Galsworthy remembers Joseph Conrad: “It was the sea that gave Conrad to the English language.”

Author-to-be Galsworthy

On a South Sea voyage in 1893, John Galsworthy met Joseph Conrad, then the first mate of a sailing ship harbored in Adelaide, Australia. The chance meeting convinced Galsworthy, the future author of The Forsyte Saga, to give up law for good and become a writer instead. As he wrote decades later, ”no other writer knew him quite so long, or knew him both as sailor and novelist.”

Six year’s after Conrad’s death, Galworthy’s Two Essays on Conrad was privately printed in 1930, in a fine edition of less than a hundred copies – pale gray blue boards, backed with dark blue cloth. One of them is in Special Collections at Stanford’s Green Library.

A few excerpts:

Many writers knew my dead friend, and will write of him better than I; but no other writer knew him quite so long, or knew him both as sailor and novelist. It was in March 1883, that I first met Conrad on board the English sailing ship “Torrens” in Adelaide Harbour. He was superintending the stowage of cargo. Very tan he looked in the burning sunlight – tanned, with a peaked brown beard, almost black hair, and dark brown eyes over which the lids were deeply folded. He was thin, not tall, his arms very long, his shoulders broad, his head set rather forward. He spoke to me with a strong foreign accent. He seemed to me strange on an English ship. For fifty-six days I sailed in his company. … With the crew he was popular; they were individuals to him, not a mere gang; and long after he would talk of this or that among them, especially of old Andy the sail-maker: ‘I liked that old fellow you know.’ … Ever the great teller of a tale, he had already nearly twenty years of tales to tell. Tales of ships and storms, of gun-running adventure, of the Malay seas, and the Congo; of men and men; all to a listener who had the insatiability of a twenty-five-year old.


Conrad onboard in undated photo. (Courtesy Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscripts Library)

It was the sea that gave Conrad to the English language. A fortunate accident – he might so easily have been acquired by the French. He started his manhood, as it were, at Marseilles. In a letter to me of May 8th, 1905, he says: ‘In Marseilles I did begin life thirty-one years ago. It’s the place where the puppy opened his eyes.’ He was ever more at home with French literature than with English, spoke that language with less accent, liked Frenchmen, and better understood their clearer thoughts. And yet, perhaps not quite an accident, for after all he had the roving quality which has made the English the great sea nation of the world; and, I suppose, his instinct led him to seek in English ships the fullest field of expression for his roving nature. England was to him, too, the romantic country; it had been enshrined for him, as a boy in Poland, by Charles Dickens. He always spoke of Dickens with the affection we have for the writers who captivate our youth.


… he was habitually impatient with labels, and pigeonholes, with cheap theorising, and word-debauchery. He stared life very much in the face, and distrusted those who didn’t. Above all, he had the keen humor which plays old Harry with class and catalogues, with all ideals and aspirations, too, not grounded in the simplest springs of human nature. He could not bear the clichés of so-called civilization. His sense of humor indeed was far greater than one might think from his work. He laughed with an almost ferocious enjoyment of the absurd.


Conrad and Polish cousin, 1924. (Courtesy Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library)

I saw little of Conrad during the war. Of whom did one see much? He was caught in Poland at the opening of that business, and it was some months before he succeeded in getting home. The tall words – ‘war to end war,’ and the rest of it, left him, a continental and a realist, appropriately cold. When it was over he wrote: “So I send these few lines to convey to you both all possible good wishes for unbroken felicity in your new home and many years of peace. At the same time I’ll confess that neither felicity nor peace inspire me with much confidence. There is an air of ‘the packed valise’ about these two divine but unfashionable figures. I suppose the North Pole would be the only place for them, where there is neither thought nor heat, where the very water is stable, and the democratic bawlings of the virtuous leaders of mankind die out into a frozen unsympathetic silence.” Conrad had always a great regard for men of action, for workmen who stuck to their last and did their own jobs well; he had a corresponding distrust of amateur omniscience, and handy wiseacres; he curled his lip at political and journalistic protestation; cheap-jackery and clap-trap of all sorts drew from him a somewhat violently expressed detestation. I suppose what he most despised in life was ill-educated theory, and what he most hated blatency and pretence. He smelled it coming round the corner and at once his bristles would rise.


He never shirked. In an age more and more mechanical, more and more given to short cuts and the line of least resistance, the example of his life’s work shines out – its instinctive fidelity, his artist’s desire to make the finest think he could. Fidelity! Yes, that is the word which best sums up his life and work. The last time I saw Conrad – about a year ago – I wasn’t very well, and he came and sat in my bedroom, full of affectionate solicitude. It seems, still, hardly believable that I shall not see him again. His wife tells me that a sort of homing instinct was on him in the last months of his life; that he seemed sometimes to wish to drop everything and go back to Poland. Birth calling to Death – no more than that, perhaps, for he loved England, the home of his wandering, of his work, of his last long landfall. If to a man’s deserts is measured out the quality of his rest, Conrad shall sleep well.

2 thoughts on “Galsworthy remembers Joseph Conrad: “It was the sea that gave Conrad to the English language.”

  1. Hi – Two comments to the form: In the first text, “steward was opium addict” should be changed to “an opium addict”. Also, “1983″ should be changed to “1883″. Finally, thank you for providing this background on Mr. Conrad, particularly the excerpt from Mr. Galsworthy (a great find).

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