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Birds of a Feather

Bryce Evans

Poets and the Peacock Dinner, by Lucy McDiarmid, Oxford, 212 pp, £20.00, ISBN: 978-0198722786

Not too long after the opening of the gallery Tate Modern in 2000, I received a telephone call from my father informing me that he was about to visit the English capital. In response to his request for what to see and do, I enthusiastically encouraged him to visit this bold new space for international modern art on London’s Bankside. I still treasure the now dog-eared postcard I received a couple of weeks later. On the front of this piece of cardboard, four inches by five inches, was a crudely simple design: a plain blue circle on a plain white background. On the reverse was a tart message in my father’s handwriting. It read simply “At Tate Modern. This is about as good as it gets.”

He’d visited, he’d seen it all, and he was thoroughly unimpressed; more than that, the majority of artworks (“if you could call them that”) had left him feeling insulted. “It’s like the story of the Emperor’s new clothes,” he later complained. “If you don’t like this stuff you can’t say so, because you’re considered stupid or uncultured, but the fact is most of it’s rubbish.”

I was reminded of how acute generational divides in taste can be when reading Lucy McDiarmid’s account of how the Victorian poet Wilfrid Blunt privately reacted to a dinner and poetry reading thrown in his honour in 1914 by modern literary heavyweights W.B. Yeats and Ezra Pound and a group of their lesser peers. After the foppish festivities, during which a roast peacock was collectively devoured, seventy-four-year-old Blunt opened the present his guests had left him. It was an ornate box carved by Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, a young avant-garde Parisian sculptor whom Pound had recently “discovered”. Made from a delicate mixture of Pentelican and Siennese marble, on one side of this box was a Futurist bas relief of a naked Egyptian woman. On the other side were the solemn words “Homage to W.S. Blunt”. The box contained eight poems by the younger generation of poets who had gathered to honour him at dinner, representing the ritual, humble transmission of culture from one generation to the next. Blunt, however, was not impressed. He disliked the female figure so much he had to turn the side with the bas relief to the wall. To him, Futurist art was ghastly, “mere nonsense, the sort of thing a child might make”. And the poems? “Word puzzles.” As McDiarmid diplomatically puts it, “Blunt’s taste had been formed in another era.”

Viewed in a similarly cynical light, the peacock dinner ‑ the episode of literary history at the centre of this book ‑ was pretentious nonsense. On January 18th, 1914 seven male poets led by the celebrities of their number, Yeats and Pound, rented a car from Harrod’s department store and drove to the small market town of Horsham in Sussex. There Blunt (philanderer, political radical, horse breeder, a septuagenarian poet who hadn’t published anything for years) served them roast peacock followed by roast beef. In return, they offered him their poetry. The photograph of the assembled younger poets and an aged Blunt, sporting a beard Karl Marx would have envied, now features in many companion texts to English literature. Yeats, the most famous person there, and accordingly positioned to Blunt’s right in the photograph, hated the way he looked in the photograph. He’s stiff, wearing a silly polka-dot dickie-bow, and squinting uncomfortably at the lens. Informed by the hindsight that a terrible war was only months away, the whole thing has a certain air of ridiculousness to it. McDiarmid points out that great as some of the assembled men were, none had the prophetic power to anticipate the terrible war just around the corner that would forever change art and literature and make events like the peacock dinner appear painfully quaint, other-worldly even. Even so, and even at the time, the entire affair fell decidedly on the awkward side of quirky.

The homosocial transmission of culture from one generation to another is at the heart of this book. Pound was determined to be “enriched by contact with men of genius”, to make his own poetry greater by physical contact with the greats themselves. Leaving America aged twenty-two after the disgrace of having a burlesque showgirl found in his rooms at his conservative Midwestern college, Pound set out for London to find Yeats, intending to “sit at [his] feet and learn what he knew”. After befriending the great Irish poet, the same thirst for European cultural capital took him to Blunt’s country pile. Compared withYeats, Blunt’s poetic “genius” may have been somewhat dubious, but the peacock dinner was part of an older tradition, forged in ancient times, of wise old men passing on knowledge to younger ones through conversation. Neither, as literary occasion, was the peacock dinner anything new. It was probably surpassed in awkwardness and stuffiness by the 1912 “cat dinner” in honour of Thomas Hardy, at which Yeats presented Hardy with a medal (ailurophiles needn’t worry; no cats were eaten at this event). Yet there was something more intimate at work here, too. Pound was captivated by having actually breathed the same air as Blunt for five hours:

… To have gathered from the air a live tradition
Or from a fine old eye the unconquered flame
This is not vanity

Indeed not, for the honing of lyrical genius in this manner was considered serious stuff by those who practised it. McDiarmid parallels Pound’s lust for a physical brush with greatness with Blunt’s own lusty desire to mingle lived sensation with the genius of a bygone age. When in 1869 he married Lady Anne Isabella King-Noel, granddaughter of Lord Byron, Blunt wasn’t just moving up in the world in bedding yet another of his string of society ladies. Rather “the exchange of bodily fluids with Lady Anne constituted a symbolic cultural exchange with the great poet, a transmission for which the woman was the conduit”. Through this blood link to Byron, Blunt (something of a Byron manqué) had enhanced his own glamour and reputation, something which the younger men, in turn, were seeking to achieve through honouring him. At times it seems that the author herself is the victim of the same impulses. In researching the book she tracked down all the descendants of the participants, regretting that while she can’t physically attend the peacock dinner she can at least brush up against the blood relatives of its participants. In this way, the author-as-detective herself becomes part of the “live tradition”.

This is a book about masculine poetic professionalism, but for all the backslapping manliness and male sexual competition in the tale, McDiarmid establishes the centrality of an important female figure in modern Irish history: Lady Augusta Gregory. Gregory, a former lover of Blunt’s, provided the link with Yeats, her co-director at the Abbey Theatre. She was largely responsible for the peacock too: a late Victorian aesthetic symbol which Blunt happened to have plenty of screaming around his four-thousand-acre estate. McDiarmid might have elaborated on how the peacock dinner fits within the history of the dinner ritual; it conformed, for instance, to the classical definition of the ideal number at a dinner party: more than the graces (three) but fewer than the muses (nine). But if she gets a bit carried away in focusing on the narrowly sexual implications of the symbolism, her cultural observations on Edwardian masculinity, romance and Victorian adultery are nonetheless absorbing.

She is also sharp when it comes to asserting the importance of class and commercialism to this odd tale. Blunt had done very well for himself through his marriage. In turn, Pound and Yeats were quietly keen to do well for themselves through the formal dinner. For all their protestations to the contrary, the event took place in the context of what McDiarmid calls the “Gregory-Yeats culture business”. Yeats insisted it wasn’t a publicity stunt but privately assured Gregory that the event “will get known very quickly”. Pound declared that he hated “the newspaper press as Blunt hates the British Empire”, but after an account of the occasion appeared in The Times he hungrily inquired after more copies of the famous photograph so he could distribute them as widely as possible. McDiarmid illustrates well, comically in fact, the cross-generational desire for column inches. Blunt spent a lot of time buying and breeding horses from Arabia and the Middle East and his anti-imperialism was lent an exotic streak by his defence of Egyptian nationalist Ahmed Urabi, or “El Wahid” (the Only One) in the 1880s. Blunt’s sex appeal among society ladies increased accordingly. When, later in the decade, he was arrested while defending the rights of evicted Irish tenants in Galway during the Land War it had a similar effect. His brave stand against the Royal Irish Constabulary was immortalised in sketch form by the Illustrated London News. “How bad of you to get into such a commotion!” wrote Lady Gregory to Blunt from Venice. “What a splendid commotion you have made!” swooned another female admirer. It wasn’t long before Blunt attained real society pin-up status when a photograph of him in prison garb started doing the rounds at upper class parties. Once again, Lady Gregory was instrumental, suggesting he strike the prison pose and then pleading him for a copy when the image went viral.

McDiarmid’s writing is entertaining and amusing. As she states early on, this is a history of “intimacy not ’isms’’, and it’s all the better for it. The yarns about Ezra Pound’s extravagant behaviour at dinner are particularly funny. At a previous formal dinner he became so bored he started to eat the floral decoration. At another, a restaurant meal with Robert Frost, he decided to show his fellow American poet ju-jitsu, grabbing his wrist and throwing him over his head. No wonder he was starting to get on Yeats’s nerves, as shown in the text of the Irish poet’s peacock dinner speech. This highlights another strength of McDiarmid’s eye for detail. Today’s culture is so obsessed with platitudes about the unifying power of food that we often overlook the comic ability of the dinner party to tear people apart. One such victim, on this occasion, was Victor Plarr, one of the forgotten poets of the peacock dinner alongside FS Flint, Thomas Sturge Moore and Richard Aldington. Plarr emerged from the dinner a confirmed bore in the eyes of the other diners; “out of step with the decade” as Pound bitchily put it, this was to be his last outing alongside celebrities. And then there was the gulf between Blunt and Yeats when it came to blank verse, an embarrassing point of major disagreement in the postprandial speeches.

A problem, however, with the author’s “intimacy rather than isms” approach is that the level of gossipy detail in the book threatens to engulf broader considerations. The marginal poets remain marginal. Notwithstanding the unstimulating information about their daughters which appears in a later chapter, they’re nudged aside by the non-existent Yeats-Gregory-Blunt love triangle. Blunt emerges from it all looking grumpy and rather silly, a lothario past his sell-by date. This over-attention to the sexual obscures Blunt’s anti-imperialist radicalism, which (apart from his horse breeding) is where his real significance lies and why he appealed so much to the young guns. Blunt’s political high-jinks may have enhanced his celebrity but he consistently positioned himself on the right side of history and with the underdog, whether in Cairo or Connacht. Take the Egyptian Garden scandal, which doesn’t get a mention in the book, where he vigorously defended coloured servants who had caused an outrage after assaulting British army officers hunting a fox.

Likewise, Blunt’s political writings are not seriously discussed. And yet they inform the peacock dinner as much as his dalliance with Lady Gregory, upon which McDiarmid places a lot of importance. Robert Bridges, newly appointed poet laureate and thus in many ways the voice of monarchy, order and imperialism, turned down an invitation to the peacock dinner, citing Blunt’s politics. When it came to the after-dinner speeches, Pound paid tribute to his host by praising him for “upholding Mazzini”. McDiarmid claims that Blunt never upheld Mazzini (the Italian revolutionary) and that Pound meant to refer to the Egyptian leader Urabi but got the name wrong. While this is possible, especially given that alcohol was involved, in his actions and words Blunt in fact regularly upheld Mazzini ‑ a popular hero at the time, and still, of popular democracy and republicanism ‑ whether in sticking up for the rights of the Egyptian “fellah” or the Irish peasant farmer. It is therefore reasonable to assume that Pound, in praising Blunt’s radicalism, didn’t fumble his words at all. In underplaying the links between Byron’s republicanism and Blunt’s, the author misses the chance to highlight the cross-generational transmission of political culture, in this case that most interesting yet underresearched phenomenon: modern English republicanism. Similarly, it is inconceivable that those assembled at dinner were ignorant of the possibility of a coming war, as McDiarmid claims. They weren’t prophets, sure, but neither were they blind to the possibility of an impending European conflict in some shape or form. Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, who had made the marble box, would die in the subsequent fighting, aged twenty-three. The coming violence in Europe, a motive for the dinner itself through the lure of unreality, the sort of studied escapism practised at the time by Yeats and Pound in their Sussex Stone Cottage, deserves more attention here as part of a more serious consideration of the political world in which the politically provocative act of honouring Blunt took place. 

This remains, however, a colourful and original book. It is not the first scholarly account of the peacock dinner but it is by far the most enjoyable and well-crafted. Like all the best histories it also considers the tantalising possibility of what might have been: the peacock dinner, at full strength, would have included James Joyce, DH Lawrence, Padraic Colum and Rupert Brooke. Some line-up! This short history is written with passion, precision and frequent humour. The author’s work with manuscript sources is evident throughout and she has blended literary and food history to pleasing effect. The layers of meaning surrounding the consumption of the unfortunate peacock are peeled away with careful attention and narrative power. Ultimately, perhaps the charm and significance of the dinner lay not in its literary significance but in its awkward quirkiness and in its all-too-human and unintentional comedy. Blunt may have been displeased by the poetry composed in his honour, confessing “the modern poetry represented by these young men is too entirely unlike anything I can recognise as good verse that I feel there is something absurd in their admiration for mine”, but he discovered one startling thing: he was a much more important literary figure than he, or anyone else for that matter, had ever realised.

1/12/2016
Dr Bryce Evans is senior lecturer in history at Liverpool Hope University.

Space to Think, an anthology bringing together more than fifty of the best pieces to have appeared in the Dublin Review of Books since its foundation ten years ago, was published in October. Selling in the shops at €25, it is also available to order online at a special price of €20 (to collect in Dublin) or €20 + post and packing charges as appropriate for shipping to addresses in Ireland and internationally. To buy online, follow the steps from the home page of our website.

One piece featured in Space to Think is Éamon Ó Cléirigh’s essay from 2006 on the Irish filmmaker Brian Desmond Hurst. Here is an extract:

One weekday morning sometime in the 1970s, the distinguished filmmaker Brian Desmond Hurst made his way shortly after opening time into the Turk’s Head in Belgravia. The pub, which was his regular, was empty save for three labourers from a nearby building site, who were seated over pints of Guinness. The drinkers observed the newcomer, a tall distinguished man in his early eighties, with pale blue, ageless eyes and a shock of white flowing hair. He was dressed in a Savile Row jacket of antique cut, grey flannels, chocolate brown suede shoes and with an emerald green tie set against a white shirt.

The three men were in no doubt what to make of this apparition. “Fucking old queen,” one of them commented. The elderly party affected not to hear and proceeded to the bar, where he placed his usual breakfast order of half a glass of fresh orange juice topped up with champagne. He then turned to his fellow drinkers, instructing the barman: “Please ask those three gentlemen if they would like a drink.” The labourers accepted and, when fresh pints had been drawn, each in turn raised his glass to his lips, murmuring somewhat shamefacedly: “Cheers mate!” “Your very good health,” Hurst replied, raising his glass in their direction. “And by the way, gentlemen,” he added, pausing long enough to oblige them to look at him, “I am not an old queen. I am the Empress of Ireland.”

Apart from the barman, and the homophobic trio, this scene was witnessed by Christopher Robbins, who more than two decades later was to become Hurst’s biographer. The author, then a young journalist and apprentice writer, had been drawn into Hurst’s orbit as a potential scriptwriter for a film based on events leading up to the birth of Christ. The film, which was to be called Darkness Before Dawn, reflected the concerns of its intending director who, although of Belfast Protestant background, had become, apparently as early as the 1920s, a devout if eccentric Catholic.

Over an extended period Robbins worked with Hurst on the script, provided an audience for his musings on its theological implications and visited potential locations as far away as Malta, before realising that the old man had no intention of ever making the film. This proved to be the case; there was nothing to be gained professionally from the relationship, and, as Hurst was broke, the handsome scriptwriter’s fees Robbins had been promised proved as illusory as the film. By this stage it was too late, as he was already bewitched by Hurst’s endless stories and by his admission into the strangely magical world his new friend inhabited. For a young heterosexual this proved to be an unusual place, made up of eccentric neighbours, theatre folk, young men of religious convictions, aristocrats, policemen, blackmailers, sly procurers, feral rent boys and assorted waifs and strays.

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