Easter Monday (In Memoriam E. T.)

It’s 1956. World War One had ended less than 40 years ago, instead of 100. Robert Frost is the most celebrated living American poet, and he has traveled back to England to receive honors from both Oxford and Cambridge universities, a symbolic laurel helping to mark the 20th Century acceptance of American poetry into the pantheon of our polyglot language.

Two elderly women follow an invitation to an upstairs to-do in London, where the American poet has just landed. Eleanor Farjeon is one of the pair, then 75 years old, and here’s how she described what happened:

We approached a white-haired man who was talking to T.S. Eliot. ‘It’s Helen and Eleanor, Robert.’ He turned towards us quickly, unmistakably Robert. Were we as unmistakably ourselves? Eliot smiled at us and withdrew a little…. Robert muttered, ‘Well, well, well.’ Soon he and Helen were talking of their grandchildren.

Who are these ladies that broke off the tête-à-tête between the two Modernist poetic titans?

One was the widow of Edward Thomas, the man who Robert Frost called “the only brother I ever had.” The other was the woman who had introduced Edward Thomas to Frost in 1913, Eleanor Farjeon. The poet Edward Thomas is not well known outside of Britain, Farjeon even less so, but none-the-less she had a long and varied literary career as a poet, playwright, children’s book author, and songwriter in a life that spanned from the Pre-Raphaelites to Carnaby Street.

Eleanor Farjeon

Eleanor Farjeon early and late in her life

 

Back just before and after the outbreak of WWI, the Frost Family, the Thomas Family, and Eleanor Farjeon were a sort of an extended pod of friendship and affiliations. The Thomas marriage had strains, and Farjeon was in love with Edward Thomas. Thomas’ spouse, Helen, surprisingly cast Eleanor Farjeon not as a rival but as a balm to Edward. And so, between her own writing, and typing manuscripts to help D. H. Lawrence (also hanging around this circle*) Farjeon, like Robert Frost, took to accompanying Edward Thomas on his indefatigable walks around the countryside.

Eleanor Farjeon was still a literary stem cell at the time. She later said “In my youth I dreamed of being a ‘real’ poet, but half way through my life that dream died, and whatever figments of it remained went into writing songs** and verses for children.”

When Edward Thomas decided to enlist and volunteer for the front lines in the war, the pod all shared correspondence with Thomas, a correspondence that continued right up to the very week of Thomas’ battle-death. And after that, they all shared the task of putting his literary affairs in order and promoting the poetry of the man who had only started writing it during that short pre-war period.

Robert Frost and Eleanor Farjeon both wrote elegies for Edward Thomas. It may surprise you, but I’m choosing to use Farjeon’s memorial sonnet here to cap off our Armistice Day series on Edward Thomas, instead of Frost’s poem. Farjeon might have thought of herself as not a “real” poet, but it’s us, the audience, that decides. Her poem may seem to be made of genteel English stuff: gardens, Easter eggs, love tokens, so that it has the patina of an antique valentine—but that’s just the surface. How about those relentless repetitions? You can hear James Joyce or Gertrude Stein tuning up in the distance if you listen for those. Did she mean the punning subtext of the repeated “Eve” with the repeated apples? If this were a Joyce poem we’d assume yes, so why not here? And that surface? It’s a paper scrim she means to tear, to rip—and yet when she does it in the last line, there’s no sound, only an invisible gap, an understated “apology”.

Here is what Eleanor Farjeon said, shortly before her own death, writing again about Edward Thomas and Robert Frost when recounting her last, 1956 meeting with Frost in the company of Thomas’ widow:  “We do not lose our friends when they die, we only lose sight of them.”

Here’s my performance of Farjeon’s “Easter Monday (In Memoriam E. T.)”  that you can hear using the player below.

 

 

*Sounds a bit unconventional for an Edwardian village in 1913 doesn’t it—but any bets on who did the housework?

**And it’s in this guise that Farjeon is likely to be best known in the U. S. Back in 1972, three denizens of that Sixties London: Cat Stevens (later Yusef Islam), Rick Wakeman (later caped-keyboardist of Prog Rock fame) and Paul Samwell-Smith (producer and former bass-player with the Yardbirds) created an arrangement of Farjeon’s hymn “Morning Has Broken”  for a best-selling LP and eventual #6 hit single on the Billboard U.S. charts.

As August Empties

In the prairie states of the US, we have come to the season of schools supplies and state fairs. All around the country, the weeks and days that students only lived during the summer now cannot escape becoming a countdown to the school-year.

It’s been decades since I’ve been pinched between the rollers of that calender, but August and September still hold some sense of a time to begin things before something ends or because something else is beginning. That’s one reason this project has been launched this month.

Nearly 50 years ago I met Dave Moore, the chief collaborator in this project, one September. 60 years ago, Frank Zappa met Don Van Vliet, who later performed as Captain Beefheart. 40 years ago, my late wife met the teacher Phil Dacey.

Across the country this fall, people are going to be meeting folks who will alter their lives. You may know or not know that as you meet them. Most likely you will be somewhere between knowing and not knowing—that’s the way our lives are—but what comes from those meetings depends on what you do.
“As August Empties” imagines that middle meeting, when two high school students made common cause over some old blues and R&B songs. Dave Moore plays the keyboard part.

I’ve always appreciated Don Van Vliet/Capt. Beefheart as an artist, but Frank Zappa became a model for me on how to be an artist after a brief meeting in 1970. I had other artists I emulated before that meeting, but I had not met them. For example, I admired William Blake for his visionary imagination and his stubbornness—but I did not yet know the full extent of his self-sufficiency. The William Blake I would have imagined in my youth would have been out there conversing with the angels he found waving in the boughs of trees. I didn’t yet know Blake the painstaking and inventive engraver, the man whose impoverished household none-the-less contained a printing press. Frank Zappa would have laughed himself silly thinking of anyone conversing with angel/trees, but Zappa and Blake honed the desire and skills to take the ideas they had and make them into things. Through a happy coincidence, Frank Zappa was able to be generous to me in showing a little of the making of things.

It’s a mistake to think that creative people are the people who come up with great ideas. No, creative people are the people who make things.

So hop into your Oldsmobile, cruise somewhere with an Internet connection, and then click on the gadget below to hear “As August Empties” coming out of your dashboard.