Poets & the Peacock Dinner, by Lucy McDiarmid

Review: One morning in 1914 WB Yeats, Ezra Pound and four fellow poets packed into a car and left London for West Sussex. What happened next has entered literary history

Poets & the Peacock Dinner
Author: Lucy McDiarmid
ISBN-13: 978-0198722786
Publisher: OUP
Guideline Price: £20

On January 18th, 1914, a group of six poets left London to travel by motor car to the West Sussex residence of Wilfrid Scawen Blunt. The most famous of their party, WB Yeats, had hired the vehicle from Harrods at a cost of £5. Apart from Yeats, the poets were Ezra Pound, Richard Aldington, FS Flint, Thomas Sturge Moore and Victor Plarr. The purpose of their journey was to honour the elderly Blunt as a poet. The occasion would involve a meal at which peacock would be served. In the event, most of the poets enjoyed second helpings of this exotic dish, which tasted, we are told here, like turkey, while some moved on to roast beef.

This curious repast and gathering became known to literary history as the Peacock Dinner, akin to the way a meal hosted in 1817 by Benjamin Robert Haydon, at which John Keats was introduced to William Wordsworth, became known as the Immortal Evening, the title of a recent book by Stanley Plumly on that assemblage.

In Lucy McDiarmid’s fascinating study of the literary and cultural meanings of the meal at the West Sussex manor house, Newbuildings Place, we get to know that it might more properly have been remembered as the Peacock Luncheon Party, as the London guests arrived at 12.30pm and were on the road back to the city by 5pm.

In unpacking the significance of this intriguing gathering Prof McDiarmid makes a highly credible case for considering it as an example of the way that, in the late Victorian, Edwardian and Georgian worlds, various groups were seeking professional recognition of one kind or another. She identifies what she terms “the emergent professionalism of poets”. If mere dentists could organise themselves as a professional association, then surely poets should create cultural and social capital for themselves by exploiting acquaintanceships and engaging in what would now be called networking.

The Peacock Dinner, with an article about it in the London Times and a photograph taken, made poetry visible to a public that knew little or nothing of its existence in small magazines and slim volumes.

Designated driver

It is something of a surprise that, in this meticulously researched study, we are left to speculate about who might have been the designated driver for the journey back to London, after a meal at which wine was available. Hilaire Belloc, who arrived as proceedings were winding down, we are told indulged himself fairly freely of Blunt’s offered claret. One wonders indeed whether any competitiveness to take the wheel emerged as the poets made moves to leave after an afternoon of friendly homosocial solidarity that had not been without its undercurrents of professional rivalry and one-upmanship. In speeches delivered, Blunt and Yeats had palpably differed about blank verse. In the photograph of record, the positioning of poets to the left and right of Blunt clearly indicated an accepted hierarchy of talent and achievement.

From early on, as plans were being laid for the dinner, even though Lady Augusta Gregory was involved at the initiatory stage, it was agreed that it should be “entirely a men’s dinner”. Pound and Yeats were anxious to “escape the usual air of Hampstead and of literary men’s wives”. (As McDiarmid comments about one female absent from the dinner, “the presence of a woman seemed to diminish or threaten the professionalism of the event”.) McDiarmid explains why there was no female equivalent of the Peacock Dinner, no Peahen Dinner, involving at least some of the many women poets of the period who could have been invited. It was because “cultural power was in the hands of men. Although some of these women knew one another, their networks were not yet developed enough to provide the means, the impulse or the inspiration for such an occasion.”

It was probably Blunt’s form of masculinity rather than his poetry that brought the poets to share a meal with him that winter day. Yeats would later characterise him as “mostly an infuriating amateur” as a poet. And Blunt himself was rather perplexed by the younger men’s regard for a man who had not really thought of himself a poet of consequence at all. However, as the good-looking husband of Byron’s granddaughter, an anti-imperialist who had gone to jail in Galway as a land agitator, a horse breeder, a romantic Arabist who liked to wear Arab clothing, and a notorious womaniser, Blunt was a masculine celebrity, association with whom could allow poetry to share some macho glamour.

Although no women were at Blunt’s table the occasion was not without sexual frisson. In 1882-3 Blunt had had an affair with Augusta Gregory. (McDiarmid writes with sensitivity and insight of how this experience affected Gregory and influenced her writing.) Perhaps Blunt’s somewhat edgy exchange with Yeats about poetics was the expression of a former lover’s chagrin that Gregory had become the confidante of so renowned a poet.

As a presentation gift for Blunt the sculptor Henri Gaudier-Brzeska had been commissioned to fashion a marble box, into which the poets could each put a manuscript copy of one of their poems. (Pound contributed one of his best, The Return.)

Smutty merriment

On one side of this box Gaudier-Brzeska had shaped a nude female body "in such a way as to emphasise its sexuality". McDiarmid accepts that this work probably involved a ribald play on the notion of a box being opened by the male recipient of the presentation. When Hilaire Belloc joined the company he sang a risque ballad of his own composition about a Mrs Rhys's husband's cuckolding. Blunt's contribution to the smutty afternoon merriment was to deliver "a dirty old man poem" entitled Don Juan's Good-Night. A link between poetic creativity and male libido was being affirmed by the gathering's general tone.

What makes this book an important as well as a very entertaining one is that it seeks to substantiate an original theory about literary influence. As McDiarmid states it: “This book does not see literary history in terms of the traditional isms but in terms of intimacies.” Instead of the agonistics of Harold Bloom’s theory about the “anxiety of influence”, a poet can, in Pound’s words, gather “from the air a live tradition”. And this can involve something as apparently simple as the proximity that dining together demands. Which prompts one to wonder how Irish literary history could be illuminated by McDiarmid’s theory.

Terence Brown is an emeritus fellow of Trinity College Dublin