Definitions, which are indispensable for dictionaries only, contain of reality precisely what a net, raised at the wrong moment from the sea where it awaited its prey, contains of obscure, squirming life. Sea-weed writhes in its meshes. Lanky creatures stir their translucent claws, and here are all sorts of helices or of valvules which a mechanical sensibility keeps tight-shut. But reality, which was a big fish, with a sudden swish of its tail, flopped overboard. Generally speaking, clear, neat sentences have no meaning. They are affirmative gestures, suggesting obedience, and that is all. The human mind is so complex, and things are so tangled up in each other that, in order to explain a blade of grass, the entire universe would have to be taken to pieces; and in no language is there a single authentic word upon which lucid intelligence could not construct a psychological treatise, a history of the world, a novel, a poem, a drama, according to the day and the temperature. The definition is a sack of compressed flour contained in a thimble. What can we do with it, unless we are antarctic explorers? It is more to the point to place a pinch of flour under the microscope and seek patiently, amid the bran, the living starch. In what is left after analyzing the idea of immortality, the idea of glory will be found a shining speck of gold.
Remy de Gourmont, ‘Glory and the Idea of Immortality’ in Decadence and Other Essays on the Culture of Ideas trans. by William Aspenwall Bradley (London: Grant Richards, 1922) pp. 36-72 (p.36-7).
As a child Tessimond’s father tried to interest him in classical music. Lessons at the piano, piccolo, flute, clarinet and French horn were all paid for, but none to much success. ‘The Gramophone,’ he reflects in his journal, ‘was my predestined instrument […] the instrument for the unpersevering.’
Throughout the 1920s he built a sizable collection of gramophone records, particularly HMV recordings; here’s one of them – Fred Waring’s Pennsylvanians performing I Wonder How I Look When I’m Asleep. Tessimond writes of it:
It’s jolly good. I don’t know what the tune sounds like by itself, but the HMV version (with lots of “effects”, gagging, burlesque, etc.) is topping. In one part the man sounds as if he were singing through a glass of water – he does a marvellous gurgle on the first syllable of each “wonder.” And it brings in bits of Grieg’s “Dawn”, “All through the Night,” and “Rocked in the Cradle of the Deep”.
I first came across the Swiss naturalist Charles Bonnet a few years back, whilst working on Crabbe’s botanical predecessors. His extraordinary description of the sensitive plant in The Contemplation of Nature (trans. 1766) is what first grabbed me; a near supernatural account of a section of the plant growing leg-like protuberances to walk away. Looking through the rest of the text this morning, I came upon this, which seems equally remarkable considering it is written by a devout Christian in 1764:
By what degrees does nature raise herself up to man? How will she rectify this head that is always inclined towards the earth? How change these paws into flexible arms? What method will she make use of to transform these crooked feet into supple and skilful hands? Or how will she widen and extend this contracted stomach? In what manner will she there place the breasts, and give them a roundness suitable to them?
The ape is this rough draught of man; this rude sketch; an imperfect representation, which nevertheless bears a resemblance to him, and is the last creature that serves to display the admirable progression of the works of God!
A little more from Dawson Jackson, writing as Thomas Brackley in From this Foundation:
What happens to people does not matter, but how they take it, the returning shoots of spring; answering in love, as quick to quick and the birds’ voices in the air. This universal bear-garden we live in is to teach us this: to love the whole of it. There is room in each nature to manœuvre against every trick played on us: poverty, suffering, death drive us deeper into our resources, so that we sprout again from more profound, triumphant root: a new man, free as air, swinging the world in his hand, like an apple by its stalk. He knows, as an ally of affection lights in every camp, that being is indestructible: its double principle that the whole is contained in every part of it, and bound by love. That word made indecent, not by the American films but by memories of a dead church as the light goes on Sunday afternoon. There too a frost is needed, before words are clean to use again.
Thomas Brackley, From this Foundation (London: Harvill, 1949) p.187.
While working through Dawson Jackson’s papers last year I came upon a draft of, and correspondence relating to, a book which he published under an assumed name in 1949. As assumed names feature quite prominently in my research on Jackson’s close friend A.S.J. Tessimond, I made a note to look this book out. I managed to buy a copy (they are rare, though not unobtainable), but it is only now that I have got round to reading it.
The book – From This Foundation under his pseudonym ‘Thomas Brackley’ (London: Harvill, 1949) – is a long narrative description of an medium-sized English town. It has echoes of Orwell’s The Road to Wigan Pier in its attempts to document the lives and living conditions of everyday people, but resonates also with Coming Up For Air, or William Golding’s The Pyramid, in the rapid sense of change affecting the lives of the town’s inhabitants. It is, as the author describes it in the opening chapter, ‘not a novel and has no plot or main character’ but, much like George Crabbe’s The Borough, each chapter relates the lives of a different group of inhabitants – and this within the broader framework of the seasonal shifts throughout a year.
As with most of Jackson’s writing, there is tremendous warmth here; it is a kind of sociology born out of love. Here, towards the end of the book, in a chapter that ostensibly is written to consider how the elderly are taken care of, is a wonderful (though not uncritical) portrait of a woman reaching the end of her life:
A moss of small objects grows over everything. Wraps, sewing baskets, small piles of books and letters, glasses of water, medicine tins. If anyone sets them in order they will grow back as they were again. It is the same inside the drawers. Mrs Forrester is a maker of mouse’s nests. No particular type of thing is kept in any particular drawer. Everything is kept in every drawer: clothes, valuable silver sugar castors, pills, shoes and hair-pins, and dozens of packs of patience cards. She never has a pack of cards, and when she needs one she goes out and buys; putting it away in a drawer. As this may be any drawer it is usually not found again. It is the same with stockings. Her daughter, when appealed to, brings coupons to buy her mother some, and finds twenty pairs, mostly in a bottom drawer never opened, and all quite whole, since the lady never much moves her feet. The forgetting is partly but not wholly due to age. In the old days sixty jugs were once found in the house, and none of them might be used for milk. She hoards instinctively to withstand the siege of life—and the relation between her and it is one of siege, for she never gives anything back. Occasionally her memory is retentive. She will remember and describe exactly where so-and-so’s photograph is, at the back of the third drawer down on the right in the old oak bureau, where she put it in her house before last. Drawers for her are permanent shelves in the universe, never moved or sorted, like the larder passages in a rodent’s burrow underground. They are part of her own inner life, which is her reality, and all she believes in, for she is just tolerant towards, amused, frightened and indignant at the rest.
This attention to detail is striking and typical of the book, but it is also the utter seriousness with which Jackson locates this woman’s obscure act, and deems it as worthy of consideration as any other. Hoarding as a way of understanding the self – of understanding the universe – is no less important than the sincerest philosophy.
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.
This is something of a long-shot, but so far this blog has turned up people who knew the poet Dawson Jackson, so the following might have some success.
I am wanting to find further information on the actress Lynn Shaw (sometimes ‘Lyn Shaw’) who also went by the name of ‘Jacqualine Bannister’ or ‘Jackie Bannister’, and who was known to the poet A.S.J. Tessimond.
From the poet’s journal and correspondence, it’s clear that she had a very important role in the Tessimond’s life, and they appear to have remained friends from around 1956 until his death in 1962. She was, for a time, a chorus girl at the Windmill Theatre, and a fairly popular pin-up of the 1950s. There were some small film parts, most notably playing Andreina in Michelangelo Antonioni’s Il Grido (1957), as well as appearing alongside Joan Sims in the 1956 British comedy Keep it Clean.
Lynn, or Jacqualine – neither of which may have been her real name – was Italian, and lived in Milan, Rome and London during this period. I’m eager to find out what happened to her from 1962 onwards.
Dawson Jackson is proving popular with people who have come by this blog. When I get round to it, there’s something I need to set down about Jackson, D.S. Savage and Hubert Nicholson and poets who were contentious objectors during the second world war. I’ll get to that. In the mean time, this – a poem by Jackson published in 1971.
A while ago I gave this poem out in a university tutorial. Alongside it we looked at some other poems, amongst those ‘Fifty Years Between’, which comes from the same collection. All the poems were received very positively, though this piece gave the discussion a somewhat darker tone. It is fine for discussions about poetry not to reach a resolution, though this piece has stayed on my mind ever since as having something about it that still needs to be said.
A History in Two Scenes
Her lips I
Like : a pale
Thin petal – say, a
Wild-rose petal. They
Are home : dew – June.
She kisses me, lightly,
Turning her face up (we are
Arm in arm) as we
Say good-bye : laying
Herself lightly, for a moment,
In me – giving herself –
There on the pavement,
Before she climbs the bus
And today’s all picked
With snow and rain
Actually, I’m going to stop there – this is only the first part of the poem, the first scene of the ‘history’ in the title. I’ll get to the second part shortly, but I think it’s important to consider the process by which this poem imparts itself.
Much of the effect is created by the shifting metre; all the words are either mono- or disyllabic, though the way these interact with the line endings and various punctuation marks, removes any sense of simplicity to the piece. What emerges, particularly in that first stanza, is a voice – a considering voice – attempting to make sense of the vision. The voice reasons that her lips might be ‘say, a | Wild-rose petal’ perhaps indicating that is a mere suggestion; it seems to pause at the end of that first line, the break offering a momentary hesitation as if reaching for the right word. This image from the outset seems sensual, the focus on the mouth is direct from the start, yet the word ‘like’ coming after the line break seems rather flatter than what we expect, as if the narrator is not fully in charge of the image they represent.
The whole of that first stanza is about the lips; they ‘are | home’ we are told, they are (or seem to be) ‘dew’ ‘June’. Much like the last stanza’s revelation that ‘today’s all picked | With its snow and rain | And pleasures’ the poem seems ‘picked’ with meaning. We understand the image of these lips having the comfort of ‘home’ and we understand the immediate beauty of ‘June’ and ‘dew’, though the greater sense can not be articulated – never has snow been more unexpected since it fell beside Louis MacNeice’s roses. Is this summer, or winter? Indeed is June a month, or a girl’s name? Is it simply there for the pleasing phonetic effect rendered by ‘home : dew – June.’
The physicality of Jackson’s poetry is one of its most appealing features for me. He has a rare ability to render a moment both erotic and touching. What was striking in the tutorial, was that the class focussed on the eroticism of this first part: ‘laying | Herself lightly, for a moment, | In me – giving herself –’ indicated to them that this was the language of lovers – and this is a fair and proper assumption, but as with any history drawn from scattered information, it is only part of the story. Here is the second scene:
She will no longer
Burst in at my door
To show me what, today,
She has been buying. I shall not now
Be putting out those bits of food,
When she blows in to
Hungry. Her men
She’ll no more tell
Me of, when only her
Can speak : it cannot!
Have what we still
May, that daughter
Which she was to me
The class, which until this point had declared Jackson to be a ‘lovely, uplifting poet’ (and believe me, that’s a rare enough thing) now turned on him. He was being unreasonable. Was it really about his daughter, or was this a figurative daughter? They demanded biography. I refused to give it.
You see, Jackson did have a daughter – and I’ve gained an impression of her from reading his correspondence and other documents – but I don’t think that takes us any further in understanding the poem. The piece does not get any less surprising, and it would be a mistake to think that this poem summed up their relationship. These are, after all, only momentary ‘scenes’ from the history of two people. We must trust that hesitant voice at the start of the poem, for the narrator is dealing with something hard to articulate. The pen ‘cannot’ speak we are told, it merely forms images from which we develop the history.
Partly, I think, the group felt cheated by the poem – the revelation that it is a daughter comes late on after we have formulated a different judgement; but this does not render any of those feelings false. There’s a beautiful quality to his description of this flighty girl, cat-like feeding from the ‘bits of food’ he puts out for her. An immensely tender image of their relationship is formed here, and it seems only natural that he should view its ending with some regret, as Prospero at the end of The Tempest:
As great to me as late: and supportable
To make the dear loss, have I means much weaker
Than you may call to comfort you, for I
Have lost my daughter.
I don’t think I’ve resolved my thinking any further with this, but I’m starting to trust a little more that that may be intended.
When I tell people that I work on Crabbe, one of the standard responses is a joke about crustaceans. It’s a fairly well-worn routine, one of the first examples being a vignette created in 1827 by Thomas Bewick. It depicts a crab’s claw and palette, presumably a response to Byron’s line that Crabbe was ‘nature’s sternest painter’:
But I’ve just come upon this from an issue of the Commonwealth in July 1880 – proof, perhaps, that the very obvious jokes never get old:
LITERARY young man at party: “Miss Jones, have you seen Crabbe’s Tales?” Young lady scornfully: “I was not aware that crabs had tails.” Literary young man covered with confusion: “I beg your pardon, ma’am, I should have said read Crabbe’s Tales?” Young lady, angrily scornful: “And I was not aware that red crabs had tails, either.” Exit young man.
As it’s the 50th anniversary of Tessimond’s death today, I wanted to post one more poem. I’ve been writing about him today, particularly about his somewhat unlikely love life. Biographically, it’d be easy to suggest that Tessimond didn’t understand relationships at all – this is a man who thought nothing of buying a plane ticket to Jamaica in order to find a woman he had never met, that he had fallen in love with, after seeing a poster for bananas; that the long succession of sexless relationships with prostitutes and nightclub hostesses seemed unlikely ever to have worked.
But I think this misses the point entirely. Tessimond understood love better than many people; understood the slow process by which we get to know another person. We do him, and indeed the nightclub hostesses, a disservice if we think that these relationships were not meaningful, important, tender.
‘Meeting, first published in the 1934 collection ‘The Walls of Glass’, describes just that. It appears at first to be comic anthropomorphism, though Tessimond set little store by that (‘A smiling dog’s the illusion | And wish-fulfilment of it’s owner’ – ‘Saving Grace’) but what it reaches is something powerful and wonderfully real.
Dogs take new friends abruptly and by smell.
Cats’ meetings are neat, tactual, caressive.
Monkeys exchange their fleas before they speak.
Snakes, no doubt, coil by coil reach mutual knowledge.
We then, at first encounter, should be silent;
Not court the cortex but the epidermis;
Not work from the inside out but outside in;
Discover each other’s flesh, its scent and texture;
Familiarize the sinews and the nerve-ends,
The hands, the hair–before the inept lips open.
Instead of which we are resonant, explicit.
Our words like windows intercept our meaning.
Our four eyes fence and flinch and awkwardly
Wince into shadow, slide oblique to ambush.
Hands stir, retract. The pulse is insulated.
Blood is turned inwards, lonely; skin unhappy…
While always under all, but interrupted,
Antennæ stretch… waver… and almost… touch.