Ruthven Todd

Ruthven Todd (1914 - 1978)
Photograph of Ruthven Todd
Ruthven Todd

Biography

Summary

Born in Edinburgh, Ruthven Todd spent most of his colourful life outwith Scotland: in London, the USA and Spain. He was an artist, amateur botanist and novelist, but is best known as a poet and writer of children’s books. 

Full Biography

Ruthven Campbell Todd was a Scottish-born poet, artist, novelist and early scholar of William Blake. While born, raised and educated in Scotland, Todd spent most of his colourful and itinerant life in self-imposed exile in Fitzrovian London, Tilty Mill in Essex, Paris, Martha’s Vineyard, Iowa, El Terreno in Mallorca and finally the Spanish mountain village of Galilea. His life in Spain began while visiting Robert Graves in Mallorca in 1960. Todd fell ill with pneumonia and pleurisy and found that, without insurance, he could not afford to return to America and opted to stay. He died of multiple organ failure brought on by chronic lung disease in 1978 after his hard-drinking and smoking bohemian lifestyle finally caught up with him.

Todd was born in Edinburgh, the eldest of ten children. His father, William Walker Todd (1884-1944) was a successful architect, and many members of his family held jobs as lawyers, ministers and accountants. As such Ruthven Todd enjoyed a rather privileged upbringing and was educated at Fettes College, followed by an ill-spent year at Edinburgh College of Art. Instead of using his time at art college to work on his skills as an artist, Todd began to drink heavily, so heavily that his parents sent him to the Isle of Mull for two years to ‘dry out’ and work as an agricultural labourer.

After leaving Mull, Todd moved to London where in 1936 he was an assistant secretary for the International Surrealist Exhibition. He spent some time in Paris, and his experiences there and in London brought him a host of (arguably much more famous) friends such as Joan Miro, Wyndham Lewis, Salvador Dali, David Gascoyne and Dylan Thomas. His friendship with Dylan Thomas would later haunt Todd in the years after Thomas’s death. Todd was with Thomas when he died in New York in 1953, and was one of the people to help arrange the transportation of Thomas’ body back to Wales from America. His closeness to Thomas meant that he was the first person approached to write Thomas’ biography. The process of interviewing people, gathering notes and stories (often wildly contradictory and spurious) brought Todd nearly to the point of total mental collapse, even suicide, and the biography never materialised. The ordeal can be read in Todd’s own candid and raw words in The Ghost of Dylan Thomas (HappenStance Press, 2014). Todd’s moving elegy for Thomas, ‘Laugharne Churchyard in 1954’, argues that for all of the follies and mistakes of poets, their work can endure and improve the fabric of life itself.

When war was declared, Todd registered as a conscientious objector and returned with his wife and baby son to Scotland for the last time to live with his in-laws and work in civil defence (which entailed fire-watching and stretcher-bearing). Around this time he began to publish his poems in various magazines, such as Geoffrey Grigson’s New Verse (for which he was also briefly the sub-editor) and the anthologies of the New Apocalypse movement and the Scottish Literary Renaissance. While as a poet Todd often leaned towards the romantic, he was never a true member of these literary movements, instead simply looking for outlets through which to get paid and published. His first mature poetry collection The Acreage of the Heart (1944) was published as part of William MacLellan’s ‘Poetry Scotland Series’. Although Todd’s poems sometimes turn fondly or critically back to the Scottish landscape and his family, his poems cannot be considered in any way nationalistic in tone and his position in the Scottish Literary Renaissance is a highly ambiguous one, as we will soon see in a poem dedicated to Todd by Robert Garioch. One of Todd’s most well-known poems from wartime is ‘It Was Easier’ where he recalls a life of idyllic innocence before the fall of mankind, as he sees it, to war and fascism:

It is easier to sail paper-boats on lily-ponds,
To plunge like a gannet in the sheltered sea,
To go walking or to chatter with my friends
Or to discuss the rare edition over tea,

Than to travel in the mind to that place
Where the map becomes reality, where cracks
Are gullies, a bullet more than half-an-inch
Of small newsprint and the shaped grey rocks.

In common with many of Todd’s poems about conflict, the speaker posits themselves as something of a moral cartographer or map reader (the classical figure of Palinurus the helmsman also appears in Todd’s poetry). This explains the rigour and often photographic quality of Todd’s poems – the desire to record events and places precisely, even down to knowing the exact genus of a flower. For Todd his ‘heart is the unlucky heir of the ages’ (‘Personal History’) and the map of ‘shattered Europe’ where ‘no man’s worth the bullet’s price’ is darkening in front of his very eyes. His instinct is to flee into memory or denial away from the uncertain future, yet all of his poems despite seeking a form of escape, do confront the traumatic times. ‘It Was Easier’ ends with the speaker’s awareness that ‘now, from the map, a gun is aimed at me’. It is this line that Robert Garioch used in his poem ‘For Ruthven Todd’ where the speaker asks of Todd:

What enemy V1 or 2
propelled by rocket through the blue
could ever get the range of you?

The poem, written by a POW, is sarcastically double edged – it seems to pay tribute to Todd’s diverse interests but also imply that Todd is in some way egocentric and paranoid to believe that he is a target of the war. Instead of suggesting that the poet is running for cover, the poem makes a point of how war affects everyone deeply and while the poet may wish to bury his head, he simply cannot. A great number of Todd’s poems show his twin drives to seek refuge – in drink, companionship, art and flowers - and to confront what is happening head-on.

In 1943 Todd’s marriage ended and his father died in 1944, thus breaking many of his ties with Scotland. He spent the remainder of the war living between London and Tilty Mill, Essex. In this period Todd supported his literary efforts with what he called ‘hack-work’ which entailed copywriting, journalism and a number of crime novels featuring a botanist cum sleuth called Professor John Stubbs (the name perhaps taken from his friend the poet John Heath Stubbs). These detective novels were all published by John Westhouse in the 1940s under the pseudonym R. T. Campbell. Todd was paid the then very substantial sum of £200 for each completed novel and it is rumoured that he could write one of these books sometimes in the space of a few weeks. In addition to his poetry, he also published two novels under his real name, both dealing with fascist and dystopian themes: Over the Mountain (1939) and The Lost Traveller (1943).

In 1947 Todd moved to America and took up US citizenship in the 1950s. While he held a number of short-term teaching posts at universities such as Iowa and was the recipient of various awards and fellowships, such as the Guggenheim (1960 and 1967), Todd often supported himself by writing a range of more commercial books. In the early 1950s he provided the story for the highly successful children’s picture-book Space Cat and he continued to receive royalties on this book for many years after. He also wrote books on subjects such as keeping tropical fish (despite having never kept such fish himself) and turned his hand to botanical drawing, at which he was very gifted. His knowledge of botany and the natural world was profound and lends a great specificity and richness to many of his poems. Although poetry remained his primary activity throughout his life, Todd also confessed that ‘I do not regret the spread of my interests’.

Todd’s early poetry has often been said to owe a debt to the socially engaged work of Auden during the 1930s, for its control, form and awareness of the ever darkening landscape of Europe. In 1961 Todd published Garland for the Winter Solstice which, while long out of print, remains the most accessible and substantial selection of his poetry from the 1930s through to the early 1960s. Auden provided a blurb for the dustjacket which reads: ‘Ruthven Todd is a 19th century clergyman who has mysteriously managed to get born and to survive in this hectic age. He is that contemporary oddity, a poet who actually seems to be happy’. While it is true that Todd shows us in his poetry what made him happy, his awareness of his times meant that there was always a snag to experiencing complete contentment – many of his poems are tinged with the more negative aspects of life and it seems both condescending and simplistic to dismiss him as an anachronistic peddler of rural verses. It is true that in later poems Todd strikes a note of greater stability, contentment and withdrawal from the modern world. He does look back admiringly to the past, to poets such as Pope, Blake and Byron and to things of worth that have endured, such as the arrowheads he finds at Martha’s Vineyard:

Efficiency seems trivial and our artefacts must pass
As impermanent symbols that cannot lie beside
The arrowhead in the clump of blue-eyed grass.

Peter Main, Todd’s biographer, has described him as a poet of essential innocence, generosity and openness of personality. However, with such qualities comes a greater chance of loss of innocence, disappointment and hurt. In a later poem, ‘Antipodes’, Todd acknowledges the contrasts between confrontation and retreat that have informed his poetry. Once again using the recurrent image of a map or map reader, the speaker notes:

My own antipodes, I came at last to realize,
Were human and not geographic,
Gravity was mental not specific,
And forever the digger’s prize
Lay in the digging. Luck
Produced its antipodes beneath my very nose. 

Article written by Richie McCaffery, 2016

Further Reading

Selected Bibliography

The Acreage of the Heart (Glasgow: William MacLellan, 1944)
The Planet in My Hand (London: The Grey Walls Press, 1946)
Garland for the Winter Solstice (London: Dent, 1961)

Selected Biography and Criticism

Peter Main, A Fervent Mind: the life of Ruthven Todd (Lomax Press, 2018)