Wednesday, January 25, 2023

At last! --- Wyeth appears in a major anthology of First World War poetry

Only this past year---94 years after the first publication of his book of WWI poems, This Man’s Army: A War in Fifty-odd Sonnets & 14 years after its republication by the University of South Carolina Press---has Wyeth finally been included in an anthology of WWI poetry: International Poetry of the First World War: An Anthology of Lost Voices (Bloomsbury, 2022), edited by Constance M. Rusich.

Three of Wyeth's sonnets are included: "The Transport," "Picnic: Harbonniers to Bayonvillers" & "Night Watch." They are accompanied by perceptive commentary, altogether amounting to five pages of text. If he has had to wait nearly a century for  due recognition, the scope and depth of consideration Wyeth has been accorded in this major anthology goes a long way towards granting him his rightful place in the literature of the Great War.

Sunday, December 27, 2020

John Allan Wyeth and the British War Poets: A Preliminary Comparison

The most memorable poems of the First World War were, among other things, testaments to the catastrophic effects of war on the individual psyche. For all the shocking explicitness of their naturalism, they remained deeply subjective. In that sense, they were the literary correlatives of German Expressionist paintings: expressions of personal horror with a public purpose: to serve up slices of rank Flanders mud on the dinnerplates of the complacent bourgeoisie at home, between the carrots and choice cuts of beef. Such paintings and poems, nurtured by a suppressed festering rage, shook the homefront to the core.

So all-consuming was the day-to-day scrabble to survive in the bestial setting of the trenches that a broader, more objective perspective was out of the question. Unlike the greatest novels of the war, which did not appear until a decade after the fighting, the greatest war poems—by Sassoon, Owen, Rosenberg and Gurney, to name the most obvious—were written during the war itself. That they were written at all under such conditions, let alone with such originality and artistry by poets still in their youth, is little short of a miracle.

The Great War has been described as the burial ground of whatever vestiges remained of Romanticism, and the major poets of that war have been rightly credited with purging the language of its last romantic trappings. Yet, from the long vantage of a century, the poets themselves increasingly appear as Romantic figures in their own right: as individuals of obdurate defiance, refusing obliteration, emerging against all probability from the vast, inchoate backdrop of modern warfare. Whatever their services to the language of Modernism, the more permanent value of such poets lies in their irreducible individuality in the face of impersonal, all-consuming war—in their embodiment of the inextinguishable human spirit.

This paradigm, however, will not aid us toward an appreciation of John Allan Wyeth. Whatever anger or anguish his poems contain is so subdued as to be invisible, while his personality is constrained to the point of sublimation. He is in no sense a Romantic figure of defiance, or singular voice of anguish. What we find in Wyeth is an acute observer with the trained eye and ear of a intelligence officer who is also steeped in the arts and humanities. He is able to maintain a cooler, more objective perspective precisely because he is not in the thick of the fighting, and is never in the trenches. We do not go to Wyeth for memorable expressions of bitterness in the face of annihilation, but for perspective and precise detail, for subtlety and nuance. Such qualities, combined with a sophisticated mastery of form and technique, place Wyeth in a category all his own. They also go a long way toward explaining the eight decades of Wyeth's neglect. Compared especially to Owen and Sassoon's poetry of compressed outrage, Wyeth's sonnets, for all their technical virtuosity, draw little attention to themselves. Even in their frank descriptions of destruction and death, they are coolly accurate and detached. There is irony, to be sure, and a good bit of humor in the overheard exchanges between enlisted men, but Wyeth’s sonnets, even at their bleakest, never grab the reader by the throat.

By the time of Wyeth’s appearance in 1928, the canon of war poetry was more or less fixed. It was profoundly tragic and profoundly moving, the bitter fruit of four interminable years in the trenches. By comparison, the poetry of Johnny-come-lately Americans, who had seen six months of fighting at most, with none of it in the trenches, was vapid. This view of the difference between British and American war poets was all but unshakeable, because it was very largely the truth. No newly-discovered book of war poems by an American, especially one written ten years after the war, was going to change it. Wyeth’s sonnets never got the attention they deserved because their timing was all wrong. The British poets had seen a longer, grimier and more horrific war than any of their American peers, and by 1928 they had effectively said all there was to say on the subject. By 1928, no one was listening.

It was different for the novelists, because novels take longer to germinate and mature, and the greatest novels of the war all came out at about this time. No one expected great novels during the war. They may not have expected great poetry either, but from Sassoon and Owen they got it all the same. The biographies of both poets enhanced the effect. Owen’s courage under fire, for which he would posthumously be awarded the Military Cross, and his death in action just days before the Armistice— Sassoon’s single-handed raid against an occupied trench, his very public condemnation of the war effort, and his subsequent confinement in a psychiatric hospital (where he and Owen first met), lifted both poets into legend. The poets who came after them could not hope to measure up. The poems of Sassoon and Owen redefined war literature so fundamentally that no work to follow could escape comparison. The very criteria for evaluating war literature had been reset, and by such criteria Wyeth’s poems merited only scant notice—which is exactly what they received.

The first important critic to take notice of Wyeth, Dana Gioia, concentrated on the modernist aspects of Wyeth’s technique. Whether Wyeth proves significant in the history of modernist poetics is yet to be determined, but none of the established war poets has any prominence as a modernist. The first generation of modernist poets were all older, and all on the homefront during the war. The war poets themselves were consumed by the war just as they were coming of age. None of them had the leisure to pursue the major aesthetic questions of the day, and those who survived the war evinced little interest in the abstract issues of modernism which had so preoccupied the previous generation of Eliot, Pound and Yeats, or the up-and-coming generation of Auden and his circle. The British war poets—who were all essentially Georgians—were concerned with simpler, more basic verities, and their poetry was therefore more conservative and traditional. They had aged beyond their years, or been broken entirely. They were concerned with recovery and restoration, with salvaging what they could of the world as it had been before the cataclysm. Having endured battles of flesh and blood at inconceivable cost, they left the abstract battles of aesthetics to others.

Wyeth, as an American, came late to the war, and—shielded by his position on the general staff—escaped the sort of damage suffered by so many of his British compatriots. Yet he was far from a mere desk jockey. As a courier delivering intelligence to front-line units, he came close enough to endure aerial bombardment and shellfire, and to have his eyes singed by gas. On one occasion, within range of machine gun and artillery fire, he led a group of casualties to a field station across broken country in the darkness. As division interpreter, intelligence officer and courier, Wyeth saw his share of the war at first hand, as well as behind the scenes, and comprehended it more acutely than most.

Wyeth was an astute witness. His descriptions of everything from the sound of gas shells hurtling overhead, to the reckless banter of enlisted men playing craps, to the drifting perfume of dead men in a ruined village, are as sparkling and precise as any in the literature of war, and are evidence of the profound impression such particulars made upon him.

Rats squeak and scrabble brusquely everywhere.
The night is almost blind . . . Something dispels
my stupor, wakes me with a squeamish thrill
to find my raincoat pocket eaten through.


My body swept throughout with a shattering spell
of fear—the fear that makes your heart like lead,
your gullet sicken and the bowels creep
and slide like live things in your abdomen.

Around the burnt plane, raking souvenirs,
a crowd, all raucous shouts and breathless smiles—
“Hey quit your shoving there.”

                                               —“I’ll say she did.”

                                                                            —“It’s his first Heinie.”

—“Jesus Christ that’s hot!”

                                                —“I seen the bastard, sure—he’s under guard—

sixteen—he’s nothing but a goddam kid!”


Guns blaze and slam. The stars burn fever bright.

A low white ridge ahead, and the crumpled sound

of shelling.

                   “Jerry’s out—”

                                                A snarling croon
wheels over us—quick glittering tracers fly
down a pale searchlight, and along the ground
bombs blast into smoky yellow shot with light.


The Archies break out in a brute uproar.
We wait at the cellar stairs to judge the raid.
Frantic machine guns stutter, brusque shells blaze
in the light-swept clouds where, ominously near,
a beast wheels in the apocalyptic sky
and plunges through a stack of blinding rays.


Too dark and late for any bugle call . . .
a wakeful horse along the picket line
stamps obstinately in the squashy loam.

Sleep ripped apart in the shrilling blast of a shell
jerking me back into life—Dawn, and a dead
bleak silence split by a shrieking smash—one then,
every minute! Men run along the corridor—

Like the narrator in Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms, which appeared a year after This Man’s Army, Wyeth has no faith in abstractions or generalities. He offers no felicitous homilies, no proverbial observations, and no conclusions. Whatever his truths, they are never trotted out on stage; they are kept implicit in the meticulous detail of his descriptions.

--- Reprinted from Before the Clangor of the Gun: The First World War Poetry of John Allan Wyeth (Monongahela Books, 2019), by BJ Omanson.  Used by permission.  All rights reserved.

Thursday, September 19, 2019

John Allan Wyeth among the literati of Rapallo

(excerpted from Before the Clangor of the Gun)

An obituary of John Allan Wyeth’s niece, Jane McLean who—with her parents (Florence Sims Wyeth & Alan McLean, the sister and brother-in-law of JA Wyeth), shared a household with Wyeth during the late 1920s and early ‘30s in Rapallo, Italy—has just recently come to light. The obituary contains one extraordinary sentence:

Educated in Italy from the age of seven, Miss McLean benefitted from a tutorial education in the liberal arts, focusing on languages, literature, history and architecture. Among her teachers were Max Beerbohm, Ezra Pound, W.B. Yeats and Gerhart Hauptmann, as well as her uncle John Wyeth.

This accords with a story about Wyeth which was passed on by Wyeth’s family to Dana Gioia, who noted in his introductory essay for the re-printing of Wyeth’s poems in 2008, that Wyeth had been friends with Ezra Pound during his years in Rapallo. It also accords with a sentence in one of Wyeth’s letters from the early 1970s to a friend, where he mentioned in passing that his neice Jane owned a book inscribed to her by Max Beerbohm, and that she had been friends with Beerbohm’s niece for many years, the actress Viola Tree.

It seems probable that Jane’s uncle John, given his excellent education in languages, history and the arts, would have designed the curriculum and engaged the tutors.

That Wyeth could have arranged such a roster of literary lions—which included two Nobel Laureates—to tutor a single young girl, might challenge anyone’s credulity. On the other hand, Wyeth would have known very well who each of these men were, and probably how best to approach them. Perhaps he obtained a letter of introduction from his old school-mate Edmund Wilson. More likely he simply struck up a conversation with one of them on the terrazza of the café at the Albergo Rapallo, where Ezra and Dorothy Pound took many of their meals, and which soon became a gathering place for the local literati. Once befriended by any one of them, Wyeth would have had access to the others, for they all knew one another.

Yeats and Pound had of course known one another for decades, as had Yeats and Beerbohm. Pound and Hauptmann met in Rapallo and became good friends; then sometime in 1929 the Pounds held a dinner in the Albergo Rapallo for the purpose of introducing Hauptmann and Yeats to one another. Hauptmann and Beerbohm met in Rapallo in 1927, and Beerbohm would eventually marry Hauptmann’s personal secretary, Elizabeth Jungmann, after the death of his first wife. Beerbohm and Pound knew one another, though Beerbohm had his reservations about Pound, and tended to keep his distance, which Pound respected by never calling on Beerbohm alone. But they still socialized on occasion, such as when Pound took his houseguest, T.S. Eliot, to Beerbohm’s for tea.

Max Beerbohm had retired to Rapallo in 1910; Pound came in 1924; Yeats in 1928. Hauptmann began spending his winters in Rapallo in 1925. The McLeans arrived in 1921, and Wyeth had joined them by 1926, or possibly earlier.

The Beerbohms had a villa, “Villino Chiaro,” on the Via Aurelia high above the town, with a view toward the sea. The Pounds lived on the seafront in the Albergo Rapallo, and the Yeats lived an easy walk from there, in the Palazzo Cardile, at 34 Corso Colombo. The Hauptmanns wintered in a villa at 23 Via Avenaggi, beginning in 1925, but later lived in other villas, ending finally at the Hotel Excelsior. The McLeans and Wyeth lived in the Villa Boselli (location uncertain).

The customary arrangement in such matters was for the tutor to conduct his lessons under the watchful eye of the student’s parents, or at least under their roof, but it is difficult to see what in such a stodgy arrangement would appeal to Ezra Pound, the elder Beerbohm, or the two aging Nobel Laureates.

A very different sort of teaching arrangement is described by James Laughlin, who visited Pound in Rapallo in 1934 to attend what was known locally as the “Ezuversity,” which was simply Ezra Pound expounding on various subjects to an informal gathering of friends and “students.” As described by Laughlin, the “class” might begin over lunch in Albergo Rapallo café, move up five flights to the Pounds’ apartment overlooking the bay, and then move out into the town to various locations ranging from the local tennis club, to the salita leading up to Sant’ Ambrogio, to one of several area beaches, or even aboard a small boat gliding over the Gulf of Tigullio.

Jane would have been 20 in 1934, and it is not difficult to imagine her as one of Pound’s informal, but attentive “students,” accompanied, perhaps, by her equally attentive “Uncle John.”

Jane McLean remained in Italy until 1940. During WWII, she served in the Office of Strategic Services (OSS, the precursor of the CIA), in the Psychological Warfare Political Intelligence section. After the war she worked in the public relations office of Shell Oil International as a liaison to the United Nations Economic and Social Council. She served as a trustee of the Leopold Schepp Foundation for many years. She was a painter, a gardener, and published a book of poems, and she remained very close to her Uncle John for the rest of his life.

John Allan Wyeth’s book of wartime poems, This Man’s Army, a War in Fifty-odd Sonnets, was published in New York in 1928. It was almost certainly composed during his years in Rapallo. (See Dana Gioia’s essay, “The Unknown Soldier: An Introduction to the Poetry of John Allan Wyeth,” for his speculations on how Wyeth’s sonnets may have been influenced by Pound’s modernist poetics).

Until further research uncovers more specific information, or additional letters surface from either Wyeth or his neice, Jane, one can only speculate about the actual circumstances of Jane’s Rapallo education, or Wyeth’s conversations with Pound, Yeats, Beerbohm, Hauptmann, or any of the other highly literate denizens of Rapallo in the late 1920s and early ‘30s.

BJ Omanson

~ ~ ~ ~ ~


~~~Bacigalupo, Massimo. “Tigullio Itineraries: Ezra Pound and Friends.” Quaderni di Palazzo Serra 15 (2008): 373-447.
~~~ Behrman, S.N. Portrait of Max: An Intimate Memoir of Sir Max Beerbohm. (NY: Random House, 1960).
~~~ Carpenter, Humphrey. A Serious Character: the Life of Ezra Pound. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1988).
~~~Foster, R.F. W. B. Yeats: A Life. Volume II: The Arch-Poet, 1915-1939. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003).
~~~ Gioia, Dana. “The Unknown Soldier: An Introduction to the Poetry of John Allan Wyeth,.” the introductory essay to John Allan Wyeth’s This Man’s Army: A War in Fifty-Odd Sonnets. “The Joseph M. Bruccoli Great War Series,” Matthew Bruccoli, Series Editor. (Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 2008).
~~~ Hall, John. Max Beerbohm: A Kind of Life. (Yale University Press, 2002).
~~~ Laughlin, James. Pound as Wuz: Recollections and Interpretations. (Peter Owen, Ltd., 1989).
~~~ Willhelm, J.J. Ezra Pound: The Tragic Years, 1925-1972. (University Park: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1994).

Friday, January 18, 2019

Some recent Wyeth news

~~  A substantial essay, "John Allan Wyeth's Dead Landscapes," by Tim Kendall, has been published in a new anthology of war-related essays by Clutag Press: Dead Ground, 2028-1918.  To read more about the book, click on the picture to the left.  

Dr. Kendall's blog is War Poetry.

~~  Connie Rusich has contracted with Bloomsbury Academic Press to edit International Poetry of World War I: An Anthology of Lost Voices.  She will be including two sonnets by Wyeth: "Picnic: Harbonnières to Bayonvillers" and "The Transport."  The anthology is scheduled for release in Sept 2020.   

Dr. Rusich's blog is Behind Their Lines: Poetry of the Great War.

I have just published a collection of my own Wyeth essays, published by Monongahela Books ,

Before the Clangor of the Gun: The First World War Poetry of John Allan Wyeth.

"The first full-length study of the recently rediscovered American poet of the First World War, John Allan Wyeth.  It contains a wealth of new biographical information, plus several extensive essays on Wyeth's technique and his relationship to the major British war poets."

The book includes several essays from this blog (revised), and several new essays, including "Wyeth on Horseback," and "Poet, Painter, Spy: Did John Allan Wyeth report on Nazi activities for British Intelligence during the 1930s?"  

~~BJ Omanson

Friday, August 10, 2018

A Yank at the Battle of Amiens: The Chipilly Ridge Sonnets of John Allan Wyeth

This essay, in its entirety, is included in the newly-released book Before the Clangor of the Gun: the First World War Poetry of John Allan Wyeth.  

Here is an excerpt:

"The night of August 8-9. Gas masks on, and led by runners, lieutenants Wyeth and Cochrane set out on foot, in search of 2nd Battalion headquarters, situated roughly six hundred yards to the south, close to the river. Everywhere there are ominous signs of "evil creeping in the dark." With steel helmets for laurel, Virgil and Dante unholster their sidearms and wend their way through the Inferno of the Somme. Horse-drawn artillery crashes by, and columns of rushing soldiers, with both man and beast wearing alien masks in a futuristic nightmare, or a scene out of Bosch. A distant sneeze and their own burning eyes tell them that they are venturing into an area of lethal gas, and then they cross paths with their first gas victim, "... blind twisting head and drunken knees, ~ like Christ." ~~ and with that final image of Golgotha, the apocalyptic scene is complete."

Monday, June 26, 2017

Pilgrimage to Cassis: John Allan Wyeth’s 10-day sojourn with Duncan Grant on the Côte d'Azur

Cassis-sur-Mer in 1932

In April, 1932, a brief encounter in Cassis-sur-Mer between the unknown war poet, John Allan Wyeth, and the celebrated painter, Duncan Grant, had, by Wyeth's own account, a seminal effect on the poet’s life, bringing his career in literature to an end, and opening the door to a new life in art, where he would remain thereafter.  The change in career was accompanied by a change in residence, from six years in Rapallo, Italy (1926 to '32), to six years ('32 to '38) during which (as nearly as we can tell) he divided his time between Paris in winter/spring, and Bavaria in summer/fall (with sidetrips to Cyprus and Greece)--- an annual circuit which he continued to make until the onset of the Second World War.

Café Liautaud
Duncan Grant and the Bells, Clive and Vanessa, had spent their summers in a small house, "La Bergère," in a vineyard just outside Cassis-sur-Mer, since 1927, and would continue there until the outbreak of the war.  The relationship between the three was intimate, intricate, and radically unorthodox.  It has also been so thoroughly documented and discussed that there is no need to recount it here (for those seeking further particulars, see “Sources Consulted” at the end of this posting). 

What it was like for Wyeth--- alone and a stranger, appearing unannounced on an April midnight--- to be welcomed warmly into a household of such artistic and amatory legend, is hinted at in Wyeth’s opening letter. It changed the course of his life, and the emotional effects of that welcome were still recalled vividly after forty years.

After a night in Duncan's bed, followed by breakfast together on the terrace with Clive and Vanessa, Wyeth spent the next ten days in nearby Cassis at one of the hotels near the port-- probably the Hotel Cendrillon, where Grant was a familiar.  Each morning, with a bundle of sketchbooks under his arm,
Grant would meet with Wyeth at a harborside café-- perhaps the Café Liautaud, favored by local artists and literati--- to instruct the younger man in the finer points of the painter's art--- before finally sending him off to Paris with a letter of introduction to Jean Marchand at the Académie Moderne..

The letters between Wyeth and Grant, and Grant’s companion, Paul Roche, all date from 1976--- many years after the events described--- when Wyeth was 80, and Grant, 92.  At least one letter in the exchange, alluded to by Roche, is missing, and it may be that others are as well.  

~~BJ Omanson


John Wyeth to Duncan Grant, 30 January 1976                                                                                                                                                              

My dear Duncan,
I have wanted --- for years --- to write you a letter of infinite gratitude, devotion, a humble love and, as far as mortals may, undying affection.  You may, only with difficulty, call to mind the pilgrimage I made to you at Cassis-sur-Mer, under the aegis of Peter Murphy, who deserted me enroute when we drove through Toulon and sent me on alone to your midnight door --- many many happy years ago ---  It was early in April, I believe 1932 (year of the first great Picasso show in Paris) and a year of crisis for me --- dissolved by your immediately taking me in to your protection, care, instruction and I sincerely hope into some tiny part of your heart, as someone turning to you for help, discerning encouragement and trust in my possible gifts might hope to be judged and, as it turned out, saved by you.     
I have had the happiest life imaginable, thanks to you and and while I have so far got one Cypriot landscape into one museum --- Pittsfield Mass. (in permanent situ at the top of the stairway --- shades of the Winged Victory!)   I know that I have painted a goodly number of canvases you would have approved of, and sponsored, and that I will leave behind me a modicum of beauty dependent entirely upon your welcoming me into your friendship at that perilous turn of my life.          
I love you now as I loved you then, then with a trusting hope, now with an eternal gratitude, you were a sort of god to me, as an English Cezanne, and it was you who set me on my way in life.          

My niece, in Princeton, whom I am visiting at present, owns one of those amateur watercolours I submitted to your judgement and Ihage only to glance at it to feel myself back in your studio submissive to your criticism and hearing you say, when I asked you “What shall I do ---  shall I go ahead?” --- “I should think it would be worth almost anything to go ahead.”   When I look at it now we exchange grins over a secret shared.          
I somehow felt safe with you before your examinations of my (self made) amateurish artifacts the morning after Peter’s propulsion of me into your life --- for that short while at least.          
I remember that blissful sense of safety and rescue waking up in your bed, together, with Clive Bell coming in the front door to announce breakfast about to be served by Vanessa on the terrace below --- possibly determined to find out who had descended upon you five minutes before twelve the night before.         
Duncan, my long cherished and lived friend --- and saviour --- do you remember giving me morning hours of instruction, notes, formulas, tricks of you’re your own painting manner, many mornings (of the 10 days I spent in a harbour hotel in Cassis) --- my first and most vital hours of study --- in some matinal café where we met so many times before you sent me off to Paris and Academe Moderne with a letter to Jean Marchand.          
The rest is history for me at least, and not even some days in New York of acute suffering ---  we all go through it, it seems, could break the long record of much work, much dealing with and production of beauty and an incessant happiness that has filled a life of secret devotion to you.          
Will you let me include a Bavarian landscape snapshot --- in spite of browning of the greens in the photograph --- they are actually, on the canvas, the intense greens of Ireland, for your possible interest?           
I went to Berchtesgaden (Greece & Cyprus) almost every year of my 6 years in a studio just around the corner from Jean Marchand.          
I hope this snapshot may offer some justification of your crucial envoi of me into the life of a painter --- starting at 38, and not 80.  And happier than I can say.          
This epistle, starting simply as a record of love, has broken the limits of decency, and I must close it instantly.          
Do believe in my avowal of a love exceeding friendship and the most grateful thanks for your great role in my life.                                                                                                                

Love to you always,                                                                                                                
John Wyeth                                                                                                  


Duncan Grant to John Wyeth, 11 April 1976  

Duncan Grant’s reply is dated April 11th, and is typed on letterhead from the El Farah hotel in Tanger, Morocco.  He begins by stating what a surprise Wyeth’s letter was, but “who would mind having a letter of love like that?”  He notes that the Cassis days “seem an epoch away”, but that he still has vivid dreams of “that sun-drenched life”, and that his happiness is increased knowing that their meeting has come to mean so much to Wyeth.  He expresses pleasure that his sending of Wyeth to Marchand “bore fruit a thousandfold”.  He comments on what an interesting life Wyeth has led, and wonders at Wyeth’s youth: “only 80!”, while he himself has just passed 92.  He alludes to a recent bout with pneumonia in November, and credits his survival to the devoted ministrations of his companion, the poet Paul Roche.  He writes that they expect to be back in England by mid-May.
This much of the letter is typewritten by Roche.  At the bottom of the page is a note in Grant’s almost-illegible hand:  “Yes my dear John, it is a great blessing to have behind me a modicum of beauty.  How much you and I have to be thankful for.  My heartfelt feelings, Duncan Grant.”


Duncan Grant (at Charleston Farmhouse, Sussex) to John Wyeth, 3 August 1976

Grant writes that he was only just returned from Africa when he received Wyeth’s “welcome letter” and a second letter containing $1000 for purchasing one of Grant’s paintings, which he is to select.  Grant goes into some business details, and explains the transaction may have to be conducted through his dealer.  He then writes, “It makes me very proud and happy to be told that I have made another person’s life a happier one --- one cannot wish for more than one day to be allowed to look through the result of your happiness…”  Grant then commiserates with Wyeth on his recent illness, and explains that, while he himself has recovered his health, his legs remain paralyzed, though he is hopeful he may yet recover the use of them.  He apologizes for the illegibility of his handwriting and asks Wyeth to excuse it, as being “from an old man of 90 or so.”   


John Wyeth to Alfred Barr, director of the Museum of Modern Art, New York City, September 5, 1976

Dear Al
--- I hope you won’t find in my writing to you what must seem out of the blue, nor any note of presuming on a friendship of very long duration.          
Here’s what’s w/---- I am awaiting daily --- the expressing of a canvas by Duncan Grant which Ihabve purchased from (sight unseen at $1000) with a view of presenting it to you in your office on some appointment with you as a donation to your wonderful Museum of Modern Art.                
Duncan Grant was my first teacher, when I visited him in 1932 at Cassis sur Mer where he was domiciled in Clive Bell’s Villa La Bergere--- he occupying the upstairs studio over the ground floor quarters of Clive & Vanessa Bell.  I brought him my amateurish efforts at watercolour, and one half begun, half finished oil landscape, for him to criticize and judge whether or not I should begin a painting career.                
When, after his two hour consideration of my work, I asked him point blank, Tell me, what shall I do?  Shall I go ahead? And he answered “I should think it would be worth almost anything to go ahead.”  I took a room at a hotel on the port, and met Duncan almost every day for an hour’s instruction out of a pile of his notebooks which he brought down every day, at a café near the harbour.  A priceless and wonderful introduction to painting, for which he gave up his own mornings work for about 10 days.  This was in April, 1932.                
He told me to go to Paris and  study under Jean Marchand at the Academe Moderne, giving me a letter of introduction to Marchand.                
I went back to my family at Rapallo, settled my effects and took off for Paris, in mid-May to begin a 6-year study under Marchand’s direction --- with my studio near the Port d’Orleans around the corner from Jean Marchand’s studio-dwelling.                
This letter is not to be about me, but the matter in hand --- a grateful pupil’s desire to establish his master’s work in the First Museum in America --- and, failing here, to try the Metropolitan Museum, the Rhode Island School of Design’s Museum in Providence where they already have two of Marchand’s portraits --- or possibly our own museum in Princeton, or the Berkshire Museum in Pittsfield, Mass, where one of my landscapes in Cyprus is permanently housed.                
I believe Duncan Grant is, not yet, in any museum in America, though of course I may be wholly wrong.  You are familiar with Clive Bell’s estimate of him as the greatest painter in England --- he has, I know, two paintings in the National Gallery in London, at Millbank.                
He is now 91, legs paralyzed after a death’s door bout with pneumonia in Tangiere last winter, just beginning to walk with help --- and painting every day from 10 A.M. to sunset.  Certainly a great spirit there --- one can understand Paul Roche (the English poet) dedicating his translation of the Oedipis Plays of Sophocles “for Duncan Grant, my choice and master spirit of this age.”
At the end of 49 years of painting on my part, I suddenly wrote my thanks to Duncan Grant, for the marvelous happy life he gave me by setting me on my way under his initial and fruitful direction.      When his painting arrives I’ll have it handsomely framed and will bring it (plus my letter from Duncan Grant and Paul Roche, who is taking care of him during this convalescence) and confer with you exactly how to donate this as yet unseen canvas to your Museum.              
I will, later this fall, telephone you from Princeton for an appointment.  Do not bother to answer this, as I know how busy you are.  

John Wyeth.  


John Wyeth to Duncan Grant, 9 September 1976                                                                                                              

My dear Duncan –                
I am in the first full flush of delight and joy in the pride of possession --- a casual ring of the doorbell and behold, as I had hoped, the carefully prepared, protected and sizeable packet from Charleston put into my hands by a benign and unfamiliar postman.  And not yet opened, for I shall wait a short time to gather about me a few choice initiates (who have been like myself eagerly awaiting your precious shipment) for a most private vernissage (sans varnish of course) --- this being one of the greatest moments of my life.                
I cried, the other day, indeed sobbed with joy on learning from Paul Roche’s letter (yet to be answered) – (in which he recorded a return of life to your temporarily stricken legs) --- that you were again able to walk --- if only so far as a little and with help --- God!   --- even now a filament of tears and a choking gullet and an almost agonizing joy at the news and its promise of ultimate complete recovery.  Deo gratias!
It so happens I got off a preparatory letter to the head of the Museum of Modern Art, Alfred H. Barr, Jr., yesterday, notifying him of the purchase & dispatch of a canvas chosen by you, telling him I was expecting its arrival any day, and that, once handsomely framed, I would telephone for an appointment (and a viewing) in his office at the Museum, there to discuss the project of my donating it to his Museum --- the first in America.  This will be, I imagine, early in October, when I will be at my niece’s house at Skillman, 5 or 6 miles outside of Princeton.  Right now I am in the throes of unpacking, having decided not to move to other quarters until some time in the new year. May it be a blessed one for you, above all people in the world --- how well I understand Paul Roche’s dedication of his Sophoclean Trilogy --- my choice too, my master spirit too, since this painter would never have existed without the breath of life your creative genius inspired him with 44 years ago, at Cassis sur Mer. Most humbly, most gratefully and most lovingly yours ---
John Wyeth

I'll write in a few days to Paul Roche, and again to you.  Don’t bother to answer right now.  


Paul Roche to John Wyeth, 24 October 1976  

Roche begins by telling Wyeth how pleased Grant was at Wyeth’s enthusiastic response at receiving Grant’s painting “The Pond in Winter.”  Regardless which museum accepts, or whether it is accepted by any museum at all, what matters most to Grant is that Wyeth himself is pleased by the painting.  Roche writes that the landscape was painted from a particular window in the Charleston Farmhouse in Sussex (Vanessa Bell’s bedroom). 

Roche then refers to a book that Wyeth had mentioned in a previous letter (missing), namely Virginia Woolf and her World by John Lehmann, and confesses that the book is not present in the farmhouse library, in spite of the fact that Grant had just called on Lehmann a few months before.  Roche then passes on the news that Grant had again succumbed to pneumonia the previous month (“with several days of wandering and delerium”), but had since recovered enough that he was able to be present at private showing of his work.  Roche thanks Wyeth for “his kind words” regarding his translation of Sophocles, which he goes on to discuss for several sentences, mentioning as well several recent translation projects. 

Roche then mentions Wyeth’s book of poems, This Man’s Army, which he urges Wyeth to send to them as a xeroxed copy, rather than a copy of the actual book which Roche supposes would be “ruinously expensive” (presumeably due to its scarcity). 

Roche inquires whether Wyeth has seen “the beautiful little film” made about Grant and Charleston by Christopher Mason, and mentions that he was able to arrange a showing of it to his students when he was teaching recently at the California Institute of the Arts.  Roche suggests that Wyeth might ask the Museum of Modern Art to show it, given the recent growth of interest in the Bloomsbury Group.  He then closes by mentioning a new book about the Bloomsbury painters by Richard Shone.  


John Wyeth to Duncan Grant, 16 December 1976

(letter missing).


Duncan Grant to John Wyeth (in Skillman, N.J.)--- an undated postcard written in Paul Roche’s hand  

Grant thanks Wyeth for the good news that his painting “Pond in Winter” is to find a home in the collection of the Rhode Island School of Design.  “What a lovely collection they have,” he writes, and says he has been poring over the catalogue and postcards of their collection which Wyeth sent.  He goes on to comment that Wyeth must have spent a great deal to have had the painting so beautifully framed.  He says he is glad that Wyeth will be spending “many weeks in the enchantingly green countryside of which you send me photographs.”  Finally, he reports that his show in Lewis was a success.  


Paul Roche (at Aldermaston, Berkshire)  to John Wyeth, 10 January 1977  

Roche writes that both he and Grant owe Wyeth a letter, and refers to a letter dated Dec 16, which is no longer extant.  He passes on some news that Grant was ill with an infection over Christmas, when he was visiting Roche and his family in Aldermaston, Berkshire. 

Roche then turns to the subject of Wyeth’s book of poems, This Man’s Army, a copy of which Wyeth has recently sent them.   Roche begins with a question: that he is “dying to know” when the sonnets were written.  “They seem to have been written on the spot --- so fresh and lively are they --- “  and yet, he notes, they were published a decade after the war.  Roche relates that he read the entire sequence aloud to Grant.  “From the very first I was amazed: amazed that poetry of that kind and quality was written between the wars.  And if in fact they were actually written at the time, it makes it even more impressive.  There is none of that Georgian diffuseness & wooliness one might have expected from the period.  They could have been written today ---- they’re chiseled and precise and yet brilliantly meet the musical demands of the sonnet form.  As to the account itself, it moves with an irrefutable genuineness and vividness.”  Roche goes on to say that Grant was as affected by the sonnets as he was, and they are at a loss to understand why the sonnets have never been republished (they finally would be, but not for another 30 years --- long after Wyeth’s death).


A final note:  a significant body of compelling, though circumstantial, evidence exists which  suggests that, while Wyeth was painting landscapes in Bavaria every summer and fall between the years 1932 to 1938, he may also have been passing information on Nazi activities to British intelligence.  This possibility will be fully explored in a future posting.


I am indebted to members of the Wyeth family: Ellie Wyeth, Marion Sims Wyeth and France Sloat, for permission to reproduce these letters of John Allan Wyeth, and for access to the letters of Duncan Grant and Paul Roche.  Particular thanks also to France Sloat and Dana Gioia, without whose generous assistance and invaluable suggestions this posting would not have been possible. 


Sources Consulted

Bell, Quentin, and Virginia Nicholson, with photographs by Alen Macweeney.  Charleston: A Bloomsbury House and Garden  (Henry Holt, 1997).

Caws, Mary Ann and Sarah Bird Wright.  Bloomsbury and France: Art and Friends  (Oxford University Press, 2000).

Gadd, David.  The Loving Friends: A Portrait of Bloomsbury  (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1974).

Gioia, Dana.  "The Unknown Soldier: An Introduction to the Poetry of John Allan Wyeth," in John Allan Wyeth, This Man's Army: A War in Fifty-odd Sonnets  (University of South Carolina Press, 2008).

Nicholson, Virginia.  Among the Bohemians: Experiments in Living, 1900-1939  (William Morrow, 2004).

Roche, Paul.  With Duncan Grant in Southern Turkey: A Journal  (Honeyglen Publishing, 1982).

Shone, Richard.  Bloomsbury Portraits  (Phaidon, 1976).

Spalding, Frances.  Duncan Grant: A Biography  (Chatto & Windus, 1997).

Spalding, Frances.  Vanessa Bell  (Ticknor & Fields, 1983).

Todd, Pamela.  Bloomsbury at Home  (Abrams, 2000).

Turnbaugh, Douglas Blair.  Duncan Grant and the Bloomsbury Group: An Illustrated Biography (London: Bloomsbury, 1987).

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Recent scholarly work on Wyeth

As we mark the centennial of America’s entry into the First World War, word of John Allan Wyeth’s wartime poetry continues its gradual dissemination among American and British scholars and readers.

At the 28th Annual Conference on American Literature to be held in Boston May 25-28, by the American Literature Association, Tim Kendall of Exeter University—who needs no introduction to the readers of this blog--- will be presenting a paper, “‘We none of us savvy their lingo’: John Allan Wyeth goes to War.”

I was curious to discover the extent to which the subject of American WWI literature might be featured in a major conference on American literature occuring so close to the centennial. I counted 157 sessions, only three of which concern the First World War and, of those three, two are sessions devoted to Hemingway. Only one session actually names the First World War in its title, and it contains just three presenters, two of whom are British. It is difficult to avoid the conclusion--- Centennial notwithstanding--- that the First World War as a seminal event in American literary history is an idea which, overall, elicits little interest among American academics.

Be that as it may, and although the WWI session, with only three presenters, will be one of the smaller sessions at the conference, the quality of this particular session promises to be very high. In addition to Professor Kendall's paper on Wyeth, two distinguished scholars of women’s literature in the First World War will be presenting papers on the wartime writings of two front-line nurses.

Alice Kelly, of the University of Oxford, who has published on Katherine Mansfield and the First World War, discovered a previously unknown war story by Edith Wharton, and has written about death scenes in the narratives of First World War nurses, will be presenting “Nurse, Suffragette, War Writer: Ellen N. La Motte’s Letters and The Backwash of War.”

Margaret R. Higonnet, of the University of Connecticut (Emeritus), whose previous books include Nurses at the front: writing the wounds of the Great War (Northeastern U Press: 2001) and Lines of fire: women writers of World War I (Plume: 1999), will be presenting “Helen Mackay: Accidentals and Small Things.”

If and when abstracts of these papers become available, I will add them here.

In the meantime, one can only hope that interest in American literature of the First World War among American scholars will be spurred by the Centennial and, perhaps, by the growing interest in WWI among the general public, as evidenced by popularity of the National World War I Museum in Kansas City, and of the recent series, “America’s Great War: World War I and the American Experience,” on PBS. If American scholars fail to rise to the occasion, it appears that British scholars are more than happy to take up the slack.

As far as John Allan Wyeth is concerned, all the current work on him seems to be taking place in the UK. Professor Kendall will be presenting another paper on Wyeth in St. Andrews, Scotland, in June, and will be publishing an article on Wyeth early next year in a book by Clutag Press. In addition, the BBC is said to be planning something on Wyeth, the exact nature of which has yet to be disclosed.

If any readers of this blog are aware of other scholarship on Wyeth, in either America or the UK, published or in progress, please send word and I will acknowledge it here.