Our Hero

C.H. Sisson

  • Richard Aldington: A Biography by Charles Doyle
    Macmillan, 379 pp, £19.95, November 1989, ISBN 0 333 46487 7

Charles Doyle’s biography of Richard Aldington opens so readily at the 24 excellent photographs with which the book is illustrated that the temptation to look at them, before one gets involved with the text, is irresistible. The series starts with a rather determined-looking boy with cap and striped jersey, holding a football. This is our hero at the age of 13. The next shows him at 19, with a beard which helps him to look older. This is followed by one, in 1914, with ‘a group of fellow poets visiting Wilfred Scawen Blunt’ and another in 1918, as an Army officer with a moustache, which remains, possibly in reduced format, in the portraits of the Twenties which include one ‘taken for a Harrods window display’. No 17 shows him, in Montpellier in 1955, as having put on a lot of weight, and in No 22 he is ‘broadcasting in Russia’. It would be too complicated to introduce the ladies in the picture gallery.

All these portraits have an added interest if one has known the author’s work for fifty or sixty years without, hitherto, having studied the iconography. Aldington’s best-knownbook, Death of a Hero, had appeared in 1929, and was eminently suitable – or unsuitable, as you look at it – reading-matter for the very young in the early Thirties. For anyone interested in poetry and – in the shadowy way of adolescents – himself a poet, Aldington existed also as the author of A Dream in the Luxembourg (1930) – the intellectual’s version of a lovely love story – and, more prestigiously, as an important figure in the Imagist movement which was credited, not inaccurately, with a crucial significance in the development of English verse.

In 1931 we had Stepping heavenward, fairly described by Charles Doyle as ‘a biting lampoon of Eliot ... transformed into Jeremy Pratt Sybba (later Cibber)’. Not the least interest of the present biography is the light it throws on the complicated relationships between the two poets. The first volume of Eliot’s Letters record him writing of Aldington in 1921: ‘Apart from any question of his importance as a writer, he is an extremely nice man,’ and in 1919 that ‘he is a good prose writer.’ Doyle continues: ‘A year or two before his death, T.S. Eliot ... wrote with perhaps belated generosity’ that Aldington’s ‘place in the literary world of my time is or ought to be secure’. Anyone who is curious about that place should read this book.

Aldington was born in 1892; that makes him younger than Eliot by four years, than Lawrence and Pound by seven, and than Wyndham Lewis by ten years. Herbert Read was a year his junior. These are all figures with whom he had more or less close connections at one time or another, so the relativities are worth bearing in mind. Aldington’s father was a solicitor ‘at Dover and along the south coast’. Both parents had some claim to be considered writers, the books to their credit or discredit including, in Dad’s case, a novel which ‘met with some success’, and in Mum’s case Love letters that caused a divorce, Love Letters to a Soldier, Roll of Honour, and Other Poems, and ‘other books with similar titles’. Richard (whose names were really Edward Godfrey) thought nothing of these books and seems to have approved of his parents as little as of the names they gave him. Doyle refers us to George Winterbourne’s parents, in Death of a Hero, for the characters of his author’s progenitors, but he also gives us less suspect evidence from one of Aldington’s companions of the Twenties: ‘his mother was a good soul ... and a very common woman’ while the father, Edward Albert Aldington, ‘was nearly a gentleman ... of much greater class than this very common, fat woman that he married’. Mother seems to have been the dominant partner, and her novels, ‘though hideously vulgar and illiterate’, as Richard wrote to his brother, ‘have much more vitality’ than those of his father, who, ‘though literate’, wrote ‘so badly’.

Aldington went at first to a Seminary for Young Gentlemen at St Margaret’s Bay. It must have been an unusual prep school, for he has put it on record that he ‘developed a sort of mystic enthusiasm for life’ there. He then went to Dover College. The family moved to London when he was 17 and a year later he was enrolled at University College. He did not stay his full time there, and though he later alleged that he left ‘after fighting against the insensitive education system’ and being in disgrace for insulting the Provost, we are assured by Doyle that ‘his real reason for leaving was that his father had suffered financial reverses from unlucky financial speculations.’ The young man thus launched upon the literary world was a respectable Greek and Latin scholar, and had read widely. He was soon going to literary parties, and met Pound – then ‘a small but persistent volcano in the dim levels of London literary society’ – and through him Helen Doolittle, who later became his wife. It was at a meeting in a bun shop in Kensington that these three were supposed to have founded the Imagist movement, Pound no doubt being the great instigator. Was he not already 27 and keen to teach all who would learn and even those who would not? ‘Thus Aldington gained a toe-hold in literary history,’ as Doyle puts it, ‘as a founder-member of an avant-garde movement.’

There is no doubt that Aldington was a young man of exceptional accomplishments, well qualified to take his place in that small segment of the pre-First World War literary world which made a show of being both modern and learned. His history during the crucial years 1912-16 is followed with close attention by his biographer. Inevitably, the story is a confusion of literary and social history. We find Aldington in Paris, with a ‘new black velvet jacket which he had hung out in the rain, to shrink and age into a garment appropriate to his vocation’; we hear of actual work on verse, the poet trying his hand, by his own account, ‘at everything from blank verse and rhymed couplets to Spenserian stanzas, ballades, surventes and villanelles, with fatal facility’, and so to ‘unrhymed pieces with no formal metrical scheme where the rhythm was created by a kind of inner chant’. He became literary editor of the Egoist magazine, and the Egoist Press published his prose versions of The Poems of Anyte of Tegea and Latin Poets of the Renaissance. A hernia operation kept him out of the Armed Forces at first, and by the time he was called up in 1916 he had done more than become a familiar figure in the Modernist movement. He had married H.D., had a still-born child from her, and generally been involved in a variety of affairs, literary and sexual, which proved that he was not a stuffy bourgeois like his parents.

As he rolled up his bedding after his first night in barracks, Aldington found himself reciting passages from Wilde’s De Profundis. Doyle does not go into much detail about his Army service, which certainly involved episodes of action, but he ventures the remark that ‘Barbara Guest is not entirely unfair when she says that it is only necessary to compare Death of a Hero with Graves’s Goodbye to all that “to realise that Aldington’s experiences were not so desperate or tragic as he would have us believe.” ’ However that may be, we have the evidence of Herbert Read – himself certainly a wartime soldier of distinction and, incidentally, the author of one of the best accounts of action on the Western Front, In Retreat – that in 1917 Aldington ‘looked extremely handsome in his uniform:

I was immediately captivated, by the brightness and candour of his features – a boyishness, one might call it, which he retained perhaps all his life ... He was one of the most stimulating friends I have ever had ... easy in conversation and very frank – his mind darting about rapidly from one aspect of a subject to another ... It was a friendship not free from divergences of opinion – even fundamental differences of outlook.

One can believe that. When the war was over, Aldington picked up the threads of his literary life fairly easily. There were three little volumes of poems in 1919, including Images of Desire, which has some of his most precise and vivid work in verse, and in which wartime themes are set beside the erotic:

Outside the young frost crisps the grass
And bends the narrow willow boughs
And flecks the dyke with little spears of ice;
The huge moon, yellow and blotched,
Like the face of a six days’ corpse,
Stares hideously over the barren wood.

In 1920 there were further prose translations from the Greek, followed during the decade by translations from French writers including Marivaux, Cyrano de Bergerac, Choderlos de Laclos, Madame de Sévigné and Voltaire. ‘Most of the 1920s,’ says Doyle, summing up his author’s activities during the period, ‘was for him a life of unremitting labour, wide reading, and writing about 200,000 words a year.’ In 1929 he published a volume of excellent Selections from the work of Rémy de Gourmont, a writer who was an education in himself for Francophil intellectuals in the early part of the century. There were other translations later, but 1929 was in a sense a watershed. Death of a Hero was a sort of explosion of personality, in which Aldington’s early life, his relations with his parents, his sexual progression as well as his military experiences, were regurgitated. It was the first of a series of novels, which brought him before a much larger public than had hitherto known his work – inevitably a determining factor for the future of an energetic writer who looked to writing for his bread and butter. Herbert Read, with perhaps excessive rigour, saw Aldington’s aspiring to write novels as his ‘ultimate misfortune’: Aldington himself, Doyle assures us, ‘felt his limits as a novelist’.

Aldington was in his middle thirties when he wrote Death of a Hero, but he tells us that he began it ‘almost immediately alter the Armistice’ in a billet in Belgium. ‘The attempt was premature,’ he says, and ‘ten years later, almost day for day’ he ‘felt the impulse return’, and the book took shape. It is less a record, in spite of the autobiographical element in it, than an outpouring. ‘I knew what I wanted to say and said it.’ How you value that process depends on how you value that form of deliberate self-expression – so popular in the 20th century – which contains a large element of the mere expression of opinion. Speaking of Aldington, among others, Wyndham Lewis fairly says: ‘it is not quite certain that we were not just as big fools as our not very far-sighted forebears.’ Aldington was always plagued by that questionable certainty, in relation not only to the war but to his parents and more generally in relation to conventions other than his own. It was part of the ‘boyishness’ Herbert Read noticed. Even after the end of the Second World War, in the Caribbean, Aldington could say, in what Doyle calls ‘an almost paranoid state of self-commiseration’: ‘I am defeated, not by any fault or failure in myself, but by the quarrelsome and tyrannical stupidity of mankind.’ This lack of self-criticism and of self-knowledge – going here to the absurd length of distinguishing himself from the human race at large – underlies and vitiates much of his less restrained writing. It must have something to do with what, in the long run, might almost be called the chaos of his personal life. Doyle puts it more moderately, speaking of the Forties: ‘his nomadic life was not conducive to a network of friends or social contacts, except of the most superficial kind.’

A large part of this biography is inevitably devoted to following its subject in his various social manifestations, and there is plenty here for the reader who is fascinated by his relationships with other writers, including some of the most significant of his day, such as Eliot and Lawrence. In 1962 he dined with Sir Oswald and Lady Mosley in Paris, ‘and was much taken with them’, on his way to spending three weeks in the USSR – where his novels sold in hundreds of thousands – as the guest of the Writer’s Union. ‘This is the happiest day of my life,’ he said at the official banquet for his 70th birthday: ‘for the first time in my life I have met with extraordinary warmth and attention.’ Poor devil! But one should not take any particular event of his life too seriously. Doyle is well aware of the duties of a biographer, and of the lure of ‘those high moments which can tempt and delight’ him. In the end, however, it is the poet, translator, novelist, biographer and critic who matters. The output is formidable, and enough to have made several reputations, if not of the front rank, at least seriously noticeable. One or two small Imagist volumes, telling books on both Lawrences, D.H. and T.E, translations from the Greek and the French, novels: one may pick what one will, but there is a welter of competent and intelligent work. Perhaps, in the end, it is more intelligent than original, and it is a misfortune for his lasting reputation that as a whole it points nowhere in particular. Yet Aldington is a considerable figure, and anyone who wants to acquaint himself with the ethos of the formative years of the 20th century could do worse than start by reading Death of a Hero.