Speaking well

Christopher Ricks

  • Cyril Connolly: Journal and Memoir by David Pryce-Jones
    Collins, 304 pp, £12.50, July 1983, ISBN 0 333 32827 2
  • J.B. Yeats: Letters to His Son W.B. Yeats and Others, 1869-1922 edited with a memoir by Joseph Hone
    Secker, 296 pp, £7.95, May 1983, ISBN 0 436 59205 3

Unlike the publication in 1975 of the touching acute letters of Cyril Connolly to Noel Blakiston, the publication of Connolly’s Journal (1928-1937) does not serve him, except right. He found D.H. Lawrence insufficiently magnanimous (‘Notice how carefully Lawrence refuses to recognise virtue in anyone but himself’), and his sponsor David Pryce-Jones now finds F.R. Leavis much the same, so it may be legitimate to cite the famous excoriation of Bloomsbury that was voiced by Lawrence and amplified by Leavis: ‘they talked endlessly, but endlessly – and never, never a good thing said. They are cased each in a hard littte shell of his own and out of this they talk words. There is never for one second any outgoing of feeling and no reverence, not a crumb or grain of reverence: I cannot stand it.’ The reason why ‘never a good thing said’ was such a good thing to say is that it aligns speaking well with speaking well of others. In that world, a very special thrill attached to speaking ill of one’s friends.

Mr Pryce-Jones could reasonably retort that Connolly’s allegiances were by no means with Bloomsbury but with that distinct district Chelsea. Certainly there is evidence of the malicious rage which, for instance, Virginia Woolf vented upon, for instance, Cyril Connolly. ‘There we spent one night, unfortunately with baboon Conolly [sic] and his gollywog slug wife Jean to bring in the roar of the Chelsea omnibus.’ ‘We spent a night with the Bowens, where, to our horror, we found the Connollys – a less appetising pair I have never seen out of the Zoo, and the apes are considerably preferable to Cyril. She has the face of a golliwog and they brought the reek of Chelsea with them.’ One knows what Pryce-Jones means when he then murmurs about ‘the fine sensibility of feeling and expression for which Virginia Woolf is celebrated’. But the trouble is that his own sarcasm (not irony) has some of the flat brutality of the Bloomsbury world.

Woolf’s remarks about the Connollys’ appearance are indeed detestable, and don’t even have the flat-tongued straight face with which an Oxford friend of Connolly, gazing upon the most porcine of all Connolly photographs, once murmured: ‘It’s a pity he’s not as nice as he looks.’ In that mode of feline understatement, nothing can overtake the words of Kenneth Clark (who was all eyes), that ‘Cyril was not conventionally handsome.’ The crayon sketch of Connolly on the jacket, by Augustus John, is no oil painting. But what might make us reluctant to spring to Connolly’s defence is that he said the same sort of thing about others, while characteristically mingling it with self-disgust: ‘Back in London met Princess Bibesco and did not care for her much, her egoism is as tiresome and her appearance about as unprepossessing as my own.’ Evelyn Waugh being ‘our valued friend’, ‘it amused me to hear Peter laughing at Evelyn’s “provincial little Arnold Bennett arriviste appearance”.’

If Chelsea (and Oxford) might be at odds with Bloomsbury (and Cambridge) for territorial competitive reasons, the two were at one when it came to making bad blood. ‘Never tell lies,’ the young Connolly had adjured himself, except ‘to damage the character of a friend’. He lived down to this, and so did they all. The hero of his novel The Rock Pool recalled the boredom of college life and ‘the quiet afternoons spent running up bills in shops, which formed his only exercise’, but Connolly was even more exercised in running down people.

In theory and even in practice, there was to be the solidarity of sodality and sodomy, but no front ever remained undivided. The Memoir and the Journal alike witness to the febrile frailty of the friendships. A typical progress is to begin by delighting in, say, Harold Nicolson for not being an owl (‘Sexually, I represent a buffer state,’ said the old buffer-bugger), and to end with dark mutterings: ‘Most unpleasant memory of last six months was drink with Nicolson in Café Royal. He must have been trying to humiliate me. Is enemy and shall be considered so.’

Connolly has his regrets: ‘How stale, fatigued, third rate, is the vocabulary of defamation.’ But they don’t move him to try something larger than defamation, he simply tries to enlarge its vocabulary. So the next page has this: ‘Pretentious lunch with Lady Bonham Carter – Madame de Margerie like a nightmare, hotted-up Lady Colefax.’ Then this: ‘a three-cornered conversation with Elizabeth [Bowen] on the awfulness of women writers and the nastiness of her friend Mrs Woolf’. ‘There is something wrong with a world in which one meets Mrs Lowinsky and Roger Hinks and Mrs Royde-Smith. They smell of middlebrow.’

The Journal will record sayings without comment and with delectation; to be worthy of record, an exchange should crushingly compact several reputations into the smallest space. ‘Logan [Pearsall Smith] said of Hardy’s second wife that she had tried first to get off with George Moore – or so he said. “George Moore would have said that of the Virgin Mary,” said B.B. [Berenson], “if he’d ever heard of her.” ’ But is it witty or humorous to predicate that George Moore hadn’t heard of the Virgin Mary?

Like self-love, ill will is a busy prompter but not much of an actor, and even less of a producer. Hence the fact that so many of Connolly’s jokes here are not forceful but forced. ‘How to be popular. By being funny,’ he had noted as a schoolboy. But the ill-intentioned ill-directed animus makes for a curiously impotent anger. Mr Tossoff of the Daily Squirt, the lovely Diana Brassiere, the Hon Halytosis and Lady Badbreath: can this be the famous parodist and wit? ‘Will you leave a message – Lady Arse A.R.S.E. Arse is very sorry she is unable.’ Humbert Wolfe himself managed better jokes than ‘the Bumboat of Wolfe’. The baffled ineffectuality of these thrusts has to do with Connolly’s own implication. The Bumboat business was a bit near the bone.

Again it is not that Connolly should be unloved for having as a young man been so ‘buggeristical’ (Woolf’s word for Connolly’s patron Logan Pearsall Smith), but that there is something unlovable about the malice with which he later speaks of ‘the pirate gang of London buggers’ once he himself was no longer jolly rogered. No doubt they were malicious about him, but two cases of ‘it ill becomes’ don’t make something becoming. Connolly found a disproportionate relish in setting down things like this: ‘They fulminate about the sub-tenants, “Eddie Gathorne-Hardy, Brian Howard and Mr Banting – worthless, no talent, homosexual sewer rats”.’ There is even something chilling about the fact that the last words of the last entry in the Journal should be ‘The Homintern’.

Connolly busied himself with, even traded on, his having self-knowledge, especially as to his cynicism and selfishness. He recognised some truth all right, and sometimes humbly. But as Stevie Smith says, in her tiny flint of a poem ‘Recognition not Enough’:

Sin recognised – but that – may keep us humble,
But oh, it keeps us nasty.

Mr Pryce-Jones scorns the Scrutiny insistence that Connolly exemplified the corrupt penetration of literature by the social world. Yet his own editing makes it seem that if this accusation is not true, this is largely because literature takes second place to the really important thing, the social world. The annotations are very informative, and they know their priorities. It is judged necessary to say that ‘Peter Rose Pulham was a photographer and artist in vogue, briefly attracted to Nancy Stallybrass,’ and to square the right social brackets: ‘1936 Food Tour. Harry [Sir Henry d’Avigdor-Goldsmid], Betty [Fletcher-Mossop]’. It is judged unnecessary to give the source for (just after these sewer rats’):

Misunderstood.
The now retired
profession of the calamus.

As someone who knows, I think we should be told.

But more important than whether Mr Pryce-Jones truly weighs these things is whether he truly acknowledges the things that are to be weighed. At the very end of the book he offers two or three spirited pages of Connolly pastiche. The excuses and reasons put into Connolly’s mouth ring very true as Connolly sentiments, but that is not the same as saying that they speak the truth. Connolly’s shade is not just being co-operated with, it is being colluded with, when he is given such whingeings as these: ‘Critics and professors can write their books with mumbo-jumbo titles like The Romantic Image and The Great Tradition, they are paid by the taxpayer to sit in a library, but they are forgotten the day they retire. I had to keep myself safe from them. I had nothing but my talent – they had colleges, cliques, pensions, the party line.’ Well, Connolly was a busy journalist, and he certainly might have got one of those two titles slightly wrong like that: but would he really have had the face to claim that F.R. Leavis was forgotten the day he retired? Or to say of Leavis and such that whereas he, Connolly, had nothing but his talent, they had colleges? Connolly had Eton College. He had Balliol College. He had not only his talent but much privilege and many patrons because of his colleges. What he did not have was the right to be unremittingly aggrieved.

‘More and more’ the author of The Rock Pool felt ‘that cultivated people are shrimps in a rock pool, from whom I can learn nothing.’ The vexation of being fascinated with people from whom one can learn nothing exacted its toll. The rueful comedy of Connolly’s best book, Enemies of Promise, did constitute an insurance policy protecting Connolly against all contingencies including acts of God: but outside comedy, he was allured by the portentous and the pretentious, since they offered some hope of concealing from him the implications of his seeing cultivated people as shrimps while not being interested in any other kind of person. The bored dislike and distaste in the Journal suggest Elizabethan and Jacobean plays, which have been said by Rupert Brooke and C.S. Lewis to be about beetles.

‘It is always easier to obey if you dare not disobey. German women are to their lords like so many black beetles’: John Butler Yeats (father of the poet and of the painter Jack B. Yeats) was aware that people had a propensity to see others as beetles, but he thought it bad for them and for their art, and he deprecated the propensity when he found it in his son William Butler Yeats: ‘I wish Willie had Jack’s tender gracious manner, and did not sometimes treat me as if I was a black beetle.’ To judge by these entrancing, life-enhancing letters, John Butler Yeats never treated anybody as a black beetle. The contrast with Connolly and that world (what a set, as Matthew Arnold said of the sleaziness around Shelley) could not be more marked. Where Connolly and his circle wanted to make bad blood, J.B. Yeats wanted people to be of good heart. Where Connolly, a young man in a hurry, has little time except for dispatching others, the tones of J.B. Yeats (who spoke of himself as an old man in a hurry) are essentially those of gratitude and dignity, and they bring home that far from being the alternative to humour and wit, gratitude and dignity are the conditions for the best of both.

When Ezra Pound edited the first excerpts from J.B. Yeats’s letters, in 1917, he acknowledged the difficulties of the enterprise: ‘In making a selection from them my great fear is not that I shall leave out something, for I must leave out a great deal, but that I shall lose the personality of the author; that by snatching at salient thoughts I shall seem to show him as hurried, or even sententious. The making of sages is dangerous, and even the humane and delightful Confucius has been spoken of in my hearing as a dealer in platitudes, which he was not. If Mr Yeats senior is shown in these pages as a preacher, and the vigour of his thought might at times warrant this loathsome suspicion, the fault is in reality mine, for in the letters themselves there is only the air of leisure.’ Full of sly jokes and deep turns, the letters can make even the simplest acknowledgment a delight to contemplate. J.B. Yeats reassures John Quinn, in accents such as cannot once be heard in Connolly’s Journal: ‘In your last letter you slipped in a sentence which I meant to answer but did not. It was to let you know if I wanted anything, for which I give you thanks and say I do not want anything.’ The reciprocation is perfect, and entire gratitude meets secure self-possession. This man of 79, after a lifetime of intelligent effort as a painter, and with success and fame and money continually eluding him, out there in New York in 1918, happy and unembittered and often saddened, never incites any condescension and never rejects any solicitude. With reassuring equanimity he returns Quinn’s words (‘for which I give you thanks and say I do not want anything’) but not marked ‘Return to Sender.’ It makes a change from ‘I want! I want!’

The Oxford-Chelsea axis was so knowing as to have forgotten what wisdom felt like. So a representative reflection by Connolly, there on the first page of the Journal, may sound as if the world-weary wisdom of a thousand years were in it but doesn’t actually stand a moment’s contemplation. Of love: ‘we, the introverts, never realise that it takes two to make a love affair, just as at cards we never realise that our partners may have anything in their hand.’ The words are neither believed nor to be believed; only the exacerbatedly sophisticated would fabricate such implausible naivety, such doleful impercipience. Contrast this blasé factitiousness about love with the humorous penetration with which J.B. Yeats comprehends hatred:

To keep his faith alive, Carlyle was obliged all his long life to be incessantly scolding and prophesying and speaking to the people. Coventry Patmore was a companionable man, and consequently a poor believer in the dogmas he so intolerantly professed. Always did he write in the heat of hatred, the most companionable of all the passions. The man who hates is the furthest from being a solitary and is a man dependent on having about him the people he hates whether in actual presence or in his mind’s eye. In my own life, I knew a well educated and rather pretty woman, who was the most hospitable soul alive. Why thus hospitable? Because she was burning to meet people whom she might contradict in incessant wrangle; we were given a Circean welcome.

J.B. Yeats had the reputation of being the best conversationalist in London, in Dublin, and then in New York. And ever a good thing said. Good will, as usual, proves to be much less sentimental than ill will, while being endlessly resourceful in transubstantiating gall to manna. When J.B. Yeats consoles his son the poet for a bad notice (by John Davidson), the consolation is a true one (is not, in Frank Kermode’s great phrase, ‘too consolatory to console’) because it is so unexpected in the turn it takes: ‘I laughed very much and without any bitterness over the offending criticism and assuming Davidson to be the author liked him all the better. It is a good sign when a man does not know how to wound.’ The last sentiment would have been anathema to Chelsea and Bloomsbury. But J.B. Yeats was a free spirit, and he knew just what prison-house it was that most closed upon the writer and the Irishman: ‘The Irish took to hatred when they deserted the statesman Isaac Butt for the politician Parnell. Hatred is a prison where people can only rave and foam at the mouth and tear their blankets and attack the keepers and yell obscenities, finally to be quelled and put in punishment cells. The many fine movements in history which have so ended!’ (20 September 1915). The tragedy of it all is not fully felt until that last sentence.

Such an Irishman in New York (he was there for the last 14 years of his life), provided that he has magnanimity, is perfectly placed to limn the eternal national triangle, and J.B. Yeats can move with effortless imaginative cogency from an individual psychology, via the social and class and moneyed realities, to the traits of nations:

Thanks to Quinn I did a portrait of a Miss Coates whom you met in Paris. She has that kind of cleverness which draws all its ideas from the outside, not from within. The effect is that after a time you become exhausted and depleted, since she cannot replenish you. This is a little obscure, but she was a good subject to paint, only being an American woman she would not let me have my way. However on this matter Quinn and I hold opposite opinions as he backed her up and ruined the portrait. In America liberty is not understood, either for artists or any one else. They are so mad for justice that liberty comes second best. If we had liberty who’d bother about justice. England is the only country where they understand liberty, and there consequently no one cares about justice.

One is more than usually grateful for this when one remembers Connolly, with his American wife, ogling the thought of her money, and his condescensions to her country: ‘money must logically become the only criterion in a country where the rich have no natural piety, the poor no feudal ideas and where the army, navy, church and politics are all unfit for gentlemen.’

J.B. Yeats’s level dismay at the kind of cleverness which exhausts and depletes and cannot replenish you: this, too, has its applicability to Connolly’s strivings. But another of Yeats’s formulations brings out why Connolly the regular reviewer was simply so much better at the job to be done than you would ever guess from the embittered memoirist. J.B. Yeats wrote about the New Republic in 1915: ‘I think all American magazine writing far too frightfully clever. It is as if a man had by mistake hired an acrobat for a footman, so that when he asked for a glass of water it was handed to him by a man standing on his head.’ Connolly had all the acrobatic cleverness but as a newspaper reviewer he wisely curbed it and he never stood on his head – not least because he knew that then the money would fall out of his pockets.

These letters of J.B. Yeats have something good to say of and about almost everything. ‘I could have nerves if I liked. I know better.’ His words can sketch others with a glinting insouciance, as in this (which I prefer to the George Moore who hadn’t heard of the Virgin Mary): ‘Meanwhile, the sky began to blacken and we all felt anxious while Moore, in his peculiar manner, kept softly gesticulating his despair.’ He can observe himself and all observers, as when thinking about Isadora Duncan on stage: ‘Several people said: Is it not like watching a kitten playing for itself? We watched her as if we were each of us hidden in an ambush.’ He can turn a sentence which is itself ‘as real as the toothache and as terrible and impressive as the judgment day’. In his vitality, he is aware of the innumerable unexpected forms which vitality may honourably take: ‘Dowden’s mind moved very slowly, in fact was apparently without any of the impulses of progress and change – full of vitality in his way, which was that of a lichen clinging to its rock.’

Greatest of all, J.B. Yeats can bring you near to tears (not at all the same as the ‘capacity for nervous weeping’ which he diagnosed in Swinburne), and this at the suffering of a complete stranger. As when he writes to his son the poet about an Irish girl whom he spoke to in a park in New York:

I then noticed that she held a baby in her arms, and that when I glanced toward it she tried to conceal it from me with her hand. It was asleep, but wasted and scrofulous and very sick, its arms and legs so thin that the hands and feet looked large; in its wasted neck there were lumps. I could not resist questioning her and found that she had had two other children who died in infancy and that her father and mother in Ireland were dead and that she did not expect to go there again, and that her husband was a healthy man, etc etc. She spoke with resignation as if to the will of God, or Fate – I did not know which. She spoke of the child’s sickness as being due to teething, as if she wished to think it temporary. As a contrast all around were swarms of healthy children, obstreperous and noisy. She looked at them as if she did not see them ... I would have given worlds to have painted a careful study of her and her sick infant and carried it away with me to keep my sorrow alive. Here we have art as portraiture, a kind of art great in its way; there is also the conflict of feelings – the ghastly repulsive sickness of the infant, the real charm of the mother’s face and form, her mother pride all abashed, her hopelessness, and yet her effort to be hopeful that it was only teething. This hopefulness, in itself a conscious lie, said perhaps out of a social instinct to ease the situation as she talked to me, and then her manifest love as she looked down at the child asleep, blissfully sleeping.

Nothing in the poetry of the man who received this letter is to me as profoundly moving as that. John Butler Yeats may have been the greatest of all the greatly gifted family.

So it is lovely to have these letters reissued. And then one must grumble. For the first edition in 1944 was ‘produced in complete conformity with the authorised economy standards’, but it did have 17 illustrations plus a frontispiece. This reissue is produced in complete conformity with the unauthorised economy standards; though subsidised by the Arts Council, it offers no evidence of artistic powers in J.B. Yeats except for a self-portrait on the jacket. Indeed, this edition fakes a new page 21 to replace the old one which listed the illustrations, and nowhere does it say anything at all about its having taken the liberty of expunging them. Again, though the memoir by Joseph Hone is extremely good, and has done better than wear well (it has weathered well), there is now something needlessly frustrating about all the excisions and truncations; forty years on, these letters could and should have been re-edited. The selection had its perversities and misjudgments even then, as if to distance itself from Ezra Pound’s selection of 1917, which had many great things not chosen here, as had Lennox Robinson’s Further Letters (1920). In 1972 William Murphy published an excellent edition of Letters from Bedford Park (1890-1901), 65 letters which show all the man’s wisdom, including the loving stringency which he bent upon his son the poet: ‘Willie has been out of sorts lately. He overworks himself, or rather over fatigues himself, seeing people and talking to people on various paradoxical subjects in which he believes or persuades himself he is interested.’

J.B. Yeats is a great-hearted understander of life, and so is ill-served by a mere reprinting, docked of its pictures. He ought to be backed. ‘Himself was a horse he never backed: but he loved praise, because he thought it meant liking.’ I like the man who could say this about his friend Frederick York Powell. As of Powell, it should be said of J.B. Yeats, ‘his health was contagious’ – was, and is.