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Yeats's Mask

 | 
Margaret Mills Harper
, 
Warwick Gould

Yeats’s mask

‘Oxford Poets’: Yeats, T. S. Eliot and William Force Stead

David Bradshaw

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  • 1 An earlier version of this essay, ‘The American Chaplain and the Modernist Poets: William Force St (...)
  • 2 There are many letters from T. S. Eliot to Stead in the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, (...)
  • 3 George Mills Harper, ‘William Force Stead’s Friendship with Yeats and Eliot’, Massachusetts Review(...)

1With the arrival of William Force Stead in 1927, Worcester College, Oxford, secured its place among the footnotes of modern literary history.1 College Chaplain from 1927 to 1930 and Chaplain and Fellow from 1930 to 1933, Stead was a friend of both Yeats and T. S. Eliot, and it was partly to thank Stead for baptising him as an Anglican in the summer of 1927 and arranging for his private confirmation by the Bishop of Oxford the following day that Eliot gave a rare, only partially documented and hitherto undated reading of The Waste Land at Worcester College.2 This present article, centred on ‘Oxford Poets’, an unpublished talk that Stead gave at some point (probably in the early or mid-1960s) after he took up a Professorship of English at Trinity College, Washington, D.C., seeks not only to provide details of Eliot’s Worcester reading, but, more significantly, to augment and in some small ways correct George Mills Harper’s 1980 account of ‘William Force Stead’s Friendship with Yeats and Eliot’3 by bringing to light Stead’s own recollections of Yeats.

  • 4 William Force Stead, ‘William Force Stead’. Autobiographical Note, stamped ‘OCT-1945’, William For (...)
  • 5 Dom Julian has supplemented his letter of 15 June 1975 by offering me guidance and information at (...)

2Harper begins his article by quoting from a 3 November 1951 letter Stead wrote to the Librarian of the University of Virginia enclosing four letters of recommendation that had been written in his favour by Yeats, Eliot, Edmund Blunden and D.C. Simpson, the latter, even in 1951, being rather less of a household name than the other three. We shall return to the testimonials from Yeats and Eliot in due course, but the first aspect of Harper’s article that requires emendation is Stead’s statement in his covering letter that he was ‘a U. Va. poet of the ripe old vintage of 1908’. In an ‘Autobiographical Note’ now housed in the Enoch Pratt Free Library, Baltimore (which Stead may have written in 1945, if not before), he states that he was born in Washington on 29 August 1884 before offering this brief overview of his career as a schoolboy and undergraduate. ‘In spite of all that could be done by the [Sidwell] Friends School, Washington, Tome Institute, and the University of Virginia’, Stead writes, ‘I remained impregnable to learning. At the University of Virginia I joined the Delta Phi fraternity, won a gold medal for poetry, was an Editor of College Topics, played a mandoline in the Glee Club, and poker with the Varsity Pikers.’4 These diverse accomplishments help to explain, no doubt, why Stead failed to graduate from Virginia due to his inability to pass its maths requirement. This information and an account of Stead’s post-Virginia life is set out in a detailed letter to Harper of 15 June 1975 from his son, Dom Julian Stead, quoted at the end of Harper’s article (34-38), but since there are a number of discrepancies between Dom Julian’s overview and my own research (which draws on a number of sources), I will now set down my own version of William Force Stead’s career.5

  • 6 Robert Sencourt, T. S. Eliot: A Memoir, ed. Donald Adamson (London: Garnstone Press, 1971), 105.
  • 7 Crockford’s Clerical Directory for 1918-19, 50th Issue (London: Field and Queen, 1919), 1433. When (...)

3On leaving the University of Virginia in 1907 (not 1908), Stead was accepted into the American Consular Service, his first post being US Vice-Consul in Nottingham. He was US Vice-Consul in Liverpool by the time he married, in 1911, Anne Francis Goldsborough, ‘a Washington girl of the best style and society’.6 Their first child, Philip Hugh Force Stead, was born in Chester in 1913, but not long afterwards Stead’s life took a marked change of direction when he decided to train for the Anglican priesthood. He attended Ripon Clergy College in 1915 and Ridley Hall, Cambridge, in 1916, his first assignment as a clergyman being curate to the Vicar of Ross-on-Wye (1916-19).7 It was here that he became friends with a Radley schoolboy, Henry Vere Fitzroy Somerset, a scion of the local gentry, who would go on to be elected to a Fellowship in History at Worcester College, Oxford, in 1921.

  • 8 ‘William Force Stead’, Enoch Pratt Free Library.
  • 9 Minutes, Governing Body, Worcester College Archives, WOR/GOV 3/2.
  • 10 Minutes, Governing Body, Worcester College Archives, WOR/GOV 3/2.
  • 11 E. Roberts to Stead, 21 July 1930; Stead to E. Roberts, 22 July 1930. William Force Stead Benefact (...)
  • 12 Stead to Richard Cobden-Sanderson, 18 May 1930, Special Collections, Morris Library, University of (...)

4In 1919 Stead went up to Queen’s College, Oxford, to read Theology. He took a Second in 1921, remained in Oxford for a year pursuing ‘some special work in the philosophy of religion’,8 before being appointed Assistant Chaplain of St Mark’s, Florence, in 1922. He remained in Florence until 1924, took his Oxford MA in 1925, and was Acting Curate of the Church of St. Mary and St. Nicholas, Littlemore, Oxford, when Somerset recommended him for the post of Chaplain of Worcester College. Stead’s appointment was confirmed at the Governing Body meeting of 23 June 1927 (not ‘1926’ as Harper has it on 19 and 29, footnote 30),9 and he was re­appointed as Chaplain on 17 June 1930, being elected to a Fellowship at the same meeting.10 Stead thus became Worcester College’s first American Fellow and its first salaried Chaplain,11 having been on the point of resigning in May 1930 and moving back to the United States due to the increasing financial and emotional strain he was then under.12

  • 13 Edmund Blunden to William Force Stead, 13 August 1933, James Marshall and Marie-Louise Osborn Coll (...)

5Three years later Stead was forced to resign the Chaplaincy and his Fellowship in the run-up to his conversion to Roman Catholicism on 17 August 1933. ‘I am sure that Worcester will lament, long lament the necessity you are under of leaving that excellent life, and all you were accustomed to do for the College. Why can’t they fit you in? May not a Fellow be a Catholic?’, his friend Edmund Blunden asked him on 13 August.13 Stead, however, knew that for the time being he was persona non grata at Worcester, at least as far as the Provost was concerned. As Stead put it in a letter of the following year to Richard Cobden-Sanderson, when he was poised to visit Worcester for the first time since his resignation:

  • 14 Stead to Cobden-Sanderson, 17 April 1934, University of Delaware.

You will not envy me my coming ordeal at Worcester College. The Provost is sore as hell with me; you know they created a new and special Fellowship for me in 1930, and then I not only resigned but joined the Church of Rome! Of all horrible things, especially in the cold fish like eyes of The Rev. F.J. Lys, Provost of Worcester and Vice Chancellor of Oxford. He is one of the old time drab and dreary Protestants who regard the Church of Rome as a purely Satanic Power. He would not have minded much if I had become a Buddhist or a Mohamedan ... But to become an R.C., is, in his eyes, to become a Devil Worshipper.
When I went to say good bye to him last August he was out in his garden trimming his apple trees. He not only did not condescend to invite me for tea nor even to ask me into his house; he did not even come down from his ladder, but chatted coldly with me from a distance.14

  • 15 Stead to Cobden-Sanderson, 28 March 1933, University of Delaware.

6In the same year that Stead resigned his Fellowship he brought out Uriel: A Hymn in Praise of Divine Immanence, his only volume of poetry to receive, in some quarters at least, anything like acclaim, though it was by no means his first book of verse. Sir Henry Newbolt told him that he had ‘enjoyed [Uriel] more than any poem [he had] read for a long time’,15 while an article in the November 1933 number of Blackfriars, the monthly journal of the English Dominicans, hailed Stead as ‘A New Catholic Genius’ on the strength of it. It was written by his friend Gordon George (under his usual nom de plume of ‘Robert Sencourt’), and although its pitch and title are ridiculously laudatory, it throws a valuable spotlight on Stead at this pivotal moment of his life and provides us with a flattering portrait of a man with whom both Yeats and Eliot were by then close friends:

  • 16 Stead lived at The Red House, Clifton Hampden, from 1928-39, ‘the happiest period of my father’s l (...)
  • 17 Robert Sencourt, ‘A New Catholic Genius’, New Blackfriars, 14.164 (November 1933), 924-35 at 925-2 (...)

[H]e is an excellent talker. A cliché, a truism, these…one hardly ever hears from his lips. He looks so straight at life that all he says is fresh and individual: his talk sparkles with the dew of truth, a truth which is fresh every morning. He is extraordinarily free from any sense of strain or of self-assertion: his conversation is quiet and modest and delightful in its sense both of the littleness of the self, and of the charm and importance of very little things…He is a keen watcher of the skies and is devoted to nature, especially the humanized nature which Virgil loved, and his garden has one of the best collections of lilies in Oxfordshire: he is something of a connoisseur, and with a very shrewd sense how to get the most for his money he has made his home in the most unspoilt and most picturesque village on the Thames, Clifton Hampden.16 There, with the same shrewdness, he has collected Georgian furniture, and can seldom pass a shop with pictures that look anything like the period of Cox or William Turner. He takes little exercise except walking; though he likes to drive a large and silent car. But his specialities are inns and beer. If one wants to guide him on byways in the Cotswolds, it is no use thinking to do it by roads and villages: one must name the taverns; when he found that Prinknash Priory [Gloucestershire] was between The William and The Air Balloon, his heart warmed to it so that, from that moment, his heart was open to all that the ways of the Benedictines suggested to him. It was with them that he made up his mind to take the steps that would open to him the immediacy of Catholicism. For, though he never sought to alter the Protestant traditions of Worcester College Chapel, he had been for years in the habit of saying of Catholicism: ‘It is the true Church.’ The gift of faith, however, is something more than the power to discern that the faith of Rome is essential Christianity: it is the conviction that it would be intolerable to live without it. Such is the gift which came this summer to the poet: came at Prinknash…and so suddenly that most of his closest friends were taken by surprise. For not long before he had been inclined to say: ‘It is an iron religion’, and even to the last moment, he demanded every assurance that his conscience would not be coerced.17

  • 18 Stead to Cobden-Sanderson, 30 December 1933; 10 January 1934; 17 April 1934, University of Delawar (...)
  • 19 Harper, 9.
  • 20 MS 23, Series III, Subseries 1, Enoch Pratt Free Library, Baltimore.

7Stead was to be awarded an Oxford B.Litt. degree in 1936 for a thesis, supervised by Blunden, on the life and work of the Catholic poet and martyr Robert Southwell (1561-1595), and after resigning from Worcester in 1933 he had hopes of securing a position teaching English Literature at a university, possibly back in the USA (where he spent four or five months during the winter of 1933-3418) or at the University of Cairo, where George had connections. That his application to Cairo was successful19 is not surprising given the collective distinction of the friends and ex-colleagues, such as Yeats and Eliot, who wrote him testimonials at this time. Even Provost Lys, having eventually climbed down from his ladder, drew attention in his reference of 16 November 1934 to Stead’s ‘considerable reputation’ in the fields of poetry and literary criticism before adding that ‘he is a man who can be trusted to carry out with all his power anything that he has undertaken, and is sure to be liked by those with whom he has to deal.’20

  • 21 William Force Stead, ‘Christopher Smart’s Cat’, Criterion, 17.69 (July 1938), 679-85. Quote from 6 (...)
  • 22 William Force Stead, ‘A Christopher Smart Manuscript: Anticipations of “A Song to David”’, TLS, n. (...)

8In the event, Stead did not take up a position at Cairo or any other university in the mid-1930s, but he did become a regular contributor to the literary press. The July 1938 number of the Criterion, for instance, carried an essay by Stead on Christopher Smart’s cat Jeoffry. In words that are all too applicable to his own poetic oeuvre, Stead remarks of Smart that ‘to read through his collected poems is to wander in a waste of tame, conventional verses, empty odes, flimsy ballads, and Prize Poems in Miltonic blank verse on the attributes of the Divine Being…He seemed unable to break through the crust of convention and to speak from the core of his being.’21 Stead goes on to describe ‘an unpublished and hitherto unknown manuscript’ by Smart that he had ‘recently examined.’ In fact, Stead’s discovery of Smart’s Jubilate Agno (his edition of which was published in 1939 as Rejoice in the Lamb: A Song from Bedlam; it was set to music by Britten in 1943) was instrumental in putting this previously obscure eighteenth-century poet on the literary map, and in a piece he wrote about the Jubilate for the TLS Stead drew attention to its engaging oddity.22

  • 23 Peter Force Stead adopted the religious name Julian when he became a Bene­dictine monk.
  • 24 Stead to Cobden-Sanderson, 10 December 1939, University of Delaware; Harper, 25, 37-38.
  • 25 When Stead and Peter took their holiday in America in 1939, Anne Francis Stead returned to Harborn (...)
  • 26 Dom Julian comments in a letter to the author of 18 August 2011: ‘if anybody today is curious to k (...)

9As well as writing literary journalism and scholarly articles, Stead examined for the Oxford and Cambridge Schools Examination Board for a number of years after resigning his Fellowship, but on 12 August 1939, only a few weeks before the outbreak of the Second World War, he and his younger son Peter23 (born on 20 November 1926) left Liverpool for the United States in order to visit his seriously ill father. The war, however, led to his American passport being cancelled24 and Stead was unable to return to England until 1946.25 He became a professor of literature at Trinity College, Washington in 1942 and ended up living in the United States for the rest of his life, although he revisited Europe almost annually, usually accompanied by Mrs Nancy Venable, a wealthy, cultured, domineering and possessive widow with whom he had fallen in love in 1939 and with whom he was to have a relationship more akin to that of a mother and child for the rest of his life. He died at her home in Baltimore on 8 March 1967. During the course of one of their Atlantic crossings Stead and Mrs Venable became friends with Tennessee Williams, who went on to portray him as the moribund poet Nonno in The Night of the Iguana (1961).26

*****

10While he was at Queen’s and during the year he spent in Oxford before going to Florence, Stead got to know and was to remain friendly with a number of men who went on to become well-known writers. As well as Blunden, his circle included L. P. Hartley, Robert Graves, A.E. Coppard, Roy Campbell, Edgell Rickword, L.A.G. Strong, Richard Hughes, John Masefield and Robert Bridges. Stead later recalled his encounters with these men, and with other literary figures, in a talk entitled ‘Oxford Poets’:

  • 27 The Jolly Farmers, Paradise Street, is still a pub and now far from shabby.
  • 28 In his autobiography, Vivian de Sola Pinto recalls a Proctorial raid on the Jolly Farmers when Yea (...)
  • 29 William Force Stead, ‘Oxford Poets’, William Force Stead Collection, MS 23, Series II, Subseries 2 (...)

The Sitwells were much in evidence, tho’ they lived in London…Edith already looked like a Sienese Madonna in purple brocade and hung about with pearls; Osbert and Sacheverell looked like what they had recently been, young guardsmen, officers in a smart regiment…More diverse in effect were the ‘Jolly Farmers.’ None of us were farmers; we were a group meeting on Saturday evenings to read old plays, – Elizabethan and Jacobean – in an ancient public house called the Jolly Farmers. Comforted by a blazing fire on the hearth, a bowl of punch in front of the fire, and long clay pipes, we sat on the only furnishings in the room, hard wooden settles against the walls. We chose it as providing the right background, a shabby old ale-house unchanged since the days of our Elizabethan authors. But it had remained unaltered only because it was in one of the poorest and slummiest parts of Oxford.27 And this gave rise to an astute suspicion; why were Oxford undergraduates lurking in such dark and thievish corners of the city?
One evening we looked up to see a black robed figure standing in the door; the black robes and black mortar board of the Senior Proctor. – We were ‘progged’. The police had been watching; one or more had been secreted somewhere, listening to our readings. The language of Ben Jonson and Beaumont and Fletcher conveyed to the constabulary nothing more nor less than mutterings in an unknown tongue…We might be a band of Bolshevik conspirators.28
…The youngest of our group was the fabulous and flamboyant Roy Campbell. I didn’t know what to make of him in those days…He was sort of half in and half out of the university; that is, he had been allowed to take up residence on condition that he passed his entrance examination at the end of the year.
Near the end of this period of probation I met him coming down the Cornmarket with a pile of books under his arm. ‘Well’ I said, ‘I see you are getting to work.’ – ‘Work, hell’, he replied, ‘I am taking these over to pawn.’ And that was as far as he got in Oxford.29

11Stead goes on to evoke his memories of Graves, Blunden, Bridges and Masefield and his frequent visits to Lady Ottoline Morrell’s Garsington Manor, but by far the most eminent of the ‘Oxford Poets’ he got to know at this time was Yeats. When Stead heard that Yeats was living in Oxford and ‘liked people interested in poetry to drop in on Monday evenings’ he could not contain his excitement: ‘Why, since boyhood I had thought of him as the Magician Merlin harping in the Forest of Brocéliande’ (‘Oxford Poets’). He wrote to Yeats on 14 September 1920 enclosing a copy of his latest book of poems, the ‘rather Pre-Raphaelite verses’ of Verd Antique:

  • 30 Anon., ‘A Bed of Verses’, Nation, 27.22 (28 August 1920), 673-74.

Dear Sir,
I have heard that you are kind and sympathetic toward the younger poets, and so I am venturing to send you my little volume. – As a matter of fact I am not so very young after all, having turned 30.
What troubles me is ... do you think I am capable of writing poetry? This is only a small selection, but it is the best I have written. And I have always tried most honestly to be myself, and have most rigidly abstained from adopting any of the poses which have been fashionable during the last ten years.
Yet very few papers have noticed my book, and the few who have, do not attach any significance to it. Especially was I hurt and crushed by this sentence in “The Nation”, – “There is no ardour nor vision in it, no reality[,] no revelation of the beautiful[,] enigmatic face of life”,30 – this hurt me especially because the reviewer had some reason to be favourably disposed toward me, since my book was introduced to him by one of my best friends who is also a close friend of his.
If there is no poetry in this book, then at 30 I can hardly hope ever to write poetry – And poetry is to me everything. – What do you think? – Please forgive me if you have no time for such letters (LTWBY2, 368).

12It is noteworthy that Stead misrepresents his age in this letter: he was in fact thirty-six in September 1920, not thirty.

13Yeats, then living at 4 and 5 Broad Street, Oxford, and deeply involved in the occult investigations that would culminate in A Vision, replied to Stead on 26 September 1920 (Life 1, 113-117; 157-62):

Dear Mr. Stead,
I have been for days on the point of writing to you about your book of dis­tinguished poems. But much work put off & still puts off the reading of it in any adequate way. I wonder if you would come & see me? I shall be in but not alone tomorrow evening. If you are free come in. In any case we will have a talk later on when I have read more (CL InteLex 3783).

14Stead takes up the story in ‘Oxford Poets’:

  • 31 Cyril Charles Martindale (1879-1963) of Campion Hall, Oxford. I have not been able to identify the (...)

Yeats lived at ... a delightful 17th century house now pulled down and replaced by vulgar commercial premises. An Irish maid led me to his study at the top of the house, up two flights of stairs with old oak bannisters carved in the twisted Jacobean fashion. I found the poet surrounded by his books and a small gathering, – his wife, an impressively silent lady, very striking with raven black hair, a beak-like nose, and brilliant eyes, – an equally striking looking Hindoo priest, with a round chocolate-colored face and a long flowing orange colored robe, – and, by way of contrast, Father Martindale, a Jesuit priest.31
Yeats at this time (1920) was about 55 and at the height of his powers. Under his wife’s civilizing influence, and in honour of his guests, he was wearing a dinner jacket with black tie, his hair, still without a touch of grey, was carefully brushed and slicked down. His greeting had an old-fashioned air that combined formality and dignity with something that was modest and deferential.
…Yeats was vigorous, animated, confident, and controversial. I found him in the midst of a discourse on spiritualism and its evidences of survival. But every time he brought forward what seemed a convincing instance, Father Martindale found a naturalistic explanation. The learned Hindoo then offered some oriental marvels, but fared no better under the searchlight of the brilliant Jesuit.
Finally, Yeats could stand it no longer, he leapt from his chair, shook his finger in Father Martindale’s face and exploded angrily, ‘Father Martindale, you are an unbeliever!’
Yeats would subscribe to all the miracles of the Christian, Mohammedan and Mormon scriptures, the hidden powers of the monks of the Ganges and Euphrates, and the mountain-guarded secrets of Tibet, rather than listen to the most persuasive sceptic explaining one miracle away. A man born to believe, he said that when he first came to London he found the intelligentsia followers of Darwin, Huxley and Spencer, but he knew such doctrines could not be true; materialism, he said, is ‘just too dull to be true.’
When we were leaving he lit a candle, and holding it above his head, lighted us down the stairs. At the door he asked me to wait a moment, and after the others had gone, he said he was interested in my little book, – I pricked up my ears, expecting some praise of my verses, – but he went on to explain that the spirits manifest themselves in various ways, most subtly and delicately by odours; as he took up my book, addressed in an unknown hand, he was visited by an odour of violets, – a friendly and favorable odour: would I care to come in the following Monday evening?

  • 32 Harper, 12-13.

15In fact, Yeats was so curious about Stead’s ‘odour of violets’ that he wrote to him later that same evening (Monday 27 September) inviting him to dine with him and his wife ‘on Friday next at seven o’clock. We shall be by ourselves & I do not think we shall lack things to talk of’ (CL InteLex 3786) ‘Two days later, in a notebook recording visionary experiences used in A Vision (1925)’, Harper comments, ‘Yeats recalled Stead’s visit: “On Monday night a young man called Force Stead came, & a few minutes before he arrived I smelt violets, & communicator said this was to draw attention to him”. As Yeats points out in the “Introduction to ‘A Vision’”, his Communicators or Controls were accustomed to announce their presence and pleasure by “whistlings” or “sweet smells” and their displeasure by bad smells or noises.’32

  • 33 CL InteLex 4096. For other references to the odour of violets in the early 1920s, see the followin (...)

16Had he known how privileged he was to give off such an aroma, Stead would no doubt have been beside himself with joy. As Yeats told Lennox Robinson on 16 March 1922, ‘About the violets. One man here [in Ireland] was introduced to me by a smell of violets when I opened his letter asking if he might call. I found when he did that he had had the same dreams – certain precise symbols I and my wife have had for years. I have seen a great deal of him, much more than of any body else ...’.33 The odour of violet was also Maud Gonne’s favourite scent, and Yeats associated it with manifestations of sanctity. As he puts it in ‘Oil and Blood’:

In tombs of gold and lapis lazuli
Bodies of holy men and women exude
Miraculous oil, odour of violet. (VP 483)

17Elsewhere, Yeats asked Thomas Sturge Moore in 1928 how he ac­counted ‘for the fact that when the Tomb of St Teresa was opened her body exuded miraculous oil & smelt of violets?’ (CL InteLex 5072. 2 February [1928]), while in A Vision (1937) he recalled the signs his communicators had used in the early 1920s:

Sweet smells were the most constant phenomena, now that of incense, now that of violets or roses or some other flower, and as perceptible to some half­dozen of our friends as to ourselves, though upon one occasion when my wife smelt hyacinth a friend smelt eau-de-cologne. A smell of roses filled the whole house when my son was born and was perceived there by the doctor and my wife and myself ... Such smells came most often to my wife and myself when we passed through a door or were in some small enclosed place, but sometimes would form themselves in my pocket or even in the palms of my hands ... When I spoke of a Chinese poem in which some old official described his coming retirement to a village inhabited by old men devoted to the classics, the air filled suddenly with the smell of violets, and that night some communicator explained that in such a place a man could escape those ‘knots’ of passion that prevent Unity of Being and must be expiated between lives or in another life (AVB 15-16)

  • 34 YVP3, 104. See also 308.

18Yet another reason why Yeats would have been intrigued by Stead’s odour is because ‘there was a connection between the smell of violets & the Tower symbol’, as he was to put it one of his Vision notebooks on 2 May 1922.34

19Stead became a regular at Yeats’s Monday evening gatherings and he was also invited on other days of the week when he and the Yeatses would have supper together. ‘At these times he was Willie and she was George’, he remembered, ‘…an easy and intimate little party, but I was often puzzled in the hours that followed when we retired to his study’:

  • 35 In a letter of 20 March 1921 (CL InteLex 3882), for example, Yeats asked Stead: ‘What is the histo (...)
  • 36 Apollo, histoire générale des arts plastiques by Salomon Reinach (1858-1932) was first published i (...)
  • 37 Yeats was actually staying at Tillyra Castle, the home of Edward Martyn, not at the home of Lady G (...)
  • 38 Giovanni Pico della Mirandola (1463-1494), esoteric philosopher and author of Oration on the Digni (...)

Yeats, who mistook me for a philosopher and a man of learning, went voyaging off into regions with which I was wholly unfamiliar.35 He was then reading the Catholic theologian, Baron von Hugel, – and here I could offer a few comments; he was already interested in Byzantium, and I had a little knowledge of the Eastern Empire. But his range of interest – tho’ he was not a man of learning – went far beyond my boundaries. For instance, he would open a volume on Art, Apollo by Reinach,36 and ask me to compare the facial expressions in Greek and Roman sculpture, as representing the contrast between the subjective or instinctive life and the objective or rational life. This led to a discussion of the difference between the Greek and Roman civilizations, and to subjective and objective periods during the Christian era.
Here I was invited to follow his involved system of intersecting cones, as the objective age or civilization was moving up into the subjective, and the subjective age or civilization was moving down into the objective. These again were symbolised by the dark of the moon as the objective, and the light or full moon as the subjective, and the transition as the gradual rounding out of the dark into the light, and vice versa.
I was often quite lost, and even the poet himself, to whom this reading of character and history had come as a revelation, – partly thro’ his wife, who had pronounced psychic powers, – even the poet would pause at times, drop his glasses, dangle them at the end of their ribbon, – look round and say:
‘It is all very difficult.’
Other subjects were the Great Memory; the Pylons, or Gates of Knowledge, and the external existence of dreams: for instance, he was staying in a friend’s house, Lady Gregory’s, I believe, when he had a dream of Diana shooting an arrow at a star; he came down to breakfast and started to relate it to Arthur Symons, another guest in the house, only to find that Symons had had the same dream at the same time and had already embodied it in a poem.37 What could this mean, but that the dream was not peculiar to one dreamer? Dreams have an external existence of their own and floating through the world, they may visit several dreamers at the same time.
I must have been useless as a source of information and ideas, but Yeats was lonely and felt rather neglected in Oxford; his was not the academic type of mind, and learned ladies bored him by asking, ‘Mr. Yeats, what is your subject?’ as though he were a don, with some narrow field of research. He soon adopted a blunt reply, – ‘Astrology’, and that floored them.
As a matter of fact, it was one of his many interests in occultism. I have heard him inveigh against the blind and irrational manner in which astrol­ogy has been ignored by the western mind without ever being disproved. Speaking of the subject one evening, he said it was by this science that Pico della Mirandola38 had been able to foretell the year and day of his death. We were a group of 4 or 5, while Mrs. Yeats sat apart, quietly sewing by the fire, – very much ‘out of it.’ I remembered how Yeats looked over to her saying, ‘But my wife knows more about this; she has been reading Pico’s life. George, tell us something about Pico della Mirandola’, – with a gentle courtesy drawing her into our circle.
Yeats welcomed almost any form of belief. He craved the supernatural. It was the only air he could live and breathe in. He was suffocated by materialism and irritated by scepticism. Once when I had brought an undergraduate with me, Yeats gave us a long discourse on re-incarnation. At the end my young friend ventured to observe that the theory of re-incarnation ‘bristles with difficulties.’ Yeats passed it off in sullen silence, but several times later on referred indignantly to ‘that young man who said re-incarnation bristles with difficulties.’

  • 39 ‘Family Letters 1905-1931’, The Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis, ed. Walter Hooper, 3 vols. (San F (...)

20The ‘young man’ was C.S. Lewis, and if Stead remained an awe-struck devotee, the Ulsterman was rather less impressed with Yeats and his extraordinary household. ‘It was the weirdest show you ever saw’, Lewis told his father in a letter of 19 March 1921. ‘... You sit on hard antique chairs by candlelight in an oriental looking room and listen in silence while the great man talks about magic and ghosts and mystics… It is a pity that the real romance of meeting a man who has written great poetry and who has known William Morris and [Rabindranath] Tagore and [Arthur] Symons should be so overlaid with the sham romance of flame coloured curtains and mumbo-jumbo.’39

  • 40 Dom Julian, on the other hand, notes that Anne Stead was very friendly with Richard Cobden-Sanders (...)

21Lewis developed his account of his 14 March 1921 visit to Yeats’s house in a serial letter to his brother and during the course of it he also took the opportunity to disparage Stead, whom he called ‘rather a punt…He is an undergraduate but also curate of a parish in Oxford. He writes poetry. The annoying thing is that it’s exactly like mine, only like the bad parts of mine.’ Before heading off to Broad Street, Lewis rendezvoused with Stead at his lodgings and he describes Stead’s wife in this letter as ‘a woman of implacable sullenness who refused even to say good evening to me…Stead was finishing a very nasty meal of cold fish and cocoa: but he soon put on his coat and after asking his lady why there were no stamps in the house and receiving no answer, swung out with me into the usual Oxford theatrical night.’40 Lewis goes on to describe the interior of Yeats’s home in some detail:

We were shown up a long stairway lined with rather wicked pictures by Blake – all devils and monsters – and finally into the presence chamber, lit by tall candles, with orange coloured curtains and full of things which I can’t describe because I don’t know their names. The poet was very big, about sixty years of age ... grey haired, clean shaven. When he first began to speak I would have thought him French, but the Irish sounds through after a time. Before the fire was a circle of hard antique chairs. Present were the poet’s wife, a little man who never spoke all evening, and Father Martindale ... Everyone got up as we came in: after the formalities I was humbly preparing to sink into the outlying chair leaving the more honourable to Stead, but the poet sternly and silently motioned us into other ones ...
Then the talk began. It was all of magic and cabbalism and the ‘Hermetic knowledge’. The great man talked while the priest and Mrs Yeats fed him with judicious questions. The matter I admit was either medieval or modern, but the manner was so xviii Century that I lost my morale.

  • 41 The nickname of G. Herbert Ewart (1857-1924) as well as a character in Great Expectations.
  • 42 Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis, ed. Hooper, I, 525-34; quotes from 529-32. Despite his contempt f (...)

22Lewis told his brother that he found Stead’s account of a recent dream especially risible and reports the scene as follows: ‘YEATS (looking to his wife): “Have you anything to say about that, Georgie?” Apparently Stead’s transcendental self, not important enough for the poet, has been committed to Mrs Yeats as a kind of ersatz or secondary magician…Try to mix Pumblechook,41 the lunatic we met at the Mitre [Hotel, Oxford], Dr Johnson, the most eloquent drunk Irishman you know, and Yeat’s [sic] own poetry, all up into one composite figure, and you will have the best impression I can give you.’42

  • 43 See Harper, 13-19.
  • 44 Harper, 19.

23Stead, on the other hand, as Harper takes pains to show, grew ever more enraptured with Yeats. They shared an interest in esoteric phenomena and corresponded about dreams, visions and the supernatural in a number of letters written between 1921 and 1924.43 Indeed, they remained in intermittent touch throughout the decade and Harper concludes that they enjoyed ‘an unbroken if not intimate relationship’.44

24When Stead brought out The House on the Wold and Other Poems in late 1930 it coincided with perhaps the greatest crisis of his life. An earlier volume, The Sweet Miracle (1922), had been dedicated ‘To Guy and Dorothy Trafford and with love to Cicely’, while one of the poems in his 1924 collection, Wayfaring, called ‘His Nymph Grazing’, is about a girl with a voracious appetite. Its last four lines, hilarious and pathetic in equal measure, are:

  • 45 William Force Stead, Wayfaring: Songs and Elegies (London: Richard Cobden-Sanderson, 1924), 34-36.

Though you’ve emptied half the larder,
Nothing can subdue my ardour;
Come and kiss me, pretty sinner,
And love me, – like you love your dinner.45

  • 46 Stead to Vere Somerset, 1 September 1926, Stead’s Personal File, Worcester College.

25Similarly, in his latest collection, The House on the Wold, there are further ‘Nymph’ poems dedicated ‘To Cecilia, aged 8’, ‘To Cecilia, aged 9’, ‘To Cecilia, aged 11’, ‘To Cecilia, aged 15’ and ‘To Cecilia, aged 16’. As early as September 1926 Stead had told Somerset that he was ‘in love’ with his ‘Nymph’,46 but by 1929-1930 he had become completely besotted with Cicely Trafford and things were rapidly getting out of hand.

  • 47 Stead to Richard Cobden-Sanderson, 7 February 1929, University of Delaware.

26Stead’s wife seems to have suffered some kind of breakdown around this time and was then recuperating in Malvern while Stead himself was ‘unutterably depressed about everything’ as he put it in a letter to Cobden-Sanderson. Stead also mentions in this letter that his doctor had urged him to live ‘a celibate life’ but he preferred to live apart from his wife – ‘I simply can’t live with her as brother and sister’. His brother-in-law tried to persuade him to divorce Anne, but Stead knew that this would ‘utterly crush her.’ ‘Also what is the use in divorcing her when the only other person I care for is the Nymph, and her mama, while kindness itself to me on all other subjects, is absolutely ruthless in her determination to tear that dear girl away from me and marry her to a county name and a county mansion?’47

27By the beginning of 1931 Stead’s ‘ardour’ for Cicely Trafford was still as intense as ever, and when he sent a copy of The House on the Wold to Yeats on 8 January he also took the opportunity to describe the predicament in which he now found himself:

  • 48 Harborne Hall, Birmingham. See n. 25 above.
  • 49 LTWBY2 513.

The Traffords have been my very great friends and patrons for many years, and their delightful William & Mary house, Hill Court, has been my ‘English Home’ as they always said, until recently – but gradually I fell so deeply and hopelessly in love with their daughter, my ‘Nymph’, that I confessed my devotions, like a fool – and that put an end to the best and brightest and sweetest episode in my dull and prosaic life…My wife you know lives apart from me, almost entirely in a convent.48 So my heart went a wandering and lodged with the Nymph! She was only 8 and I was 30 when I first knew her; so that was alright. But alas for the tricks of time: she is now 22 and I am 44. So it is not alright. And having her taken away from me has hurt my feelings and soured my heart and left me empty and desolate. Why cannot I accept a desolation like this and make great poetry out of it, instead of growing soured and bitter? Pride is the trouble, I fear – and that is what made even the Angels fall!49

28All the evidence suggests that Stead’s feelings for Cicely could not have been more fervent or sincere, but in the eyes of some of his friends he had made himself a laughing-stock through his doomed devotion to her. Eight months earlier, on 30 April 1930, for example, L.A.G. Strong had told Yeats:

  • 50 Marriage and Morals (1929).
  • 51 LTWBY 507-8.

Force Stead… is going through one of those troubled times popularly considered good for poets. His wife has left him, & entered a nunnery, where she claims to be happy. He has fallen in love, inaccessibly, with just such another, only higher up in the scale: a young girl whose blank gaze he fills mentally with spiritual condoms. She has an affection for him, but, when he protests devotion, she says he gives her the pip. This phrase makes him furious, & he broods for three months each time he provokes her to utter it. Her people regard him as a mixture of Wilde and Aleister Crowley, & won’t have him near the place. Poor Stead: it is unkind to talk of him in this way, but one cannot help feeling a little impatient to see a man who knows as much as he knows acting in such a way. It isn’t the being in love with her which is silly, but the way he goes about it, & the interpretations he puts on actions & remarks of hers which are plain from the other side of the street. That she could feel affection for him, without being in love, never entered his head… He won’t divorce his wife, because if she is divorced the nuns won’t keep her; & she knows how to play upon his kindness. I hope he will go off on his own, & find someone to look after him. He is much liked & respected by [Worcester] undergraduates. They come to him deeply worried by Bertrand Russell’s book on marriage.50 After combating its statements with the thirtieth undergraduate, he said to me “I’ve decided not to read it after all”.51

29In the event, it did not take long for Stead’s relationship with the Trafford family to improve, but it would never recover its old intimacy, while his marriage seemed broken beyond repair.

  • 52 CL InteLex 6102.

30‘Are you back at Worcester. I had heard that you had given up your work as Chaplin?’, Yeats enquired of Stead in a letter of 26 September 1934.52 Stead replied promptly and in his last extant letter to Yeats, dated 29 September 1934, he wrote:

  • 53 LTWBY2 565-66.

As for Worcester College, I remain a member of the Senior Common Room and dine there from time to time – perhaps you will dine with me there if you are in Oxford again – but I resigned my Fellowship in order to be received into the Catholic Church … I felt that I wanted to be a Catholic, and I wanted it more and more, until I wanted it so badly that I was willing to resign my Oxford Fellowship…
Since becoming a Catholic I have had very wonderful experiences, such as when I took my hour’s watch from 4 to 5 A.M. before the Blessed Sacrament in the Franciscan Church in Oxford [Greyfriars, Iffley Road]. There was continuous devotion day and night for 2 days and 2 nights – never a moment when there were not watchers engaged in prayer and meditation before an altar with the Sacrament exposed in the Monstrance surrounded by flowers and burning candles. I rose up soon after 3 – while it was still dark – motored into Oxford and took my hour’s watch not as a duty but as a joy with a keen sense of spiritual influences and powers around me.53

  • 54 This reference is quoted by Harper (25), who reads it, perhaps a little too briskly, as ‘purely pe (...)

31It was not long after this (around November 1934) that Yeats must have written the short testimonial for Stead that is now held in the Stead Collection at the Enoch Pratt Library and a copy of which Stead sent to the University of Virginia Library in 1951. In his reference, Yeats stated concisely but warmly: ‘I have known Mr W. Force Stead since 1920. I think him an imaginative scholar with considerable critical ability and knowledge of English literature. His own writings show that he is sensitive to rhythm and style. He is a charming personality.’54

  • 55 The Oxford Book of Modern Verse 1892-1935, ed. W. B. Yeats (New York: Oxford University Press, 193 (...)
  • 56 Yeats to Stead, early September 1935. CL InteLex 6331.
  • 57 Not ‘in late September or early October 1935’ as Harper speculates (16, n. 14; see also 24). The s (...)

32In 1936 Yeats included two poems by Stead in his Oxford Book of Modern Verse (1936),55 but only after he had asked him to alter a line in one of them so as to improve its cadence,56 and it was also in 1936 that Stead finally succeeded in visiting Yeats and his wife in Dublin.57 The Yeats of 1920, Stead writes in ‘Oxford Poets’, was ‘[v] ery different ... from the aged man I met in Dublin 16 years later, – a man who had received many honours in the meantime – the Nobel prize and world-wide acclaim as the greatest living poet of the English-speaking world, – but in 1936 these things mattered little to him, an aged man who seemed uncomfortable in his body and unhappy in his mind: all his life he had been calling up spirits from the vasty deep; they had given him some promises, but I wonder what assurances?’

  • 58 Harper, 24.

33After Yeats’s death Stead wrote to his widow and told her ‘how very much & how deeply I have felt a sense of irreparable loss. “W.B.” as we used to call him was by far and away the greatest man I have ever known; he stood like a tower above all others’,58 while he concludes his ‘Oxford Poets’ talk by hailing Yeats as:

the greatest poet and also the most remarkable man I have ever known. Remarkable seems a trite thing to say – but I mean it literally. The man most worth noticing and observing, the man most worth speaking of and commenting on.
And yet to speak of him is to do him an injustice; it makes him seem small and foolish compared with the man we know. No words can revive the flash and fire of his mind, or his capacity for filling a room with his electric personality, lifting us out of ourselves, and carrying us away into regions of cloud-capped towers and gorgeous palaces and airy tongues that syllable men’s names.
Whenever I walked home after an evening with him, I heard the stars singing above me, and the memory of him remains an everlasting example of the truth that a man of genius is far greater than anything his genius creates.

*****

  • 59 The Letters of T. S. Eliot, Vol. 3 (1926-1927), ed. Valerie Eliot and John Haffenden (London: Fabe (...)
  • 60 When Stead gave a talk on ‘The New Poetry’ to The Philistines Society at Worcester College, Oxford (...)
  • 61 Stead to H. V. F. Somerset, Stead’s Personal File, Worcester College Archives.
  • 62 ‘I know my poems will never be popular’, Stead had told Yeats on 10 June 1924, ‘– not with the mas (...)
  • 63 Letters of T. S. Eliot, 3, 306.
  • 64 William Force Stead, The Shadow of Mount Carmel: A Pilgrmage (London: Richard Cobden-Sanderson, 19 (...)
  • 65 Stead, The Shadow, 9.
  • 66 Stead, The Shadow, 23.
  • 67 Sencourt, T. S. Eliot: A Memoir, 105.

34It was Richard Cobden-Sanderson who, in 1923, first brought together T. S. Eliot and Stead,59 though there appears to have been some kind of falling out between the two Americans soon afterwards (possibly occasioned by a difference of opinion about modernist poetry, and possibly The Waste Land in particular60), because in a letter from Stead to Vere Somerset, dated 15 November [1926], Stead discloses: ‘… I’ve just had a letter from T.S. Eliot, – the most radical and ultra modern of poets, – though a Tory curiously enough in politics. Gordon George said he had been seeing Eliot and speaking of me to him – he suggested a rapprochement and it seems to be impending’.61 However, while Stead and Eliot had much in common in terms of their politics, it is important to emphasise that what paved the way for their ‘rapprochement’ was less their shared Toryism62 than Eliot’s deepening hunger for spiritual enlightenment. Eliot’s letter to Stead of 13 November 1926 had been written in response to a letter Stead had sent to Eliot on 14 October together with a copy of his most recent book, The Shadow of Mount Carmel.63 Published that autumn and combining poetry and prose, philosophy, religion, meditations and social commentary, The Shadow traces Stead’s spiritual journey from Oxford to Assisi via Paris, Nancy, Lourdes, Rome and Sicily, and is a book that was bound to have spoken with great power to Eliot at this period of his life: ‘you may be sure I shall read [it] with great interest’, he told Stead in his letter of 13 November. ‘Lingering in Oxford long after my time … I see my days consumed in reading and writing; but to what advantage?’, Stead writes in the opening chapter of The Shadow.64 A little further on, in words which must have struck a profound chord with Eliot, he confesses: ‘I am a traditionalist, maybe a reactionary. I love anything that is old, especially old England. God knows what it will be in the future, but I doubt whether I shall like it. And yet, if I cling so tightly to the past, am I not submerged in time, and therefore losing touch with the Spirit?’65 Yet another aspect of Stead’s book that is certain to have caught Eliot’s eye is his account of his excited discovery of royalism. During his sojourn in Paris, Stead tells us, he bought a copy of the royalist L’Action Française newspaper: ‘I know nothing about French politics … but here is my party. I want to see the white silk banner floating over the royal apartments and the golden fleur-delys unfurling again’, he says, before condemning the modern world as ‘a debauched age, a drunken and Bedlam age.’66 Given that it was written by an ordained Anglican, The Shadow betrays a strikingly pro-Catholic bias, and this, alongside its ‘reactionary’ outlook, support for the Action Française, and its record of a spiritual journey from despair to fulfilment, could hardly have failed to intrigue the Eliot of 1926-27: it is not surprising that Eliot went on to praise The Shadow ‘as one of the best examples of contemporary prose.’67

  • 68 Stead had baptised Cobden-Sanderson in his church at Littlemore in December 1926 before he was pri (...)
  • 69 Letters of T. S. Eliot, 3, 404. See this same page for Stead’s reply and his likely allusion to Co (...)
  • 70 See Letters of T. S. Eliot, 3, 412-13, 428-29, 543-44.

35At the beginning of February 1927 Eliot asked Stead for his ‘advice, information & [his] practical assistance in getting Confirmation with the Anglican Church.’ He was extremely anxious that Stead should keep his intentions absolutely secret, just as Stead had been utterly discreet about his private baptism of Richard Cobden-Sanderson and Cobden-Sanderson’s private confirmation by the Bishop of Oxford, which Stead had also arranged, in December 1926.68 ‘I do not want any publicity or notoriety’, Eliot told Stead in this letter, ‘ – for the moment, it concerns me alone, & not the public – not even those nearest me. I hate spectacular ‘conversions’.69 They continued to correspondence about this highly personal matter through the early months of 1927 until Eliot was finally baptised and confirmed at the end of June.70 In a piece published in the mid-1960s under the title ‘Some Personal Impressions of T.S. Eliot’, Stead looked back to this time and recalled his role in Eliot becoming an Anglican:

  • 71 Alumnae Journal of Trinity College [Washington], 38.2 (Winter, 1965), 59-66. Quote from 64-65.

I can claim no credit for his conversion. But I did set up one milestone along his way – I baptised him ... We had been having tea in London, and when I was leaving he said, after a moment’s hesitation,
‘By the way, there is something you might do for me.’
He paused, with a suggestion of shyness.
After a few days he wrote to me, saying he would like to know how he could be ‘confirmed into the Church of England’, a quaint phrase, not exactly ecclesiastical. He had been brought up a Unitarian, so the first step was baptism. I was living then at Finstock, a small village far away in the country, with Wychwood Forest stretching off to the north, and the lonely Cotswold hills all round. Eliot came down from London for a day or two, and I summoned from Oxford Canon B. H. Streeter, Fellow and later Provost of Queen’s College, and Vere Somerset, History Tutor and Fellow of Worcester College. These were his Godfathers. It seemed odd to have such a large though infant Christian at the baptismal font, so, to avoid embarrassment, we locked the front door of the little parish church and posted the verger on guard in the vestry.71

  • 72 Letters of T. S. Eliot, 3, 572.

36‘Besides my gratitude for the serious business & the perfect way you managed every part of it’, Eliot wrote to Stead on 1st July 1927, ‘I must say how thoroughly I enjoyed my visit to you, and meeting several extremely interesting & delightful people.’72

  • 73 Letters of T. S. Eliot, 3, 800-1. See also 872.

37As a token of his ‘gratitude’, Eliot undertook to return to Oxford the following term to address the ‘The Philistines’, Worcester College’s archly named literary society. He told his mother on 6 November 1927 that he might head up to the college the following weekend ‘to stay with a friend there and talk to the undergraduates’,73 but for one reason or another his visit to Worcester was postponed until Saturday 4 February 1928. Looking back on the events of that day, Stead recalled:

[Eliot] announced on arriving that he must have lost his notes on the train from London, perhaps a polite way of saying he had not prepared any; however, he would read us The Waste Land. The poem was not widely appreciated at that time and called forth some very foolish remarks. A few remain in my memory; one youth rose at the end and said,
‘Mr. Eliot, did you write all that?’
‘Yes.’
‘Well, I thought some of those words about the barge she sat in came from something else.’
Eliot responded with a pleasant smile that he was glad the point had been raised, and that as the speaker had recognized the passage, so he was sure others would understand these and some other well known lines as quotations used for the purpose of association. The reply was framed with such tact that the young man’s vanity would not be wounded if he was merely an honest dunce, yet if he was trying to be facetious, he would be quietly silenced. A discussion dragged along for some time until a round-faced youth bounced up and said,
‘Mr. Eliot, may I ask a question?’
‘Certainly.’
‘Er – did you mean that poem seriously?’
Eliot looked non-plussed for a moment, and then said quietly,
‘Well, if you think I did not mean it seriously, I have failed utterly.’

  • 74 ‘Some Personal Impressions of T. S. Eliot’, 62-63. See also Harper, 30-31 for an account of Eliot’ (...)

38‘That broke up the meeting’, Stead notes.74 The student newspaper Cherwell’s account of Eliot’s reading and his subsequent comments on The Waste Land is less amusing but rather more illuminating:

  • 75 Anon., ‘A Visit by Mr T. S. Eliot’, Cherwell 22, n. 3 (11 February 1928), 60.

Mr Eliot compared his poem to a body stripped of its skin: the ‘anatomical’ interest is at first more puzzling, but is more unusual and more real. He said, further, when speaking of the self-explanatory nature of the poem, that it was not necessary for the reader to recognise the quotations introduced, although he would lose a little; the effect was independent of recognition. The much-discussed notes and references were included, he said, for the benefit of the curious, and to prevent others from pointing out to him that he had borrowed passages from the Elizabethans; it was not necessary for the reader to make himself acquainted with a large body of literature.75

39A comical sidelight on the evening’s events is provided in a letter from Stead to Cobden-Sanderson of 25 February 1928:

  • 76 University of Delaware.

Eliot was a great success and many have congratulated me on getting him down here – he was most charming and everyone seemed delighted with the gathering, which became so large that after assembling in my rooms, the Dean [C.H. Wilkinson], in his Magnificence, between rapid puffs of his pipe, suggested that we had better adjourn to his more spacious quarters – I have just heard of an amusing after effect. It appears that some culprit had been summoned to appear before the Dean that evening and give an account of his unsatisfactory behaviour. He appeared – only to find the room full of literary high brows and Eliot in the midst of reading The Waste Land in a grave and chaste manner. The reading and discussion afterwards lasted for upwards of 2 hours, while the poor culprit sat in the midst and suffered silently without the least comprehension of what it was all about.
Later the Dean called him up to know why he had not reported and given an account of his misdemeanours; whereupon the ingenious youth pointed out that he had appeared on the proper day and hour.
Still the Dean remained firm and fined him 5 bob and said he would have to attend three roll calls and two chapels.
Then came the master stroke: the sinner paid his 5 bob fine, but as regards the rest, entered a plea that having sat through The Waste Land gathering for 1½ hours and not understood a word of it, this might be taken as the equivalent of 3 roll calls and 2 chapels. The Dean, who is a sport, broke out laughing and accepted the plea as well-founded.76

  • 77 Peter Ackroyd, T. S. Eliot (London: Hamish Hamilton, 1984), 172; Harper, 29.

40In future years, many of Eliot’s non-religious friends and admirers would hold Stead accountable for what they regarded as Eliot’s post-conversion decline, and when he ‘visited Ezra Pound many years later, the poet told Stead that he had been responsible for “corrupting” Eliot’.77 The truth, however, is that culturally and ideologically Eliot and Stead had a great deal in common and their respective attraction to and profession of High Anglicanism simply drew them together even more closely. What Gordon George said of Stead elsewhere in his Blackfriars encomium of 1933, for example, is hardly inapplicable to the Eliot of that period – ‘his loyalties are centred in the traditions of the Southern aristocracy from which he sprang: he is a fervent Tory and monarchist; and he has found most of his inspiration in Europe, and especially in the English countryside’ – while the resounding endorsement of Stead’s personal and intellectual qualities that Eliot drew attention to in the testimonial he wrote on Stead’s behalf reveals, among other things, just how much The Shadow of Mount Carmel had meant to him:

  • 78 See Letters of T. S. Eliot, 3, 913.

I have known Mr William Force Stead for over eleven years and count him as a valued friend. He is, first, a poet of established position and an individual inspiration. What is not so well known, except to a small number of the more fastidious readers, is that he is also a prose writer of great distinction: his book Mt. Carmel is recognised as a classic of prose style in its kind. And while the bulk of his published writing on English literature is small, those who know his conversation can testify that he is a man of wide reading and a fine critical sense. Mr Stead is, moreover, a man of the world in the best sense, who has lived in several countries and is saturated in European culture. By both natural social gifts and cultivation, accordingly, he has a remarkable ability of sympathy with all sorts and conditions and races of men ...78

  • 79 Review of Theodor Haecker, Virgil: Father of the West, Criterion, 15, n. 57 (July 1935), 680-81, q (...)

41And not surprisingly, perhaps, given their shared interests, background and outlook, in his reviews and essays Stead sounds distinctly Eliotic at times. In his Criterion review of Theodor Haecker’s Virgil: Father of the West, for example, Stead argued that Virgil ‘recognized that great poetry needs the support of philosophy and theology, a truth which we, too, may recognize, but of which we can make no use, so long as we are impatient of tradition and each man tries to start de novo.’79 Stead concludes this review in no less Eliotic fashion by claiming that Haecker’s book ‘deserves to be read for its vigorous attack upon our modern chaos and its attractive picture of Virgil and his ordered world with the divine decree above and pietas within.’

  • 80 I would like to thank the following people who kindly assisted me with the research for this artic (...)

42C.S. Lewis may have disparaged Stead as ‘a punt’, but both Yeats and Eliot valued his friendship rather more highly, and that is why, as their letters gradually enter the public domain, Stead’s name will live on in their writings if not through his own. L.A.G. Strong was not alone in deprecating his streak of romantic foolishness, but it is also clear from Stead’s relationships with his modernist contemporaries that he possessed a number of more substantial attributes which both poets set great store by and which far exceeded the sum of his follies. As a poet, Stead fell ludicrously short of the ‘Catholic Genius’ he was proclaimed to be by Gordon George, but as a man he was clearly a ‘charming personality’ whose friendship with the two greatest poets of his age would survive until their respective deaths.80

Notes

1 An earlier version of this essay, ‘The American Chaplain and the Modernist Poets: William Force Stead, W. B. Yeats and T. S. Eliot’, appeared in the Worcester College Record (2011), 103-33.

2 There are many letters from T. S. Eliot to Stead in the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University, and these, alongside letters Eliot wrote to Stead that are now held in other repositories, will be published in due course as part of the multi-volume Letters of T. S. Eliot (London: Faber and Faber, 1988-).

3 George Mills Harper, ‘William Force Stead’s Friendship with Yeats and Eliot’, Massachusetts Review, 21:1 (Spring 1980), 9-38.

4 William Force Stead, ‘William Force Stead’. Autobiographical Note, stamped ‘OCT-1945’, William Force Stead Collection, MS 23, Series I, Box 1, Folder 3, Enoch Pratt Free Library, Baltimore. I would like to thank Dom Julian Stead for granting me permission to quote from the unpublished writings of his father.

5 Dom Julian has supplemented his letter of 15 June 1975 by offering me guidance and information at every stage of my research and for all of his assistance and advice I am very grateful indeed. His letters and emails to me have now been deposited in the Worcester College archives.

6 Robert Sencourt, T. S. Eliot: A Memoir, ed. Donald Adamson (London: Garnstone Press, 1971), 105.

7 Crockford’s Clerical Directory for 1918-19, 50th Issue (London: Field and Queen, 1919), 1433. When the United States entered the War in 1917, however, Stead contributed to the American war effort by returning to the consulate in Liverpool for the remaining year of hostilities.

8 ‘William Force Stead’, Enoch Pratt Free Library.

9 Minutes, Governing Body, Worcester College Archives, WOR/GOV 3/2.

10 Minutes, Governing Body, Worcester College Archives, WOR/GOV 3/2.

11 E. Roberts to Stead, 21 July 1930; Stead to E. Roberts, 22 July 1930. William Force Stead Benefaction File, Worcester College.

12 Stead to Richard Cobden-Sanderson, 18 May 1930, Special Collections, Morris Library, University of Delaware.

13 Edmund Blunden to William Force Stead, 13 August 1933, James Marshall and Marie-Louise Osborn Collection, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University, MS 158, Box 1. There is a eulogy to Stead written after Blunden had been to dinner in Worcester on 22 February 1930 and a poem of 1 June 1930 by Blunden in celebration of Stead’s imminent election to a Fellowship, as well as other poems and letters addressed to him by Blunden, in the James Marshall and Marie-Louise Osborn Collection. The Beinecke also holds collections of letters to Stead from Richard Cobden-Sanderson and Robert Sencourt (both in OSB MSS Box 3).

14 Stead to Cobden-Sanderson, 17 April 1934, University of Delaware.

15 Stead to Cobden-Sanderson, 28 March 1933, University of Delaware.

16 Stead lived at The Red House, Clifton Hampden, from 1928-39, ‘the happiest period of my father’s life’ according to Dom Julian (Harper, 37).

17 Robert Sencourt, ‘A New Catholic Genius’, New Blackfriars, 14.164 (November 1933), 924-35 at 925-26.

18 Stead to Cobden-Sanderson, 30 December 1933; 10 January 1934; 17 April 1934, University of Delaware.

19 Harper, 9.

20 MS 23, Series III, Subseries 1, Enoch Pratt Free Library, Baltimore.

21 William Force Stead, ‘Christopher Smart’s Cat’, Criterion, 17.69 (July 1938), 679-85. Quote from 680.

22 William Force Stead, ‘A Christopher Smart Manuscript: Anticipations of “A Song to David”’, TLS, n. 1883 (5 March 1938), 152.

23 Peter Force Stead adopted the religious name Julian when he became a Bene­dictine monk.

24 Stead to Cobden-Sanderson, 10 December 1939, University of Delaware; Harper, 25, 37-38.

25 When Stead and Peter took their holiday in America in 1939, Anne Francis Stead returned to Harborne Hall, Birmingham, which had become a Roman Catho­lic community of Sisters of the Retreat of the Sacred Heart in 1925, and which she had first entered in the late 1920s. When it was clear that her husband and son could not return, she remained at the convent and did not leave it until 1951, when she sailed for America in the hope of being reunited with Stead. Mrs Venable (for whom see further on in the main text), however, forbade Stead from meeting his wife and Anne had no choice but to live with her sisters in Easton, Maryland, where she died in 1959.

26 Dom Julian comments in a letter to the author of 18 August 2011: ‘if anybody today is curious to know what Stead was like in real life, they should see that film [1964].’ See also Harper, 38.

27 The Jolly Farmers, Paradise Street, is still a pub and now far from shabby.

28 In his autobiography, Vivian de Sola Pinto recalls a Proctorial raid on the Jolly Farmers when Yeats was present. He is said to have responded to the Proctors’ request for his name with: ‘“William Butler Yeats, known as a poet throughout Europe and America”’. Vivian de Sola Pinto, The City that Shone: An Autobiography (1885-1922) (London: Hutchinson, 1969), 269.

29 William Force Stead, ‘Oxford Poets’, William Force Stead Collection, MS 23, Series II, Subseries 2, ‘Other Writings, 1925-1965’, Box 2, Folder 66, Enoch Pratt Free Library, Baltimore.

30 Anon., ‘A Bed of Verses’, Nation, 27.22 (28 August 1920), 673-74.

31 Cyril Charles Martindale (1879-1963) of Campion Hall, Oxford. I have not been able to identify the ‘Hindoo priest’.

32 Harper, 12-13.

33 CL InteLex 4096. For other references to the odour of violets in the early 1920s, see the following letters to George Yeats regarding the madness of Francis Stuart: CL InteLex 3750 (30 July 1920); 3760 (4 August 1920) and 3763 (6 August 1920).

34 YVP3, 104. See also 308.

35 In a letter of 20 March 1921 (CL InteLex 3882), for example, Yeats asked Stead: ‘What is the history of turpentine in ancient times? For what was it used? That if we knew it might explain tarebuith. What is calominth?’

36 Apollo, histoire générale des arts plastiques by Salomon Reinach (1858-1932) was first published in 1904. It was translated into English and many other languages. The British edition, Apollo: An Illustrated Manual of the History of Art throughout the Ages, was revised and reprinted on a number of occasions.

37 Yeats was actually staying at Tillyra Castle, the home of Edward Martyn, not at the home of Lady Gregory. For a comprehensive account of ‘The Vision of the Archer’, which occurred on the night of 14-15 August 1896, see CL2 658-63.

38 Giovanni Pico della Mirandola (1463-1494), esoteric philosopher and author of Oration on the Dignity of Man (1486), one of the foundational texts of Renaissance humanism.

39 ‘Family Letters 1905-1931’, The Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis, ed. Walter Hooper, 3 vols. (San Francisco: Harper, 2004), I, 524-25.

40 Dom Julian, on the other hand, notes that Anne Stead was very friendly with Richard Cobden-Sanderson and his wife and with Vere Somerset.

41 The nickname of G. Herbert Ewart (1857-1924) as well as a character in Great Expectations.

42 Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis, ed. Hooper, I, 525-34; quotes from 529-32. Despite his contempt for what went on there, Lewis returned to Yeats’s house with Stead on 21 March 1921: see 533-34.

43 See Harper, 13-19.

44 Harper, 19.

45 William Force Stead, Wayfaring: Songs and Elegies (London: Richard Cobden-Sanderson, 1924), 34-36.

46 Stead to Vere Somerset, 1 September 1926, Stead’s Personal File, Worcester College.

47 Stead to Richard Cobden-Sanderson, 7 February 1929, University of Delaware.

48 Harborne Hall, Birmingham. See n. 25 above.

49 LTWBY2 513.

50 Marriage and Morals (1929).

51 LTWBY 507-8.

52 CL InteLex 6102.

53 LTWBY2 565-66.

54 This reference is quoted by Harper (25), who reads it, perhaps a little too briskly, as ‘purely perfunctory, suggesting haste or illness’.

55 The Oxford Book of Modern Verse 1892-1935, ed. W. B. Yeats (New York: Oxford University Press, 1936), 233-35.

56 Yeats to Stead, early September 1935. CL InteLex 6331.

57 Not ‘in late September or early October 1935’ as Harper speculates (16, n. 14; see also 24). The same error (‘autumn of 1935’) is made by Ann Saddlemyer when she draws on Harper’s article (YGYL 238, n. 2.)

58 Harper, 24.

59 The Letters of T. S. Eliot, Vol. 3 (1926-1927), ed. Valerie Eliot and John Haffenden (London: Faber and Faber, 2012), 306, n. 2.

60 When Stead gave a talk on ‘The New Poetry’ to The Philistines Society at Worcester College, Oxford, on 31 October 1927, he confessed that he ‘found something wrong with’ such verse and more particularly that it was ‘a breakaway from ... the tradition of all time – it throws off rhythm and all suitable choice of subject matter.’ He went on to read out a series of ‘examples in ascending ... order of merit, starting with the ultramodernists through [Carl] Sandberg, Edith Sitwell to Blunden.’ (Proceedings of The Philistines Society, Worcester College, Vol. 1, 736; Worcester College Archives, WOR/JCR 3/4/1/1). The report of the discussion following Stead’s paper (738) makes it clear that The Waste Land was one of his examples of ‘ultramodernis[m]’.

61 Stead to H. V. F. Somerset, Stead’s Personal File, Worcester College Archives.

62 ‘I know my poems will never be popular’, Stead had told Yeats on 10 June 1924, ‘– not with the masses because they are not what the “people” read, – nor with the critics, because I am a Tory and a High Churchman and modern views of the arts and of the way to express them are anathema to me’ (LTWBY2 455).

63 Letters of T. S. Eliot, 3, 306.

64 William Force Stead, The Shadow of Mount Carmel: A Pilgrmage (London: Richard Cobden-Sanderson, 1926), 6-7.

65 Stead, The Shadow, 9.

66 Stead, The Shadow, 23.

67 Sencourt, T. S. Eliot: A Memoir, 105.

68 Stead had baptised Cobden-Sanderson in his church at Littlemore in December 1926 before he was privately confirmed by the Bishop of Oxford at Cuddesdon the following day. See Stead to R. Cobden-Sanderson, 24 December 1926, and other letters from Stead to Cobden-Sanderson written that month and earlier that autumn now housed at the University of Delaware.

69 Letters of T. S. Eliot, 3, 404. See this same page for Stead’s reply and his likely allusion to Cobden-Sanderson’s recent baptism and confirmation.

70 See Letters of T. S. Eliot, 3, 412-13, 428-29, 543-44.

71 Alumnae Journal of Trinity College [Washington], 38.2 (Winter, 1965), 59-66. Quote from 64-65.

72 Letters of T. S. Eliot, 3, 572.

73 Letters of T. S. Eliot, 3, 800-1. See also 872.

74 ‘Some Personal Impressions of T. S. Eliot’, 62-63. See also Harper, 30-31 for an account of Eliot’s annotated copy of this essay.

75 Anon., ‘A Visit by Mr T. S. Eliot’, Cherwell 22, n. 3 (11 February 1928), 60.

76 University of Delaware.

77 Peter Ackroyd, T. S. Eliot (London: Hamish Hamilton, 1984), 172; Harper, 29.

78 See Letters of T. S. Eliot, 3, 913.

79 Review of Theodor Haecker, Virgil: Father of the West, Criterion, 15, n. 57 (July 1935), 680-81, quote from 680.

80 I would like to thank the following people who kindly assisted me with the research for this article: James Campbell; Anita Carrico of the Enoch Pratt Free Library; Diane Ducharme of the Beinecke, Yale; Emma Goodrum; John Kelly; Jaime Margalot of the Morris Library, University of Delware; Jo Parker; Dom Julian Stead; Michael Whitworth, and Edward Wilson.