Gemma Bristow, writer

Saffic as a Modernist Fantasy: Richard Aldington's Myrrhine and Konallis

Paper presented at the fanfiction conference Slash 3: The Final Cut, De Montfort University, 2008.

This is the tomb of Konallis; Korinthos was her city […].

I have lived three and twenty years, and then sudden sickness bore me to Dis.

From 1914 to 1916, when he joined the British army, modernist author Richard Aldington wrote a cycle of prose poems about the love affair between two Greek women. This cycle was called The Love Poems of Myrrhine and Konallis. It was a reworking of material from the existing canons of Hellenic and pseudo-Hellenic, particularly Sapphic, literature. The cycle incorporated themes that had already become characteristic of the twenty-three-year-old Aldington's poetry: a fantasized Greek world of beauty and sexual freedom, the supreme importance of love, and the unimportance of social convention. Its female/female pairing, however, is strikingly unique among his work. I hope to describe some of the impulses behind that pairing, and particularly how the poems shared the fan impulse to bend existing texts for the purpose of ideological critique or as a vehicle for personal expression. I'm also going to argue that The Love Poems of Myrrhine and Konallis was a masked response to the Great War: a fantasy of an Arcadian otherworld in which relationships and gender did not have to fulfil social utility.

Aldington (born 1892) was a professional writer and editor who participated in the artistic and sociological debates of the 1910s. After leaving a degree in classics uncompleted, he became part of a circle of writers looking to extend English poetry beyond Victorian models. He was a close ally of the American poets Ezra Pound and H.D., to whom he commended himself by his knowledge of Greek and experiments in free verse. Aldington, Pound and H.D. devised what came to be called 'Imagism', a poetic theory that soon acquired fame as the first 'movement' in modern English literature. In 1913, Aldington became assistant editor of The New Freewoman (later The Egoist), a cultural magazine that hosted debates on modern art, sexuality, women's rights and the abolition of gender through radical individualism.

During the same period, Aldington developed a romantic relationship with H.D. The two writers shared a passion for all things Greek. Both wrote poetry influenced by Greek models and using Greek characters and settings; they also translated Greek both together and separately. In their personal lives, the neo-pagan Aldington and H.D. shared a fantasy of being Hellenic. They had nicknames from Greek myth: Aldington was 'the Faun' and H.D. 'the Dryad'. The couple married in 1913. The marriage was, by mutual conviction, polyamorous; they believed that sexual freedom was a facet of individual freedom and that one could have, as Aldington put it, 'many lovers but only one love'.

H.D. was also bisexual, and her attraction to other women formed an obvious subtext to the romance of Myrrhine and Konallis. Aldington accepted his wife's sexuality and responded erotically to the idea of her being with another woman. More than that, he approached her romantically through her interest in women, taking this shared aesthetic experience as something that extended their bond. In one of his wartime poems, from a book dedicated to H.D., the speaker recalls 'our hands that have caressed roses and women's flesh'. Aldington flirted with H.D. by teasing her about her female admirers and, in later life, often sent her art cards featuring images of women. He could also cast himself as her female lover within the confines of their fantasy life. In their wartime correspondence, he referred to himself as H.D.'s 'Atthis', a female character in a poem by Sappho.

When Aldington wrote Myrrhine and Konallis, war and personal tragedy had put strain on his and H.D.'s bohemian life. Aldington was ambivalent about the political necessity of the war and was appalled by its destruction of people and landscape. Following an abortive attempt to enlist in 1914, he became deeply disillusioned with the idea of military service. When conscription was introduced he debated whether to plead conscientious objection, struggling with public disapproval, the likelihood of being sent to prison, and his own conflicted ethics. In 1915, he and H.D. suffered a private loss when their only child together died at birth. Aldington finally decided not to plead objection and joined the army in the summer of 1916. The last months before he enlisted were spent in escapist pleasure-seeking and in completing Myrrhine and Konallis, which brought its Arcadian idyll to a conclusion of stoic resignation and death.

Myrrhine and Konallis tells of the love affair between Konallis, an unworldly young woman who herds goats, and Myrrhine, a sophisticated courtesan of Lesbos. Each poem in the cycle is spoken by one of the two women, with the voice of Konallis framing the text. The cycle begins with Konallis declaring how her life has been transfigured by falling in love with Myrrhine. A series of poems, deploying sensuous imagery of flowers, fabric, marble and skin, charts the progress of the relationship, which becomes central in both women's lives as Myrrhine contrasts the 'sharper love' of Konallis with the attentions of her male clients. The pair are so united that they become apart from the world – a recurring theme in Aldington's writing – living by their own values, worshipping strange gods and needing only each other.

Yet there are threats to this idyllic companionship. As one of the speakers remarks, 'There is a god of fortune and a god of love; they are seldom friends.' Myrrhine and Konallis' lives take on a note of forced, hectic pleasure-seeking, as they go to orgiastic banquets and wake up in puddles of wine, echoing the sensual escapism of Aldington and H.D. before his enlistment. A more stoic group of poems then closes the cycle by describing how Konallis anticipates and meets her death. Konallis urges her lover to live fully after she is gone, and departs, like a soldier, with the words 'Now loose my hand, for Hermes-of-the-dead clasps the other.' Konallis was her author's avatar here. She was said to be the same age when she died as Aldington when he joined the army: twenty-three. She was the first of several characters representing pre-war youth and Arcadia that Aldington symbolically killed in his writings dealing with the war.

That the cycle's lovers were both female gave a particular dimension to their standing apart from the world. In the middle-class society of early twentieth-century England, which expected such obligations as marital fidelity, child-rearing, hierarchical family structures and, finally, military service, a social unit of two women represented the ultimate failure to conform. For Aldington, Myrrhine and Konallis in part represented an ideal of love that was pure because it had no progenitive or utilitarian motive. To a publisher who questioned the propriety of the lesbian verses, he explained: 'Myrrhine & Konallis are simply the love of beauty, too sensual to be abstract, too remote from biological affection to be anything but sterile.' The word 'sterile' as Aldington used it denoted purity, turning the conventional snub of barrenness into a passion that transcended sexual biology. Exalting such passion was important to his own life, since he and H.D. had lost their child and thus failed at one of the social obligations of men and women.

Equally pressing were the destructive social responsibilities and the rigid gender roles imposed by the war. As the first war to involve conscription in Britain, the Great War made every young man a potential soldier, exchanging the older distinction between professional soldier and civilian for one that divided society by sex and age. And by stressing duty to country, culture and family, it highlighted and tested the attitudes expected of the middle class. Aldington, as a young man who had little patriotic feeling and who had delayed enlistment until 1916, had failed to respond to the war in an approved way. Nor was H.D. one of the women of England who said 'Go'. Both writers sought to portray value in remaining apart from the war fervour. For example, H.D.'s long poem 'The Tribute', written in 1916, depicts a band of aesthetes who honour both slain soldiers and conscientious objectors even while they are shunned by their militaristic society. Myrrhine and Konallis assert their right to live by epicurean and individual values. They dismiss the martial side even of Greek culture, asserting love as the highest good. Says one of the heroines, 'The sophists praise above all others Homer who sang of battle and the deaths of heroes. / But I love the divine sweet-scented odes of Sappho.'

Myrrhine and Konallis was partly based on historical Greek literature. Aldington told his friend and fellow poet, Amy Lowell, that everything in the cycle had a basis somewhere in the Hellenic canon. Aldington had read Greek at university and it was through Greek literature that he first began to experiment with poetic form. At the beginning of his career, he published translations from Rufinus, Theatetus, Meleager and other Greek writers in London periodicals. In collaboration with H.D., he organised the Poets Translation Series, a set of pamphlets containing translations of lesser known classics by contemporary poets. Aldington's own contributions to this series included The Poems of Anyte of Tegea, Greek Songs in the Manner of Anacreon and The Poems of Meleager of Gadara.

Sappho was another Greek poet in whom he and his circle had interest. Aldington published a translation of Sappho's poem 'To Atthis' in the first Imagist anthology of 1914, and commissioned a collection of Sappho's poems and fragments for the Poets Translation Series. Towards the end of the war, Aldington wrote an essay on Sappho as part of a series called 'Letters to Unknown Women' which speculated on shadowy female figures in literature. H.D. also wrote a personal essay on Sappho, together with several poems based on Sapphic fragments.

Genuine Greek literature, however, was not overall rich in the depiction of female homosexuality. As a source for the overtly lesbian elements in Myrrhine and Konallis, Aldington drew on a work of pseudo-Hellenism from the Decadent period: the Songs of Bilitis by Pierre Louÿs, first published in 1894. French writer Louÿs was the author of several works that had Hellenic settings and/or themes of female homosexuality and fluid gender roles. His novel Aphrodite, for example, features a bisexual courtesan as its heroine as well as two minor female characters who love and wish to marry one another. The Songs of Bilitis, a book-length poem sequence, charts the life of a woman of ancient Lesbos. Its protagonist Bilitis moves from youthful heterosexual love, through a consuming love affair with a younger woman, including a marriage ceremony in which she plays a male role, to a hedonistic life as a courtesan after that relationship breaks down. The sequence ends with Bilitis' death and epitaph. Like Aldington's cycle, Louÿs' book positioned itself as part of a Sapphic tradition; the historical Sappho in fact appears in the text.

The Songs of Bilitis provided Myrrhine and Konallis with its form and structure. Both were cycles of poems in free prose form. The poems were gathered under a general title that identified them as lyrics spoken by their principal characters. Each poem also had an individual title that was constructed similarly in both books. Louÿs' titles included, for example, 'The Offering to the Goddess', 'The Cup' and 'The Last Lover', while Aldington's included 'The Offering to Persephone', 'The Lamp' and 'The Last Song'. More importantly, both works shared a fiction of being translations. The Songs of Bilitis were presented as translations from actual Greek originals, as though Bilitis were another Sappho who had left her poems for posterity. Louÿs supported this fiction by prefacing his poems with an imaginary biography of Bilitis and by describing other, nonexistent poems that he had supposedly omitted from his 'translation' of her works. For a time, Aldington adopted the same fiction, passing off the Myrrhine and Konallis poems as translations when portions of the cycle first appeared in magazines.

As well as helping to sanction content that was more acceptable in the context of Greek scholarship, the fiction of translation shaped how these works fitted their canon. It invited the poems to be read as contributions to the canon rather than simply as derivative works. The 'missing scene' is a common type of fanfiction story that, if successful, might prompt readers to comment that it could just fit into the original. Myrrhine and Konallis and the Songs of Bilitis were a similar type of story, a 'missing author', within a canon that comprised a body of texts by numerous authors.

Aldington's poem cycle also functioned as a 'missing scene' in its relationship to the Songs of Bilitis. The starting point of the text was one of the fictitious poems Louÿs had supposedly omitted from the Songs of Bilitis. All of those nonexistent poems were listed in Louÿs' index with the note 'not translated'. One of them was titled 'Myrrhine' and, by its placement in the index, belonged to the period of Bilitis' female love affairs. Aldington's Myrrhine, who as a courtesan of Lesbos belongs to the same world as Bilitis, can be read as a character effectively created as an OC from Louÿs' text. As a creative reworking, however, Aldington's cycle also offered a different slant on the material: his poems are more lyrical and less sexually explicit than Louÿs', while the lesbian theme dominates more exclusively.

Like fanfiction, Myrrhine and Konallis was published and distributed non-commercially for a limited readership. Its publishing history also helped to position the cycle as literature of the war. After portions of the cycle first appeared in magazines, between 1915 and 1917, an incomplete edition comprising the same portions was printed in 1917 as a chapbook from a private press. This press, the Clerk's Press in Cleveland, Ohio, was run as a hobby by one of Aldington's acquaintances, the Rev. Charles Bubb. Bubb produced finely printed books in extremely limited editions for private distribution. During the war, he printed several books by members of Aldington's circle. In 1916, Bubb reprinted pamphlets from Aldington and H.D.'s Poets Translation Series. In 1917, he printed two chapbooks of original poetry by Aldington: The Love Poems of Myrrhine and Konallis and Reverie: A Little Book of Poems for H.D., Aldington's first collection of trench poetry. As part of the same group, Bubb also printed The Tribute and Circe: Two Poems by H.D. All of these publications were privately exchanged gift books, printed for a known audience that was sympathetic to their authors and to their subject matter.

The three chapbooks printed in 1917 were specifically private tokens exchanged between Aldington and H.D. By 1917, Aldington and H.D. were geographically separated by the war. As well as maintaining normal mail correspondence, they used the Clerk's Press as an intermediary to create and to give books. The content of the chapbooks was personal, war-themed, and part of their shared Hellenic myth. H.D.'s Tribute and Circe was dedicated to Aldington and, according to her correspondence with Rev. Bubb, was printed as a 'surprise' for him. Its title poem 'The Tribute' was written for Aldington and expressed support for both his former role as an objector and his present role as a soldier. Aldington's Myrrhine and Konallis and Reverie shared themes of abiding love, physical parting, and the transcending power of fantasy, which in Reverie, dedicated to H.D., shifted to the contemporary setting of the trenches. The title poem of Reverie fantasises the speaker and his lover into a timeless pagan world where the dangers of the war no longer signify: 'she bending by the pale flower / And I beside her: / We two together in a land of quiet / Inviolable behind the walls of death.'

Aldington fixed Myrrhine and Konallis as war poetry when its complete and final text was published in 1926. In the 1920s, Aldington began to write extensively about the war and also to consolidate his earlier war writings. A Fool i' the Forest (1924), for example, reworked a theme of Myrrhine and Konallis by symbolically killing a character that represented pre-war aestheticism. The 1926 edition of Myrrhine and Konallis, called The Love of Myrrhine and Konallis and Other Prose Poems, bound the cycle together with prose poems that Aldington had written during and shortly after his military service. This book's arrangement invited Myrrhine and Konallis to be read in the context of its author's war experience.

The 1926 collection is in two parts: 'The Love of Myrrhine and Konallis' and 'Nineteen Prose Poems'. The 'Nineteen Prose Poems' are autobiographical scenes set in the trenches and in post-war London, whose speaker, a soldier, expresses his grief, suffering and desire to escape into Greek fantasy. The two parts are arranged in a continuous chronology by means of dates. The 'Myrrhine and Konallis' section ends with the dating clause '1914-1916'. The 'Nineteen Prose Poems' have individual dates, which (excepting a prologue) run in order from 1916 to 1919. Thus the poems are stated to cover a continuous period of time during and immediately after the war, though their setting changes as the Hellenic part ends and the trench section begins. The two parts are also linked thematically by their Greek references. The Hellenism of Myrrhine and Konallis becomes in the 'Nineteen Prose Poems' a fantasy to which the poems' speaker appeals, in daydreams and reminiscences, as relief from or as a contrast to the reality of the trenches.

As well as tying the cycle to its historical context, Aldington's decision to bind Myrrhine and Konallis with his other wartime prose poems reveals an attitude about its nature as a derivative work. There was no distinction of relevance or value between Myrrhine and Konallis, which depended on an existing canon, and the 'Nineteen Prose Poems', which were outwardly more original. The two parts of the book were given parity and were presented as complementary products of one period of experience. The collection thus supported derivative works as vehicles for personal expression, as well as the idea that anything, including other people's writing, is valid material for poetry to transform.

And by republishing Myrrhine and Konallis after the war, Aldington affirmed the value of its Sapphic fantasy. Ten years on, Konallis still died, but her death was not the end; the narrative was taken up by another speaker who, while no longer able to be Hellenic, still used the shared inheritance of Hellenism to construct a real-world identity.

Quotations © The Estate of Richard Aldington.