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Ford Madox Ford

Ford loved mystification, and if he can look down from some transcendent garden in Provence and survey his whole career including his posthumous reputation, he must be very pleased with himself. There are several factors in this complicated story that have to be understood before you can make an intelligent evaluation of his reputation as distinguished from a judgment of his literary merit.

First, he was an incorrigible romancer about himself. His enemies considered him a psychopathic liar, but it’s just that he found spontaneous fiction vastly entertaining, both to himself and others, and the handiest principal character was usually himself. He was full of tales about his intimate knowledge of the pre-Raphaelites and “my aunt, Christina Rossetti.” Ford’s mother was the daughter of Ford Madox Brown and half-sister of the wife of William Rossetti. In fact the time gap was just a little too large to have permitted such knowledge to even the most precocious infant. Ford Madox Brown was his grandfather, but his family connections with the Rossettis were rather tenuous. This never inhibited Ford, who could hold a roomful of people spellbound for an evening with the most intimate details of the pre-Raphaelite moral underground as witnessed by the infant Ford, as sophisticated as La Rochefoucauld though but in skirts. You visualized him, less than a yard in length but sporting a vast, yellow moustache and a glaucous eye, a rattle and a nursing bottle. His picture of Swinburne sitting on the floor, his scarlet locks enclosed in the celadon green velvet thighs of the Sid — Rossetti’s first wife, Agnes Siddell — seated on a settle in a mullioned bay reading the Marquis de Sade in her nervous, consumptive voice and sticking the poet betimes with her embroidery needle while blonde baby Fordie looked on is a hilarious tableau no artist could paint, not even Dante Gabriel Rossetti. The fact that some intervening years made it impossible was of no moment, least of all to Ford’s friends.

His stories of James, Conrad, Frank Harris, Stephen Crane, Wells, Shaw, Bennett, Belloc, were as imaginative as Frank Harris at his most outrageous. But they had the virtue of being patently false and absolutely accurate, a gift Harris, who could not make the simplest truth believable, lacked.

Americans cannot understand the peculiar boycott of Ford, H.G. Wells and D.H. Lawrence by London literary circles of the first quarter of the century even though the reason is patent upon simple inspection. All three men lived openly out of wedlock with women who were their social equals. In addition, although Ford liked to call himself a Tory or, at other times, an anarchist, depending on which would have the most stimulating effect on the company, they were all republicans [i.e. anti-monarchists]. This is how to forever cease to be a clubbable man.

It’s all right to keep a tart in Twickenham, or, nowadays, even to invite her to partake in romps in which the whole family shares at weekends at stately homes. It is quite all right to be Prime Minister of England and a leading theologian to boot and have as mistresses three of the most aristocratic and beautiful women in England, whom one never escorts but one of whom is always in the adjacent bedroom in that stately-homed weekend. Quiet little gay pubs like the Running Footman cater for generations to titled queers only. Leading figures in government can be seen coming and going through the nail-studded portals of the exclusive flagellation brothels conspicuously located on Piccadilly Circus. The one thing that is never permitted to this day is the flagrant practice of decent free love with partners whom everybody knows socially.

Ford managed to spin around his relationships cobwebs of mystification that were masterpieces even for him. Whatever the relationships, they got him ostracized and he found it more pleasant to live abroad. Establishment-provoked sarcasm helps to explain the special temper with which Ford approached both the art of fiction and the art of life. His very syntax is saturated with irony and so too the casual encounters of his life. Hemingway, as is well known, virulently hated everybody who had ever done anything for him in his youth. It is hard to believe that even he, with his elephant-gun sensibility, never realized that he was being made a fool of by Ford in the story he tells in A Moveable Feast.

Ford’s talent for confabulation and benign sarcasm has led to him being doubted when he told the truth, especially when the truth is more astonishing than his many fictions. There is certainly no question of his great influence on Conrad. The novels in which his name shares the title page are quite sufficient evidence. Under his tutelage Conrad’s novels acquired a profundity of motivation and a complexity of architecture which changed him from a deep Kipling to a peer of Flaubert and Turgeniev. What the Englishman Ford did was to cut Conrad loose from the tradition of late Victorian fiction and link him onto the long train of continental fiction with its acute and constant awareness of the crisis of man, the revolution of the human sensibility and the religion of the integrity of the esthetic conscience. Not only that, he took a writer twice removed from his native language — the early Conrad wrote as though he had learned French in Poland and then English in France — and helped him to become one of the three or four subtle English stylists of the first quarter of the century.

There are other aspects of Ford’s extraordinary life — his career as one of the most creative editors of all time, the strange trip to Germany, the changing of his name from Ford Madox Hueffer to Ford Madox Ford, for instance — which I don’t wish to go into. They have been discussed exhaustively in any number of books. More books than I can number, for hard as it may be to believe, Fordie, like Léon-Paul Fargue whom he greatly resembled, called the last of the bohemians, has become the darling of academia. Hardly a year goes by that an overblown doctor’s thesis on Ford’s novels emanating from a cornbelt college is not uttered in print.

Like those of Wells and Lawrence, Ford’s best novels are concerned with the struggle to achieve, and the tragic failure of, sacramental marriage. The Good Soldier is probably the best of all the novels on this subject which so tortured the Edwardians. Parade’s End, as the four Tietjens novels are now called, is about the same subject. It has the additional merit of being the best “anti-war novel” provoked by the First World War in any language. The reason I suppose is that the two moral tragedies are presented as aspects of one another. In Parade’s End a vision, as vast and as minute as that of Dante, emerges of the First World War as the gigantic, proliferating hell of the lovelost — known to itself as Western European culture.

All sorts of people have written books about Ford — geniuses, pipsqueaks and personal friends. None of them talks very much if at all about his poetry and nobody has given proper consideration to his last poems. Perhaps this is due to the fact that they are very difficult to obtain. They are the final section of the final edition of his Collected Poems published by Oxford in 1936. He calls this section “Buckshee” and explains that this is a British Army word which signifies something unexpected, unearned — gratifying. They are possibly the most remarkable love poems of middle-aged love in the language. Ford grown old, although he wasn’t really all that old, in his mas on a hill in Provence, looking out over that old, worn-out sea, with his young wife painting under the fig tree, is haunted by marriage come so late that it comes as a ghostly presence. It is typical of Ford that when poets like Pound and Eliot were writing self-conscious philosophical reveries full of indigestible learning, and strictly avoiding the slightest hint of self-revelation, and never under any circumstances using the first-person singular pronoun, and so shamelessly revealing themselves as naïve, unformed and hopelessly vulnerable, Ford should have sat himself down amongst the fruits and vegetables withering in the heat and written his philosophic epic about what was before his eyes and about himself, so simply in his bedroom slippers, and so achieved a profundity and an integrity and an invulnerability to the abuse of fate which is not to be found in the Cantos or The Waste Land.

It is not only Ford’s objectivism that counts, although certainly “Buckshee,” along with a few poems of D.H. Lawrence’s Birds, Beasts and Flowers, is the high point of British Imagism. A lifetime’s training, daily practice of his scales, had given Ford the ability to relax and improvise the most poignant and searching music. F.S. Flint, Harold Monro, D.H. Lawrence, Herbert Read, are the only other successful English practitioners of what the French call, since Vielé-Griffin, vers libre, a very different thing from American free verse, which they all wrote as well. Flint’s poetry is very touching, especially his last poem, where he bids farewell to literature forever. He is still the best translator of the Heroic Age of French modernism, but he is by no means as skillful a poet as the other three.

Harold Monro is a very skillful poet indeed, and a Little Master of profound intimacy. Fashion has moved so far from him that it has never been possible to revive any interest in his poetry, although his influence upon Lawrence, Ford and Herbert Read is obvious and pronounced. Lawrence is once again fashionable and everybody is familiar with the subtle modulations of “Bat” or “The Lion of St. Mark” and the intimacy of “Piano” and “Hymn to Priapus.” Ford is less muted than Monro and less strident than Lawrence. The rhythms of “L’Oubli, Temps de Sécheresse” twist and untwist, and rhyme and assonance chime and counterchime, quietly, subtly, and yet with a gripping intensity that is a perfect expression of the sadness of love found late.

Ford liked to point out that Dostoievsky was guilty of the worst possible taste in making his characters discuss explicitly the profundity of the very novel in which they were taking part. Ford’s Ivan and Alyosha would talk only about the quality of the cherry jam and thereby reveal gulfs unknown to that gambling and cadging Russian, gulfs known only to gentlemen. And so with “Buckshee.” It is a tragic story, tragic in the sense that all life is fundamentally tragic, of love fulfilled. He doesn’t talk about it, yet Ford conveys its reality with the most innocent candor.

Down the years I have read “Buckshee” to many audiences. A tape of my reading was a perennial favorite on KPFA — WBAI — KPFK radios until one day it got erased by accident. I have read it to music — a kind of quiet Pacific Jazz with echoes of Satie’s “Gymnopédie #1.” It has never failed to stimulate very considerable interest, for it is certainly the finest ignored poem sequence in modern English, and people always ask where they can obtain it, and poets go to the library and copy it out. It is now finally back in print.



This essay originally appeared as an introduction to Ford Madox Ford’s Buckshee (Pym-Randall, 1968) and was reprinted in With Eye and Ear (Herder & Herder, 1970). Copyright 1968. Reproduced here by permission of the Kenneth Rexroth Trust.

[Rexroth essay on Ford’s Parade’s End]

[Other Rexroth essays]





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