In this week’s Dispatches from The Secret Library, Dr Oliver Tearle celebrates the rough edges of one of modernist poetry’s most rebellious voices
Richard Aldington (1892-1962) is a figure who tends to be mentioned alongside his more famous contemporaries: as an imagist he usually figures less highly in histories of the movement than his sometime wife, H. D., while as a novelist of the Great War he comes behind Ernest Hemingway, Ford Madox Ford, and Erich Maria Remarque. As a poet-critic he is mentioned after people like T. S. Eliot and William Empson. Richard Aldington was many things: poet, editor, critic, biographer, novelist, modernist, anti-modernist. He was a rebel even within the rebellious movement to which he nominally belonged.
Not long after her poetry began to appear in print, H. D. was labelled ‘the perfect imagist’. If that is the case, Richard Aldington might be given the complementary sobriquet, ‘imperfect imagist’. This is not so much because his work lacks polish (although it sometimes does) as because he refused to conform to Ezra Pound’s directives for imagism – his famous ‘A Few Don’ts’ – and instead forged his own looser, rougher kind of verse which shared some affinities with Pound’s modernist vision but was, ultimately, Aldington’s own. If imagism rebelled against the sterile and derivative style of Georgian verse, then Aldington rebelled against the rebellion without going full-circle and ending back where the Georgians started. He was a loose cannon, writing loose verse.
Not that Aldington didn’t think the Georgians were worth resisting. He characterised them as ‘regional in their outlook and in love with littleness. They took a little trip for a little weekend to a little cottage where they wrote a little poem on a little theme.’ Imagist poems were small, but were not little. Much like the Japanese haiku – one of Pound’s models for the movement – the eternal and numinous was overlaid with the trivial and transient. Aldington’s ‘In the Tube’ details a journey on the London Underground during wartime, with each passenger’s resentful eyes staring at the poem’s speaker as if asking what right he has to live. ‘Cinema Exit’ describes the swarms of people leaving the cinema after a film, while ‘London’, written in 1915, offers a vision of the city which is haunted by Aldington’s own fear that London will descend into a pile of ruins, of ‘walls crumbling into clay’, before the war is over. Other poems offer glimpses of everyday life in the city: the poet admires the beauty of the moon while doing the washing up, or looks at the ‘noisy booths’ and ‘black murmuring crowd’ on Hampstead Heath.
Aldington’s poetry also reveals a poet far more at home with personal expression, with the Wordsworthian notions of ‘emotion recollected in tranquillity’ and the ‘spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings’. Where his fellow modernists like T. E. Hulme and T. S. Eliot embraced classicism (restraint, self-discipline, emotional tautness), Aldington remained, at heart, a romantic. After the imagist movement died away (before the First World War was even over), Aldington wrote a long poem, A Fool i’ the Forest (1925). This remarkable narrative poem, which Aldington claimed was more inspired by May Sinclair’s verse-novel The Dark Night than T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, sees Aldington contemplating the conflict between the two forces, Eros and Thanatos, Dionysian and Apollonian, id and superego, which coexist, and jostle for supremacy, within the poem’s narrator – and, by extension, within all of us. As I argue in a book-length academic study of the modernist long poem which I have just completed (The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem), the poem also bears the stamp of D. H. Lawrence’s influence, such as Lawrence’s own long poem about the war, ‘New Heaven and Earth’.
A Fool i’ the Forest is also a poem in which the Apollonian idea of order and classicism is roundly ditched – quite literally, as the narrator of the poem hurls the Conjuror character, who embodies classical restraint and a staunch rationalism, into the Thames. But romanticism and the Dionysian spirit have already perished in the Great War, when Mezzetin, who embodies this impulse, was killed. Aldington’s poem seems to ask what’s left for English poetry. Where can it go when the war has killed off romantic idealism and one distrusts the fierce worship of reason that’s set up to replace it?
After A Fool i’ the Forest, Richard Aldington would revisit his own war experiences in his first novel, Death of a Hero, which appeared in 1929. He wrote several long poems after A Fool i’ the Forest, but would focus more on fiction and biography in his later years. His The Complete Poems of Richard Aldington remains sadly out of print: I have a battered old hardcover copy of the 1948 publication. Aldington deserves to be back in print, so who’s going to get his poetry back out there?
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Oliver Tearle is the author of The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem, available now from Bloomsbury.