Ford Madox Hueffer



Collected Poems







With regard to more speculative matters. I may really say that for a quarter of a century I have kept before me one unflinching aim — to register my own times in terms of my own time, and still more to urge those who are better poets and better prose-writers than myself to have the same aim. I suppose I have been pretty well ignored; I find no signs of my being taken seriously. It is certain that my conviction would gain immensely as soon as another soul could be found to share it. But for a man mad about writing this is a solitary world, and writing [14] — you cannot write about writing without using foreign words — it is a mιtier de chien.

It is something a matter of diction. In France, upon the whole, a poet — and even a quite literary poet — can write in a language that, roughly speaking, any hatter can use. In Germany, the poet writes exactly as he speaks. And these facts do so much towards influencing the poet's mind. If we cannot use the word "procession" we are apt to be precluded from thinking about processions. Now processions (to use no other example) are very interesting and suggestive things, and things that are very much part of the gnat-dance that modern life is. Because, if a people has suffcient interest in public matters to join in huge processions it has reached a certain stage of folk-consciousness. If it will not or cannot do these things it is in yet other stages. Heine's "Procession" was, for instance, not what we should call a procession at all. With us there are definite types — there is the King's Procession at Ascot. There are processions in support of Women's Suffrage and against it; those in support of Welsh Disestablishment or against it. But the procession at Kφln was a pilgrimage.

Organized state functions, popular expressions of desire are one symptom; pilgrimages another. But the poet who ignores them all three is to my thinking lost, since in one way or another they embrace the whole of humanity and are mysterious, hazy and tangible. A poet of a sardonic turn of mind will find sport in describing how, in a low pot-house, an emissary of a skilful Government will bribe thirty ruffians at five shillings a head to break up and so discredit a procession in favour of votes for women; yet another poet may describe how a lady in an omnibus, with a certain turn for rhetoric, will persuade the greater number of the other pas[15]sengers to promise to join the procession for the saving of a church; another will become emotionalized at the sight of the Sword of Mercy borne by a peer after the Cap of Maintenance borne by yet another. And believe me, to be perfectly sincere, when I say that a poetry whose day cannot find poets for all these things is a poetry that is lacking in some of its members.

So, at least, I see it. Modern life is so extraordinary, so hazy, so tenuous with, still, such definite and concrete spots in it that I am for ever on the look out for some poet who shall render it with all its values. I do not think that there was ever, as the saying is, such a chance for a poet; I am breathless, I am agitated at the thought of having it to begin upon. And yet I am aware that I can do nothing, since with me the writing of verse is not a conscious Art. It is the expression of an emotion, and I can so often not put my emotions into any verse.

I should say, to put a personal confession on record, that the very strongest emotion — at any rate of this class — that I have ever had was when I first went to the Shepherd's Bush Exhibition and came out on a great square of white buildings all outlined with lights. There was such a lot of light — and I think that what I hope for in Heaven is an infinite clear radiance of pure light! There were crowds and crowds of people — or no, there was, spread out beneath the lights, an infinite moving mass of black, with white faces turned up to the light, moving slowly, quickly, not moving at all, being obscured, reappearing.

I know that the immediate reflection will come to almost any reader that this is nonsense or an affectation. "How," he will say, "is any emotion to be roused by the mere first night of a Shepherd's Bush exhibition? Poetry is written about love, [16] about country lanes, about the singing of birds." I think it is not — not nowadays. We are too far from these things. What we are in, that which is all around us, is the Crowd — the Crowd blindly looking for joy or for that most pathetic of all things, the good time. I think that that is why I felt so profound an emotion on that occasion. It must have been the feeling — not the thought — of all these good, kind, nice people, this immense Crowd suddenly let loose upon a sort of Tom Tiddler's ground to pick up the glittering splinters of glass that are Romance, hesitant but certain of vistas of adventure, if no more than the adventures of their own souls — like cattle in a herd suddenly let into a very rich field and hesitant before the enamel of daisies, the long herbage, the rushes fringing the stream at the end.

I think pathos and poetry are to be found beneath those lights and in those sounds — in the larking of the anæmic girls, in the shoulders of the women in evening dress, in the idealism of a pickpocket slanting through a shadow and imagining himself a hero whose end will be wealth and permanent apartments in the Savoy Hotel. For such dreamers of dreams there are.

That indeed appears to me — and I am writing as seriously as I can — the real stuff of the poetry of our day. Love in country lanes, the song of birds, moonlight — these the poet, playing for safety, and the critic trying to find something safe to praise, will deem the sure cards of the poetic pack. They seem the safe things to sentimentalize over, and it is taken for granted that sentimentalizing is the business of poetry. It is not, of course. Upon the face of it the comfrey under the hedge may seem a safer card to play, for the purpose of poetry, than the portable zinc dustbin left at dawn for the dust man to take.

[17] But it is not really; for the business of poetry is not sentimentalism so much as the putting of certain realities in certain aspects. The comfrey under the hedge, judged by these standards, is just a plant — but the ash-bucket at dawn is a symbol of poor humanity, of its aspirations, its romance, its ageing and its death. The ashes represent the sociable fires, the god of the hearth, of the slumbering, dawn populations; the orange peels with their bright colours represent all that is left of a little party of the night before, when an alliance between families may have failed to be cemented, or being accomplished may have proved a disillusionment or a temporary paradise. The empty tin of infant's food stands for birth; the torn up scrap of a doctor's prescription for death. Yes, even if you wish to sentimentalize, the dustbin is a much safer card to play than the comfirey plant. And, similarly, the anæmic shop-girl at the Exhibition, with her bad teeth and her cheap black frock, is safer than Isolde. She is more down to the ground and much more touching.

Or again, there are the symbols of the great fine things that remain to us. Many of us might confess to being unable to pass Buckingham Palace when the Royal Standard is flying on the flagstaff without a very recognizable emotion that is equivalent to the journalist's phrase, a catching at the throat. For there are symbols of aspiration everywhere. The preposterous white papier mβchι fountain is a symbol, so are the preposterous gilded gates, so are the geraniums and the purplish-grey pencil of Westminster Cathedral tower that overhangs the palace. There are, upon the standard, three leopards passant which are ancient and suggestive things; there is the lion rampant which is pretentious, and a harp which is a silly sort of thing to have upon a flag. [18] But it is a rich spot; a patch of colour that is left to us. As the ugly marquess said of the handsome footman:

"Mon dieu, comme nous les faisons — et comme ils nous font!"

For papier mβchι and passant leopards and all, these symbols are what the crowd desires and what they stand for made the crowd what it is. And the absurd, beloved traditions continue. The excellent father of a family in jack-boots, white breeches, sword, helmet strap, gauntlets, views the preparation of his accoutrements and the flag that he carries before his regiment as something as part of his sacred profession as, to a good butler, is the family plate. That is an odd, mysterious human thing, the stuff for poetry.

We might confess again to having had emotions at the time of the beginning of the South African War — we were, say, in the gallery at Drury Lane and the audience were all on fire; we might confess to having had emotions in the Tivoli Music Hall when, just after a low comedian had "taken off" Henry VIII, it was announced that Edward VII was dying, and the whole audience stood up and sang "God Save the King" — as a genuine hymn that time. We may have had similar emotions at seeing the little Prince of Wales standing unsteadily on a blue foot-stool at the coronation, a young boy in his garter robes — or at a Secret Consistory at the Vatican, when the Holy Father ceremonially whispered to one Cardinal or another.

War-like emotions, tears at the passing of a sovereign, being touched at the sight of a young prince or a sovereignly pontifical prisoner of the Vatican — this is perhaps the merest digging out of fossils from a bed of soft clay that the crowd is. God knows we may "just despise" democracy or [19] the writing of laureate's odes, but the putting of the one thing in juxtaposition with the other — that seems to me to be much more the business of the poet of to-day than setting down on paper what he thinks about the fate of Brangane, not because any particular "lesson" may be learned, but because such juxtapositions suggest emotions.

For myself, I have been unable to do it; I am too old, perhaps, or was born too late — anything you like. But there it is — I would rather read a picture in verse of the emotions and environment of a Goodge Street anarchist than recapture what songs the sirens sang. That after all was what Franηois Villon was doing for the life of his day, and I should feel that our day was doing its duty by posterity much more surely if it were doing something of the sort.

Can it then be done? In prose of course it can. But, in poetry? Is there something about the mere framing of verse, the mere sound of it in the ear, that it must at once throw its practitioner or its devotee into an artificial frame of mind? Verse presumably quickens the perceptions of its writer as do hashish or ether. But must it necessarily quicken them to the perception only of the sentimental, the false, the hackneyed aspects of life? Must it make us, because we live in cities, babble incessantly of green fields; or because we live in the twentieth century must we deem nothing poetically good that did not take place before the year 1603?

This is not saying that one should not soak oneself with the Grreek traditions: study every fragment of Sappho; delve ages long in the works of Bertran de Born; translate for years the minnelieder of Walther von der Vogelweide or that we should forget the bardic chants of Patric of the Seven Kingdoms. Let us do anything in the world that will widen our [20] perceptions. We are the heirs of all the ages. But, in the end, I feel fairly assured that the purpose of all these pleasant travails is the right appreciation of such facets of our own day as God will let us perceive.

I remember seeing in a house in Hertford an American cartoon representing a dog pursuing a cat out of the door of a particularly hideous tenement house, and beneath this picture was inscribed the words: "This is life — one damn thing after another." Now I think it would be better to be able to put that sentiment into lyric verse than to remake a ballad of the sorrows of Cuchullain or to paraphrase the Book of Job. I do not mean to say that Job is not picturesque; I do not mean to say that it is not a good thing to have the Book of the Seven Sorrows of whom you will in the background of your mind or even colouring your outlook. But it is better to see life in the terms of one damn thing after another, vulgar as is the phraseology or even the attitude, than to render it in terms of withering gourds and other poetic paraphernalia. It is, in fact, better to be vulgar than affected, at any rate if you practise poetry.


One of my friends, a really serious critic, has assured me that my poem called "To All the Dead" was not worth publishing, because it is just Browning. Let me, to further this speculation, just confess that I have never read Browning, and that, roughly speaking, I cannot read poetry at all. I never really have been able to. And then let me analyse this case, because it is the plight of many decent, serious people, friends of mine.

As boys we — I and my friends — read Shakespeare [21] with avidity, Virgil to the extent of getting at least two Books of the Æneid by heart, Horace with pleasure and Ovid's Persephone Rapta with delight. We liked very much the Bacchae of Euripides — I mean that we used to sit down and take a read in these things sometimes apart from the mere exigencies of the school curriculum. A little later Herrick moved us to ecstasy and some of Donne; we liked passages of Fletcher, of Marlowe, of Webster and of Kyd. At that time we really loved the Minnesingers, and fell flat in admiration before anything of Heine. The Troubadors and even the Northern French Epics we could not read — French poetry did not exist for us at all. If we read a French poem at all, we had always to read it twice, once to master the artificial rhythm, once for the sense.

Between seventeen and eighteen we read Rossetti, Catullus, Theocritus, Bion, Moschus and still Shakespeare, Herrick, Heine, Elizabethan and Jacobean lyrics, Crashaw, Herbert and Donne. Towards eighteen we tried Swinburne, Tennyson, Browning and Pope. We could not read any of them — we simply and physically couldn't sit down with them in the hand for long enough to master more than a few lines. We never read any Tennyson at all except for the fragment about the Eagle; never read any Swinburne at all except for the poem that contains the words "I thank with faint thanksgiving whatever Gods there be," and the one beginning "Ask nothing more of me, Sweet"; we also read a German translation of the ballad whose stanzas end: "This is the end of every man's desire." Of Browning we read sufficient to "get the hang of" Fifine at the Fair, the Blot on the Scutcheon for the lyric There's a woman like a dewdrop and Meeting at Night and Parting in the Morning and Oh to be in [22] England. I have a faint idea that we may have read The Bishop Orders his Tomb and parts of Asolando. So that, as things go, we may be said never to have read any Browning at all. (I do not mean to say that what I did read did not influence me, so that even at this late date that influence may be found on such a poem as "To all the Dead," or "The Starling." I am not, I mean, trying to dodge the implication that I may derive from Browning. Influences are queer things, and there is no knowing when or where they may take you. But, until the other day, I should have said that Browning was the last of the poets that I should have taken consciously as a model. The other day, however — about a month ago — some one insisted, sorely against my wishes, on reading to me the beginning of the Flight of the Duchess, as far as "And the whole is our Duke's country," that most triumphant expression of feudal loyalty. And my enthusiasm knew no bounds, so that, if ever the Muse should visit me again, it may well be Browningese that I shall write, for there is no passage in literature that I should more desire to have written.)

But at any rate, the attempt to read Tennyson, Swinburne and Browning and Pope — in our teens — gave me and the friends I have mentioned, a settled dislike for poetry that we have never since quite got over. We seemed to get from them the idea that all poets must of necessity write affectedly, at great length, with many superfluous words — that poetry, of necessity, was something boring and pretentious. And I fancy that it is because the greater part of humanity get that impression from those poets that few modern men or women read verse at all.

To such an extent did that feeling overmaster us that, although we subsequently discovered for our[23]selves Christina Rossetti — who strikes us still as far and away the greatest master of words and moods that any art has produced — I am conscious that we regarded her as being far more a prose writer than a poet at all. Poetry being something pretentious, "tol-lol" as the phrase then was, portentous, brow-beating, affected — this still, small, private voice gave the impression of not being verse at all. Such a phrase describing lizards amongst heath as: "like darted lightnings here and there perceived yet no-where dwelt upon," or such a sentence as: "Quoth one to-morrow shall be like to-day but much more sweet" — these things gave an exquisite pleasure, but it was a pleasure comparable rather to that to be had from reading Flaubert. It was comparable rather to that which came from reading the last sentences of Herodias. "Et tous trois ayant pris la tκte de Jokanaan s'en allait vers Galillιe. Comme elle ιtait trθs lourde ils la portaient alternativement." I do not presume to say exactly whence the pleasure comes except in so far as that I believe that such exact, formal and austere phrases can to certain men give a pleasure beyond any other. And it was this emotion that we received from Christina Rossetti.

But still, sub-consciously, I am aware that we did not regard her as a poet.

And, from that day onwards I may say that we have read no poetry at all — at any rate we have read none unprofessionally until just the other day. The poets of the nineties — Dowson, Johnson, Davidson and the rest — struck us as just nuisances, writing in derivative language uninteresting matters that might have been interesting had they been expressed in the much more exquisite medium of prose. We got, perhaps, some pleasure from reading the poems — not the novels — of George Meredith, [24] and a great deal from those of Mr Hardy, whom we do regard as a great, queer, gloomy and splendid poet. We read also — by some odd impulse — the whole of Mr Doughty's Dawn in Britain, that atrocious and wonderful epic in twelve volumes which is, I think, the longest and most queerly impressive poem in modern English. We read it with avidity; we could not tear ourselves away from it, and we wrote six reviews of it because no professional reviewers could be found to give the time for reading it. It was a queer adventure.

That then is the history of twenty years of reading verse, and I think I may say that, for men whose life-business is reading, we have read practically no poetry at all. And, during those twenty years we should have said with assurance that poetry was an artificial, a boring, an unnecessary thing.


But, about five years ago, we — I and that group of friends — began to think of founding a periodical — one is always thinking of founding periodicals! We had then to think of what place verse must take in the scheme of things. With our foreign ideas in which academic palms and precedence figure more strongly than they do in the minds of most freeborn islanders, it did not take us long to arrive at the conclusion that poetry must have the very first place in that journal — not because it was a living force, but just because it was dead and must be treated with deference. Moreover, if I may make a further confession, our express aim in founding the periodical in question, was to print a poem by Mr Hardy, a poem that other periodicals had found too — let us say — outspoken for them to print. Now it [25] would have been ridiculous to found an immense paper for the express purpose of printing one particular poem and not to give that poem the utmost pride of place.

So we printed A Sunday Mornmg Tragedy first and the rest in a string after it. It seemed proper, French and traditional to do so.

And then we began to worry our poor heads about poetry. We had, perforce, to read a great deal of it, and much of what we read seemed to be better stuff than we had expected. We came, for instance, upon the poems of Mr Yeats. Now for ten or twenty years we had been making light of Mr Yeats; we used to sniff irritably at I will arise and go now and to be worried by The Countess Kathleen. Mr Yeats appeared to be a merely "literary" poet; an annoying dilettante. I do not now know whether Mr Yeats has changed or whether we have, but I am about in a moment to try to make an amende honorable.

At any rate we came upon the work of Mr Yeats, of Mr De la Mare, of Mr Flint, of Mr D. H. Lawrence, and upon suggestions of power in Mr Pound's derivations from the Romance writers. And gradually it has forced itself upon us that there is a new quality, a new power of impressionism that is open to poetry, and that is not so much open to prose. It it is a quality that attracted us years ago to the poems of Mr Hardy and of Mr George Meredith. (I know that my younger friends will start ominously at this announcement, that they will come round to my house and remonstrate seriously for many weary hours. But I must make the best of that.)

For the fact is that, in Mr Yeats as in Mr Hardy, there are certain qualities that very singularly unite them — qualities not so much of diction or of mind but qualities that can only be expressed in pictorial [26] terms. For when I think of Mr Hardy's work I seem to see a cavernous darkness, a darkness filled with wood-smoke, touched here and there with the distant and brooding glow of smothered flame When I think of Mr Yeats' work I seem to see a grey, thin mist over a green landscape, the mist here and there being pierced by a sparkle of dew, by the light shot from a gem in a green cap. I have tried to write this as carefully as I can, so as to express very precisely what is in the end a debt of sheer gratitude. I mean that really and truly that is the sort of feeling that I have — as if I had discovered two new countries — the country of the hardly illumined and cavernous darkness, the country of the thin grey mist over the green fields, and as if those countries still remained for me to travel in.)

It will at first sight appear that here is a contradicting of the words with which we set out — the statement that it is the duty of the poet to reflect his own day. But there is no contradiction. It is the duty of the poet to reflect his own day as it appears to him, as it has impressed itself upon him. Because I and my friends have, as the saying is, rolled our humps mostly in a landscape that is picked out with the red patches of motor-bus sides it would be the merest provincialism to say that the author of Innisfree should not have sat in the cabins of county Galway or of Connemara, or wherever it is, or that the author of the Dynasts should not have wandered about a country called Wessex reading works connected with Napoleon. We should not wish to limit Mr Yeats' reading ot the daily papers, nor indeed do we so limit our own, any more than we should wish to limit the author of that most beautiful impression, the Listeners, to the purlieus of Bedford Street where the publisher's offices are.

[27] What worried and exasperated us in the poems of the late Lord Tennyson, the late Lewis Morris, the late William Morris, the late — well, whom you like — is not their choice of subject, it is their imitative handling of matter of words, it is their derivative attitude. . . .

Reading is an excellent thing; it is also experience, and both Mr Yeats and Mr De la Mare have read a great deal. But it is an experience that one should go through not in order to acquire imitative faculties, but in order to find — oneself. Roughly speaking, the late Victorian writers imitated Malory or the Laxdaela Saga and commented upon them; roughly speaking, again, the poets of to-day record their emotions at receiving the experience of the emotions of former writers. It is an attitude critical rather than imitative, and to the measure of its truth it is the truer poetical attitude.

The measure of the truth has to be found. It would be an obvious hypocrisy in men whose first unashamed action of the day is to open the daily paper for the cricket scores and whose poetic bag and baggage is as small as I have related — it would be an obvious hypocrisy in us to pretend to have passed the greater part of our existences in romantic woods. But it would be a similar hypocrisy in Mr De la Mare, Mr Yeats, or Mr Hardy to attempt to render Life in the terms of the sort of Futurist picture that life is to me and my likes.

To get a sort of truth, a sort of genuineness into your attitude towards the life that God makes you lead, to follow up your real preferences, to like as some of us like the hard, bitter, ironical German poets, the life of restaurants, of Crowds, of flashed impressions, to love, as we may love, in our own way, the Blessed Virgin, Saint Katharine or the sardonic figure of Christina of Milan — and to [28] render it — that is one good thing. Or again, to be genuinely Irish, with all the historic background of death, swords, flames, mists, sorrows, wakes, and again mists — to love those things and the Irish sanctities and Paganisms — that is another good thing if it is truly rendered; the main thing is the genuine love and the faithful rendering of the received impression.

The actual language — the vernacular employed — is a secondary matter. I prefer personally the language of my own day, a language clear enough for certain matters, employing slang where slang is felicitous and vulgarity where it seems to me that vulgarity is the only weapon against dullness. Mr Doughty, on the other hand — and Mr Doughty is a great poet — uses a barbarous idiom as if he were chucking pieces of shale at you from the top of a rock. Mr Yeats makes literal translations from the Irish; Mr Hardy does not appear to bother his head much about words, he drags them in as he likes. Mr De la Mare and Mr Flint are rather literary; Mr Pound as often as not is so unacquainted with English idioms as to be nearly unintelligible.

(God forbid, by the by, that I should seem to arrogate to myself a position as a poet side by side with Mr De la Mare, or, for the matter of that, with Mr Pound. But in stating my preferences I am merely, quite humbly, trying to voice what I imagine will be the views or the aspirations, the preferences or the prejudices, of the poet of my day and circumstances when he shall at last appear and voice the life of dust, toil, discouragement, excitement, and enervation that I and many millions lead to-day.)

When that poet does come it seems to me that his species will be much that of the gentlemen I [29] have several times mentioned. His attitude towards life will be theirs; his circumstances only will be different. An elephant is an elephant whether he pours, at an African water-hole, mud and water over his free and scorched flanks, or whether, in the Zoological Gardens, he carries children about upon his back.





Erstdruck und Druckvorlage

Ford Madox Hueffer: Collected Poems.
London: Goschen 1914, S. 9-29.

Unser Auszug: S. 13-29.

Die Textwiedergabe erfolgt nach dem ersten Druck (Editionsrichtlinien).






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Lyriktheorie » R. Brandmeyer