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Richard Burton: An actor with a scholarly appetite for learning

In November 1966, Richard Burton turned 41. “I don’t seem to feel physically any older and tend to think ‘well thank God’ that’s another year gone,” he wrote a couple of days after his birthday, “I’ll change my refrain later when I’m 60. If I reach that age.” Sadly, Burton died in 1984 aged 58. But he did leave behind 450,000 handwritten words in a series of notebooks and journals, which have been meticulously gathered together into a single definitive volume of Diaries spanning from 1939 to 1983. The majority of these collected musings, which commence in earnest in the 1960s, chronicle his passionate but destructive relationship with Elizabeth Taylor, following their adulterous whirlwind romance on the set of Cleopatra (1963). Occasionally, the entries are annotated by Taylor herself and even when they’re not she’s ever-present on the page and in Burton’s everyday thoughts and contemplations. His diaries provide a very candid look at the couple’s volatile married and professional lives as well as their travels, interests, passions and temperaments. They also comprise frank and spirited accounts of Burton’s carousing, his ambivalent feelings toward his own talent, his caustic impressions of the film industry and its personalities, his role as a doting father, his scholarly appetite for learning and avid interest in literature.

Burton was born Richard Walter Jenkins on 10th November 1925 in a small village of Pontrhydyfen, Neath Port Talbot, Wales, to a coal miner father and a barmaid mother. He was the twelfth of thirteen children and grew up in a working class Welsh-speaking household. “I have been inordinately lucky all my life,” Burton wrote at the peak of his career, “but the greatest luck of all has been Elizabeth”. Shortly after the couple’s scandalous romance began Burton divorced his wife at the time, Sybil Williams, and Taylor ended her marriage to Eddie Fisher (“a gruesome little man and smug as a boot,” according to Burton). The couple tied the knot nine days after Taylor’s divorce was finalised in 1964. For the next 10 years, they jetted around the globe “surrounded by publicity and paparazzi” celebrating their love and their glamorous lifestyle. In his most tender moments, Burton lavished Taylor with boundless love, affection and gifts. “She is a wildly exciting lover-mistress,” he wrote early on in their marriage, “she is shy and witty, she is nobody’s fool, she is a brilliant actress, she is beautiful beyond the dreams of pornography…she is clement and loving, Dulcis Imperatrix, she is Sunday’s child, she can tolerate my impossibilities and my drunkenness, she is an ache in my stomach when I am away from her, and she loves me!” But he also recorded the violent clashes of their discordant tempers and their explosive rows, which would arise at any given moment in public and in private. “In the middle of the early night Elizabeth and I exchanged insults,” Burton wrote on 2nd August 1967, “in which I said she was not a ‘woman but a man’ and in which she called me ‘little girl’. A couple of months later Burton raged: “Am in a violent temper. E, as usual, has to combat everything I do or say in front of the children.” And even a couple of years later in 1971 while on a visit to Rome, Burton wrote: “I had a quarrel with E so vivacious that I went for a long walk to cool my anger.”

The ups and downs of their relationship were many and frequent, and eventually led to divorce in 1974, remarriage in 1975 and another divorce in the following year. Judging by Burton’s diaries, however, he could never quite believe his luck when it came to Taylor. “My God she’s a beauty,” he wrote after an evening out in 1968, “sometimes even now, after nearly 8 years of marriage I look at her when she’s asleep at the first light of grey dawn and wonder at her.” There was also a playful element to their relationship, which the diaries auspiciously chart. “E anxious that I write about her here so here goes,” Burton teased in 1967, “She is a nice fat girl who loves mosquitos and hates pustular carbuncular Welshmen, loathes boats and loves planes, has tiny blackcurrant eyes and minute breasts and no sense of humour. She is prudish, priggish and painfully self-conscious.” One of many ways Taylor would retaliate would be by telling Burton in graphic detail the delights of over-eating kippers, for example, and the joy of their repeating. “She is the only person, certainly the only woman who will tell you, details of the internal working of her body,” Burton wrote in September 1971, “She knows it appals me which is why perversely she enjoys telling me. Liz la Perverse.” The diaries reveal Burton’s impeccable observation skills and an abundant interest in books, places and people. The intimacy of the medium allows him to emerge as a fully rounded human being – and a man quite different from his public persona – who readily confronts the challenges of life lived in the public eye. Burton disliked the spotlight and never fully grasped the fascination with celebrity. “Why do they do it?” he once wondered after being accosted by fans, “I never gaped at anybody in my life and much as I admire certain famed people, Churchill and various writers – R. S Gwyn and Dylan Thomas, T.S Eliot, Spender, Greene, MacNeice etc etc I have never asked for an autograph.”

As the above suggests, Burton was a voracious reader and spent a lot of his free time immersed in a book. “I read P.G Wodehouse’s’ latest Do Butlers Burgle Banks? in one sitting,” he noted in an early entry, “it’s exactly the same as all the others. He’s still mining the same vein of gold, but it’s as effortlessly entertaining as ever.” A little later in life, Burton developed an appreciation of poetry, boasting that it was “a magnificent thing to discover poetry in middle age”. He took a particular interest in Dylan Thomas and W.H Auden, with whom he was once invited to read. He later remarked: “Auden has a remarkable face and an equally remarkable intelligence.” Burton wrote of his fellow actors with equal shrewdness. “Marlon’s immorality, his attitude to it is honest and clean,” he notes of Brando, for example, “he is a genuinely good man I suspect and he is intelligent. He has depth…Very little misses him as I’ve noticed.” Amid numerous pages of descriptions of writers, actors, politicians and people in general, Burton comments on important world events – the UK general elections, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin’s landing on the moon, Jackie Kennedy’s marriage to Aristotle Onassis, Russian spy Oleg Lyalin defection, the disgraceful death of Nelson Rockefeller and so on. Most of the entries, however, are of a more personal nature and document Burton’s insecurities, vanities, disappointments, drinking and eating habits which he tried to curtail and control throughout his life. “Being (relatively) sober for the last three or four days I have learned a great deal,” Burton wrote in July 1969, “drink, for instance, is a great anodyne. I had forgotten how boring people are. I’d forgotten how afraid people are. I’d forgotten how boring I am. And how all of us lead lives of quiet desperation, and bugger you Thoreau.” 

There is no artifice with Burton – a true Welshman – but occasionally his frankness is somewhat unpalatable as it is, for example, when he documents Taylor’s intimate medical ailments. There is a fine balance between openness and indiscretion and occasionally – even if very occasionally – Burton misses the mark. But his love for Taylor never comes into question, as even in their later years after numerous suspected infidelities, brutal cattiness and decades of turbulence Burton remains firm in his feelings, confessing on paper in late 70s that he loves her still, “mindlessly and hopelessly”. The later entries in the volume are sparse and laconic and bear little resemblance to Burton’s intelligent, revelatory, witty and fascinating ruminations of his heyday. Surprisingly, it seems that much of his unhappiness was a result of his profession. “Very edgy and cantankerous” he wrote in 1966, “no doubt the prospect of working tomorrow is the reason. Always the same before I start a job.”  This sense of anxiety and insecurity plagued him throughout his career. “Off to work,” he wrote in 1971, “in case I hadn’t mentioned it before I hate my work.” This was reportedly due to the fact that he felt he had wasted his talent by working for Hollywood rather treading the boards in London. “My lack of interest in my own career, past present or future is almost total,” he declared in  August 1971, “all my life I think I have been secretly ashamed of being an actor and the older I get the more ashamed I get.” Burton’s Diaries were bequeathed to his last wife, Sally Hay, whom he married in 1983, a year before his death. She gifted them to Swansea University in 2005. They have been thoughtfully compiled and edited by Professor Chris Williams, and give a rare and exclusive look into the life of Richard Burton – the man.

Publisher: Yale Books 
Publication Date: September 2012
Hardback: 704 pages
ISBN: 9780300180107

Julian Maclaren-Ross: A Bloomsbury flaneur and colossus of freelance literature

Julian Maclaren-Ross’ Collected Memoirs are a master-class in autobiographical writing. His recollections strike an off-beat chord, shifting between dolefulness, mirth, vulgarity and the genuinely outré. Published in a beautiful moss-coloured paperback by Black Spring Press, the book showcases Maclaren-Ross’ talent as a great wit, and a man of intellect and erudition. Often remembered as a Fitzrovian gadabout, a fine raconteur and a literary mendicant, Maclaren-Ross remains an esoteric figure, revered among a select number of fellow writers but largely forgotten by the reading public. His Collected Memoirs are full of experience; his childhood in the south of France, wartime army barracks, down-and-out boarding houses and subfusc sordid little pubs scattered around the midnight metropolis of London. As with much of his fiction, Maclaren-Ross uses informal, colloquial language to convey his life in all its fascinating detail. This use of a demotic vocabulary constitutes a literary style, redolent of cigarette smoke and drink, which is entirely his own. Booze was a lifelong crutch in Maclaren-Ross’ life, so much so that he seemed unable to face the world without it. Accordingly, he could usually be found holding court in one of the many infamous saloons in the nub of Soho, partaking in the revelry that has come to define his work.

In the 1930s Maclaren-Ross worked as a hapless vacuum cleaner salesman in Bognor, a part of his life that was later documented in the novel Of Love and Hunger (1947). He recollects: “I was there because I had answered an advertisement which began INTELLIGENT MEN WANTED, and found out too late that it meant learning to sell vacuum cleaners. The firm, however, paid an advance of £2-10 and the fare to London, find your own digs, so I’d enrolled at the training school.” Needless to say Maclaren-Ross didn’t quite make it as a salesman. He did, however, while not selling vacuum cleaners in London, meet several publishers. Among them was Jonathan Cape, who would prove instrumental in getting Maclaren-Ross to write more short stories, which his House would undertake to publish. Maclaren-Ross’ reminisces: “Jonathan Cape has been dead for some time now, but I have never forgotten the white head and charcoaled black suit, the tall square figure standing on his doorstep in Bedford Street, one hand raised to wave good-bye and point the way to where I could best catch my bus.” Yet despite this encouragement, it was really the war that provided him with the necessary material to write. After a short stint in the army from which, following desertion, he was eventually discharged due to mental health problems, he published a book of topical shorts called The Stuff to Give the Troops (1944).

At the peak of his penurious fame, he was producing reviews, radio scripts and journalistic features by the dozen, working through the night after hours of drinking and converting wild impassioned pub discussions into fascinating vignettes. Although forever scraping by on the charity of friends, acquaintances and publishers, Maclaren-Ross was known as much for his writing, his formidable intellect, as he was for a lifestyle that often saw him broke, sometimes homeless and perpetually in poor health. A typical denizen of nocturnal Soho, he was once described by friend and fellow writer Anthony Powell as having the “air of a broken-down dandy, though just what breed of dandyism was not easy to define.” It seems, by and large, that Maclaren-Ross’ talent and career was impeded by self-destruction, a theme that runs through the Collected Memoirs with a kind of abject theatricality. These reminiscences often include stories about his time on the battlefield, but the snapshots of war he relays tend to tell human stories, rather than document the atrocities of combat. Here he is in one entitled Company X: “I remember one night standing in a trench next to a corporal when all sounds of strife had long since faded and any danger was clearly past, both of us frozen to the bone despite long woollen underpants, battle dress, greatcoat, balaclava helmet and woollen gloves…when I cursed our lot the corporal stolidly replied: ‘Could be worse mate.’ I said: ‘How could it be worse?’ We’ve been here two bloody hours frozen solid…so how could it be worse?’ The corporal said stolidly: ‘Could be bleeding sight worse mate. Could be pissing down with rain as well.”  Maclaren-Ross talks of his time in the army with reluctant fondness, despite the fact that he was almost killed while working on a firing range. A wayward bullet had caromed off his helmet, and he recalls that “For years I carried this bullet about as the One with My Name On it, possession of which, according to army superstition, guaranteed immortality, at least for the duration.” He later lost it down a city street drain.

He also lost many friends; but then he made many too: Anthony Powell, George Orwell, Nina Hamnett, Henry Green, Eric Ambler, Joyce Cary, Brian Howard. And (perhaps the closest of these friends) Dylan Thomas, whom Maclaren-Ross met in 1943 while working as a screenwriter for Strand Films (producing short, government-funded propaganda). The two became regular drinking partners, and could often be found at the Wheatsheaf, a popular pub near Oxford Circus. Inspired by the bustling bohemian subculture of 1940s London, Maclaren-Ross resolved to write his memoirs, destined for serialisation in the London Magazine. The first instalment depicted his friendship with Thomas, and it is here that we learn of their initial, and slightly awkward, meeting: “…in the office assigned to us”, Maclaren-Ross recalls, “Dylan and I stood uneasy and shame-faced, like two strange children sent off to play alone by a benevolent adult, in the belief that because they are contemporaries they’re bound to get on well.” But they did get on, encouraged to do so by the Strand’s boss Donald Taylor. Eventually, Dylan confessed to have read Maclaren-Ross’ work long before the two were introduced: “He didn’t tell me, nor for a long time did I find out, that he’d read the stories aloud to Taylor, insisting that I’d be taken on at the Strand when discharged from the army: that in other words, I owed my job to him.” This quiet fraternity encapsulates the nature of their relationship, and Dylan’s unrelenting belief (“You’ll pull it off one day”) in Maclaren-Ross’ talent.

And pull it off he did. Posterity hasn’t been kind to Maclaren-Ross, depriving him off his deserved prominence in English literature, but his work speaks for itself. The Collected Memoirs contain a considerable range of topics, anecdotes and incidents written in a variety of styles. The highly literary childhood reminiscences in The Weeping and the Laughter, with their evocative descriptions and vivid narrative syntax, recall the work of Vladimir Nabokov. They are full of brilliantly eccentric characters, numerous idiosyncrasies, acutely deadpan humour – in fact, these qualities pepper the memoirs throughout. Lackadaisical passages slowly unfold with droll interpositions and qualifications, vibrantly recapturing the fears and fixations that define the lives of “delicate” children. And then there is Maclaren-Ross’ father, the most important of the book’s characters. Speaking of him in The Coloured Alphabet, he recalls: “He discouraged, even in wartime, anything likely to promote hatred between nations and would not countenance the use of the term Boche nor allow me to draw the Kaiser’s head on the shell of my breakfast-egg and then smash it in with a spoon, as other children did. This attitude, combined with his dislike of all militarism, which as an ex-officer wounded in the Boer War he felt entitled to express whenever he liked, was apt to be misunderstood when aired in public, and led to his half-strangling a man on a bus who accused him of being unpatriotic and pro-German.” Another character of note is Maclaren-Ross’ nanny, who was Belgian and whom he called Nanna. We learn that “She had an accent in speaking English not dissimilar from that of the French governess in Uncle Silas, if what she said were phonetically rendered and though her disciplinary methods did not resemble those of this fictional prototype, they were at the time quite severe enough to keep me in check. She also had a moustache which prickled unpleasantly when she kissed me; this did not happen often, luckily, as all demonstrations of affection were kept for public exhibition only: in private our relations were on a strictly practical plain…Unbeknown to me, however, Nanna’s days with us were numbered. It was a passion for atrocity stories that finally earned her the sack.”

This facility in depicting the eccentricities of character is evident throughout, yet Maclaren-Ross’ is especially perceptive when it comes to describing the people he knew best among them his fellow drinkers. In Regulars, Wits and Bums, talking about the hierarchy of boozers in the Wheatsheaf, he explains: “They made up the background and the unsung chorus and occasionally, on an off-night, the entire cast. These fell roughly into three categories: Regulars, Wits and Bums. Regulars, of whom Mrs Stewart was the doyenne, included the old Home Guard who though extremely old wore on his tunic medal ribbons of more campaigns than even he could possibly have served in: it was thought that the tunic or the ribbons had been handed down to him by his grandfather, and I was using him as a model for the old sweat in the Home Guard film which Dylan and myself were then writing. Then there was the Central European sports writer, now relegated to the middle of the counter from which it was not so easy to get a drink; the orange faced woman (so called because of the many layers of make-up which she wore which made it impossible to assess her age), whose presence in the pub made it sound like a parrot house in the zoo and who was reputed to have silk sheets on her bed (though no man was brave enough to investigate the rumour); and Sister Ann, the tart who was more respectable than many other female customers: she mostly moved in a no-man’s-land between public and saloon bars and patronised both as it suited her . . . Wits came in various shapes and sizes, but could be distinguished by the fact that none was ever heard to say anything witty: indeed one elderly Irishman, who wore a grey wideawake hat and was supposed when young to have written a very witty book, never said anything at all . . . Bums (some of whom under their new designation as Beats are still about), were of two kinds: (1) young men and women just down from provincial universities and wrapped in college scarves which after going several times round their necks were still long enough to hang down behind: these were known to us as the Slithy Toves since members of both sexes resembled facially the curious corkscrew-like creatures depicted by Tenniel in his illustrations of Alice [in Wonderland], and (2) a number of shaggy bearded types who had managed to dodge the service and lived communally in the cellar of a blitzed building, where they made lampshades and toy animals out of pipe cleaners while dealing in the black market on the side for a living. Their leader was known, for obvious reasons, as Robinson Crusoe and they called themselves the Young Anarchist Movement. None of them had any political convictions.”

Even when Maclaren-Ross is entertaining, much of his writing is underpinned by pathos. This, to a certain extent, was a product of his frustration with the absurdity of the world, and this frustration occasionally prompted sessions of morbid introspection. These feelings, however, were not new: as he himself documents, they had been with him since childhood: “The solitary, the strange and the withdrawn always fascinated me as a boy; perhaps I recognised in them a foretoken of my future self.” Speaking further of his childhood in The Coloured Alphabet, Maclaren-Ross’ remembers how he had been “born with red hair. Later on this fell off and brown hair, which became progressively darker, took its place. My father had started life with auburn hair and my mother’s was black, so presumably both parents were satisfied: though not always with my subsequent conduct. Indeed there were times as I grew older, when my father expressed the opinion that the Devil had got into me, and my mother that I took after my uncle Bertie: a relative (her brother, incidentally) for whom a bad end had frequently been predicted, and who did finally figure in a case that achieved international publicity.”

When Maclaren-Ross’ isn’t regaling the reader with accounts of meeting the famous (“I glanced around and as I did so Graham Greene himself appeared quite silently in the open doorway. I was startled because not even a creak on the stair had announced his approach. Seeing me there gave him also a start, and he took a step back. He was wearing a brown suit and large horn-rimmed spectacles, which he at once snatched off as if they had been his hat.”) or expounding about his rambunctious nightly adventures, he writes quiet – and beautiful – stream-of consciousness prose. It feels like the reportage of an observing spectre. Here he is in the End of a Perfect Day, sitting sedately in the reading room at the Plaza Mickey Rooney, watching the world around him: “I settle down to write, someone plays the same tune over and over again on a piano in the games room. Men step over your feet with plates of cakes and cups of tea slopping into the saucer. One trips and drops the lot. Shattered china and a steaming brown puddle on the floor. An incredibly old man with a purple nose peddles newspapers: Anyone like the latest? A lance corporal asks me for a light; some men start singing to the piano; a girl of about 16, daughter of one of the servers, sits down in the next armchair and talks. I kissed her once under the mistletoe at Christmas and she’s never got over it. It’s impossible to work here, I decide to go back and type out what I’ve written.” And what this Bloomsbury flaneur and colossus of freelance literature has written is a spectacular body of work.

Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Bishop: “Together till life’s end”

It must be almost five years ago that I read Robert Lowell’s letters, and ever since then I have been meaning to read his complete correspondence with Elizabeth Bishop. I was given Words in Air several years ago for my birthday and only just recently finished the colossal tome. It is now impossible, at least for me, to think of one poet  without the other, or write about them in that vein, as their friendship, which lasted three decades, survived wars, revolutions, failed marriages, breakdowns and supernumerary love affairs and influenced both their lives and their work more than any of the other tribulations. The two were bound by an ineffaceable connection fortified by a “love that was more than love”, which Lowell once surmised in a letter by saying: “You and I are simply one”. Albeit their love never took form in a physical sense, Bishop was the only constant female fixture throughout Lowell’s life, and for his part, he envisaged the two of them together, “till life’s end”.

Many have viewed Bishop’s life and career, independently of Lowell, through her longstanding relationship with Lota Soares, her “secret problem” with drink, and “the smallest of oeuvres”, a mere 70 poems which saw her status elevated to one of the greatest “20th-century poets” on par with the likes of “T.S. Eliot, W.B. Yeats, Wallace Stevens and W.H. Auden”. Even more ascribed this framework of interpretation to Lowell, whose canon burgeoned with fervid alacrity and gathered readership with every volume while Bishop’s remained exclusive compendious and obscure. But for me the two poets have almost always been intrinsically linked together, not only through a lifetime of letters and personal histories but also by an incomparable “conjunction of the minds,” parallel and infinite. Bishop was an alcoholic, Lowell a manic depressive; both were consumed by their craft and an unshakable “dry loneliness,” often finding solace in one another and the thought of freeing themselves from the manacles of social-reality and people’s “universal good-will” by fleeing to Paris or Italy to spend their “declining years”.

The two wrote to one another with great verbal finesse and enthusiasm, whether about their mutual friends, commenting on the deeds and misdeeds of Marianne Moore, Randall Jarrell, Ezra Pound, Allan Tate, Robert Frost, Dylan Thomas and many others; their work and intertwining artistic endeavours; their lives tinctured by disorder and early sorrows, and everything from the profound to the everyday. Lowell always had the capacity to incite antagonism in orthodox strongholds but was a brilliant, indefatigable, talker and incredibly amusing despite his obdurate frankness. His letters are full of incisive wit, elation, ecstasy, disillusionment, despair, sympathies and admonitions, genuinely vernal raptures, occasional bouts of malice and capricious episodic ellipses, transections, changes of tempo and grammatical errors. Lowell begins one letter with the following: “I was just making my bed (if you could call it “making”) when I became aware of a dull burning smell. ‘God, I must have left a cigarette burning.’ I rush into my other room; no cigarette. Absentmindedly I feel in my pocket. There, a lighted cigarette in holder consuming a damp piece of Kleenex. The pocket was also stuffed with kitchen matches. Oh my!” To which Bishop replies in her customary linguistic lambency and unique vernacular of jocularity: “I am mailing you a SAFE if not particularly aesthetic ashtray – I got two of them a while ago. They’re the only ones I’ve ever found that will really hold the cigarette while you write or scratch your head, and yet if you forget it, the cigarette automatically goes out…I was going to give one to Lloyd Frankenberg for Christmas, but they didn’t come in time and now you’re going to get it instead.”

Elizabeth Bishop was introduced to Robert Lowell in January 1947, at dinner party in New York hosted by Randall Jarrell. An exceptionally reticent woman with a, “round face and very thick, unruly, greying hair,” Bishop felt immediately at ease in Lowell’s company and the “backward and forward flow” of supererogatory correspondence commenced immediately, ending only with Lowell’s death in the late 70s. When Bishop wrote the innate shyness which beset her in public was cast aside and thus Lowell was one of very few people cordially inaugurated into this very private woman’s inner life and imagination. Shortly before his passing Lowell wrote to Bishop, “you [have] always been my favourite poet and favourite friend,” and the feeling was wholly mutual. Reminiscing about Lowell looking a “bit rumpled and unkept” with a “large smear of ink across his chin,” Bishop simply concluded that she “loved him at first sight”. In the early years of their friendship the two passed through a shifting and ambiguous phase of mutual attraction, which never developed into anything other than a near proposal of marriage on Lowell’s part during a “long swimming and sunning Stonington [Maine] day” in 1948 when Bishop disclosed to Lowell otherwise uncharted key aspects of her early life.

Almost a decade later, after a manic “harsh frenzy”, Lowell recalls that day, saying: “…our relations seemed to have reached a new place. I assumed that it would be just a matter of time before I proposed and I half believed that you would accept. Yet I wanted it all to have the right build-up. Well, I didn’t say anything then…I was so drunk that my hands turned cold and I felt half-dying and held your hand. And nothing was said…I wanted time and space, and went on assuming, and when I was to have joined you at Key West I was determined to ask you. Really for so callous (I fear) a man, I was fearfully shy and scared of spoiling things…Let me say this though and then leave the matter forever; I do think free will is sewn into everything we do; you can’t cross a street, light a cigarette, drop saccharine in your coffee without really doing it. Yet the possible alternatives that life allows us are very few, often there must be none. I’ve never thought there was any choice for me about writing poetry. No doubt if I had used my head better, ordered my life better, worked harder etc., the poetry would be improved, and there must be many lost poems, innumerable accidents and ill-done actions. But asking you is the might-have-been for me, the one towering change, the other life that might have been had.”

Neither Bishop nor Lowell mentioned the matter again, but their correspondence moved forward year by year. Lowell would send fresh batches of poems in wait of critique from his “unerring Muse,” but the letters were equally and mutually influential in both their individual artistic development and their personal lives. They emerge in a swirl of vividly-recorded quotidian experiences, full of impromptu snapshots drawn from the casual, peculiar, maudlin and happy domestic moments. Such moments punctuate the letters throughout, their tone often wry and witty but always and consistently sympathetic and longing, and of a literary genre in themselves. The interchange records an unfolding intimacy, a colloquial brilliance and a wealth of literary and social history of the American poetry scene and its outstandingly talented mid-century generation. But above all, they unveil a remarkable connection between two lives inexorably linked together till death, which came to Lowell in a form of a heart attack in a New York taxi in 1977 and two years later for Bishop who died of a cerebral aneurysm. Their legacy remains characterised by two people who wrote exclusively to and for one another until the “imperfect end”.

Randall Jarrell: A very tender and gracious terror

I never realised what a treasure trove an Oxfam bookshelf can be until I snagged myself a brand new copy of Randall Jarrell’s Letters for the exiguous sum of £4. The letters, thoughtfully selected, edited and annotated by Jarrell’s second wife Mary, span three decades and chronicle the life of a man whose “work-and-amusement” revolved around literature. In writing to Allen Tate, Robert Penn Warren, Edmund Wilson, John Crowe Ransom, William Carlos Williams, Robert Lowell and other contemporaries Jarrell speaks habitually of the vertiginous peaks and dells of professional life, most often through a sustained colloquial effulgence that allowed his imagination to roam discursively not only over matters of literary interest but also on issues of social and historical importance.

The general consensus about Jarrell is that he was a better, more emphatic and puissant, critic than poet. I am inclined to agree and although his academic brilliance, intellectual dexterity and critical acumen were largely unmatched, his poetry has often been described as “derivative” and “technically lacking”. Admittedly, his verse does not appeal to my aesthetic sensibilities (perhaps with one or two exceptions), but this cannot be said of his collective missives, studded and spiced with humorous musings, clever cogitations and spiffy apophthegms, often vacillating in tone and resulting in a quaint mixture of swagger, reticence, irreverence, coyness and superiority. If there is one aspect that defines Jarrell’s epistolary prose, however, it is his tendency to dash-off quick philippic sentences that strike the reader like a riding-crop. While this device repeatedly buoys the witty, jokey and affectionate argot of his letters, it also comes to the fore in his professional undertakings – most notably his critiques which saw him soar as an important, if formidable, arbitrator of American cultural climate from the 1930s onwards.

Perhaps it is no surprise then that Jarrell was feared among a smattering of garreteers, who ducked like frightened mergansers each time he poised his fountain-pen, much like a rifle, in their direction, since his astringently veracious outbursts went some way to making-and-unmaking reputations. I think it is important to point out, however, that this critic did not discriminate in favour of his friends, nor mind their lepidopterous egos, accosting them in print whenever he felt necessary. Ironically, he did not enjoy this vital sideline, once quoting George Bernard Shaw’s remark about the critic’s fate in reference to himself: “His hand is against every man and every man’s hand is against him.” Endowed with infallible taste and a daunting acuity, he often quipped about his subjects but avowed that he would never sacrifice a poet for the sake of a witticism (while the word “never” may not be entirely accurate, the statement is essentially true). “It would be a hard heart,” Jarrell once said “and a dull head that could condemn, except with a sort of sacred awe.” Yet condemn he did, quite frequently if without much pleasure, and thereby earned himself a reputation as a “terror”.

The letters give us the man behind the polemic, behind the poems and the public-face which he himself at times detested. As such they are a priceless offering providing an extraordinary plenitude of biographical, archival and personal information which plays a vital part in revealing the polarity between Jarrell’s private and professional persona. And so it seems that Lowell, who once described Jarrell as “very tender and gracious” but also as someone whose “frankness” was often thought “more unsettling than the drunken exploits of some divine enfant terrible, such as Dylan Thomas,” was right because in the end, irrespective of how you look at it, the truth is always the same: “People ask you for criticism but they only want praise”.

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