Monday, November 17, 2014

Something Thoughtful

Nicholas Reid reflects in essay form on general matters and ideas related to literature, history, popular culture and the arts, or just life in general. You are free to agree or disagree with him.


A couple of weeks back I wrote a “Something Old” on Richard Aldington’s 1929 novel Death of a Hero [look it up on the index at right]. I said that Aldington had a tendency to rant, rave and shout at his readers in his prose, and I still think that this is the case. But it occurs to me that maybe I wasn’t giving him due credit for what he did achieve as a poet, before he gave it up for prose in the late 1920s.
With Ezra Pound and “H.D.”, Aldington was one of the three original Imagist poets, just before the First World War. The strengths and weaknesses of Imagism are clear in a free verse Imagist poem like Aldington’s “Round Pond”, where the verse is clumsy because it is a clatter of observations like jotted notes (still very Georgian in vocabulary choices), and where the whole poem is really justified by the image of the last line. Imagism is essentially a one-image-punch thing, and you will have to decide if this one image works:


Water ruffled and speckled by galloping wind
Which puffs and spurts it into tiny pashing breaks
Dashed with lemon-yellow afternoon sunlight.
The shining of the sun upon the water
Is like a scattering of gold crocus-petals
In a long wavering irregular flight.

The water is cold to the eye
As the wind to the cheek.

In the budding chestnuts
Whose sticky buds glimmer and are half-burst open
The starlings make their clitter-clatter;
And the blackbirds in the grass
Are getting as fat as the pigeons.

Too-hoo, this is brave;
Even the cold wind is seeking a new mistress.

            When he came to write poems of his war experience, Aldington really continued with the same technique, as in what is probably his most famous war poem, “Bombardment”. Here, though, the imperfection before the final punch is even more extreme – nearly every line is a verbal cliché before we come to those last two lines:


Four days the earth was rent and torn
By bursting steel,
The houses fell about us;
Three nights we dared not sleep,
Sweating, and listening for the imminent crash
Which meant our death.

The fourth night every man,
Nerve-tortured, racked to exhaustion,
Slept, muttering and twitching,
While the shells crashed overhead.

The fifth day there came a hush;
We left our holes
And looked above the wreckage of the earth
To where the white clouds moved in silent lines
Across the untroubled blue.

            Finally, a selection from Aldington’s satirical free-verse cycle A Fool i’ the Forest, published in 1924 and intended to head off the type of modernism Eliot had just introduced with The Waste Land. From this distance, Aldington’s preoccupations are very much of their time. Like Eliot to some extent, and Pound to an even greater extent, he is worried about the “old bitch gone in the teeth” of Western civilization after the Great War. Aldington’s approach is much less resonant, however, as he simply compares, in ironic fashion, the ideal of ancient Greek culture with its debased modern equivalents. As in his prose, rant sometimes takes over. Let’s give him credit, however, for this little epigram, even if it is a daydream:


Praise and a crown of glory to the race 
Which first shall say: “We have enough, 
Bread, olives, meat, a little wine,
Rough wool dyed purple for our robes; 
Now let us live as men.”

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