The dream of feathers...

T.H. White: a rescued mind


In her last book, Eating Stone (a meditation on life, wilderness, and bighorn sheep), the late naturalist writer Ellen Meloy penned this vivid portrait of T.H. White, author of The Once and Future King -- a brilliant man who suffered from what might, today, be diagnosed as clinical or bipolar despression:

12282"For British writer T.H. White, as I read while out watching bighorns, a mind activated by beasts was a rescued mind. White averted mental disasters by keeping a proximity to animals and sustaining a voracious appetite for knowledge.

"Described by biographer Sylvia Townsend Warner as 'chased by a mad black wind,' this 'hermetic and sometimes cranky man' wrote more than twenty-five books. He was an illustrator and calligrapher. He translated medieval bestiaries. He painted, fished, raced airplanes, built furniture, sailed boats, plowed fields, and flew hawks at prey. Late in life, he made deep-sea dives in a heavy old suit with a bulbous helmet, which made him look like a Zuni mudhead.

"New skills 'aerated his intelligence,' Warner tells us. For his 1955 translation of a 12th-century bestiary, he taught himself Latin. Through a character in one of his novels he hinted at himself. 'The best thing for being sad,' the character says, 'is to learn something.' 

The Goshawk by TH White"Much of White's knowledge of the natural world resurfaced in his teaching -- he was for many years a schoolmaster -- although greater experts in his subjects accused him of smattering. 'But smatterer or no,' writes Warner, White 'held his pupils' attention; their imagination, too, calling out an unusual degree of solicitude -- as though in the tall, gowned figure these adolescents recognized a hidden adolescent, someone unhappy, fitful, self-dramatizing, and not knowing much about finches.'

"He wore scarlet. He was 'nobly shabby.' He drank, he said, 'in order not to be sober.' He kept owls and paid his students to trap mice to feed them. Fed, the owls perched on his shoulder as he sat under an apple tree, speaking to him in little squeals.

"He wrote a story about geese and geese hunters, one of them a 'mad generasl' who said one ought not to hunt geese and waved the birds away before anyone could. White's ardent love for natural beauty, his friends remarked, peaked in wild enthusiasm, then crashed into melancholy at beauty's transience. The melancholy may have been clinical. In gloom, he sought the air. In the late 1930s, he wrote:

'I had two books on the training of the falconidae in one of which was a sentence which suddenly struck fire from my mind. The sentence was: "She reverted to a feral state." A longing came to my mind that I should be able to do this myself. The word "feral" has a kind of magical potency which allied itself with two other words, "ferocious" and "free." To revert to a feral state! I took a farm-labourer's cottage and wrote to Germany for a goshawk.'

"The Goshawk, published in 1950, chronicled White's seduction by a great and beautiful bird."

It's a strange, painful, and fascinating book...not an easy read, but I recommend it.