“But they who shared with me my life’s adventure. Who tossed their ducats like dandelions into the sunlight, I know that somewhere they with songs are building, Golden Towers more beautiful than my own.”
Here we have a series of books—two more are planned—that restore to view the literary career of John Gould Fletcher (1886-1950), a writer whose work has been heretofore more often cited than read. These handsome books give a new and well-framed access to the lifework of a significant modern man of letters.
Fletcher is today remembered best as a pioneering Imagist poet, one present at the creation, one to be mentioned with T.E. Hulme, Ezra Pound, Amy Lowell, and H.D., but also one who went his own way, being the disciple of none. It’s rather quaint to read in Amy Lowell’s Tendencies in Modern American Poetry (1917) that “for the discerning eye, no living poet has more distinction of vision or of style. In [John Gould Fletcher], indeed, we see the beginning of that new order of which I have so often spoken. To the poet, he is a real teacher, indicating new directions, opening up untrodden ways of thought.” The new directions and untrodden ways of the revolution of the Image led toward modernist masterpieces like Hugh Selwyn Mauberley, The Waste Land, The Bridge, Paterson, A, and other such relics. But they also led toward “Amygism,” undergraduate cloning, the disease of “creative writing,” the democratization of art, a collapse of standards, and the ruin of poetry.
That’s not to say that John Gould Fletcher is to blame for any of the worst of it, of course. He was very much an individual, a man of integrity, more of an old-fashioned gentleman, perhaps, than we’d expect a revolutionary to be. Fletcher lived through the transition from a fin-de-siecle aestheticism to its Modernist extension, and he was still writing after World War II. But he was not a great poet, or even—to my tastes—a poet of the first rank. The tenth poem from his Irradiations: Sand and Spray (1915) may be representative:
The trees, like great jade elephants,
Chained, stamp and shake
‘neath the gadflies of the breeze;
The trees lunge and plunge, unruly elephants:
The clouds are their crimson howdah-canopies,
The sunlight glints like the golden robe of a Shah.
Would I were tossed on the wrinkled back of those trees.
Is that not a good poem? Yet it is also a decorative and shallow one; its exoticism has not worn well. Perhaps the best thing about it is its sound and vers libre swagger.
Lines from the fifth poem of the same series are as well known as any Fletcher wrote:
Whirlpools of purple and gold.
Winds from the mountains of cinnabar.
Lacquered mandarin moments, palanquins
swaying and balancing
Amid the vermilion pavilions, against
the jade balustrades.
Glint of the glittering wings of
dragon-flies in the light:
Silver filaments, golden flakes
Rippling, quivering flutters,
repulse and surrender,
The sun broidered upon the rain.
The rain rustling with the sun.
Here again the too-much-of-a-muchness cloys; and yet the poem is a valuable experiment. I find that many of Fletcher’s poems spring to life when read aloud, so that their rhythm can be felt and their vowels sounded. These two lines (from “Green Symphony”) make good “poetry in the mouth”:
The trees lash the sky with their leaves.
Uneasily shaking their dark green manes.
But I must say that I think, too, that passages in his Autobiography are better poetry than many of Fletcher’s poems. His recollection of pre-War London reflects his broad awareness of “The lights going out in Europe,” the losses of the Great War as he knew them both in that city and on the continent:
How remote is that day to us now! . . . It was the day when the Derby and Ascot still had a meaning to all Englishmen as great social functions; the season of horse coaches, with scarlet-clad footmen and coach horns, running down to the racecourses; the hour when the flower stalls of Piccadilly Circus, now, I believe, banished, blossomed forth in new and more incredible colors; the time when Caruso and Melba sang nightly at Covent Garden . . . the moment of the Royal Naval and Military Display at Richmond, of the “Trooping of the Color” in St. James Park, of the Flower Show at Chelsea Hospital. The natural stiffness and correctitude of English deportment then unbent; contrasts of wealth and of squalor were more cunningly blended; the grimiest and the dingiest, the most dignified and the most absurd, the worst-planned and yet the most lovable of Europe’s great cities, took on new life and color, as the great clouds, blown by the southwest wind past Land’s End and Portland, up the Channel, were tinged with blue smoke and the gold of midsummer sunlight while they soared over the chimney-potted rooftops.
In other eloquent passages of evocation and memory, Fletcher’s rich descriptions of performances of Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du printemps and of Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde must be among the best responses to those modernist masterpieces. Having himself been thoroughly steeped in the advanced artistic circles of that time, he showed what it meant to be aware of an intellectual revolution while it was happening, just before the War.
What’s more, Fletcher’s Autobiography gives us much of what we look for in a work of that genre—personal revelation as well as intellectual history. His stories of falling in love with the two married women who were to become his wives—the major emotional engagements of his life—are intense and moving accounts, being the fascinating confessions of a lonely soul. Fletcher’s celebration of his love for and marriage to Charlie May Simon is sadly undercut, however, by our external knowledge that even such a love could not save him from the mental condition that drove him to suicide.
Because he was often the man who was there in some strategic episodes of literary history, Fletcher’s Autobiography will always have some readers. But his narrative of his own life deserves many more readers than those who want to go over the ground of old literary wars. Fletcher’s own story is an instructive, reflective chronicle of his intellectual quest, his search for beauty and authenticity, and his emotional and spiritual adventures, from Little Rock to London and back. Fletcher became a sophisticated regionalist, a local globalist, a man for whom charity, finally, began at home. After all his years as an aesthete and Bohemian, he came back to Arkansas:
I saw no reason, in that spring of 1933, why Arkansas should not achieve a genuine culture of its own, as significant in the pattern of American living as the culture of New England or of New York had been. My hope, however, of the achievement of any very vital and original culture for my native state has now largely waned; but I still see no reason why Arkansas could not some day do it . . . The lack of support, moral and financial, for genuine expression of local and indigenous culture is one of the most flagrantly vicious facts in American life today. How many American authors, artists, intellectuals have made reputations, only by getting away from their own native backgrounds, and by successfully ignoring the small-town disposition to criticize . . . H.L. Mencken had long since singled me out as having achieved a reputation only because I quitted my native state with rejoicings, at the age of twenty-one. I had come back to try to prove him mistaken; but I now found that those people of my native state were generally less interested in the fact that I had come back as an Arkansan, than in the other fact that I had lived for so long in Europe.
One of Fletcher’s contributions to his native state and culture was the composition of his history of Arkansas, written in parallel to his personal return arid his poetic recreation of that history in the form of an imagistic epic. The prose Arkansas, first published in 1947, is a delightful work, an amusing and stirring summation of regional history as seen by a poet who had been both a London socialist and a son of the Confederacy. Stories of duels and political shenanigans, of backwoods humor and violence, and of the place of Arkansas in American history from Hernando de Soto to J. William Fulbright, all enrich Fletcher’s colorful narrative. Studded with anecdotes and stiffened with reserve, Arkansas has a way of staying in the memory, as when Fletcher, recounting the life of Albert Pike, digresses to describe the state’s finest mansion, the Albert Pike house (now a Center for the Decorative Arts)—the house Fletcher himself grew up in!
When my father first took me, a child of three, to the “old Pike Place,” in the late summer of 1889, there were considerably more than five immense oaks on the lawn there, including stumps; and my youthful ingenuity was much taxed to find out which of these magnificent trees, far older than the house itself, were the ones that Pike had named after his five children. The old brick pigeon house, from which the “hundred snowy doves” had emerged “to settle on the grass” in the same poem, was still in existence, though disused; it has long since followed most of the oaks and all of the Pike children into oblivion. Also gone now, though outlasting my own childhood, was the name “Isadore Pike,” scratched carefully with a diamond upon the pane of an upstairs window; but the legends of that place are still poignant in my memory.
And he goes on to recite the legends. Fletcher sees Thomas Hindman as a hero, and Prairie Grove as a Confederate victory, in a coherent and generous view of local habitations and names that held me enthralled.
I suppose that Arkansas should be classified with other works of Southern regional consciousness; for Fletcher had, after all, contributed an essay on education to the famous Southern symposium, I’ll Take My Stand (1930). There’s a sense in which his history of Arkansas is related to Allen Tate’s biographies of Stonewall Jackson and Jefferson Davis, to Robert Penn Warren’s books on John Brown and latterly on Davis, and to Donald Davidson’s volume on the Tennessee River.
But in superficial contrast to Fletcher’s regional and historical focus in his history of Arkansas, the Selected Essays show his urbanity, his range, his international consciousness and culture—explorations of Imagism; encounters with the Orient; appreciations of individual writers such as Hardy, Conrad Aiken, and the Fugitives; and essays on art and philosophy. This volume (like the others) commands a respect and admiration for its author, who emerges as an old-fashioned humanist as well as a revolutionary synthesizer. Ever alert to the demands of art and the integrity of cultures, John Gould Fletcher today impresses us with his absence—where is the bohemian gentleman of his style, the man of letters of such honor to be found?
The University of Arkansas Press has surprised me by doing excellently well just exactly what a state university press is supposed to do. Congratulations are also in order to the editor of the series, Lucas Carpenter, for an imposing service to American culture and to modern literary history.
[Selected Poems of John Gould Fletcher, Vol. I, Selected and introduced by Lucas Carpenter and Leighton Randolph, 340 pp., $24.95 (cloth), $14.95 (paper)]
[The Autobiography of John Gould Fletcher, Vol. II, Edited by Lucas Carpenter, Introduction by Ben Kimpel, 415 pp., $24.00]
[Arkansas, Vol III, by John Gould Fletcher, Introduction by Harry S. Ashmore, 440 pp., $24.00]
[Selected Essays of John Gould Fletcher, Vol. IV, Edited and with an Introduction by Lucas Carpenter, 464 pp., $25.00]
All published at Fayetteville and London: University of Arkansas Press