A Writer’s Life
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During October 2001, my wife Annalena and I spent a week in a high remote farmhouse in the Tramuntana mountains of north east Mallorca. We arrived into an autumnal heatwave. Spread far below the ancient house were the rich meadows, olive and carob orchards of the fertile Val d’en Marche, and beyond was the symmetrical mass of Mount Tomir, flanked by the precise, hanging silhouette of the Col de Miner. We could see across to the ledges and sweeps of almost inaccessible land where we had hiked earlier in the year. Behind the house, three miles beyond the pathless limestone wilderness we intended to explore, was the sea and its rugged cliffs, immune to tourist development. The house was vast. Its cobbled courtyards were cool and secretive. There was a working olive press driven by donkey power. There was bougainvillea growing under the windows of our bedroom, and all around, the sounds of a working farm. Beyond our bedroom was a private sitting room, and beyond that, a library, and this was where we spent much of our first evening, with a bottle of wine after dinner. I would soon find my way into ths lecture.

* * *

We had arrived into a paradise, it seemed, after a month of death. September had begun with our cutting short a late summer holiday on that same island to be with friends whose teenage daughter had died in an accident. Another close friend announced the return of a malignant cancer. and yet another friend was struggling with the effects of the treatment for a related disease. Then came the eleventh of September, and our own thoughts of death merged with the generality of sorrow and fear. As we arrived in Mallorca, the bombing in Afghanistan was underway and there was yet more death, and as yet, very little visible progress.

The library suited us well. A battered armchair and sofa, good reading lamps, rugs, a solid old desk. A stranger’s library offers a soothing, psychological problem. What sort of man was this who had owned the house for twenty five years, and had died four years ago? For twenty minutes I patrolled the shelves without touching a book. The collection belonged to an American diplomat and philanthropist. China, the Arabian deserts, the United Nations, the meditations of major and minor statesmen, American literature, mostly of the twentieth century, travellers like Humboldt, Newby, Thesinger, Lewis and Clarke, a fair dose of Anglophilia – Oxford, country houses, public schools, Kings and Queens, histories of London. I formed a vague resolution to tidy up my own study when I got home, so that books, rather than papers all over the desks and floor were the dominant feature again. I like other people’s libraries. I’m rather like those who prefer the food on others’ plates. Every book appears essential. Even the same edition you have at home seems, when taken from an alien shelf, to offer itself up with a greater clarity. But at the end of my overview it was an unfamiliar book I was reaching for, drawn partly by the tasteful manilla cover of a chunky, well made Farrar, Straus hardback edition. It was the Journal of the American critic, Edmund Wilson. In separate volumes on the shelf were the Nineteen Twenties, Thirties, Forties and Fifties, and on each cover was a photograph of the writer, ageing successively. It was the Forties I had in my hand.

Opening the book at random, I read a few entries about Wilson’s travels in Italy towards the end of the war, in 1945. I immediately liked this anecdote told him by an American officer with a scotch terrier puppy. A US naval captain arriving in Naples says, ‘I want the harbour master.’ ‘I get you nice woman – two nice women – three,’ etc. Captain repeats request. ‘I want the harbour master.’ ‘All right – I try to feex.’

I turned to the introductory essay by Wilson’s friend, the Henry James scholar, Leon Edel. In measured and worldly terms, he summarised the immediate circumstances and condition of a writer who turned forty five in 1940. In previous decades Wilson had been too busy with hard work, hard drinking, love affairs and promiscuities as well as three destructive marriages to pay much attention to the mounting years. Now, at the beginning of the decade, according to Edel, mortality began to press in. Wilson’s friend Scott Fitzgerald died at the end of 1940 and, in Edel’s phrase, ‘the ageing Wilson awoke with a shock to the fact of his middle age. Fitzgerald’s death hit him hard.’ ‘Men who start writing together write for one another more than they realise till somebody dies.’ Wilson wrote these words to the poet, John Peale Bishop, his old friend from his Vanity Fair days who himself was to die soon.

Wilson reflected in his Forties Journal on ‘the tendency of the writers of my generation to burn themselves out or break down. One didn’t really believe till one saw it demonstrated that giving oneself up completely to art, to emotion, to enjoyment, without planning for the future or counting the cost, produced dreadful disabilities and bankruptcies later.’ Wilson was determined not to go under, – and these are the themes of his 1940s, of his middle years, according to Edel: domestication, endurance, survival. During all the years of his bohemian Greenwich Village life, Wilson had drifted from tiny furnished rooms to cheap shabby apartments. In 1941 he bought a large old house on Cape Cod, at Wellfleet. In 1943 he began a long association with the New Yorker which was to provide him with a reliable and solid income. A certain hand to mouth, Grub Street life was coming to an end. Also coming to an end were the last, tempestuous years of his marriage to Mary McCarthy. He was legally separated from her in 1946 and soon after began his fourth and final marriage. Elena Mumm Thornton was half Russian, half German, of aristocratic descent whose family had given its name to the famous champagne. Elena brought harmony and stability to the Wellfleet house. She was an editor who took an interest in Wilson’s work. She protected his privacy, she made the house look beautiful.

According to Louise Bogan, Elena ‘had evidently put real elbow grease into decorating, scraping floors and walls and making curtains…For the first time, poor Edmund has attention, space and effectively arranged paraphernalia of all kinds…Edmund has had a very scrappy kind of life down the years. Now all moves smoothly: tea on a tray for his ‘elevenses’, absolute silence in his working hours, and good meals at appropriate intervals.’

Edel himself remembered visits to the well-organised Wellfleet home in the late fifties when he was ‘put into comfortable quarters in a separate little guest house. Wilson occasionally appeared during the day, uncombed, unshaven, in his pajamas and bathrobe – the daylong uniform of his work’ After stroking the pets, munching a sandwich, exchanging a few words, he would ‘disappear into the recesses of his study. His social day began around 5.00pm, when he descended, freshly shaved, with a cherubic glow on his Roman features, fully dressed, wearing a jacket and tie set into a crisp shirt ironed by his wife, ready for the evening bottle of whisky in the parlour…After a dinner of lively, friendly talk and a good number of glasses of wine, Wilson was capable of polishing off the remains of the bottle of whisky.

And so, as the forties progressed, the author of Axel’s Castle and The Wound and the Bow settled into his highly productive middle years – during that decade he published seven books and over a hundred articles. He was bald, and his paunch continued to grow steadily but otherwise his health was good. In 1948 his third child Helen was born, and he had straightened out his relations with his other two children. With his beautiful, loving wife, and with all the creature comforts, reasonable income, settled stretches of domesticity broken by intense periods travelling, and with many projects still ahead of him, Wilson abandoned his ambitions to be a novelist or poet or dramatist, and accepted his vocation as a critic, as the substantial man of letters.

For the rest of that evening I read at random through the Forties journal, and then read two essays from The Wound and the Bow. The first was the magisterial summary of Dickens’ achievement, and the second was the title essay. It gives an account of Sophocles’ play Philoctetes. He is the warrior of mythology with the god-given gift of a bow whose arrows always strike their target. He receives a wound from a snakebite, and not only will it never heal, but it stinks foully. He is abandoned by his fellow Greeks and lives in exile on an island with his loathsome sore, unable to practise his craft. However, Troy cannot be conquered without Philoctetes’ bow and his special skills. The wily Odysseus conspires to steal it and sends the son of Achilles, Neoptolemus, who ends up befriending the warrior, and instead of stealing the bow, heals its owner and brings him back to the Greeks, for it is now recognised by the young man in his empathy for the suffering of Philoctetes that the bow is worthless without its owner.

As I read, I wondered how the recitation of Edmund Wilson, so influential in his time, had fallen away. Among my generation, there was hardly a literature student who had not read Axel’s Castle, or To the Finland Station. These days, one rarely hears him referred to. Re-reading him for the first time in many years, I was struck by the clarity and warmth of his writing, free of jargon or obscurity; his judgements seemed to be formed not only by a vast, easily worn reading, but I sensed a driving curiosity – it was, after all, the project of a perpetual education that drove Wilson to learn languages all through his life. He wrote, ‘I always find a pleasure almost sensual in attacking a new language’. He had, as Edel points out, an eighteenth century, universal sort of mind; he was a polymath, a sceptic, an atheist; he was a rationalist who liked the concrete detail; his distrust of the mystical or transcendent in literature may have hampered his response to certain writers. But his own attempts at poetry and fiction gave him a deep respect for practitioners at every level – in Edel’s term, Wilson was ‘a brother to the artist’. He stands in the great humanist tradition, finally owing less to Marx and Freud than to the Matthew Arnold of Culture and Anarchy.

At the end of my Wilson evening in the Tramonta, I found myself stirred by this paragraph from The Wound and the Bow which was published in 1941

I should interpret the fable [of Philoctetes] as follows. The victim of a malodorous disease which makes him abhorrent to society and periodically degrades him and makes him helpless, is also the master of a superhuman art which everybody has to respect and which the normal man finds he needs. A practical man like Odysseus, at the same time coarse-grained and clever, imagines that he can somehow get the bow without having Philoctetes on his hands or that he can kidnap Philoctetes the bowman without regard for Philoctetes the invalid. But the young son of Achilles knows better. It is at the moment when his sympathy for Philoctetes would naturally inhibit his cheating him – so the supernatural influences in Sophocles are often made with infinite delicacy to shade into subjective motivations – it is at this moment of his natural shrinking that it becomes clear to him that the words of the seer had meant that the bow would be useless without Philoctetes himself. It is in the nature of things – of this world where the divine and the human fuse – that they cannot have the irresistible weapon without its loathsome owner, who upsets the processes of normal life by his curses and his cries, and who in any case refuses to work for men who have exiled him from their fellowship.

Criticism of the sort that might be of interest to the general reader, to a novelist, has ceased to occupy the central place in intellectual culture it had in Wilson’s time. The ascent of theory has helped bury Wilson’s kind of writing. Here I count myself in the camp of Chomsky and Pinker. (I was, by this time, brushing my teeth.) We are, by adaptive pressure over long stretches of evolutionary time, hard-wired for language. We are language animals. We are helpless and exultant before the consequences of our language instinct. And writing itself is no more than a subset, an invention, an extension and special case of speech. By blowing air through specialised tissue in our throats, by modulating the shapes of our mouths and the position of our tongues, we are able to transfer thoughts from one mind to another, instantaneously and with surprising accuracy. We no more need a so-called ‘theory’ of language to read a work of literature than we need a theory of language to read a theory of language. The very suggestion of this infinite regress demonstrates the redundancy of the kind of literary theory that has replaced humanist criticism. What I want most from the critic are the fruits of his or her vast reading, and clarity, immense wisdom, and exactly the kind of sympathetic and penetrating judgements we value in private or social life.

When I was back in Oxford, I read the passage about Philoctetes one evening to Craig Raine. He referred me back to these famous lines from Arnold’s Culture and Anarchy: ‘The great men of culture are those who have laboured to divest knowledge of all that was harsh, uncouth, difficult, abstract, professional, exclusive; to humanise it, to make it efficient outside the clique of the cultivated and learned, yet still remaining the best knowledge and thought of the time.’

That first night in Mallorca I went to bed content that I had rediscovered for myself just the kind of guide I wanted; prompted by Wilson, I would re-read Dombey and Son, and read for the first time the Sophocles play. No doubt, for the purpose of this lecture, I could have offset my petulance about literary theory with comforting thoughts about the fine traditions of literary criticism in the TLS. But actually, I didn’t. Instead, I fell asleep and woke some hours later into the grip of death thoughts, not so much terror as bleak wonder, that night-time acceptance of the obvious that Larkin described in his late poem, ‘Aubade’. I had been getting off lightly. Years had passed since I last lay awake and apprehended in full the indisputable fact of my own approaching death. A contributing element was obviously September – the month of death. Another haunting factor was the photographs of Wilson on the consecutive covers of his Journals, ageing by leaps. What damage ten years do to a face. And with what ease a writer’s life, or any existence, can be reduced to biography, or to a couple of thousand words of nicely balanced summary. You turn a page and a whole lifetime has passed away. Yes, I could straighten out my library when I got home. But what would be the point? I thought of various old friends in their dying weeks, how I had visited them at home, or in hospital; years later, how infrequently they crossed my mind. To be forgotten was an added kind of death.

It was this thought that brought to mind a sequence of events, a visit described in the Journals, which suddenly seemed to me so vivid as to be a memory from my own past, rather than from Edmund Wilson’s. In 1948 he and Elena had gone to the music festival at Tanglewood, and while there had driven out to Austerlitz to call on an old friend he had not seen in almost twenty years. She had been the bewitching love of his bohemian youth. She was the poet, Edna St Vincent Millay. He found her much changed for the worst, and the visit evinced in him a peculiar kind of sorrow, and a revived fear of death. There was also some meaningless number magic troubling me. 1948 was the year of my birth. At the time the Wilsons called on Millay and her husband, Eugen Boissevain, I was just born, and Edmund was fifty three, my age now. Why, with my death thoughts, was I inserting myself into the drama, trying to appropriate it? Was I was drifting, through the medium of insomnia, towards the vague outlines at the core of a novella which I might write? Confusingly, the story of Philoctetes was interpolating itself. Was Edna St Vincent Millay, with her alcoholism and her many other problems, the ailing bowman, and was Wilson in the part of Neoptolemus, come to restore the poet to her gifts?

* * *

The much changed woman who entered the room of her house in Austerlitz to greet Edmund and Elena had been the most popular, widely read poet of her generation; the breadth of her appeal has perhaps helped her reputation into decline, and obscured what was obvious to her contemporaries like Wilson – that she was deeply serious about her work. She was also very attractive – in appearance and in the enigma of her personality. Dozens, if not scores, of men fell in love with her. A neighbour of the Millay sisters in Truro on Cape Cod was used to providing refreshments for the disappointed, or suddenly displaced lovers of Edna. By all accounts, she treated her lovers without cruelty, and with a lightness of touch. Many remained devoted friends. Her early poems constantly return to the idea that love dies, and that she must move on. When her first book – Renasence – came out in 1917, Edmund Wilson was enduring the horrors of the First World War as a stretcher bearer near Vittel. He read her then and was impressed. Three years later, when he was back in New York he saw a sonnet of hers in the new literary magazine, the Dial, and liked it so much that he learned it by heart, and used to recite it in the shower. It was called To Love Impuissant, and gives a taste of her poetry – tightly argued, playful, wilfully archaic.

Love, though for this you riddle me with darts,

And drag me at your chariot till I die,-

Oh heavy prince! Oh, panderer of hearts!-

Yet hear me tell how in their throats they lie

Who shout you mighty: thick about my hair,

Day in, day out, your ominous arrows purr,

Who still am free, unto no querulous care

A fool, and in no temple worshipper!

I, that have bared me to your quiver’s fire,

Lifted my face into its puny rain,

Do wreathe you Impotent to Evoke Desire

As you are Powerless to Elicit Pain!

(Now will the god, for blasphemy so brave,

Punish me, surely, with the shaft I crave!)

Five exclamation marks in fourteen lines. As he lathered himself with soap before an evening out in Manhattan, the young Wilson, so he confesses in his memoir of Edna, hoped to be the one to deal her the longed-for shaft. When he finally met her at a party, she seemed to him to be ‘one of those women whose features are not perfect and who in their moments of dimness may not seem even pretty, but who, excited by the blood or the spirit, become almost supernaturally beautiful.’ That evening she recited her poetry, and he thrilled to her manner – when she read her poems aloud, she had the ‘power of imposing herself on others through a medium that unburdened the emotions of solitude’. In a passage in the notebooks that he excluded from the finished memoir, Wilson wrote, ‘Edna ignited for me both my intellectual passion and my unsatisfied desire, which went up together in a blaze of ecstasy that remains for me one of the high points of my life. My subsequent chagrin and perplexity, when I discovered that, due to her extreme promiscuity, this could not be expected to continue, were rather amazingly soothed by an equanimity on her part which was also very uncommon.’

Wilson was working with his friend, John Peale Bishop, in the editorial department of Vanity Fair. Soon the magazine was publishing Millay’s poetry, and soon, both men were deeply in love with her. So much so that the editor, Frank Crowninshield, began to complain that it was inconvenient to have both of his editorial assistants in love with the same contributor. ‘There was something of an awful drama about everything one did with Edna, and yet something that steadies one too’. Wilson recorded in his journal: ‘After dinner, sitting on her daybed, John and I held Edna in our arms – according to an arrangement insisted upon by herself – I her lower half and John her upper – with a polite exchange of pleasantries as to which had the better share.’ Edna ‘complained that our both being in love with her had not even broken up our friendship.’

A magazine editor described her as ‘a slim…girl with sad, green eyes, finespun reddish hair and remarkably small hands’. The chairman of the Ohio Valley Poetry Society wrote: ‘The slender red-haired gold-eyed Vincent Millay, dressed in blacktrimmed gown of purple silk, was now reading from a tooled leather portfolio, now reciting without aid of book or print, despite her broom-splint legs and muscles twitching in her throat and in her thin arms, in a voice that enchanted.’

Both these descriptions are quoted in the new biography of Millay by Nancy Milford whose account is much enlivened by her conversations with Edna’s sister Norma. By the time Wilson had fallen in love with her, Millay was about to become hugely famous with the publication of her second book, A Few Figs From Thistles. It contained the famous, rather self-dramatising quatrain, ‘My candle burns at both ends/It will not last the night;/But all, my foes, and oh, my friends – /It gives a lovely light!’ – and this became something of an anthem for the care-free, party-going set of Jazz age America. Many of the poems have this simple carpe diem tilt from the Latin poets Millay read so thoroughly. Her reputation for being sexually free gave the impression – reasonably enough – that the poems were autobiographical. The erotic and the louche. and the girl-power playfulness sat nicely at odds with the archaic diction and her high regard for metre and form.

And if I loved you Wednesday,

Well, what is that to you?

I do not love you Thursday –

So much is true.

And why you come complaining

Is more than I can see.

I loved you Wednesday – yes – but what

Is that to me?

Some of the sonnets have a tougher, more conversational style. ‘I shall forget you presently, my dear’, one of them starts out promising unromantically, ‘So make the most of this, your little day,/Your little month, your little half a year…’ And the clinching couplet has a certain Darwinian reasonableness:

I would indeed that love were longer lived,

And oaths were not so brittle as they are,

But so it is, and nature has contrived

To struggle on without a break thus far –

Whether or not we find what we are seeking

Is idle, biologically speaking.

Edna brought her two sisters to live with her in Greenwich Village, and later her mother, whom she adored, would join them. They all lived on the top floor of a redbrick townhouse on Charlton Street. Milford quotes a conversation with Malcolm Cowley who, as a young man about town, visited the Millay girls many times. The appearance of three pretty women tripled his delight. ‘I would go up into that room. I remember the big bed in the corner…’ he told Milford. ‘They were each lovely girls. But Edna had something more than that. She’d break your heart. There was something wild and elusive about her. It was something to hear the sisters singing. They sang easily together, in three part harmony, and sometimes they’d sing their own songs too. Oh, it was a treat.’

Wilson had his own experience of the singing sisters. In his memoir of Edna which he published in The Nation and collected into the volume of essays, The Shores of Light, he describes a trip he took in the summer of 1920 from New York to Truro, Cape Cod, where the sisters and their mother had rented a cottage. He was still much in love. In those days a train ran all the way to Provincetown. Wilson was met by a man with a cart who ‘for some curmudgeonly Cape Cod reason’ dropped him a good way short of the house. He got lost in a field and had to drag his suitcase through scrub-oak and sweetfern ‘in the breathless hot August night’. At last he saw the gleam of the house which he approached across the fields. Inside the little cottage he encountered a storybook vision – the three beautiful sisters, and their raffish mother who sat up straight and smoked cigarettes while she quizzically followed the conversation. She had, wrote Wilson, ‘anticipated the Bohemianism of the daughters’. According to Milford, Wilson’s first version included the mother’s remark that she ‘had been a slut herself so why shouldn’t her girls be’. Norma made him take it out. ‘They gave me a dinner on a plain board table by the light of an oil lamp… Edna tried to reassure me that I mustn’t be overpowered by all those girls, and one of the others added, “And what girls!” Norma, the second sister, was a blonde who looked a little like Edna. Katheleen, the youngest, was different, a dark Irish type. Edna was now very freckled. All were extremely pretty’. Afterwards, the sisters sang part songs to him – European peasant songs translated into prose that Edna had turned into verse: There was one from Estonia which seemed to Wilson both merry and poignant:

Now the master’s son, riches spurning,

Weds the farmer’s maid of his yearning;

Now the girl the rose garland covers,

Leaves her father’s house for her lover’s.

Tra la la. Lonely my heart, dream laden.

Would that I the bridegroom were, of so sweet a maiden.

And the three sisters sang to the enchanted young writer songs they had concocted in their girlhood in Maine: ‘Let us sing a little song/To the men we’ve loved so long/And to those we’ve only loved/A little while/ A little while…’

The cottage had only two rooms on the first floor, with no partition between them. The only privacy Edmund could find with Edna was outside on a swing on the porch. Before the mosquitos drove them back indoors, he managed formally to ask her to marry him. She did not immediately reject him. ‘In any case,’ wrote Wilson, ‘it was plain to me that proposals of marriage were not a source of great excitement’.

Nancy Milford did well to interview Edna’s sister Norma over a period of years. She apparently hooted in delight when she remembered that summer of 1920 out on Cape Cod. There were swarms of bees. The sisters decided to let them have at least one sting. ‘And we held out our arms, heads turned away, eyes squeezed shut. Of course they never stung us.’ A Swedish writer, so Norma told Milford, who ‘looked so wonderfully at case in country clothes’, also had bees swarming around his house, so they were all talking about bees. ‘He’d been in the bath, he said, when a bee alighted on the tip of his penis. He remained, shall we say, perfectly still. As quick as a wink Vincent [which is what Norma called Edna] said “Where the bee sucks, there suck I”… she could say such things without a moment’s thought.’.

Norma also remembered an afternoon walking with Edna up Mount Overlook, being trailed, in a vaguely threatening way by two ‘callow youths’. ‘Suddenly Vincent turned around and crooking her finger, beckoned them. Well, they came right up, pretty quick. And she said, looking them directly in the eye, ‘It is true that we have vaginas and breasts, but we are walking alone together because it pleases us to, and that is our right. We have selected to be alone, and we intend to remain so.’ The two boys ‘took off like rabbits’.

The morning after Edmund popped his question, Edna sat on the floor in the bare living room of the cottage and recited her recent poems to him – she knew them by heart. She played the Fifth Symphony – presumably of Beethoven- on an old phonograph. She was committing the whole thing to memory. The music, raspy and blurred, came to Wilson ‘surcharged with her power’. Friends dropped by. The conversation was ‘light but learned’, with a Greek professor quoting a poem in Sanskrit. Wilson and Millay walked along the cliffs above the beach. When at last he came away, he was devastated, for ‘I was not the solution, nor was anyone else she knew; and she had come to a crisis in her life. “I’ll be thirty in a minute!” she said to me one day.’ In the months to come, the twenty five year old Wilson would try to calm himself by doing magic tricks in front of the mirror. Inevitablv the ‘blaze of ecstasy’ began – but only slowly – to die away.

* * *

Twenty eight years later he drove out from Tanglewood to see her, and this was the visit that was haunting me that sleepless night in Spain. I had read about both encounters in the same evening – Cape Cod in 1920, Austerlitz in I948 – and they were both clear in my mind. It was precisely this ease with which distantly separated events could be elided, with which lives now completed and faded could be folded into a handful of pages that made me see, in the ‘soundless dark’ what Larkin says is ‘really always there: / Unresting death’. When Edmund and Elena dropped by that afternoon in early August, 1948, the husband, Eugen Boissevain, had only one year to live, and Edna St Vincent Millay had two. Boissevain, grey and stooped, shuffled off to get Edna, leaving Edmund and Elena to wait in the sitting room. ‘The couches looked badly worn, the whole place seemed shabby and dim.’ When he brought Edna in, Wilson thought that if he had met her unexpectedly somewhere he would not have recognised her. She had ‘changed terribly'; she was somewhat ‘heavy and dumpy’, her cheeks were fat and red, she had flabby jowls. She had a bad case of the shakes. ‘Her hands shook and her mouth and chin flapped like an old woman’s’. Eugen brought martinis – he babied her, (as Wilson thought he himself used to baby Mary McCarthy) and kept drinking up two thirds of Edna’s drink on the pretext of refreshing it. Wilson may not have known it then, but Milford’s book makes it poignantly clear that Edna had suffered and fought against morphine addiction, and was now only precariously free of it. Beyond that, was the drinking. At moments, she seemed on the point of bursting into tears whenever she could not lay her hands on a book or a poem in a notebook. She was telling Wilson how excited she was to be working again after producing nothing for two years. He felt the pressure on him for his assurance, approval, praise, and he felt, ‘just as I had when she was young, that I was being sucked into her narrow and noble world, where all that mattered was herself and her poetry…’

The nervousness, which must have been felt by all four, wore off as the drinks kept coming. They talked about John Bishop, now dead a couple of years, the darkness in his poetry and about his elegy to Scott Fitzgerald which Wilson had published in the posthumous anthology, The Crack-up. She showed him the poetry she was writing – ‘It was of an almost unrelieved blackness’. She had been translating Catullus and quoted lines in which he prays to have his early pietas restored – this was in accord with her present mood. Something reminded Wilson of the Estonian folk song she and her sisters had sung to him that night he had stumbled across the fields. Frustratingly, she could not find the book it had been anthologised in, ‘but after reflecting a moment, she was able to recover the song, with its sweet little plaintive tune, and her own bitter sweet words’.

Lonely my heart, dream laden.

Would that I the bridegroom were, of so sweet a maiden.

Persistently, Wilson the critic, the kindly son of Achilles, vying with and over-riding Wilson the long-ago spurned lover, quizzed Millay the wounded bowman about her work, about differences between typescript and final versions of poems, about the direction she was taking, about the gramophone recordings of her work. Delicately, he avoided mentioning his low regard for the propaganda poems she had written during World War Two. He knew that she knew she had made a mistake with these poems, and he knew she craved encouragement. Whatever the intensity of his feelings. he was still in Edel’s term, ‘the brother to the artist’. And then, because he wanted Elena to hear the poet’s beautiful voice, he asked Edna to recite. He chose for her a poem that he thought would evoke nostalgia – it had always seemed a romantic and magical poem. It was ‘The Poet and his Book’, from her 1921 collection Second April. Now time and circumstances had revealed its obvious subject, death and oblivion. It’s a longish poem with a simple conceit: the poet’s death will not come at that moment when she breathes her last breath or when her heart finally stops. It will come later, when no one any longer reads her work. It contains a plea for survival, reiterated in a reprise, ‘Do not let me die.’

Stranger, pause and look;

From the dust of ages

Lift this little book,

Turn the tattered pages,

Read me, do not let me die!

Wilson ‘having by that time had three or four martinis’ was overcome. As Edna recited from memory in her passionate and beautifully precise voice, ‘the room became so charged with emotion that I began to find it difficult to bear. I could not weep, I did not want her to weep…’

The familiar voice, the familiar lines with their meanings newly wrought; he was being pulled back to a time when his feelings for her were of an insufferable intensity, back to a state of mind ‘so demandingly, imprisoningly personal’ – and he was determined to resist. At fifty three, it was too much for him. He tried to reassert what he called his ‘middle-aged indifference’, and protect himself with the thought of the prosperous, settled, routinized life he had with Elena, the order and deep silence of his study, the elevenses on a tray, the crisply ironed shirts. He seemed to feel the threat to him as almost violent. This visit – ‘became like the fears and desires, the revived emotions of sleep; and the changes in her were like the old images of dreams that come to us exaggerated, distorted, swollen with longing and horror. So she was still, although now in a different way, almost as disturbing to me as she had ever been in the twenties, to which she had so completely belonged – for she could not be a part of my present, and to see her exerted on me a painful pull, as if to drag me up by the roots, to gouge me out of my present personality and to annihilate all that had made it. My own life was now organised and grounded, I had children to worry and divert me; and from my present point of view, besides, it disturbed me to find Edna and Eugen haunting like deteriorated ghosts their own comfortable house in the country.’

Though Elena thought they should have stayed longer, soon after the reading of ‘The Poet and his Book’, Wilson was insisting on leaving. ‘What had desolated and frightened me there,’ he wrote in The Shores of Light, ‘was death… against which Edna when I saw her, with the drafts of her unfinished Erebean poems, was making her last fierce struggle.’ So they left, and Wilson never saw her again.

* * *

These were the ghosts that troubled my insomnia in Mallorca last October. I disinter them now – for their own sake really, and for these last brief reflections. I think it was Artaud who offered this advice to writers blocked in their work; or perhaps it was a prescription for automatic writing which long ago I adapted to my own purposes. Turn away from the typewriter, and without looking, press any key. Write the first word beginning with that letter that comes into your mind. Immediately, write a sentence that begins with that word. It used to surprise me how often the apparently randomly generated sentence would bear some close relation to my preoccupations. Sometimes, though very rarely, it actually freed me into some productive work. Of course, it’s the illusion of randomness, the freedom from the responsibilities of choice, that allows the inhibited mind its release. Similarly, I am sure that whatever book I had taken from the shelves of that rich little Mallorcan library, whatever pages I had turned, I would still have arrived at love and death.

The central undertaking of imaginative literature is the investigation of human nature. That nature is limited and defined by our mortality. and this is the subject to which most writers must eventually come. We are bound by the accidental gift of a biologically adapted consciousness to reflect on our inevitable end, on the ‘anaesthetic from which none come round’. The death of a writer is no more significant, or for that matter no more meaningless, than the death of anyone else. But by the very nature of their art, writers may leave behind them the words that speak straight from their own anxieties and terrors to our own. This should make grim reading, but strangely, it’s liberating, the more so when it’s intelligent and frank. This is ‘the sure extinction that we travel to’ – it is what we must all share. To write wisely or brilliantly about it, without taking refuge in the glow of an afterlife, offers a kind of redemption. We may be monkeys after all, but we’re damned clever monkeys. I’ve always thought there was something exhilarating, and comic in Larkin’s death poems – the old fools ‘crouching below/ Extinction’s alp’ – ‘it’s only oblivion’ – and religion’s ‘vast moth-eaten musical brocade’. ‘Aubade’ has even gained in power since Larkin’s death. He dreaded it, it came, and he was right – his brave honesty could not save him: ‘Death is no different whined at than withstood’.

That afternoon in Austerlitz, for all his memories of love giving way to premonitions of death, Edmund Wilson still had another two productive decades ahead of him. Edna Millay died two years later, alone in the house, after falling down the stairs, probably drunk. She left behind her, on the top step, a full glass of red wine. Nothing of what passed between these ex-lovers at their last meeting would exist had not Wilson taken the trouble to spend an hour with his journal afterwards. His jottings, and the later memoir, have something of the quality of great literature. What he describes – an August afternoon in 1948 – is quite specific, and it resonates beyond its particularities. As for myself and my own insomniac death thoughts, they dissolved at last in the loving and kindly embraces of my wife, and so I kept the matter at bay a little while. But there is one more death – that September friend who was suffering from the treatment of his illness. It was Ian Hamilton, who died in December. Since he had a long and important connection with the TLS, and has many friends in this room, and since he was, in the spirit of Edmund Wilson, a complete man of letters, of fine and independent judgement, a poet, biographer and critic who made a life for his criticism outside the academy, and who admired Arnold, and who wrote with the lucidity that Arnold prescribed, I’ll end with him. Writing of Edna St Vincent Millay he says of the distraught, victimized tone of her more authentic poems, ‘…we don’t really believe, and nor does she, that Lover A or Lover B can help her much. The real torturer is Death, or the idea of Death. Death is unfailingly constant; Death means what it says. Sexual passion is, at best, a way of keeping the real enemy at bay… An indignant, almost regal death-defiance is often at the centre of Millay’s sexual bravado, and it can make for heart-rending pathos… She will deal with death, she boasts, as she would deal with an insistent, unwanted suitor.’ And he quotes the simple stanza

With all my might

My door shall be barred

I shall put up a fight

I shall take it hard.

She saw off many suitors, including Wilson, but this date she could not turn away.

It was Ian who put up the fight, and we who are taking it hard, this loss of such a gifted man. The lines about Millay are from his forthcoming book, based on Johnson’s Lives of the Poets, and it’s called, tellingly, Against Oblivion. And for those who would like to read, or re-read Wilson’s piece on the Philoctetes, ‘The Wound and the Bow’, it can be found in the Penguin Book of Twentieth Century Essays, beautifully edited, need I add, by Ian Hamilton to whom I give the last word. Here is the short poem, ‘Biography’, which says everything I’ve said tonight in just four lines. It was read out at his funeral by his brother Stewart:

Who turned the page? When I went out

Last night, his Life was left wide-open,

Half-way through, in lamp light on my desk:

The Middle Years.

Now look at him. Who turned the page?

 

 

 

TLS Lecture, 2001


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