Richard Burns

 

 

Peter Russell

 

THE POET ODYSSIFIED

 

 

‘Odyssified’ – “The adjective odyssamenos occurs in the Odyssey. The name Odysseus comes from the passive verb odyssomai, which means ‘I hate’, ‘I get angry’ etc. So Odysseus was odyssamenos, because both men and the Gods were angry about him and hated him.” [1]

 

 

Born in Bristol in 1921, Irwin Peter Russell was one of the most extraordinary, brilliant, protean, multifaceted, learned, untidy and underestimated of European and world poets of the latter part of the twentieth century. A defiant and unrepentant loner, he was possessed by an irrepressible Odyssean appetite for living, beauty and knowledge. He was a romantic, classicist and modernist all rolled into one: a Petrarchan sonneteer and a Rochesterian epigrammatist, a visionary neo-Platonic Blakean lyricist and an exponent of free-form epic in the manner of Pound and MacDiarmid. He brilliantly twisted, transformed and parodied his own personality, life and times into the fiction of the shunned, exiled and odyssified reprobate ‘Quintilius’, a decadent, well-travelled, exiled, garrulously opinionated and quasi-prophetic late Latin poet whose magnum opus, the protean Apocalypse of Quintilius has still only been partially published (Salzburg 1997, ed. Glyn Pursglove). The tonal and moral span of Russell’s poems ranges from the exuberant chant which opens Dreamland and Drunkenness (London 1963) – “Life is a celebration not a search for success” – to the devastating and even harrowing revelations of old age that close down his last poems, Living Death (Florence 2002).

 

In his individualism and eccentricities, in his diction and dualism, and in his manners and manias, Russell was an Englishman – or rather, Anglo-Irishman – to the core. As a poet and polymath, he was a cosmopolitan and internationalist of European and global stature. He taught himself Arabic in order to read Ibn Al’Arabi, Persian to read Rumi, and Russian because, at a London party in the late 1940’s, he was once moved to tears at hearing an ageing emigrée reciting lines from Osip Mandelstam. That, incidentally, is how he became Mandelstam’s first English translator and publisher, and the story is typical of his capacity for magnanimity, devotion and single-mindedness. Other languages included Sanskrit and Serbo-Croat. He spoke and wrote perfect Italian, charmed with the sort of Anglicised intonations of a Gielgud reciting Shakespeare.

 

An outsider and a radical by choice and predilection, Peter Russell’s curious background offers clues to why he never quite fitted in wherever he was, and perhaps didn’t really want to. His maternal grandfather Daniel Fortune was a well known Catholic Irish portrait painter and Irish Academician and his grandmother Susie a member (and heiress) of the non-conformist protestant Knight family (Knight’s Castile soap). His mother Marjorie married his “Bristol-Irish” father Irwin George when he was in his late teens and she already in her mid-thirties. Marjorie, who had a “deformation of arms and legs”, had inherited a coinsiderable fortune, and brought Peter and his older brother Tony up, first as Catholics, then sent them to (different) Protestant schools. With his marked Bristol accent, Peter’s father could not have been more different: he ran a small garage business, vulcanising tyres. When Peter, their second son, was born, Marjorie was already 40. She was puritanically strict, distant and careful with money. His father was easy-going and a bit of a drinker. The parents separated and Marjorie kept her fortune to herself and forbade contact between father and son, though Peter broke these rules and did manage to visit his ‘daddy’. Partly for this reason, he had scant love for his mother and nurtured a strong and persistent grudge against her. She lived to a ripe old age. His father died penniless and broken, aged 36.

 

Peter started making poems as a small boy, and in later life said that the enchantment and mystery of poetry had begun for him with the Mother Goose nursery rhymes, to which he constantly returned throughout his life. To those who knew him well, one of his most endearing features as a man and a poet was a childlike quality of total wonder, which stayed with him to the end, and could make him weep at the sound of a blackbird’s song.  He had a love of traditional rhythms and an ear that could never say no to musical sonorities. I remember him weeping quietly at a Monteverdi concert in Venice in 1965. He inherited the English romantic love of nature and the countryside, and was a keen and knowledgeable botanist, observer of wildlife and birdwatcher. In the 1950’s, he often went bird-watching on the tiny island of Lundy, which was then owned by Albion Harman, his first wife’s brother-in-law. 

 

An early and avid reader, he attended a prep school in Malvern and, from 1935 to 1939, Malvern College, where he excelled in the sciences, English, modern languages and the classics. He was a natural scholar with a retentive memory for detail and an insatiable and, when required, rebellious curiosity. He left school in June 1939 with a place assured to read Natural Sciences at King’s College Cambridge. By the time he left school, all the essential elements were in place for his life-work as a poet.

 

He spent that summer in Heidelberg. One family story is that he was still in Germany when war was declared: his German friends told him to get out fast, so he clambered onto the roof of a train. Once home, he volunteered straight away. Throughout the war he saw active service in both Europe and the Far East, much of it atrocious, and suffered from nightmares for years afterwards. He joined the Royal Artillery, trained as an air gunner and air observation pilot attached to the parachute regiment, was given a battlefield promotion to Second Lieutenant in 1940, worked in intelligence, and was promoted to Major. He was involved in the Arnhem debacle and in hand-to-hand jungle combat in Burma, and later gave his stepson Christopher a Japanese sword he had taken from a surrendered Japanese officer. Christopher remembers Peter’s  bravery from a later occasion in peacetime.  When there was a fire at their cottage in East Hoathly, Peter rushed in through the flames to save a previous portrait of his stepson, fighting off  the firemen to do so.

 

He returned from war a Communist, although that did not last long. His politics for the rest of his life were as complex as his personality. He called himself a pluralist, and could be incensed to fury by absolutisms, bigotry, racism and injustice from whatever source. In some respects, Wyndham Lewis was a model. He might well have been conventionally termed a ‘right-wing radical’, although that description would be inadequate, and need qualification. There was a genuine Byronic streak in him and a wicked, even Swiftian sense of humour. He loved punning and wordplay. When Kim Landers and I lived in his flat in Venice we used to sit up at night in the large kitchen of his top floor flat in the Campo de la Bragola, drinking a dangerously blood-red new local wine called Clinton and playing outrageous sonnet ‘consequences’: write a raunchy line, and pass it on to the next person.  He took pleasure in taking swipes at the conventions and correctnesses of left and right alike, was distrustful of politicians, despised functionaries, and was never afraid to be outspoken and combative, frequently to his own disadvantage and, more often than not, to the inconvenience or embarrassment of his family and friends. This was not always endearing: he could also be infuriatingly intolerant, irritable and selfish. Nonetheless, he was blessed with several lifelong friendships with individuals from diverse religions, ethnic groups, persuasions, generations and backgrounds. Here I should like to mention just two of these: the English poet, Kathleen Raine, loyallest of friends, and the Italian writer and critic Leonello Rabatti, who was by his bedside as he died in hospital in San Giovanni, blind, fragile and poverty-stricken.

 

In the forties, he lived in London and got to know more or less everyone who was anyone in the literary world from T. S. Eliot to Edith Sitwell, as well as many younger writers. In those post-war years, he developed his deserved and lifelong reputation as an accomplished and devoted drinker and tender and appreciative womaniser. He lectured part-time to support himself, while reading English at Queen Mary College, but left in irritation without bothering to take a degree. Throughout his life, he published his work with small and often obscure presses, and not once with large or mainstream publishers. His first two books, Picnic to the Moon, which came out when he was 23 (1944) and Omens and Elegies (1951), are classically wrought and include sonnets and villanelles. (He wrote thousands of sonnets through his life.) During that time, he visited Italy, France and Spain, translated Quasimodo, and was influenced by Richard Aldington and Roy Campbell. Then in the late 1940’s he discovered Ezra Pound.

 

The effect of Pound’s work on Russell was dramatic and powerful. Taken in combination with influences from other ambitious modernists such as Hugh MacDiarmid, it allowed his genius for the long poem to achieve progressive and varied flowerings, including Visions and Ruins (1964), Paysages Legendaires (1971), the Quintilius poems and the still-unpublished Ephemeron. It also spurred him towards remarkable achievements as a critic, editor and publisher. In 1949 he founded the literary magazine Nine, and in 1950 the Pound Press. Both ran till 1956 and published an extraordinarily fine range of  poets, including Tom Scott’s masterly translations of Villon into Lallans and the first-ever English translations of Mandelstam, Borges and Pasternak.[2] In 1950, Russell also edited An Examination of Ezra Pound. This collection of essays and tributes by Eliot, Hemingway, Wyndham Lewis, Edith Sitwell and others was instrumental in obtaining Pound’s eventual release from the Saint Elizabeth’s Hospital for the Criminally Insane in Washington D.C. in 1958. On a lighter note, in 1954, he also published his own Three Elegies of Quintilius, and was tickled pink when an anonymous reviewer in a distinguished literary journal wrote to the effect that the translation was not a patch on the original.

 

With his meticulous and voluminous scholarly memory, Russell was well suited to bookselling. In 1951 he moved to East Hoathly and then to Fairwarp on the edge of Ashdown Forest in Sussex with his first wife Marjorie and stepson Christopher. From there, he ran the Grosvenor Bookshop in Tunbridge Wells and became the centre of a literary and drinking circle which included John Pudney, Fred Urqhart and Lionel Hale. The shop closed in 1959 when he moved to London to run the Gallery bookshop in Soho. His bohemian literary life was sustained in Sussex and London, but there was no way this could go on if he was to be a family businessman too. When he went bankrupt in 1963, his marriage collapsed too, and he emigrated, first to Berlin, and then in 1965 to Venice. Just down from Cambridge, that was when I met him. We talked and read poems all night long. He looked like a rakish badger: with a strip of white hair running down the centre of his head, surrounded on both sides by dark. He had torn out his hair, he told me, when he had gone bankrupt. It had grown back white.

 

During the second half of his long, productive life, apart from a few short visits, he made no secret of his dislike of most of English contemporary politics and culture. He managed successfully to avoid England and more or less everything that England represented, except for the occasional visit, for example to attend the Mandelstam conference at the Cambridge Poetry Festival in 1977 or, at Kathleen Raine’s behest in the 1980’s and 1990’s, to lecture for the Temenos Academy in London. During these years his voice became increasingly authoritative, too, as a neo-Platonist thinker in the traduition of William Blake and Thomas Taylor. His move to Italy turned out to be permanent. Apart from short periods in Germany, Yugoslavia, Canada, the USA and Iran, Venice and then Tuscany remained his home for forty years. In Venice he often visited and spent time with the ageing, ailing and usually silent Pound – and was no less a well-known frequenter of the noisy Harry’s Bar. After Pound’s death, he moved to the Lido. Visiting him there one summer in the 1980’s, I once slept on a spare bed which had belonged to Pound.

 

 

Russell has no small claim to being considered a bone fide Italian poet. He became increasingly authoritative as a neo-Platonist thinker in the Blakean tradition and as an authority on Dante. While England avoided or, rather, ignored him, a point he made a good deal of, in his last years he was lionised throughout Italy, with a string of literary prizes, critical articles, reviews, interviews and TV programmes. At his funeral last week in Pian di Scò, the small town in the Tuscan hills where the Fondazione Peter Russell will soon set up his archive, the Italian media and literary world attended in force, as did many local people who simply knew, liked and respected him.

 

From 1964, he supported himself precariously. “All that matters now is poetry,” he wrote around that time, and did his level best to make that stick uncompromisingly, not just as an intention but as a way of life, however impractical and hard as that was for him and for his family. He held temporary writing fellowships at British Columbia in Canada (where he met his second wife Lana, and his two daughters were born), and at Purdue in Indiana. From 1977 to 1979 he taught and studied at the Imperial Academy of Philosophy in Teheran, but was forced to return to Italy during the Khomeini Revolution, shortly after the birth of his son. Most of the time he was very poor and it is a miracle to know how he survived at all financially. Many people sent him gifts of money but he always seemed to be on the edge of disaster. By the late 1980’s Lana had understandably had enough of this, and returned to Canada with his three children. This was a huge blow to him, but by no means the end, and he went on working and writing fine poems, including ‘Albae Meditatio’ (Swansea Review) and sending out his photocopied newsletter called Marginalia, in alternating English and Italian issues.  In his last few years until his final illness, he lived in a damp old water mill (La Turbina) down a long winding muddy valley lane, drove a rattly old jalopy, and seemed to have turned into a sort of snowy haired and slippered Wild Man of the Woods who looked at bit like a Father Christmas. Towards the end, the Royal Literary Fund and the Town Council of Pian di Scò both helped him financially.

 

Many of his books have been published in Italy, notably The Golden Chain (Venice 1970), Teorie ed altre liriche (Rome 1990) and Living Death (Vivere la morte, Florence 2002). Translations have been made by his son Peter George, Pier Paolo Donovan and others. The University of Salzburg has published numerous volumes, as well as two Festschrifts edited by James Hogg (and The Road to Parnassus 1996) and a 250 page Bibliography (1995, ed. Glyn Pursglove). In the UK over the years, several presses and magazines have advocated his work, including Enitharmon Press (Paysages Legendaires 1971) Littack (1972 on), Anvil Press (The Elegies of Quintilius 1975 & 1996, and All for the Wolves 1984), Agenda (especially A Tribute to Peter Russell, 1994), and Swansea Review. Until his final blindness, Russell wrote incessantly. Despite several fires which destroyed his manuscripts on two occasions (East Hoathly, Sussex, 1961; and Pian di Sco, Tuscany, 1990), he leaves behind him a huge archive of unsorted and unpublished poems. Sifting through these presents a mammoth editorial task. From among them no doubt more gems will fall out, rough hewn or polished.

 

Once the dust has settled and fads and fashions have been forgotten, I think Peter Russell will be remembered as one of the greatest of Anglophone twentieth century poets, although it is just as likely that the politer and trendier bastions of English and American literary establishments will continue to keep him out for a good few years to come, just as they shunned him in his lifetime.

 

But John Gery’s review of the Apocalypse of Quintilius in the Notre Dame Review (Summer 2002) says: “As a poet who has stubbornly gone his own way, refusing to compromise his vision, no matter what the personal cost, ‘so that the mystery not vanish’ (‘Last Judgments’), Peter Russell has promulgated a poetry that, while it may not have actually been celebrated sixteen centuries ago, may well be sixteen centuries from now.” The last time I saw Peter, in Castelfranco di Sopra, December 2002, he referred to that review. At that moment, though he was near the end, he seemed momentarily at ease with himself, and a bit of his old defiant self-pride crept back. “My poems belong to the world,” he said, sticking his chin out in that odd schoolboyish way of his – in a sort of cross between the Cheshire Cat and Just William. He didn’t know it, but he had just been granted Italian citizenship.

 

Biographical details

 

Irwin Peter Russell, born Bristol 16th September 1921. 2nd son of Irwin George Russell (b.1896 or 1897; d. aged 1930-31, aged 36 and Marjorie (née Fortune, b. 1881 – died.  First wife: Marjorie (née Keeling-Bloxam): married 1951, divorced 1963. Brought up Christopher Russell, stepson (b. 1943). Married Lana Sue Long (b. 1951). Divorced in the 1990’s. Three children: Sara Elisabeth Christine (b. 1975), Kathleen Sarah Sophia [Kate]  (b. 1976), and Peter George (b. 1977).



[1] Comments received in a discussion with Anastassios Vistonitis.

[2] Among others, Nine published George Barker, Basil Bunting, Roy Campbell, Allen Neville, Neville Coghill, Ronald Duncan, T. S. Eliot, Paul Eluard, William Empson, G. S. Fraser, David Gascoyne, Robert Graves, Michael Hamburger, John Heath-Stubbs, T.E. Lawrence, C. S. Lewis, Wyndham Lewis, Charles Madge, Edwin Morgan, Marianne Moore, Ezra Pound, Kathleen Raine, Tom Scott, George Seferis, Sachaverell Sitwell and Allen Tate