Monday, June 27, 2022

Ardent love of liberty

Sir Roger Twysden died all of 350 years ago today. Having inherited his father’s baronetcy and estate, he became something of a rebel against the authorities just at a time when king and parliament were starting their civil war. Imprisoned several times, he took to writing books on English history and constitutional law. None of his diary, though, saw publication until the mid-1850s, when Kent Archaeological Society published extracts. The Society claimed that any reader of Twysden’s journal could not fail to admire the man ‘for the depth of his learning, the soundness of his acquirements, his unfeigned and active piety, his domestic virtues, his loyalty, his ardent love of liberty, his truly English spirit.’

Twysden was born at Roydon Hall in Kent in 1557, the son of Sir William Twysden, a scholar and courtier during the reigns of Queen Elizabeth I and King James I - the latter made him a baronet. Roger Twysden was educated at St Paul’s School and Emmanuel College, Cambridge, before entering Gray’s Inn in 1623. Two years later he was elected Member of Parliament, and then in 1629, as eldest son, he succeeded to the baronetcy on the death of his father, and subsequently spent several years managing the family estate and becoming a county justice of the peace. Increasingly he became disturbed by royal excesses, especially ship money, a defence tax levied without parliamentary support. But he was also disturbed by the ambitions of Parliament.

At the outbreak of civil war in 1642, Twysden joined a petition of grievances against the King, Parliament and the ecclesiastical authorities. This led to his being imprisoned; the following year he tried to escape to France, and he was again jailed. His estates were also sequestred. During his incarceration he wrote The Laws of Henry I and began a study of parliamentary history which later led to his foremost work - Certaine Considerations upon the Government of England. Although released after 1647, he continued to campaign on justice issues.

After the execution of the king in 1649, Twysden eventually reached a settlement over his estate at Roydon Hall, and retired there quietly. In the following years he wrote two historically important works, both published in his lifetime: Historiae Anglicanae Scriptores Decem, and An Historical Vindication of the Church of England. With the restoration of the monarchy in 1660, he resumed his position as a magistrate and was made Deputy Lieutenant of Kent. He died on 27 June 1672. Further biographical information is available from Wikipedia, or the late 19th century version of Dictionary of National Biography

Kent Archaeological Society first published what it called Sir Roger Twysden’s Journal in its publication, Archaeologia Cantiana, in 1858. It included a fascimile of the first page with Twysden’s own title - An Historicall Narrative of the two howses of Parliament. The Archaeologia Cantiana volume is freely available at Internet Archive. However, it is worth noting that Encyclopaedia Britannica refers to Twysden’s text as autobiography rather than a diary, and no bibliography of English diaries includes Roger Twysden. They do, however, include his wife, Isabella, whose diary was also published by Kent Archaeological Society, though not until 1940, as The Diary of Isabella, Wife of Sir Roger Twysden, Baronet, of Royden Hall, East Peckham, 1645-1651. This latter work is not available online.

The Society’s introduction to Twysden’s journal gives the following details: ‘The Diary [. . .] was completed and carefully prepared for the press by Sir Roger himself, and was evidently intended for publication during the Protectorate. It is written throughout in his singularly clear and neat hand, with the disfigurement of hardly a single correction; except in a very few instances chiefly made requisite by the Restoration. Why it was never published, it may not be difficult to conjecture, when we remember how entirely engrossed Sir Roger Twysden was, during the latter years of his life, in those learned researches to which we are largely indebted for the little we know of the early history of England. While occupied in these all absorbing labours, he probably laid aside his private memorials, entrusting the publication of them to those of his family who should come after him, a charge which they seem to have neglected, leaving thereby to us the gratification of first presenting them to the world. The manuscript is too long to be printed entire in a single volume of our serials; we therefore purpose giving it in successive portions. When we shall have subjoined his private correspondence, and a few extracts from his note-books, we shall be much mistaken if our readers do not love and admire the man as warmly as we ourselves do, for the depth of his learning, the soundness of his acquirements, his unfeigned and active piety, his domestic virtues, his loyalty, his ardent love of liberty, his truly English spirit.’

30 March 1642
‘The sayd 30th of March, Sr Edward Dering came unto me early in ye morning, wth whom I went the same day to London, leaving my deere wife great wth child in ye Country.’

31 March 1642
‘The 31, beeing thursday, I yielded myselfe prisoner to ye Sergeant.’

1 April 1642
‘The 1 Aprill, I, with the rest (onely Sr Edward Dering, who then absented hymself, though after hee appeered, was examined, and again went away), was called in to the howse of Commons, examyned on some few questions, and all of us committed to ye Sergeant of ye Mase attending them, who sent us prisoners to an howse in Covent Garden, tyll wee could bee farther questioned by a Committee of Lords and Commons, appoynted for that service, who soone after did it, examyning us upon about 30 Interrogatories, upon wch nothing appeering against us, and our answers agreeing, so far as their could not, nor did ought appeere against us, but an intent onely of petitioning, and yt too upon the Countrie’s desires, the Howse of Commons, not satisfyed, would have us answer to some 9 Interrogatories upon Oath.

But how to doe this for men that had not cast of all shew of legall proceedings was not so easy; for themselves had declared against all oaths ex officio, and every man’s mouth was full of ye Maxime, “No man was obliged to accuse himselfe;” how could wee, then, bee brought by oath to accuse each other, beeing alike criminall. Besides, who should doe it? For if it bee graunted (wch I beeleeve will bee a matter of much difficulty to prove), The Lords’ howse, or my Lord Keeper in it, may in some cases administer an Oath to a Commoner, may a Committee of the Lords and Commons doe it? I conceive they had no president for doing so. Yet that was our case. Mr Spencer, Sr George Strood, and myselfe must upon oath have accused each other, though told wee were not to answer anything concerned ourselves. But our integryty was such, nothing of consequence could be discovered more then beefore. After this, they two (and Sr Edward Dering absent) were empeached. Of my charge a stoppe was made, wch after was layd aside as forgotten; and those two having by good advise put in their answer, there was no farther prosecution of them, onely wee were commanded to call in all ye copies of this petition had beene by us distributed, wch was done accordingly.

Some may, perhaps, admire why the two howses were so transcendently incenced at this petition? why they laboured so earnestly the finding out a plot wch was never imagined? why they tooke so unheard of wayes in their proceedings? for when ever did the howse of Commons appoynt theyr members to joyn wth ye Lords in examining Commoners upon oath, much lesse such as were criminis participes, one against ye other? Why they shewde so strange partialyty as to incourage petitioning in some, yet make this a crime so heynous, as it is certajn a lawyer of the Howse went so far as to say there were in it things not far from treason? and another gentleman, of, I dare say, sincere and pious intentions, told me, defending it, I did not understand the ayme of that Petition; to whom I could onely wish the event might prove me ye foole.

But he will not think it strange, when he considers (as ye issue made good) ye leading men in the Howses had an intent themselves to govern ye nation by votes, paper Orders, and Ordenances, wth wch, if the King should not concur, or any other oppose, they would force obedience by the sword, wch this did a little too soone discover (they having no army, nor in a settled way of raysing one), and might open men’s eies, break their credit, and make them (by whose contributions they must bee at first enabled) lesse willingly contribute to their owne ruine. For these men, presently after the perpetuity graunted, resolved on a change in Church and State, swallowed up all Episcopall, and Dean and Chapters’ revenues; yet, not to lose ye Cleargy totally, persuaded such of them as had beene any way kept under by the Bishops, it should bee distributed for ye improvement of smaller livings, increasing able preachers, raysing lectures, and ye like; and this they did not doubt of effecting wthout the considerable opposition of any, unless perhaps the episcopall party in ye Lords’ Howse, wch being now removed thense, it angred them greatly to see others in any kind thuart their designes, wch they saw this Petition to doe.’

This article is a slightly revised version of one first published on 27 June 2012.

Banning foreign buttons

Narcissus Luttrell - a serial chronicler, keeping diaries and journals through much of his life - died 290 years ago today. Most of the records he kept (at least those that have survived) are devoid of personal details. He is most remembered, perhaps, for his Parliamentary Diary which Wikipedia says, ‘is often the best source available for legal and political matters of the time’. Here he is, for example, reporting on a debate concerning a proposed law to ban the import of buttons: ‘Sir John Darell, Mr. Clarke, and Mr. Harley spoke against it that it would only encourage a monopoly of the trade and make the workmen idle and exact more upon the people, and only put the importers of them to bring them in by stealth.’

Luttrell was born in Holborn of a West Country family, educated at Sheen School, and followed his father into the law. However, he also attended, for a few months, Newington Dissenting Academy, learning philosophy and logic. After the death of his father, he spent a few years travelling around England before being called to the bar in 1680. He was twice elected to the House of Commons, sitting for Bossiney (Cornwall) in the second Exclusion Parliament (1679–1680) and then in the parliament of 1690–1695 for Saltash (Cornwall). He served actively as a Middlesex Justice of the Peace for three decades from 1693. On various occasions, he also served as a deputy lieutenant, a commissioner of oyer and terminer, and a commissioner of land-tax assessment. 

In addition to Luttrell’s public service, he accumulated a valuable collection of contemporary publications, including both political and poetical works. He was married twice, first to Sarah, daughter of a wealthy London merchant, with whom he had one son; and later, after Sarah’s death in 1722, he married Mary. After a long illness, Luttrell died on 27 June 1732. Further information is available from Wikipedia, The History of Parliament, or the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (log-in required).

Luttrell is largely remembered today because he left behind, what has become, a valuable historical daily record of Parliament. He first kept diaries during his travels around the country, though I cannot find any trace of these having been published. He kept so-called Chronicles (compiled from newsletters and papers) which were discovered by Thomas Babington Macaulay and published in 1857 as A Brief Historical Relation of State Affairs from September 1678 to April 1714. Various volumes of this can read freely at Internet Archive.

While serving in Parliament, Luttrell kept a very detailed journal of its proceedings. These were first edited by Henry Horwitz and published in 1972 by Oxford University Press as The Parliamentary Diary of Narcissus Luttrell 1691-1693. This can be consulted freely online at Internet Archive. Wikipedia notes that Luttrell relied primarily on secondary sources for the workings of Parliament, but that ‘he is often the best source available for legal and political matters of the time’. While the legislation of the time can be found in official parliamentary journals, Wikipedia goes on to say, ‘Luttrell's diary is often the only record of debates within the Palace of Westminster’. As a result, it concludes, Luttrell ‘provides crucial political information which cannot be found elsewhere’. According to the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, however, the diary ‘is almost wholly devoid of personal references.’ Both the parliamentary diary and the materials for Historical Relation are held by All Souls College, Oxford. Luttrell also kept a diary of private transactions between 1722 and 1725 written in Greek characters. This is held by the British Library.

Here are two extracts from the Parliamentary Diary.

12 April 1692
‘So the House met according to former adjournment - such members as were in town - and after some time the Speaker took the Chair.

And a motion was made for a new writ for Scarborough in the room of Mr. Thompson, deceased, as also another for the City of Carlisle in the room of Capt. Bubb, deceased. And the Speaker was ordered to issue his warrant to the Clerk of the Crown to make writs out accordingly, which was done forthwith.

After some time the Black Rod came with this message: Mr. Speaker, the Lords Commissioners appointed by Their Majesties’ commission desire the attendance of this honourable House immediately in the House of Peers to hear the said commission read.

So the Speaker went up, attended with the House, where the commission was read in Latin. And then the Earl of Pembroke, Lord Privy Seal, spoke: By virtue of Their Majesties’ commission to us directed, we do prorogue this parliament to the 24th of May next, and this parliament is prorogued to the 24th of May next accordingly. From 12 April 1692 to 24 May 1692.’

6 February 1693
‘Sir John Brownlow presented the petition of the inhabitants of the town of Newark in the county of Nottingham and Sir Edward Hussey presented another from Sir Richard Earl, complaining of the undue election of Sir Francis Mollineux for that borough. They were received, read, and referred to the Committee of Elections and Privileges.

The bill for prohibiting the importation of foreign buttons was reported.

Sir John Darell, Mr. Clarke, and Mr. Harley spoke against it that it would only encourage a monopoly of the trade and make the workmen idle and exact more upon the people, and only put the importers of them to bring them in by stealth.

Sir Robert Cotton, Mr. Colt, and Mr. Pery spoke for the bill that it was to encourage our own manufacture - buttons being entirely so. The 

wood is our own and so is the horse hair, which is exported hence and returned you home manufactured, whereby you lose the employment of many of your poor and consequently they must lie upon your hands.

However, the bill with the amendments was ordered to be engrossed.

The engrossed bill for the aulnage [the inspection and measurement of woollen cloth] was read the third time and passed, with the title, and Sir Robert Davers to carry it up to the Lords for their concurrence.

Then the House resolved itself immediately into a committee upon the ways and means for raising the supply for Their Majesties; Mr. Attorney to the Chair.

Mr. Neale proposed for raising the remainder of the taxes to lay a duty upon all paper and parchment used for public matters and all such to be made on this sealed paper and parchment.

Sir Thomas Clarges desired before the House went upon considering how to raise any more money, the House would compute what they had already given. The land tax I reckon at £2,200,000, the project bill at £1,000,000, the revenue £1,000,000, the continued impositions besides sugar £500,000, joint stocks £57,000. And for the duties I have offered to you I will present you with a computation thereof, and when that is done I do not think there will be above £200,000 to raise. [. . .]’

So much inner power

‘This military education is a darned good thing for me. But I suspect life has a good many blows in store for me yet, else Nature would not have endowed me with so much inner power.’ This is from the diaries of Otto Braun, a precociously intelligent young man who volunteered to serve in the German army. He was born 125 years ago today, and he died, still only 20 years old, just a couple of weeks after this diary entry.

Braun was born on 27 June 1897 in Berlin, the only son of Lily Braun, a writer and women’s rights activist, and her politician husband Heinrich. Considered a child prodigy when young, Otto spent some unhappy years at boarding school, trying to escape at least once, but was mostly educated at home by private tutors. With the outbreak of war in 1914, he joined the army, fighting on the Eastern front until he was wounded in 1916. The injury meant he could not return immediately to active service, and was employed instead by the military section of the Foreign Office. Finally returning to the front line, he was killed by a shell in April 1918.

In 1924, Alfred A. Knopf brought out The Diary of Otto Braun as edited by Julie Vogelstein and translated into English by Ella Winter. This is freely available to read at Internet Archive. The book is, in fact, a collection of Braun’s letters and poems as well as diary entries. A ‘Biographical Note’ is barely a page long, so brief was his life.

In her introduction to the texts, Vogelstein says:

‘Besides historical, philosophical, political and military writings of greater or lesser magnitude - complete and incomplete, or merely outlined - there were found among [Otto Braun’s] papers a fragment of a novel, a great number of poems, and twenty-six diaries with regular entries from his seventh year until two days before his death. From these, and from over a thousand letters which we had at our disposal, his father and I made the following selection. The mass of material, and the necessity for keeping the book within reasonable bounds, severely restricted our choice.

None of the entries were intended for publication; Otto Braun was very indignant when one of his poems was printed in a periodical while he was at the front. If the poems are to be regarded as written under an inner necessity without a thought of publication, how much more so is this the case with his diaries. “In order to account to myself, so as to be absolutely honest with myself,” thus he once described his need for this form of confession. Though they are not in literary shape, we have faithfully reproduced all the MSS., and have only corrected obvious slips of the pen.’

Here are several extracts from Braun’s diaries.

20 January 1910
‘It is curious that in the darkness one can see even the tiniest glow, while in broad daylight it is difficult to see the biggest fire; I believe the same is true of human beings.’

10 February 1910
‘I had a very interesting talk with father this morning. There is so much which leaves me unsatisfied at present. What is the purpose of Man, what is his origin? Where does all Life spring from, where do all things start?’

1 June 1911
‘It is not the ascetic, to my mind, who is furthest from becoming a profligate and a voluptuary, but the man to whom this sort of behaviour does not even occur, and who can, therefore, indulge in pleasures, even to excess, without the slightest fear of becoming a profligate.’

5 June 1911
‘Wilhelm Meister. Death of Mignon. How wonderful it is that just at the very moment at which Wilhelm abandons himself to the bourgeois serenity, embodied in Teresa, Mignon dies. I have been thinking a great deal about all these things, so much so that I must let them grow clear now, like my impressions of Florence; I am not afraid that they will vanish or grow cold.’

1 April 1915
‘To-day, in front of the sergeant-major and some N.C.O.s the captain shouted at me, without any reason, in a way that I don’t wish to describe further. Such complete lack of control in an officer was very painful. Every day I grow more calm, and, I may say, more serene, in the face of such behaviour, yet these scenes leave something worse than a bad taste in the mouth, because, completely defenceless as I am, they slowly but surely undermine my moral powers of resistance, which are bent on fighting, and not at all on meek forbearance. I know people here in the squadron who have gone to pieces through the behaviour of the company commander, and that alone. Even if there cannot be the faintest possibility of his breaking me, nevertheless I will try now, come what may, to get out of his company. Lieutenant C. advised me strongly not to file a complaint, as the captain would be put in the right any way. There’s little doubt about that, but the friendly advice I had hoped to get from Lieutenant C. was not forthcoming either.’

17 April 1915
‘The sergeant-major received me with the words: “Well, Braun, you’ve managed it. And I too (?). You will not accompany us to-day, you are ordered to the Signals Section in Lodz.” I almost fell from the clouds, was overjoyed, of course, to get away, but at first rather appalled at the idea of Lodz. Put away all my dirty army kit and reported to the major and captain.’

27 July 1915
‘Beautiful weather; went on fitting up the telegraph cable. The whole time I was most excited and thought out thrilling adventures. Suddenly I got the news that I must return at once as I was transferred to the 21st Chasseurs. That is good. I shall now get to know all there is to know of the war, the danger and the terror; it had to be. My dreams this morning were glorious, glowing; may the gods to whom I pray, the spirit of my forefathers that floats over me, my own strength which I feel within me, grant that I be successful. Hope and faith, desire and will, are my guides, and so I will tread this path cheerfully and securely, filled with that confidence which has always been my support.’

24 March 1918
‘Along the Vosges to Colmar. Beautiful sunny journey. The ancient culture of these parts permeates every village in a most pleasing manner. On a hill to the left towers the gigantic ruin Drei Ahren. In Colmar the streets, squares, yards and a delightful town hall make very charming pictures. Everything grows naturally, but is trimmed and cultivated with wisdom and understanding. One could compare the work of these Gothic architects of cities with that of a sensitive gardener. The deepest impression as regards art was made on me by the interior of St. Martin, an extraordinarily harmonious structure, in which the effect of light has been treated with the utmost skill. Suddenly the communiqué - Peronne taken, the Somme crossed. Everything else vanished. What is to be our fate?’

6 April 1918
‘This military education is a darned good thing for me. But I suspect life has a good many blows in store for me yet, else Nature would not have endowed me with so much inner power to throw off unpleasant things, always to see the best, and never to despair; nor would she have given me so great an urge to assert my individuality, nor the capacity I have, not only to overcome all petty and degrading things, but also to transform them into good, with the help of my Amor fati.’

11 April 1918 [just two weeks before his final entry and his death]
‘In the Field. I received definite news that Kurt Gerschel has fallen. Thus are they all torn away, those that were any good, that were young, courageous and full of hope in the future. He was such a frank, fresh, clean fellow, honest and straight as but few are, such a lovable being! A real lesson to Anti-Semites, brave and proud and true. May he rest in peace.’

Wednesday, June 15, 2022

Mrs Grundy’s Easter hat

The diaries of Edna St. Vincent Millay, sometimes called the ‘bad girl of American letters’, have been published some 70 years after her death. Many of the entries are rather banal, domestic, but occasionally there are flashes of the ‘bad girl’, such as in this entry: ‘I wrote a letter to the League of American Penwomen, telling them where to get off - for inviting Elinor [Wylie] to be Guest of Honor & then writing her canceling the invitation on the grounds that she is not a respectable person. The sanctified flatfooted gadgets. I wish I had been a Fifth Avenue street sparrow yesterday - or in other words:
I wish to God I might have shat
On Mrs. Grundy’s Easter hat.’

Millay was born in 1892 in Rockland, Maine, to a nurse and a teacher, though her parents separated while she was still young. She showed a precocious talent for poetry, and published a few poems after leaving school. One of these - Renascence - was included in The Lyric Year in 1912, and led to a benefactor paying her way at Vassar College from where she graduated in 1917. She moved to New York City that year, and began socialising with an avant garden literary set. She published her first book of poetry, Renascence and Other Poems, but to earn a living she tried acting and she also published hackverse and stories under a pseudonym.

Further poetry books and a couple of plays followed before she travelled to Europe for a two-year sojourn, acting as correspondent for Vanity Fair. In 1923, she won a Pulitzer Prize for Ballad of the Harp-Weaver. She married Eugen Jan Boissevain, a Dutch businessman and self-proclaimed feminist, who supported her career and took care of domestic responsibilities. In time, they moved to live in a large farmhouse near Austerlitz, New York state. Throughout their 26 year marriage they both had other partners. In 1925, the Metropolitan Opera Company commissioned her to write an opera with Deems Taylor. The King’s Henchman, first produced in 1927, became the most popular American opera up to its time.

Encyclopaedia Britannica has this assessment: ‘Millay’s youthful appearance, the independent, almost petulant tone of her poetry, and her political and social ideals made her a symbol of the youth of her time. [. . .] The bravado and stylish cynicism of much of [her] early work gave way in later years to more personal and mature writing, and she produced, particularly in her sonnets and other short poems, a considerable body of intensely lyrical verse.’ In mid-1936, she suffered a severe accident which left her in constant pain, and needing operations and morphine. Though previously a pacifist, WW2 changed her views, and she became an advocate for the US to enter the war, damaging her popularity in some quarters..

In 1943, Millay was the sixth person and the second woman to be awarded the Frost Medal for her lifetime contribution to American poetry. Nevertheless, her declining reputation, constant medical bills (including treatment for morphine addiction) and demands from an ill sister meant she was in often in debt during her final years. Boissevain died in 1949, and she died in 1950. Further information is available from Wikipedia, Encyclopaedia Britannica, The New Yorker or The Poetry Foundation.

Millay left behind a series of diaries from different periods in her life, but 90% of the entries are for her teen/youthful years 1907-1914 and for 1927-1935. Some 70 years after her death they have finally been published, edited by Daniel Mark Epstein, as Rapture and Melancholy: The diaries of Edna St. Vincent Millay (Yale University Press, 2022). The contents can be previewed at Googlebooks.

‘To what,’ Epstein asks in his introduction, ‘does Edna St. Vincent Millay owe the honor of having her diaries published and read in 2022, more than seventy years after her death? Her status as a poet and playwright of the first magnitude, secure until the 1940s, is now a subject of debate. Her poems remain in print and her play Aria da Capo is occasionally revived; but as of this writing her work is rarely included in textbooks or college syllabi. The reasons for this are largely political, or in any case extra-literary. The poet had the fortune and misfortune to become a legend in her own time, what we now quaintly call “a cultural icon.” Her binge drinking and promiscuity were notorious even in the 1920s when such behavior was commonplace. She became the bad girl of American letters who published her modern escapades in verses that demonstrated mastery of the classic forms and meters. No one had seen anything like it. Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot, who had enough Latin between them to recognize her achievement, ostentatiously ignored the upstart whose ballads and sonnets made her rich. She needed no one’s help, and what she was writing did not fit the modernists profile of “free verse.” Her success was a reproach to modernism. Meanwhile she behaved as badly as Byron and Baudelaire, Sappho in a cloche hat, chain-smoking, sipping gin, bed-hopping - a person who would not serve as a moral role model in those times. The poetry was transgressive and subversive. Compared with the unimpeachable verse of Elizabeth Bishop, Millay’s poetry is still shocking. [. . .]

She is our greatest love poet with the possible exception of Walt Whitman. She has written many sonnets that compare favorably with the best of Shakespeare, Sir Philip Sidney, and John Donne. Without an axe to grind there is no knowledgeable reader who would dispute the evidence which print has made imperishable. The great poems won’t go away no matter how many professors bar the classroom door against them. As long as there are lovers, they will be reading Millay.

And so, like George Washington, Edna St. Vincent Millay is of interest to us because she was important - a groundbreaking writer. No less an authority than the English author Thomas Hardy proclaimed that America had two great attractions: the skyscraper, and the poetry of Edna St. Vincent Millay. Her diary provides a window not only upon a unique personality and intelligence, but also the creative process that produced sublime works of art. Last but not least, it is of considerable value as “journalism,” the impressions of a woman of a certain class growing up in a New England fishing village, traveling to New York for education and a literary career, and later to Europe, before settling down on a blueberry farm in the Taconic Mountains in 1925. Virtually overnight the small-town girl became dangerously famous; and the diarist’s record of that adventure is one of the most dramatic chapters of her story.’

Here are several of the published diary entries.

4 November 1912
‘Two letters and a card from my Editor. Miss Rittenhouse, secretary of the Poetry Society of America, says, “Renascence is far the best thing in the book. If it doesn’t get the prize I pity your judges.” But it didn’t get the prize! Everything but money!’

6 January 1913
‘Someone (I think it may be Mr. Kennerly) sent me a copy of the January Forum. When I first caught sight of it I thought that it might be a sample copy, and then wondered if there could be anything about my poem in it. So I looked down the index - and there was a review of The Lyric Year by one Charles Vale. So I hunted up the page (mit hands vot zhook) and happened to strike the end of the article first so that I caught a fleeting glimpse of a whole page of my poem. After which, very calmly (!), I proceeded to hunt up my beginning and find out what was said about me. Almost all of Renascence was quoted and the comments were quite satisfactory. I wonder if any other of the January magazines will have mention of the book. I must look them up.’

28 February 1913
‘Today has been wonderful. I have done so many things. Wasn’t late to breakfast. Did a big washing in the laundriette. Translated about ten pages of French on the roof (glorious!), dressed, and wasn’t late to luncheon. Started for Barnard about quarter to two, and wasn’t late to French (translated the rest of my lesson on the subway), went over to Morningside Drive and had tea and a delightful talk with Miss Rittenhouse, her mother, and Mrs. Kendall (?). Got home at ten minutes past six, dressed, and wasn’t late to dinner. Had another birthday party (all the Jan. & Feb. birthday girls) and a lovely carnation. Mrs. Trowbridge asked me to read some of my poems aloud after dinner, and I did. Later translated 2 1/2 pages of Horace.’

24 April 1933
‘Sweethearts calf, a heifer, born either today or yesterday.

Thought we’d all have a picnic luncheon, so took everything down into blueberry pasture near my old shack where I wrote The Kings Henchman. Built a fire for coffee in a little stone fireplace where we’d often done so before, were very careful everybody right on hand in case a spark should fly into the grass, sudden puff of wind blew fire out into the dead grass, all seized our coats & began beating it out, but in less than a minute it was roaring up the hill towards the pasture barn & almost in the direction of the house. Ran to get help. Austerlitz & Spencertown fire departments called out by ranger who saw fire from tower, came very quickly, also many neighbours. Fought fire all afternoon, came within a few hundred feet of kitchen garden. I was sure that the house & everything in it was bound to go. Under control before dark, however. Lost only my shack, which burned flat, and I’m afraid, some beautiful white birches, lovely thorn-bushes, too. Also my little green leather cigarette case, Arthur Ficke gave me, which was in my coat pocket. Tweed jacket of my suit looks pretty exhausted, too. But I am so grateful that the buildings didn’t catch fire that I don’t mind anything else very much. There were no papers in my shack, either, which was lucky. Came home nearly dead. Ugin gave all the men white wine.

Deems, Mary, Ugin & I had a bottle of champagne.’

18 April 1927
‘The loveliest day that ever dawned. A soft warm, really caressing breeze. And so wonderful to have that woman away! Gene went down to A[usterlitz] & rescued the Mercer from Ferry’s barn, where she’s been since three days before Christmas when we got stuck in the snow at 2 a.m. on our way home from Santa Fe [New Mexico] via N.Y. She looks so beautiful in her new coat of paint that Robert gave her - such a beautiful car. I almost finished the sweet-peas. The boy who sold us the barbecue last year called this evening & we ordered a lot of shrubs & roses & things. Terribly exciting. I wrote a letter to the League of American Penwomen, telling them where to get off - for inviting Elinor to be Guest of Honor & then writing her canceling the invitation on the grounds that she is not a respectable person. The sanctified flatfooted gadgets. I wish I had been a Fifth Avenue street sparrow yesterday - or in other words:
I wish to God I might have shat
On Mrs. Grundy’s Easter hat.’

Thursday, June 9, 2022

Marches without water

Poor William Grant Stairs. Aged but 28 he died of malaria 130 years ago today. Having been caught up in the feverish ‘Scramble for Africa’ at the behest of the ruthless King Léopold II, he became a cruel leader himself. On an expedition to win mineral rights in Katanga many of his men died, and many others deserted. A diary he kept of his exploits in Africa, not published in English until the late 1990s, gives a good feel for the moral corruption of those enacting imperialist ambitions, as well as the arduous conditions they suffered.

Stairs was born in 1863, in Halifax, Nova Scotia, and educated in Edinburgh before attending the Royal Military College in Kingston, Ontario. He spent three years working for the New Zealand Trigonometrical Survey. In 1885, he was commissioned in the British Royal Engineers, though soon after he joined the privately-funded Emin Pasha Relief Expedition led by Henry Morton Stanley which sailed from London in 1887. (See more on this extraordinary expedition in The Diary Review article Rescuing the Emin Pasha.) On his return, Stairs was named a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society.

Subsequently, and on Stanley’s recommendation, Stairs was appointed by King Léopold II of Belgium, who privately ruled over the Congo Free State, to command a mission to claim Katanga, a mineral-rich territory, now in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. A rival expedition, led by the Cecil Rhodes’ British South Africa Company, was also after the minerals in Katanga.

Stairs set out from Zanzibar in June 1891, and ultimately achieved his goal in that Katanga became part of the Congo Free State. But, he was a cruel leader, often resorting to violence, and he lost many of the 400 men he started out with, either because they died from appalling conditions on the expedition or because they deserted. He himself was frequently sick, and while onboard a steamer on the lower Zambezi he died - on 9 June 1892 - from an attack of malaria. In 1908, the Congo Free State was annexed by the government of Belgium after the increasingly brutal mistreatment of local peoples and plunder of natural resources had become an international scandal.

Wikipedia has plenty of information on Stairs, his expedition, and the part they played in the ‘Scramble for Africa’. But more can be read in the introduction to African Exploits: The Diaries of William Stairs 1887-1892 by Roy D. MacLaren (sub-titled as ‘A personal account of imperial ambitions in Africa in the nineteenth century’). This was first published by McGill-Queen’s University Press in 1998, and most of it is free to read at Googlebooks. At the time, Roy MacLaren was High Commissioner for Canada to the United Kingdom.

According to the publishers, ‘few diaries of the period convey better than Stairs’s the nature and course of imperialist expeditions in Africa in the nineteenth century and the psychological and moral corruption caused by absolute power’. Stairs’s diaries of the Emin Pasha Relief Expedition, it continues, ‘present a candid, personal account of the long and arduous venture, including a very unflattering assessment of Stanley, whom Stairs described as cruel, secretive, and selfish’.

African Exploits is divided into two main sections: Stairs’s diary of the Emin Pasha expedition, and the diary of the Katanga expedition. According to MacLaren, the latter is less spontaneous and less personal, because it was written as per the terms of his contract, as an expedition diary. It also suffers, he says, from having to be translated back from the French (the only extant version of the Katanga diary is in French in Léopold’s journal Le Congo Illustré) and along the way has lost ‘the lively Victorian idiom which Stairs habitually employed’.

Nevertheless, here are a few extracts from the Katanga diary in African Exploits.

27 August 1891
‘I have tried, during my leisure hours, to write some verse. I certainly have not achieved anything notable, but if I have been able to analyze faithfully the changing lights and shadows of the daily life of an African expedition, I shall have realized a long-held goal.’

28 August 1891
‘Tomorrow we must tirika: sleep in the bush without water . . . an eleven hour march almost twenty miles from here to the next water. A camp without water worries me, for on the following day, the men are good for nothing.’

29 August 1891
‘We have marched twenty kilometres in five hours and fifty minutes. We passed the place where poor [Thomas] Carter [a British army officer who had tried to introduce Indian elephants to Africa] was killed several years ago. . . Our camp is near the Lake Cheia which at the moment is simply a parched expanse without a drop of water. I sent natives on ahead to search for water. . . they report only empty wells, surrounded by decomposing buffaloes, giraffes, and antelopes, all dead from thirst. Extraordinary as it is for this region, there is also the corpse of an elephant upon whose putrid flesh the Africans feed.’

30 August 1891
‘Marched from 5:15 am until 10:15 am, when we arrived at Itura with my caravan dying of thirst and exhaustion. In the wells there was no more than a small ribbon of water. An Arab whose caravan preceded ours assured the natives along that route that we rob the natives. The result is that only with the greatest difficulty have I been able to buy any food. And to think how kind and courteous I have been to the Arabs.’

31 August 1891
‘Six and a half hours of march to cover fifteen miles. We camp amidst the brush, tired beyond description and without water. Tomorrow we shall reach water after a two and a half hour march, but the following day there is a wasteland of fifteen miles to Rubuga. [. . .]

As we approach Tabora I fear increasingly the desertions of more of my men. These long marches without water terrify them and I sense that they would prefer to desert than to continue in such conditions. . . The hardships and the weariness cause me such endless cares. . . that I have become as thin as a rail and my cheekbones stand out in my face.’

This article is a slightly revised version of one first published on 9 June 2012.