Aldington was best known for his World War I poetry, the 1929 novel Death of a Hero, and the controversy arising from his 1955 Lawrence of Arabia: A Biographical Inquiry. His 1946 biography, Wellington, was awarded the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for that year.
Aldington is associated with the poetic group around Ezra Pound, the Imagists. In 1911, Pound introduced Hilda Doolittle, his ex-fiancée, and Aldington, her future husband to the Eiffel Tower group. These two were interested in exploring Greek poetic models, especially Sappho, an interest that Pound shared. The compression of expression that they achieved by following the Greek example complemented the proto-Imagist interest in Japanese poetry, and, in 1912, during a meeting in the British Museum tea room, Pound told H.D. and Aldington that they were Imagistes, and even appended the signature H.D. Imagiste to some poems they were discussing.
Aldington served during World War I and took his experiences of that protracted, bloody encounter as the basis for poetic treatment after the war. Along with a number of other poets, he became a representative of the "war poets." This group would profoundly influence the way that war became portrayed in poetry, focusing not on glorious conquest but on human suffering.
Aldington was born in Portsmouth, the son of a solicitor, and educated at Dover College, and for a year at the University of London. He was unable to complete his degree because of the financial circumstances of his family. He met the poet Hilda Doolittle (H.D.) in 1911 and they married two years later.
His poetry was associated with the Imagist group, and his work forms almost one third of the Imagists' inaugural anthology Des Imagistes (1914). Ezra Pound, leading figure of the Imagists, had in fact coined the term imagistes for H.D. and Aldington, in 1912.
At this time he was one of the poets around the proto-Imagist T. E. Hulme; Robert Ferguson in his life of Hulme portrays Aldington as too squeamish to approve of Hulme's robust approach, particularly to women. He knew Wyndham Lewis well, also, reviewing his work in The Egoist at this time, hanging a Lewis portfolio around the room and (on a similar note of tension between the domestic and the small circle of London modernists regretting having lent Lewis his razor when the latter announced with hindsight a venereal infection. Going out without a hat, and an interest in Fabian socialism, were perhaps unconventional enough for him. At this time he was also an associate of Ford Madox Hueffer, helping him with a hack propaganda volume for a government commission in 1914 and taking dictation for The Good Soldier when H.D. found it too harrowing.
In 1915 Aldington and H.D. moved within London, away from Holland Park very near Ezra Pound and Dorothy, to Hampstead, close to D. H. Lawrence and Frieda. Their relationship became strained by external romantic interests and the stillborn birth of their child. Between 1914 and 1916 he was literary editor of The Egoist, and columnist there. He was assistant editor with Leonard Compton-Rickett under Dora Marsden. The gap between the Imagist and Futurist groups was defined partly by Aldington's critical disapproval of the poetry of Filippo Marinetti.
He joined the army in 1916, was commissioned in the Royal Sussexs in 1917 and was wounded on the Western Front. Aldington never completely recovered from his war experiences, and although it was prior to diagnoses of PTSD, he was likely suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
Aldington and H. D. attempted to mend their marriage in 1919, after the birth of her daughter by a friend of writer D. H. Lawrence, Cecil Gray, with whom she had become involved and lived with while Aldington was at war. However, she was by this time deeply involved in a lesbian relationship with the wealthy writer Bryher, and she and Aldington formally separated, both becoming romantically involved with other people, but they did not divorce until 1938. They remained friends, however, for the rest of their lives.
He helped T. S. Eliot in a practical way, by persuading Harriet Shaw Weaver to appoint Eliot as his successor at The Egoist (helped by Pound), and later in 1919 with an introduction to the editor Bruce Richmond of the Times Literary Supplement, for which he reviewed French literature. He was on the editorial board, with Conrad Aiken, Eliot, Lewis and Aldous Huxley, of Chaman Lall's London literary quarterly Coterie published 1919-1921. With Lady Ottoline Morrell, Leonard Woolf and Harry Norton he took part in Ezra Pound's scheme to 'get Eliot out of the bank' (Eliot had a job in the international department of Lloyd's, a London bank, and well-meaning friends wanted him full-time writing poetry). This maneuver towards Bloomsbury came to little, with Eliot getting £50 and unwelcome publicity in the Liverpool Post, but gave Lytton Strachey an opening for mockery.
Aldington made an effort with A Fool I' the Forest (1924) to reply to the new style of poetry launched by The Waste Land. He was being published at the time, for example in The Chapbook, but clearly took on too much hack-work just to live. He suffered some sort of breakdown in 1925. His interest in poetry waned, and he was straighforwardly jealous of Eliot's celebrity.
His attitude towards Eliot shifted, from someone who would mind the Eliots' cat in his cottage (near Reading, Berkshire, in 1921), and to whom Eliot could confide his self-diagnosis of abulia. Aldington became a supporter of Vivienne Eliot in the troubled marriage, and the savage satirist on her husband, as "Jeremy Cibber" in Stepping Heavenward (Florence 1931). He was at this time living with Arabella Yorke (real given name Dorothy), a lover since Mecklenburgh Square days. It was a lengthy and passionate relationship, coming to an end when he went abroad.
He went into self-imposed 'exile' from England in 1928. He lived in Paris for years, living with Brigit Patmore, and being fascinated by Nancy Cunard whom he met in 1928. After his divorce in 1938, he married Netta, née McCullough, previously Brigit's daughter-in-law as Mrs. Michael Patmore.
Death of a Hero, published in 1929, was his literary response to the war, commended by Lawrence Durrell as "the best war novel of the epoch." It was written as a development of a manuscript from a decade before, as he lived on the island of Port Crau in Provence. The book opens with a letter to the playwright Halcott Glover, and takes a variable but satirical, cynical and critical posture, and belabors Victorian and Edwardian cant. He went on to publish several works of fiction.
In 1930 he published a bawdy translation of The Decameron. In 1942, having moved to the United States with his new wife Netta Patmore, he began to write biographies. The first was one of Wellington (The Duke: Being an Account of the Life & Achievements of Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington, 1943). It was followed by works on D. H. Lawrence (Portrait of a Genius, But..., 1950), Robert Louis Stevenson (Portrait of a Rebel, 1957), and T. E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia: A Biographical Inquiry, 1955).
Aldington's biography of T. E. Lawrence caused a scandal on its publication, and an immediate backlash. It made many controversial assertions. He was the first to bring to public notice the fact of Lawrence's illegitimacy. He also asserted that Lawrence was homosexual. Lawrence lived a celibate life, and none of his close friends (of whom several were homosexual) had believed him to be gay. He attacked Lawrence as a liar and a charlatan, claims which have colored Lawrence's reputation ever since. Only later were confidential government files concerning Lawrence's career released, allowing the accuracy of Lawrence's own account to be gaged. Aldington's own reputation has never fully recovered from what came to be seen as a venomous attack upon Lawrence's reputation. Many believed that Aldington's suffering in the bloodbath of Europe during World War I caused him to resent Lawrence's reputation, gained in the Middle Eastern arena.
Aldington died in France on July 27, 1962, shortly after being honored and feted in Moscow on the occasion of his seventieth birthday. His politics had in fact moved far towards the right—opinions he shared with Lawrence Durrell, a close friend since the 1950s—but he had felt shut out by the British establishment after his T. E. Lawrence book. He lived in Provence, at Montpellier and Aix-en-Provence.
On November 11, 1985, Aldington was among 16 Great War poets commemorated on a slate stone unveiled in Westminster Abbey's Poet's Corner. The inscription on the stone was written by a fellow Great War poet, Wilfred Owen. It reads: "My subject is War, and the pity of War. The Poetry is in the pity."
Aldington could write with an acid pen. The Georgian poets, who (Pound had decided) were the Imagists' sworn enemies, he devastated with the accusation of a little trip for a little weekend to a little cottage where they wrote a little poem on a little theme. He took swipes at Harold Monro, whose Poetry Review had published him and given him reviewing work. On the other side of the balance sheet, he spent time supporting literary folk: the alcoholic Monro, and others such as F. S. Flint and Frederic Manning who needed friendship.
Alec Waugh, who met him through Harold Monro, described him as embittered by the war, and offered Douglas Goldring as comparison; but took it that he worked off his spleen in novels like The Colonel's Daughter (1931), rather than letting it poison his life. His novels in fact contained thinly-veiled, disconcerting (at least to the subjects) portraits of some of his friends (Eliot, D. H. Lawrence, Pound in particular), the friendship not always surviving. Lyndall Gordon characterizes the sketch of Eliot in the memoirs Life for Life's Sake (1941) as "snide." As a young man he enjoyed being cutting about William Butler Yeats, but remained on good enough terms to visit him in later years at Rapallo.
An obituary described him as an "angry young man," and an '"angry old man to the end."
Aldington became a prominent member of the short-lived literary movement Imagism just prior to World War I. Determined to promote the work of the Imagists, and particularly of Aldington and H.D., Ezra Pound decided to publish an anthology under the title, Des Imagistes. This was published in 1914, by the Poetry Bookshop in London. In addition to ten poems by Aldington, seven by H.D., and six by Pound, the book included work by Flint, Skipwith Cannell, Amy Lowell, William Carlos Williams, James Joyce, Ford Madox Ford, Allen Upward, and John Cournos.
Despite its short duration as a movement, Imagism was to prove to be deeply influential on the course of modernist poetry in English. Aldington, in his 1941 memoir, writes: "I think the poems of Ezra Pound, D.H. Lawrence, and Ford Madox Ford will continue to be read. And to a considerable extent T. S. Eliot and his followers have carried on their operations from positions won by the Imagists."
Aldington was one of a number of poets who experienced the horrors of World War I and took the theme as a subject of poetry. These poets came to be known as "war poets." Although not the first poets to write about their military experiences, they used poetry not to glorify military conquest but to express the pain and suffering of war. Other key poets from this group included Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon among others. These poets have profoundly influenced the nature of the poetic treatment of war ever since.
The Religion of Beauty (subtitle Selections From the Aesthetes) was a prose and poetry anthology edited by Aldington and published in 1950. Listed below are the authors Aldington included, providing insight into Aldingtons generation and tastes:
Aubrey Beardsley - Max Beerbohm - Vernon Lee - Edward MacCurdy - Fiona MacLeod - George Meredith - Alice Meynell - George Moore - William Morris - Frederick W. H. Myers - Walter Pater - Robert Ross - Dante Gabriel Rossetti - John Ruskin - John Addington Symonds - Arthur Symons - Rachel Annand Taylor - James McNeill Whistler
William Allingham - Henry C. Beeching - Oliver Madox Brown - Olive Custance - John Davidson - Austin Dobson - Lord Alfred Douglas - Evelyn Douglas - Edward Dowden - Ernest Dowson - Michael Field - Norman Gale - Edmund Gosse - John Gray - William Ernest Henley - Gerard Manley Hopkins - Herbert P. Horne - Lionel Johnson - Andrew Lang - Eugene Lee-Hamilton - Maurice Hewlett - Edward Cracroft Lefroy - Arran and Isla Leigh - Amy Levy - John William Mackail - Digby Mackworth-Dolben - Fiona MacLeod - Frank T. Marzials - Théophile Julius Henry Marzials - George Meredith - Alice Meynell - Cosmo Monkhouse - George Moore - William Morris - Frederick W. H. Myers - Roden Noël - John Payne - Victor Plarr - A. Mary F. Robinson - William Caldwell Roscoe - Christina Rossetti - Dante Gabriel Rossetti - Algernon Charles Swinburne - John Addington Symonds - Arthur Symons - Rachel Annand Taylor - Francis Thompson - John Todhunter - Herbert Trench - John Leicester Warren, Lord de Tabley - Rosamund Marriott Watson - Theodore Watts-Dunton - Oscar Wilde - Margaret L. Woods - Theodore Wratislaw - W. B. Yeats
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