Lithe Pale Girls

Robert Crawford

  • Richard Aldington: Poet, Soldier and Lover 1911-29 by Vivien Whelpton
    Lutterworth, 414 pp, £30.00, January 2015, ISBN 978 0 7188 9318 7

In 1906, May Aldington, a writer and innkeeper, published a novel called Love-letters that Caused a Divorce. It tells the story of Kitty Yorke, who falls in love with a married man. She abandons her marriage in order to run away with her lover, but eventually, after desertion and long hardship, returns to her husband. May Aldington lived long enough to see her son have a protracted series of affairs, including a lengthy one with a woman called Yorke. One of the reasons he disliked his parents may have been that his life veered too close to his mother’s fiction. Among Edward Godfree Aldington’s early gestures of rebellion was his rejection of the name his parents had given him: from his teens he called himself Richard. A sparkling-eyed poet who played rugby at school, he caught the eye of many women. In his youth he had a taste for velvet jackets and bow ties; he had studied some Greek, and relished the Romantic Hellenism of Keats’s Endymion, whose famous first line (‘A thing of beauty is a joy for ever’) leads on to a description of the ‘breathless honey-feel of bliss’.

After dropping out from University College London, Aldington became the lover of Brigit Patmore, a strikingly beautiful woman ten years his senior who was married to a philandering insurance man. She knew many writers in London, including the recently arrived Ezra Pound. As soon as she caught sight of Aldington’s ‘broad shoulders’ and ‘determined mouth’, she wrote, she was fascinated. She invited Aldington and Pound to tea. Patmore was also attracted to Pound’s American friend Hilda Doolittle, and before long Aldington had become Doolittle’s lover too.

They fell in love while translating ancient Greek. Aldington, at 19, was too young for a ticket to the Reading Room of the British Museum. Doolittle, who was 25, sat under the imposing dome, transcribing Greek materials. The two young poet-translators met daily, trying to make versions of verse from the Greek Anthology, that gathering of nearly five thousand poems assembled roughly two thousand years ago, many of them showing, as one of the epigrammata erotica puts it, how Love ‘lighteth the torch for youth’.

Before they met, Doolittle had had a Greek nickname: Pound called her ‘Dryad’. Teenage sweethearts, they had got engaged; but then the Dryad had fallen in love with a young woman called Frances Gregg and had accompanied her to Europe; Pound later got engaged to someone else. Now the Dryad was fascinated by this heterosexual young Englishman who shared her love of Greek, wrote poetry, was erotically experienced and had determinedly changed his name. She didn’t like her own name much either. Some years earlier she had written stories as ‘Edith Gray’; most often, though, in literature and in life, she was called H.D.

The story of the love affair has been told before, and was set in its wider English and American contexts especially thoroughly by Helen Carr in The Verse Revolutionaries: Ezra Pound, H.D. and the Imagists (2009), a monumental work to which Vivien Whelpton acknowledges a debt. Whelpton, however, has done her own research, and, though occasionally her text can be confused and confusing when it comes to dates, she gives a good sense of the complexities of this and Aldington’s many other relationships. Her focus on a relatively brief period of his life means that his childhood is given rather short shrift, and much of her book deals with Aldington the poet even though his fiction has lasted best. Death of a Hero, published in 1929, is one of the best English novels to deal with the experience of combat in the First World War.[*]

An examination of Death of a Hero, which Aldington began work on ‘almost immediately after the Armistice’ but didn’t return to for a decade, forms the conclusion to Whelpton’s book. Aldington the novelist is flawed but holds the attention; Aldington the poet is prolific, but often rather too easy to keep up with; Aldington the lover is prolific too, and most readers will be grateful to Whelpton for guiding us round the hairpin bends and blind alleys of his relationships.

Much to H.D.’s excitement, in 1912 Aldington, having gone with her to Italy the previous year, followed her to Paris. There they read poems together. They went to galleries. Fuelling their love of the Greeks, Richard wrote a sonnet in her notebook on 4 July 1912. It articulated a longing for

Scurry of satyr-hooves in dewy lands,
Pan-pipes at noon, the lust, the shaggy fur,
White blossoms and swift Dionysiac mirth.

It wasn’t very good, but Hilda liked its author. By the end of the month they had moved in together, or at least lived in separate rooms in the same house, 6 Church Walk in Kensington. They were still seeing a good deal of Patmore, Gregg and Pound, who enjoyed pronouncing on their verse. ‘Richard has just brought me a bad poem,’ Pound recorded that September, ‘and departed with dampened spirits.’

But Pound, a fellow devotee of the classics, was sympathetic to Aldington’s Greek enthusiasms, and was eager to position him as part of the new poetic movement in which he, Pound, was predominant. He sent Aldington’s ‘Choricos’, ‘To a Greek Marble’ and another poem to Harriet Monroe in Chicago. They duly appeared in Monroe’s magazine, Poetry, in November 1912, with a note explaining that ‘Mr Richard Aldington is a young English poet, one of the “Imagistes”, a group of ardent Hellenists who are pursuing interesting experiments in vers libre.’ Though Pound soon shifted his attention to Chinese verse and sought to play down the Hellenism of this new movement, Aldington’s poems, which liked to display ‘lithe pale girls,/Daughters of Okeanos’ and ‘loves in Phrygia’ with ‘The far ecstasy of burning noons’, remained excitedly Hellenistic.

Very soon the January 1913 issue of Poetry brought a clutch of ‘Verses, Translations and Reflections from “The Anthology”’ (which meant the Greek Anthology) by H.D. Her Priapus has ‘flayed us with thy blossoms’; her ‘Hermes of the Ways’ has waited while ‘The great sea foamed,/Gnashed its teeth about me.’ Intense (and often erotic) feeling in these poems is set in an ideal Greece of the imagination. ‘Epigram (After the Greek)’ is signed – and this seems to have been Pound’s suggestion – ‘H.D., “Imagiste”.’ A note explained that ‘her sketches from the Greek are not offered as exact translations, or in any sense as finalities, but as experiments in delicate and elusive cadences, which attain sometimes a haunting beauty.’

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[*] It was recently reprinted (Penguin, 368 pp., £9.99, December 2013, 978 0 14 310687 6).