“Lost Kingdoms” at the Met

Detail of early 7th Century C.E. Buddha (Sandstone.National Museum of Thailand.) Click to enlarge.

Detail of early 7th Century C.E. Buddha (Sandstone. National Museum of Thailand.) Click to enlarge.

Those with even a casual in Asian art interest in  general or Hindu and Buddhist statuary specifically (and even those more generally interested in how cultures are transmitted) owe it to yourselves to visit the spectacular exhibit entitled “Lost Kingdom:Hindu-Buddhist Sculpture of Early Southeast Asia, 5th to 8th Century” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in Manhattan. The show examines how the religious art of India (and therefore the religions themselves) spread to the little and isolated kingdoms of Cambodia, Vietnam, Thailand and Myanmar  in the middle of the first Century. It is the kind of art exhibition that few places can do as well as the Met. The displays fill ten black rooms with soft lighting from the high ceilings that highlights the three-dimensional works from multiple angles, allowing each work to stand out in a room filled with striking forms. The walls are mounted with two-dimensional reliefs or statues requiring additional support. The works themselves come from around the world, the most important from the countries of origin themselves, many of which have never left those countries before. The pieces are arranged in thematic, approximately chronological, groups. The show begins in earnest with the endemic nature gods of the Southeast Asian kingdom, which Hinduism incorporated as part of the cultural invasion. Evidently, like Roman Catholicism (only more successful), Hinduism readily incorporated local folk beliefs into its rituals and mythology which together with the Vedic mysteries available only to the local elite made for ready acceptance by both the general population, and more importantly (at least for the commissioning of art works) the local powers.

Yaksha (Central Vietnam. Early 6th century. Sandstone. Museum of Cham Sculpture, Da Nang, Vietnam.) Click to enlarge.

Hindu missionaries, and later Buddhist ones, travelled with Indian merchants, who explored the secluded regions of Southeast Asia in search of the societies whom they saw as the Land of Gold (Suvarṇabhūmi in the Buddhist Jataka tales). The peoples they encountered are now obscure, many known only by their name or a few inscriptions (under the influence of the Indians) or records of the Chinese (also motivated by trade). Coincidentally, at about the same time the Roman Church was making inroads into the Germanic tribes that had swallowed up the empire, and they also were doing so by incorporating folk rituals and beliefs. The art in this group mainly depicts yakshas and yakṣī, nature spirits recognized in Hindu and Buddhist (as well as Jainist) texts. Much like Western fairies, these nature gods suffered demotion with the advent of the imported religion (Christianity in Europe and Hinduism in Southeast Asia). The relief showing a Yaksha from Central Vietnam (right) illustrates the fairy-like qualities of these divinities. The effect is achieved by having a fully molded head with broad features seemingly separate from the patterned hair atop a softly stylized body in the common cross-legged sitting position (a position that would become associated with meditation with the coming of Buddhist art).

Dragon Among Foliage. (Central Cambodia. Mid-7th Century. Sandstone. Metropolitan Museum of Art.)

While generally regarded as harmless, if eccentric, they occasionally had more sinister aspects such as the dragon shown among foliage in the Met’s own lintel from 7th century Cambodia. The picture above does not do justice to the Indic artists who rendered the relief. The foliage perfectly camouflages the beast and make up part of his anatomy. The piece shows both the imagination and technical competence of early Indian artists in Southeast Asia.

“Throne” Stele. (Central Myanmar, ca. 4th Century. Sandstone. National Museum, Yangon, Myanmar.) On the wall behind the stele are the Yaksha pictured above and a yakṣī also from Central Vietnam, ca. 6th Century. (Museum of Cham Sculpture, Da Nang, Vietnam.) Click to enlarge.

A stele in the middle of the group from Central Myanmar of the 4th Century (called a “throne stele” after the more familiar steles dedicated to royal authority from Ancient Egypt) demonstrates an early acceptance of Indian religion and cultural influence. The front of the stele has something like a royal stool flanked by two female attendants. Although crudely rendered it is reminiscent of  later large Buddhist steles attesting to royal power. The reverse side of the stele, however, shows how the Indic religions (particularly Hinduism) appealed to local elites. It shows three local elites, the central figure carrying a club with the two attendants bearing standards (dhuaja). All three have elaborate turbans and wear short waist cloths with crossing straps across the chest. All three have large earrings on their elongated ears. This display is known from early Hindu literature as the method that Kings were paraded flanked by royal standard-bearers. This low relief carving lacks the sophistication and technical perfection of later Indian-trained workshops, but it shows how early Indian cultural dominance had penetrated Southeast Asia.

Buddha in Meditation. (Ssndstone. Central Myhanmar. 6th Century. Thiri Khittaya ((Śrī Ksetra) Archaeological Museum, Hmawza, Myanmar.)

Buddha in Meditation. (Central Myanmar. 6th Century. Sandstone. Thiri Khittaya (Śrī Ksetra) Archaeological Museum, Hmawza, Myanmar.) Click to enlarge.

The second group shows the advent of Buddhism. Indian Buddhist iconography consists of a relatively few number of poses by the Buddha. Yet this limitation did not inhibit individual expressions of the spiritual journey of the Buddha, not only by representation of his factual features and expressions, but also his poses and even how his diaphanous robe drapes his body. This figure is one of four life-size seated Buddhas, either meditating or offering protection, arranged by the Met around a central supporting cross mount. The figures are early monumental Buddhist art from the eastern part of the region (Myanmar, Cambodia and Thailand) and each show distinct local artistic characteristics. The Cambodian form shows a serene meditating head atop a slightly rounded body, without the details that draw the viewer’s eyes to the face. The Thailand figure has a much more muscular body with more detail and the head supports the characteristic spiral hair patterns of Thai renderings of the Buddha. (See the Head of Buddha at the top of this post for another example.) Many renderings of the Buddha were carried by monk-missionaries. Some were mass produced molded clay tablets found throughout Southeast Asia. This votive items were produced by hand from a metal or fired-clay stamp. Some of these tablets bear the purchaser’s name on the back and must have been purchased as a means of obtaining merit. In the exhibit two such tablets show the crucial moment in the Buddha’s quest, the seated Buddha Calling the Earth to Witness. (This was the moment that the Buddha banished the torturing doubt that he would never achieve enlightenment by grounding himself by touching the earth with his right hand.) Although the renderings are crude they must have had significant spiritual value to the devotees since they are found in large numbers in ancient stupa mounds were they were evidently offered as a method of homage.

Standing Buddha. (Southern Cambodia. mid-7th Century. Sandstone. Metropolitan Museum of Art.)

Standing Buddha. (Southern Cambodia. mid-7th Century. Sandstone. Metropolitan Museum of Art.) Click to enlarge.

It was not just inexpensive icons for the masses that Indian Buddhist artists sent to Southeast Asia; some of the most innovative sculpture from the best studios in Northern India found their way to the region. A striking example is the standing Buddha from the Met’s own collection. (Because the piece is missing its arms one cannot tell if this is the Buddha Granting Boon or the Buddha Preaching pose.) This three and a quarter foot piece, according to the exhibition’s commentary, reveals a new approach to portraying the Buddha, appearing for the first time in Southeast Asia in the 7th century. The style was invented by the monastic school of Sarnath in Uttar Pradesh. “The sculpture workshops there were heir to one of the oldest continuous traditions of image making in norther India, at Mathua.” The piece is highly stylized, the geometric modeling of the body, framed by a near rectangular robe beneath a serene face, all gently rounded, gives an unmistakable sense of tranquility and the “centeredness” of the teaching. It is an artistic world that would not be seen attempted in the West for a long time (if ever), where first the crucifixion and then the Madonna and child would hold sway for many centuries (leaving out any guide to earthly existence).

Buddha Calling the Earth to Witness (Central Myanmar. ca. 8th Century. Bronze with gold gilding. Private collection, Europe.) Click to enlarge.

Buddha Calling the Earth to Witness (Central Myanmar. ca. 8th Century. Bronze with gold gilding. Private collection, Europe.) Click to enlarge.

Despite the teaching of denial and withdrawal, Buddhism was sponsored by the wealthy and powerful, who appropriated the image to celebrate themselves. (This, of course, is in the nature of all intersections of metaphysics and worldly power. It is why those who seek to radically change worldly power tend to reject the worldly orthodoxies of the powers that be, whether it is Lutheranism in 16th century Germany or Jacobinism in 18th century France or any number of other examples (such as the trial of Socrates). Conversely, we see the reactionaries of our own time support the farcical pieties of Hobby Lobby.) We sometimes miss that point when we contemplate world-historical art. Or even when we navigate the construction of the David H. Koch Plaza in front of the Metropolitan Museum. It’s easier to see it when viewing a gilded  Buddha, such as the 8th century Buddha Calling Earth to Witness from central Myanmar. This figure, we are told, because of the layered rather than crossed legs, comes from the artistic tradition of Southern India. The Pyu culture of Myanmar early showed a dedication to Buddhism and supported large monastic communities (saṅgha), which created a demand for such images. Gilded figures are not as valuable as those created from sheet gold (usually by royal commission), but the latter are also more subject to looting, so that the relative number that remain are not an indication of the extent of patronage then. But it is clear, even with “only” gilding, the Pyu was a culture, the economics of which, was structured to support Buddhism. Later, Thai gold figures of the Buddha, however, stressed more the wealth of the patron than the devotion of the supplicant.

Śivalinga (5th-6th century,  An Giang province, Vietnam. sandstone. National Museum of Vietnamese History, Ho Chi Minh City.) Click to enlarge

Śivalinga (5th-6th century, An Giang province, Vietnam. Sandstone. National Museum of Vietnamese History, Ho Chi Minh City.) Click to enlarge

With the next group, the World of the Brahmin, is perhaps the most imaginative and artistically diverse set of the exhibition. Of course the ministry of the Brahmin is the ritualistic world expressly dedicated to the elite powers. And so it is not surprising that the very best artists were commissioned for the most diverse set of images. The display is too extensive for a detailed analysis here. Needless to say the three major gods of the Hindu pantheon are amply displayed in all their avatars or associated symbols. From the undeniably primal phallic association of the linga of Shiva in early art to the sophisticated renderings of the Gaṇeśa, as elephant, the world of the Brahmin is multifaceted and urbane as well as mythic. As you would expect of a cult that ministered to the elite, the images created for the Brahmins were both highly imaginative, sensual and of the highest technical competence. The stuff of belief became the raw material for aesthetics. Things that one time had visceral meaning have been translated into a pattern that embodies cultural thought. We can no more understand the significance of Skanda, the god of war, sitting on a peacock than a first century Hindu could understand a painting of Narcissus staring into a lake. But there is no denying that the best art offers a form of insight that is not possible from mere retelling. Perhaps this is why so many Buddhas lost their heads: High art can depict the sublime in ways that mere ideologues find disturbing. Hence the Taliban’s actions at Bamiyan or the 16th century Beeldenstorm.

Kṛṣṇa Govardhana. (Southern Cambodia, 7th century. Sandstone. Cleveland Museum of Art.) Click to enlarge.

Kṛṣṇa Govardhana. (Southern Cambodia, 7th century. Sandstone. Cleveland Museum of Art.) Click to enlarge.

On the more mundane level of stylistic comparisons the story of Lord Krishna’s miracle at Mount Govardhana is shown in two separate sculptures, both from pre-Angkor Cambodia. The first one photographed here is one that has the characteristics of Archaic Greek sculpture:  a stocky body in a muscular pose. The story is that Lord Krishna defeated the rage of Indra by lifting the mountain. Implicit in the story is the instruction that we all have our places. Krishna learned that the peasants made offerings to the demigod of rain and thunder Indra. Krishna came to believe that the dharma of the peasants was to tend to farming and not concern themselves with propitiating the god that most benefited them. When the sacrifices were withheld Indra sent a flood to the village. But Krishna protected the village from the torrential rain by lifting Mount Govardhana to act as a shield. The depiction of Krishna as a youthful protector, joyous in his task, is common to both. The comments to the exhibition say that the Cleveland Museum figure is “perhaps the greatest pre-Angkorian figure outside of Cambodia.” And it is hard to argue with that assessment. Like the Archaic Greek figures, this Krishna is joyous in his physicality and effortless in the miracle. It makes the viewer want to believe the story, no matter how implausible it is. It is difficult, however, to think that this version is not more “primitive”than the second one, although as far as we know, the second one was contemporary with or even a predecessor of what I call the first.

Kṛṣṇa Govardhana (Southern Cambodia, early 7th Century. Sandstone. National Museum of Cambodia, Phnom Penh.) Click to enlarge.

The “second” one is much more “realistic” in the sense that it more resembles my own view of what an athlete looks like. The proportions of the body suggest a sprightliness and the facial expression show his delight in saving the peasants (a sort of noblesse oblige, I suppose, from the elites’ point of view). The show’s commentary says that the myth explains Krishna’s elevation from a pastoral deity to a major avatar of Vishnu. This depiction of this particular myth, however, is rare in India and therefore must reflect a local school of sculptors in Cambodia which had surpassed the Indian artists is this particular type of artistic accomplishment. The figure has less “solidity” but more apparent motion than the “first” figure. It is the motion that gives it the dramatic appeal. The variety of representations of this groups is so wide that it is impossible to do justice to the collection in a post that would be read. In many ways, the exhibition is beyond a single review because it deserves analysis not only as a show of religious art or the art of a region, but also as a major reference work for historical understanding. I will, however, include one more image, solely because it appeals to me, both as an example of the style and imagination of the region’s artists and as a work that speaks to the modern mind. The work depicts the final avatar of Vishnu.

Kalkin. (Southern Cambodia, first half of 7th Century. Sandstone.  National Museum of Cambodia, Phnom Penh.)

Kalkin. (Southern Cambodia, first half of 7th Century. Sandstone. National Museum of Cambodia, Phnom Penh.) Click to enlarge.

Kalkin represents the future form of Vishnu, which is as a white horse. As befits a messianic figure, this Kalkin is imposing at four and a half feet tall. The body is both powerful and idealized. Though it has no human neck, the head appears naturally on the form. It is striking how much care was devoted to the eyes, nostril and nipples, and possibly the ears, although they are broken off. The robe that covers the figure’s thigh’s is especially prominent, both as a structural support (the central strap) and as a humanizing feature (the gathered pleats to the left). There are several other noteworthy monumental sculptures in this section of the exhibition. I particularly liked the lintel depicting Vioshnu Anantashayin and the Birth of Brahma (from mid-7th Century Cambodia),  both for its intricate patterning and graceful figures. For comparison a tympanum is also shown with the same scene (from mid-7th century Central Vietnam) although “cleaner” (with no patterning) and with a more naturalistic view of the supernatural. (Vishnu, for example, has only two arms.) Both show Vishnu asleep on the cosmic ocean, the Cambodian form highly idealized, the Vietnamese relief showing the waves as individual sea serpents.

Head of Meditating Buddha (Central Thailand, 9th Century. Terra cotta. National Museum, Bankock.) Click to enlarge.

Head of Meditating Buddha (Central Thailand, 9th Century. Terra cotta. National Museum, Bankock.) Click to enlarge.

The show concludes with a vast room of “state art” from Thailand, where, evidently, as larger kingdom was able to develop an identifiable national style for monumental work. A work not to be missed is a terra-cotta head of Buddha which, although only six inches high, is so evocative of contemplation that you feel a deep connection with the subject. Another room shows various “savior” cults including an appealing life-sized guardian lion. The final room is one showing the new internationalism at the end of the period. It is impossible to convey the extensive scope of an exhibit that presents about 170 individual masterpieces from 29 collections representing the art of a three century period over an extensive land mass. The force of the show would be like seeing 170 new masterpieces of the European Renaissance. It is not something that can be digested in one short viewing, so be prepared to spend significant time there. (This recommendation is probably daunting to my fellow seniors when they discover that there is but one bench in the entire gallery. Be forewarned, come rested and with comfortable shoes.) For those unable to make this show, there is an especially scholarly catalogue edited by curator John Gay and illustrated by the warm photographs of Thierry Ollivier (on location in Southeast Asia) and the museum’s in-house photographer Oi-Cheong Lee, which convey some of the sense of respectful adoration by which the installation presents the pieces. This massive book (336 pages) contains not simply a description of the pieces but also penetrating essays on the current understanding of the “lost” kingdoms based on inscriptions, records of Chinese bureaucrats and archaeological finds.   ”

RIP Charlie Haden

Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child: with Hank Jones on piano. What more is there to say?

From radical to commercial in one generation

I was surprised to find that the opening bars of the version of “Star Spangled Banner” performed by Jimi Hendrix at Woodstock is used by Major League Baseball as its unofficial theme. I doubt that the favorite sport of George Will and Henry Kissinger was making some radical critique that reactionary forces have distorted our country’s ideals in this time of national polarization just as they did in 1969, the last time we were so riven. It probably is simply just another example of something I observed: that in our hyper-commercialized form of popular culture, where “art” is simply “content” which has been successfully marketed by profit-driven actors rather than cultural critics, it takes only about 50 years for advertisers and corporate image polishers to take even the most radical forms of expression and turn them into commercials. At one time abstract expressionism was thought shocking, but now it decorates the offices of even the most staid Wall Street firms (provided of course that the colors match the surroundings). I noticed that around the mid-1990s Saks of Fifth Avenue (the one in Manhattan) started playing Charlie Parker (just barely heard of course) in the background. (I wonder if the stores around the country did so at the same time or have caught up.) Munch’s Scream and Van Gogh’s Sunflowers of course have been decorative items for a long time.

Maybe the time period has something to do with the length of copyrights. Or maybe pop culture simply takes 50 or so years to assimilate innovations. It took Hollywood until about the late 1950s before it began using riffs from atonal compositions made in Vienna at the beginning of the twentieth century, even though composers like Korngold, who witnessed and participated in it in Vienna, composed film music.

I suspect that time frame will speed up in the near future because fewer and fewer oases of non-commercial art exist, because popular art is largely conceived from the beginning as a commercial endeavor (with product placement, embedded advertisements, considerations of licensing possibilities), and because a generation has grown up immured against the idea that art is something outside of mass, commercial entertainment.

This may not be an entirely new development. Hemingway, for example, designed For Whom the Bell Tolls for a movie with Clark Gable in mind. Maybe it was inevitable with the twentieth century’s mass distribution inventions: movies, recordings, broadcasting. Maybe it would never have occurred to anyone to make “absolute music” independent of considerations of what records would “sell,” and more importantly, how much profits could be generated. Maybe Bach today would be writing television theme music, Virgil writing ad copy and Bernini trying to make cars look sleeker.

Even so there still seems to me to be a disconnect between the beer swilling fans in Boston screaming “Yankees suck!” and the “turn on, tune in, drop out” crowds at Woodstock. Maybe the forces of conformity have simply changed society. God knows there has been no real anti-war movement, despite over a decade of conflicts around the world. So maybe the forces that allow Hendrix to be play while watching the interminably slow pace of baseball has simply homogenized us all. It doesn’t matter what is sold, we will buy it as long as it is packaged in the way we have come to expect.

Mesozoic Matters: Inferring Behavior from the Fossil Record

Here is a heads up for those with a moderate interest in the history of life in the deep past.

The (London) Journal of Zoology for the next several weeks is making available the contents of a special issue on paleoethology for free (rather than the extortionate price that most science journal charge per article). The articles are written by some of the best paleontology writers active today, including Darren Naish (who reviews the evidence for ancient bird behavior), A.A. Farke (on the evidence for fighting and defense among ornithischians—the herbivorous non-avian dinosaurs), Richard Fortey, the best writer (ever) on trilobites, and Dave Horne, who has blogged for many years from his study of Chinese dinosaurs. There is even an article on tyrannosaurids, so have at it.

Even if you don’t see the benefit of learning about long dead organisms, you might be interested in the thought experiments necessary to infer behavior from fossils.

You can find the site: here.

I think the reason Wiley is making this available is that many of the authors are strong proponents of open access for science papers. This position, it seems to me, is unassailable when public money is used to fund the research. The only counterargument is the currently reactionary vogue that all things ought to be determined by profit maximizers. If I could find a scientific paper on how that idea became the new vogue I would actually pay the exorbitant rate that journals charge to read the article (during a 24 hour period).

What’s 10,000 more or less among job creators?

Ever since about 1750 the English world first (beginning in northern England) and soon the rest of the world actively supported the creation of social systems which depended on the accumulation and servicing of capital. This system in turn brought about the organization of economic life into highly specialized tasks, preferably simple and repetitive enough so that wage laborers could become nothing but interchangeable inputs into the system. The first step (dehumanizing labor which through its essential specialization greatly increased the available supply of potential laborers and thus reduced their cost, i.e., the wages) was outlined in Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations, the first edition of which appeared in the same year to which we Americans trace our “freedom,” 1776.

The first step was so successful that it allowed the grafting on of increasingly more sophisticated mechanisms. Particularly innovative were the means by which capital may be accumulated. Of course the accumulation of capital is an activity entirely separate, and in most ways exactly opposite, to laboring for wages. The system, for one thing, depends on the accumulation of capital by the depression of wages. (In fact the depression of wages is one way that capital is accumulated.)

With larger and larger accumulations of capital it was possible to engage more and more defenders of the entire system, whether they be lawyers, legislators, army commanders, religious leaders, union busters, Pinkerton detectives, and so forth. By the 19th century governments, fueled by some of the excess capital accumulated by the accumulators, Europe had begun not only to promote this system, but to actively wipe out any system that did not conform to it. And so every other form of economic organization from the Potlatch in the Pacific Northwest, to hunters and gatherers in the Sahel, to barter systems in southern Asia, to state regulated industries and trade in China and Japan were opposed, forcible if necessary, and their practitioners either assimilated or pushed onto reservations or tracts of undesirable land. By the 1970s even a democratically elected moderate social welfare program in Chile had to be taken down by U.S. supported assassination and sanctioned torture so that the “miracle” of modern capitalism could be foisted on that land. Of course the entire twentieth century was an epic struggle by Western capitalism against two giant modern systems, similarly industrialized and similarly rigged against certain kinds of laborers—fascism and communism.  That capitalism “prevailed” does not mean that it did not pick up some of the techniques of the other systems for disciplining wayward citizens.

Modern high finance capitalism, which admits of no regulation of the accumulation of capital, is not only the dominant social organization of our time, it has become our civic faith. The perfection of its techniques has made it so pervasive that we can conceive of no other way of life. It has enshrined itself to such an extent that volunteerism, social responsibility, good citizenship, sharing society’s burdens are quaint relics of times gone by, as regularly practiced today as is other relics, like the feudal method of land transfer, feoffment with livery of seisin. And our leaders constantly extol the important of the collectors of capital and their beneficence to the rest of us. They are hailed as the creators of “jobs,” so that we may know on whom our precarious existence depends. The financial system is treated much like the Aztec priests treated the sun—something that must be propitiated in order that it may continue to provide its essential services to us. The Aztec priests sacrificed people to the sun god. We do similar things for the financial system god.

The incessant deification of capital has cost plenty over the past couple decades. Tax rates have been slashed on capital at the expense of labor. Capital has pitted state against state to reduce its share of the states’ operational cost. Jobs have been exported. Politicians have been supported who cut spending on education, health care, the environment, arts and other quality-of-life programs. Policies have been pursued that raise unemployment rate (in the guise of controlling inflation and protecting the dollar) so that capital can have an oversupply of the labor input.

Where does the benefit of all this go? You don’t need the statistics of Piketty to know the answer to that. You need only look around. You can see the wealth of this country, indeed the world, being sucked up to the pockets of the elite, closest servants of capital. Of course they have to spread it around to capital’s gate-keepers: politicians, lobbyists, lawyers, advertisers, “pundits,” devoted think tanks and special universities. But all of this is chump change. This spreading of small sums to the hanges-on is done so that the ability to accumulate capital is unimpeded by anything, no matter how common sense.

Of course the fact that modern high finance capitalism “prevailed” to such an extent is not a testament to its perfection. Giant sauropods and their slightly smaller predators once “prevailed” and for a longer time than capitalism is likely to. But even they succumbed to their overspecialization or some event they were not designed to endure. Likewise capitalism in its modern guise from time to time lurches from disaster to disaster some worse than others. And who pays? Well, one thing that the system has perfected is the absolute immunity of those high priests of this religion, the ones who decide what sacrifices others have to make. This is so even when their own actions amounted to systematic fraud and willful disregard to the dangers their reckless profit-maximizing presented. Take one example: American International Group, Inc. (AIG) underwrote policies against the risk of default in certain mortgage pools. The amount it underwrote was many more times than the assets of the corporation. And yet when the defaults occurred rendering the company insolvent, the U.S. government stepped in, permitted the company to continue to employ the very people in the financial product division which caused the insolvency, but also permitted the malefactors to receive massive bonuses on the theory that overcompensating them was necessary because only they could understand the mess they had created. Take another example: Goldman Sachs Group, Inc. promoted to its customers positions in residential mortgage securities, while at the same time for its own account it took the opposite position. This sort of double-dealing is ordinarily considered to be securities fraud. Did anyone go to prison? Of course not. Too big to jail. There is even one party in this country that opposes restoring the financial regulations removed by the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations because they believe the “market” imposes sufficient discipline. In light of the events of 2008, this position is as insane as advocating permitting felons and the mentally ill to purchase military hardware at gun shows or on the internet without any background checks or paperwork of any kind. (Wait that’s a bad analogy. The same party supports both things.)

So how does this market discipline work? The BBC today reports on a study which concluded that the Great Recession engineered by the High Priests of High Finance beginning in 2008 resulted in approximately 10,000 suicides. The combination of unemployment, repossessions and debt was the catalyst for a 6.5% increase in the suicide rate in 2009 over that in 2007. The increase lasted through 2011. Somehow the discipline of the financial market seems to have fallen on those who neither committed the crimes nor had any ability to repair the damage. So how does the market punish the people who were actually responsible to ensure that the dreaded condition of “moral hazard” not descend on Wall Street and tempt the High Priests to again take unconscionable risks?

Well, it’s simple. With 10,000 people out of the labor market. The cost of these inputs will slight increase. That should show our economic oligarchs to be more careful the next time.

Clinton’s unbreakable bonds of faith

The Nation today posted a video and transcript of a portion of an interview Hillary Clinton gave at the Toronto Board of Trade. In it she gave a rambling and confused answer of why she did not renounce her vote to authorize the invasion of Iraq during the George W. Bush administration. The crux of her explanation was that she “couldn’t break faith with” what she called “the young men and women over there.”

I suspect when she’s asked why she hasn’t renounced the financial deregulation which took place during her husband’s administration, particularly giving the green light for repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act, she will offer the equally convincing response that she “couldn’t break faith with the old men on Wall Street.”

Ford Madox Ford and High Germany

Ford Madox Ford in King's uniform, 1915. (E.O. Hoppé Estate Collection.)

The good soldier: Ford Madox Ford in King’s uniform, 1915. (E.O. Hoppé Estate Collection.)

Ford Madox Ford was something of a Germanophile. That was before the Great War.

The sudden and brutal German invasion of Belgium changed all that. Showing a surprising decisiveness and patriotic fervor (at least to those of us who know him only from the voice of the narrators of his poems, novels and recollections), Ford joined the War Propaganda Bureau. The prose he wrote there had nothing in common with the urbane and polished writing of his fiction. Here’s a particularly lurid passage from When Blood is their Argument (London: Hazell, Watson & Viney: [1914]):

“That a rat has as great a moral right to exist as I myself I am ready to concede. But if I can kill it I will kill it, and its death seems to me to end its rights to existence. And in writing the present book I am attempting to cast such a stone at the rat of Prussianism, as posterity will not willingly … well, the reader may complete the simile.”

This kind of overwrought blood-thirstiness is, of course, old hat now; any two-bit Republican state senator can rattle off this degree of vileness against mere unionists or college professors in our enlightened time. But 100 years ago, the European mind underwent a sea change (as Shakespeare called it), before which an English gentleman in Ford’s station would never think of using such abusive language about another person. But they then became, like us, members of a club able to determine not only who are subhuman (that was the case even before the crisis of the Great War), but who are vermin. This great sea change is the innovation of the twentieth century that allowed it to mobilize countless numbers to man soulless armies to annihilate each other.

Ford was not simply a rable-rouser, however. He was a true believer, and propaganda was not enough of a contribution. He enlisted (at 41) for active combat and served in France. Indeed, it was his embrace of the war against Germany that caused him to become Ford Madox Ford. In 1919 he assumed for his surname the first name of his maternal grandfather, Ford Madox Brown, a Pre-Raphaelite painter. Before the war, he was going by Ford Madox Hueffer, although he was born Ford Hermann Heuffer. Ford’s father, Francis Hueffer (Franz Hüffer at birth), was a German-born music critic for the London Times. Elder Hueffer had translated into English the correspondence of Wagner and Liszt and even wrote an English libretto for the Wagner-influenced Scottish composer, Alexander Mackenzie, himself something of a Germanophile, having studied music in Germany. Ford changed his surname, not out of disrespect for his father (although the relationship had been fraught with tension), but rather from the notion that Hueffer sounded “too German” at a time when the British had done enough thinking about the Germans.

King Rene's Honeymoon by Ford Madox Brown (water color on paper, 1864, Tate Gallery). René, the Count of Provence, was portrayed in Walter Scott's 1829 novel Anne of Geierstein as devoted to the arts and so Brown paints him as so absorbed in his architectural plans that he ignores his new wife's affections.

If the Renaissance came from Greece, English Modernism came, at least part of it, from Provence. King Rene’s Honeymoon by Ford Madox Brown (water color on paper, 1864, Tate Gallery). René, the Count of Provence, was portrayed in Walter Scott’s 1829 novel Anne of Geierstein as devoted to the arts. Brown invents the scene where the King is so absorbed in his architectural plans that he ignores his new wife’s affections.

But our story here takes place before the war. And Ford, of course, is best known for his affinity then, not with the Germans, but for Provence and its Troubadours. For one thing, that’s what brought him and Ezra Pound together and cemented their lifelong friendship. Ford’s connection with Provence, however, was early and deep. Pound’s was somewhat happenstance. In the end, Ford would spend his last years in that historical province. Three years before his death Ford wrote something of a meditation on it: Provence: From Mistrels to the Machine (London: J.B. Lippincott Co: 1935), in which he called Provence “not a country nor the home of a race, a frame of mind.” And so it was from his earliest childhood memories. It was behind his grandfather’s painting of the Count of Provence (King Rene’s Honeymoon) that, as a child, he hid to avoid Christina Rossetti’s ominous, grasping lunge toward him—groping in the manner that many women without experience with children display their false delight at meeting a new child. Or so he recalled in Provence.

Rossetti wrote: "in that land and that period which gave simultaneous birth to Catholics, to Albigenses, and to Troubadours,d one can imagine many a lady as sharing her lover’s poetic aptitude, while the barrier between them might be one held sacred by both, yet not such as to render mutual love incompatible with mutual honor." Christina Rossetti by Dante Gabriel Rossetti. (Colored chalks on brown paper. ca 1866. Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge.)

Rossetti wrote: “in that land and that period which gave simultaneous birth to Catholics, to Albigenses, and to Troubadours, one can imagine many a lady as sharing her lover’s poetic aptitude, while the barrier between them might be one held sacred by both, yet not such as to render mutual love incompatible with mutual honor.” Christina Rossetti by Dante Gabriel Rossetti. (Colored chalks on brown paper. ca 1866. Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge.)

Perhaps the story was the kind of self-mythologizing Ford became known for, or maybe it’s true. (Pound said that Ford only lied when he was tired. The evidence suggests otherwise, however.) But there’s no doubt that Ford was surrounded by Pre-Raffaelites who were obsessed with the Medieval and that Rossetti herself paid homage to the Troubadours, not only indirectly through her veneration of Dante (who admired and was influenced by them) but also in her own poetry, often in subtle ways, as in for example the sonnet sequence, Monna Innominata.* Ford’s saturation in things Provençal was not purely with the stuff of later artistic reinventions; it also involved the stuff of academic study. Ford’s father wrote numerous articles about Provençal history and culture as well as a long treatise on the Troubadours (The Troubadours: A History of Provençal Life and Literature in the Middle Ages (London: Chatto & Windus: 1878)). Francis Hueffer was arguably the greatest authority on Medieval Provencal in his day in England. And, not incidentally, the opera of MacKenzie for which he wrote the libretto was called The Troubadours. Ford said that his father was too much the English gentleman to make his children read his authoritative work on the subject. But somehow the young Ford learned that Guillem de Cabestanh was his father’s favorite poet. And his imagination must have been filled with things Troubadour somehow. As a child, when he disappeared into the overgrown garden to hide, he would fantasize about troubadours and their ladies and a daydream where Bérangère des Baux offers a chalice to Guillem, and then the (adult) Ford quickly assures us that it “was of course wrong historically for the lady to offer the chalice to the troubadour because it was really she who drank the poet’s blood from the chalice.”

Ford would frequently visit Provence later in life, taking the train from Paris often with Stella Bowen. Bowen was the partner he took up with when he was 42; she was 22 (his first daughter was 19 at the time). Provence later would become a physical place, a historical time and a symbol, all at once, in his fiction. In The Good Soldier the narrator John Dowell says he will write tale imagining himself at a fireside in a country inn with a sympathetic friend:

And I shall go on talking, in a low voice while the sea sounds in the distance and overhead the great black flood of wind polishes the bright stars. From time to time we shall get up and go to the door and look out at the great moon and say: “Why, it is nearly as bright as in Provence!” And then we shall come back to the fireside, with just the touch of a sigh because we are not in that Provence where even the saddest stories are gay.

Three artists and a lawyer: from left to right: James Joyce, Ezra Pound, Ford Madax Ford and John Quinn. (Photographer and date unknown. Harry Ransom Center, University of Texas.)

Three artists and a lawyer (from left to right): James Joyce, Ezra Pound, Ford Madox Ford and John Quinn. (Photographer and date unknown. Harry Ransom Center, University of Texas.)

Ezra Pound himself came upon Provençal almost by accident. Pound had been admitted, at age 15, to the University of Pennsylvania in 1901. The next year his parents had him withdraw from school (evidently for poor marks) and took him on a three month tour of Europe. When he returned to the United States, he entered Hamilton College in the middle of New York State. It so happened that the college had the foremost American authority on the Provençal language, William Pierce Shephard. Shephard’s teaching was agreeable to Pound (who generally had difficulty with any teacher who strayed outside Pound’s narrow focus on learning as much poetry as possible in the manner that Pound believed poetry should be learned) and Pound not only learned the langue d’oc, but also an aspect of Dante that planted in him the general concept that would become his life’s work, The Cantos.

Ford was the first editor to publish (and pay for) a poem of Pound in a journal: it was Pound's experiment in the sestina. Pound would say that those who said that troubadour verse could not be written in modern English were wrong. The question whether they should be, was entirely different.

From The English Review, II:7 (June 1909). Ford was the first editor to publish (and pay for) a poem of Pound in a journal: it was Pound’s experiment in the sestina. Pound would say that those who said that troubadour verse could not be written in modern English were wrong. The question whether they should be, was entirely different.

When Pound arrived in London in 1908 (his graduate school fellowship at University of Pennsylvania was cancelled as a result of Pound’s aggressive displays of disrespect for a professor), he already had a (self-) published collection of verse, but almost no money. Ezra Pound was always able to hustle (other writers saw that at his principal virtue). By March 1909, he had met Ford, who was the editor of the English Review. Ford recalled that he bought his poem “Ballad of the Goodly Fere” and specifically that he overpaid for a ballad of that sort, because he “guessed that he was rather hard up.” In fact, however, Ford bought and published in the March issue Pound’s Troubadour poem, “Sestina: Altaforte.” It was not until October that Ford would publish Pound’s odd Good Friday ballad by Simon Zealotes (and even then it was paired with a poem, “Un Retrato,” speaking of the echoes “Of Provence and far halls of memory . . . “). That summer Pound had been hired by the Regent Street Polytechnic to lecture on pre-Renaissance (and post-Roman) European literature. Pound’s research at the British Museum was prodigious, and his published result (The Spirit of Romance (London: J.M. Dent & Sons: 1910)), impressed Ford, despite however much Pound and Ford differed in temperament, outlook and aesthetics. Ford recalled in Provence that Pound “is the greatest living authority – or at any rate the best living writer – on the Troubadours.” Ford became Pound’s most dependable friend for the rest of his life.

Ford Madox Ford (ca. 1912; photographer unknown).

Ford Madox Ford (ca. 1912; photographer unknown).

Pound was becoming part of the Imagist movement at the time. He would in time become the face of the movement and then lose interest in writing in that style, moving on to another avant grade movement. Ford, as far as writing poetry was concerned, called his own approach Impressionism. Despite the fact that Pound was usually quite dogmatic, even pedantically authoritarian, about the proper way to understand and write poetry, he appreciated Ford’s poetry (more so than English imagists) because Pound and Ford had broadly similar views on where English verse should be heading. Both rejected the notion that there was a poetic vocabulary. Both believed that Edwardian poetry had become ossified in by stilted elocution and subject matter. Both thought that the best new verse was written in languages other than English. Ford went so far as to say he no longer read English poetry. Both believed that English verse should include the vernacular, although Pound often sought out the vernacular of the Middle Ages. But while Pound was going about declaiming his tribute to Troubadour Arnaut Daniel (Dante’s miglior fabbro), “Sestina: Altaforte,” Ford was admiring a different poetic tradition, the German Romantic poets:

I would very willingly cut off my right hand to have written the Wallfahrt nach Kevelaier of Heine or Im Moss by Annette von Dreste. I would give almost anything to have written almost any modern German lyric, or some of the ballads of my friend Levin Schücking,” he wrote in the August 1913 issue of Poetry.


Annette von Droste-Hülshoff by Jenny von Laßberg. (Pencil on paper. 1846. Droste-Hulshoff House Museum (Park).)

Annette von Droste-Hülshoff by Jenny von Laßberg. (Pencil on paper. 1846. Droste-Hulshoff House Museum (Park).)

An odd confession, and perhaps intended to be slightly provocative. After all, both poems are quite formally structured with fairly strict metrical design and structured end rhymes. They produce a “sing-song” effect that free verse practitioners were attempting to liberate themselves from. But to Ford the German Romantic poets represented two things. One was the seeming ease with which German poets could dash off a lyric:

“Those fellows, you know … they sit at their high windows in German lodgings; they lean out; it is raining steadily. Opposite them is a shop where herring salad, onions, and oranges are sold. A woman with a red petticoat and a black and grey check shawl goes into the shop and buys three onions, four oranges and half a kilo of herring salad . . And there is a poem! Hang it all—there is a poem!”

Of course, Heine was in Paris when he wrote the lyrics Ford quotes, but Ford was making a point about how German readers differed from English ones. Germans accepted that poetry could treat a wider range of subjects than English readers did. But it was more than subject matter; it was also how German poets could use the vernacular rather than a special poetic “jargon,” as Ford called it. And Ford claimed that a restriction on vocabulary acted as a restriction on subjects, which acted as a restriction on the way a poet could think, and this was Ford’s second and  important point. As Ford put it, “procession” was not a word admitted in the literary language of English, and therefore poets cannot examine human experiences relating to a public social activity considered important by the poet’s contemporaries. (It would also have made writing the Heine poem impossible). This was why English poetry had become confined to a small range of images and emotions.

“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 forever 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.”

Modernity is principally urban; its concern is not the contemplation of nature. The modern man is more likely to encounter the crowd, the mob, the undefined multitude than a heathland of heather.

“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 sentimentalise over, and it is taken for granted that sentimentalising 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 purposes of poetry, than the portable zinc dustbin left at dawn for the dustman to take.

“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 colors represent all that is left of a little party of the night before, when an alliance between families may prove a disillusionment or a temporary paradise. The empty tin of infant’s food stands for birth; the torn scrap of a doctor’s prescription for death. Yes, even if you wish to sentimentalise, the dustbin, is a much safer card to play than the comfrey plant.”

Yet, Ford admitted that he would not be the one to pioneer this kind of poetry because, as he said, “the writing of verse is not a conscious art” rather “[i]t is the expression of an emotion, and I can so often not put my emotions into any verse.” And that, I suppose, is the reason the first poem in his 1911 book High Germany, his tribute to the German Romantics, is not about a dustbin, but rather about a country lane, the song of birds and love, but none of it the way an Edwardian poet would treat those things. In fact, the poem is modern but also reflects some essential feature of the German Romantics Ford mentioned, which is easier to discuss after reading the poem.

The Starling

from High Germany (London: Duckworth: 1911)

by Ford Madox Ford

IT’S an odd thing how one changes .  .  .
Walking along the upper ranges
Of this land of plains,
In this month of rains,
On a drying road where the poplars march along,
With a rush of wings flew down a company,
A multitude, throng upon throng,
Of starlings,
Successive orchestras of song,
Flung, like the babble of surf,
On to the roadside turf—

And so, for a mile, for a mile and a half—a long way,
Flight follows flight
Thro’ the still grey light
Of the steel-grey day,
Whirling beside the road in clamorous crowds,
Never near, never far, in the shade of the poplars and clouds.

It’s an odd thing how one changes . . .
And what strikes me now as most strange is:
After the starlings had flown
Over the plain and were gone,
There was one of them stayed on alone
In the trees; it chattered on high,
Lifting its bill to the sky,
Distending its throat,
Crooning harsh note after note,
In soliloquy,
Sitting alone.
And after a hush
It gurgled as gurgled a well,
Warbled as warbles a thrush,
Had a try at the sound of a bell
And mimicked a jay. . . .
But I,
Whilst the starling mimicked on high
Pulsing its throat and its wings,
I went on my way
Thinking of things,
Onwards and over the range
And that’s what is strange.

I went down ‘twixt tobacco and grain,
Descending the chequer board plain
Where the apples and maize are;
Under the loopholed gate
In the village wall
Where the goats clatter over the cobbles
And the intricate, straw-littered ways are . . .
The ancient watchman hobbles
Cloaked, with his glasses of horn at the end of his nose,
Wearing velvet short hose
And a three-cornered hat on his pate,
And his pike-staff and all.
And he carries a proclamation,
An invitation,
To great and small,
Man and beast
To a wedding feast,
And he carries a bell and rings . . .
From the steeple looks down a saint,
From a doorway a queenly peasant
Looks out, in her bride-gown of lace
And her sister, a quaint little darling
Who twitters and chirps like a starling.

And this little old place,
It’s so quaint,
It’s so pleasant;
And the watch bell rings, and the church bell rings
And the wedding procession draws nigh,
Bullock carts, fiddlers and goods.
But I
Pass on my way to the woods
Thinking of things.

Years ago I’d have stayed by the starling,
Marking the iridescence of his throat,
Marvelling at the change of his note;
I’d have said to the peasant child: “Darling
Here’s a groschen and give me a kiss” . . . I’d have stayed
To sit with the bridesmaids at table,
And have taken my chance
Of a dance
With the bride in her laces
Or the maids with the blonde, placid faces
And ribbons and crants in the stable . . .

But the church bell still rings
And I’m far away out on the plain,
In the grey weather amongst the tobacco and grain,
And village and gate and wall
Are a long grey line with the church over all
And miles and miles away in the sky
The starlings go wheeling round on high
Over the distant ranges.
The violin strings
Thrill away and the day grows more grey.
And I . . . I stand thinking of things.
Yes, it’s strange how one changes.

On first reading, the poem has all the characteristics of a Victorian-Edwardian poem that the young modernists of the time objected to. Of course starlings are not the usual bird of choice of Romantics, but it is a bird nonetheless. But in this poem, Ford is forsaking all the traditional elements. He explains how he is no longer willing to contemplate the bird, or attending the wedding celebration, and indeed he is walking out of the country lane. He puts it as a matter of his own personal change (and how strange it is), but it is, in fact, a consequence of the poetic principles he had been advocating for others, not just those he published.

Pound approved of Ford’s approach:**

“I would rather talk about poetry with Ford Madox Hueffer than with any man in London. Mr. Hueffer’s beliefs about the art may be bst explained by saying that they are in diametric opposition to those of Mr. Yeats.

“Mr. Yeats has been subjective believes in the glamour and associations which hang near words. ‘Works of art begat works of art.’ He has much in common with the French symbolists. Mr Hueffer believes in an exact rendering of things. He would strip words of all ‘association’ for the sake of getting a precise meaning. He professes to prefer prose to verse. You would find his origins in Gautier or in Flaubert. He is objective. This school tends to lapse into description. The other tends to lapse into sentiment.”

Pound remarked that Ford’s tone was subtle and his manner ostensibly unassuming: “His touch is so light and is attitude so easy that there seems little likelihood of his ever being taken seriously by anyone save a few specialists and a few of his intimates.” Nevertheless, Pound recommended High Germany to the readers of Poetry, and particularly “The Starling” and the next poem, “To all the Dead.” Pound, as always the elitist, added: “I do not expect many people ot understand why I praise them.”

But it takes little analysis (particularly in retrospect from our vantage) to see the qualities of these poems, especially “To All the Dead.” The both map inner journeys in the way that the non-consciously mind operates by half-connections and odd juxtapositions. The “meaning” of the poem is not intentionally obscure, it is necessarily obscure, like all inner maps. But the joining of images produces a “meaning” that the images separately cannot produce.

“To All the Dead” repays close study because it has many of the features that would appear in full-blown modernism. In fact, it is probably in its own way more of a fore-runner of modernism than many of the self-conscious movements that were proclaiming themselves at the time. When it was published, however, “To All the Dead” was considered something of a throw-back to romanticism, a charge that made Ford bristle. Here’s how he explained it in the preface to his Collect Poems in 1916 (see notes):

“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 light of many decent, serious people, friends of mine.”

He proceeded to review the poetic syllabus of the English public school boy. Despite his denial, the reading was extensive, especially by our standards. (Core English standards that required minimal knowledge of even half list would raise squeals of “child abuse!” from all the soccer moms who believe that education should be both easy and superficial.) The point was that by the time he got to Swinburne, Tennyson, Browning and Pope he could not read them. “We physically couldn’t sit down with them in the and for long eought ot master more than a few lines.” The attempt to read these authors, Ford claimed, “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.” But, he admitted: “Influences are queer things, and there is no knowing when or where they may take you.” At this point, I’m not so much interested in whether Browning influenced Ford, as to Ford’s influence on others. And when you finish this poem I will make a rather large claim for the poem’s influence.

To All the Dead

from High Germany

by Ford Madox Ford


A CHINESE Queen on a lacquered throne
With a dragon as big as the side of a house,
All golden, and silent and sitting alone
In an empty house.

With the shadows above and the shadows behind,
And the Queen with a paper white, rice white face,
As still as a partridge, as still as a mouse,
With slanting eyes you would say were blind—
In a dead white face.

And what does she think, and what does she see,
With her face as still as a frozen pool is,
And her air as old as the oldest sea,
Where the oldest ice of the frozen Pole is?

She should have been dead nine thousand year . . .
But there come in three score and sixty coolies
With a veil of lawn as large as a lake,
And the veil blows here and shimmers there
In the unseen winds of the shadowy house.
And dragons flew in the shadowy air,
And there were chrysanthemums everywhere,
And butterflies and a coral snake
All round the margin of the lake.

For the Prince has come to court the Queen
Still sitting on high on her lacquered throne
With the golden dragon: and all the sheen
And shimmer and shine of a thousand wantons
In silken stuffs, with ivory lutes
And slanting eyes and furred blue boots
That moved in the light of a thousand lanthorns . . .

It all dies down, and the Queen sits there,
She should have been dead nine thousand year.


Now it happened that in the course of to-day
(The Queen was last night) in the rue de la Paix
In a room that was old and darkish and musty,
For most of the rooms are quaintly cranky
In the rue de la Paix,
For when it was new the Grande Arme
Tramped all its legions down this way.

But I sat there, and a friendly Yankee
Was lecturing me on the nature of things
(It’s a way Americans have!) He was cranky,
Just as much as his rooms and his chairs and his tables.
But the window stood open and over the way
I saw that the house with the modernest facings
Had an old tiled roof with mansards and gables.
It housed a jeweller, two modistes,
A vendor of fans; and the topmost sign
Announced in a golden double line
A salon of Chinese chiropodists.

And that is Paris from heel to crown
Plate-glass in the street and jewels and lacings
And cranky rooms on the upper floors
With rusty locks and creaking doors

But of what my American friend was saying
I haven’t a thought—there was too much noise
Through the open windows—the motors braying,
The clatter of hoofs in a steady stream,
And a scream
Unceasing from twenty paper boys,
With twenty versions to take your choice,
In styles courageous or gay or rococco,
Of clamorous news about Morocco . . .


And suddenly he said: “Sandusky!”
Now what was he talking of there in his musky,
Worm-eaten rooms of the rue de la Paix?
—Of his youth of jack rabbits and peanuts and snakes
When all was silent about the Lakes.
Now what is the name of them? Lake Ladoga?
No, no, that’s in Russia. It’s Ticonderoga,
Ontario, Champlin, each with their woods,
And never a house for miles and miles
And the boys in their boats floated on by the piles
Of old wigwams where shreds of blankets dangled.
And they caught their jack rabbits, lit bonfires and angled
In shallows for catfish. That’s it, in Sandusky!
The Bay of Sandusky.

And then I remembered with grey, clear precision,
And I saw—yes I saw—looking over the way
Two Chinese chiropodists, villainous fellows,
With faces of sulphur—and lemon—yellows,
Gaze with that gaze that’s half fanatic,
Part atrocious and partly sweet,
Each from a window of his own attic
At a mannequin on my side of the street,
And each grinned and girned in his Manchester blue,
And smirked with his eyes and his pig-tail too.
And somehow they made me feel sick; but I lost them
At the word “Sandusky.” A landscape crossed them;
A scene no more nor less than a vision,
All clear and grey in the rue de la Paix.

It must have been seven years ago,
I was out on a river whose name I’ve forgotten;
The Hudson perhaps or the Kotohotten.
It doesn’t much matter. Do you know the Hudson?
A sort of a Moselle with New York duds on,
There are crags and castles, a distance all grey,
Rocks, forests and elbows. But castles of Jay
And William H. Post and Mrs Poughkeepsie—
Imagine a Moselle that’s thoroughly tipsy,
A nightmare of ninety American castles
With English servants trained up like vassals,
Of Hiram P. Ouese who’s a fortune from pills for the liver.

Anyhow, I’ve forgotten the name of the river.

And the steamer steamed upwards between the hills
And passed through the rapids they called the Narrows
‘Twixt the high grey banks where the firs grow jagged,
And the castles ceased and the forest grew ragged,
And the steamer belched forth sparks and stayed
At a wooden village, then grunted and swayed
Out to midstream and round a reach
Where the river widened and swirled about,
And we slowed in the current where black snags stuck out,
And suddenly we saw a beach—

A grey old beach and some old grey mounds
That seemed to silence the steamer’s sounds;
So still and old and grey and ragged.
For there they lay, the tumuli, barrows,
The Indian graves. . . .


And it wasn’t so much the wampumed Braves,
Eagle feathers, jade axes and totems and arrows
That I thought about, for ten minutes later
I was up and away from the Rue de la Paix
In a train for Treves.
But the word “Sandusky” still hung in my brain
As we went through greeny grey Lorraine
In a jolting train,
And then bargained for rooms with a German waiter.
Or it wasn’t even in great concern
For the fate of “Sandusky Bay.”—My friend
Pictured it thronged with American villas,
Dutch Porticos and Ionic pillars.
So that no boy’s ooat can land on the shores,
For the high-bred owners of dry goods stores
Forbid the practice. The villa lawns,
Pitch-pine canoes with America’s daughters
In a sort of a daily Henley regatta
And the bright parasols of Japanese paper
Keep up a ceaseless, endless chatter,
In the endless, ceaseless girl graduate story
Where once there were silence, jack-rabbits and snakes,
And o’er all the gay clatter there floats old Glory—
The flag of the States, from a calico shop.

But stop!
I am not lamenting about the Lakes.

For, as grey dawns roll on to grey dawns,
Some things must surely come to an end,
Even old silences over old waters
Even here in Treves the Porta Nigra
That isn’t so much a gaunt black ruin,
As a great black whole—a Roman gate-way,
As high as a mountain, as black as a jail—
Even here, even here, America’s daughters,
Long toothed old maids with a camera
(For even they must know decay,
And the passage of time, hasting, hasting away!)
And the charm of the past grows meagre and meagrer.
Though through it all the Porta Nigra
Keeps its black, hard and grim completeness,
As if no fleet minutes with all their fleetness
Could rub down its surface.
But we’ve walled it in in a manner of speaking
With electric trams that go sparking and streaking
And filling the night with squeals and jangles
As iron wheels grind on iron angles. . . .
And nobody cares and nobody grieves
And all the spires and towers of Treves
Shade upwards into the sooty skies,
And you dig up here a sword or a chalice,
Some bones, some teeth and some golden bangles
And several bricks from the Caesar’s Palace.


And so I come back to this funny old town
Where professors argue each other down
And every one is in seven movements
For every kind of Modern Improvements;
And there isn’t a moment of real ease,
But students come from the seven seas
And we boast a professor of Neo-Chinese—
A thing to astonish the upland heather—
And more than the universities
Of all High Germany put together
Can show the like of.
The upland heather
It stretches for miles and miles and miles
Wine-purple and brooding and ancient and blasted,
An endless trackless, heather forest,
And so, between whiles,
When my mind’s all reeling with Modern Movements
And my eyes are weary, my head at its sorest
And the best of beer has lost its zest,
I go up there to get a rest
And think of the dead. . . .

For it’s nothing but dead and dead and dying
Dead faiths, dead loves, lost friends and the flying,
Fleet minutes that change and ruin our shows,
And the dead leaves flitter and autumn goes,
And the dead leaves flitter down thick to the ground,
And pomps go down and queens go down
And time flows on, and flows and flows.

But don’t mistake me, the leaves are wet
And most of their copper splendour is rotten
Like most of the dead—and still and forgotten,
And I don’t feel a spark of regret
Not a spark

I am sitting up here on a sort of a mound
And the dull red sun has just done sinking
And it’s grown by this woodside fully dark
And I’m just thinking
And the valley lands and the forests and tillage
Are wrapped in mist. There’s the lights of a village,
Of one—of three—of four!—
Four I can count from this high old mound . . .
In Tilly’s time you could count eighteen . . .
You know of Tilly? A general
Who ravaged this land. There was Prince Eugene,
And Marshal Saxe and Wallenstein,
And God knows who . . . They are dead men all
With tombs in cathedrals here and there,
Just food for tourists. It’s rather funny,
They ravaged these cornfields and burned the hamlets,
They drove off the cattle and took the honey,
And clocks and coin and chests and camlets:
Reduced the numbers to four from eighteen;
You can see four glimmers of light thro’ the gloom.
But as for Marshal Wallenstein,
No doubt he’s somewhere in some old tomb
With a marble pillow beneath his head.
He was shot. Or he wasn’t. Anyhow he’s dead!
And I’m sitting here on an old, smashed mound.
And the wood-leaves are flittering down to the ground.
And I’m sitting here and just thinking and wondering,
Clear thoughts and pictures, dull thoughts and blundering.
It’s all one. But I wonder . . . I wonder . . .

And under
The earth of the barrow there’s something moving
Or no—not moving. Yes, shoving, shoving,
Through the thick, dark earth—a fox or a mole.
Phui! But it’s dark! I can’t grasp the whole
Of my argument—No. I’m not dropping to sleep!
(I can hear the leaves in the dark, cold wood!
That’s a boar by his rustling!) “From good to good,
And good to better you say we go.”
(There’s an owl overhead.) “You say that’s so?
My American friend of the rue de la Paix?
Grow letter and better from day to day.
Well, well I had a friend that’s not a friend to-day;
Well, well, I had a love who’s resting in the clay
Of a suburban cemetery. “Friend,
My Yankee friend.” (He’s mighty heavy and tusky,
Judged by his rustlings, that old boar in the wood)
From good to good!
Have you found a better bay than old Sandusky?
Or la better friend than the one that’s left me?”
“No Argument?—Well I’m not arguing
I came out here to think“—
Now what’s that thing
That’s coursing o’er dead leaves. It’s not a boar!
Some sort of woman! A Geheimrath’s cook
Come out to meet her lover of the Ninth
An Uhlan Regiment! You know the Uhlans,
Who charged at Mars La Tour; that’s on their colours.

But that little wretch.
Whoever heard such kissing! Sighs now! Groans!
In the copper darkness of these wet, high forests.
Well, well, that’s no affair of mine to-night.
I came out here though, yes, I’d an engagement
With Major Hahn to give him his revenge—
What was it? At roulette? But I’d a headache!
I came out here to think about that Queen!
The Chinese one—the one I saw in Paris.
To-night’s the thirtieth. . . the thirty-first.
Why, yes, it’s All Souls’ Eve. That’s why I’m morbid
With thoughts of All the Dead. . . That Chinese Queen
She never kissed her lover. But a queer,
A queer, queer look came out on her rice white face!
I never knew such longing was in the world,
Though not a feature stirred in her! No kisses!
But there she wavered just behind his back
With her slanting eyes. No moth about a flame,
No seabird in the storm round a lighthouse glare
Was e’er so lured to the ruin and wreck of love.
And he knelt there with such a queer, queer face
A queer, queer smile, and his uplifted hands
He prayed as we pray to a Queen in dragon silk;
His hands rubbed palm on palm. And so she swayed
And swayed just like a purple butterfly
Above the open jaws of a coral snake.

But she
Should have been dead nine thousand years and more,
Says our Chinese professor. For such acting
Was proper to the days and time of TSüang:
It’s hopelessly demoded, dead and gone!
To-day we have—Chinese chiropodists
Who smile like toads at Paris mannequins
In the sacred name of Progress. Well, well, well!
I’m not regretting it—No vain regrets!
What’s that. . . .

Out of the loom of the Philosopher’s wood
Two figures brushing on the frozen grass.
The Uhlan and the cook. So I cried out :
“So late at night and not yet in the barracks!
Aren’t you afraid of ghosts?” . . . “Oh ghosts! oh ghosts,”
I got my answer: “Friend,
In our old home the air’s so thick with ghosts
You couldn’t breathe if they were an objection!”
And so I said: “Well, well!” to make them pass. . . .

Just a glimmer of light there was across the grass
And on my barrow mound. Upon his head
The gleam of a helmet, and some sort of pelt
About his shoulders and the loom of a spear.
You never know these German regiments,
The oddest uniforms they have; and as for her
Her hair was all across her shoulders and her face,
Woodland embraces bring the hairpins out . . .
“My friend,” I said, “you’d better hurry home
Or else you’ll lose your situation!” They
Bickered in laughter and the man just said:
“You’re sitting on it!”
So I moved a little,
Apologetically, just as it
It was his table in a restaurant.
So he said calmly, looking down at me:
“They call these mounds the Hunnen Gräber—Graves
Of Huns—a modern, trifling folk!
We’ve slept in them well on nine thousand years
My wife and I. The dynasty TSüang
Then reigned in China—well, you know their ways
Of courting. But your specialty just now
I understand’s not human life but death.
I died with a wolf at my throat, this woman here
With a sword in her stomach. Yes she fell on it
To keep me company in that tumulus.
Millions and millions of dead there lie round here
In the manoeuvre grounds of the Seventeenth.
Oh, yes, I’m up to date, why not, why not?
When they’ve the Sappers here in garrison
The silly chaps come digging in these mounds
For practice; but they’ve not got down to us.
The Seventeenth just scutter up and down
At scaling practice and that’s rather fun.
There was a sergeant took a chap by the ear
Last year and threw him bodily down the mound;
Then the recruit up with his bayonet
And stuck him through the neck—no end of things
We find for gossip in nine thousand years!
A Mongol people? Yes of course we were
I knew her very well that Queen who loved
With the rice white face—”Ta-why’s” her proper name
And that adultery bred heaps of trouble!
You’ve heard of Troy? “Tra-hai’s” the real name
As Ta-why’s Helen. Well, you know all that?
That trouble sent us here, being burnt out
By the King called Ko-ha! And we wandered on
In just ten years of burning towns. This slave
My wife came from Irkutsk way to the east
Where the tundra is—You know the nightingales
Come there in spring, and so they buried us
Finger to finger as the ritual is.
Not know the ritual? Well, a mighty chief
Is buried in a chamber like a room
Walled round with slabs of stone. But mighty lovers
Lie on their backs at both arms’ length, so far
That just each little finger touches. Well
That’s how they buried us. A hundred years
It took to get accustomed to the change.
We lay just looking up—just as you might
Upwards through quiet water at the stars,
The roots of the grass, and other buryings,
Lying remembering and touching fingers.
Just still and quiet. Then I heard a whisper
Lasting a hundred years or so; “Your lips,”
It said, “Your lips! your lips! your lips!” And then
It might have been five more score years. I felt
Her fingers crawling, crawling, up my wrist.
And always the voice, call, calling; “Give your lips!”

It must have taken me a thousand years
—The Dead are patient—just to know that she
Was calling for my lips. What an embrace!
My God what an embrace was ours through the Earth!
My friend, if you should chance to meet Old Death
That unprogressive tyrant, tell him this,
He execrates my name—but tell him this—
He calls me Radical! Red Socialist,
That sort of thing. But you just tell him this,
The revolutionary leader of his realms
Got his ambition from his dead girl’s lips.
Tell him in future he should spare hot lovers,
Though that’s too late! We’re working through the earth,
By the score, by the million. Half his empire’s lost.
How can he fight us? He has but one dart
For every lover of the sons of Ahva!
You call her Eve. This is a vulgar age”. . .
And so beside the woodland in the sheen
And shimmer of the dewlight, crescent moon
And dew wet leaves I heard the cry “Your lips!
Your lips! Your lips.” It shook me where I sat,
It shook me like a trembling, fearful reed,
The call of the dead. A multitudinous
And shadowy host glimmered and gleamed,
Face to face, eye to eye, heads thrown back, and lips
Drinking, drinking from lips, drinking from bosoms
The coldness of the dew—and all a gleam
Translucent, moonstruck as of moving glasses,
Gleams on dead hair, gleams on the white dead shoulders
Upon the backgrounds of black purple woods. . .

There came great rustlings from the copper leaves
And pushing outwards, shouldering, a boar
With seven wives—a monstrous tusky brute.
I rose and rubbed my eyes and all eight fled
Tore down the mountain through the thick of the leaves
Like a mighty wave of the sea that poured itself
Farther and farther down the listening night.
All round me was the clearing, and white mist
Shrouded the frosty tussocks of old grass.
And in the moonlight a wan fingerpost
(I could not read the lower row of words.)
Proclaimed: “Forbidden!” That’s High Germany.
Take up your glasses. “Prosit!” to the past,
To all the Dead!

If you’ve made it this far, you can see why Ford objected to the comparison to Browning, at least to the Browning he remembered, for it is not difficult to read through the poem without fidgeting and squirming. The “light touch” that Pound noted compels the reader to continue, even when the reader is a bit befuddled about what is going on about him.  Rather than insist on the importance of his verse, Ford uses occasional humor, in the form of disrupting rhymes, odd associations and the lampooning of his associate, to cajole the reader along. (The “Yankee friend” of Ford is obviously Pound himself. And Pound is gracious enough in his mention of the poem in Poetry neither to preen about it or to take offense.) The tone of the narrative and the associations produce an aura of both wonder and nostalgia. It is the reverie on a civilization or its members who are no more. And the remembered members themselves live among the ruins of the dead they themselves remember.

So what influence did this poem project? I will make a grand statement, with just a few remarks, even though an academic could drain the life out of the thesis: T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land” shows the marked influence of this poem.

Before you gasp,  let me say that this thesis is at least as valid as Ford’s friend’s conclusion that this poem was influenced by Browning. That, of course, is a low bar, even though Ford himself at least allowed that he might have been unknowingly influenced. My thesis is somewhat bolder. I believe Eliot knowingly and freely copied structural element, the point of view and many technical innovations of the poem.

Of course Eliot was never shy about admitting his imitation of others. He after all said: “Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal …”†† Much of the mystique Eliot carefully cultivated was that his poetry collected refined and restated much of the high points of Western (and later even Eastern!) culture. But he also said in the same essay “A good poet will usually borrow from authors remote in time, or alien in language, or diverse in interest.” It was not politic to admit to extensive borrowing from a contemporary’s poem, not more than a decade old. But the resemblances are significant.

First, the length of the poems. Modernist poetry was noted for its brevity. The Imagists made a virtue of describing only one scene, elliptically. There was no call for long, narrative poems in modern times. Indeed, there was no mechanism to make a long poem, unless one wanted to sound like Tennyson, which sooner the Modernists would die.

But Ford’s poem had an internal logic to it. It set out images and actions that were related by an interior logic. There was no obvious narration, but things actually happened in the poem, including things to the narrator. Their arrangement had the logic of unconscious, or barely consciously articulated connections. And the pieces were often stitched together by quite obvious rhymes and even couplets.

It is not a narrative poem but the narrator is describing events and he has a point of view. We are not exactly sure how all the details hang together, but we know that there is a logic to it, even if we don’t subscribe to the logic of the narrator.

“The Waste Land” follows the implied logical structure. Of course, I am talking of the finished product, not the mass that existed before Ezra Pound and Vivienne Eliot took editorial pens to it. Even edited, Eliot’s poem lacks the internal propulsion that Ford’s poem does, but Eliot was not attempting a “poem” as such. In him mind Eliot was offering a comment on contemporary civilization (as seen through the eyes of a extremely conservative classicist). Ford’s poem allowed the reader in on the ruminations of an educated European considering the accumulations of a specific part of Southern German manners and layers of culture. Eliot’s poem invited the reader to a rather priggish lecture on how everything had gone to hell, without any particular exit pointed out.

Even in minor details the poems mesh. Eliot’s poem itself begins with the suggestions of a once vital German culture and German authenticity: “Bin gar keine Russin, stamm’ aus Litauen, echt deutsch.” (“[I] am not at all Russian, [I] descend from Lithuania, [I am] really German.”)  Of course, Eliot’s poem soon descends into metaphysical and religious symbolism, as declaimed by the 34 year old prophet who spent most of his life in academia and saw nothing of the carnage of the Great War. The stuffing of Eliot’s poem with allusions to ancient mystics and metaphysicians (in order to give the poem gravitas) gives the poem a ricketiness not seen in Ford’s work. But Eliot was fishing for the elite, not the mere literate.

Eliot even makes reference to a friend “Stetson,” who may in fact refer to Ezra Pound.

Seekers of clues and solvers of puzzles can find many more similarities. Perhaps there is something to it.

I do not recommend Ford’s work as a precursor to Eliot’s. I think Ford’s poem is of interest in itself and particularly unusual among the various strains of Modernism developing at the time. Ford was individual enough not to follow any literary dogma, however sympathetic he was to the aims of the practitioners. His


*See the preface and notes to that sequence in Betty S. Flowers (ed.), Christina Rossetti: The Complete Poems (London: Penguin Books: 2001), pp. 294 & 953-5. [Return to text.]

In fact his father’s doctoral thesis was Der Trobador Guillem de Cabestanh: Sein Lebene und seine Werke (University of Göttingen: 1869). [Return to text.]

I assume that the incorrect title of the poem Im Moose (“In the Moss”) as well as the poet’s name, Annette von Droste-Hülshoff, was Ford’s own doing, since they are repeated when he refashioned the Poetry article for the Preface to his Collected Poem (London: Martin Secker: 1916). [Return to text.]

**The remaining quotes from Pound are from his December 10, 1912 letter from London, published as “Status Rerum” in the January 1913 issue of Poetry. [Return to text.]

††In his essay on “Philip Massinger” in The Sacred Wood (NY: Afred Knopf: 1921). [Return to text.]


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