The late Hugh Kenner’s Gnomon, published in 1958, includes “Remember That I Have Remembered,” a reassessment of Ford Madox Ford’s great World War I tetralogy, Parade’s End, published in separate volumes between 1924 and 1928, and reissued in one volume in 1950. Kenner’s concern is fixing Ford prominently in the modernist firmament. Half a century later the job remains unfinished. Educated readers know The Good Soldier, and thanks to William H. Gass a few have read The Fifth Queen. Fewer still have enjoyed his James and Conrad reminiscences, and perhaps The March of Literature. But Ford was compulsively prolific and published more than 80 volumes, and I don’t absolve myself from neglecting the bulk of his production. Since reading The Good Soldier in 1971, I have by my count read 12 Ford titles, counting the contents of Parade’s End as one book. Here’s Kenner’s assessment of Ford:
“Such writing, page by page, phrase by phrase, mass by mass, employing every wile with utterly self-effacing virtuosity, can scarcely be equaled in English.”
I read this passage Wednesday afternoon, riding the campus shuttle to pick up my 6-year-old at day camp, chilled by the miracle of air-conditioning, with the temperature outside topping 93 degrees, and my reactions were several: how great a critic and writer Kenner was, with an underrated gift for appreciation; how much pleasure Ford has given me in the last 36 years; how little read he is; how much I wish to read and re-read his work. Then, blessed serendipity: How pleasant Thursday morning to read Bryan Appleyard’s encomium, “For Fordy”:
“T.S. Eliot said Ford Madox Ford's `Antwerp’ was the best poem written about the First World [War]. It's certainly the best I've read. Ford's The Soul of London - which I have just finished - is also the best book I've read about London.”
Appleyard links to “Antwerp,” but I would point out this passage from the fourth section of the poem:
“With no especial legends of marchings or triumphs or duty,
Assuredly that is the way of it,
The way of beauty . . .
And that is the highest word you can find to say of it.
For you cannot praise it with words
Compounded of lyres and swords,
But the thought of the gloom and the rain
And the ugly coated figure, standing beside a drain,
Shall eat itself into your brain.”
In 1971, Basil Bunting, who had worked as an assistant to Ford in 1923 at the transatlantic review, edited Ford’s Selected Poems. Bunting, always tartly candid in his opinions, made no outsized claims for Ford’s poems, but in the Preface he wrote:
“He tried to write as he would speak, informally, and added to conversational diction the rhythms of conversation. That was rare in 1910, almost unknown.
“It is difficult to compose so without letting the poem sag. Ford sweated up his halliards like a sailor. He took a fresh purchase and another swig again and again till the sail’s last wrinkle was smoothed out.”
Frank Wilson, linking to Appleyard’s post, seconds Bunting’s conclusion and writes of “Antwerp”: “It is a great poem - language authentically encountering reality, the sort of utterance that makes all discussions of style and technique sound foolish.”
Thanks to Appleyard I am re-reading the poems and have ordered The Soul of London. “Antwerp,” no simple-minded “antiwar” poem, reminded me that Ford had served during the Great War as a lieutenant in the 38th Infantry Brigade. He was 40 years old when the war started. In 1916, at the Battle of the Somme, he was shell-shocked and was shipped home the following year. Ford’s best work, in addition to the implicit pleasure it provides, is proof that a civilized man and his works endure. Here’s Kenner’s testimony:
“The artist who can actually get down on paper something not himself – some scheme of values of which he partakes – so that the record will not waver with time or assume grotesque perspectives as viewpoints alter and framing interests vanish, has achieved the only possible basis for artistic truth and the only possible basis for literary endurance. Homer so registered values and was the educator of Greece. It is the hardest and rarest of jobs. This or that novel which we in haste mistake for a mirror of the age – The Forsyte Saga, for instance – usually turns out to be a reflection in moving water. Language alters, connotations slither, the writer leans on what his audience understands, and that understanding does not endure.”
This reminds me of a passage in Ford’s Joseph Conrad: A Personal Remembrance. Together, Ford and Conrad had collaborated on The Inheritors (1901), Romance (1903), and The Nature of a Crime (1909). In his notoriously unreliable though often moving memoir Ford wrote:
“We had the intimate conviction that two and only two classes of books are of universal appeal: the very best and the very worst. The very worst, securing immediate attention by way of some trick, gradually fade from the public memories; the very best, being solid and ship-shape productions of solid and ship-shape men with no nonsense about them, remain. We attempted then to turn out solid and ship-shape books.”
That’s it: “No nonsense about them.”