The continued attrition of “our” writers by the violence of the Somme–some killed, others home on lengthy and poorly documented medical leaves–has meant fewer extraordinarily long posts of late. Or perhaps I have become weary… or, perhaps, sensitive to the preferences of the put-upon reader.
But not today… however many we have lost, we still get those days on which everybody seems to write something interesting…
First, and most important for the days that are to come, Edmund Blunden and his battalion have been having a pleasant time of it. No longer.
The next thing that befell us was sudden, and our smile would not obey orders. It came in an envelope, “Very Secret,” and stated that we should in two days capture and consolidate a place called Stuff Trench. The falling ancient sun shone on the wide and shallow Ancre by Aveluy, and the green fancy woodwork of the mill belonged to another century, as we crossed the long causeway leading from the pleasures of rest, and turned along the opposite hillside, with its chalky excavations, old trenches, and spaces of surviving meadow-like green. Then we found ourselves filing up a valley under the noses of howitzers standing black and burnished in the open, and loosing off with deadly clamour while the bare-chested gunners bawled and blasphemed — “Happy Valley” or “Blighty Valley,” which was it? Farther along stood Authuille Wood, and we went in along a tram line and a board walk whereon with sweating foreheads some Highland officers were numbering off some of the most exhausted men (just relieved) I had seen. Near here was the captured German work called Leipzig Redoubt, with its underworld comforts; the companies were accommodated there, while the battalion headquarters entered the greasy, damaged shanties of typical British sandbags and tinware in the Wood… and the night came on.
Next, an amusing juxtaposition tossed to us by the editor of the C.E. Montague memoir. First, an excerpt from a letter to his wife, explaining how he judges his job, which is to thrill but not terrify his V.I.P. guests:
Oct. 19, 1916
I always have several graduated degrees of exposure to which to treat guests according to what seem to be their desires or the needs of their souls for chastening, but of course I don’t let them show up in any place where they would individually be a mark for the enemy. I only let them see the conditions under which all the combatants are, the whole time, between the firing trench and the artillery lines.
Fair enough. The implication of giving the visitors only a quick view of what the actual soldiers endure “the whole time” is clear. Montague, with his experience–in the ranks, in the trenches, in journalism before the war–is surely an ideal guide; and yet it is interesting that with so many young lieutenants around, Intelligence chose a man pushing 60 for this tour guide job: most of his “guests” would be older than most soldiers, yet many must have been younger than him. He had been there, and they, with their fancy jobs, are quite safe…
And how close did today’s exalted guest get?
Oct. 19.—With Masefield to Longueval. Walk about Delville Wood. Most of the bodies cleared up, but the wood haggard and sinister.
Masefield, after all, is working on The Old Front Line, an authoritative poetic geography of the British position on July 1st.
Next, Dorothie Feilding must deal with yet another eruption of a chronic problem, a persistent irritation that is more or less unique here–although perhaps common among dashing, attractive, well-born women in nearly-all-male war zones.
Mother mine–I had rather an awful afternoon yesterday. Mr de Broqueville, the father, came up to see me at 14 & we had a long talk. It appears his son, Pierre, wants to marry me awfully, & spoke to his father about it many months ago, but was told to wait a little. I don’t think you ever met Pierre, he is the one in the 1st Guides Cavalire, the very tall, dark, good looking one, & was in the army before the war. He is an awfully nice boy but just a dear big baby. About 25 I think, but temperamentally a perfect child & I am afraid it could never be for that reason. I wouldn’t marry a foreigner unless I cared very very much. I think that is essential to the make up of the racial differences.
Pierre is a dear boy, but I really couldn’t ever marry him. There is not enough in him to satisfy me I’m afraid. But the Broquevilles have been such perfect dears to me, it is awful not being able to do it, as I am afraid the father was fearfully anxious for it to be & was thinking it would be ok. He wrote to his wife about it already in Brussels & got an answer saying if he was pleased she was too, & was apparently very nice about it, which makes it all worse. It was because he heard Father was coming out here that he came up to see me because he wanted to talk it over with him if I would. I told him that I was very fond of someone who had been killed…
Ah, the old “implied killed fiancé” dodge…
This brings us to the “lengthy screed” portion of today’s program. For Edward Thomas, few things are more welcome than a letter from Robert Frost, his fast friend and the impetus behind his own turn to verse.
High Beech, nr Laughton, Essex.
My dear Robert,
This morning the postman brought your letter of September 28. I am at home helping to get things straight in our new cottage. It is right alone in the forest among beech trees & fern & deer, though it only costs 10d. to reach London. Luckily I had a week’s leave thrust on me just at the time when I could be of some use. We have had fine weather, too, luckily & have had some short walks, Helen, Bronwen & I—Mervyn being still in lodgings 6 miles off, & Baba with an aunt, waiting till the house is ready for them.
Since I wrote last I have been shifted to Trowbridge Artillery Barracks & have had 3 weeks hard work there. I am waiting for the result of my 2nd examination. If I pass, I shall be an officer in another month. My going out depends on whether they are in great need of men when I am ready, also on my passing the final medical test. If I go it seems likely it will be to a not very big gun, so that I shall be far enough up to see everything…
I have just written the 2nd thing since I left London a month ago. If I can type the 2 you shall see them. I am wondering if any of these last few sets of verses have pleased you at all.—Haines liked some I showed him. I was there for 24 hours a fortnight ago & had a walk up Cooper’s Hill & picked blueberries. He was the same as ever, & relieved at his (apparently final) exemption. I think he was going to write to you then. He showed me ‘Hyla Brook’ & another piece of yours which I enjoyed very much. I like nearly everything of yours better at a 2nd reading & best after that. True.
About my collection of verses, the publisher remains silent a month. I wrote off at once today to ask whether he could decide & if he will publish I will do my best to hunt up duplicates & send them out to you in good time for a possible American publisher. I shall be pleased if you succeed & not feel it a scrap if you don’t. As if I could refuse to give you a chance of doing me good!
We will hear more on this collection of verses anon. But before we look forward to a new poetic era, we should look back–fully a year and a half, now, to English poetry’s greatest Great War hour. Frost has asked, evidently, for Thomas’s appraisal of Rupert Brooke–a friend and associate before he was a celebrity and a martyr:
It would take me too long to be sure what I think of Rupert. I can tell you this—that I received £3 for his first ‘Poems’ the other day & £2 for ‘New Numbers’ (because of him). So I can’t think entirely ill of him. No, I don’t think ill of him. I think he succeeded in being youthful & yet intelligible & interesting (not only pathologically) more than most poets since Shelley. But thought gave him (and me) indigestion. He couldn’t mix his thought or the result of it with his feeling. He could only think about his feeling. Radically, I think he lacked power of expression. He was a rhetorician, dressing things up better than they needed.
This is right on the money, as an American reader might put it.
Thomas starts in with the slightly rude joke about Brooke’s fame benefiting those less fortunate writers he was connected with, but he backs off quickly. In fact, he pulls the nose of his mean-spirited assessment steadily up toward fairness: “succeeded in being youthful” is insulting, and apt. But soon we are back at Shelley–a reasonable point of comparison and, perhaps, a more-than-fair comparandum. We’re balanced, at least, or swinging up–so when he stoops once again upon his helpless target the killing stroke seems only fair: Brooke was a lightweight. He thought prettily and wrote well, but there wasn’t much there, there.
If this still seems unfair, well: I think Thomas is correct on this next point too:
And I suspect he knew too well both what he was after & what he achieves.
Yes–seduced as he was by the romance of war and the sudden spurt of fame that came upon him in his last weeks, Brooke knew, deep down, that his poetry was superficial. And his good-looking corpse lies a-moulderin’ in his grave.
Then Thomas turns a neat trick: in prose, in a letter, in which he has previously been generously modest, he pivots skillfully on a metaphor and lands in a rather poetic position.
I think perhaps a man ought to be capable of always being surprised on being confronted with what he really is—as I am nowadays when I confront a full size mirror in a good light instead of a cracked bit of one in a dark barrack room. Scores of men, by the way, shave outside the window, just looking at the glass with the dawn behind them. My disguises increase, what with spurs on my heels & hair on my upper lip.
Bronwen is at my elbow reading ‘A Girl of the Limberlost’. Garnett, whom I saw yesterday, for the first time since I enlisted, was praising ‘The Spoon River Anthology’. Can he be right? I only glanced at it once, & I concluded that it must be liked for the things written about in it, not for what it expressed. Isn’t it done too much on purpose?
…You would like one of our sergeant-major instructors who asked a man coiling a rope the wrong way—from right to left— ‘Were you a snake-charmer before you joined’. We have some ripe regular specimens at the barracks…
Now I will try to type those verses. Goodbye. Helen & Bronwen & I send you all our love…
Finally, today, we have an awkward first writing from David Jones. Wounded in the cautery of Mametz Wood, he has recovered, recuperated, and had leave at home in London. Jones–so very young (twenty) and unevenly educated, was not much of a writer at this stage of his life–he did not really even aspire to be one. He was an artist. But he sat down nonetheless to write an essay on the war, suitable for publication in The Christian Herald (which passed). But Jones’s father–a proud and political London Welshman–typed it up, edited it (there were many minor errors) and sent it, today, a century back, to David Lloyd George, political pride of Wales and one of Brittain’s most powerful politicians. This is “his earliest surviving writing and the only contemporary written record of his thoughts and feelings about his early combat experience…” so it’s one of those things that is of unusual interest despite its fairly pedestrian appearance…
A French Vision
(By a one-time Art Student, now in the R.W.F.)
IS IT WORTH IT?
How often this question comes with ever-increasing persistency to the intelligent fighting-man in France.
The Battalion is new to the line–just come from England; it is the first night of going into the trenches. At last, after months of training, face to face with the actualities of war. In single file, one finds oneself trudging along a desolate road–broken ruins stand grim and piteous against the dim light of the evening. One had seen numerous pictures–photos–ever since one was a child of the desolation caused by war–here at last was the actual thing. These grim ruins–these smashed, wrecked homesteads–were once, only a few months back, comfortable ‘homes’–contented and happy peasants loving every corner of them.
IS IT WORTH IT?
At this moment the man in front–your chum with whom you have shared company since enlistment–drops without a sound. One had never seen a man die before, perhaps. There is a momentary halt, and the Sergeant mutters, ‘Only a stray’. Again there comes the voice: ‘Is it worth it?’
This is a dangerous thought–it suggests ‘giving up’, it suggests something ‘un-British’. But the trench is knee-deep in mud and slush–the wind is biting cold–overcoat, tunic, shirt, are soaked through–very little to eat. The man carrying the rum was shot in the communication trench, and that warming spirit has helped to strengthen, and perhaps in some measure to disinfect, the water of the trench drain. Hands are frozen; eyes are craving for rest, and weary with watching. There is sandbagging to be done, parapets to be built; enemy artillery is active and accurate. ‘Is it worth it?’
A young lieutenant passes, new from Woolwich Royal Academy. He looks cold and ‘fed up’, probably thinking of that charming little enchantress safely ensconced in a warm drawing-room in the suburbs. As he passes he mutters half audibly, ‘Damn this war! Why the____did I join the Army?’ ‘Is it worth while?’ Then down the trench comes E___ , of L____, of______ ‘Varsity fame: ‘Hallo, old fellow! Awful bore, this war; what! I was in the middle of a volume entitled ‘War is the necessary Forerunner of Peace and Civilization in All Ages’ by Professor _____, that talked a lot of drivel about the ‘Purifying Fire’ of war etc. I’ll know what to do with that wretched collection of piffle when I get back, providing the ‘Purifying Fire’ lets me!’
Evidently, one thinks, both these chaps think it is NOT worth while! It is an awful business, this wretched devastation, this wholesale butchery. If one had lived in the old days, war was so different then! And one mentally pictures a sunlit valley, massed squadrons of emblazoned chivalry with lances couched; and behind, bowmen armed ‘cap-a-pie’ with short sword and buckler. Suddenly the bowmen, with a fierce and mighty cry, charge madly to the valley, and the arrows fly thick and fast! The imagination carries one away, it is so fine. How grand to have lived then, to have heard the stirring fanfare of the heralds’ trumpets, to have seen the pennons dancing in the sunlight!
So now we see where this is going. Jones’s burlesque of front-line states of mind lacks both the sharpness and the gentleness of his mature work, the densely allusive yet strangely immediate prose-poetry of In Parenthesis. And this essay approaches historical allusion from a very different angle–these illusions do not disillusion, but are meant to inspire.
And now the vision passes. Night falls, and another, and far different scene presents itself. The same valley lit by the pale moon; the groans of the wounded and dying break the silence.
‘Was it worth while for these men’,
five centuries, maybe, ago. By their fierce conflict, and their outpoured blood, they freed the land from the tyrant’s yoke!
Jones will never completely deny this connection–allusion, in his poetry, is not cleverness, but rather a search for roots and for common lifeblood. Here, Agincourt, the local battlefield of English national renown, is neither an inert ancient thing nor a soldier’s link to the continuous present of war, but more simply a point of patriotic appeal:
Worth while? Perchance Europe in thraldom still would be, but for that battle on that sunlit day. And but for the holding of that trench–but for the blood spilt–the ruined homes–the stricken hearts of thousands–but that one stood in that muddy trench in cold and misery–but that the young lieutenant, ‘so bored’, had left the vision in the drawing-room to cry her eyes out, perhaps–but that the ‘Varsity man had left his books–Europe to-day might lie prostrate ‘neath the iron heel of the Teuton terror. Yes, it was worth while, after all. One wakes from the dream with the sudden command of a cockney Sergeant: ‘Now then, you! relieve that man on sentry-go. Ye’re late orlready!’ And one goes to his post to watch for marauding Huns–goes with the smile of contentment. The trench is still cold and wet; eyes still ache, and hands freeze. But it’s worth it!’
I’ll let Jones’s biographer Thomas Dilworth get in the last comment:
Earnest, immature, lacking historical sophistication and political perspective, he writes as though trying to convince himself… he was young for his age and… believed ‘the old lie.’ But Private Jones is doing what soldiers have always done in time of war, anesthetising himself through euphemism, limited vocabulary, and comforting cliche…
Yes, but the young artist has decided to wield pen as well as pencil and brush, and that it itself will be a major step on the road to maturity. For now the prose is still heated and damp, and the eyes freeze in reading it… but for those enamored of history and the effort to write modern war, it’s worth it…