Untitled Essay on Richard Aldington

A Machine Readable Version

Thomas MacGreevy

Original Source: Richard Aldington: An Intimate Portrait. 1965. pp. 52-64.

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It was the very Irish setting of the salon at James Joyce's apartment in the Square Robiac near the Ecole Militaire that I first met that very English Englishman, Richard Aldington. The walls were hung with admirable contemporary portraits of Joyce and his family—one of them, that of Joyce's father, a chef d'oeuvre—by the Dublin painter Pattick Tuohy; and also with portraits of ancestors. For the religiously tormented Joyce was proud of the fact that his father's great-grandfather was own brother to the father of Daniel O'Connell, who won emancipation for the Catholics of Ireland—and, incidentally, the Catholics of England. The year I met Aldington in that room was probably 1928. For in the summer of 1927, during the intervals of taking tourists round Grenoble, of studying the history of art in Grenoble's lovely picture gallery and mooning to myself amongst the ghosts that haunt Grenoble and the country round Grenoble, the ghosts of Saint Bruno and Bayard, of Berlioz and Stendhal, I had com [p.53] pleted the first draft of my translation of Paul Valéry's Introduction à la méthode de Léonard de Vinci. In the intervening period I had been revising it, and looking round for a likely publisher for it. I had also been looking for encouragement about it and sometimes getting snubbed for my pains. A French "H.S.P." friend of Valéry's, wanting reassurance perhaps, as to my competence as a translator suggested that I should submit it for comment to an English cousin of his named Sturge Moore who counted for something in London literary circles. Despite encomiums by W. B. Yeats of Sturge Moore's poetic efforts I was no admirer of Sturge Moore. But to refuse to accept his cousin's proposal might give the impression that I was afraid, so I could only agree. And did. Moore read the translation—and spat! I may still have his very comminatory letter amongst my papers. But I was not discouraged. I had the self-confidence of youth.

That afternoon, Aldington had obviously come to pay a duty call on Joyce. There was no one else there and the atmosphere, though quite friendly, was relatively formal. With Joyce, I, myself, was used to being asked to give a hand with the correction of the proofs of what was then called Work in Progress; or to discussion on the symbolisms, derived from Vico (of whom I knew nothing except what I was told), underlying that work; or, more especially if Mrs. Joyce was present, to Irish reminiscence and fun. What I came upon now was more in the nature of an exchange of courtesies between Joyce and his visitor. Aldington did not stay long after I arrived. Before he left, however, he made a suggestion about my problem which Joyce endorsed and which I acted upon. It was to prove [p.54] rewarding. It was also to be the first of many helpfulnesses I experienced at the hands of Richard Aldington. The suggestion was that I should try my Valéry translation on a London publisher whose name, John Rodker, if I knew it at all, was not familiar. Aldington and Joyce both authorised me to use their names in writing to Rodker. Which I suppose I did. In any case Rodker agreed to publish the book and did so, in a small but handsome edition. It made neither my name nor my fortune but it pleased those I wanted it to please, and it was well received—so Valéry too was pleased.

I did not meet Aldington again for a considerable time. I did actually see him once but without realising that it was he. In between I had met Ernest Hemingway, also through Joyce. Physically, both Aldington and Hemingway were big men. They were about the same age. They had both published war novels—which were being talked about but which I had not read. I was still so little sure as to which of them was which that one night when I was dining with friends at the Cochon-de-lait and Aldington came in with a party I whispered to my friends that that was Ernest Hemingway. In succeeding months I met Hemingway again, not very frequently but sufficiently often to be able to identify him. So I knew that the other was Aldington. It was quite a time, however, and my Valéry translation had actually been published by Rodker, before I saw Aldington a third time. That was one night, when, crossing from the Boulevard du Montparnasse to the Val-de-Grâce on my way "home" to the Ecole Normale in the Rue d'Ulm, I recognised that a man sitting out on the Saint-Michel side of the Closerie des Lilas was [p.55] Richard Aldington. I went to him immediately and, reintroducing myself, told him that his suggestion about a publisher for my Valéry book had borne fruit and offered my thanks. He invited me to sit down and we talked for I suppose an hour. I gathered that he had been away but was back in Paris for a stay of some months. He was, I rather think, still at a hotel just then. But about then or shortly afterwards he rented an apartment in the Quarter, a few hundred yards from the Ecole Normale. There I saw him frequently over several months. And there we became friends.

Elsewhere I have discussed Richard Aldington's qualities as a writer. Here, it is as a friend I would write of him. Most of his values were not mine, yet as a friend I found him one of the most forbearing, most generous, most patient, most devoted and to crown all, most laughter-loving, friends I have ever had. In his personal relationships he, who could write so angrily of the collective shoddinesses that constitute what the Gospel calls "the world," was one of the most courteous of men. He enjoyed conversation and as a conversationalist was himself not only interesting but winning. His erudition was immense but it was the erudition of the humanist not of the pedant. One could disagree with his deductions and his asseverations, as I often did—in conversation as well as when I wrote about him—but never for a moment did disagreement cold the affectionately friendly spirit of our exchanges.

In theory Richard was basically the English free-lance Protestant anti-clerical that Irishmen take for granted. But he was not a Greek and Latin and Italian and French [p.56] scholar for nothing, so a pirori he had some knowledge of the part played by the Church in the hsitory of Europeean civilisation. I was to discover in a little while that it was mor than knowledge. For instance—he revered the memory of his father who had recently died and who, in his later years, had become a devout convert to Catholicism. Amongst his father's belongings that came to him there was a brand new suit of clothes which were too small for Richard and too big for me. Richard suggested that one of the men-servants at the Ecole Normale might be glad to have the suit. The valet de chambre who looked after the rooms on my corridor was about right for size. He assured me that he would be grateful for the gift. So I went off to fetch it. Then something unexpected happened. As he handed me the parcel, Richard, going all bashful, asked me whether I would tell the man that if he would be so good as to wear the suit going to Mass to begin with and, at Mass, say a prayer for the donor's father, the donor would be grateful. In time I was able to report back that when I passed on the request the valet had answered with full understanding and in good faith, "Mais certainement Monsieur, volontiers" and I can affirm that Richard was visibly pleased.

In this connection, an even stranger thing happened a year or so before Richard died. Thirty years before, he had repeated to me the hoary legend that Pope Leo the Tenth, Giovanni de'Medici, had once said "God gave us the Papacy to enjoy. Let us enjoy it." I do remember the occasion nor do I remember how I reacted. It now could be that I demurred. For I had read a good deal in von Pastor some years before and though I did not remem [p.57] ber what the great historian had to say about Leo the Tenth, I did remember that he had had things to say about Alexander the Sixth which left a very different impression from that made by the things one read about the Borgia pontiff in English books. In addition, I had picked up the idea from W. B. Yeats that the last writer who should be trusted on the subject of the Roman emperors was Suetonius. Even in art history I knew that Vasari is not always reliable. And I still remember that when I finished reading a translation of Julius Caesar's Gallic Wars I decided for myself that I could not trust a single solitary thing that that gentleman had said about the Gauls. In short I knew that centuries of prestige do not necessarily prove the truth of propaganda. However that be, Richard, a year or so before he died, wrote to me from Rome, where he was studying in some library or other, that he had come on evidence which suggested that Pope Leo had never made the remark attributed to him. Clearly, since I do not think we ever referred to it again, Richard had it on his conscience that he had repeated it to me. Like most Englishmen he knew next to nothing about Irish history. He did not realise that since Ireland was starved into adopting the English language instead of its own, every Irish Catholic has had, sooner or later, to learn to treat English books as a priori one?sided and heretical and to trust nothing about his country or his religion that be reads in them. This, however, did not make it less touching that Richard wanted, after thirty years, to put himself right with me in the matter of poor Leo the Tenth.

Again, I remember that as he placed a generous offering in the collecting box beside the statue of Saint An [p.58] thony in the church of the "Santi Apostoli" in Rome with a special request for my "success" he mentioned that every favour he had ever asked at that shrine had been granted! (He had been going to Rome ever since about 1910 when he won a school or college money-prize and spent it on a first visit to the Eternal City.)

At both religious and secular levels, however, the dichotomies, the "contrarinesses," remained. Thus he clung to a paradoxically romantic idea of classical antiquity and when, in his writing, he attacked the contemporary establishment in his beloved England it was, I think because he saw England as falling short of the virtues attributed to la cité antique. As if, in antiquity or in the modern world, original sin had ever permitted the virtues of the cité antique to become anything more tangible than a philosopher's dream! But Richard did not believe in original sin. In his book on Lawrence of Arabia he writes of "the obsolescent idea of sin." No doubt, the disbelieving dons of his university days had taught him that the Greeks had no sense of sin, that sin was a Judeo-Christian concept bearing no relation to the hubris-nemesis alternative with which specious argument some of them still go on expounding, despite evidence, plain enough to a less subtleminded non-classics man like myself, that practically the whole corpus of Greek tragedy is primarily concerned with sin and the expiation of sin. The argumentations between Richard myself were unending—yet, as I have said, uncloudedly friendly over all the years.

It was characteristic of Richard that, unlike many men, he took it for granted that his friends would like each other. Mostly, I imagine, his faith was justified. I have [p.59] particular reason to remember one instance—out of many—with undying gratitude. At odd times over a decade of years before I met Richard Aldington I had tried to write poetry. A few poems had been published in periodicals. But there were enough in my drawer to make a book and I had met disappointment after disappointment when I tried to publish them as a collection. A time came when I retailed to Richard's friend and mine, A. S. Frere of Heinemann's, the, for me, tragi-comic circumstances of two of the disappointments. Frere's reaction was characteristically startling. He had not even seen the poems, but, without hesitation and quite calmly, he said "I'll publish them, Tom." And he did. And prevailed on the Viking Press in New York to publish them too. The little book set neither the Thames not the Hudson on fire. For Frere's sake and for the sake of Harold Ginsburg of the Viking Press, I wished, and still wish, that it had more success. (It goes without saying that to myself the immediate satisfaction of having it published was immense.) But Richard and another friend of Richard's came into the story too. Frere asked Richard to write the blurb for the wrapper of the book. Which Richard did in the most graceful and sympathetic terms. And there was to be still more to it than that. Earlier, Richard had introduced me, not casually but after some unexplained deliberation, to his friends, Henry Church, a very wealthy American and his Bavarian wife, Barbara, who lived in a beautiful eighteenth?century house in a private park at Ville d'Avray. Henry wrote and Barbara wrote. Henry published privately. Barbara did not publish at all. They kept rather small circle of friends, scholars, men of letters, musicians, painters (they had [p.60] been amongst the first people to buy pictures by Georges Rouault). At a later date they founded the review Mesures but by that time I had left Paris. From the time Richard introduced me to them I was made to feel that I was persona grata at the beautiful house. Nor did they forget me as the years passed. They travelled a great deal but wherever they were, Paris or London, Berlin, Athens or New York, I would hear from them. Before Henry's death I saw them in London. After his death Barbara came with French friends to see me in Dublin, and when I was in New York in 1954 Wallace Stevens wrote to her from Hartford where he lived suggesting that she should give a luncheon party for me, with Miss Marianne Moore and himself as the only other guests. Which she did. There was a special reason why it had to be with Barbara that Wallace Stevens and I met. It was that Henry, who had died some years previously, was a friend of the famous poet as well as a friend of mine. He had given him my little book of poems to read. That reading had inspired Wallace Stevens to write his two moving and beautiful poems, Our Stars Come from Ireland and The Westwardness of Everything, the first with the epigraph, Tom MacGreevy in America, Thinks of Himself as a Boy. He had first sent me the poems in typescript. Then, in 1950, when his book, The Auroras of Autumn, in which they were included, was published, he sent me that. If my book had not had a popular success, these Wallace Stevens poems were so beautiful and the whole occurrence so unprecedented in my experience that I could not but feel overwhelmed—and, I hope, for Ireland if not for myself, permissibly proud. And it had all happened because, in [p.61] some obscure way, Richard had sensed that if he brought me and the Churches together something 'worth?while, worth?while at a literary level, would come of it. I regard my modest share in the immortality of Wallace Stevens' two beautiful poems as the most enduring result of the many helpfulnesses I experienced at the hands of Richard Aldington. (To finish that story I may add that, as Wallace Stevens had never been to Europe and I had never been to America, some degree of risk attached to the prospect of our meeting that day at Barbara Church's. In the event it was, I think, a success. I know that, in retrospect, the others referred to the occasion as a happy one. I may also add that there had been a special reason for my meeting with Miss Moore too. But Richard does not come into that story.)

It was characteristic of Richard that if he brought me and the Churches together something worth-while, worth?while at a literary level, would come of it. I regard my modest share in the immortality of Wallace Stevens' two beautiful poems as the most enduring result of the many helpfulnesses I experienced at the hands of Richard Aldington. (To finish that story I may add that, as Wallace Stevens had never been to Europe and I had never been to America, some degree of risk attached to the prospect of our meeting that day at Barbara Church's. In the event it was, I think, a success. I know that, in retrospect, the others referred to the occasion as a happy one. I may also add that there had been a special reason for my meeting with Miss Moore too. But Richard does not come into that story.)

Returning more directly to the subject of Richard, I should explain that I had not come on any of the many books which I understand he published between the time I saw him prior to his departure for America at the beginning of 1939 and, maybe, the year 1960 when he sent me copies of his study of Mistral and his book on Lawrence of Arabia, the latter then already some years old and at the paperback edition stage. The Mistral is obviously of value as a work of literary pietas and also, perhaps, as a reminder to over "nordic" minded readers that all our major values, those of the Old Testament, those of the Gospel, those of the philosophy of Greece, come to us from the Mediterranean. Is there any culture, is there a great figure of any culture, that has not been profoundly influenced by them? As to the Lawrence book, I wonder whether, perhaps, Richard felt he had to write it as a duty to some [p.62] regular officers of England—and of France—but, to me at least, the subject was not of much interest. I had, long ago, tried to read Revolt in the Desert; it did not hold me and I gave up without finishing it.

I had not met Richard for twenty-three years when, in June, 1962, we discovered that we were to be in Paris at the same time; I was returning from the Venice Biennale. Richard and his daughter were getting visas for a visit to Moscow where they were to be the guests of the Soviet literary establishment. With their friends, the Kershaws, they came to see me at my hotel in the Rue de Rivoli. I had understood that Richard's health, like my own, was not as good as it used to be. But he looked very well. In fact he looked as young and at least as debonair as he had looked a quarter of a century earlier. And he was as sympathetic as ever. We spent about an hour-and-a-half over a bottle of Krug, Richard and I reminiscing light-heartedly, the others letting us talk and joining in our laughter. Then they drove me to the Faubourg Saint-Honoré where I had business to attend to. It had been a happy reunion and as we said au revoir and they drove away, waving and smiling, leaving me on the pavement outside my picture gallery, I think we all hoped we should be meeting soon again.

A few weeks later, Richard, back in the quiet of the French countryside, wrote me a brief account of his Russian visit. He had not said whether there was a business side to the trip (it is, after all, well known that, vis-á-vis authors, the Russian publishing trade is as peculiar in its way as the Western publishing trade is peculiar in its way). But he was appreciative of his hosts' attentions and he was [p.63] pleased that Soviet pressmen had not tried to Make him talk to the Party Line in literature. To Richard, who liked the warmth of traditional Russian literature, the Party Line in literature was just more of what he would call "Communist tyranny and bunk." (He was not less contemptuous of the tycoonery that has been making itself felt in Western publishing.) Still he had been fÍted, even if some of the fêting was probably because he had, in his writings, sometimes suggested that the England he loved could, in certain of its aspects, be less than an earthly paradise. We all know that under the Marxian dispensation, whether in Moscow or Peking, in Cuba or in Albania, there will be no original sin and that the earthly paradise will be—forever—just round the corner. The Richard Aldington of the nineteen-thirties used to dismiss Marxism as, to use his own words, "another of the panaceas." However, it was not the moment to remind him of that so I just wrote to say I was glad he had enjoyed the change to being a whiteheaded boy. Three mornings later, the morning ray letter should have reached him, Richard died.

One evening long ago as we were standing in the Piazzale Michelangelo, with the sun going down over the splendour of Florence and an odd star beginning to show, Richard was trying to convince me of the glories of science as expounded by a celebrated man of whom I knew nothing but whom Richard had been reading, James Jeans. Recalling an earlier evening in Dublin when W. B. at his most endearingly oracular had said, "Science is a conspiracy," I asked Richard what was the good of science anyhow. I remember his answer, "It gets rid of fear." But I think it was with a reference to Pascal, who was a scien [p.64] tist and who was fearful, rather than to Saint John, that I countered. I do not know whether, since official Germany's extermination by scientific means of millions of Jews and uncounted Gentiles, and since the disgrace of Hiroshima, initiated by official America, approved by official England and official Russia, and, as a military measure, probably unparalleled in history since Jugurtha poisoned the wells, Richard would agree that science has created more fear than it has destroyed. I think he tended to believe, with his beloved Greeks, that the universe has a design and a purpose. I do not know, however, whether, before he died, he got even so far as to accept Saint John's affirmation that God is a spirit—Which has been seen by no man at any time but in Which we live and Which lives in us. Yet he was the kind of man of whom I dare to believe that, looking back over his seventy years of life, he would incline to the idea that Saint John probably knew better than the scientists how to deal with fear.