And so I got a copy of Dante Called You Beatrice to find out what this “useless no-good, a bum, a loafer, and a cad” had to say for himself.
The first thing to notice is that he is grateful for the help he had received. “The writer of this book would like not to tabulate his thanks, but to express his gratitude, to Mr John Lehmann, who first published the canon of it in his London Magazine, because otherwise quite factually it would probably never have existed as a book at all.” That stuttering, apologetic style dominated his writing. The text compiles together a number of works printed separately in small magazines going back to about 1938, and merges them into Potts’s personal testament. “In Defence Of Ezra Pound” is here, which dates from the early war years.
He dislikes the “culture vultures” who hang around the world of writers, but he is overflowing with enthusiasm for the contemporaries he admires – so many people seem the be exceptional, the finest, the greatest, that there might well be an inconsistency in the implicit rankings awarded whenever he talks about them. He certainly was in the presence of great or at least famous men on a few occasions. “Defence Of Ezra Pound” was published with the intervention of George Orwell and T.S.Eliot. He was a close friend of Orwell, who is commemorated in “Don Quixote On A Bicycle”, which is dedicated “for Richard, his son”.
Potts is clear and unapologetic about his background, attending a Catholic public school and then living in Canada until an inheritance made it possible to move to London and attempt to make a literary career. There is no reason for him to be apologetic about his “privilege” since he would be trying to join a world in which it was ordinary, and perhaps even undistinguished in the company of Etonians and Oxonians. When a “working class” person appears in this book they are identified as such, like another nationality. He did not attend any university.
I really came of age on the boat crossing the Atlantic on my way back to Canada in 1927. I was sixteen. When I got to British Columbia I sat down and read for five years. Obviously this is not factually true, but that is more or less how I remember it now. It sounds corny I know, but I fell in love with what I found there. I got drunk by reading. It was mostly the radicals I fell for, but I fell for them the way a poet would, not the way a socialist might. It went even beyond that, it was the lonely dreamers, the men with angry integrity, whatever their other concerns. Tom Paine was the first person I fell in love with, that I met in a book, other than those written by Matthew, Mark, Luke or John.
Religion and radical politics are both powerful forces in Potts’s life, yet he also acknowledges he has never been strictly orthodox in either of them. The left-wing politics is expressed as “A Love Letter To The Poor”, and he had known poverty himself, but he was not concerned with holding any party line. The value of Marx’s writing for him was in moral persuasion not theoretical exposition. “Whatever Stalin did in Moscow must not cloud what Marx thought in London” is a line that comes around more than once in this book, and he also states that
The man who prospered in Caesar’s Rome or Richlieu’s Paris or Stalin’s Moscow is very much the same sort of person, and his success is due to very much the same kind of reasons. These reasons are concisely the replacing of the natural dictates of one’s being by economic or political considerations.
The left-wingers he admires have a variety of ideological positions, what distinguishes them is the genuine motive of love, who retain the sense that “…equality remains a god, whose priests must be saints.” This is made clear in “A Footnote Of Thanks”, his appreciation of the novels of Ignazio Silone.
Silone is unique, moreover, because alone among contemporary writers his concern is with expressing the socialist interpretation of human relations. Socialism to him means that each person should be as scared to his fellows as the Blessed Sacrament is to a real Catholic; that men should use in their relations to one another those same attributes of themselves that they were in former generations accustomed to use in their dealings with God. To Silone the poor, crowded into the streets of an Abruzzi village, are what God is to a decent priest. To him, not only Christ, but every one of this huge great hungry population must be treated with deep respect and with huge honour, and be held in wide esteem.
…Silone’s beauty is the beauty of goodness. He had made a great art out of a great morality. His huge ethical sense is deeper and wider than that of any creative writer whose work is yet available. It is this, together with the atmosphere of reverence for all things that are hurt, furrowed and failed, that makes Silone’s writing equal to the highest peaks of achievement in the whole humanist tradition. That tradition that insists that ethics are superior to law. It makes him the peer of Cervantes and Melville, of Gorky and of Blake. His work belongs to the age of faith, to an active humanism, as opposed to the unworried humanism of the Renaissance and of men like Erasmus. To a humanism that sees man as God, instead of forgetting about Him altogether, and is surrounded not by a revival of intellectual activity, but by the growing awareness of the economic foundation, not only of privilege, but also of learning and even of sustained beauty. If the humanism of Leonardo and Erasmus ignored all national and political frontiers, it remained moribund with an unvisaed passport before the barriers of class, and beyond that frontier lay three-quarters of the territory of the human republic. Unlike that of St. Benedict, but as equally true of Pascal’s, Silone’s age of faith is solely a matter of the integrity of his own temperament and not also one of historical environment. Socialism’s age of faith occurred in the latter part of the nineteenth century. Today the real poets and saints of socialism, and known and unknown they are unpleasantly few, live in a figurative Port Royal, their Jesuits being bureaucrats and commissars.
Potts’s Christianity also turns into a matter of sensibility and emotional union, with doctrinal correctness unimportant – oddly, since he remains attached to the Catholic church and is still sensitive to denominational difference (he prayed to Mary to “’put some sense into a Protestant girl’s heart’”). “A Man Amongst Men” is his expression of love for Jesus, but it is a Jesus who is ultimately the greatest moral teacher.
Our Lord and Socrates, probably the two greatest men yet to live, certainly outside China and India, never wrote anything at all, they just talked; but what talk!
Many references to Our Lord and Our Lady are to be found in these pages. I want to make my position quite clear on this point. I believe in them very seriously as human beings. I don’t believe in God or a in a life after death. On the other hand I don’t imagine that my belief in any way affects the truth, whatever it is. Not only do I not believe, but what is much more real, I hope there is no personal God and no life after this one. I still call these two people by the names given to them by the Catholic Church because it was during a childhood, situated in the middle of European Catholicism, that I first encountered them. In the same way I still think of my parents in the diminutive; by the time I was old enough to call them mother and father, they were dead.
…To me the only possible explanation, not only of Our Lord’s life, but also of his fame, is to admit that he was the supreme artist of human goodness. He was to goodness what Shakespeare was to language, Spinoza to thought, Rembrandt to painting and Beethoven to music. He is more loved in Italy than Dante, and in France than wine. This takes some doing when one remembers the dreadful things done in his name.
Potts is consistent in capitalising the possessive pronoun for God but not for Christ, implying a distinction. His description of the latter as the greatest of all good fellows veers between jocularity and childish wonderment, but we get to the point that the message is a self-giving love:
Christ said that the greatest thing a man could do was to give up his own life to save that of a friend. Now the greatest poem in the whole of christian civilisation, greater than the idea of Faust, is for a person to be willing to lose his own soul, to go to hell for all eternity, to save the soul of someone he loved. Even the most beautiful christian in all history, even St Francis of Assissi, would call this heresy. But I’m certainly a heretic when I think of the woman I love.
In our day, people are still looking for the Kingdom of Heaven, some look for it through love, others try to find it through politics or religion. Nobody has ever found it yet, but not to look for it is surely hell.
One contemporary political cause that Potts was enthusiastic about was Israel, and he went to fight for it in the early years of its independence. There is nothing here about the details of that war and its aftermath, and all the populations affected, which is a blind spot in a thinker who is aware of the struggles against oppression around the world, not just under colonial rule but also within the US and the rest of “christian civilisation”. One of the chapters is subtitled “For anyone who has ever been insulted for being coloured”.
That passage also brings in the other central character (actually one of two others, at different times) of this book: “the woman I love”. This book is built around Potts’s obsessive, unrequited loves for two women. This is the image of love at the centre of his sensibility: the willingness and capacity to give everything to the object. Yet this can only be an imagined willingness as it was never accepted and never tested. His desire for the relationships is of a piece with his desire to be a poet, failing to produce the great or significant work that he saw his fellows creating. The failure to be accepted as a lover informs his self-image as a great-hearted man rejected by the world. As it begins, in the first chapter “Instead Of A Poet”:
This book is an attempt to tell a woman, while I was standing on her carpet, asking her to marry me, just what kind of a man it was who loved her, and what other love he had, beyond his love of her. Had she but wanted my love she would have had to share it, with all of the poor and each of the lonely. And a duchess is in the working class the night the duke steps out with a chorus girl. It seems to me that it is only those parts of one’s life, whose roots go deep enough into the ground of human experience to cause language to flower when it is used to describe them, that are worthy of being mentioned at all on such an occasion. This book then is concerned with all the people whom I have loved and with the places where I have been happy. What it is about is the need for freedom and the desire for beauty. It occupies itself with the ideas that I have tried to express, with what I have thought and felt, more than with what I have done or have had done to me. What really matters most in a man’s life, what really is important, is what he feels during it, but then in great part what he feels depends on what happens to him.
The steady rhythm at the start of that passage, with the accumulating clauses of its opening sentence, winds down as Potts moves away from the specific encounter and tries to catch at thoughts in the air. “This is the commentary of a documentary film. The film cannot be seen, but the commentary can be heard.” But Potts is a writer working with images not ideas. He must sense this in his respect for his peers, and his admiration for the greater powers of George Barker, Dylan Thomas, Hugh McDiarmid and all the other celebrated versemakers that he knew.
It’s a long time since I read Christopher Barker’s memoir of his parents, so I can’t exactly remember if Paul Potts was the minor Soho character who briefly appeared, was described as a great friend, and we later discover that he died in terrible poverty because nobody in that nasty little circle cared a damn. There are a few incidents like that, and the value of that book is to dispel any illusions about that jolly old world of the Colony Room and similar being a warm place to be. The picture in the banner is one of Francis Bacon’s portraits of Isabel Rawsthorne – Bacon is mentioned briefly in a list of artists that Potts considers inferior to Robert MacBride.
As his son tells it, George Barker was not a great human being to know, with his habit of starting and abandoning families in many places, so it’s apt that Paul observed “The world of George Barker is a place for sinners. It is not a street of barricades, nor is it a house where one prays.” And to end, here’s a stanza from Barker’s “Secular Elegies”, in Eros In Dogma (1944):
Everything that we touch, sooner or later, –
The uprooted arbutus hung at the head of the bed,
The untouchable trophies in the arcanum of nature,
The dizzy stars, the testes, and the sacred
Dove – everything that we dissect for data
Dies as we finger for the heart of the matter.