Friday, 27 March 2020

Solomon Eagle: re-reading Defoe in the time of Coronavirus

In which I resolve to spend this period of enforced isolation writing letters by hand, re-reading Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year and re-starting my blog.

You’d think that self-isolation and social distancing offer plenty of opportunities for reading and writing. And so, of course, they do. I have made a list of the friends and others to whom I owe long-overdue letters, and have even made a start at writing them, by hand and using a fountain pen. The last study day I conducted before such events were proscribed was on Seamus Heaney; my audience of students (people, like me, at risk from Covid-19 by virtue of our age) especially enjoyed his poem The Conway Stewart with its loving description of the ‘Three gold bands in the clip-on screw-top’ and the ‘spatulate, thin / Pump-action lever’ in the pen’s ‘mottled barrel’. The poem recalls how Heaney’s parents bought him a fountain pen to take to boarding school, the pen with which he would write his first letter home –

     my longhand
To them, next day.

No poet I have ever come across has written more movingly about the life of a bewildered child at boarding school.

I have made a list of the books I want to read or reread, starting with Daniel Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year (1722). It isn’t a journal at all: he himself was only six when the Great Plague devastated the population of London:

1665 - No-one left alive
1666 - London burnt to fiddlesticks

(as I learned in my first term at my own boarding school). Defoe’s first-person narrator claims to have reconstructed his ‘journal’ from notes he made at the time in his ‘memorandums’, together with extracts from oral accounts, public documents, official records and other sources, but really it is as much a work of fiction – an event ‘witnessed’ by a man who never existed – as Peter Ackroyd’s 1985 novel of the Plague and its aftermath, Hawksmoor. Still, Defoe’s account resonates strongly: it is all about self-isolating, social distancing – people walking down the centre of the Whitechapel Road to avoid getting too close to those standing on the pavements – and the difficulties of shopping:

People used all possible precaution. When any one bought a joint of meat in the market they would not take it off the butcher’s hand, but took it off the hooks themselves. On the other hand, the butcher would not touch the money, but have it put into a pot full of vinegar, which he kept for that purpose. The buyer carried always small money to make up any odd sum, that they might take no change. (p.88)

The strange ways in which Londoners started to behave during the Plague, and Defoe’s comments about them: the book is worth reading for these alone. The Guardian Review used to run a quirky weekly column, Ten of the Best….’ and Solomon Eagle topped the list of ‘Ten of the Best Religious Zealots in Literature’, even though he gets only a glancing mention by Defoe:

I suppose the world has heard of the famous Solomon Eagle, an enthusiast. He, though not affected at all but in his head, went about denouncing of judgement upon the city in a frightful manner, sometimes quite naked, and with a pan of burning charcoal on his head. What he said, or pretended, indeed I could not learn. (p.116)

By one of those odd coincidences that gladden the heart, I discovered on the very day I read about him in Defoe, that ‘Solomon Eagle’ was the pen name adopted by the poet and literary editor JC Squire, when he was book reviewer for The New Statesman before and during the First World War. In his heyday, Squire was possibly the most influential bookman in London: among his greatest claims to fame, he founded and edited the new London Mercury from 1919 to 1934. Although he fell spectacularly out of favour with writers such as TS Eliot and Virginia Woolf, and out of fashion altogether by the 1940s, he was a formidable, fascinating figure who is today all but forgotten. So it’s good to report that the writer John Smart, a specialist on London literary life (his biography of John Hayward is a key work on the subject) is completing a biography of Squire. A reassessment of this contradictory and complicated man is certainly overdue.

What I most want to do during these weeks of enforced inactivity is not only to read more and to write more letters, however. I want to return to writing this blog, which I began in August 2011 and which stuttered to a halt after 113 posts in 2018. The stutter developed not because I had grown tired of blogging, but because I was focusing more and more on writing about stained glass; eventually the effort of researching and completing two books* on that subject absorbed all my energy. After the second one was published early last year, I tried a few times to start again but struggled to produce even a stutter. Meanwhile, writing and speaking about stained glass have continued to take up much of my time.

Now, though, seems the moment to try again, always remembering Beaumarchais’ admonition: ‘La difficulté de réussir ne fait qu’ajouter à la nécessité d’entreprendre  (The difficulty of succeeding only adds to the necessity of undertaking). As before, I shall aim to range across books, writers and readers, with occasional digressions onto people and places, even stained glass perhaps. Already I think I know one book I shall be writing about soon: Francesca Wade’s Square Haunting, just published and very well reviewed. I have only started to read it; but I’ve also skimmed through the bibliography at the back. To my astonishment, Imagism and After: a Study of the Poetry of Richard Aldington, is listed there – my MA thesis, deposited in Durham University Library in 1975 where, I had always assumed, it had lain unread and gathering dust ever since. Evidently not, but you’ll have to wait until I have read and written about this book centred on Mecklenburgh Square, on the edge of Bloomsbury, to learn why not.

Adrian Barlow

27 March 2020

(i) 'Solomon Eagle’ drawing by EM Ward (1848); Wellcome Institute, reproduced under Creative Commons licence. 
(ii) The London Mercury: cover. This journal was cherished as much for the quality of its typography and illustrations as for its content.


  1. Adrian, It is an ill wind, etcetera—and an unlooked for bonus to have you blogging again—or I should say ‘essaying’, so as not to ‘give a blog a bad name.’ Very interesting that you should be rereading Defoe’s Journal of a Plague Year. I had thought this that might be a good book to read in these (for us) unprecedented times; and when I heard Ian McEwan on the Today programme, saying that his wife was reading the book, I decided to order it. Because it seems to me – and it’s already borne by the few quotes you give – that this book (although it cannot of course protect us from the virus) could act as a kind of inoculation to the mind—a sort of catharsis, I suppose. And the fact that it’s a work of (historical) fiction does not worry me at all. I am quite sure that enough truth will come out of it—as it does of the Gordon Riots of 1780 in Dickens’ Barnaby Rudge.

    You’ve also enthused me to start writing letters by hand again—and not in biro. Two years ago I was staying with some friends in north Cornwall, and they showed me a letter I’d written to them fifteen years previously. It was written in brown ink on cream paper (A4). I wonder that I ceased the practice, and if I can get a pen and some ink online, I’ll go back to letter writing of this kind.
    Blogging has been back in my mind too. At the moment I have an essay to write for a course I'm doing at Madingley Hall. But as soon as I’ve finished that, I'm going to see if I can get back on the ‘blog patch’; and as there is only one topic that seems appropriate to write about, I already have a title in mind: ‘The cloud of unknowing.’
    Thank you for putting me in this mood.

  2. It's good to see you back - I hope there will be more to read soon!

    I hope it's OK to make a knight's move and add a few memories.

    HD’s daughter by the musician Cecil Gray was looked after as a girl by my aunt Alice. My mother used to get occasional letters from HD and more from her daughter.

    It didn’t mean much to me as a child. Now I look at the list of Aldington’s friends and associates – Ezra Pound, TE Hulme, Wyndham Lewis, Ford Madox Ford, WB Yeats, DH Lawrence, TS Eliot, Aldous Huxley, etc – and wish I’d been old enough to ask just a few questions.

    I was at this very interesting event at Poet in the City about three years ago:

    I interviewed the speakers for the Poet in the City archive.

    One of the speakers said from the stage that she had hoped to write a life of Bryher, HD's lifelong partner:

    No one has really done it, and it would make a fascinating story for reasons I won't go into here.

    I was talking with her afterwards and told her that we have dozens [hundreds?] of letters from Bryher, as well as many first editions of her books, that the letters are about all kinds of stuff including HD - some of them contain messages from HD in shaky writing - and that many of our own letters to Bryher are in the archive at Yale:

    Her correspondents include Theodor Adorno, Conrad Aiken, Richard Aldington, George Barker, Sylvia Beach, Walter Benjamin, Yves Bonnefoy, Elizabeth Bowen, Jocelyn Brooke, Colette, Norman Douglas, HD, Lawrence Durrell, Sergei Eisenstein, Havelock Ellis, 'Tom' [TS] Eliot, Anna Freud, Sigmund Freud, André Gide, Hermann Hesse, Laurie Lee, Denise Levertov, Amy Lowell, Compton Mackenzie, Heinrich Mann, John Masefield, Somerset Maugham, Henri Michaux, Marianne Moore, Ezra Pound, Lotte Reiniger, IA Richards, Dorothy Richardson, May Sarton, Edith, Osbert and Sacheverell Sitwell, Gertrude Stein, Rosemary Sutcliffe, Virgil Thomson, Alice B Toklas, JRR Tolkien, Carl van Vechten, Arthur Waley, Carl Zuckmayer and - somewhere among the many other names - me.

    It was amusing, after all the serious talk about the left bank and the avant garde and the remaking of the word and radical rewriting of gender roles et hoc genus omne, to reveal that in those boxes is the letter I wrote in 1957, thanking Bryher for her generosity in buying me a Peter May autograph cricket bat.

    I don't know what that would have meant to Ezra Pound or Gertrude Stein but it meant [means] a lot to me.

    1. I meant to add that she was [as of course you know, but some readers may have forgotten] married to Richard Aldington.

      I was by the square with our younger grandchildren a few years ago:


      Coram's Fields children
      scream like traffic or like gulls.
      HD's sapphic ghost

      talks with Ezra Pound
      over in Mecklenburgh Square.
      The war is far off.

      Our granddaughter sits
      listening to the now of now.
      The world is made new.

    2. Tom, very good to me in touch again. I’m astonished to hear of your family links to Bryher; and perhaps even more astonished that she gave you a Peter May signed cricket bat! Thanks very much for ‘Here’ - our granddaughter is also very skilled at 'listening to the now of now’.

    3. Vnuchkas Rule!

      I chose the cricket bat and Bryher arranged for it to be sent to me. She also sent my brother lots of 1st editions [English] of Thomas Mann and books about Freud as well as copies of her own novels. My brother [rightly] has them now.

  3. If you can cope with being in Aladdin's Cave or with a threatened addiction to all things to do with pens try Cult Pens

    1. I wonder, Hugo, whether you recall a sort of fountain pen hierarchy at school: Platignum at the bottom, Osmiroid considerably above, then Burnham (I had one of these - they scored well for rarity value. Parker next, with Shaeffers and Conway Stewarts so far at the top of the pecking order as to out of sight!

    2. I've suddenly recalled after sixty years our Chemistry teacher warning a class of twelve-year-olds that they must NEVER write Platignum when they meant Platinum.

      I couldn't get on with Osmiroid - my writing was and is left-handed scrawly - but my father gave me his Parker, with which I wrote end-of-year exams, O-level, A-level, University Scholarship exam, Tripos and then stopped. Heaven knows how many thousand words that was - not as many as Charles Hamilton, but a lot.

      In May 1969 I sat my university final exams. The last paper was called The English Moralists which meant, of course, that you could write about people like Locke, Hume, Bentham, Mill, Montaigne, Rousseau, Marx, Nietzsche and Freud.

      I knew I wasn’t staying on at the university and that this would be my last-ever exam after a ten-year stint. Felt-tip pens were a very new thing then. I fixed matters so that my final essay was on Nietzsche. I reached the final paragraph and, putting down the blue-ink Parker fountain pen with which I’d written a decade of essays, I picked up the bright red felt-tip and wrote in large capital letters:


      [I tell you: one must still have chaos within oneself, to give birth to a dancing star.]

      Then I signed it in huge sprawling letters: Zarathustra.

      Then the exam was done and I’d left academia for ever.

    3. That was certainly signing off in style, Tom! Do you still have your blue-ink Parker?

    4. Possibly upstairs, but I guess the rubber ink sac would be in a sorry state by now.

  4. Good to see the blog return. I've never read Aldington's 1930 translation of The Decameron but have just ordered a copy as this seemed like a good time to start.