Monday, 24th December, 2012
The problem of the literary legacy, and the reputation of the ‘lesser artist’, is never far away in my work on Tessimond. Why some writers prevail and others disappear, is a question that must stalk any discussion of literary biography. Why indeed should our attention be turned to this specific name and not another? But why a writer at all? Why do we not remember the lives of our mill-workers or school-teachers?
‘I think’ wrote Keats, ‘I shall be among the English Poets after my death’ – well, quite, but then how many other writers have hoped the same thing? ‘The cold-blood committal | of the heart’s pangs | to documents’ (Tessimond, ‘Authorship’) isn’t in itself enough, no matter how meaningful the action might be, ‘the transcription of the soul | in public’ whilst brave, is no justification for that transcription to be read.
This is a subject which Tessimond’s friend, the editor of the London Mercury, J.C. Squire took up in an essay of 1930:
I have been reading an author unduly neglected. There are many. Our literature is full of minor classics which from time to time are galvanised into life by new editions, and then relapse into almost complete oblivion, a few bookish people cherishing them and no one else mentioning them. These resent the neglect. They feel that injustice is being done if a favourite book is omitted from histories of literature or is unknown to people who would appreciate it. And there is no doubt that the injustice is felt as an injustice to the author personally, though he may be long dead and unaware of men’s speech and their silence. This feeling springs unconsciously, perhaps, from the knowledge that if a man writes a good book one of his main motives, almost always, is posthumous fame.
J.C. Squire, ‘Fame after Death’, Life at the Mermaid, p. 245
Squire, now perhaps, a writer less-read even than Tessimond, was in his lifetime a figure of much importance.
In the past week or so, for reasons I won’t dwell upon, I have been forced to consider the legacy of another of Tessimond’s friends – George Rostrevor Hamilton. I’m not going to make any great claim that we should still read Hamilton’s work, but he is a voice of the 1930s that interests me. Without wading through a great deal of unnecessary biography (and this may be his point – biography is, if not unnecessary, then often unreachable and often wholly other and incomparable to a life’s work) his background and career are fascinatingly positioned in the literary landscape of the period.
A long poem of 1935, ‘Sir Jordan Banks’ questions this very issue of life and reputation. It may well be the first mention in verse of a ‘blue plaque’, those much-loved heritage roundels which scatter our cities like ceramic graffiti – “HERMAN MELVILLE WOS ’ERE 1849” – informing us of the (often fleeting) residencies of people we have little knowledge or opinion of. Why does it matter to know that Dickens once lived in a house near to where the British Medical Association now stands in Tavistock Square? Where we live certainly has a massive impact on our lives, but does squinting from the pavement really give us any great insight into what took place behind that door years before we were born? This, is the subject of Hamilton’s poem, ‘Sir Jordan Banks’:
The autumn sun slips down the weathered bricks
Of empty Marlowe Square. The last rays fall
Across the oval tablet on the wall
Of Number 3 —
The house you’re told to see—
Making the legend clear
“Sir Jordan Banks, Economist, lived here
From 1875 to ’86.”
You learn from the guide-book how Sir Jordan spent
Day after day over his labours bent;
How he forsook
All pleasure, exercise and recreation;
How in the third-floor bedroom every night
He burned till 2 a.m. (at least) his light,
Preparing that great book,
So sane, so sound,
So unimpassioned yet profound,
On “Economics and The Population”:
And then, in ’84, completion—fame!
How Tennyson and Mr. Gladstone came
To offer him sincere congratulation,
And how the Queen herself
Wrote that she would place the volumes on her shelf.
But in the house,
And up the spiral stair,
Only the shadows fall
Now, no footfall.
And here, in the bed-room
Sir Jordan’s bed-room,
Only a gradual gloom.
The narration of the poem, addressed to the casual tourist of the present, moves from this interior space where dust ‘blanches’ and ‘light fades’, through time to the 1880s where Sir Jordan sits writing and raising two sons, allowing the voices of the past to speak within the poem. The relationship between the house and the man in never in question; his room – which sometimes seems as a prison to Sir Jordan – is, he reflects ‘a part of me’. Yet what is called into question is the purpose of the tourist’s visit, the purpose of preserving the knowledge of the economist’s 2am finishes – when none of this can truly be known or understood.
Perhaps most striking in this discrepancy between the private life and public work is when Sir Jordan’s wife (never mentioned in the guidebook) is given voice within the poem:
And here Sir Jordan Banks
Till 2 a.m..
Sometimes indeed until the sun had risen,
Night after night
That great economist
Over his labours bent;
Worked out his graphs;
Wrestled with Adam Smith and Stuart Mill,
At last the nation’s thanks!
Him only do I love,
For him, for the sound of his feet on the stair.
For him only does my body tremble,
Lying in bed,
Trembles, and my heart beats
With hope I must dissemble;
That he will be surprised again
To find my nakedness so slim,
Hoops and flounces laid aside,
Delicately scented for him,
That was once, and his love died.
Significantly, his wife’s words are unattributed in the poem, whereas the economist’s manly ‘wrestle’ with Adam Smith and Stuart Mill is what goes recorded. This image of the naked wife, waiting alone ‘so slim’ with her outer clothing removed is a stark image of a society’s values that will name and remember ‘great men’ but ignore those who do not meet that criteria. This is the theme of another of Hamilton’s poems ‘Unknown Lovers’ which offers an elegy to those not given named tombstones in London’s churchyards.
In ‘Sir Jordan Banks’ the mind of the economist tallies each departing soul by the votives offered at their death:
A million candles counting each for one,
Each one the same.
They’re finished, done,
All entered in a register.
But who’s put out the flame?
Oh, Death is quite impersonal.
Our acts and justification of memorial are often misguided – ‘death is quite impersonal’ but we make it personal by selective necromancy. In the vast extent of cities – in the vastness of humanity – we elect a few to save but many, many more to ignore because they do not fit the image we would like to have of ourselves.
What is of interest in the Square,
With its Queen Anne houses, it’s time-weathered bricks?
Is the house you must see:
Sir Jordan Banks, Economist, lived here
From 1875 to ’86.