P J Kavanagh

The Muse and the Mastiff

Dreaming of Babylon: The Life and Times of Ralph Hodgson


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In the first decades of the twentieth century, the loose group that came later to be labelled ‘The Georgians’ all knew each other: poets, painters, editors, critics (there seemed enviably little rivalry among them) all met regularly and lengthily at little restaurants and tearooms. At the centre, for no very clear reason, was the poet Ralph Hodgson.

He had not published much verse. Nowadays he is chiefly known for his anthology pieces – ‘Time, you old gypsy man/Will you not stay,’ and ‘’Twould ring the bells of Heaven/The wildest peal for years’. They are as memorable as nursery rhymes, with a relish of mystery, unmysteriously expressed:

Reason has moons, but moons not hers,

     Lie mirror’d on her sea,

Confounding her astronomers,

     But, O! delighting me.

It seems that Hodgson even chose where these Georgians met. An early rendezvous was Eustace Miles’s vegetarian restaurant near Leicester Square. Enid Bagnold insists that they were not vegetarians but gathered there because the place tolerated Hodgson’s constant companion, his bull terrier. What they all talked about is uncertain. Hodgson’s main interest was dogs. He told Siegfried Sassoon that Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch ‘was annoyed by my wanting to talk about Black and Tan terriers instead of poetry, but his Black and Tan is poetry!’

Hodgson’s appearance was striking. Richard Church called him an isosceles triangle, ‘the sharp angle consisting of his feet and the broad ones denoting his shoulders. From that massive hanger, which carried a neat sardonic head, the body diminished downwards through a narrow waist … His eyes were dark and watchful; not benevolent but ready for any emergency.’ Perhaps that last remark is the clue to Hodgson’s appeal. He was from the beginning to his end very much his own man.

Born in Darlington in 1871, the son of a coal merchant of diminishing fortunes, he seems to have had little formal education (though his mother did run a dame school). He also seems to have been left to his own devices as a boy, mixing with circus people, dog breeders, ‘the Fancy’. He first made a living – and a high reputation – as a cartoonist for comic papers, for which there was at that time a huge market. ‘Since the passing of the 1870 Education Act’, says Harding, ‘and the spread of basic literacy among working-class people, rapid changes began … By the mid-1880s Newnes’s Tit-Bits was selling nine hundred thousand copies a month.’ This, for twenty years, was Hodgson’s milieu. Frank, his brother, recalls seeing him working on strip cartoons, ‘Weary Willie and Tired Tim’. ‘Hodgson commented, biting his nails, “This may be comedy for some but it’s tragedy for me.”’ His first collection of poems, The Last Blackbird and Other Lines (1907), was not a success. However, Edward Thomas reviewed it and invited Hodgson to a new rendezvous, St George’s Restaurant in St Martin’s Lane, and there were to be found Walter de la Mare, Gordon Bottomley, W H Davies, James Stephens et al, who all of course became his friends.

W H Davies made a shrewd comment about Hodgson, who, surprisingly, was a strict teetotaller. ‘Seeing that Ralph was such a furious and loud talker and always gave the impression that he was intoxicated, we came to the conclusion that drink would have made him a melancholy whiner, and not the jolly, laughing man we saw at our side.’ 

Hodgson’s obvious gift for friendship would have a momentous consequence. He brought a little-known American poet, Robert Frost, to a St George’s gathering, and later introduced him to Edward Thomas. It was Frost’s encouragement that famously undammed the poetry that had been stuck inside the prose writer Thomas for so long.

In 1924 Hodgson took himself off to Japan to teach (he taught by sitting on his desk and chatting). He came back in 1931 for a sabbatical and, inevitably, made a friend of T S Eliot. They talked of dogs and wiped up their puppies’ messes together. ‘Must we wait another forty-three years before we meet again?’ sighed the courteous Eliot (born 1888). Hodgson went back to Japan and married a young American missionary. They later settled in Ohio, in a small house filled with canaries, up a farm track six miles from the nearest settlement. (Hodgson, a hermit, after those years of sociably holding forth!)

Although Eliot wheedled him to illustrate Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, Hodgson decided against, preferring to work on his vast poem, ‘The Muse and the Mastiff’ (his two obsessions). He never finished it, and died in Ohio in 1962. What happened to his much younger wife, who had made his Ohio life possible, and whose journal of their meetings with the Eliots in the 1930s is by far the most lively part of this unfootnoted book, we are not told. When Hodgson was given the Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry in 1954 (aged eighty-three), most of those who had known him imagined him long dead. Hodgson was his own man all right.

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