Excerpts from The Heart to Artemis
What a disappointment I was to my parents! All their friends had liked me as a child but here I was with the raw aggressiveness of a boy, clamouring to be loosed upon a world that had no use for me. My father might have coped with the situation if I had had a mathematical mind but what was he to do with a young savage who was only interested in tearing society apart to see how it worked? It must have been disconcerting when a guest, meaning to be kind, asked me what my hobbies were and got the answer, “I want to find out how people think.” Once in an unguarded moment I said something about writing. There was a roar of laughter and a visitor answered, “Oh, no, Miss Winifred, I’m afraid that is a little out of your range but I’m sure you’ll run the garden splendidly in a year or two.” Usually I was careful and silent. I prayed to be forty, knowing that as long as I was young nobody would listen to me. I seldom had more than half an hour a day to myself. It taught me concentration because such moments were so precious no noises could disturb them and I usually spent the time memorizing pages of poetry to repeat during our interminable walks. It was a training in the ancient oral tradition but also a dangerous practice because it absorbed the energy that should have gone into creative work. Yet what else could I have done? It was morbid to read so much, they said, and selfish to want to write.
I do not know how I should have lived if it had not been for one of those little magazines that, as Gertrude Stein was fond of quoting, “have died to make verse free.” It was Poetry and Drama, edited by Harold Monro. The English contributions were too conventional to touch me but F.S. Flint had written articles on modern French poetry and I found in them for the first time the magic word “Mallarmé.”
Mallarmé’s ideas exploded in my head. We desire perfection when we are young, not knowing what inspiration is the skin boat of the seal woman, here momentarily, as suddenly vanished. I had been groping towards the idea of a poésie pure and I was willing to give up everything else to find it. I was utterly alone and for that reason, le verbe, as the French would say, had become of supreme importance. I thought of it as Pegasus and saw it as a way to freedom. In my innocence, I took the words literally and supposed that l’azur meant that Mallarmé had wanted to be a cabin boy and run away to sea. Unconsciously, I imagine, I caught some echo of his own unhappy schooldays although I knew nothing then about his life. Perhaps I was not so wrong after all, remember the famous yole? I had so great a thirst for life that when it came to me through certain of the lines, I could hardly bear to listen to them. There was a sense of infinite adventure in the words, what were they but a huge Atlantic roller, curling over and bursting into foam? It was as if a captain had suddenly come up to me and said, “So you want to go to sea? Very well, go forward, we’ll have to try you out.” [pp. 179–181]
America was my first love affair and I have never got over it. My mistress perhaps, because we have been both perceptive and also inconstant. I am deeply and traditionally English by temperament but whatever recognition I eventually received came from the other side of the Atlantic. Sometimes I think that Fate allowed me to have my desert training as a child for a special purpose. It enabled me to see both sides of two powerful civilisations that might understand each other better if they did not speak the same language. We are nearer our Atlantic cousins than we shall ever be to Europe but words change profoundly in meaning when there is an ocean between them. “I want to go to America,” I said, to everyone’s astonishment because until then I had always talked about the East. “You’ll soon get over that enthusiasm,” they laughed but I shook my head. I knew better, miracles happened in America. Girls had jobs. [p. 184]
There will always be one book among all others that makes us aware of ourselves; for me, it is Sea Garden by H. D. I learned it by heart from cover to cover. The rhythms were new, it evoked for me both the Scillies and the South, it touched Mallarmé’s vision. I began the morning and ended the day repeating the poems. It was not until some months later that I discovered from Amy Lowell’s Tendencies in Modern American Poetry that H. D. was a woman and American.
We did not spend that summer in Scilly because Mrs. Banfield was kept at home through illness in the family but as a special favour Doris and I were allowed to go by ourselves to Zennor for a week or two, to run wild on the cliffs. It was then a lonely village with few visitors. Just as I had left London, Mr. Shorter had got H. D.’s address from May Sinclair who was a mutual friend and I discovered to my amazement that she was staying in the neighbourhood. I asked permission to call. It must have been a very Victorian note because she told me afterwards that when she was reading it she had supposed me to be an elderly schoolmistress. I was terrified that my knowledge of poetry might not prove sufficient to meet a writer’s standards but I hung about waiting for the postman until, in due course, I was invited to tea.
It was July 17, 1918. I had had to abstract myself from my surroundings in order to survive at all. To wish to create was a sin against the consciousness of the time. Yet I wanted things to be real, I did not want to dream. The gorse was out, I was walking across some of the most ancient ground in Cornwall, I could hear the roar of the sea. I reached a cottage with the familiar, yellow covers of a dozen French books piled up against the window sill. I knew then that it must be the right place and knocked.
The door opened and I started in surprise. I had seen the face before, on a Greek statue or in some indefinable territory of the mind. We were meeting again after a long absence but not for the first time. “Won’t you come in?” The voice had a birdlike quality that was nearer to song than speech. There was a bowl of wild flowers on the table, another pile of books on a chair. We sat down and looked at each other or, more correctly, I stared. I was waiting for a question to prove my integrity and the extent of my knowledge. All the moments of a long apprenticeship no more to be counted than the ears of corn, flashed across my brain. “I wonder if you could tell me something,” H. D. began, “have you ever seen a puffin and what is it like?”
“They call them sea parrots and there are dozens of them in the Scillies. I go there almost every summer, you must join me next year.”
I did not stop to think about the difficulties inherent in the invitation but only that my test had come through the islands and not through books. “The fishing is better in August and we drive everywhere in donkey carts. Say that you will come with me,” I pleaded. It was the moment that I had longed for during seven interminable years. [pp. 216–217]
There was only one street in Paris for me, the rue de l’Odéon. It is association, I suppose, but I have always considered it one of the most beautiful streets in the world. It meant naturally Sylvia and Adrienne and the happy hours that I spent in their libraries. Has there ever been another bookshop like Shakespeare and Company? It was not just the crowded shelves, the little bust of Shakespeare nor the many informal photographs of her friends, it was Sylvia herself, standing like a passenger from the Mayflower with the wind still blowing through her hair and a thorough command of French slang, waiting to help us and be our guide. She found us printers, translators and rooms, she was busy all those years with the problem of publishing Ulysses, yet she never lost her detachment nor identified herself with any particular group. If there could be such a thing, she was the perfect Ambassador and I doubt if a citizen has ever done more to spread knowledge of America abroad. She loved France, she made us feel that it was a privilege to be in Paris, but the common modern mistake never occurred to her, she never tried to identify herself too closely with a foreign land whose childhood myths she had not shared. Great and humble she mixed us all together instead, the bond between us being that we were artists and discoverers. We changed, the city altered, but after an absence we always found Sylvia waiting for us, her arms full of new books, and often a writer whom we wanted to meet, standing beside her in the corner.
Sylvia had both kindness and understanding. I was living a placid existence among the Swiss mountains but my family expected me to be in Paris with McAlmon. I did not want to worry my mother and so Sylvia posted letters to her from me and forwarded my mail. It may have been wrong but it saved my parents from a lot of anxiety and I cannot think that it did any harm. [pp. 246–247]
It was never Miss Stein but Gertrude from the first meeting but only very intimate friends called Miss Toklas “Alice.” Her dignity subdued the rawest, most boisterous youth. I wondered why she had not been more often painted, under an apparent repose there was such a glowing quality of life. She had subordinated her own gifts to looking after her friend yet they never grew to resemble each other as often happens in such cases. Her own personality was intact. I left the others busy with their speculations while I listened to stories of her childhood in a remote Californian valley that she transformed as she spoke into some Jules Verne island mysteriously drifting among mountains instead of seas. I wish Gertrude had written more about these beginnings in the Autobiography but I suppose they did not touch her essentially modern mind.
Occasionally we ventured to slip away into the kitchen to discuss the shops that sold the best vegetable seeds as we were both gardeners or to talk of the hardships of some French servant who had neither parents for adequate wages to protect her. Once we were sharply reproved by Gertrude for leaving her circle. I am afraid that while I had a profound admiration for Gertrude, it was Miss Toklas whom I loved. She was so kind to me. Perhaps this came from her long practice as Gertrude wrote “of sitting with the wives of geniuses” but it was very pleasant and the rue de Fleurus, if I were not with Adrienne and Sylvia, was the only place in Paris where I felt at home. [pp. 250–251]