Saturday, December 17, 2016

`The Sweetening of the World'

“You may say that everyone who had taken physical part in the war was then mad. No one could have come through that shattering experience and still view life and mankind with any normal vision. In those days you saw objects that the earlier mind labelled as houses. They had been used to seem cubic and solid permanences. But we had seen Ploegsteert, where it had been revealed that men’s dwellings were thin shells that could be crushed as walnuts are crushed. Man and even Beast . . . all things that lived and moved and had volition and life might at any moment be resolved into a scarlet viscosity seeping into the earth of torn fields.”

In July 1915, at age forty-two, Ford Madox Ford enlisted in the Welch Regiment. A year later, twelve days after the start of the battle, he was sent to the Somme in northeastern France in time for the bloodiest one-day engagement in English military history. Ford was blown into the air by the explosion of a German shell, suffered memory loss and for three weeks remained incapacitated. In September 1916, Ford wrote to his friend and literary collaborator Joseph Conrad (ed. Richard M. Ludwig, Letters of Ford Madox Ford, 1965):

“Emotions again: I saw two men and three mules (the first time I saw a casualty) killed by one shell. A piece the size of a pair of corsets went clear thro’ one man, the other just fell—the mules hardly any visible mark. These things gave me no emotion at all—they seemed obvious; rather as it wd. be.”

Ford was hospitalized again with lung problems exacerbated by exposure to poison gas, and in March 1917 was sent home as an invalid. For the rest of the war he was stationed on the North Yorkshire coast, where he helped train troops. Ford was promoted to lieutenant and then to captain, and in 1918 held the temporary rank of brevet major. On Armistice Day, Ford was still in North Yorkshire. He was discharged on Jan. 7, 1919.

The passage at the top is drawn from one of his many memoirs, It Was the Nightingale (1933). By then Ford had already published his masterpiece, the Great War tetralogy Parade’s End (1924-28). In its third novel, A Man Could Stand Up (1926), Ford describes the scene of men – some living, some dead -- being dug up from the mud in the trenches after a German shelling: “It annoyed Tietjens that here was another head wound. He could not apparently get away from them. It was silly to be annoyed, because in trenches a majority of wounds had to be head wounds. But Providence might just as well be a little more imaginative.”

Ford, like Chekhov, is one of literature’s blessed ones, almost saintly in his service to letters and fellow writers. In The March of Literature (1938) he describes himself as “an old man mad about writing,” and the book as “an attempt to induce a larger and always larger number of my fellows to taste the pleasure that comes from always more and more reading.” The war changed Ford forever but he remained a benign, avuncular, fabulating figure. With Aleppo in mind, and Dave Lull’s assistance, I found a splendid passage in Ford’s memoir/travel book, The Great Trade Route (1937), published two years before his death (the ellipses are Ford’s):

“It is time that all our public opinions united over areas vaster than any humanity has yet conceived of . . . it is time that we took in hand the sweetening of the world . . . the making it safe for children.”

Ford was born on this date, Dec. 17, in 1873.

[Dave Lull has also found “sweetening of the world” in Lancelot Andrewes.] 


Alexander MacAulay said...

It seems likely that Ford was familiar, from Brightman's translation, with the expression "sweetening of the world" in relation to children but Lancelot Andrewes himself never wrote any such phrase in English and I don't think he would have approved of it, as fortunately or unfortunately, it is almost certainly a mistranslation of his Greek 'yper nēpiōn glykasmou tou kosmou'.

Dave Lull said...

John Henry Newman apparently translated this as ". . . for Infants the delight of the world . . . ."

See The private devotions of Lancelot Andrewes

Alexander MacAulay said...

A decade before Newman, in 1830, Peter Hall had translated the phrase as "for the sweet innocence of infants" following the Latin translation printed alongside the Greek text since 1675. "Propter innocentium delicias mundi" is an alternative reading of the ambiguous Greek syntax. In any case, even if ‘glykasmou’ is taken appositionally, the verbal noun ‘sweetening’ is Brightman’s embellishment, one which Ford at least seems to have found appealing.