to mind. After some foraging, I find two in the whole Complete Poems. One called Snow flakes. Another called Purple. Expecting to find three, I look again but draw a blank. I’ll come back to this in a moment.

But let’s first note how wonderfully ironic – or rather symptomatic – it is that there is no index in the book which will give me the two “titled” poems without searching for them page by page. There is, of course, an Index of First Lines and – crucially – also a Subject Index which helps the reader find poems where Dickinson writes about any number of topics – Death and the Dead, Love and the Loved, the Sun, the Moon, Birds, Bees, the Night (but curiously not the famous “Wild” ones) and so on. A sort of concordance, though not quite. But there is no index for the rare two “titled” poems. Well, fair enough, I suppose since Dickinson didn’t do titles and indeed, as the preamble to the Subject Index in the volume declares outright – “there are no titles”. Well yes… of course, but not quite… Since two of the poems in the volume do seem to have “titles”. Or perhaps this is just an illusion. Seriously.

As a brief aside – and again ironically or symptomatically, this – almost – universal absence of titles has led to that most useful convention of titling which we are more accustomed to finding in the opus numbers of composers (or perhaps in writerly terms Shakespeare’s sonnets, though that is probably another story). Namely (that must be the wrong word here…) – give the darn things numbers so that we can find them. And for Emily Dickinson this is precisely what Thomas H. Johnson did and after him the next editor to tackle the conundrum – R. W. Franklin, who (naturally) changed Johnson’s enumeration, thus happily confusing matters further, meaning that we now have J (Johnson) numbers and F (Franklin) numbers. But, let’s get back to the two poems which in my Johnson edition do – apparently – have “titles”: Snow flakes and Purple. Or as we would need to know them in order to find them in the Johnson volume – I counted till they danced so (aka J36) and The Color of a Queen is this (aka J776).

So what then are we to make of these “titled” anomalies – Snow flakes and Purple? Well, the first thing is actually to set out the “titles” as Dickinson actually presented them and as the Complete Poems has tried faithfully to reproduce them. This means providing the punctuation which the Dickinson manuscripts use. Oh dear! Punctuation… And Emily Dickinson… We are already embarking on a slippery slope. What we have here is Snow flakes. and Purple – So Snow flakes (as well as having the small case f in flakes and being two words) also has after it a full stop (or period as it is known transatlanticly). And Purple has after it the wonderful Dickinsonian dash. Here are the images of the manuscripts of these poems in Dickinson’s hand, publicly available courtesy of Amherst College and the previously noted Emily Dickinson Archive at here and here.

Well, goodness! This is Dickinson’s own hand and they look like titles don’t they, centred as they are by Dickinson above the poems – despite the period and the dash. I haven’t done a straw poll, but I think the immediate response of most folk, if asked, would be to say that these were the poems’ titles. But it is, of course, by no means that straight forward and more learned folk are quite right still to debate the issue.

For example, Linda Sue Grimes on the Owlcation web page sets out quite cogently her views on why Snow flakes. is not a “true title”, but rather a “seeming title”. First, as we know, and self evidently, Dickinson didn’t do titles, so why suddenly should she here? Second, the word snowflake – even, I might add, at the time that Dickinson was writing – is normally one word not two. (I checked the OED – there’s etymology for this in the 19th century including Shelley, though oddly “snow-flake” or even “snowflake” don’t make an appearance at all in the copy of the Webster’s dictionary that was in the Dickinson household – available here courtesy of the Harvard Library. Webster here regards “flake” sufficient to denote a flake of snow.) But to get back to the point, the implication in the Dickinson usage is that we might have here not a title, but a two-word line of verse – “Snow flakes”; “flakes” thus being an independent word – a verb probably describing what the snow is doing. Snow flakes. is thus – Grimes argues – the first line of the poem. (“It is wise to think of it as a sentence or first line of the poem, and not a title.”)

I confess I am not sufficiently well versed in the syntax of Dickinson’s poetry to see this as a credible or incredible option – but I suppose one couldn’t rule it out. Contemporaneous editor Loomis Todd seems, however, to have seen this as a title – her typed reproduction of the poem being annotated – “named by herself” i.e. Dickinson. Clearly a sufficiently unusual phenomenon for it to be noted.

In her thoughts on this “seeming title” Grimes sees the two words as a sentence and also notes the full stop – or period – that follows flakes, concluding that “that form of the so-called title itself demonstrates that the title is indeed merely the first line of the poem, ‘Snow flakes.’ ” Grimes bolsters this argument with the notion that titles don’t conclude with punctuation. “The period at the end—along with the fact that there are two words—indicates a sentence. Emily Dickinson was a voracious reader, and she was well aware that titles contain no end punctuation.

But surely, and for 19th century America in particular, this is not quite the case. Typically the titled headers in magazines and newspapers would actually commonly end with a full stop (for example The New York Times.). Even headlines would commonly conclude with a full stop. And Dickinson, as a voracious reader, would have frequently seen this convention at the time the poem was written – even in the title page of The Atlantic Monthly. – in which Higginson’s writings appeared.

There’s another point to consider with regard to the “titling” of this poem, which Linda Sue Grimes also rightly points to (without conceding any ground on her views). “Snow flakes.” is one of Dickinson’s many riddle poems. So “snow flakes”, one might conclude, is not only a title or “seeming title” to a poem, it is also the answer to the riddle in the poem and thus, surely, a fine contender to be not only a true title but also more than a title – a key in fact to the poem’s potentially enigmatic subject matter.

Oh dear! How one can idle one’s time on just two words. And I haven’t even covered the question of the space between the words “snow flakes” and the rest of the poem – in manuscript and in publication…

Okay. So all that’s a bit of puzzle, then, but what about Purple – (aka The Color of a Queen is this & also aka Johnson 776)? Linda Sue Grimes – whose commentaries on Dickinson’s poems are well worth consulting – sees this as a “faux title” – in other words false or fake. Like Snow flakes, it seems like a title, but it ain’t – is the view here. And though the useful commentary on Dickinson’s poems at

declares that “this is one of only three poems in the packets of the poems to which Emily herself gave a title, the others being poem 36 and poem 161”, there is certainly a case for seeing this single word on the first line as more of an integral part of the poem than as a word which is set apart to describe what follows. Look how it partners the “Amber -” and the “Beryl -“. True, the word is centred on the manuscript at the outset, but the dash and the clear integration of this word and punctuation with the rest of the poem make me lean here towards the view that Dickinson is by no means providing us here with a title. And I am not sure that typographically setting it out in the Complete Poems to look like one, is quite the right thing.

But hey! Just to ignore its presence and remove it from the poem completely as here and here and here and here and no doubt elsewhere seems to me even more egregious.

And so to the third poem which Dickinson apparently titled in her own hand, but which doesn’t seem to make it at all as a titled poem into my edition of The Complete Poems. This is poem 161 in my Johnson edited volume and is published untitled as follows:

A feather from the Whippoorwill
That everlasting - sings!
Whose galleries - are Sunrise -
Whose Opera - the Springs -
Whose Emerald Nest the Ages spin
Of mellow - murmuring thread -
Whose Beryl Egg, what School-Boys hunt -
In "Recess" - Overhead!

This is a marvellous piece of verse and, like some other folk, I think that the bird in question here – the Whippoorwill – or Whippowil as Dickinson has it – is indeed the poet herself and the underlying subject is her own writing of the very poem. (And one even wonders if the last lines might not be a nod to Emily herself lowering her basket of goodies from “overhead” to children in the yard.) But let’s not distract ourselves by the important stuff. I must get back to the matter at hand – the darn titles. Editor Johnson’s note reproduced on the archive gives us a useful summary of what we are dealing with here:

MANUSCRIPTS: There are two, both written about 1860. [One]…was sent to Samuel Bowles, and is signed “Emily.” It is a variant (in lines 4 and 6) of the copy in packet 14 (H 72b), where it is titled by ED “Pine Bough.”

And here are the manuscripts, courtesy again of the archive:

Presumably the manuscript of the version sent to Bowles and signed by Dickinson as “Emily” (held by Amherst College)
This – the copy in Dickinson’s own sewn up packets with the designation “Pine Bough” (held by the Houghton Library, Harvard University).

Well, Crumbs! You can’t get much more of a title than this. Surely? It’s centred at the head of the poem. It has the full stop after it, which – I argue – was traditional normal punctuation for titles at the time. (Even in the manuscript of a recipe of Dickinson’s she puts a full stop after the title.) Moreover, this titling of the poem itself is in the very packets which Dickinson carefully prepared, as opposed to the frequent naming or referencing in the letters (usually away from the poems themselves). This seems to single this example out even more. And, heck, the title isn’t there in the note sent to Bowles. So it has been consciously and deliberately introduced at the head of the poem and can’t surely be regarded as an editorial amendment integral to the wording of the poem itself.

I check my copy of the first edition published Letters. And sure enough, no title. But we do have the interesting editorial comment from the Letters editor, the indefatigable Mabel Loomis Todd: “A spray of white pine was enclosed with this note”.

And so it all gets even more interesting. The wonderful Dickinson didn’t need to title the poem she sent to Samuel Bowles, because she sent him the thing itself, a real piece of pine – a real “pine bough” – as opposed to naming the thing in words. This “Pine Bough”, then, is not so much a title, as the mother of all titles. It is beyond titles. The very thing and not the naming of it. And, of course, the spray of pine is not a bird feather at all. It is almost a riddle in itself. The wonderful Dickinson is playing with us. Here we have an answer to a riddle that we didn’t even know had been asked. This is titling Emily Dickinson style.

Okay. I am getting over exuberant here, but there were other occasions where Dickinson pursued the notion of a using a real object to designate – or should that be to title – a poem. A notable example is the poem His little Hearse like figure (aka Johnson 1522) which runs as follows in my Complete Poems

His little Hearse like Figure
Unto itself a Dirge
To a delusive Lilac
The vanity divulge
Of Industry and Morals
And every righteous thing
For the Divine Perdition
Of Idleness and Spring -

In its presentation here – and in a manuscript version of the poem held at Amherst College – we can see that this poem is another of Dickinson’s untitled riddles where we struggle to understand what on earth it is about.

But if we consult the Emily Dickinson archive further and alight on another version of the poem, the subject of the verse becomes abundantly clear because the poem is here set out in a note by Dickinson for her kindergarten-age – and much loved – nephew Gilbert where it is prefaced not only by a dedication and instruction – “For Gilbert to carry to his Teacher”, but is also titled or named “The Bumble Bee’s Religion”. (Unless, of course, one argues that this dedication and the apparent title are all part of the poem…)

The manuscript of the note to Gilbert is held by Houghton Library, Harvard University

So we can conclude immediately that the “little Hearse like Figure” is in fact a dead bee. Moreover Gilbert’s sister, Martha, tells us in her Atlantic article that Dickinson’s note containing the poem was “accompanied by a dead bumble-bee”. This is a marvellous example of the explosive complexity of Dickinsonian art and artifice. The poem is an unsolved riddle; it is a solved riddle; it is an “occasional” poem; it has a dedication; it is deeply personal; it is more than a poem – it is a profound philosophical statement; it is woven into a note or a letter, into a proposed act; it doesn’t have a title; it does have a title; it doesn’t even need a title; the words can disappear, we have instead the thing itself. The poem – or is it by now a note – gets even more complex when Dickinson rounds off with two quotes:
“All Liars shall have their part” –
Jonathan Edwards –
“And let him that is athirst come” –
Jesus –

Crikey! One could write a whole academic thesis about this one individual poem. And again, I haven’t even got to what the poem actually might tell us about the bumble-bee or its religion and where this bee sits with the rest of Dickinson’s bumble bees, including the ones she drinks with (“We – Bee and I – live by the quaffing”). But it seems to me we have yet again another example of titling Emily Dickinson style. “It’s titling, Jim, but not as we know it…”

And certainly not as we know it from my version of The Complete Poems where it is unmentioned – or unmentionable.

And what of the other poems that Dickinson “titled”, named or referred to? I’ve already gone on far too much, but I’ll note the two that, according to Johnson, were enclosed in letters where the title is actually included in the poems themselves. The poems were “The Guest is Gold and Crimson” (aka J15) and “Teach Him – When He makes the names -” (aka J227). Here are the manuscripts of “The Guest is Gold and Crimson” (aka J15). Apologies for the fuzzy screenshots and clipped image, but you should be able to get a better view from the links below.

Well, darn it again, but who would say that “Navy” Sunset! is not some sort of title for the verse that follows? Surely, scarce though such titling is, the only question is what manner of titling is this? There are some obvious points. The poem was sent to Sue Dickinson (Emily’s sister-in-law) and is signed by Emily. The rendition of the poem is sent specifically to Sue at a specific time perhaps relating to some specific occasion. The title therefore might be construed as being “occasional”. It is a “letter poem” with Dickinson obviously sending it off with some specific purpose in mind. (I should research it more, but I haven’t.) The title is also absent in the fascicles or packets carefully prepared by Dickinson which lends even more strength to its “occasional” nature. It is, of course, also another riddle poem, and we might reasonably conclude that the title is a key or answer to the riddle.

I suppose one might ask, what on earth, is a “Navy” Sunset? The most obvious explanation is that the image derives from the darkening blue sky around the sun as it sets, for even in Dickinson’s time, I think, the term navy had the meaning of blue. But this is also, self evidently, one of the many examples of naval or nautical images that Dickinson uses in her work and perhaps she has in mind here the naval “sunset” ceremony also known as the “Evening Colours” when the flag is taken down at the end of the day. (However, my cursory research of historical U.S. navy uniforms – despite the cockades – reveals no ermine doublets or Capuchins.)

And, apparently, no physical representation or object enclosed by Dickinson to represent the poem. After all, you may be able to pick up a bee, or a twig, but you can’t get hold of a sunset. Though one wonders, if, perhaps, the Dickinson household had a flag – an ensign or jack, that she could have folded and popped in the letter… And this is not such a fanciful notion, since if we delve further on this matter of poems being referenced by accompanying physical objects, we only have to turn, for example, to poem J222: “When Katie walks, this simple pair accompany her side,/ When Katie runs unwearied they follow on the road,/When Katie kneels, their loving hands still clasp her pious knee -/ Ah! Katie! Smile at Fortune with two so knit to thee!

Another riddle poem we think? Certainly. But not a riddle to its recipient. For indeed (as well as a poem) it is a note to a friend, accompanied by… a pair of garters. As the eponymous Kate later told us: “Emily knitted a pair of garters for me, and sent them over with these lines”. A bee, a pine twig, a pair of garters… Why not a flag?

Of course, the marvellous Dickinson did “send” stuff to her correspondents that she couldn’t possibly enclose, as she once wrote in one of her many teasing letters to Mrs Bowles: “Since I have no sweet flower to send to you, I enclose my heart. A little one, sunburnt, half broken sometimes, yet close as the spaniel to its friends. Your flowers come from heaven, to which, if I should ever go, I will pluck you palms. My words are far away when I attempt to thank you so take the silver tear instead from my full eye.” (It makes me want to feel the manuscript and see if there is the stain of a tear.)

But let me, finally get to the other poem which seems to have some sort of accompanying title… “Teach Him – When He makes the names -” (aka J227). Here’s the poem as published in my (Johnson) Complete Poems. Of course (?), no title in my edition.

The poem, we learn elsewhere, was sent to Samuel Bowles and his wife shortly after the birth of their son Charles in 1861.

Here is the poem as published for the first time (I think) in Todd’s Letters of Emily Dickinson in 1894 where we are told on the preceding page that it was “one of the very few of Emily Dickinson’s verses named by herself”, seemingly sent to Mrs Bowles absent any accompanying letter. So the letter is the poem: the poem is the letter.

So what about the manuscript? Well here we have it made publicly available courtesy Amherst College Digital Collections.

There we have it: Baby. Surely it’s a dead cert title: the name of the little poem that follows. And Todd sets it out as such in the letters – capitalised (where did that editorial intervention come from?), and full stop afterwards (which I would argue is normal for titles at the time). But wait a moment. If you look closely at the manuscript… is that a full stop after Baby? It certainly is after “Emily”. But after Baby? Well, no, it ain’t. Looks like a dash to me, compare it with the rest of the dashes in the poem. It’s a dash. Oh dear. Is this one of those seeming titles? Is it actually just part of the poem? The air is turning Purple – for me… Alas, my pocket hasn’t stretched as far yet as the Variorum edition of Franklin, so I can’t dig out his view, if any, on this. And probably just as well, because I’ve pretty much got the end of my tether on this titling thing.

So how on earth can I summarise these random musings?

Did Dickinson do titles? No not really. Well that is surely fair to say. But yet… There’s something going on here, some versioning, some referencing of her work, often associated with her distribution of it on occasion to her correspondents and to which Dickinson is consciously and playfully party. And sometimes the referencing moves beyond words to things themselves and we have indeed to think about “linguistic scepticism” and the inadequacy of words comfortably to encapsulate what she is trying to tell us in her “letter to the World / That never wrote to me”.

The matter is, of course, compounded and confounded by Dickinson’s reluctance to publish her verse in her lifetime. Because – yes – titles matter when it comes to the editorial hand. What are we going to call this? The poet would be asked. Dickinson didn’t have to answer the question. In a curious way, it is not so much that Dickinson didn’t do titles, as that she didn’t have to do them. But the issue is, of course, greater than that.

And what of this vexed issue of publication? Was it that she didn’t care whether her poems ever saw the light of day? Were these scraps of poems saved for the world by happenstance? Goodness – no. We should never think that Dickinson was unconcerned about her “letter to the World” ever being sent. Not at all. She carefully copied out her poems, made them into little booklets, stitched them together with bits of string into packets. She carefully preserved them for posterity. This was not a chaotic careless creative process. She had something to say to the world and she darn well wanted the world to hear it. It was not that she did not want her work published, so much as that she did not want to publish it herself.

Dickinson’s notion of publication in her lifetime was to circulate her writings to the correspondents she valued. So, in a certain way, she did publish. And this must have been massively important for her. She was not after all, as we know too well, a keenly social being. However inadequate, words, in a sense, were all she had, and by gosh, did she make use of them!

Letters, notes, poems, utterances, thoughts all flow one into the other through the medium of inadequate but wonderful words and yet it is often the “not naming”, the riddles, the absences, the silences, the inexpressible joy and terror of existence which lurk behind these shadows of words that take your breath away. You unpack a Dickinson poem and it explodes. It is, after all, difficult to put into words the whole thing that is a world, a life, a being. But Dickinson gets mightily close to this unnameable essence.

So I move from the trite matter of titling to the larger matter of life. What’s it about? You can’t put a title on it, can you? We puzzle over a Dickinson poem and think – goodness me! – well, what is this about? If only she had called it something to give me a clue! But when we look at the whole single book of her work, of her world, we are asking the wrong question. We need to ask the same question that Dickinson posed to Thomas Wentworth Higginson about her verse when she wrote to him in 1862. Is it “alive”? She asked. Does it “breathe”? “Should you think it breathed – and you had the leisure to tell me, I should feel quick gratitude -“

And so I wheel right round to where I ended up in my previous random musing on Dickinson and titling. This is a neat circumference which makes me ponder once again the wonderful quatrain:

When Bells stop ringing - Church - begins
The Positive - of Bells -
When Cogs - stop - that's Circumference -
The Ultimate - of Wheels.

Let us hope that Dickinson did feel that “quick gratitude”; and even more that it endured during her short and solitary life.

April 2022

A main source for the above is the splendid digital collection of manuscripts at  Other sources are:
Emily Dickinson, The Complete Poems, edited by Thomas H. Johnson, Faber and Faber, London - first published in paperback 1975.
The Letters of Emily Dickinson, edited by Mabel Loomis Todd, in two volumes, published in Boston by Roberts Brothers in 1894.
White Heat - The Friendship of Emily Dickinson & Thomas Wentworth Higginson, by Brenda Wineapple, published by Alfred A. Knopf in New York 2008.
Well worth dipping into also is The Landscape of Absence - Emily Dickinson's Poetry by Inda Nath Kher, published by Yale University Press in 1974.
The first UK edition, Poems by Emily Dickinson - edited by Todd and Higginson and with a preface by Higginson - was published in London by James R. Osgood, McIlvaine, & Co. in 1891.

For my earlier musings on Emily Dickinson and the titling of poems see:


My Meetings with Vladimir Kazakov

My meetings with Vladimir Vasilyevich Kazakov were brief, intense and, alas, infrequent. They are now distant too – in space and time. Indeed, I can barely recollect if we met just once, twice or more. But we corresponded from time to time and then, as my life path foolishly diverged from directions which could have led me back to more encounters, I lost touch completely. At some point in those subsequent lost years I learned with sadness that he had passed away. He died in 1988. He was 49 years old.

My Meetings with Vladimir Kazakov (Moi vstreči s Vladimirom Kazakovym) is also the title of Kazakov’s first major published work, a collection of prose and dramatic scenes which was printed in the then West Germany by Carl Hanser Verlag in 1972. These first writings were followed by further publications in West Germany in the 1970s and 1980s. In those days of cold war politics and grand gestures, Kazakov’s quietly first published work created, I think, hardly a ripple on either side of the curtain that divided Europe, but I still to this day recollect the ripple I experienced, that shiver of discovery which takes hold when you pick up a book and find a unique, inimitable voice.

Vladimir Vasilyevich Kazakov was a unique and talented Russian author and poet. He died on 23rd June 1988. He was 49 years old. My Meetings with Vladimir Kazakov was the title of his first book published in Munich, Germany in 1972. For me, it was one of those rare books that one encounters with a curious shiver of delight, its echoes resonating with some of the lost sounds of a Russian literary movement which had all but been extinguished.

The manuscript of My Meetings circulated first, like many of Kazakov’s writings, in what was then called “samizdat” (self-publication) in a Soviet Russia which was hostile to any literary works which did not conform to its status quo. Eventually the manuscript found its way out through the many chinks in the iron curtain and into western Europe. It was not that Kazakov’s writings directly challenged the Soviet establishment, propagating disruptive ideas and politics anathema to the regime. Indeed, one could barely detect in these works any presence of a Soviet reality to be challenged. Kazakov’s literary world stretched beyond these parochial concerns. Perhaps that, in a sense, was more galling for those that held the literary reins.

I am not fully sure why in the past few weeks my attention suddenly turned towards the ingenious talent of this writer. The Days of Lockdown in this awful pandemic have played strange tricks on the mind and instead of journeying out physically into the world, I often found myself journeying inwards, these mental treks often sparked by some curious incidence or coincidence which then opened up before me trails I had not previously consciously contemplated.

I think I had been dutifully returning to my loft, one morning back in January this year, some festive decorations, boxed again and ready to stow, when my eye caught sight of an old cardboard box which I instantly knew was stuffed full of things that had in a former life been of significance. I tentatively opened it, realising that this might well be a Pandora’s box as much as a treasure trove. Out of the decaying cardboard tumbled a whole host of notebooks and papers; and for the rest of the day, I sat uncomfortably on my haunches on makeshift flooring in the roof of the house, digesting not only its physical contents, but also a neglected past, a discarded future, and among these a few letters, manuscripts, translations and reviews of Vladimir Kazakov.

As I leafed through the papers, in my memory’s view I am suddenly back in Moscow in the nineteen seventies, sitting a little nervously in an apartment on Prospekt Mira and Kazakov takes shape like one of his own literary spectres. A slight figure then, I think. Seated aside a table. Dark cropped hair, slightly greying at the temples. A presence, rather than a physicality. The apartment – sparse and unnervingly tidy. The sense of another presence somewhere, but unseen. That slight disturbance of air. Pictures, some surely by his brother Alyosha, on the walls. In a typical act of generosity, he gives me one before I leave. His voice is quiet, calm, controlled. He puts me at ease. Everything he says is interesting to me. Everything. For here, alongside me, the presence of this man is a link in a remarkable unbroken chain of writing that stretches back a hundred years or more.

Moi vstreči was soon followed by the publication in 1976 of Ošibka živych (Mistake of the Living), described as a “novel” by Kazakov, but in truth a mesmerising mix of form and content loosely paraphrasing – or mirroring, as one critic ingeniously put it – the narrative of Dostoyevky’s Idiot and featuring characters that appear elsewhere in various episodes of Kazakov’s writings. It was received positively in the emigre press of the time. “An important event in modern Russian literature,” declared Russkaya Mysl’. “Doubtless one of the most interesting works of modern Russian literature,” echoed Kontinent. A couple of years later the important collection of verse and drama Slučajnyj voin (Incidental Military) (a pun of the phrase – military incident) was published in the west by Verlag Otto Sagner. Further publications soon followed.

As I now contemplate the literary landscape forty or so years on, I am pleased to see the publication in post-Soviet Russia of Kazakov’s collected works, of previously unpublished works and the continued scatterings of a critical interest. It is possible to find informative bibliographies e.g. There is even a rather downbeat reading of some of his verse on YouTube. Unsurprisingly the epithets “post-modernist”, “avant-garde”, and “absurdist” are frequent companions in critical assessments. I am not sure how Kazakov himself viewed these broad descriptives, though I am sure they were applied even in his short lifetime. His was a unique talent, difficult to classify, but certainly such descriptors rightly channel our expectations, because Kazakov’s writings can readily be placed in that vibrant, extraordinary and brave tradition of Russian literature.

Indeed Kazakov expressly placed himself in this tradition, noting specifically the importance of his friendship with the leading Russian Futurist poet Aleksey Kruchenykh whom he met in 1966 not long before the elderly Kruchenykh’s death.

Kazakov’s reminiscences are contained in his brief prose sketch Zudesnik, first published, I believe, in 1978 at the end of his Slučajnyj voin, (printed by Verlag Otto Sagner), where Kazakov’s admiration, respect and affection for the ageing poet are self evident.  The young Kazakov had clearly identified Kruchenykh as a standard bearer of the literary tradition he espoused and, not without a subsequent sense of irony, he had shown the old rogue of Russian Futurism his own initial literary works .  “He said to me about my poems: ‘I write the same sort of thing, only I tear them up’.” 

Kazakov’s literary debt to that other wondrous shining star of Russian Futurism, Velimir Khlebnikov, is also very clear.  And although it has been rightly said (by the German scholar Wolfgang Kasack) that Kazakov created his own unique world and did not really belong to any particular current in Russian literature, it seems clear that the young Kazakov was seated at the feet of Kruchenykh to take on the literary baton of the Futurist poet as the old generation finally passed away.

The remarkable Russian Futurist movement with its energetic focus on experimentation in art, word and form traversed the Revolution of 1917, but ultimately collided headlong with the Soviet regime as Stalinist orthodoxy put an end – literally in many cases – to the works and wonderful talents that had arisen. Those writers that built upon the Futurist tradition – in particular, one thinks of the Oberiuty, the members of The Association for Real Art (Oberiu), Daniil Kharms and Alexander Vvedensky – did not survive the onslaught of the prevailing cultural dogma. Their output and livelihoods were stifled. Persecution, war, disease and famine did the rest. Thankfully a few who did survive managed to rescue literary works and archives that had never seen light of day. They circulated and surfaced at that time in dribs and drabs and, of course, Kazakov will have been familiar with much of the work that only later became more widely known.

The destroyed generation of Kharms and Vvedensky were as much a part of Kazakov’s literary pantheon as were Kruchenykh and Khlebnikov. Kazakov even left us a graphic visualisation of his literary antecedents. And subsequently, of course Kazakov was in turn reading his own verse to Kruchenykh.

Snippets of this literary life – accounts of meetings, diary entries – appear frequently in the curious literary fabric that Kazakov creates in his “novel” Ošibka živych. For example (p.87), one of his characters Maria proclaims two lines of verse

Slova slozhilis', kak drova.
V nikh smysly khodyat, kak ogon'.

Words are formed, like wood to burn.
Sense strolls within, like fire.

and notes that “Here are two unknown lines of Daniil Kharms. They weren’t preserved in print, or written down. The words of Kharms were recalled by Vologdov who recited them yesterday to Kazakov.”

The “character” Vologdov – in “real life” none other than the famous literary luminary, critic and art collector Nikolai Ivanovich Khardzhiev – is a frequent persona in this tale and, as I read these lines, in my own mind, I am again back in a flat in 1970s Moscow, seated timorously before this looming figure in Russian culture, as he regales me with a history of literature which is not a sterile trope on a printed academic page but a heartfelt, opinionated, vibrant, existential account of real experience freshly plucked from a living memory.

So how can one describe the strange literary world of Vladimir Kazakov? We could do worse, I suppose, than start with some of the maxims set out in the Oberiu Manifesto which took from the Futurists the important notion of the “shift” or “dislocation” (sdvig – in Russian) and proclaimed – among other things – a sort of “objectism”. I quote from George Gibian’s marvellous early (1971) work on Russia’s Lost Literature of the Absurd pp. 195/6:

We, people who are real and concrete to the marrow of our bones, are the first enemies of those who castrate the word and make it into a powerless and senseless mongrel. In our work we broaden the meaning of the object and of the word, but we do not destroy it in any way. The concrete object, once its literary and everyday skin is peeled away, becomes the property of art. In poetry the collisions of verbal meanings express that object with the exactness of mechanical technology. Are you beginning to complain that it is not the same object you see in life? Come closer and touch it with your fingers. Look at the object with naked eyes, and you will see it cleansed for the first time of decrepit literary gilding. Maybe you will insist that our subjects are “unreal” and “illogical”? But who said that the logic of life is compulsory in art?… Art has a logic of its own, and it does not destroy the object but helps us to know it.

Similarly, in Kazakov’s world, specific objects rise before us in ways that shift or dislocate their substance and essence, transforming into objects which are not at all “the same object that you see in life”. A typical example can be found in Mistake of the Living (p.87):

The hours cut through the gloom. The street lights cut through time. The stars cut through the silence – clattering like nighttime roofers on the roof tops. Tearing off chunks of iron and light, the wind flew by, furiously overtaken by itself. The streets rushed past, whistling round the stone corners of the wind[…] The streets were flying off, without names or numbers, and were disappearing, vanishing in a whirl of darkness to the accompaniment of the howl and laughter of black drainpipe madness.

A character sees his reflection in a mirror then turns away, “but the mirror continued stubbornly to stare at his back”. Wild sunlight shining through a window is tamed by the glass. Slanting rain becomes the sloped handwriting of fate. The streaming downpour in the light of the street lamps becomes blood red rain. A hastening woman is caught en route by a mirror which wishes to return her to herself. “You know, every window is a trap!” she declares. Another character, – the ubiquitous, spectral Istlenyev – like a ghost, can’t be caught by a mirror. Nor can hours detain him – like eternity. Throughout Kazakov’s writings specific objects acquire a symbolic, metaphysical, presence, interrelating with the strange personae and human presences which populate the narrative. Concrete objects such as windows, walls, mirrors, clocks, streets, street lamps, cobble stones and rain – all dance intricately with abstract, intangible concepts, with time, silence, darkness, light.

Similar to Kharms and Vvedensky, Kazakov could take a normal situation and reduce it to absurdity by devices, non-sequiturs, non-conclusive conclusions. He will take a sentence and then repeat it several times, but each time, cutting off the final word. A character’s exclamation will suddenly become a character itself. A plethora of forms abound and coalesce, dramatic – or non-dramatic – dialogue transforms into narrative – or non-narrative – prose. Letters, diaries – pseudo or real – take their place along with poems, historical interludes, memoir, sketches.

Anonymous entities appear together alongside real people, fictional and fantastical characters. In the marvellous dramatic scene Arrest, (which must give a nod to the Tolstoy chamber pot of Kharms), Count Lev Nikolayevich personally relieves a guard of his duty so that the guard can dash off and relieve himself, only for Tolstoy then to be arrested for failing to salute an officer and having an unauthorised beard, before finally being released once his status is revealed.

The tales rehash the fiction of other writers. Mistake of the Living takes its cue from Khlebnikov’s marvellous little drama Death’s Mistake, while developing its parallel universe of Dostoevsky’s Idiot with lashings of Crime and Punishment thrown in.

Any reading of My Meetings immediately also brings to mind other stars in the Russian literary firmament – Nikolai Gogol, Anton Chekhov. Surely even the foremost Symbolist poet Alexander Blok lurks in Kazakov’s world with the constant presence of the “street” and the “streetlamp”. An important short poem begins with the phrase “daughter of the street lamp” and Blok’s neznakomka – stranger/unknown woman – seems at some points to merge with Dostoevsky’s Nastasya Filippovna. And then, of course, there is the wordplay of the Futurists, which the Oberiuty may have downgraded, but which Kazakov often picks up with vigorous enthusiasm, sometimes with a particular playful fascination for the foreign – non-Russian – names so prevalent in 19th century Tsarist Russia. Even number play makes significant forays in Kazakov’s work, with perhaps a prominent example being his “Multiplication Table” published in Slučajnyj voin.

He could even make a masterful poem simply from crossed out lines.


At least such a work largely overcomes the tribulations of translation, and in writing about this hugely talented writer, I am inevitably conscious that an English-speaking reader will find virtually nothing in translation. While there is a solid body of work in German, translations into English are sparse indeed, with bibliographies of Kazakov listing just the two with which I am already well familiar.

I recollect the interest in Kazakov years ago of a major literary agent whose desire to turn a project into print collided only with my own woeful distractions and procrastination. Although there is the occasional difficult word play, much of Kazakov’s prose is expressed in concise simple language. Some is simply challenging at the conceptual level. But his mature verse moves on to a different plane – complex, demanding but hugely rewarding. Here is a writer whose merit deserves a good translator’s attention. If Khlebnikov’s difficult language can be so expertly transformed into English by Paul Schmidt and lovingly published in several volumes, then I have no doubt that someone somewhere could grapple with both the simple and the complex of Kazakov, whose poetry is as yet for many an untapped golden vein.

And so I contemplate discarded scribbled notes with rueful sadness, knowing that the distractions and procrastination of age are even more formidable than those of youth. And as I restack the manuscripts and papers back into the crumbling box, I see in my mind’s eye, at some future event from which I will be absent, their impending ashes rise, like a bonfire of vanities. My view of time turns on its head and instead of a neglected past and a discarded future, I see ascending in the smoke a discarded past and a future of neglect. It is for me a depressing sight. But at least I can still as yet recall my meetings with Vladimir Kazakov and their spectral embers will continue, I hope, to glow for some time yet.

June 2021

The Odyssey: home schooling and Homer (and I don’t mean The Simpsons – D’oh!)

When COVID-19 lockdown restrictions eased, the Granddaughters, at whom I had waved idiotically through windows, at last reappeared in our house – well, in the garden of the house at any rate.  The mad Zoom sessions surrounded by old school books, new school books, quizzes, tasks – and, of course, ridiculously high expectations – were finally replaced by physical – well, proximal – contact.  Parents now back at work, the old folk had to get involved again – epidemic or no epidemic.  Our garden suddenly became a school – two oldies (my wife and I) and girls of 4 and 8.  We even had an awning installed on the patio for those rainy days, once we realised the impracticality of squeezing children into a shed.

Of course (?), I play the role of Teaching Assistant to my superwoman wife –  mother, grandmother, educator, already primed, prepped, and always calm.  My lifelong motto of  “why remain calm when you can become hysterical” somehow had to get written out of the script in the new classroom.

The school website did help (Maths, English, project work etc), though we were through that within the first hour, and then reliant on our planning and ingenuity.  There was some marvellous improvisation, for example a science lesson involving setting fire to the lawn with the help of the sun and a magnifying glass.  (We did explain about the Australian bush fires….)  And at some point in the daily chaos there had to be a story.  So I am sent off to the “library” (half a converted garage with shelves and cartons packed full of books) to find something suitable.

What could I find that would provide excitement, danger, fantasy, fear, joy and be suitable for educating two young children?  Well, it was obvious.  And no I didn’t turn to graphic novel reruns of Dickens or Hardy, but ran my eyes along my shelf of Classics and plucked out a small orange cloth covered hardback, which I had picked up from goodness knows where, goodness knows when, entitled The Odyssey of Homer.  After all, young minds needed to be educated in the Classics and where best to start but with the grand daddy of them all – Homer.

Of course, we don’t really know if Homer ever existed, or if he did, that he actually wrote either The Iliad or The Odyssey which is all a bit tricky to explain to those under 10, let alone for me to muse upon.  So let’s leave aside The Homeric Question.  The point is that this wonderful story has survived millennia, because it is a darn good tale.  And – dead language Classic or not – the supposed author of the tale has proved lasting and popular enough to provide a name for folk real and fictional – a bit like the poet himself.


 So I grab this small volume – with its splendid publisher’s little lamp logo blind stamped on the front cover – and wander out into the garden where the girls “on their break” idly camp in a kiddy tent on the small lawn.


The book, edited by R. D. Wormwald and illustrated by J. C. Knight, was part of Longmans Green The Heritage of Literature Series and its little lamp was going to shine the light of knowledge on two little minds who – despite Walt Disney – hadn’t yet heard the tale of Odysseus’s epic voyage home from the Trojan War.

It is a well constructed rehash of the original text of The Odyssey which combines extracts from the translation by E. V. Rieu “with extracts from modern authors to form a continuous prose narrative of the adventures of Odysseus”.  The ruminations of the gods get rather short shrift but this abridged retelling of the tale – first published in 1958 – moves chronologically, logically and swiftly – ideal for my purpose.


However, it cannot mask entirely the gory escapades of this terrible tale, and as I skip lightly through the Ciconians (unprovoked murder) and the Lotus Eaters (drugs), I realise what I am in for, and settle on the cyclops, Polyphemus,  with his “one terrible eye, set in the middle of his forehead”.  Children, I think,  are well attuned to deal with a tale of grisly strife against giants, and with a bit of judicious summarising, not dwelling too much on the details of the giant’s eating habits, I  recount how Polyphemus is blinded, Odysseus escapes with the aid of a few sheep and the story finishes with the page turner of the curse as our hero now becomes fated to a rather long journey home.  

 And so the happy ritual is established of a chapter a day over several weeks of home schooling.  The four-year old dips in and out – the real hit for her being the Sirens, and Scylla and Charybdis.  We spend a few scary (but adult led) moments looking at pictures of how other folk have conceived Scylla to be.  A child’s imagination of “a dreadful monster with twelve feet and six exceedingly long necks, each ending in a grisly head with three rows of teeth” can, of course, be worse than most images available on the world wide web, but at least this is strictly in the realm of fantasy.  (Though looking at the inquisitive face of the girls’ pet pug I sometimes wonder…)   But Homer has clearly made an impression – even on the mind of a pre-school child.   She still says to me, months later: “Granddad – tell me about the Sirens again”.  


As we worked our way through the chapters, the eight-year old – now inspired to write more of her own tales – tells me that Homer is “cool”.  Crikey!  And it is not just the events of the stories she picks up on, but she readily begins to make comments and ask questions about the strange epic hero which Homer created.   She is trying with child-like clarity to understand, not just the world that Odysseus inhabited, but also how he behaved in the trials and tribulations he encountered.  She sees that he lies when he needs to.  She sees how a stranger is often treated with kindness and respect when he arrives in a foreign land and how a bed is regularly made up for him.   (Though we are still trying to work out why he always seems to sleep under the portico – but I suppose if he visited me, I’d probably tell him to sleep out the locked door under the porch.)

I try to explain that – like many heroes – Odysseus is not necessarily a great role model, nor indeed (and that’s for sure) the best moral compass.  “That wasn’t very nice”, I am told as Odysseus’s actions leave us rather aghast.  And I turn later to my fuller version of the Odyssey to see what it says about his early unprovoked assault on the Cicones.

“I sacked their city and slew the people.  And from the city we took their wives and much substance, and divided them amongst us…”

The abridged version attempts to sanitise the murderous attack of Odysseus and his gang  by explaining that “because for ten years their minds had been filled with thoughts of war and strife, it did not seem to them an evil thing”.  Well, that’s all right then…  We are at least trying to get to grips with the moral yardstick here.  But I begin to wonder how on earth I am going to summarise for children the endgame in Ithaca when the suitors of Odysseus’s wife Penelope and the maids get their truly gruesome and merciless comeuppance.  

I suppose much has been written on the leadership qualities of Odysseus, but the tale gives us some fascinating insights into the relations and tensions between him and his band of men – notably his conflict with the rather rebellious Eurylochus who at one point “made Odysseus so angry that he thought of drawing his sword and cutting off Eurolychus’ head”. (Cue: “That’s not very nice, Granddad.”) I start thinking of how Odysseus might benefit from some training in transactional analysis and a presentation on Franklin Ernst’s OK Corral. Some training in delegation and communications might not go amiss either. Sailing away from Aeolia, Odysseus seems to neglect telling his jealous men what bag of tricks Aeolius has given him, arousing their curiosity and then falling asleep because he couldn’t seem to trust any of them to look after the boat while he took a break. When he falls asleep with their destination in sight, they have a look and out of the bag pop the winds that ruin everything. Similar calamities follow Odysseus’s inclination to snooze on Thrinacia, when the recalcitrant Eurylochus slaughters and roasts the cattle of Helios. Cue: more disaster.

Sometimes it seems that Odysseus is so irritated by his gang that he is content to let them expose themselves to danger while he takes care of himself. So in Telepylus, sensing some trouble which he fails to convey to his troops, he lets them moor their boats in the harbour, subsequently providing a ready target and a tasty snack for the local giants who promptly destroy the boats, spear the men like fishes and devour them. More people-eating which I gloss over for the girls. The sly Odysseus, of course, had cunningly moored his own boat away from the harbour by one of the headlands and escaped their fate. Surely no good now being “sorely grieved” over the loss of his companions. I don’t think this was a case of hindsight.

Between bouts of home schooling I dig further for enlightenment into my fuller version of The Odyssey. A small American-published paperback book bought in the 1970s, which has moved house with me at least half a dozen times and which now inelegantly falls apart as I turn the pages. A “reading copy”, as they say. This turns out to use the famous 19th century translation of classicist Samuel Henry Butcher and the classically trained eminent man of letters, Andrew Lang, who – I am happy to note – describe Odysseus as a “crafty adventurer”, “foolhardy” and “cunning”.

Despite my A-level Latin, I am rather uncoached in these Ancient Greek matters, but glad to see from cursory wikipedean-style research that Odysseus’s slyness indeed earned him the epithet “cunning” and while the ancient Greeks might have admired his cunning and deceit, the Romans, with their notion of honour, apparently saw him more as a cruel, villainous falsifier. This makes me wonder more how the real folk of these times lived their lives. I skimmed over the gods in my home schooling, but they were clearly A list characters. I suppose the motto was – keep the gods on side, watch your back and make sure you’ve got your weapon handy. And suddenly I am transported now from home schooling to the latest video download that my dear wife watches most nights – The Vikings. Although a thousand years later, these maritime warriors with their brutality and treachery, their gods and tribes, bring home to me what Odysseus and his band of men must have been like. Perhaps that is, at the heart of things, really the way it still is. It is an alarming train of thought.

At least, with the girls and home schooling, there were some wonderful lighter moments, most notably the youthful hysteria that ensued upon finding a king of giants (the Laestrygonians) called Antiphates. The “knock knock” jokes still persist. (Knock, knock. “Who’s there?” “Anti.” “Anti who?” “Antiphates” – cue fits of giggles and variations on the theme.) And the phrase “heavy with wine” and a knowing nod has become a type of secret code between Granddad and Granddaughters. We all mourned for Elpenor, who fell off the roof drunk and broke his neck. A salutary warning for young and old.

And so, as if by the magic of the gods, it is the last day of home-schooling and I am at the point where Odysseus has arrived at his house in Ithaca to deal with the suitors and the maids. I have resolved to be economical with the truth and hope for no detailed questioning. As it turns out, I am saved by the bell, as the Granddaughters announce that since this is the last day of term, there will be no proper schooling. So Odysseus is for the moment shelved. All day is playtime and the slaughter of the suitors, the execution of the maids and the dismemberment of the goatherd are thankfully tales untold, not even paraphrased.

Now weeks later, epidemic or no epidemic, the schools have resumed, the lamp of the heritage of literature has been extinguished and my battered, crumbling paperback of The Odyssey has begun to disappear under piles of other books. I wonder if I should pull out my copy of The Iliad, in readiness for another lockdown.

Or perhaps I should eschew Andrew Lang’s classical scholarship and find one of his many Fairy Books, for, of course, Lang was a man of many talents, not the least of which was annoying his fellow writer, novelist and poet, Thomas Hardy.

Hardy took a lot of stick from critics and felt every blow. He was particularly irritated by Lang’s review of Tess of the D’Urbervilles in the New Review, even to the extent that he spent time in the British Museum hunting up a book of which Lang had claimed Tess to be a plagiarism. “Why should one’s club acquaintance bring such charges?” Hardy later mused in disbelief, going on to discern behind the phrase “Tessimism” some “smart journalism” in “the fine Roman hand of A. Lang”.

Lang, who had contrasted Hardy with his revered Homer, even took the brunt of Hardy’s indignation in the much quoted preface to the first one-volume edition of Tess, where Lang is portrayed ironically by Hardy as “this great critic” – “a gentleman who turned Christian for half-an-hour”.

Lang was surprisingly contrite, writing twice to Hardy with self-reproach, expressing regret: “I did not mean to be unfair, – my tastes are antiquated… I am an erratic block of a primitive age”. Moreover, Lang tells Hardy, in a further attempt at pacification, that his friend Mr Butcher – presumably his co-translator of The Odyssey – had praised the book. Typically, Hardy’s hostility to Lang – biographer Millgate tells us – “never abated”.

So I start off with home-schooling – or should it be “Homer-schooling” – and end back up with Hardy via Lang. One of life’s little ironies. I am governed by the rule of “one thing follows another”. Connections abound. The threads are endless. And I notice with fascination, as I hunt up Lang in Hardy’s own account of his life, Hardy’s description of an encounter in August 1897 in a Salisbury hotel – where they were both guests – with “Colonel T. W. Higginson of the United States…” “An amiable well-read man whom I was glad to meet. He fought in the Civil War. Went with him to hunt up the spot of the execution of the Duke of Buckingham, whose spirit is said to haunt King’s House still.”

Another connection leaps out at me. Golly! Emily Dickinson!

Wentworth Higginson, of course, has an enormous, iconic, presence in American literary history, for it was to none other that in April 1862 – when Hardy himself was struggling as a young writer – that another hesitant young writer – Emily Dickinson – sent her poems for comment, asking whether her verses “breathed”. By God, did they breathe!

Higginson’s part in the life and poetry of of Emily Dickinson is well documented. This meeting with Hardy took place around ten years after Dickinson’s death and after Higginson had played his part in the first publication of her verse. I am left wondering – did they, could they, have discussed her poetry? So I move from Homer to Lang to Hardy to Dickinson and through Dickinson I am back home to Homer again.

The cunning Odysseus makes the stricken, blinded cyclops, Polyphemus, the butt of a now famous cruel ironic pun, telling the giant that his name is “No-man” – Mr Nobody. Consequently when the wounded Polyphemus is calling for help proclaiming he is being slain by “Nobody”, his neighbours ignore him, telling him, well, if there is nobody there then he must be sick and needs to pray to the gods.

Odysseus escapes and taunts him with his joke, informing Polyphemus finally that the name of the man who blinded him is Odysseus – “waster of cities”, Odysseus, who elsewhere proclaims how his “fame reaches unto heaven”. Definitely “Somebody” then, a real “Somebody”. Not a “Nobody” at all.

And I find myself putting down my Odyssey, quitting its preening self-conscious brutality and leaving the last word to Emily Dickinson who herself mused much on fame and celebrity, but came to the conclusion:

I'm Nobody!  Who are you?
Are you - Nobody - Too?
Then there's a pair of us.
Don't tell!  they'd advertise, you know!

How dreary - to be - Somebody!
How public - like a Frog -
To tell one's name - the livelong June -
To an admiring Bog.

10th October 2020

The few books that piled up during this blog were:

The Odyssey of Homer, edited by R. D. Wormwald, Illustrated by J. C. Knight, published by Longmans Green and Co 1958

The Odyssey of Homer, Translation and Introduction by S. H. Butcher and Andrew Lang, published by Airmont Publishing Company, Inc., New York 1965

Andrew Lang’s correspondence with Thomas Hardy is taken from: Angelique Richardson and Angear, Helen, editors. Hardy’s Correspondents, Phase One, 2019. University of Exeter,

Thomas Hardy A Biography Revisited, by Michael Millgate, published by Oxford University Press 2004

The Life and Work of Thomas Hardy, by Thomas Hardy, edited by Michael Millgate, Macmillan 1985

Tess of the D’Urbevilles, by Thomas Hardy, James R. Osgood, McIlvaine and Co., London 1992

Emily Dickinson – The Complete Poems, edited by Thomas H. Johnson, published by Faber and Faber 1975

White Heat, The Friendship of Emily Dickinson & Thomas Wentworth Higginson, by Brenda Wineapple, published by Alfred A. Knopf, New York 2008

Thomas Hardy’s Tess – a bitter satire of circumstance

Like most folk over the past weeks of coronavirus lockdown I’ve resorted to streamed box sets and old technology DVDs to while away some of the time.  I’ve even managed for the first time to read that largely unread work of Thomas Hardy, The Dynasts, and in the process learned an awful lot about the Napoleonic Wars.  But one of the DVD box sets that I recently alighted upon and watched contained a work of Hardy’s which will be much more familiar to most folk, namely Tess of the D’Urbervilles.   The DVD box-set (well only two discs) comprised a four-episode BBC production dating from 2008 which somehow I had missed at the time .

There are always the carping criticisms that one can make about the casting or the adaptation.  (“No, it isn’t quite like that in the book, surely?”  “He didn’t say that, did he?”  “Where is Alec’s moustache – why hasn’t he got one?”  “Wasn’t it dark when she set off? ” “What happened to the dressing-gown?”)  But overall, it was well worth the viewing.  There were some killer moments (literally, of course, in this tale), but oddly the one that stands out for me is the view of Tess we get when the hapless Angel finally turns up and finds her at her lodgings in Bournemouth, or rather “Sandbourne”, towards the end of the saga.

A semi-dolled up “Mrs d’Urberville” comes down from her rooms and greets her sickly husband (“mere yellow skeleton” says the book) at a distance.  The screen version conveyed to me Angel’s shock.  He had been thinking of his lovely Tess as a “cottage girl”.  “Where could she be amidst all this wealth and fashion?” he mused in the book.  Well now he knows.

Hardy wrote:

“Tess appeared on the threshold – not at all as he had expected to see her – bewilderingly otherwise, indeed.”  “… her hands… once rosy, were now white and delicate”.


As first published in the Graphic

Tess, of course, is no longer the peasant girl.  She is now nicely turned out.  And why?  Well, it’s obvious.  She’s been ruined.

And whence such fair garments, such prosperi-ty?” —
“O didn’t you know I’d been ruined?” said she.

Lines not from the novel Tess, but from Hardy’s poem The Ruined Maid  written almost 30 years earlier.

This splendid piece of satirical verse is an important early poem, not least because it is a rare survivor of his early poetry from the 1860s.  It comprises six caustic quatrains of how a peasant girl can become quite the lady with fine clothes, adornments and delicate skin by being “ruined” – in other words by providing a ready supply of sex out of wedlock to a gentleman.   Tess’s circumstance echoes The Ruined Maid directly.  Her hands are no longer the working hands of a country girl, but are now “delicate”.  In The Ruined Maid we find:

— “Your hands were like paws then, your face blue and bleak
But now I’m bewitched by your delicate cheek,
And your little gloves fit as on any la-dy!” —
“We never do work when we’re ruined,” said she.

The poem presents us with a dialogue of explanation between a current country girl and a former country girl  who – as Hardy put it in Tess – has become “bewilderingly otherwise”.  (What a great phrase that is.)

— “I wish I had feathers, a fine sweeping gown,
And a delicate face, and could strut about Town!” —
“My dear — a raw country girl, such as you be,
Cannot quite expect that. You ain’t ruined,” said she.

Tess, abandoned by husband Angel Clare, has finally after much tribulation ended back up with Alec d’Urberville, the “relative” who caused her “ruination”.  The hands that would have been like “paws” in the “starve-acre” farm of Flintcomb-Ash are now white and delicate.

The theme of “ruination” (we need to see this word in “quotes ” since it is a highly charged term) runs through the labyrinth of Hardy’s works like a constant thread.  Pick almost any tale that comes to mind and you are likely to find in it some form of “ruination” or potential “ruination”, some incident where a woman has or could be compromised by a liaison with a man and would be “ruined” by the ensuing scandal.  Novels, stories, even his poetry are ripe with events and incidents related to this theme.

In our 21st century the notion that a woman can be “ruined” by a sexual relationship outside marriage seems rather curious and outmoded (though perhaps not as outmoded as it should be), but Hardy was a Victorian novelist writing in Victorian times and for his Victorian readers the portrayal of the so-called fallen woman was a very sensitive issue.  Of course, a Victorian gentleman would not likely be “ruined” in the same sort of way by such behaviour, as the immediate post-marital conversation of Tess and husband Angel bears witness.

Of course, for Hardy, who loved to tell a decent yarn, the excitement and dire consequences of dangerous liaisons were bread and butter for his creative imagination.  Sex and death are the staples of his tales of woe from Tess and Jude to The Withered Arm, and echoed in poems like The Dead Bastard, The War-Wife of Catknoll, and the  narrative verse of The Brother, who had killed his sister’s former lover not knowing that they had subsequently married – an act which – in the logic of the 19th century  reversed the “ruination”.  (Those poems I have just picked out at random from only one collection of verse.)

Hardy sometimes enhances a tale of woe by garnishing the compromise or fully fledged “ruin” with the inevitable need for secrecy about the matter and this can be further ornamented with a tale of epistolary woe – for example a letter written but not read, which is a significant feature of Tess.  In Tess, despite her intentions she marries without the secret of her past and her dead child being revealed, and then confesses on her wedding night to the shocked and unforgiving Angel, ignoring the sound advice from her mother to keep shtum.

I watch the film and am stupidly muttering at the screen.  “Tess, don’t tell him!  Don’t tell him!  It won’t end well!”  “You are in a Hardy novel,”  I add pointlessly.   “Take the hint.  He’s called Angel.  It’s ironic.  For goodness sake!  Shut up!”


But Tess is firmly in the fateful, and in her case, fatal hand of Hardy’s  Immanent Will, which doesn’t give a fig for her, for her love or her honesty.  Doing the right thing is not going to get reward.  The “purblind Doomster” “unblooms the best hope ever sown”.  I can’t help swearing at Angel and at the end once the tragedy has unfolded – I fear for Tess’s plighted – or should that be blighted – sister Liza-Lu,  as she trudges away from Winchester jail with the hapless Angel after Tess’s execution.  Some folk oddly see this as a glimmer of hope…

“Well that was a bundle of joy, Mr Hardy!”  “That has cheered me up no end.  What was the point of that?”  I am sure I am not the only one who experiences anger, despair and agony as well as the ecstasy of Hardy’s marvellous work.  And the point, of course, is that Hardy had to tell it like it is.  Hey folk – he’s telling us –  look at what our marvellous righteous morals have done to this poor woman.  As far as Hardy was concerned, she was “a pure woman faithfully presented”.  Hardy’s preoccupation with the “ruined maid” was also a bitter satire on the society which placed her in that circumstance.


Of course, though the quality of the novel shone through, much of the literary establishment and society were outraged.   Magazines surely could not print this stuff.  Hence why he had to butcher the tale in its initial serialisation and then try to patch it back together again afterwards.  The Victorian patriarch reader of the Graphic could not let his daughters be exposed to portrayals of such “ruination”.  It induced poor old Robert Louis Stevenson to spew the verdict it was “damnable”.  Henry James wanted to give Hardy a good kicking.  But, goodness me, Hardy made his point, and his readers bought the book in their thousands.  Even 30 years later women were writing personal letters to him in praise of the book expressing their thanks and appreciation:

“The book is more personal to me than any book I have ever read or I think any that I shall ever read. I loved the portrayal of ‘Tess‘, and the intricate workings of her beautiful soul.”

Many, I suppose, do not naturally associate satire with the writings of Hardy, but the use of satire, irony, tragic exaggeration and even wry humour are a staple feature of his work throughout his writings – from his early poems, through his Satires of Circumstance and Life’s Little Ironies right through to the “spirit ironic” of The Dynasts and the vital poems of his old age.  Nor does his focus just dwell on the ironic circumstances of individual men and women in his tales.  After all – as has been pointed out so often – the subject of Hardy’s literature is not just the individual man or woman pitted against circumstance, but the condition of “man” and “woman” writ large.


Hardy wrote because he had something important to say.  He needed to give voice to what he saw going on around him and right from the outset this involved a bitter and radical social satire.  We see this quite clearly even in his first – never wholly published – novel, The Poor Man and the Lady, dating from around the same time as The Ruined Maid.

How illuminating it is to read his correspondence with publisher Alexander Macmillan to whom he sent the manuscript of his first novel for consideration in 1868.  From the outset his aim was to get at “the upper classes” not by a full frontal assault, but by directing his “strong… feelings inserted edgewise… half concealed beneath ambiguous expressions, or at any rate written as if they were not the chief aims of the book (even though they may be)…”   So at the very start of his writing career we see how he grapples with what he needs to say and how on earth he might get such “utterances of strong feeling” published and read.

Macmillan’s incredibly thoughtful and detailed response picks up, of course, on Hardy’s “exaggerated” portrayal of “great and terrible” “frivolity, heartlessness, [and] selfishness”.   “Chastisement”, he says, which “would fall harmlessly from its very excess”.  “Indeed, nothing could justify such a wholesale blackening of a class, but a large and intimate knowledge of it.”  Thackeray, he notes, was more subtle in his approach, but even his “satire” and “mocking tone” didn’t do much good.  As for Hardy’s “black wash” – his “ignorant misrepresentation”  – well, Thackeray “meant fun”, but he could see that Hardy was “in grim earnest”. “You mean mischief,” he tells Hardy (twice).  But the perspicacious Macmillan, (the first publisher Hardy approached with his book) had already seen from this manuscript alone that Hardy was a force to be reckoned with.  After comparison with Thackeray, by the last paragraph, he is also bringing Shakespeare into comparative view and telling Hardy that on the evidence of what he has seen he is a writer “of power and purpose”.

In the end, Hardy does not publish this first novel.  And not, it seems, because ultimately no one would publish it, (he had in fact accepted an initial “fair and reasonable deal” from Chapman Hall).  Hardy declined to publish at the end of the day because he had been advised by none other than the established novelist and poet George Meredith that publishing such a “socialistic, not to say revolutionary” book would finish him as a writer before he had even started.  Meredith – who read the manuscript as a publisher’s reader – warned him against publishing such a “sweeping dramatic satire of the squirearchy and nobility, London society, the vulgarity of the middle class, modern Christianity, church restoration and and political and domestic morals in general”.  We are, I think, unclear whether these words – taken from Hardy’s “autobiography” – were actually Meredith’s or Hardy’s summation of them, but I think we get the drift.  Hardy’s biographer, Michael Millgate, has noted the “pervasive class hostility” of Hardy’s first book.

Meredith had told Hardy that “the press would be about his ears like hornets if he published his manuscript”.  “In genteel mid-Victorian 1869 it would no doubt have incurred, as Meredith judged, severe strictures which might have handicapped a young writer for a long time.”

Should Hardy have stuck to his guns, have published and be damned?  How interesting it is to speculate what might have happened.  But Hardy was a young unpublished writer, always thin-skinned, with limited prospects and desperate to pursue a literary career.  One can hardly blame him for taking the advice from leading publishers and established writers.  Even years later from his heights as the grand old man of English literature, he was pursued by malicious critics and always hurt dreadfully from their stinging comments.   And, of course, from the remnants of Poor Man emerged Desperate Remedies and Under the Greenwood Tree and scenes for many subsequent works.

Hardy – rather quietly – did eventually publish in 1878 a large chunk of the missing novel as An Indiscretion in the Life of an Heiress.  Though this was only a magazine publication and was notably never reprinted in his lifetime.  Even in this shortened state it is a valuable insight into the novelistic mind of the young Hardy and woven into the  tapestry of the tale are many of the early threads which are picked up again and again in his future works.

One of the threads is, of course, the theme of the “ruined” or potentially “ruined” maid.   The title – Indiscretion of an Heiress – gives the game away somewhat.  But, as we are told in Hardy’s ghosted “autobiography”, the missing novel also included “with every circumstantial detail” “the kept mistress of an architect… a dancer at a music-hall…  which would have brought down upon his [Hardy’s] head the cudgels of all the orthodox reviews”,

We can lurch here back into the autobiographical speculation that Hardy hated so much. Did Hardy meet such a young woman when he was working as an architect in London at around the time Poor Man was being written?  We certainly know he was familiar with some of the dance halls and must have been acquainted with the women who danced in them.  As his “autobiography” notes, “the most important scenes” for the book “were laid in London, of which city Hardy had just had between five and six years’ constant and varied experience – as only a young man in the metropolis can get it”.   By the time we get to the publication of An Indiscretion in the Life of an Heiress the kept mistress of the architect has disappeared, still, perhaps, one indiscretion too far even for the maturer writer to publish.

We don’t, of course, have to speculate about potential “ruination” and Hardy’s own conception out of wedlock.  Hardy biographer Millgate notes that the marriage of his pregnant mother, Jemima, and father (also Thomas) was “rather against the inclinations, so it is said, of both the contracting parties”, but goes on to note that family tradition “endorses the bridegroom’s hesitancy”.  This family tradition of his father’s reluctance to marry is set out in Celia Barclay’s fascinating book on Hardy’s cousin Nathaniel Sparks, where, we are told, “he was most reluctant” and Jemima’s eldest sister Maria “sent her husband to collect the philanderer and deliver him to the altar”.  For Hardy this business was very close to home and, of course, suitable fodder for a tale (Interlopers at the Knap).

One curiosity of the unpublished novel is Hardy’s original notion that this mischievous satire was “a story with no plot; containing some original verses”.  Hardy had been mainly writing verse at this time and failing to find publishers for his poems.  Perhaps he conceived this hybrid genre as a way of getting his verse into print.  The notion certainly continued into the writing of Desperate Remedies which contains Hardy’s early poem Eunice.  Indeed, Hardy also at some point rehashed the narrative theme of Poor Man into a poem with virtually the same title (A Poor Man and a Lady).  We do not seem to know how Hardy intended to weave into the lost novel his original verses.  Each chapter in An Indiscretion is prefaced with – initially unattributed – lines of verse – though here we have not verses by Hardy, but by other famous poets (for example, Tennyson, Shelley, Byron, Browning, Shakespeare etc).  One is tempted to think that this was how Hardy’s own verse was to be displayed.

The satirical poem The Ruined Maid was written in 1866 around the same time that Hardy was conceiving and writing his “socialistic” satire Poor Man with its “original verses”.  One is equally tempted, therefore, to speculate that this “ruined maid”, may initially have almost seen the light of day in Hardy’s first – unpublished – novel.  As it was,  the world had to wait until 1901 to witness the “ruination” of this maid, long after poor Tess had paid the price.

The critical appraisal of Hardy’s Tess is almost an industry unto itself.  An academic could devote a whole life to the study of this stunning tale and the critical response; and Hardy enthusiasts will cry, rage and enthuse long after I have disappeared.


True, Hardy also saw “the passion of love” at the heart of his fiction.  The letter submitting his lost novel to Macmillan importantly made this clear too and “the passion of love” shines through the bitter satire of Tess’s circumstance which leads ultimately, of course, to her murder of her lover and her own execution.

But let’s try to end on a more optimistic note.  In Hardy’s ghosted “autobiography”, published posthumously under second wife Florence’s name, and written and compiled long after Tess had been penned, we find an entry relating to December 1882:

“Hardy was told a story by a Mrs Cross, a very old country-woman he met, of a girl she had known who had been betrayed and deserted by a lover.  She kept her child by her own exertions and lived bravely and throve.  After a time the man returned poorer than she, and wanted to marry her; but she refused.  He ultimately went into the Union workhouse.  The young woman’s conduct in not caring to be “made respectable” won the novelist-poet’s admiration…  The eminently modern idea embodied in this example – of a woman’s not becoming necessarily the chattel and slave of her seducer impressed Hardy as being one of the first glimmers of woman’s enfranchisement; and he made use of it in succeeding years in more than one case in his fiction and verse.”

“Not caring to be ‘made respectable'”.  Bitter irony from Hardy again.

And so back to Tess – the “maiden no more” and at this point the mother of a young child:


“If she could have been but just created, to discover herself as a spouseless mother, with no experience of life except as the parent of a nameless child, would the position have caused her to despair?  No, she would have taken it calmly, and found pleasures therein. Most of the misery had been generated by her conventional aspect, and not by her innate sensations. Whatever Tess’s reasoning, some spirit had induced her to dress herself up neatly as she had formerly done, and come out into the fields, harvest-hands being greatly in demand just then.  This was why she had borne herself with dignity, and had looked people calmly in the face at times, even when holding the baby in her arms.”

The wonderful defiant dignity of Tess towering above the narrow-minded conventional judgements of her bitter circumstance.


June 2020

A brief postscript: a few weeks after writing this blog on Tess, I came upon a most interesting article by Aaron Matz in the ELH journal vol. 73, No. 2 (Summer 2006) entitled “Terminal Satire and Jude the Obscure”, which demonstrates the importance of satire for Hardy as he finished Tess and began to write his final novel – the “terminal satire” Jude.  Matz references the “ghastly satire” in Tess and notes that Jude “exists at the remote frontier of Victorian realism, where the detachment of the novelist blurs into the scourge of the satirist”.

July 2020

A further brief postscript:  I recently came across the transcript of a lecture entitled Thomas Hardy and the Respectable Muse by H. A. T. Johnson, given at the “Hardy Festival Weekend” of 4th July 1969 and published in the first Thomas Hardy Year Book of 1970.  Johnson points to a famous Punch cartoon of 1857 drawn by John Leech which illustrates the very type of conversation which Hardy gives verse to in his Ruined Maid.  Johnson points out that this cartoon caused a furore when published and may well have been seen by Hardy.  His argument is somewhat damaged by his apparently incorrect dating of the poem (1861, instead of the now accepted 1866), but, nevertheless, the similarities between the subjects of the cartoon and Hardy’s poem are striking.  Johnson’s lecture very cogently shows how Hardy’s “Victorian” poetry in its treatment of Love, Death and War contrasts starkly with the “seraphic gobbledy-gook” one normally associates with the hypocritical Victorian perspective.

September   2021

For letters to Hardy, see the splendid website Hardy’s Correspondents – Angelique Richardson and Angear, Helen, editors. Hardy’s Correspondents, Phase One, 2019. University of Exeter.
A dozen or so books have piled up around me while writing this blog:  many editions of Tess of the d’Urbervilles, including the first serialisation in the Graphic;  the “autobiography” – The Life and Work of Thomas Hardy edited by Michael Millgate; Hardy’s Complete Poems and the individual collections of his verse;  the Official Handbook of the Thomas Hardy Festival held in July 1968;  Michael Millgate’s Thomas Hardy – A Biography Revisited; An Indiscretion in the Life of an Heiress, edited and with an introduction by Terry Coleman; A Commentary on the Poems of Thomas Hardy by F. B. Pinion; The Poetry of Thomas Hardy – a Handbook and Commentary by J. O. Bailey; and Nathaniel Sparks – Memoirs of Thomas Hardy’s Cousin the Engraver by Celia Barclay.

Thomas Hardy – sister Mary and the Denchworth church organ

It was some months now, back in late winter, I think, that a sudden burst of unseasonably spring-like weather got me out of miserable housebound winter words and across the flat fields of the Vale of the White Horse in southern Oxfordshire.  I’d been meaning to pay a visit to the village of Denchworth again for some time and the coincidence of warm weather and the recollection of a recent visit to the village and church of Fawley –  the early home of Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure – prompted me to take a look at another village and church with Hardy connections.

I had been wary about making this walk again since the most direct path from Wantage to Denchworth bizarrely and hazardously traverses one of the busiest railway lines in England.  The last time I had attempted the crossing I couldn’t open the gates and (not being as nimble as I used to be) almost impaled myself upon the fence, escaping with only minor injuries (the hazards of an old man walking). What a transient spectacle it would have been for the high-speed commuters.

This crossing will have been a relatively tolerable amble in Hardy’s day of slowish steam. Wantage Road Station opened in the 1840s and old maps show that the path will have been there when Hardy visited the area. However, in these days of 125 mph trains whizzing along and with my eyes and ears not as sharp as they used to be, I cross the lines with great trepidation.


It’s a relief to look back across the flat vale with the Ridgeway in the distance and hidden just beyond it the village of Fawley.  Hardy will have surveyed this scene (at some point with Jude in his mind’s eye) from both vale and hill.

This path to Denchworth happily ends up at the exact place I want to visit –  the splendid ancient parish church of St James the Great.

All these old village churches in the parishes of England have treasures in abundance for the idle visitor, but for those with an enthusiasm for Thomas Hardy, the great man of English literature, the church at Denchworth has a special bonus, for tucked away in the gap between the vestry and the chancel is an old Victorian organ at which, back in the early 1860s, sat none other than Thomas Hardy’s sister, Mary.  And brother Thomas will have some time surely sat in the church and heard her play.


Mary Hardy – this photograph was apparently taken when she was teaching at Denchworth

Most testimonies concur that Hardy was very close to his sister Mary.  She was born in December 1841, only a year and a half after Thomas and they grew up together at the Hardy cottage in Higher Bockhampton, a few miles from the Dorset county town of Dorchester.  Mary was  – in the words of Hardy’s second wife Florence – his “earliest playmate”, the “dearest and kindest sister”. According to commentator Professor Bailey she was “his intellectual and artistic comrade in his youth”.  “In childhood she was almost my only companion… and she had always been the one with the keenest literary tastes and instincts,” Hardy wrote in a letter in the days following her death in 1915, adding;  “she could paint a good likeness too – particularly of women”.  “She had a real skill in catching the character of her sitter,” he wrote in another letter.  Robert Gittings had the view that Mary “adored her brother and would never have complained at anything he did, even if she secretly disliked it”.  Biographer Michael Millgate noted the “central importance of his [Hardy’s] emotional and intellectual intimacy with Mary”.

His poems record her significance for him.  She was his “country girl”, climbing apple trees with him “her foot near mine on the bending limb, / Laughing, her young brown hand awave” and in later life they shared “middle-age enthusiasms”, “jauntings” in the countryside; singing and gardening at their homes.  He could only conjecture on the “strange aspect” of how life would have been without her companionship. His inscription on her tombstone “sacred to the memory” was no mere stone-carved convention, he wrote in one poem, “but stands deep lined / upon the landscape, high and low”.  Her death  depressed him deeply and expressly made him consider the value of his own continuing life: “Tired, tired am I / Of this earthly air”.

His closeness to Mary is evident from the important few extant letters that Hardy, in his early and mid twenties, wrote during his time living in London.  A love of art, a “keen appreciation of literature” and of music is shared.  They went to the theatre together.  He recommends Thackeray to her.  He sends her Trollope’s Barchester Towers.  He gives her a copy of Palgrave’s Golden Treasury.   He had high regard for her talent as an artist and encouraged her (“you have no right to say you are not connected with art”). Robert Gittings talks of “this lifelong sympathy between them, perhaps deeper in its way than any other love”.

So what brought Hardy’s beloved sister Mary to the small Berkshire – now Oxfordshire – village of Denchworth?  Well Mary had trod what seems to have been a common path for bright, educated, unattached young women in the mid 19th Century.  She became a teacher – in the words of Robert Gittings that “symbol of class emancipation in the 1860s”.  It is certainly a familiar path if one takes a cue from other women in Hardy’s life:  younger sister Kate, cousin Tryphena, second wife Florence and of course from Hardy’s fictions which in turn derived impetus from the facts of his life:  Fancy Day in Under the Greenwood Tree and notably Sue Bridehead in Jude, which relays brother Tom’s take on Mary’s experiences at the Salisbury teacher training college, which Mary attended in the first years of the 1860s (escorted thither by brother Tom when she started in April 1860).  And it was at the National School in Denchworth that in 1863 Mary took up her first teaching post after completing her college course to become a certified teacher.  This venture into work away from her Dorset home coincided with brother Thomas’s own escape to London in 1862 where he found work as a draughtsman.

It is this period of the siblings’ lives that are documented in Thomas Hardy’s early letters and by February 1863 he is already expressing to Mary his “uncommon interest” in the requirement for her to play the organ in the Denchworth church.  “Tell me about the organ and how the Sundays go off – I am uncommonly interested.”


Indeed in late April 1863 he paid her a visit and on Sunday April 26th drew a sketch of the school where she was working, located immediately adjacent to the church.  In autumn of the next year Hardy was again in the area with his sketch book – this time also making his first important acquaintance with the village of Fawley which had been the home of his paternal grandmother and which – some 30 years later – featured so prominently in Jude the Obscure.  According to a local historian, Hardy was back in Denchworth at Christmas in 1865 where he attended the Christmas service.  He sent Mary music from London and gave her a large edition of Hymns Ancient and Modern.  Previously Mary had played the harmonium and the piano but playing the organ was, of course, rather a challenge.  It was, she is quoted as saying, “difficult to play at first, but I practised four hours a day”.

A letter from Mary to brother Tom in late November 1862 (published recently online as part of the wonderful Hardy’s Correspondents project) shows Mary’s concern at the musical aspect of her new job.  “On account of this [I] wanted, of course, to give it up & Mr Rawlins, (the clergyman) was informed of it but he wrote to say he would pay a little for me to learn & also give me a little time to practice when there, before playing in Church.”

And so here I am, in the church where Mary and Thomas will have sat some 150 years ago and still there in front of me is the Victorian organ Mary played, its candle holders, its six stops and original pumping mechanism still surviving.

I sit by the organ and commune with past echoes. “Yea, old notes like those/Here are living on yet!”  And I recall the scene in Two on a Tower where church organist Tabitha Lark is practising her voluntaries amid the feeble glimmer of the organ’s candle with a youthful blower at her side.

Of course music was a significant part in the life of the Hardy household and subsequently in Thomas’s writings.   Their father and grandfather played in the Stinsford Church choir.  Younger sister Kate also played the piano and the church organ.   Thomas was a good violinist and was still able to play old English dance tunes on the fiddle in his seventies. A local musician who played with him in his later years has commented that “it should be emphasised that for a man over 80, who had not been a professional musician he gave a remarkable performance on the fiddle”.  Mary, too, will have started her musical education with brother Tom as they were growing up in Bockhampton and surely will have played her mother’s old table-piano which Thomas, already an able fiddler, kept in tune.

On leaving the church,  I decide, before walking back home, to take a look at the school and school-house – now a single converted residence like so many of their counterparts – where Mary will have lived and taught and where Hardy himself will surely have stayed. With a marvellous stroke of Hardyan coincidence, I fall into conversation with someone walking a dog, who not only turns out to be the current owner of the house but promptly and kindly invites me in to look around.  What a marvellous stroke of serendipity!  The spacious former school room contrasts with the cramped living quarters of the adjoining school house where Mary will have resided.

Mary must have been quite lonely and homesick during her few years teaching at the Denchworth school, so much so that she persuaded her mother to let her much younger – six-year-old – sister Kate to come and live with her and be schooled by her.  Further evidence of the strong Hardy family ties.  Their father Thomas senior visited them, Kate later recollected.

By 1867 Mary and Thomas were already both back in Dorset, Mary to continue her teaching career, first at Minterne Magna, then Piddlehinton and finally Dorchester, Kate also eventually teaching alongside her; and Thomas to continue his architectural profession while at the same time pursuing the writing to which he would (happily for us) later devote his life and which would ultimately bring him fame.

Mary Hardy
(Mary – from the Piddlevalley. info website)

The family ties between Thomas and Mary and his other younger siblings, Henry and Kate, were undoubtedly strong.  Thomas was keen to protect and nurture their interests.  But these ties were also famously tested by the other main women in his life, first wife Emma and second wife Florence.

Initially Mary Hardy and Emma Gifford (whom Thomas married in 1874) seem to have got on tolerably well, some evidence for this being the visit paid by Mary and sister Kate to the recently married couple in Swanage in 1875 and the various excursions which took place during the visit.  A picnic together at Corfe Castle was apparently regarded by Emma as a “splendid day” and – as Denys Kay-Robinson  has noted – while “the sisters’ opinion is not on record… from the cordiality of their subsequent letters they evidently liked Emma”.  Over the years, however, relations deteriorated dramatically, the culmination being perhaps best exemplified in the extraordinary letter written by Emma to Mary in 1896 in which Emma accuses Mary of spreading “evil reports” about her, of alleging that Emma was being unkind to her husband and that Emma was unhinged (having “errors” in her mind).

Emma writes:

“Your brother has been outrageously unkind to me – which is entirely your fault: ever since I have been his wife you have done all you can to make division between us; also you have set your family against me…  I defy you ever to say… that I have done anything that can be called unreasonable, or wrong, or mad, or even unkind!  And it is a wicked spiteful and most malicious habit of yours….  You have ever been my causeless enemy – causeless, except that I stand in the way of your evil ambition to be on the same level with your brother by trampling upon me…  And doubtless  you are elated that you have spoilt my life as you love power of any kind.  But you have spoilt your brother’s and your own punishment must inevitably follow – for God’s promises are true for ever.”

Crikey!  We all know that family divisions can run deep, but this one offers eternal damnation.  And Emma – with her “extravagant sense of class superiority” (as noted by Michael Millgate) – doesn’t stop there but invokes the spectacle of Mary and her kin – those (in Emma’s eyes) primitive country “peasant class” women – practising their evil witchcraft on a stormy Egdon Heath.

“You are a witch-like creature and quite equal to any amount of evil-wishing and speaking  – I can imagine you, and your mother and your sister on your native heath raising a storm on Walpurgis night.”

One inevitably hears echoes here of Wessex Tales and The Return of the Native.

An interesting imagined encounter between Emma (“the lady”) and the womenfolk from Hardy’s family was written and staged in the garden at Max Gate by Peter John Cooper.  “Ladies?  Ladies? They are not Ladies.  They are women.  Village women” – declares Emma.  Indeed Mary herself is said to have once confided to Emma that “nobody asks me to dinner or treats me like a lady”.


How difficult it must have been for Thomas to manage these tensions, when all he wanted to do was to retreat into his study and write. Biographer Millgate puts it succinctly when he writes: “Hardy’s own life at Max Gate was intensely private centred primarily upon his work and secondarily upon the maintenance of family ties and the observance of family pieties – often at the expense of those marital obligations he had contracted in the face of family opposition.”  One must, however, have a little sympathy for Emma too, stuck alone in rural Dorset and surrounded by Hardy’s hostile family whom eventually she seems to have banned completely from visiting Max Gate.

Of course, some of the tensions found release in Hardy’s writings, but it can’t have been an easy situation.  Even second wife-to-be Florence was soon introduced to these tensions before first wife Emma’s death, when a huge row broke out on Christmas Day 1911 between Hardy and his wife. Hardy had wanted to take Florence to see Mary and Kate in Bockhampton but Emma declared that this would poison Florence’s mind against her.  Hardy went off sullenly on his own, leaving Florence to vow that “no power on earth would ever induce me to spend another Christmas Day at Max Gate.”  Little did she know…

In the 1890s Hardy, now “seriously rich”, according to Claire Tomalin, purchased a house for Mary and Kate in Wollaston Road Dorchester.  Mary gave up teaching in 1897 when she was in her mid-fifties – about the same time as the serious spat with Emma. She became deaf as she aged and – in Tomalin’s words, “her world closed around her”.  She was asthmatic and already in poor health.  By around 1911 (one source says later) she was living in Talbothays  – a substantial house built by brother Henry in the 1890s on Hardy family land.


This house was not far from the former ancestral home at Bockhampton and Thomas’s house at Max Gate and so within easy reach for Thomas to cycle over.  Here (just outside West Stafford – resonant with Tess of the D’Urbevilles) Mary lived comfortably for her final few years with younger siblings, Henry and Kate. In later life, while her interest in music may have waned, her interest in art certainly continued and she regularly went up to London to visit the annual Royal Academy exhibition, even apparently into her seventies when she must already have been ailing. In late 1915 her illness became more severe. Hardy visited and talked with her on 23rd November.  Mary died the next day from emphysema, a month short of her 74th birthday.  Although she had been “such an invalid”, Thomas “did not think it would be so soon”.

He was grief-stricken.  She was buried on 29th November in the churchyard of St. Michael’s in Stinsford where the rest of the Hardy family lay.  The weather was awful – cold and wet – “drizzling rain all day”.  Hardy himself was soon laid up with “violent bronchitis and a racking cough”.  “I mope over the fire all day.”  Moreover brother Henry was also ill.  What a miserable Christmas it must have been.

Hardy’s “autobiography”, The Life and Work of Thomas Hardy – published posthumously  under Florence’s name, gives a rather downbeat view of this beloved sister’s life.


“…she had been doomed to school-teaching, and organ-playing in this or that village church, during all her active years, and hence was unable to devote sufficient time to pictorial art till leisure was too late to be effective.  Her character was a somewhat unusual one, being remarkably unassertive, even when she was in the right, and could easily have proved it”.

Is this one wonders a reference to the spat with Emma?

The Life continues with what must have been a contemporaneous note by Hardy:

“Nov. 29.  Buried her under the yew-tree where the rest of us lie. As [the Stinsford church vicar] Mr Cowley read the words of the psalm ‘Dixi Custodiam’ they reminded me strongly of her nature, particularly when she was young:  ‘I held my tongue and spake nothing.  I kept silence; yea even from good words.’  That was my poor Mary exactly.  She never defended herself, and that not from timidity, but indifference to opinion.”

There is something curiously reticent about these remarks – something sorrowful about a wasted life. “Poor Mary.”  “Doomed” to teaching or playing music in “this or that village church”, “unable” to pursue her art, ineffective in her application.  An “unusual character”, “unassertive”, “indifferent” to opinion.  “An unusual type,” Hardy echoed in one letter.

Claire Tomalin’s biography of Hardy picks up on this reticence, referring to Mary as “hovering like a pale shadow behind him… so close to him in age and so little mentioned in his own accounts of his life”.  And while “there was no doubt of his importance in her life… his affection was more occasional”.  “Although devoted to his sister,” Tomalin also writes, “his devotion to her had always been in the style of accepting her love rather than demonstrating his.”  “He had made very little effort to involve her in his life.”  She lived “like a hermit,” Hardy had said.  “In practice,” Tomalin maintains, “he shared almost nothing with Mary.”

I am struck by Hardy’s own comments and by Tomalin’s knowledgeable and quite reasoned point of view; and I wonder if Hardy’s own unsigned obituary of sister Mary published in the Dorset County Chronicle and Somersetshire Gazette on 2nd December in 1915 might shed some light – after all this would be a brother in mourning writing about a sister he loved.

I search in vain for the text among the dozens of books I have by and about Hardy.  Some contain tantalising snippets from the obituary.  It is listed, but not quoted, in Richard Purdy’s marvellous Thomas Hardy A Bibliographical Study.  The most likely source for the text, Thomas Hardy’s Personal Writings, edited by Harold Orel, most irritatingly does not republish it, regarding this “uncollected contribution” as being one among “the many, brief, unimportant items”: “their interest is limited”.  All we get is a brief sentence and a briefer summary.


And so some weeks later, as spring moves into summer, I find myself in Dorchester picking up yet more Hardy memorabilia from Duke’s auction house and taking advantage of the visit by walking up to the splendid Dorset History Centre by Top o’ Town and the old Depot Barracks.  I am soon ensconced with boxes of microfilms containing copies of the Dorset County Chronicle and am reading the notice entitled Death of Miss Mary Hardy, Sister of Mr. Thomas Hardy , O.M.

The first part of the notice is factual concerning the death and the bare outline of Mary’s life – her schooling, her attendance at college, her certification as a teacher and her role for many years as Headmistress of the Dorchester Elementary Girls’ School.  Hardy then continues:

“Miss Mary Hardy was endowed with a large share of the family taste and talent for art and music.  While living in Wollaston Road she studied assiduously and used her pencil and brush with skill at the Dorchester School of Art, and acted as church organist.  Under an often undemonstrative exterior she hid a warm and most affectionate nature.

“In addition to Miss Hardy’s long practical connections with school-teaching, there was a side to her activities of which less is known, except among her immediate acquaintances. This was her almost life-long devotion to sketching and painting, which, had it been developed and tended carefully, might have made a noteworthy artist of her.  It took the direction of portraiture.  Her facility in catching a likeness was remarkable and hence in respect of a family record on canvas – that which, whatever its shortcomings, is valued in proportion to its reproduction to us of the faces we wish to remember – she painted to good purpose.  Her picture in oils of her mother is a visible instance of this to those who recall the latter.  It may be said indeed that her whole interest in the brush lay in this direction.

“In early life she was often called upon to play the part of village organist, musicians not being so plentiful then in the country as they are now; and well the writer remembers her girlish consternation when at the age of two-and-twenty, she was suddenly called upon to take the musical service in a strange church, in a strange parish on the following Sunday, upon an organ with pedals and two manuals, her previous experience having been entirely with  piano and harmonium.  How she got through her duty cannot now be estimated; but she speedily settled down to the instrument and performed regularly upon it as long as she resided in the parish, becoming an efficient choir mistress amid the somewhat disconcerting vagaries of a rural choir.  She was not, however, a born musician, and her familiarity with music decreased during the latter part of her life.”

Then follows the details of the interment, of the family mourners, of the friends (including Mr and Mrs T. C. Duke) who attended despite the “inclement weather” and the floral tributes.

A number of things strike me.  First I am taken by this obituary back to Denchworth, to the young nervous schoolteacher and the church organ of St James the Great.  This memory of the Denchworth church organ had lived remarkably long in Hardy’s mind.  So much so that some fifty years later he was dwelling on it again in this remembrance of Mary.  It clearly laid quite a mark on his memory. And the depiction is affectionate, even if it is – specifically so here – “occasional”.  Second I am struck again by the curious, almost curmudgeonly, tone that big brother Tom has taken.  Had she developed her devotion to painting and sketching she might have made a noteworthy artist – but she didn’t.  Her facility to catch a likeness was remarkable – but let’s not forget the “shortcomings”.  She performed regularly on the organ and was an efficient choir mistress – but let’s not forget to mention that “she was not, however, a born musician”.

Goodness.  She was his sister.  She is just in the grave.  And I am thinking of what I always tell myself as another funeral approaches – nihil nisi bonum de mortuis…  And I too reflect on Psalm 39 – Dixi: custodiam vias meas ut non delinquam in lingua mea.  (I will keep a watch on my ways so that I do not offend with my tongue).

We do, though, have to remember that here Hardy was writing formally and anonymously in the press and so surely had to distance any familial fraternal emotion.  But how this obituary contrasts with his vivid and luminous portrait of William Barnes’ daughter, Lucy, when he penned his recollections following her death some years earlier.

Hardy himself, of course, famously did develop his talent and tend it carefully.  He was not going to hide his light under a bushel like his “unassertive” sister; and he was certainly, demonstrably, not indifferent to opinion.

I am loath to tread more on the difficult path of musing about “poor Mary”.  And I can sense the ghost of Hardy bristling with rancour.  But there will still be some interesting pickings for anyone with the temerity and inclination to delve into archives.

And there is one more thing.  In 1925 on the anniversary of Mary’s birth and 10 years after her death – as conveyed to us in The Life – Hardy wrote:

“Mary’s birthday.  She came into the world… and went out… and the world is just the same… not a ripple on the surface left.”

What a profoundly sad reflection this is on his sister’s life, again hauntingly reminiscent of Psalm 39:

like a moth you eat away all that is dear to us; truly, everyone is but a puff of wind“.

And what of Thomas and the ripples that he has made on the surface of the world?

Seamus Heaney – a great admirer of Hardy’s verse – at one point wrote expressly of this:

Once, as a child, out in a field of sheep,
Thomas Hardy pretended to be dead
And lay down flat among their dainty shins.

In that sniffed-at, bleated-into, grassy space
He experimented with infinity.
His small cool brow was like an anvil waiting

For sky to make it sing the perfect pitch
Of his dumb being, and that stir he caused
In the fleece-hustle was the original

Of a ripple that would travel eighty years
Outward from there, to be the same ripple
Inside him at its last circumference.

December 2019


For examples of Mary Hardy’s art see here

For more information about the splendid Hardy’s Correspondents project – led by Professor Angelique Richardson from the University of Exeter and in collaboration with the Dorset Museum see here

The books that piled up around me as I penned this blog were (in no particular order):

Thomas Hardy – A Biography Revisited by Michael Millgate, Young Thomas Hardy by Robert Gittings, Thomas Hardy – The Time-Torn Man by Claire Tomalin, Thomas Hardy’s Personal Writings edited by Harold Orel, Thomas Hardy – A Bibliographical Study by Richard L. Purdy, A Hardy Companion by F. B. Pinion, The Poetry of Thomas Hardy by J. O. Bailey, Thomas Hardy at Max Gate – The Latter Years by Dr Andrew Norman, Thomas Hardy as a Musician by J. Vera Mardon, The Life and Work of Thomas Hardy by Thomas Hardy edited by Michael Millgate, The Collected Letters of Thomas Hardy edited by Richard Little Purdy and Michael Millgate, Hardy by Martin Seymour-Smith, Thomas Hardy – the Complete Poems, The First Mrs Thomas Hardy by Denys Kay-Robinson, Letters of Emma & Florence Hardy by Michael Millgate, A Commentary on the Poems of Thomas Hardy by F. B. Pinion, She Opened the Door – The Wife and Women Who Haunted Thomas Hardy by Peter John Cooper, The Dorset County Chronicle and Somersetshire Gazette, The Parish Church of St James The Great Denchworth



The “genius” George Barker – a “very peculiar fellow” in rural Norfolk’s earth

In the mists of my early manhood (when searing emotions reigned and before the joy of  dogged bitterness set in), I mixed with creative folk and found myself one day at a poetry reading in an arts centre in Berkshire, southern England.  Three poets read at the session – John Heath-Stubbs, W. S. Graham and George Barker.   I would think them now to be a very illustrious crew.  Morever the reading had been arranged by Barker’s son Sebastian, who was writer in residence at the arts centre and no mean poet himself.  Of the poems recited I can, alas, remember absolutely nothing, but the physicality and the images of these three poets are still etched vividly in my memory some 40 years later – the angular grey-haired Graham, the wonderfully monstrous block of the almost blind Heath-Stubbs and the bemused and deceptive diffidence of Barker.

Of these three poets, the one to whose works I kept returning intermittently was George Barker.  Well, I say works, but it is one work in particular which has stood out for me and which has been a fairly constant companion.  This is the marvellous long poem called The True Confession of George Barker which I had serendipitously found in a second-hand Penguin Poets volume I possessed at the time of the reading.  This volume, entitled The Mid Century: English Poetry 1940-1960 was edited by David Wright, a fellow poet and acquaintance of Barker.  Wright – happily for me – had decided to include in his anthology some exemplary long poems.  George Barker was thus represented singly and singularly by Book I of The True Confession.

This Penguin edition was published in 1965, the same year that saw the publication by MacGibbon & Kee of Barker’s own volume, The True Confession, which also contained the first publication of Book II of the confession, written more than ten years after its companion piece.

It seems rather trite to say this, but George Granville Barker (1913 – 1991) was a true poet, a poet to the core.  He never knew any other life.  He was the embodiment of his fabulous flamboyant verse and verbal magic.  He lived a mischievous, chaotic, Bohemian poet’s life, treading a littered trail of loves lost and found, leaving in his wake the many children he fathered in those embraces.  His poetry, siren-like, lured women to him.  He was passionate, physically argumentative, difficult and controversial, extreme, obscene and, at times deliberately one might think, cocking a snook by spoiling a good line with an outrageous pun.  “I cannot bear poems that do not have dirty marks on their faces,” biographer Robert Fraser (in his book The Chameleon Poet) quotes him as saying in later life.  And in his teens Barker was already declaring “I like poetry to be dirty with earthly mould, finger marks on it, and its napkin… not quite deodorised.”


Berated by poet and editor Geoffrey Grigson as a producer of “nauseating poems” and a “loose rhetorician”,  Barker made his name initially in modernistic prose and free verse famously gaining the patronage of T. S. Eliot (who called him both “genius” and “a very peculiar fellow”) and, less famously, of Graham Greene. But he was also technically adept at form and rhyme, wanting to move away from “Latinate bullshit” towards rigorous simplicity.  He was deeply impressed by A. E. Housman.  “I wanted to write a hundred little poems of eight lines, rhymed.  I did this, and I saw how terribly, terribly hard it is to do”. The rhymed eight-lined stanzas of True Confession exemplify this rigour while at the same time retaining a wonderful Whitmanesque declamatory extravagance and energy.

The sulking and son-loving Muse/Grabbed me when I was nine.  She saw/It was a question of self-abuse/Or verses. I tossed off reams before/I cared to recognize their purpose./ While other urchins were blowing up toads/With pipes of straw stuck in the arse,/So was I, but I also wrote odes.

His True Confession is his take on the first forty to fifty years or so of his disordered life as an “Augustinian anarchist”. As well as rhyme, there is a persistent physical rhythmic quality to the poem, which may have taken a lead from the motions of travel.  Barker routinely wrote the stanzas of Book I while journeying on a bus.

When I call devils from the deep/The damned brutes answer only too pronto,/skipping up out of the beds of sleep/Not at my call, but because they want to.

The first part of the “confession” dwells idiosyncratically on his childhood years, his early dalliances with sex and God, musings on morality and faith and his beginnings as a poet:

The literature that I prized/Was anything to do with the nude/Spirit of creative art/ who whispered to me: ‘Don’t be queasy./Simply write about a tart/And there she is. The rest’s easy.’//And thus, incepted in congenial/Feebleness of moral power/I became a poet.

He usefully gives a cryptic nod to his own exemplar Francois Villon:

I entreat you frank villain,/Get up out of your bed of dirt/And guide my hand.  You are still an/Irreprehensible expert/At telling Truth she’s telling lies./Get up, liar; get up, cheat,/Look the bitch square in the eyes/And you’ll see what I entreat.


He writes of his first marriage and child.  Moments of elegiac lyricism are followed by declamatory self-deprecation.  He notes his ill-timed departure for Japan where the ridiculous and sublime blend together in typical Barker fashion:

I sat one morning on the can/That served us for a lavatory/composing some laudatory/Verses on the state of man:/My wife called from the kitchen dresser:/’There’s someone here from Japan./He wants you out there.  As Professor./Oh, yes.  The War just began.’

And he confesses to his “Good God” of his omissions and commissions (“Every man knows well/He rides his own whores down to hell.”)

I confess, my God, that in/The hotbed of the monkey sin/I saw you through a guilt of hair/Standing lonely as a mourner/Silent in the bedroom corner/Knowing you need not be there.


Book II of the confession takes us to his time in Italy, the end of the war, the atomic bomb and original sin (“What, has the Ideos gone quite mad/Not to be frightened of the Atom?/I hear its joke, both rude and bad:/’Sir, it was I split the Adam’). He notes the birth of a son. He dwells on his deep preoccupation with St Francis of Assisi, contrasted with the Italian penchant for roasting song birds.  And there are some remarkable part reverential, part irreverential ode-like verses to Cardinal Newman, who loomed large in Barker’s Catholic upbringing. He muses on art, religion, pagan gods, Bacchus and drink.  And in this context introduces us to Louis Macniece and Dylan Thomas and that “deaf poet” (is this David Wright?) “whom the fishy/Girls upon their ragged rock/Chant vainly to, and close their ears”.  He records the death of love (and the death of a love affair).  Death, love and sin merge in one embrace:

“The lovers lying at their ease/Like coldblooded snakes that creep/And curl together half asleep/Eating each other by degrees/Until these heart-shaped heads of Satan/Stare bodiless at each other:/So, fattening as we’re being eaten,/ We devour one another.”

There is a diatribe from this ever-poor poet about moneyed poets (‘Three great bards, whose Income Tax/(What with Professorships and perks)/Filled more pages than their works”);  a nod to the Jesuits and the confession ends.

O bed of roses!  Let the man/Here in the prisons of the Night/And dreaming with a second sight/Look up to see, like Aldebaran,/The gold sunsetting mask of God/Christening us with our day’s/Apotheosizing blaze/Like Death on fire overhead.

As biographer Fraser rightly notes, this True Confession is far from autobiography.  What we have here is a poetical reflection from a mature and practised poet, with biographical elements a kind of motivator, a skeleton around which Barker threads and shreds his “psychological history” and “theological disquisition”.

Eliot at Faber wouldn’t publish it.  When, in April 1953, Barker was broadcast reading passages from Book I of the poem on the BBC’s Third Programme, there was outrage.  The Daily Sketch – keen to get at the broadcaster – branded it “gilded filth”, sending reporters down to Barker’s home to garnish their offering.  “Dirty thoughts are presented under the guise of culture. It is a challenge to basic dignities, a sexual meandering.  It commits blasphemy in a condescending prayer.”   The poem even featured prominently in Parliament where, in a debate in the House of Lords, Barker’s “piece of pornography” was used as a stick to beat the BBC.

Barker didn’t leave us with a similar take on the last 30 years of his life.  Though perhaps he did, because his output never flagged and anyone dipping into any of these volumes will find a confessional treasure trove, be it the cleverly turned dialogues of Gog and Magog or the epistolary odes to fellow poets such as David Archer and Heath-Stubbs.

There is a cornucopia of prosaic philosophical reflection on love, life and death formulated in free verse – more reminiscent of Pascal than St. Augustine.  (One remembers Grigson’s strictures.)


Indeed the volume Dialogues etc has a free-verse poem entitled Pascal’s Nightmare; and yet in the same collection, we have the perversely playful rhymed quatrains of Dialogue VIII where the stopped heart becomes a cuckoo clock with the cuckoo fled to cloud cuckoo land and poem itself beats to berate the silent heart:

‘There there is no sun arising/or circles of the moon,/there is no kiss in the morning/and no gun at noon./ There is no river running into a future tense;/ and long though you look down, it bears no image hence… The waves are always breaking/although they never break/and the footprints of the wind have gone/from the surface of the lake./There the suns hang for ever/in the eternal tree./ – The cuckoo will never call again/for you, my love, or me.’

Barker could be truly offensive and deliberately outrageous.  The anecdotes of his life can read like a Dostoevsky novel.  At one moment he is as perverse as “the underground man”, at another point his antics are reminiscent of a scene from The Idiot.  He takes umbrage when he decides (second wife) Elspeth is smirking while reading verse from his Villa Stellar and he grabs the completed typescript of the collection and hurls it on to the fire.  An appalled visitor tries to retrieve the burning manuscript only for Barker to clout him on the head with a coal shovel.  On another occasion son Christopher describes Barker’s explosive and furious reaction when this son’s attempt at reconciliation ends with the poet – in tears – smashing his fist down on a vinyl recording of Ave Maria as the record plays on the turntable, and storming out, declaiming “How dare you! How dare you!”  As a young man Barker had the misfortune accidentally to put out the eye of his brother in a play sword fight (recounted later in poem XXXVII of the In Memory of David Archer collection), an act which he dubbed “an enormous natural calamity”.  He must have been both joy and despair for those who knew him.


Back in the early 1980s, in my youthful self-centred arrogant naivety I paid too little attention to what went on round about me.  The blind Heath-Stubbs could see clearer   than ever I could.  But a life lived is a life learned and to anyone in reflective mode who wants help in wondering what the hell happened, I heartily recommend George Barker’s  True Confession.

And so in my East Anglian travels this past summer, I found myself embarking on two pilgrimages on the same day.  In the morning I drove across the Suffolk/Norfolk border to Walsingham and visited the Anglican and Catholic shrines of Our Lady.  George Barker who struggled all his life with Catholicism and original sin and whose verse is deeply, at times angrily, imbued with this struggle must also, surely, have made this trek.  From Walsingham I drove a few miles east to the easily accessible but curiously remote village of Itteringham – the English equivalent of  “France profonde”.   And, as the sun was setting, and some forty years after my one and only encounter with the poet, I visited another religious establishment, the Itteringham village church where in the far end of the graveyard lies buried the mortal remains of George Granville Barker.

Like his verse, the handsome tombstone has both solidity in form and flamboyance in expression with its white lettering and the carving of a bird, immediately recognisable as a phoenix rising from flames and ashes.  And beneath all this – the Latin word “RESURGAM” – I shall rise again.  Barker, who had battled with – and against – his faith throughout the whole of his life and told the priest who married him to Elspeth that there was only one of the ten commandments he hadn’t broken, pledges he’ll be back.

The image of the phoenix is no random choice, of course.  And I do not know whether this was Barker’s doing or the act of his family and friends.  But the phoenix – the bird that rises from the flames and ashes of its predecessor, this universal symbol of renewal – was the emblem not only of D H Lawrence.

Barker and his younger brother Kit in their creative adolescent years – and with an expressedly clear nod to Lawrence – had set up a pottery in their garden shed and – as biographer Robert Fraser recounts – “devised a logo of a stylised phoenix rising from some equally stylised flames, which they stamped on the base of their pots.”  “They called the enterprise the Phoenix Pottery.”  And as they acquired a printing press and began to publish their own works, this enterprise soon transmogrified into the “Phoenix Press”.  This tombstone looks like its last production.

I stand by Barker’s tomb, loath to move on, quietly paying my respects and thanking the dead poet for his verse, but my wife urges me away, sets off back to the car and then suddenly reappears accompanied by a tall silver-haired man.  “This is the church warden,” she says.  “He knew George Barker.”

And so, for ten minutes I am privileged to hear some reminiscences of the poet’s time in the village and yet another anecdote about his outrageous behaviour and his banishment from the local pub.  After he died the Itteringham church was used for a commemorative reading of his verse.  “It was packed full!” my interlocutor tells me in disbelief.  “Packed!”

I drive back as darkness descends, reflecting inevitably on faith, life and death.  I think of Barker’s own mock epitaph in his True Confession.  “Essex gave me birth, and Sex/Death.  I lie here, poet/of hawkers, bottles and bad cheques”.  I think too of the terrifying scope of Barker’s self-taught knowledge and wide reading.  The asides, allusions and references in his work range with ease through the vast halls of thought and culture, ancient and modern.  The reader reels with vertigo as these dizzying horizons unfold.  Beliefs, ideas, thoughts vie in his verse with an emotional honesty and force.

Barker lists in True Confession a pantheon of poets ancient and modern ascending the  heights of the “Matterhorns of intelligence”: “…at/A crevasse in the icebound soul/Cowper sits imbibing tea;/Pound whistling in an iron cage/over an avalanche; Eliot/Roping down an untamed gale,/ And old Yeats, frozen in majesty.”  Byron, Pope, Clare, and Catullus (inevitably) are there, “old Blake/Like a bald prophet on a tricycle/Riding the Trinity…” and Leopardi.  I am surprised at the absence of Housman.  But, then, who is this – the last on this list of pioneering poetical mountaineers, the one nearest the summit?

“…the good guide Thomas Hardy/Lost in vast mist; and the metaphysical/Fury assaulting them all alike.”

Typical Barker.  Goodness me!  The great man Hardy – his leading mountaineer of poetry, last in the list.  And so good a guide is he, that with life’s little ironies and with a satire of circumstance, he is lost in the mist.

December 2018

Book I of True Confession can be found here or here
Robert Fraser’s splendid biography of George Barker is titled: The Chameleon Poet: A Life of George Barker, Published by Jonathan Cape, London 2001
Peter Wilby published a most informative short account of Barker’s life in the Guardian newspaper in 2008
See also the piece by Christopher Barker published in the Guardian
An interesting piece by poet Paul Potts who also knew Barker –  “the world of George Barker is a place for sinners…”
See also the blog – the diary review 


W G Sebald, Joseph Conrad, Thomas Hardy – a literary wander along the Suffolk coast

I have been in Suffolk over the summer months and, as usual, during my trips to this wonderful county in the east of England I was accompanied by The Rings of Saturn.  Most folk with a literary bent will immediately understand that I am not referring to interplanetary travel and the actual rings which circle the planet Saturn, but the most memorable book of that name by Winfried Georg Sebald, first published in English 20 years ago.

I first came upon this book not long after its publication in English which, magically, coincided with my first adult visit to the county.  Reading this book was, for me, one of those rare breathtaking moments when you realise that you have come upon something special.  Curiously, the experience was rather like actually seeing with my own eyes those entrancing rings around the planet Saturn when a few years later I managed to assemble and use a telescope on the grass verge outside my house.  Memorable in the extreme.  And memory, of course, figures large in Sebald’s musings.


Sebald’s Rings of Saturn is a book about walking in Suffolk, well, superficially at any rate, and walking in Suffolk is one of the things I do when I go there.  Of course, saying that Sebald’s book is about a walk through Suffolk is rather misleading (a bit like saying War and Peace is about Napoleon’s invasion of Russia).

The range of Sebald’s journey takes you not only through Suffolk and through many other parts of the world, but also beyond geography, through history, time and, perhaps most importantly, memory.  This world is populated not only by Sebald, his friends, colleagues and acquaintances, but also by a whole gamut of figures – incidental (as much as anything can be incidental in Sebald’s work), historical and, of course, literary.  His narrative reminisces about his own life and the lives of others.  He creates a multi-dimensional melancholic world which not so much traverses time as transforms it.  And he punctuates this with premeditatedly grainy, predominantly uncaptioned, photos which not so much illuminate the narrative as gloomily interact with it.  These images, Sebald himself apparently thought, served not only as a verification of the narrative, but were, more pointedly, time busters.  They arrest time, they seize us, they engulf us, they take us out of time and communicate directly with us.

There is plenty elsewhere about W. G. Sebald, about his life, his tragic death, and his writing – there are books devoted to him, journalistic pieces, blogs and academic studies.  And rightly so.  He deserves the attention he gets and deserves more, though there will be some (and I understand why) who do not appreciate his idiosyncratic musings.  For me, I come back to this book in some measure every year when I arrive at the Suffolk coast, as the long frenetic drive finally succumbs to country lanes, as the speed of life slows and the relativity of space and time begins to manifest itself.  And when I walk, I take his book with me and I try, inadequately, to make both my feet and my head traverse the same sort of territory.

Take for example, the walk from Pakefield to Lowestoft, along the promenade past Kirkley Cliff.  This inevitably evokes for me not only thoughts of the prolific Joseph Conrad who first set foot on English soil in Lowestoft 140 years ago, but also of Sebald who muses in Rings of Saturn on Conrad strolling in the evening along this very esplanade, a 21-year-old foreigner alone amidst the English, “intrigued”, speculates Sebald, “by the ease with which he is absorbing a hitherto quite unfamiliar language”.  As I walk down towards the harbour where Conrad’s ship will have docked, I too hear the chatter of a foreign tongue, Conrad’s own, Polish.  Poles play on the beach and shout happily to each other, unaware perhaps of the faint passing step of the ghost of their compatriot.  Unless, of course, that is, they frequent the local Wetherspoon pub  which is located in what goes – misleadingly – by the name of Station Square and which proudly proclaims itself The Joseph Conrad.


What on earth the well-travelled Conrad would have made of this tribute, I am not sure.  Sebald would perhaps have given us a handsome few pages on Ebenezer Tuttle, Mayor of Lowestoft, whose shop used to occupy the premises.  And I myself speculate whether Sebald would have welcomed the brash conviviality of this public house or whether it would have increased “the feeling of wretchedness that instantly seized hold of [him] in Lowestoft” and which for many other visitors still persists.

Sebald wrote in his native German tongue, despite living for years in England.  His works were translated into English. He espoused the cause of literary translation. He taught creative writing courses at his English University apparently with reluctance and reservations because he was not a native English speaker.  And yet here we have the cosmopolitan Conrad ultimately churning out his well-respected prose in what was probably his third language.  (French being the second.)  Conrad’s first tutors of English, Sebald recalls in Rings of Saturn, were the Lowestoft Standard and the Lowestoft Journal.  Without meaning to be disrespectful to any jobbing journalist, one can, however, hardly imagine Sebald taking these as his cue.

Heading south from Lowestoft towards Kessingland, alternating between beach and cliff top, the pedestrian traveller finds much of the cliff top path gone, eroded by wind, rain and sea and one treads such paths with care and irritation.  Care, because a misplaced step could prove disastrous and irritation, because so often one sets off along such a path only to find it has vanished into thin air and one has to turn back.

The cliffs hereabouts are literally made of sand and at some point the path inevitably ends up on the beach or in the sea. A traveller feels like one of Conrad’s pedestrian pilgrims – “unhappy souls” – cited in an epigraph to The Rings of Saturn or indeed like the rings themselves, battered into fragments, we are told in another epigraph, by the planetary tidal effect.

This amorphous, shifting nature of the Suffolk coastline is not only portrayed so admirably in Sebald’s Rings but actually infects the very structure and narrative of the work itself as it moves seamlessly through time and space.  The fishermen on the coast are “the stragglers of some nomadic people”.  “They just want to be in a place where they have the world behind them, and before them nothing but emptiness.”  Transformation and transience abound.

As I walk the coastline the solidity of old military fortifications is collapsing and crumbling into the sea.  The remnants of a history deeply embedded in Sebald’s own consciousness are transformed from lofty carapaces of conflict into beach ornaments.  What was – is now no longer or is utterly estranged.  What wasn’t – is now substance, like the curious desert of a beach in Kessingland which has emerged, usurped the sea and now stretches out way beyond the crumbling cliffs.


As I walk through Kessingland I look in vain for Henry Rider Haggard’s house, recalling now not Sebald, but the childless Thomas Hardy, who – in comments shockingly hurtful to our modern ears – commiserated with Haggard on the death of his 10-year-old son from measles by telling him: “I think the death of a child is never really to be regretted, when one reflects on what he has escaped”.  A cruel harbinger of Jude, no doubt:  pessimism absent the meliorism.  Hardy then, typically,  goes on to talk about the weather.


On the beach towards Southwold the subverted dislocation of military concrete is enhanced by transformations of the natural world.  Trees, taken by the sea, are transformed into beach sculpture. It is like an art installation.  Sebald himself noted:

“…dead trees lie in a confused heap where they fell years ago…  Bleached by salt water, wind and sun, the broken barkless wood looks like the bones of some extinct species, greater even than the mammoths and dinosaurs, that came to grief long since on this solitary strand.”

A walk on a beach transforms into a view of time without end:  “…that day, as I sat on the tranquil shore, it was possible to believe one was gazing into eternity”, writes Sebald.


I walk into Southwold past the pier (blazoned with reminiscences of George Orwell and thus tangentially another pier); and up into the town. The midday drunks of Lowestoft have been replaced by a chauffeured limo waiting to ferry some well-heeled folk back to their town house in London or some other residence: a scene, no doubt, which has been rehearsed for well over a century.  I pass the Sailors’ Reading Room and the Crown Hotel, where Sebald muses in Rings on the horror of ethnic “cleansing” in World War 2, punctuating his narrative with a, mercifully and purposefully indistinct, photograph of a cross-bar gallows “on which Serbs, Jews and Bosnians, once rounded up, were hanged in rows like crows or magpies”.  The nausea in my stomach, as I take a sideways glance at this awful picture, reminds me of a visit to Berlin when I fled, uncomprehending, feeling violently sick, from the museum called the Topography of Terror.  The Rings of Saturn suddenly encircle me and time stands shockingly still.

My own travels come again to the fore as I recall Sebald’s musings in Southwold on the curious connections between the Congo, Conrad and Roger Casement and Conrad’s dispirited journey south along the west coast of Africa past “trading posts with names like Gran’ Bassam or Little Popo, all of them seeming to belong in some sordid farce”.  And, once home, I dig out some old photos I took in Grand Bassam, almost a lifetime ago.

Grand Bassam

I recollect the haunting, dreamlike, decaying grandeur coupled with the shocking physicality of abandoned mansions taken over haphazardly by those in need of more than shelter.  I wonder what Sebald would have made of Grand Bassam unmediated by Conrad’s passing glimpses.  Inevitably, I dig out my copy of Heart of Darkness and read the unmediated Conrad:

“…we passed various places – trading places with names like Gran’ Bassam, Little Popo; names that seemed to belong to some sordid farce acting in front of a sinister back-cloth. The idleness of a passenger, my isolation amongst all these men with whom I had no point of contact, the oily and languid sea, the uniform sombreness of the coast, seemed to keep me away from the truth of things, within the toil of a mournful and senseless delusion.”

And I am just recollecting fleeing Grand Bassam by taxi to the greater terrors of Abidjan when in my copy of Heart of Darkness, marking the page, I find two receipts from a Georgian restaurant in Moscow dated March 1996 of which, terrifyingly, I have no recollection at all beyond the fact that I have traversed ten years of life in the blink of an eye and with time arrested once again am still no nearer the truth of things, nor further away from mournful and senseless delusion.


At least when I have traversed that splendid beach at Sizewell, where folk nonchalantly walk their dogs adjacent splitting atoms, and have reached genteel Aldeburgh, I have escaped momentarily the gravity of Sebald and moved into a more comfortable orbit.  I pass Benjamin Britten’s first house in the town and move on to my destination further down along what passes as the Aldeburgh promenade.  I am in search again of Strafford House.  This residence, with its striking yellow wash, rings with literary resonance. I always pause here and take a photograph.  I am back again to Thomas Hardy.


Hardy stayed in this house a number of times.  He was familiar with the streets around it, with the railway station, with the beach, with the river Alde that runs down from Snape. His shade is everywhere.

This was the house of Edward Clodd, one of those great Victorian polymaths – banker, anthropologist, folklorist.   He was a man of many parts, born the same year as Hardy, and, like Hardy, not averse to controversy in his writings. The sociable Clodd routinely opened up his seafront home to the intellectual elite of his time.  Writers, scientists, adventurers all enjoyed hospitality and each other’s company at Clodd’s Suffolk home.  But for Hardy, Strafford House was, on occasion, much more than a holiday retreat or venue for literary conviviality, since it was here that he was able to meet up with his helpmate and wife-to-be, Florence Dugdale, before first wife Emma had died.  It was here, on the beach not far from Strafford House, that the famous photo of Hardy and Florence was taken in August 1909 on what was, probably, the most memorable of the many visits he made.


Hardy had already travelled up to Aldeburgh in July of that year and confided in Clodd about the state of his troubled marriage.  A few weeks later – after the farcical marital manoeuvres around the opera of his Tess – he was back, but this time with Florence.  Emma will not have known.  Just as she did not know about the manoeuvres keeping Florence away from her at the opera.  She never, as far as I know, visited Strafford House, and soon afterwards there began that curious deceitful charade with Florence who became a regular visitor, not only to Strafford House, but also, having separately – and some would say insidiously – befriended Emma, to Max Gate, the Hardy homestead in Dorchester.

Clodd notably remarked about the August visit – “Hardy and the Lady are enjoying themselves”; and there has been much speculation about the relations at this time between Hardy and his amanuensis Florence, not least the opposing views of biographers Millgate and Seymour-Smith (and the latter’s sensational, if not scurrilous, conclusions).   Hardy, who did not take kindly in his lifetime to prurient interest in his personal affairs and who (with the help of Florence) attempted to manage such interest even after his death, would be beyond outrage.

Walking south out of Aldeburgh I ponder, without much insight, commonalities in the writings of Sebald and Hardy.  The shared interest in history and the Battle of Waterloo; the curious coincidence of the models of Jerusalem in Jude and the Temple of Jerusalem in Rings; and the rings of Saturn did, of course, cross Hardy’s horizon too, most patently in the astronomically themed Two on a Tower, where hero Swithin gives Lady Constantine a telescopic tour of the heavens:

“…’we see a world which is to my mind by far the most wonderful in the solar system.  Think of streams of satellites or meteors racing round and round the planet like a fly-wheel, so close together as to seem solid matter!'”

“The most wonderful in the solar system.”  But the “flywheel” that circles this wonderful planet is deceptive to the distant eye.  That which is not solid appears to us with solidity.  Those cursed rings.  Ice crystals, meteorites, satellites, the fragments of a moon – spinning round with a dizzying intensity, seeming to us from afar not quite what they are.  Transformed and transient.  A bit like this Suffolk coast, I think.  You look at the sea as it moves in and out, and the landscape as it shifts and turns, full of memory, full of shades

…which take me by the hand,
and lead me through their rooms
In the To-be, where Dooms
Half-wove and shapeless stand:
And show from there
The dwindled dust
And rot and rust
Of things that were.

‘Oh Memory, where is now my youth
Who used to say that life was truth?’

September 21st 2018

Some references for the ramblings above…
On W G Sebald, there is an interesting piece by Mark Fisher  commenting on the “essay film” Patience which references Rings of Saturn.  And there are some excellent insights made inée
particularly the last piece by Spring Ulmer.
There were also my perennial hard copy Hardy companions – Oliver Millgate’s Thomas Hardy, A Biography Revisited; and Martin Seymour-Smith’s Hardy; and The Collected Letters of Thomas Hardy, edited by Millgate and Richard Purdy.

The final verse quotes are from Hardy’s I have lived with Shades; and Memory and I.

In pursuit of a battered book – far from the madding crowd

I recently spent a couple of days driving back and forth to Dorset.   Two hours there, two hours back, and doing it twice, on consecutive days – that’s eight hours’ driving.  I would have stayed over and indeed I did book a room in a guest house in Dorchester via one of the many online websites only to get a phone call late in the evening prior to departure saying “sorry” the room had already been taken.  So, in my stubborn stupid way, and initially not really sure whether I would need to stay over, I ended up driving there and back – twice, in two days.

My wife – whose opinion I value dearly – made the obvious point: “You realise you are completely crazy,” she said.  My granddaughter will say the same when she hears about it.  And whom should I blame for this onset of madness?  Well, it’s Thomas Hardy.  At least (for those few who read my last blog) Emily Dickinson can take a rest.  And it’s not really blame, of course.  I need to thank the great man, not curse him.

My current preoccupation with Hardy occasionally leads to feverish hours of expectation as I sit at my computer waiting for a distant online auction to begin and then attending impatiently, blocking out all shouts and commands, as an auctioneer finally gets to lot 632 or whatever and announces: “And now we have blah blah blah Thomas Hardy”.  Then in a thirty second rush it’s all over, my blood pressure is 180/85 and I am either greatly disappointed or greatly impoverished; and I scuttle downstairs to express relief that we still have money in the bank or confess to our sudden poverty and my sins.  Mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.  Hardy would think me most profligate.

But the Dorchester auction last week was not online.  There was a book that interested me.  So, I thought, what the heck!  I’ll go and have a look.  And I did.  I suspected the book on offer was a first edition but couldn’t quite figure out why it was bundled with a load of other stuff; and if there is one thing I have learnt in book buying, it is that if you have a hunch, keep shtum and follow it.


So… first edition it was: sadly, a few pages missing, a couple of illustrations gone, one even rejigged and taped into the wrong place (crikey! what was that about?), backstrip flapping, bits falling off… and battered.  Definitely battered.  But for me sometimes the more battered the better. (I am not keen on those pristine rebound jobs all gilt and glitter in a special box.)  For 150 years folk had given this book a good going over.  Nevertheless it still cost me a fair few quid and I was at my point of quitting when I won the bidding.  But this book now sits on a shelf in my little library (half a converted garage) along with other books on the floor and in piles all over the house.  And my dear wife goes through her usual routine:  “I don’t understand.  What are you going to do?  Take it down from the shelf every day and look at it?  And when you are dead, it’ll get thrown into a skip with all the others, despite the stupid little notes you put in them.”  “Heck,” I say.  “I’ll be dead.  Why should I care?”  But of course, at the moment still in the land of the living, care I do.  Perhaps my granddaughter will step in at the right point in the future and make folk see sense.

So I am in Dorchester.  It is hot and sunny.  I have my walking boots in the car and a bottle of my favourite water (yes… favourite… sad, isn’t it).  What else would I do but trek off to the great man’s cottage and walk over the fields from Higher Bockhampton to Kingston Maurwood House and on to Stinsford Church to pay my respects, returning by Lower Bockhampton where Hardy started school as a young boy.  As I walk I turn over in my mind not only his early school day trek, but also his first and second published novels, Desperate Remedies and Under the Greenwood Tree where the locations often are… well… precisely those that I am passing as I walk.  

The imposing grand house itself, in Desperate Remedies the home of Miss Aldclyffe; in Hardy’s boyhood the residence of Julia Augusta Martin who was “passionately fond of Tommy almost from his infancy”.  The Tudor manor nearby, in Desperate Remedies the ramshackle dwelling of Aeneas Manston, illegitimate son of Aldclyffe.

The village school – now a private house – in Lower Bockhampton, where Hardy was first educated and where Fancy Day taught in Under the Greenwood Tree.  Stinsford Church itself, which Hardy attended as boy, where his father played the fiddle and which features so prominently as Mellstock Church in Under the Greenwood Tree.  And, of course, the churchyard there which is home to the Hardy family graves and where Thomas Hardy’s heart lies buried. This burial in itself a desperate remedy attempting and failing to resolve the conundrum of how he might be buried in two places at the same time.

How desperate at times, I recall, was the plot of Desperate Remedies!  After being told by publishers that what he really wanted to write about needed to be toned down in case  posh folk took umbrage, (biographer Millgate deemed it “pervasive class hostility”), his remedies were indeed desperate as he veered off in the direction of Wilkie Collins with a dead body being hauled across a wood with a detective in pursuit.  And then in Under the Greenwood Tree he lurched off desperately in a different direction with the portrayal of rustic life – this being prompted by comments made by reviewers who, Hardy thought, had made “very much” of the rustic characters in Desperate Remedies.  So we move from a desperation of plots into a tale where plot is not so much slight as almost entirely absent.  Fearing to “dabble” again in plot, he surmised that a “pastoral story would be the safest venture”.

But how could he combine the two and let his own voice speak out at the same time? Well a few years later, he managed just that.

IMG_0507At the cottage, just like the great man and his second wife did a hundred years ago in the summer of 1918, I looked up at the bedroom window with its little table where Hardy finally penned the book that made his reputation and set him thankfully and rightfully on the path to… well stardom, I suppose.  And what was the book?  Well I now have a battered, incomplete, copy in my bag.  Two volumes.  1874.  Only a thousand published first time round.  It was Far from the Madding Crowd.

So as the sun is setting on a glorious summer day, I sit on the bench in the country churchyard at Stinsford and think, for once, not only of Thomas Hardy, but also of another Thomas – Thomas Gray, of his elegy written in country churchyard in a county distant from Dorset but really as close to Hardy’s heart as the bench I am sitting on.

Beneath those rugged elms, that yew-tree’s shade, 
         Where heaves the turf in many a mould’ring heap, 
Each in his narrow cell for ever laid, 
         The rude forefathers of the hamlet sleep.
Far from the madding crowd’s ignoble strife, 
         Their sober wishes never learn’d to stray; 
Along the cool sequester’d vale of life 
         They kept the noiseless tenor of their way.

22nd June 2018

Emily Dickinson and the titling of poems

Readers of this blog might also be interested in my later musings on the same topic:

My wife often gets to the essence of a matter while I just thrash around feeling grumpy.  This is probably why she is on Twitter and I spend my time on blogs like this. She can tweet and move on while I am still doing homework for another essay and being tiresome in the process.  And after the other morning I owe her not only the usual apology for unwarranted grumpiness but gratitude as well.  The reason for this?  Well it’s Emily Dickinson.  Now there’s a thing!  And it’s not some lady of that name from down the road with whom I have recently been smitten in my dotage, causing domestic outrage, but rather THE Emily Dickinson, the hugely talented 19th century American poet.

I have come to Emily Dickinson rather late in life and am always interested when I catch mentions of her, when, for example, she features in the blogs of other folk, such as Oliver Tearle’s splendid interesting literature.  I’ve also recently taken to carrying around with me a handy pocket-sized volume of Dickinson’s I picked up for a song in a local charity shop.  It is a tiny book in The Illustrated Poets series published by Parragon Books and edited by Daniel Burnstone.  (The cover picture is Destiny, 1900, by John William Waterhouse – it’s not Emily Dickinson…)


So the other morning as I sat down in the kitchen for a coffee and a croissant, my wife pointed to the Emily Dickinson volume still on the table where I’d left it and said: “I can’t tell where one poem begins and another ends.  There aren’t any titles.  Most poems have titles.”  Being my usual grumpy defensive self, I counter sardonically by noting that I am not familiar with the overall world stats on percentage of poems with titles v poems without and, in any case, it is surely quite clear typographically in the said book where a poem’s first line is.  And – amidst berating her further – I look at the volume again and remember sheepishly how I too had been at times (literally) initially confused.

And so – tangentially – I got to thinking about why lots of poems have titles and why Emily Dickinson’s poems don’t and how – well yes – you could quite easily read “across” Dickinson’s poems and on many occasion happily let one poem seamlessly merge into the next, leaving yourself wondering if and where one ended and another began. And, of course, I began to realise that my wife had again hit the nail right on the head and that for Emily Dickinson that is, sort of, the point.

So as I was thinking through all this, I headed for my shelves of poetry and, of course, soon discovered that, unless you know where to look, finding poems without titles is not an immediately straightforward matter.  My wife was right.  Most poems do have titles.  Indeed I would hazard a guess that the overwhelming majority of poems have titles.

A predominant reason, as many have pointed out, is that publishers and editors hate poems without titles.  They need poems to have a name, to be called something, just like a story or a novel.  They can’t go faffing about every time, naming the poem by just reproducing all the words in the first line.  True, you can frequently pick up volumes with an Index of First Lines, but these are almost always referring to poems which also have titles.  The first lines are handily indexed by publishers because we awkward readers often know the first lines independently of the titles of the poems and use them as our reference point.

Wordsworth’s “I wandered lonely as a cloud” is, it seems, a prime example of where a title has come to trump the first line since in my Oxford Book of English Verse I see this poem is called Daffodils, but if I seek out a digital copy of the original publication in Poems, in Two Volumes it seems to have no title at all.  Whether Wordsworth himself came up with the rather obvious Daffodils, or whether a publisher/editor imposed the title upon him I do not know.  Certainly for many, many poets the title of a poem is their own creation, rich in nuance, and a well thought out addition to the lines of verse themselves.  But I digress too much…

So where would I look routinely to find poems without titles?  Well sonnets are a good bet, the marvellous Edna St. Vincent Millay – a good example.  And there is that other fellow…  What’s he called?  Oh Shakespeare! (Or is it Francis Bacon?) But his sonnets were, I think, numbered even in the first edition which helps the publishers call them something even if it is just i and ii etc.  Haikus are another good bet (at least the first line is only five syllables).  You are also likely to find an absence of titles more in lyric or epigrammatic poetry than longer forms.

I find many more untitled poems among Russian poets than I do among those writing in English.  I am not sure why this is or about the practice in other languages or cultures.  I suppose scribbled untitled stuff like jottings and juvenilia published posthumously would also be another likely candidate for the untitled work.  Ancient poets also may well be absent titles.  After all we are often darn lucky we have the works at all.  Catullus would be a good example.   Where else?  Well “modernists” I suppose, like e. e. cummings, who as a matter of principle eschewed much of the “normal” poetic tradition, though there is a link to sonnets in his work.  And, of course – let’s not digress further – Emily Dickinson.  Almost the whole of Dickinson’s output is absent titles and she, of course was writing (mid to late 19th century) at a time when titles reigned supreme.  So why did she not title her poems?

Certainly one of the main reasons must be that she did not write for publication in her lifetime and did not have to grapple much with editors and publishers who would have demanded them.  But it is more than this.  There is something about her aesthetic, her approach to verse, her poetry itself which defies naming, which is unnameable.  Reading Dickinson is like reading the book of life.  Her poetic world is so vast that to nail it down with titles would almost be a travesty.  Fortunately, having begun to ponder this conundrum, I soon came upon the splendid article by John Mulvihill which tackles the issue head on.   I won’t rehearse here the reasons posited by Mulvihill for Dickinson’s disinclination to title her poetry, since folk can read the article itself, but he gives a very cogent and convincing account of what seems to be going on and how, in a sense, her poetry reaches beyond words and into the unnameable.  And he mentions others who have noted the lack of finality in her work and how for Dickinson each poem was a process in a stream of creativity where one poem serves as a gateway to the next poem.  I overegg it, I am sure, but it is as though all those individual poems, each one echoing another, are just part of a single marvellous whole.  How could you pin such a thing down with a title?

Well, hey!  I’m getting too carried away and I haven’t quoted even a single poem of Dickinson’s, but even my six-year old granddaughter was enthralled by I started early, took my dog…  (though we do wonder what happened to the dog)…  and here’s a link to a stash of wonderful stuff.  Well worth a browse.  There are, of course, more discerning selections elsewhere.

And so now I’d better find my wife and apologise for being such a prat and thank her for the literary journey that she started me off on, only to find, of course, that she was already there when I began.

It’s funny how the day turns out.  For the Latinists among you it might be more a case of ex rebus ad librum than ex libris ad rem.

6th June 2018

For more musings on Emily Dickinson and the titling of her poems see also my

Wilfred Macartney – writer, adventurer, soldier, spy

This black, grubby, battered volume had been sitting in one of the many piles of books in my house for some months.


I had been moving books around… yes, you might have guessed it, looking for a book… and, as often happens, before I found it, this volume emerged at the top of a pile to confront me and I thought – “What on earth is this?”  Dirty, stained black cloth covers,  dinted and scuffed in the middle of the spine, twisted in shape – or in booklovers’ parlance – “cocked”.  Overall, very unattractive indeed.  Just the sort of thing, of course, that would have caught my eye in a junk shop somewhere some time, though where and when, I could hardly remember.

Even the title and author’s name – once in gilt – at the top of the spine were barely readable.



So I opened the book, read the name of the title and of the author, neither of which were familiar, started to read page one…  and the rest of the day and a couple of succeeding days disappeared before I emerged again.  I can’t remember now what book I was looking for in the first place, but the one I found  – or which found me –  and absorbed me for the best part of three days was:

Zigzag , by W. F. R. Macartney, published in London by Victor Gollancz in 1937

and I am heartily glad I came upon it, the opening paragraph hooking me and drawing me in:



I suppose one would call it an autobiography, and one containing enough adventures for a dozen such reminiscences and written by a man not yet forty and with even more adventures yet to come.  But it reads at times like fast-paced fiction and, although  I haven’t researched the events described, seems to prove the old adage – “you couldn’t make it up”; or as a review of the book in the Perth Western Mail put it – stranger than fiction:

“If some of the lifetime experiences of Wilfred Macartney had been incorporated in a novel the universal criticism would have been that the character had been overdrawn and the incidents impossible.”

Moreover there is topicality in these pages since, in these centenary years of the First World War, much of Macartney’s action takes place in the global arena of this awful conflict and the story concludes with dastardly deeds by the Russians and Macartney  being sent to prison for ten years for spying.

So how can one describe in some sort of shorthand the extraordinary Wilfred Francis Remington Macartney?  He was a global adventurer – a citizen of the world (or as someone might say, a citizen of nowhere).  It is almost certainly a good job he didn’t end up in the Russia of the 1930s where his political sympathies eventually inclined.  Stalin would have dubbed him a “безродный космополит” – a “rootless cosmopolitan” (aka citizen of nowhere) and he would undoubtedly have disappeared without trace or died in the gulags.

He was a Scot – or was he born in London?  Father Irish, but brought up in the US.  Mother American of French origin, or was she Canadian?  He lived and was schooled, for a few years at least, in England. Saw Jamaica, no doubt passing through.  Was in Ukraine to see his mother wrongfully arrested as a spy by the Tsarist police.  Lived in Malta where he seems to have been happiest.  Lived in the USA, where he ran off to enlist, lying about his age.  Spent war years in Egypt, Palestine.  Was fighting as a swashbuckler soldier in the Greek islands with Compton Mackenzie, both already involved in the murky manoeuvring world of intelligence.  He captured whole islands, commanding ragtag troops, managing the politics.  He was only 18 for goodness sake!   Then he was fighting in France, was wounded, a prisoner of war taken to Germany.  He escaped by leaping from a train; got back to England via Belgium and Holland. Then ended up as part of the Berlin-Baghdad Railway Mission in Turkey.  At nineteen he was “friendly” with Kemal Ataturk.  He travelled to Spain, France, north Africa…  You lose track of his travels. Worked in the City.  Engaged in financial and entrepreneurial wheeling and dealing.  Gambling, boxing, nightclubs, drink, women, the underworld of London.  Criminality – breaking and entering, drunk and disorderly.  Jail.  Communism.  Journalism.  And, apparently, spying…  And still only in his mid-twenties.  And jail again.

Travelling as the son of his father had been “good fun”, Zigzag tells us.  His father was an engineer, an entrepreneur, the Macartney in Macartney, McElroy & Co. Ltd.  He made a fortune.  He built tramways all round the world. Wilfred’s early days were “vagrant”, he says, but so were his later ones. Thirteen when his father died, he was already running the company with his brother, holding meetings, negotiating deals.  This autobiography doesn’t even seem to cover his months in the Spanish foreign legion in Morocco, or his apparent duties in the Auxiliary Division of the Royal Irish Constabulary.  I suspect his involvement in the dark arts of intelligence and potential legal action may have led to some omissions in his already full and remarkable tale.

In 1946 he was charged and fined yet again with an offence under the Official Secrets Act. (An offence Compton Mackenzie also endured for his revelations.)

How such an adventurer as Macartney coped with ten years in Parkhurst prison in the Isle of Wight, I do not yet know, but there is another – more available – book he wrote entitled Walls Have Mouths (called “remarkable” by George Orwell) which will shed some light.

And I haven’t even mentioned yet Macartney’s involvement as the first commander of the Republican British Battalion in the International Brigade in the Spanish Civil War and the curious (and yet again murky) circumstance of how he ended up getting shot and wounded another time.  Accidental?  Intentional?

Towards the end of Zigzag when Macartney relates the events of the espionage which led him into Parkhurst, he switches from the first person narrative of autobiography to the third person narrative of… well what?  A biographer?  A biographer who “must surmise… must often be content with comparatively exiguous material…”  Unlike the autobiographer,

“The biographer… can write attractively of a character who was certainly not always attractive, and he can be judicial and like a lecturer at a dissection can examine and apportion blame or confer praise where these were due.

“So therefore I come to the position where writing an autobiography becomes distasteful to me, where the character of whom I write seems to be outside myself, and about whose life for the succeeding two years I propose to write of in the third person…  The more detached ‘he’ of the third person will carry the story to its conclusion.  The biographer will attempt to be objective.”



And so for the last three chapters of this remarkable tale, in his curious idiosyncratic “objective” way Wilfred Macartney tells us how he ended up in jail, found guilty of spying for the Russians.   He was in his late twenties.  Sentenced to ten years, he served eight.

And the “zigzag” of the title?  He certainly zigzagged his way through life and the world, and his circuitous journeys in war and peace zigzagged from one destination to another.  But Macartney had more in mind the tactics of political manoeuvring.  Referring to a journey which took him to Greece via Rome, Sicily and Malta, he writes:

“From Malta to Mudros I travelled in a ship which zigzagged all the way.  Zigzag became one of the best known words of the war and was particularly liked by Lenin.  He always used it when recommending caution to those who thought revolution was a kind of smash and grab.”

He then continues to narrate yet another tale of smash and grab which fills this splendid book.

Macartney died in London on 4th November 1970.  Apparently his death was noted in the Times, but there was no obituary.  One of the few comments I found about Macartney on one internet site noted that “Wilfred Macartney is one of the most interesting people in history”.   Bit of a superlative, one might think, but it is not far wrong.  And the comment continues: “Yet there is virtually nothing on him on the web.”  Well, with this blog about this rare book Zigzag there is a bit more now, and perhaps other folk will be spurred on to read and write about Wilfred Macartney’s extraordinary life.

25th May 2018

The following websites have some good information about Wilfred Macartney.…-a060358409

Detailed information about the espionage case for which Macartney went to prison can be found in: Churchill’s Man of Mystery: Desmond Morton and the World of Intelligence by Gill Bennett, published by Routledge in 2007.  Morton was the intelligence officer who pursued Macartney.