Wednesday, January 27, 2021

496. The Complete Correspondence of Gordon Bottomley and Thomas Sturge Moore (2)

The correspondence between Sturge Moore and Bottomley (see last week's blog) begins in March 1906 when Bottomley asks Sturge Moore for permission to include some of his poems in a production of James Guthrie's Pear Tree Press. This first section of the online resource ‘The Complete Correspondence of Gordon Bottomley and Thomas Sturge Moore’ runs from 1906 through December 1917, and contains no less than 253 letters, which, when printed, occupy almost 400 pages. The editor's work has been a mammoth undertaking, and we have to admire his perseverance. 

Charles Shannon, 'T. Sturge Moore in a Cloak' (1896)

Sturge Moore very often proves to be a self-assured teacher, while Bottomley's letters regularly contain intimate biographical and witty paragraphs that make one understand why a rather unknown poet and dramatist was appreciated, for example, by Ricketts and Shannon. Sturge Moore is often annoyed by the overflowing admiration in Bottomley's letters, while the latter, in his northern English isolation, shows gratitude for every sign of life (in 1914 Bottomley moved to the Sheiling, Silverdale, where he and his wife Emily lived from then on).

In 1930 Sturge Moore's character would almost lead to a break, as editor John Aplin observes in a footnote to letter 103 (19 July 1913): Sturge Moore's 'stubborn unwillingness (or perhaps inability) to entertain the legitimacy of alternative points of view is characteristically displayed here, and would eventually result in GB coming close to breaking off their correspondence at the end of 1930.' An example is Moore's hard-hitting commentary on an early version of Bottomley's play King Lear's Wife. 

All your arguments are neither here nor there as far as my point of view is concerned. My dogma is not at all as you state it. Your defence merely restates the initial error of all impressionists, the pathetic fal[l]acy that there is somewhere in an artist something loyalty to which alone gives value to his work. I deny this in toto. [...] What you say about Michael Angelo is as wrong as what you say about Yeats & Whistler. Read in Art & Life what I say about visionary art, and you will understand how superficial your idea is.

Meanwhile, his criticism is so merciless that his wife had to intervene and the letter was accompanied by an introductory note that had to be read first (letter 117, 20-3 June 1914). Bottomley kept telling Sturge Moore that he appreciated his criticism:

I feel now that this fault, which you have disentangled so delicately and justly, pervades all my earlier work poems and makes them seem to be written in a dead language which was never spoken by more than one man […]. 
(Letter 8, 22 September 1908).

Behind Sturge Moore's sometimes furious letters are views that the French poet and philosopher Paul ValĂ©ry also expressed: 

There is no finality: nothing is ever really finished; nothing that is that counts, that lives. A work of art goes on living and changing its sense & its form long after the artists bones have mouldered into dust.

Bottomley perhaps understands Sturge Moore better than the other way around (this correspondence is interesting for that reason alone). He replies, for example:

when you hit hard it is because you like and expect the other man to hit hard too; and that if I did not do my best according to the truth of my nature you would despise me either as a shirker or a woolly head, and I should lose you
(Letter 118, 1 July 1914).

Thomas Sturge Moore, 'Pan Mountain' (1893)

In June 1908 the Bottomleys visited London and met Sturge Moore for the first time, which gave Gordon 'much gratification and delight': 

Your "Siegfried" engravings are [...] haunting; you have a power over the romance of primeval things which comes close to my own desires, and in this series it takes complete possession of me. I value them very truly, and I am planning to hang them side by side where I shall constantly see them.

(Letter 4, 31 July 1908).

Charles Ricketts, 'Nimrod' (1893)

Meanwhile, one of their mutual friends is mentioned for the first time in letter 6 (16 August 1908). Bottomley discusses Charles Ricketts's drawing of Nimrod, which he mentions in connection with gestures that he himself tries to capture in words:

I long to depict in words such sudden, expressive gestures as the upthrust elbow of the awakened woman in Ingres' "Stratonice", the aversion of the woman's head in Rossetti's "Found" (the pen drawing), the filmy spasm that passes across the face of Nimrod in that tremendous early drawing by Ricketts (in the de Tabley book), or the surge of the horse in the last block of your own "Siegfried" series.

Bottomley and Sturge Moore discussed art and literature (including the works of Flaubert), but also theatre and music, such as Wagner's operas. Sturge Moore considered Hugo von Hofmannsthal 'the greatest poet now alive' (letter 11, 30 November 1908), he especially loved Elektra (at that time not yet a Strauss opera).

Their appreciation of the visual arts differed. Bottomley got in touch with Paul Nash early on, Sturge Moore viewed the post-impressionists with great suspicion and thought Van Gogh and Picasso were mostly idiots: 'Picasso was very tallented [sic] but seems to have lost his way & become silly [...]', and while he blamed the post-impressionists for lack of progress, he remained blind to true innovation (see letter 54, 3 February 1911).

The letters contain all sorts of little gems, partly because Sturge Moore tries to keep Bottomley abreast of what is happening in the London art world. He talks, for example, about the success of Otto Weininger's book Sex & Character and comments that Ricketts was absolutely delighted with the term 'henid', 'a vague, half-formed thought or feeling' (letter 13, 17 January 1909). We also read that Ricketts had no great opinion of Tagore: 'Ricketts is quite hopelessly out of it in denying him any real value' (letter 105, 15 September 1913).

Sturge Moore describes a new painting by Ricketts, 'Faust Riding the Centaur' (now at Manchester Art Gallery) and Bottomley regrets that he will not see the show, and hopes that he can view it later in Ricketts's studio:

His work, in all its forms, stimulates an intensity of vision in me which is like a thirst in my eyes; I am afraid you will laugh at my impotence when I say that on seeing things of his my first impulse is always a desire to rush and buy them, regardless of everything – but indeed it is so – until my lean and impotent purse brings its unfailing paralysis, and I return to earth ruefully. 
(Letter 16 1 March 1909)

Charles Ricketts, 'Faust Riding the Centaur' (1909)
[Collection: Manchester Art Gallery]

Elsewhere he wrote that it was now almost twenty years since he first encountered the name Ricketts (Letter 75, 9-13 August 1912): 

I think we shall see no man to come near him in our time, for he has that kind of universality in his nature which one recognises in only Shakespeare or Rembrandt. 

Sturge Moore replied: 

He could not work even as an artist on their scale because his perceptions are not richly varied enough are not so athletic. Such a scale is as impossible to him as their blunders, carelessness, or lapses into vulgarity would be. He comes for me nearer to Rossetti, Giorgione, He has their or Keats. He has their wonderfull [sic] and enchanting power of selecting and rehandling artistic material and is perhaps more successful and less limited than either. More successful than Rossetti less limited than Keats & Giorgione, though the chief limitation of both of these was possibly early death. 

(Letter 76, 27 August 1912).

Of course Bottomley disagreed with him:

I feel that you are right in saying that my comparison of Ricketts with Rembrandt and Shakespeare will not hold good in matters of scale and taste; but, on the other hand, I am not content to class him with Keats, Rossetti and Giorgione at all points. For a chief characteristic of these men is a pungency (almost an aroma) of manner which makes their personal point of view the most prominent thing in their work – as if they looked at the world through a tinted window; while Ricketts has some thread of the impersonal individuality of the greatest men, seeing the world in a white light, as they do. 

(Letter 78, 31 October 1912).

Ricketts was central to his art appreciation, and through Ricketts (and Yeats who they had met earlier), the Bottomleys became acquainted with many people, for example: Masefield, Lord Dunsany, Cippico, the Michael Fields, Pickford Waller ('in his house full of Conders and Shannons and Fantins and Rossettis'). 

For Bottomley, Oscar Wilde's work was also exceptionally relevant. Bottomley went through a crisis (probably both physically and mentally) around the time of Oscar Wilde's trial in 1895. (There seems to be a hint of homosexuality). In a later memoir he wrote about Wilde's work:

For he enchanted my youth: his light was the first glimmer of dawn for me: he first taught me to discern a pure and steadfast Beauty that was the greatest thing in life, and showed me how its essence could be expressed in word. 

(Letter 35, 18-22 January 1910).

Bottomley also wrote a touching letter about his father and his high school days when he hated poetry and was hooked on Natural Science. Bottomley's letters are wittier than Sturge Moore's. On a photograph of his own house, Bottomley writes: 'You will see that our house is practically composed of a chimney and a vestibule' (letter 37, 4 March 1910), and about Halley's comet he remarks: 'I've crept out of bed several mornings before the birds, to look for the comet in the dusk, leaning out of the open windows to see more sky. But I have missed it so far; perhaps because the sky is always cloudy and stormy – and a nightgown isn’t the proper garment for astronomical research' (letter 38, 4 May 1910).

I have to assume that the letters are well transcribed; the annotations are trustworthy, and convincing, but there are no illustrations of the letters, so there is no way to check the texts. However, we can rely on Aplin's record as an editor! 

Still, a few illustrations of the letters would not have been out of place. 

The notes contain a wealth of information and also quote many other letters, for instance to Michael Field, Sydney Cockerell, or Thomas Bird Mosher and letters from Charles Shannon to Bottomley.

To be continued (although I do not know exactly when; there is a mountain of letters!)