Jessie Dissmorr: modernist artist and poet

By Jess Owen Jesssie Dismorr was an artist and painter whose work appeared in the Vorticist Blast of July 1915. She was born at Gravesend in March 1885. Her family moved to Hamptead in the 1890's. She studied at the Slade, and then at the Parisian Academie de Palette. Her illustrations appeared in the influential Modernist  magazine Rhythmn. Along with Richard Aldington and Ezra Pound she signed the Vorticist Manifesto just before the outbreak of the First Great European War.

Vorticism was a modernist movement in art and poetry that followed the theories of the Italian demogogue, Marinetti. Several of its founding members followed the path of Ezra Pound and Wyndham Lewis by embracing  Fascism in the 1920’s.[1]]

Dissmorr’s poems caught the eye of the young TS Eliot whose early, tentative verse appeared alongside them in the War Number of Blast. He told a Boston correspondent;

“I do not know whether you have heard of a certain infamous… quarterly called Blast… if the second [issue] ever does appear… it promises to contain a few things of my own. there will also be some poems by a girl called Jessie Dismorr, which I think might interest you”  [2]Eliots’ poems in the issue are, for him, rather good. But those of Dismorrr are the complete antithesis of the prevailing ‘Georgianism’ centred round Edward Marsh and his anthologies. Nor do they share the innate classicism of the Imagists.

Her Monologue appears to narrate the first experiences of a child emerging into the world

“My niche in nonentity still grins–

I lay knees, elbows pinioned, my sleep mutterings blunted against  a wall.

Pushing my hard head through the hole of birth

I squeezed out with intact body”

The emergent life-form then begins to explore their world;

“Details of equipment delight me.

I admire my arrogant spiked tresses, the disposition of my perpetually foreshortened limbs,

Also the new machinery that wields the chains of muscles fitted beneath my close coat of skin.

On a pivot of contentment my balanced body moves slowly.

Inquisitiveness, a butterfly, escapes.

It spins with drunken invitation. I poke my fingers into the middles of big succulent flowers.

My fingers are fortunately tipped with horn.

………………..”

Dismorr toys with the reader, switching between symbolist imagery and the hard clear prose sought by Imagists. Yet she cannot ignore the presence of the war.

“Pampered appetites and curiosities become blood-drops, their hot mouths yell war.

Sick opponents dodging behind silence, echo alone shrills an equivalent threat.”

Summarising the situation of English letters in 1915. Some established poets had joined the war effort, lending their art to its promulgation. Others, resorted to quietism rather than join the socialist and pacifist opponents of the conflict.

Her London Notes approach Imagism in their stark descriptions and spare language. British Museum describes how;

“Gigantic cubes of iron rock are set in a parallelogram of orange sand.

Ranks of black columns of immense weight and immobility are threaded by a stream of angular volatile shapes. Their trunks shrink quickly in retreat towards the cavernous roof.

Innumerable pigeons fret the stone steps with delicate restlessness.”

Her prose poem June Night recounts a bus journey with a soon to be  discarded lover. It also signals a change in poetic style from the writer. She begins;

“Rodengo calls for me at my little dark villa/

For Rodengo I have an ardent admiration. His pink cheeks, black beard, and look half of a mannequin and half of audacious and revengeful Corsican amuse me… Ah Rodengo!… on a night of opera, of profound mutterings and meaningless summer lightning you are an indispensible adjunct of the scenery”

As the journey progresses, she tires of his solicitations;

“We stop for passengers at Regents Corner. Here crowds swarm under green electric globes. Now we stop every moment, the little red staircase is beseiged. The bus is really too top-heavy. It must look like a great nodding bouquet, made up of absurd flowers and moths and birds with sharp beaks. I want to escape; but Rodengo is lazy and will not stop warbling his infuriating lovesongs….”

And the heat begins to oppress her, along with Rodengo;

“….you have a magnificent tenor voice, but you bore me. Your crime is that I can no longer distinguish you from the rest of the world.

Surely I have had enough of romantics! their temperature is always above 98½, and the accelerated pulse throbs in their touch….At the next arret I leave you my friends, I leave you Rodengo with the rose in your ear. I escape from the unmannerly throbbing vehicle.

I take refuge in mews and by-ways. They lead me to the big squares of the better neighbourhoods. Creeping through them I become temporarily disgraced, an outcast, a shadow that clings to walls. At least here I breathe my own breathe……”

The key to understanding Dismorrs’ effect as a poet is to remember that her lines are written to be declaimed dramatically. The work of Vachel Lindsay was reaching England by this time. His dramatic poetic delivery may have influenced  her. The readings were probably given at ‘the Restaurant de la Tour Eiffel, 1 Percy Street’ [3] where the Blast group met. The poetry in such verse can be found in the modulation of voice the text demands, rather than in any formal rhyming scheme.

As such, Dismorre’s work also reflects a continuation of  the English ballad tradition, where songs were peddled in the steets as penny texts, not long after they had been heard in the emerging music halls of early Victorian London. These had a parallel in the ‘Penny Readings’ given in working mens clubs and political halls that projected Charles Dickens, and others, to national fame.

Mark Morrison in an informative piece for  Modernism/ Modernity argues that the verse performances organised by Modernist publishers such as Harold Munro were  a continuum of the middle classes’ atttempts to ‘improve themselves’ (and others) through the use of elocution manuals. But I think that Dismorrs’ poems suggest an opposite intention. A desire to bring poetry back to what they believed to be its oral roots, unfettered by the quasi-elizabethan ‘grammar’ peddled by Lord Monbodo and his followers.

After the drama of her rejection of Rodengo, Dismorr offers three quieter, more reflective pieces; Promenade; Payment; and Matilda. All three are prose poems. Short, curt and icy in their delivery. An echo of Baudelaire, or maybe more appropriately, Mallarme, is in the phrasing. We are offered these, on the pages of Blast as a ‘triolet’; three poems grouped together around a common theme.

Promenade is an interesting poem. Fellow ‘modernists’; Gaudier-Brezka and Wyndham Lewis, liked to toy with the Baudelairian image of the ‘bad boy’. They vicariosly played off bourgeois fears of ‘the masses’ to ‘spice up’ their own reputations. Dismorrr too used the image of the ‘dangerous’ working class, but in a far less overtly sensationalist manner.

“I am surprised to observe….Hunger the vulgar usher, whipping up his tribe of schoolboys, who, questing hither and thither on robust limbs, fill the air with loud and innocent cries”

Adopting the voice of an innocent, unaware of the circumstances in which the majority of the population lived, Dismorr clearly is not naive. Nor is she playing at poverty as did Gaudier-Brezka. She may in part, have been reacting against the quasi-romanticisation of the poor by later English ballad writers like GR Sims;

“Drunken and thriftless people,

With little themselves to spare,

They heard of a case of trouble,

And they helped it then and there”[4]

But also invoking the gaunt imagery of Baudelaire’s Fleurs de Mal;

“The suspicion suddenly quickens within me that there is an understandng. It is possible that we are being led by different ways into the same prohibited and doubtful neighbourhood”

Perhaps underlying her triolet was the comment by Ford Maddox Hueffer that ‘Modern life, the modern life of ou great cities, has got hideously far from the quiet rooms where sit the mothers..”[5]

Dismorr was not afraid to take chances with her verse. The second of her triolet, Payment, appears prosaic;

“Now that money is passing between us, for that which has no equivalent in coin, I will give you a shilling for your peculiar smile, and sixpence for the silken sweep of your dress; and for your presence, the strange thing that I can neither grasp nor elude, I will give you another shilling,”

The rhyming is in the assonance “shilling…smile…sixpence…silken sweep…strange…grasp…another shilling”

Here she approaches the marriage of verse and prose so well accomplished by Joseph Conrad and Ford Maddox Hueffer in their best work. Conrad’s novels, better known than read, can be viewed as extended prose poems. His close associate, Hueffer was equally adept at this unity of literary form, later utilising it in his Rash Act of 1933.

Matilda

“Strange that a beauty so dangerously near perfection should choose life without happenings and hedged in completely.

By habits and hand-labours

Set in an ordered and commonplace rightness,

It is certain that she has no sense of play at all,

Coveting neither delight nor risk, nor the ueses of her supreme gift:

So that within a homespun sobrety

The dread thing passes unperceived by most comers,

And chiefly secure from self-recognition

By strait bonds of chastity and duties already cherished.”

This is a fine poem. Technically, it works by reversing the structure of the bedrock of English verse, the sonnet. Dismorr gives her conclusion first, and then explores the expiative section, where a poet demonstrates their facility with the form. A metre, based on Petrarch, that has only a few variables

She uses a form generally used for idealisaton of either love, or life. Yet her subject matter is the ‘mundane existence’ of a woman “Set in an ordered and commonplace rightness/ It is certain that she has no sense of play at all’

Dismorr published no more poetry after her participation in Blast. A leading critic of the time [Hueffer] recognised the periodical as a precursor of the future; “its chance of permanence consists in the fact that that its method is the obviously right one of being amusing and taking an interest in its own day……..”[6]

After her appearance in Blast Dismorr appears to have concentrated on her art. This brought her more success and she had a couple of retrospective exhibitions.Some of her work can be found in Tate Modern. Her poems stand on their own merits. As modernist verse that did not find a large audience, in its time. But has influenced poets, through its embracing everyday speech as a medium for literary expression though in a wholly different syle to Wilfrid Gibson.

The limited distribution of small poetic ventures such as Wyndham Lewis’ Blast meant that its poets were restricted to a sparse audience. Elsewhere in Europe, the most innovative poet of the age was about to be chased into exile, remaining largely unrecognised outside his  own country.  In other parts of the world this was not always the case. Harriet Monroe’s Poetry straddled the United States.

Dismorr’s verse occupies a place between Mallarme’s Un Coup de Des and Paul van Ostaijen’s magnificent Het sienjaal and Bezette Stad. Whilst Blaise Cendrars and Apollinaire have received critical attention, Dismorr’s Fitzrovian Blast contributions remain unnoticed. [7]

Dismorr committed suicide in 1939[8]

Jess Owen

My thanks to Wendy Butler for her invaluable assistance.


[1] A brief and succinct summary of Lewis’ career can be found in Characters of Fitzrovia. The authors’ names escape me..

[2] Eliot, Letters Vol I, p.94.

[3] Characters. p.155

[4] Sims; Charity: A Problem, The Dagonet and Other Poems, 1904. p.393

[5] Un Coer Simple; The Outlook 5 June 1915; Ford Maddox Ford Reader, Ed SJ Stang, Manchester, 1986, p.181

[6] The Outlook, 4 July 1914 Stang p.177

[7] The Poetry Library holds copies of Blast. Blaise Cendrars’ Complete Poemsis available in a 1992 edition from California. The definitive Mallarme is now that by Henry Winfeld, Califonia, 1994. The Penguin remains a treasure. For an appreciation of van Ostaijen see Issue 122 of Vlaanderen (1971). En Engels, we, as yet, have very little.

[8] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jessica_Dismorr

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