Probing Questions in Somerset

May 31st, 1914

…I spent Whitsun, 1914, in Somerset, with one of my new friends. From this distance, those few days seem singularly representative of the years to which they belonged. It was an enchanted moment of the spring… and for the brief hours of three days, the English climate itself abandoned its usual stolidity and blossomed into the deepest blue skies, flecked, like a vast blue sea, with specks of moving white. Most of the guests I had grown to know well in the antecedent months, with the exception of the Baron and Baroness von Kühlmann–he was Councilor at the German Embassy–and Captain Schubert, the Military Attaché. On Sunday morning, the two German men suggested that I should go for a walk with them… I recall the morning as if it were a week ago, the feel of the weather, and the scent of the mimosa, so rare a tree in England, which held golden clusters close against the walls of the old house…  Suddenly Kühlmann asked me:

‘How would your Regiment act if ordered by the Government to oppose the Ulster Volunteers?’

Though by nature as yet politically unsuspicious, since I believed that nations were governed by wise men, actuated by common sense, and that therefore there could be no likelihood of a war–yet this question rather startled me. In any case it was one that plainly should not have been put by a foreigner, more especially a foreign diplomat, to an Englishman, above all not to an English officer, however young and unimportant. Fortunately, I answered, almost before I had had time to think.

‘Naturally, we shall obey orders; that is what we are there for.’

But all the same, I reflected, how odd this is: because if I shared the prejudices of some of my fellow countrymen I should think the Germans were planning something… But that was impossible![1]

Thus we meet Osbert Sitwell, deep-dyed aristocrat and languid enfant terrible; onetime liberal, radical and conservative; naif and supreme aesthete, flâneur and Grenadier Guards officer, comically self-deprecating memoirist and monumental snob…  I hope I’ve gotten enough vaguery and French into that introduction. Although Osbert and his world are very difficult to believe in–especially when he is telling the tale–I would guess that enough familiarity with the Sitwells would end up making all of this flamboyant oddness and serial juxtaposition seem both comprehensible and of a piece, even a little predictable. Osbert, along with brother Sachaverell and sister Edith, was subjected to a truly strange English childhood. Their lordly father–an actual baronet as well as an antiquarian, writer, avid amateur gardener and, at least in Osbert’s telling, full-time crazy person–was at best an erratic and bizarre parent (not for nothing would he and his children all be habitually described as “eccentric,” with Edith acceding to both special and general expertise in the subject) and at worst domineering to the point of cruelty.[2] Sir George and Lady Ida surely intended to raise properly erudite and well-mannered aristocrats, but instead provided such a twisted and unhappy childhood from which all three fled as soon as they could (or as soon as they could figure out either how to escape while still living like lordlings or kick the habits of extravagance they had learned at daddy’s knee). At least the siblings stuck together.

Things had not been all that wonderful of late, chez Sitwell, regardless of whether we take this further Gallicism to refer to the crumbling and well-squatted-in castle in Tuscany (recently purchased by Sir George), the family estate at Renishaw (not recently purchased, but rather inhabited by Sitwells for several centuries, on land owned by the family for several more), Osbert’s standing at Wellington Barracks, or the component persons of the family themselves. Edith, already twenty-six, was only just escaping the unloving prison of her family home; Osbert was deeply in debt and under pressure from from his father to abandon the military career into which he had been pressured by the very same father only a few years previously; Sir George himself was lavishing time and money on architectural schemes and objecting vociferously to Osbert’s smaller debts, while Lady Ida had actually gone to jail (a very large scandal indeed, in 1913) as a result of financial improprieties.

This is really all too much for our declared format–although we will be meeting other aristocratic officers and other artsy types, Osbert doesn’t even fit either of those stereotypes particularly well. And although the Sitwells will shortly be almost an art world unto themselves, at this point Osbert was merely a feckless young Guards officer interested neither in his military career nor in sport or outdoor pursuits nor in actually writing or producing art. He had, however, recently taken a violent and extravagant liking to the see-and-be-seen world of Avant-garde art appreciation. Whenever he could get away from his duties (which, although they included occasionally actually guarding-and-changing before Buckingham palace and the already-traditional audience of gawking tourists, were quite light) he took in as much opera and ballet as possible. Both of these pursuits were at once high-society activities (although the middle classes were not excluded, as we will shortly see with Sassoon and Thomas, they were expensive enough to necessarily be associated with the upper classes) and on the artistic cutting edge. There was old, fusty music and new, thrilling music, but these forms themselves were alive with the major innovations at the dawn of modernism–going to the opera or, especially, the Ballets Russes, was fashionable, and there was nothing like the current sense of these art forms as hoary institutions dependent on government subsidy or the support of indulgent millionaires. Hence the attraction, as well as the debt.

But Osbert did, of course, become a writer. As he looked back on our “now,” though, he liked best to play the distracted aesthete-raconteur, as he does above. He writes himself as a man-boy too dreamily enchanted with a garden in spring to see the serpent’s head of German perfidy for what it really was… but he is well able to tell the tale afterwards. Taking time for this little vignette of springtime also shows up the rather sharp impresario’s instincts that lurk beneath his wry/droll/placid/self-satisfied demeanor: most writers, as we will see, will be content to set their last-glimpse-of-Arcadia vignettes in full summer, within weeks or days of the Guns of August. Sitwell wants us to see him as both shockingly disconnected from political and military reality (this is believable enough) and prescient: he’ll get the shadows up and looming by the end of May.

Enough Sitwell for now–his career in the Guards will shortly suffer interruption, and there will be plenty of time to discuss what seems to be another striking example of an indolent man-boy in uniform. He was twenty-one, and held a job which would, in the event of war, give him life and death command over a few dozen grown men, most older and wiser and all less gently bred than he.  Yet he was only in the army because his father had arranged his commission into the XIth Hussars, apparently without his consent (this seems impossible, but wealthy fathers wangled things those ways in those days [i.e. somewhat more more easily and much more openly but otherwise exactly as they do now]). Daddy had also helped arrange Osbert’s transfer from this stolid, horsey, countrified regiment into the urban/urbane Grenadier Guards–after probably having a role in the smoothing over of Osbert’s unusual and just-possibly-unapproved-and-court-martial-worthy flight to his side in Italy for a several months’ holiday in–and he was now about to “force” Osbert to come home and begin preparing a different career. How all this actually went down is unclear: some combination of purse strings, apron strings, and willful helplessness. Poet-and-witty-memoirist-in-embryo though he was, Oswald Sitwell was not yet an adult.

In any event, he would soon be summoned home to Renishaw, and events will then intervene, even as today’s ungentlemanly Germans have foreshadowed. But there will still be time for some opera.

References and Footnotes

  1. Sitwell, Great Morning, 292-3.
  2. Having now used "oddness," "truly strange," "eccentric," and "bizarre," I will try to let the facts--er, or at least the related experiences--speak for themselves.

A Buzzard’s Nest in Devon

May 30th, 1914

Buzzard, Common (very rare).  In wood near mansion at Spraecombe. Wood was sloping on side of hill, composed of ash, fir, oak, and beech. Nest a huge aerie where, keeper said, buzzards have nested for many years. Difficult climb, as nest was situated thus; [a sketch accompanies this] on horizontal branches. Three large eggs, set hard. One was slightly cracked. Another was scarcely marked at all. The old birds settled at some distance, and uttered plaintive crys: like a large kestrel. There are several pairs about here: they can often be seen soaring over the hills. The nest was I believe, several nests of different years.

Thus Henry Williamson recorded his great find in his “Eggs Collected” exercise book.  Today was the penultimate day of the first holiday of his working life, two weeks spent with an aunt in Devon, roaming far and wide, exploring the countryside and searching out bird’s nests. Young Henry was an avid naturalist–these being the days when naturalists were not limited to notebook and binocular, but might kill or take if they could–and an outdoorsman, one of many of our writers who delighted in twenty or thirty mile rambles.

Williamson, though, was an outdoorsman of a different class than Charles Sorley, Robert Graves, Siegfried Sassoon, or Edward Thomas (to say nothing of the pig-sticking and polo-playing Grenfell twins).  Of a different bent, too–he was the most absorbed with birds and beasts, a naturalist focused on the little things and less taken with the countryside as pastoral backdrop, romantic groundcloth, or historic soul of England–but I do mean “class” in the social sense. This being Edwardian/Georgian Britain, we must discuss class with more precision and less embarrassment than we do now, and Williamson belonged to one of the humbler strata of the many-layered middle. He had had a good education, but at a grammar school rather than a public school, and with the expectation, which he met, of a good job in London commerce afterwards. It was an old, public-school-styled grammar school–Williamson was “Captain of Harriers” rather than “Captain of the Cross-Country Team”–but it was not, at least for Henry, a springboard to the more literary or monied reaches of the upper middle classes. Several of our writers rode to the hounds and dined with the gentry, while Williamson carried letters from the owners of estates near London authorizing him to roam their property in search of birds, letters which he had obtained by writing for permission, after looking up the proper form for such a request. He was neither precocious nor a brilliant student, but a dreamy, earnest, very young young man. The careful records of his naturalist’s expeditions are the first serious indications of that dreamy earnestness tending toward an intense, even dogged, desire to write.

There will be a lot of this dreamy-young-man-wanders-and-scribbles business this summer.  Siegfried Sassoon was another such–significantly older, yet, with a private income that permitted idleness, nearly as emotionally youthful (and far more so, if we remember that the episode of the buzzard’s nest was a holiday treat–with the exceptions of Sundays and holidays Henry Williamson was up early and onto a commuter train for the City.)  There is another interesting parallel between the two: each chose to write detailed, multi-volume accounts of their lives, with only a name-change and some desultory fictionalizing as a scrim for autobiographical obsession. The books are very different, and Sassoon’s are treated–by him and others–as memoirs rather than novels, although the titular “George Sherston” never exactly existed (Sassoon will come to drop the pretense, which is discussed a bit here, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves).  And Williamson’s books are two or three steps closer to the traditional novel than Sassoon’s–something like Galsworthy or Trollope from a single salaryman’s perspective, with very little of Sassoon’s Proust-in-cricket-whites effect (or affect). The narrator is distinct from the protagonist, for one thing, and rides him rather heavily; and more details are changed. Yet the experiences of Phillip Maddison in How Dear Is Life (the fourth volume of the shelf-splitting A Chronicle of Ancient Sunlight) draw so directly and continuously from the experiences of Henry Williamson (and, as we will see, from the texts of his letters home) that we will pursue Henry and “Phillip” with the same “stereoscopic” focus that Sassoon uses to  bring together “George” and himself.  I imagine we’ll get around to the literary significance of these sorts of choices, but first things first.

Here, instead, are two good examples of the link between Henry and Phillip, and important markers of his class status (which, lest we forget, is another subject of this post, groundwork for the sorting and comprehending of many soldier-writers). Henry went to work as a clerk for the Sun Fire Insurance Company in 1913; Phillip, for the “Moon Fire Insurance Company.” Each enlisted in the Territorial Army in early 1914; Henry in the 5th battalion of the London Regiment (The London Rifle Brigade), Phillip in the 14th battalion of the same regiment, called “The London Highlanders” but taking on the historical experiences of the real 14th battalion, The London Scottish. This is not some fiendish code meant to baffle the reader or preserve the anonymity of those depicted.

Williamson seems to have enlisted out of some combination of an aspiration toward social acceptance (i.e. “peer pressure,”) a vague patriotism, and a desire for a new suit (the company paid a grant of £4 to volunteers, a considerable sum for a clerk earning around three pounds a month).  These reasons are elaborated in Phillip’s story.  His office nemesis, Downham (who makes hay with the naughty double-entendre of Phillip’s guileless answer as to his current hobbies–“I go after birds”) belongs to the battalion and suggests that Phillip is rather beneath the notice of such a body of men. Naturally, Phillip sets about getting himself accepted as a recruit.

So here we have our first amateur soldier, a pre-war territorial. But what’s that?

The British Army, an extremely conservative institution shortly to be shaken up, cross-bred, and multiplied manifold, had made one significant concession to European modernity in 1908 by reorganizing a disparate collection of amateur volunteer units and pseudo-militias into the more or less standardized units of the Territorial Army. These were intended to supplement the army and serve as home defense forces, similar to what we think of now as reserve or national guard troops. They were not liable for service overseas. (To make matters more complicated, “Guards” units are [theoretically elite] regular formations, existing local militia units were rolled into county regiments as Special Reserve Battalions, and the volunteer cavalry units became the Yeomanry.)

So a young man who liked the idea of serving his country in a very part-time capacity (short sessions of drill plus a two weeks’ summer camp) might join one of the territorial battalions of his local regiment and bask in some of the glory of military life without actually becoming a professional soldier. This was indeed a middle ground. Generally, professional rankers came from the working classes or the very poor, while many of their officers were, like the Grenfells, legitimate aristocrats. Most regiments had two Regular battalions, and higher numbers were allotted to the Special Reserve and Territorial battalions, so the 1st or 2nd Ox and Bucks or Royal Sussex (for example; I haven’t looked these up–we’ll come to the 2nd Royal Welch Fusiliers soon enough) might be made up of hard-bitten, highly trained soldiers who had served for years in the Empire, while the 4th might a unit of half-trained farmers and professional men.

London was, naturally, a glaring exception to this system. While there were regular units belonging to the capital–we will shortly meet London soldiers in the Honorable Artillery Company and the Grenadier Guards–the London Regiment was an enormous all-Territorial battalion of twenty-plus battalions, each numbered yet preserving its own local identity. So young Henry/Phillip was joining a military unit that had a little something about it of a sports club or gym or grown-man’s scouting organization (given the emphasis on boxing and bayonet-fighting, it’s only mostly silly to think of the after-work meetings as a sort of fight club for the original population of macho white collar workers) and yet also something about it of a gentleman’s club. The London Rifle Brigade even had a subscription that its members paid for the upkeep of facilities and provision of refreshments.

So there you have it.  A horsey military enthusiast might enlist in the Yeomanry (as Sassoon will), a public school boy might join the (also quite new) Officer’s Training Corps at his school (as Sorley and Leighton had), while a Londoner might sign up for a Territorial Battalion that roughly matched his location, affiliation, and class status. Professional officers were generally independently wealthy (like Sitwell and the Grenfells), while, for the moment, the common picture of a Regular soldier was of a down-and-outer “enlisted for drink” (we will have only Frank Richards to speak for this population). But things always change fastest for Tommy Atkins when the drums begin to roll.

Henry Williamson has found himself a good unit–the better sort of unit for a young clerk and a good way for an introvert to force himself along socially. With the birding-and-walking holiday all but over, he will be looking forward to his next break from the routine of work, namely the annual training camp. His half of the battalion expected to march out on August 8th.

And what are we to make of the “plaintive crys” of those parent-birds separated today, by that fascinated and unfeeling hand, from their too-delicately-sheltered and all-unworldly progeny?

Derby Day at Epsom

May 27th, 1914

In the Derby today it was the bay colt Durbar by three lengths for a purse of £6,450. The royal entry, Brakespear, finished out of the money, and not a single suffragette was done to death–all in all a highlight of the London season. Meanwhile, a few miles north in London, Siegfried Sassoon was unproductively mooning about, unaware that his own season wouldn’t begin the sprint for the homestretch for nearly a month.

Siegfried’s Exemption

Now, Siegfried is a lovely chap: well bred and shy, oldish-youngish, and, if you squeeze one eye or the other closed, either dashingly sporting or promisingly literary. If there were a figure at the very center of this project (there isn’t, damn it–it would spoil the choral effect impair the historical viability–but if there were) it would be Sassoon. But to discuss these things is to look forward–to the wartime career, to the form the writings will take–and that is against the rules of the game in the Century Back here and now, so I will banish the semi-spoilers to a footnote.[1] Suffice it to say that Sassoon will be appear frequently as we go in and out of the years and over the water to where the wild war will be.

The reason I mention this, here at the beginning, is that I don’t want to simply omit him in the early months of the war. Sassoon’s story should always be close at hand, and to keep it there we need to overcome (or subvert) a particular obstacle: he wrote few letters and did not start keeping a personal diary (that I can find) until 1915, so it is very hard to stick him onto individual days. His (later) memoirs give up a few dates, and we’ll talk about him when these roll around, as well, but more typically he will set a scene somewhere within a hazily-defined patch of time. More than once he is just wrong about when an event took place (that is, I am confident that, triangulating with outside evidence, I can tidy up his imprecise memories).

So Siegfried Sassoon will be allowed–not for the first time–to play by his own set of rules. I will, for him, break my rule, half-grudgingly, that prescribes to-the-day centennial posting, and post on a day that might not be exactly correct. I’m going to do it today, and again in a few weeks. And hopefully that will be it: vague dating during the war itself would be a (more) dishonorable compromise of my personal code. Siegfried Sassoon: he marched to his own drummer; then he hung up his boots and his sticks and became the Spectorish overseer of the (over) overdubbing and over-producing of his own back catalogue… so the least I can do is to give him his own time signature…

Today, then, we will introduce Sassoon and, perforce, begin the examination of his unusual memoirs. First, though, let us not shirk the ugly fact of compromise: why Derby Day? Because Siegfried Sassoon loved horses, and because he had a money problem.[2] To be precise, he had a horses + money problem, in that he could not afford to keep the four-horse establishment he had set up over the past fall and winter for a season of intense hunting alongside an old school friend. The significant event, then, was not the Derby itself but the major horse auction held by Tattersalls earlier that week. Sassoon attended the sale, dutifully and glumly, knowing that he was mixing for the last time with the members of the Atherstone Hunt and watching as several of the horses he had ridden there, including his own Crusader, were sold.

Siegfried’s Youth

“‘Once upon a time there was a boy who was born in September 1886 at a house in Kent where he has lived ever since. He had two brothers who were born in 1884 and 1887, but we all behaved as if we were the same age. After 1891 we did not see our father very often. Our mother was unhappy because he had gone away to live in London and would not speak to her any more.'”[3] Please note the the triple inverted commas–two from me and one from Sassoon himself. It’s an odd moment in his memoirs: he’s is telling us how he might have written his own story, as a six or seven year-old, had he not then been inclined to fanciful tales rather than autobiography. Yet it is typical in that it disturbs the air between writer and reader, making us aware not just of the tension between a life lived and the writing-up of that life’s history but of the way in which authorship is never a quiet presence in Sassoon’s song of himself, but rather a matter to be alternatively foregrounded or suppressed.

The mock fragment of autobiography does go quickly to the heart of the unhappiness in his otherwise idyllic country childhood. His father, scion of a wealthy Jewish merchant family with roots in British India and, before that, Baghdad, visited seldom and died some four years after the separation. Although there were several rich and influential Sassoon cousins, Siegfried and his brothers had little contact with his father’s family and inherited neither its wealth nor any remnant of its Jewish traditions or cosmopolitan connections. He grew up, instead, as a quintessential late Victorian young gentleman, rustic yet refined, sporting yet delicate.

His mother, who shut herself away during his father’s rare visits, was clearly the dominant influence in her son’s life, although he tends to write around this influence rather than directly about it. An artist, she was a member of the Thornycroft family, a clan which knew how to mold the stuff of the physical world: there were a number of significant Thornycroft sculptors, but also engineers and ship-building industrialists. Siegfried’s Thornycroft uncles were to play a more important role in his life than any Sassoon relations, and it was their money and connections that eventually smoothed the way for his entrance into the literary life that he had dreamed of–almost always idly–since early childhood. His mother’s many friends and relations in London meant that, however removed from society they were when at home (and Kent is not so far from the beaten path, after all), their lives were not really as circumscribed as those of the traditional decent-but dim, bluff-and-hardy rural gentry. A photograph exists of young Siegfried dressed as a mock-medieval page for an appearance at a press fair assisting his aunt,who was a prominent journalist, reviewer, and editor; when the Princess of Wales spoke to him, the poet-to-be was too dumbfounded to bow, and consequently had his hat knocked off by a brother. Some of his earliest poetry–precociously death-obsessed with all the aped solemnity of a pre-teen melancholic–was inspired by a visit to a London show of paintings by G.F. Watts, an old friend of his mother’s.

Still, his early years were spent first lolling about the house and garden. He was often ill–or sometimes ill and therefore thought to be sickly–and so his dreaminess was indulged. (An uncharitably contemporary take on the situation would be that he was allowed to become habitually lazy.) When these bouts were  behind him, though, he was reasonably active, and life was butterflies and horses, cricket and piano lessons, flower shows and, eventually, hunting. Treading lightly among the disturbing memories of his parents’ failed marriage, a fraught last visit to his dying father, and his brothers’ bewilderment at being packed off to attend his incomprehensible funeral (Siegfried was too distraught to attend), Sassoon generally describes his early life as one of gentle, nervous privilege. His mother encouraged his literary leanings, and seems to have always believed in his poetic destiny, yet he and his brothers were kept at home for longer than most boys of their class and found themselves far behind when they finally did begin formal education. While school–first a nearby preparatory school and then Marlborough (some years, of course, before Charles Sorley)–seems not to have been as alarming and traumatic as other literary memoirists suggest (hang on until July–Robert Graves will deliver, with mischievous panache), neither did he excel, enjoy himself, or find social success: “It is no use pretending that I was anything else than a dreaming and unpractical boy. Perhaps my environment made me sensitive, but there was an “unmanly” element in my nature which betrayed me into many blunders and secret humiliations. Somehow I could never acquire the knack of doing and saying the right thing: and my troubles were multiplied by an easily exited and emotional temperament.”[4] Strangely, though, his memoirs are relatively free of really nasty or traumatic experiences. Dreamy, impractical–sure, fine. But he did make friends, and his brothers were often at school with him, and he was reasonably good at games. His blunders seem minor: he has a few anecdotes in which he mistakes a person’s identity or status or accidentally reveals his own ignorance, but so have we all. He tells us that he got lost and arrived late to his very first morning class at Marlborough–the new boy was admonished and snickered at–and for years afterward relived this embarrassment in dreams. But this is garden-variety schoolboy shame, hardly top-drawer trauma. School may have been awkward, but it wasn’t really unpleasant, in his retelling.[5]

At home, Siegfried was well-loved and lavishly provided for. The house was full of books, and he read Tennyson and Shelley, all the classic Victorian boy’s adventure books and a smattering of the more grown-up novels. Later, of course, he fell in with William Morris and the dreamy poetry that bobbed harmlessly along in the wake of the Pre-Raphaelite movement (the house, too, was decorated with reproductions of pre-Raphaelite paintings). This was an environment perfectly suited to the growth and development of a young aesthete, a solitary soul and a budding poet. But Siegfried was slow to blossom: he never finished his third term at Marlborough, barely crammed his way into Cambridge, and made little mark there. He has very little indeed to say about Cambridge: he was pleased to let his wayward mind wander through courses in law and history, but since the poetical pores of his brain were so resistant to dates and facts, he went down without taking a degree. University flies by in fewer pages than it takes to describe the physical appearance of a book or the emotions of a single horse race.

Despite the few years of pseudo-independence at Cambridge, Sassoon was, in 1913, a man of twenty-seven still living in his mother’s world. He was back at home in Kent, in his old room, and he read, idled, and wrote, self-publishing a few slim volumes of ornate, sensual, and deeply unoriginal verses.  But this is only half the story, as he tells it. This was the indoor world, and there was another Sassoon, the outdoor gentleman who played golf and cricket was an accomplished rider.

The last two pursuits were learned under the tutelage of the family’s coachman-cum-groom, Tom Richardson. It’s hard not to engage the “father figure” cliche, here. Siegfried’s father was absent, then he died; Richardson, stepping up in the role of the devoted family servant, made sure that appropriate ponies and horses were purchased, and then he taught the boy to ride. He also instructed him in cricket (there was a tutor in the mix as well), and, if Englishman and Americans are not by the width of a bat and the bounce of a ball divided, then even the faintest glimmer of the image of a boy on a lawn of a summer’s afternoon, throwing and catching with an idealized older man will not fail to bring a tear to the eye… and Richardson and the young master played village cricket together, too, side by side. But class is class, and grooms are not fathers. Richardson taught young Sassoon until he rode well enough to follow the hunt. But then, of course, he rode alongside not as fellow but as servant and assistant, a beloved trainer/caddy/teacher whose place was a stride behind.

So Richardson is to be thanked, and allowed, for the moment, to fade from the story. But this countryman of the servant classes was a much more successful teacher than the haphazard assemblage of tutors and masters that had seen Indoor Siegfried through his failed academic career. Sassoon grew into the country gentleman’s role and became a good enough cricketer to play alongside professionals with a local amateur club (the Bluemantles), a good enough rider to enter some of the point-to-point (i.e. cross-country, with jumping) races that were highlights of the local hunting calendar–a few he even won. So it wasn’t all loneliness and poetry and humiliation: there were long, satisfying days of outdoor sport, and there were triumphs.

In his poetic inclinations, in his country life indoor and out, even in his many Thornycroft family connections, Sassoon felt himself to be deeply (we would add “traditionally”) English. His poems were about English flowers (and English-inflected death), his drawings were of hop-kilns, and his wardrobe included the red coat of the fox hunter, the white flannels of the cricketer, and, by the time of our next entry, a glossy top hat as well. He loved horses and he loved the open countryside,[6] and despite its literary lure he had so far avoided spending more than the odd few days in London. This was an English country gentleman, through and through, sporting and soft-spoken, gently bred. His unusual name had become little more than a source of slight annoyance, since to new acquaintances it connoted a wealth and exoticism in which he did not share.[7]

Siegfried’s Bifocals

Since we are so dependent upon Sassoon’s memoirs–happily dependent, as they make for fascinating reading–we had best come face to face (to face) with the strangest thing about them. The first three volumes are fictionalized in an unusual way: the memoirs belong to”George Sherston,” a young gentleman of means from Kent whose experiences are more or less identical to those of Siegfried Sassoon. School, hunting, racing–under the tutelage of a groom diminutivized as “Tom Dixon”–all of this is drawn directly from his life. Real people can be easily recognized and the hunts and, later, the war experiences, precisely dated. And yet: George Sherston is an orphan and an only child. Sassoon simply cleared out the family members he would rather not talk about, replacing them wholesale with a dotty, harmless, demi-Dickensian “Aunt Evelyn.” Odder still, he often delves into “Sherston’s” mental and emotional life, which seems to be Sassoon’s, except for the fact that this inner life includes no poetic calling, no writing or literary ambitions–which is to say most of what occupied Sassoon’s actual mind.

Then, later, he wrote three more volumes of memoirs, in which appears in propria persona, mothered and brothered and mooning after the stars. These volumes spend much more time on his childhood and touch only very lightly on the hunting and riding which figure so prominently in the Sherston memoirs: the first Sherston volume is called Memoirs of a Fox Hunting Man, the second Sassoon volume is The Weald of Youth.

And so we get two Sassoons for the price of one, more than the sum of his parts, a memoirist confronting the mirror of the past yet also sketching what he sees over his shoulder, doubly-reflected and distorted in a cloudy cheval glass over by the door. The “dreaming and unpractical boy” mentioned above is, technically, Sherston, while the boy born “once upon a time” was Sassoon. Yet they are one and the same.

Fussell described this as “binary vision,” while Sassoon’s own favorite metaphor was the stereoscope. It makes it rather interesting to get many scenes twice over, and yet never once with that pretense of artless “historical” description that characterizes so many other memoirs. Once you’ve fictionalized your life, a second rumination can’t really pretend to be straight personal history either, and Sassoon doesn’t make this claim. More than most authors, even, he is committed to bending the story of his youth and young-manhood onto a frame, the story of innocence seen from a mature distance. His life is eventful enough, as we will see, and while its history will always be fraught–tangled, screened, uncertain–the high literary quality of his writing and its unusual double form make the memoirs well worth extended consideration. So Siegfried Sassoon will become for us the writer who stands not for the problem of accurately representing experience but rather for the artistic process of conscious memory and its transmutation into literature. His use of variations on the “I was two different people/I had a different personality with every friend” theme is so persistent that it goes to the heart not just of Sassoon the writer but Sassoon the man. Throughout his youth and through our period he will experience an intense shifting of self, as he finds himself playing different roles–and we haven’t even gotten to the war, or dealt much with religion or sexuality. And yet: we all change our self-presentation, playing up or down different aspects of her personality to different people. Sassoon was not unique, although perhaps he did this more than most–or is it only that he was more intensely sensitive, more intensely self-aware (self-obsessed?) than the rest of us. All this should get more extended discussion once we’ve had occasion to cite the  memoirs at least a few times, and get a feel for them.

For now, then, only a note that today, a century back, George/Siegfried spent one more aimless day in London, his hunting life on hiatus, everything else enveloped in a pleasant summery cloud of listless ennui: “I didn’t do much, but I was trying my best to be helpful, dawdling about in the stables and the sale yard…”[8]

But looking back, we can mark the sale of the Atherstone horses as the end of an era, and not only for the aimless young man. Crusader was bought by a cavalry officer, who, like peacetime cavalry officers everywhere, had ample free time and an interest in equestrian sports. But, as both memoirist/narrators can’t resist mentioning (breaking, as I am doing here, the hazy heat of the Edwardian Summer with a rumbling foreshadow of thunder,) the cavalry officer was Belgian, and as such will have neither the time nor the place to retrain Crusader as a show-jumper, after all.



References and Footnotes

  1. So, yes, Siegfried Sassoon will become the second-most-iconic war poet (albeit by six or eight lengths) with an interesting war record to boot. But I want to work with his memoirs, which, compared to the splash made by the man and his most famous anti-war war poems, are much less central to (any of the) received narratives of the war. The memoirs are excellent for two reasons (although not so great from the point of view of calendrical datability or trotting literarily in harness with history, but that complaint will be lodged above). First, they are ruminative and lovely. This is not the first time I will reach for the Proust comparison (nor will it be the last), but I do so because it is really almost appropriate. The books are a long meditation on the past, on the author's memory of youth and experience--and they are so very well written. I'm not claiming any parity of eminence. (Yes, alas: it's not cricket, generally, to just up and admit that the writers I dote on here might not be Great Writers, but rather Very Good Minor Writers, of or pertaining to the Great War. Usually I will protest, as both a loyal disciple/true believer and the dutifully aggressive state-appointed-counsel for the disregarded and underprivileged defense.) What I want the comparison to do is to express that, for the group of writers that will be assembled here, Sassoon is the one who did the thing they do best, most, and most intensely. His memoirs are at the heart of the somewhat traditionalist English way of writing the war in retrospect in much the same way that--however much less artistically innovative or mind-blowingly elaborate--Proust spins the heart-strings of modern/modernist literary memory. Second, his work presents a unique opportunity to dig deeply into the problem of the historical moment's mediation through retrospective memory. Reading a letter or a diary entry scrawled in a trench by candlelight can induce us to forget that even the most immediate written account is retrospective; Sassoon's six volumes of memoirs often comment on the fact of retrospection, effectively pulling back to analyze, to chat with the reader about how the past is being framed (or re-touched, or re-mastered, or digitally re-colored--a fist-full of workable metaphors, here), and so we are never allowed to forget that writer and subject are different people, separated by time lost and imperfectly regained. This effect is highlighted, or perhaps side-lighted, by both Sassoon's commitment to "binary" or "stereoscopic" vision (which I will discuss in the third section of the main text of this post) and his decision to fictionalize the first of two accounts he gives of his life. So, yeah. Siegfried is integral and uniquely rewarding and well worth reading carefully and often... and he is super-problematic from the point of view of the century-lived conceit: we're always looking back, alongside the later Siegfried, from an intermediate vantage point, and it's not always clear who we're looking at.
  2. His income--entirely from family investments--was apparently a little under 600 pounds. Comparing value over time is a tricky business, but, according to these folks, the modern day equivalent is at least 50,000 pounds in real value, but carrying economic power and prestige (what termini technici!) several times greater. He was comfortably idle, in other words, by any reasonable standard, especially when living and eating with his mother in Kent. But London and horses and various extravagances were too much...
  3. The Old Century and Seven More Years (hereafter OC), 14-15.
  4. The Complete Memoirs of George Sherston, (hereafter CM) 17 (Chapter I of Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man [hereafter FHM]).
  5. It's possible, of course, to read the "secret humiliations" as an allusion to sex, but there is no good reason to do so. Sassoon gives absolutely no indication that this was so: it's a subject about which he is totally reticent in all his memoirs. The fact that he was attracted to men--that he was, for a time at least, a "self-confessed homosexual"--might have made it more difficult to discuss schoolboy romances, however innocent. There are fast male friendships, some distracted dancing with a young lady at a ball... and that's about it. We will see the rampantly heterosexual Graves courting scandal by proclaiming the widespread homosexual tendencies of English schoolboys, but Sassoon's gaze is almost completely inward. No: the "humiliations" are social, or social-intellectual; the fact that he was attracted to men less important than the fact that he generally preferred to be alone.
  6. In his memoirs he also laments the automobile; while this may be retrojection, his disinclination toward machinery seems to have been lifelong. Both of his brothers followed their uncles into professional engineering; only Siegfried hewed strictly to the pastoral.
  7. The surname was the main trouble, but "Siegfried," which didn't help matters, was apparently of middlebrow rather than exotic derivation as well. Mom loved her Wagner.
  8. WY, 213.

Rhapsodizing to Plymouth

Hotel McAlpin
Greeley Square
New York City
24 May [1914]

Dear Eddie,

I got hundreds & hundreds of lovely letters yesterday, & most of them from you.  Yours were all very nice to read… I grew green with envy at your account of L. Abercrombie’s Saturday to Wednesday. Even the best of the people in Ryton–nay, Dymock itself–must have seemed to him a little tame after that. Raymond Buildings must be littered with dropped smocks. May I add a well-worn paréo to the heap on Friday week–a day or two after you get this? I’ve just cabled to you to find out if you will be in London then. For the agony of doubt conquered my deep & secret desire to wander in on you, all unexpected, one lovely June morning. I am a romantic at heart: but the practical lies deeper…

Thus Rupert Brooke to Eddie Marsh, his good friend, frequent host, social enabler, Georgian collaborator, and idolizer. The playful, slightly naughty tone is characteristic of the correspondence, as is the semi-veiled reference to extra-literary hijinks. I, for one, wish I knew just what had been going on at Lascelles Abercrombie’s… but onward. To the practical, and the romantic, and the lovingly satirical.

Actually, Brooke is a little overwhelming, and will figure here again soon, so perhaps we’ll just have a quick biographical sketch to start us off and then whisk ourselves away on a cloud of his delicious, air-popped verbiage.

Let’s see: shy, but popular; prone to melancholy, yet a steadily productive writer; a keen scholar with the gift of making light verse and witty repartee seem effortless; good at pretty much everything, loved by pretty much everyone, yet leaving a trail of former friends, cut loose and often much the worse for wear, in his wake.

The son of a Rugby master, Brooke had been a successful schoolboy (house colors in cricket and rugby, cadet corps, fast friends, scholarly prizes) but, at Cambridge, he had committed himself to the identity (and lifestyle) of the literary aesthete. He wrote, but he also began to be famous for being handsome and daring and fabulous. (It is, for instance, incumbent upon anyone mentioning “Rupert Brooke” and “Cambridge” in “print” to note that he once went skinny-dipping with Virginia Stephen.) He was called “young Apollo” and he found himself amidst a clutch of “apostles” or “neo-Pagans.” Had this been only a half-century back he would not have escaped being described as poetry’s “rock star”–the divine or celestial comparisons were mandatory.

A rock star, though, poised to hit that queasy moment of breakout from indie renown to widespread fame, a turbulent passage which leaves early fans and roadies from back in the aerostar days feeling stranded on a far shore, bitterly clutching that first EP and complaining of selling-out and the forgetting of those who knew him best when. Although Brooke continued his scholarly work (Elizabethan drama) he had early established himself as a new poetic voice–not radical, but frank enough to cause mild scandal and a vociferous admixture of disapproval to the general he acknowledgment of his skill. By 1912, the year he turned twenty-five, he could be accounted an early associate of the Bloomsbury Group, was probably the most influential and best-regarded member of the newly christened Georgian Poets, and was also, amazingly, more loved than resented by the rustic and generally much-less-stylish Dymock poets, with whom he also consorted. From here the leap began.

The lives of those who are strikingly beautiful (and talented and, at least in the circles in which they move, famous) are different than ours, and Brooke must have learned early how to deflect and absorb the adoration of others so as to convert it into the sort of friendship he could rely on (or, more cynically, use). This seems to be the gist of his close relationship with Eddie Marsh. Yet not every relationship was so converted. We would call Rupert Brooke bisexual (we do call him bisexual, that is, although the term was not used in his time) since he was clearly attracted to both sexes, men more consistently, for most of his life, than women (although poetic idiom often, with writers of his vintage, contributed, as we will see, rather more to the idealization of the former than the latter). Sexual activity, whatever its relevance to the writing, can be hard to discern through the coy or obfuscating language of century-old letters, even when they were not destroyed or bowdlerized by later editors determined to repress any mention of homosexuality (not to mention his none-too-conservative political and religious ideas).[1] Yet it’s clear that Brooke’s attractions to other school boys were intense (although this can be said of many Public School contemporaries who were committed heterosexuals as adults) and sexual (this too). Several schoolboy crushes turned physical, and there was true schoolboy love, and–as a letter to James Strachey not published until 1998 makes quite clear–sex.[2] It is difficult to tell, though, if Brooke merely became attracted to women as well as he grew older (and came into contact with women, a notable obstacle to even the most ruggedly heterosexual intentions of Public School boys), if he found himself becoming less sexually interested in men, or if he pressured himself to seek out the socially permissible sort of relationship and suppress the problematic and forbidden desires. (If he did, he did so without anger or hypocrisy, since Marsh was not his only close gay friend during the years that he carried on public flirtations–and sexual relationships–with women.) Yet the last seems most probable, and so we enlightened moderns are in the uncomfortable position of having to decide whether we should in part forgive him for the wretchedly callous treatment of a spurned lover because we guess that his self-loathing was rooted in his refusal to accept a homosexuality that he could not straightforwardly acknowledge without devastating consequences for his career and public life?

Bad stuff. It seems, to say the least, that by 1912 Brooke was focusing his sexual energies in a heterosexual direction. A breakdown of sorts followed the collapse of an affair with Katherine Cox, and the recovery involved both a year-long world tour, en route, a relationship with a Tahitian woman that seems to have been deeply satisfying, if extremely temporary.

Brooke is fascinating, and he would be maddening if all the coyness were his fault. But of course it’s not. Let’s continue with the homeward-looking letter from America, which gives not only a clear sense of how much Brooke was looking forward to a return to England but shows how well he could write about England, and how deftly he combined lyrical overdrive and florid sentimentality with gentle self-mockery and semi-pastiche.[3]

…I sail from New York on May 29th, and reach Plymouth–oh blessed name, oh loveliness! Plymouth–was there ever so sweet and droll a sound? Drake’s Plymouth, English Western Plymouth, city where men speak softly, and things are sold for shillings, not for dollars; and there is love, and beauty, and old houses; and beyond which there are little fields, very green, bounded by small piled walls of stone; and behind them–I know it–the brown and black, splintered, haunted moor. By that the train shall go up; by Dartmouth, where my brother was I will make a litany; by Torquay, where Verrall stayed; and by Paignton, where I have walked in the rain; past Ilsington, where John Ford was born, and Appledore, in the inn of which I wrote a poem against a commercial traveller; by Dawlish, of which John Keats sang; within sight of Widdicombe, where old Uncle Tom Cobley rode a mare; not a dozen miles from John Galsworthy at Manaton; within sight almost of that hill at Drewsteignton on which I lay out all one September night, crying–and to Exeter, and to Ottery St. Mary where Coleridge sojourned; and across Wiltshire, where men built and sang many centuries before the Aquila. Oh noble train, oh glorious and forthright and English train! I will look round me at the English faces, and out at the English fields, and I will pray—-reach Plymouth, as I was saying when I was interrupted, on Friday, June 5th.”

Rupert comin’!

References and Footnotes

  1. I've discussed elsewhere that speculating on past acts and then subjecting them to our sexual typologies is not too useful, but on the subject of Brooke's sexual identity, with more than merely sexual spoilers, see Keith Hale, e.g. here.
  2. See Keith Hale, Friends and Apostles, 252. A fascinating letter to read--a document of 1912 (describing an earlier encounter) yet giving a graphic account that seems to belong to the Clintonian/Prince Charlesian rather than the Edwardian world. It's a good way to get a sterescopic headache without any of Sassoon's literary stylings, but yes, Virginia, even back then boys did indeed "copulate with" each other (the inverted commas are Rupert's, although he was not so Latinate earlier in the account). In any event, "There was a dreadful mess in the bed." But enough prurience.
  3. A note on my sources seems appropriate here. The first quoted section is taken from his published letters; the section below from a memoir by Eddie Marsh--see page 143 here, but don't click if you don't want foresight into the century-back future--which seems to quote a different section of the same letter. But I could be wrong about that: it may be a different letter, omitted from the original Collected Letters and written earlier the same week. I doubt that Marsh is freely paraphrasing. I won't go into any more detail on that textual question here, for reasons theoretical but also practical: I haven't (yet) done enough reading on Brooke to fairly present his poetry or untangle his sexual identity. I don't think we need to, really: everyone found him attractive, and there was no loud scandal about his activities at the time, so we all stand in admiration of the golden god.

Aftershocks from the City

May 20, 1914

Chaplin, Milne, Grenfell & Co., outside brokers, announce that Arthur Grenfell ceased to be a Director of their company from Feb. 17 last.

This has given publicity to the fact that Mr. Grenfell was the outside operator whose heavy commitments in Canadian securities created so much uneasiness on the Stock Exchange a fortnight ago.[1]

So it goes with the stock exchange. The firm insisted (at least for a while) that they could contain the damage wrought by Mr. Grenfell’s losses, but these were already sufficient to wipe out “every penny” of the fortunes of his two youngest brothers.  Rivy, the younger of these by some minutes and a junior partner in the firm, was also responsible for the debacle: after Arthur was injured in a riding accident, he “had to deal on his own initiative with matters he probably never understood, for his business training had always been sketchy and inadequate.”

This was no renegade trader or hotshot proto-quant, then, but an aristocratic dabbler to the manor born, at Eton undereducated, and head-over-keel into the treacherous shoal-waters of financial speculation sailed… plus ca change?  Only a troubled firm and a tremor in the market, but for Francis Octavius Grenfell and Riversdale Nonus Grenfell this was “the true tragedy of their lives,” and it “meant that Rivy was a broken man in his profession, and that Francis must give up most of his ambitions.” It would be tiresome and otiose to point out that, you know, nobody died, or that the two young men had neither dependents nor future-destroying debt, or that they did have plenty of wealthy friends and myriad ways to soldier on. This not the last time that we will pine for a cutting aside from an onlooking cockney-in-the-street about the troubles of the upper classes (and I haven’t even gotten to the ponies!)

Francis’s ambitions, by the by, were military. When the inseparable twins, orphans and heirs to a dwindled portion of fortune, had come of age, the duo had chosen to support each other by separating: Francis would go off to win fame in the army and Rivy to renewed fortune in the City. Like any young officer, Francis was dreaming of the VC from the get-go, but he had lately begun to work steadily toward peacetime advancement, aiming for the Staff. This sort of career, in the pre-war Army, required money (as well as pedigree and some hard work). Although they had known of the financial disaster for months, today’s publicity surely brought it home, and it would be unfair not to realize that, through no tremendously wicked flaws of their own, the twins were at a loss indeed.

It made one’s heart ache to seem them, stunned, puzzled, yet struggling to keep a brave front, and clamouring to take other people’s loads on their backs. Uncomplainingly they played what they decided was their last game of polo, and sold their ponies… They neither broke nor bent under calamity, but simply stood still and wondered… they grieved about everybody’s loss more than their own.[2]

As friends and family tried to rescue something of the twins’ fortune later in the summer, it does not quite break our century-back-so-no-flash-forwarding rule (since the war, and thus August, is the subject presumptive of the whole project, and May is essentially prequel) to note how the financial disaster gave the twins a head start on the world crisis. Most businessmen will be slower off the mark in August than either their employees or their idle friends–but not Rivy.

To most of us the dividing line between the old and the news world was drawn in the first week of August 1914.  But for the Twins it came earlier. Three months before the cataclysm of the nations they felt their own foundations crumbling…

…What to most people was like the drawing in of a dark curtain was to the Twins an opening of barred doors into daylight. For Francis the career which seemed at an end was to be resumed upon an august stage, and for Rivy the chance had come to redeem private failure in public service.”[3]

The precipitous fall from grace makes a nice chapter-closer for the biographer, and it is no less a boon to a writer trying to trot out a few members of a vast ensemble cast for a curtain-raiser before the Great August Frenetic.

And now for a defense-of-tone. First, I want to note that the above-quoted judgment on Rivy’s competence is from that sympathetic biographer (and family friend) and, second, that the twins themselves lamented how little they had learnt at Eton. Yet it still may feel as if I am shooting fish in a barrel here, taking advantage of a century’s worth of social change to take the piss out of a pair of upper class twits. I don’t mean to do this–or not too much.

They seem to have had ingenuous, winning personalities, the sort of golden boys who are kind and oblivious and charm their way into being let off the hook (as we might see it) for just how much they are oblivious about–and perhaps this charm has staying power, a century on. It says as much about them and the assumptions of their times that their biographer sees no need to excise the racist and anti-semitic slurs from their letters as it does that they tossed such words around so casually–then again, the biographer also chose to gratuitously heap blame on “The Jew” even in his fiction. (Writing frequently of “jewboys” or “the nosy brigade,” as Francis and Rivy do, reveals a basic prejudice that should not be simply excused by “their times” or because it was unreflective and not particularly rancid or virulent. Numerous contemporaries had figured out that knee-jerk anti-semitism was embarrassingly stupid, but not Francis and Rivy. They, like too many Great War soldiers, also used the paramount figure of hate speech to refer to people of color. This word was less poisonous in British usage than it is and was in an American context, but it was still ugly and derogatory, and thus an example, at the very least, of limited empathy for people different from themselves.)

They seem like gangly, foolish adolescents–Francis cramming for exams but pursuing an army career that left long stretches of time free for hunting, racing, and polo, Rivy in over his head like a gambling-addicted university boy–and yet they were thirty-three. There is beginning to be a pattern of striking immaturity, which will be echoed in future posts on Sitwell, Sassoon, and Williamson. I hope that I’m not already falling victim to the most basic historiographical distortion of reading their youth through the prism of the war (for all this must stop, come August!) or falling into the easy stereotyping of all the scholarly fellows as prematurely wise and all the jocks idiots. It is surely more complicated than that… and we will surely have time to ponder, for youth is yet young.

In any event, the twins are fascinating historical specimens, and something of a fudge to our ground-rules here, in that they were hardly writers (although many letters survive). Let us nevertheless treat them as we do authors, weighing their words and deeds and acknowledging that while we value what we read we find in the men themselves despicable things and admirable things all in a hopeless muddle.  There is much to loathe or scoff at in what they said and did–to say nothing of what we choose to have them represent–but there are things to respect as well. So let’s trot out some of the admirable, which we will see more of shortly.

For one thing, they took heroism seriously, and did not flinch when “service” suddenly meant less polo and more going foremost into mortal danger. All this ran in the family, along with a level of achievement that can’t be absolutely and completely attributed to privilege: forebears had taken Spanish flagships, lost legs at Waterloo, possibly traded buffets with Cromwell, and presumably sucker-punched Saxons at Hastings; their father’s brother (and their guardian, for they were orphaned in their teens) was a field marshal and their mother’s brother (also a Grenfell–their parents were cousins) was an admiral, “a British sailor after the eighteenth-century pattern;” one elder brother “fell gloriously in the charge of the 21st Lancers at Omdurman” and, as careful contemplation of their middle names will reveal (and their four older sisters are not, of course, enumerated!) their mother was both heroic and enormously accomplished, within the sphere permitted her.  Their cousin Julian will be sending along his first letter next month.

But let us get back to that eighteenth-centuryish uncle and gloriously fallen brother for a moment.  The twins are a bit older than most of our subjects, and, while as young men they seem unusually youthful, as social or historical specimens they are entirely too old. It is as if they belonged to the heyday of Victorian imperialism and not its Edwardian or Georgian after-image. After all, if their sailor uncle–whose stories included knocking down a cockney Turk in a Constantinople boxing match and befriending a missionary-munching island chieftain–seems like a character out of Defoe or Sterne or Voltaire (this is a stretch!) then they themselves should be thrown back as far as Thackeray. They were only in their early thirties, but both of their parents were born before Dickens had written a novel–these were belated Victorian chaps indeed. That an elder brother died in an actual cavalry charge with an actual lance[4] in a famous colonial battle bears witness to their generational age, and that he “fell gloriously” bears witness to how completely they belonged to the chivalric prewar worldview, the outlook and word-hoard that saw more continuity with the Middle Ages than the Age of Reason, that brought up Lancers before Maxim guns.[5]

So naturally they got a head start on the cataclysm, since they were too old-fashioned and Victorian for the new world, even before its bloody dawn. These are young men who were/would become junior officers, yet they belonged more to the cohort of the battalion, rather than platoon, commanders (four of their brothers would hold the rank of lieutenant-colonel or higher), the generation of fusty scribblers who propagandized and eulogized, not the poets would express misery and rage. There is a great deal to loathe about this world, and it will come in for a great deal of loathing. And yet… I’m not sure what it means to go to a famous old school but only seem to care about games and hounds, to kick around for fifteen years of early adulthood achieving distinction only as amateur athletes… and then go willingly to war. Perhaps they really did “learn” the “gift of leadership” at Eton, or, perhaps, like Sarpedon and Glaukos, they understood without thinking what the price of their lofty social position should be, and that it was bad form to hesitate when the bill came due. We will see them in action soon enough.

References and Footnotes

  2. I am so ashamed of the Seinfeldian allusion to their internal emigration from the pony-owning to the non-pony owning classes that I am placing it here. See below for the actual reference.
  3. Buchan, John. Francis and Riversdale Grenfell,  182-4.
  4. Well, he may not have carried a lance, as officers often took pride in not carrying the weapons assigned to their men, but lances were carried.
  5. See the discussion of Paul Fussell's influence here and elsewhere.

Pondering Poetry in Hampshire

May 19th, 1914

I wonder whether you could imagine me taking to verse. If you can I might get over the feeling that it is impossible–which at once obliges your good nature to say ‘I can.’ In any case I must have my ‘writer’s melancholy’ though I can quite agree with you that I might spare some of it to the deficient. On the other hand even with registered post, telegraph &c & all modern conveniences I doubt if I could transmit it.[1]

This Edward Thomas ventured to write today, a century back, in a letter to a new American friend. It was no small question.

Thomas is not writing as a naturally diffident Englishman but rather as an intensely self-critical Englishman lightly mocking his own diffidence. He had been a strenuously productive prose writer for years, working long hours as a journalist, essayist, travel writer and absurdly prolific reviewer, all in order to support his family. But the endless low-paying work–some of it very good and some of it amounting, at least in Thomas’s own estimation, to the merest hackery–had meant that the projects he really cared about were always compromised or pushed aside. He had become a formidable critic of poetry, was a central advocate of the new Georgian Poetry movement, and was intimate with the “Dymock Poets” now assembling in Gloucestershire… yet up until now he had suppressed or resisted the desire to write verse of his own.[2] He had been discussing theories of poetry, too, with that American poet-friend and was about to review his new collection–a book called North of Boston. To voice his tentative ambitions in this way took courage.

Thomas had more than his share of troubles. Money was always tight, a daily preoccupation. He and his wife Helen had married secretly when he was an undergraduate at college and she was pregnant with the first of their three children. They had scraped through real poverty for many years, and their current modest sufficiency in a country cottage depended entirely on Edward’s ability to find freelance work or sell book ideas, and then to produce–there was neither a steady salary nor family money. The marriage had gone through tumultuous ups and downs, preserved by Helen’s enormous resilience, her love for Edward, and his gnarled feelings for her of love and repulsion, guilt and gratefulness.

Post hoc diagnoses are always a mug’s game, but Thomas was surely deeply depressive, his “neurasthenia” bearing significant similarities to what we would quietly assume to be a bipolar disorder. There were periods of near-catatonic inactivity, modes of intense irritability, and days when Thomas was high-spirited and highly productive. Perhaps unusually, he recognized both the depths of his affliction and the failure of prescribed diets or exercise programs or forced changes of outlook to control it (there were, of course, no effective pharmaceutical remedies), and he suspected, too, that his creativity was linked to his depression.

Thomas could joke about his “writer’s melancholy” and see it as fuel for his bright-burning creative furnace, but if to write was to live and to live to write, both were bitter labor. A letter and a short story preserve two brushes with suicidal intent that went as far, at least, as procuring the means.

It’s impossible not to conclude that the misery in his and Helen’s marriage was his own, projected outward to rebound punishingly between the walls of the several humble-to-squalid houses they had lived in. From time to time he had left–to walk, to write, to do both by producing one of his well-regarded travel books about the English countryside. He always came back, guilt-stricken and often depressed and exhausted, and Helen, alone in the meantime with small children and not enough money, always took him back. She was even welcoming to his writer-friends, even when these were near-drifters, belligerent oddballs, or women plainly in love with him. There are different sorts of Veras, saving different sorts of writers.

I’ve returned several times already to the subject of maturity, or immaturity, in these young writers. It’s hard to get a fix, sometimes, on dreamy/serious, naive/responsible ambitious-but-innocent man-children. Not so Edward Thomas, who was already far along the path of experience. “Mature” is the wrong ascription, since he had none of the steadiness that implies, no sense of contentment deriving from battles resolved–self-knowledge, perhaps, but without any self-possession deriving from it. Not mature. Still in ferment, but experienced, and weary. He seems much older than his thirty-six years, his life lengthened by suffering. He had already published far more than many productive writers do in a full career, he was a father and a husband and, though wary of cliché, a veteran of many skirmishes in literary circles and publisher’s offices, to say nothing of his battles with his own mental demons.

But he had notebooks full of observations and jottings and ideas about verse, and today he made the first explicit reference to the enormous, pent-up, unrisked, unrealized, untried desire to write poetry. So there it is again: is it the grittiest, most died-in-the-wool Experience or the fleeciest Innocence to be “right at that moment… writing as good a poetry as anybody alive but in prose form where it didnt declare itself and gain him recognition”?[3]

Lucky in his friends, Thomas received in answer to today’s letter the prompt encouragement of his new friend, Frost.  Within a few months he was writing the fully-formed, authoritative, precise verse of a poet in his… I suppose you’d call it maturity.

References and Footnotes

  1. Quoted in Hollis, Now All Roads Lead to France, 134.
  2. See Hollis, 85-88, on his early and abandoned attempts to write verse.
  3. From a 1925 letter, Frost to Harold Roy Brennan, quoted in Hollis, 134.

Sacred Love in the Guestroom

May 8th, 1914

Isaac Rosenberg visited Eddie Marsh today, a century back, in his rooms in Raymond Buildings, Gray’s Inn. Rosenberg, a lapsed art student with a penchant for poetry and a “weak chest,” had been none-too-subtly courting the attention of Marsh for some time, and must have been quite pleased to finally call on him and see his collection of pictures. He was even more pleased to come away with that collection one picture the greater, and himself several pounds the richer. Although, with Marsh’s encouragement, Rosenberg was beginning to turn his creative attention from painting and drawing to verse, the sale of the painting was more than a mere gesture of patronage. He needed the money to finance a trip to South Africa, a visit to his sister undertaken in hopes of improving his health. Marsh–as evidenced by Rosenberg’s grateful (and maddeningly undated) letters to him–had both smoothed the emigration process and put Rosenberg in touch with Cape Town friends, and the two would remain in touch even when the war and, for a time, the Atlantic, intervened.

Rosenberg was born in 1890, the son of Jewish immigrants from Russia. The family was poor if not utterly destitute: his father could be described as a peddler or a traveling salesman, but in any case he made little money, was rarely with the family, and Isaac generally shared his small room with a boarder. It is hard–especially in comparison to the myriad toffs we’re meeting this spring and summer–not to see him as a product of real old hardscrabble London, for two reasons above all others: although he had been encouraged by his teachers to draw and paint, he still left school at fourteen to be apprenticed to an engraver; and somewhere in his East End childhood he developed a sub-tubercular lung ailment that would never really go away. A Jew with such recent shtetl roots would have confronted casual anti-semitism on a daily basis, but Rosenberg never played down his Jewishness, instead taking up biblical themes in his art and poetry early and often.

Once the apprenticeship was up, in 1911, Rosenberg began art classes at the Slade, sponsored by the Jewish Educational Aid Society and three well-off Jewish women. This support stemmed from a chance encounter with the painter (and sister of one of the society’s referees) Lily Delissa Joseph, who came upon Rosenberg in the National Gallery working on a copy of Velasquez’s ‘Philip IV.’ Given that accounts of royalty sightings are irresistible to our memoirists (Robert Graves will be amusing about this common weakness), a royalty non-sighting makes for a nice sideways comment on Rosenberg’s social position and seriousness of purpose. So: one day the king arrived at the museum to preside over the opening of a new wing, and everyone rushed away to see him arrive. Then, as he strode through the gallery, he stopped to watch the sole art student still at work at his easel, ignoring the royal presence “out of shyness, disdain, absorption or ignorance of protocol,” before moving on to his royal appearance.[1] Or so the story goes.

The combination of London, biblical inspiration, poetry, painting, and engraving make the comparison to Blake pretty much inevitable–more on that in the years to come. By 1914, although Rosenberg had not yet begun to write his best poetry, he was beginning to show his strength, not least by resisting being carried off by any one of several competing influences. Rosenberg read widely, and was now deeply impressed by Emerson as well as Blake–but he was also keeping up with the most recent poetic movements, not only of the Georgian poets championed by Marsh, but also the Vorticists and the doctrinaire Modernists led by T.E. Hulme, whom he met in 1913. Rosenberg was no follower, though, and Eddie Marsh surely saw in Rosenberg something of the fire of  ‘a born revolutionary,'[2] the sort of independent sensibility that would produce poetry of real power.

Isaac Rosenberg will come back to England and grow great, but for the time being we are much more interested in his host. Who is this Eddie Marsh? Vulgarly, he would be the Kevin Bacon of Great War poetry, the central node through which many significant connections were made, the giver of literary parties and luncheons and even breakfasts. He was a patron and adviser of young poets–he edited the influential 1912 Georgian Anthology with which many of England’s best young poets were now identified–but this was neither his first impact on the art scene nor his day job. Before he has turned his attention to poetry he had begun sponsoring promising young painters with, believe it or not, his share of a government grant paid to the descendants of his great-grandfather, Britain’s only assassinated prime minister.

As for the day job, and speaking of prime ministers, Marsh was Private Secretary to then Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill. So not only does Marsh connect our poets to each other and to other important figures such as Robbie Ross, Harold Monro, and Edmund Gosse, but he links them with the Bloomsbury group and the Imagists, the Admiralty and the War Office, and more than one future prime minister. It was a small world, and helping with Rosenberg’s papers was not the last bureaucracy-outflanking favor that Marsh dispensed.

I don’t want, though, to give the impression that Eddie Marsh was little more to young writers than a source of money and an access-route to power. He was also an intelligent critic and a discerning patron, cultivating not only stars ascendant who hardly needed either money or connection (here we should note Rupert Brooke, with whom Marsh was very close; the two essentially joint-editing the first Georgian Anthology) but tentative dilletantes and even men like Rosenberg, who hardly yet knew that he was a poet, needed money, and occupied a social sphere far below that of all these others. Everyone got close reading, generous criticism, and encouragement. Marsh was an aesthete and a sophisticate and all that twelve-tonal jazz, but he was also a non-snob among snobs, the sort of person who collected talent of all kinds and… helped. Rosenberg wrote to him around this time that “your criticism gave me great pleasure; not so much the criticism, as to feel that you took those few lines up so thoroughly, and tried to get into them. You dont know how encouraging that is.”

Not irrelevantly, Marsh was gay. Although apparently perfectly chaste, the fact that he was attracted to men helps explain the enormous energies he devoted to his artist friends, so many of whom were talented and attractive young men. As a gay man in a society in which it was not possible to be in any way “out”–the Wilde affair was not so long ago, and Marsh was a public man; he could not risk touching Churchill’s career with scandal–he had to be perceptive and discreet. This, I think, is the more important influence of his “sexual identity:” he had to be very skillful at navigating the sorts of cultural and social confluences that would rock the boats of complacent middle class men or leave aristocrats swamped or steaming obliviously over smaller craft–a pilot to safer havens, I suppose. Working class or upper middle class, gay or straight, many poets were aided and abetted by Marsh, helped in ways that no one else could help them. As I have mentioned elsewhere, it’s difficult to unpack century-old sexual identities in our terms, but it is significant to our project that young gay writers–or, at least, young writers conscious of attractions to other men that were certainly poetical and also potentially sexual–had in Eddie Marsh a confidante and patron, a source of meals, money, and (not to make his well-appointed rooms sound anachronistically Bohemian) a crash-pad in London.

In fact, the purchase of Sacred Love from Isaac Rosenberg was not just a shrewd investment in a promising artist and a face-saving gift of cash to a budding poet-in-need. Marsh liked the picture, and hung it in the guest room, over the bed which Brooke would occupy on and off for much of the summer, emerging to more than one Significant Breakfast.

So now apologies have come due for the naughty title of this post. If there was any actual sex in the guestroom, I haven’t read of it. Alas for discretion. I only hope that this abject prostitution of Literature, Art, and History for a mild joke and quick frisson has link-hooked the internet’s tens of thousands of thrill-seekers, and that a few will stop a while and give up venery for literature and the mournful contemplation of the beautiful horrors of the past. Of Isaac we will see little, for a while–but more, soon, from Eddie’s rooms.

References and Footnotes

  1. Cohen, Journey to the Trenches, 45.
  2. A judgment attributed to Robert Graves, quoted in Stallworthy, Great Poets of World War I, 161.

Absurd Remarks through the Telephone

Monday, May 4th [1914]

Just as we were going to bed the telephone rang violently; we managed to get on after a few minutes’ trouble & of course it was from Roland Leighton at Lowestoft. He rang up ostensibly to tell Edward he would meet him at Leicester on Wednesday but really to talk to me. I took the wire after he had addressed a few remarks to Edward, & when I offered to let him talk to E. again he said “No don’t, I would rather talk to you.”  So we spent about ten minutes making absurd remarks through the telephone. I was cold & sleepy when I first got up to go to bed, but now I am warm and intensely conscious of life.[1]

Thus Vera Brittain in her diary today, a century back. The fiercely bright daughter of a prosperous Buxton industrialist, born into “that unparalleled age of rich materialism and tranquil comfort,”[2] Vera had been kicking against the traces of her provincial, middle class life for two years. She had finished school and “come out, so there wasn’t supposed to be anything left to do–except perhaps a stint at finishing school–before making a nice, comfortable, provincial upper middle class marriage. Intellectually driven, she felt stultified by the environment at home. Her loving but conventional parents had little conversation, and her father would happily buy a new piano but would not, at first, consider the idea of paying for a daughter’s higher education. When her younger brother Edward was away at school, Vera, by her own account, was left with no intellectual outlet but writing in her diary or hiking off to hear the sermons of a “rationalist” preacher in a nearby town. She felt the weight of deep-dyed provincialism, but there seemed to be little that a young woman, dependent upon her parents, could do about it: she knew of the suffragettes and was in theory an ardent feminist, yet her life was primarily occupied with genteel pursuits–the piano, tennis, amateur theatricals, teas and dances, desultory charity work.[3]

But times were just–just–starting to change. After a visiting family friend had mitigated her parents’ horror at the idea of a girl educating herself out of marriageability, Vera was allowed first to visit Oxford and then to begin studying for the qualifying exams. The fact that Edward was due to finish school in 1914 and might then go up to Oxford alongside his sister surely assuaged parental worries as well. Throughout the 1913-14 school year, then, she worked assiduously and mostly on her own, working up Latin and Mathematics in particular–two subjects absent from her education at St. Monica’s school. After the long solitary mornings of study the social engagements resumed each afternoon. In March she had won an exhibition to Somerville College, the first Women’s College at Oxford, but she still needed to gain admission to the university itself (although actual degree programs were still forbidden to women). So the spring and summer of 1914 were, for Vera Brittain, to be one long cram session for the Oxford Senior Local exam. This, taking place on July 20th, would be the decisive battle of her “warfare on Buxton young-ladyhood.”

Since Brittain reminds us, as she hastily reviews this history in her later memoir, that “readers… are apt to remain quite untouched by any topic that is not well saturated with “human interest”[4] I will follow her in hastening on, from exams to the passions of the heart. Part of her light warfare, at the time, against convention was to refuse to consider marriage–quite sensibly, we would think, given her age (still just twenty) and her interests. She had, too, recently refused the proposal of a local man–yet her diary shows a rather indulgent interest in her own self-consciously mature management of that situation. Working toward her unthinkably unladylike ambition in the mornings, yes, and indulging in demonstrations of intellectual superiority for the benefit of people like her mother’s friends or her piano teacher–but the afternoons and evenings were still filled with awkward teas and tennis pairings, long walks and brilliantly forbearing displays of sincerest friendship to her disappointed suitor. Vera was not free of the provinces yet–or of girlhood. For all her self-congratulatory ambition, she was saved from any real challenge to her principled independence by the hopeless inadequacy of the local boys.

Then, for the Easter vacation of 1914, Edward brought his great school friend Roland Leighton to stay with the family in Buxton.

Coming in purposely late for dinner, I greeted with a lofty assumption of indifference the unknown young man who rose hastily from his chair as I opened the door. But I had not been with him for ten minutes before I  realised that in maturity and sophistication he was infinitely the superior of both Edward and myself.[5]

Roland was “impressive rather than handsome,” mature, serious, and physically imposing. He was also the star student at Uppingham School, Vera’s intellectual equal but both better educated and, as she says, from a more sophisticated background–both of his parents were professional writers who had once lived in London. Roland’s feminism, declared on the sensible grounds that his mother’s writing has contributed as much to the family’s finances as had his father’s, may have qualified him for Vera’s regard, but the combination of scholarly seriousness and faintly Bohemian literary intensity–he wrote poetry, of course–was too much for reason to resist.

Within a few days they were sitting up late–Edward very conveniently serving as de facto chaperone–discussing their dreams and working on each other’s poetry. Which is not, alas, a metaphor. But how’s this: “That Easter meeting with Roland had stirred a spring ferment in my blood, which made Latin proses far less congenial than prolonged contemplation of the garden through the window.”[6]

After the boys returned to school, Roland sent Vera a book–Olive Schreiner’s The Story of an African Farm–and invited her to attend Speech Day, the culminating ceremony of their time at school, in July. Then, today, he called upon a flimsy pretense to hear the sound of her voice–a much more dramatic act of obvious affection in those early days of the telephone than it would come to be. Vera seems very happy, and well aware that both of the young intellectuals were happy to spend a few minutes shouting absurd remarks at each other.

With both Speech day and the Oxford Senior looming on the horizon we might expect a forlorn May and June. Yet absence is absence, however fond the heart, and letters are only letters. Warm and ferment-full though her blood may be, Vera’s diary will show a fickle (or resilient, or sensible) return to the routine of academic work, rejected-suitor-tantalizing, and low-voltage bourgeois-epater-ing. More soon.

References and Footnotes

  1. Vera Brittain. Chronicle of Youth: The War Diary, 1913-1917, eds. Bishop and Smart, page 69. NB: this is not to be confused with her later memoir Testament of Youth.
  2. Testament of Youth, 51 (I will be using the Penguin Paperback). This is one of the more highly recommended of all of our Great Sourcebooks, but let it be noted here that it is heavily retrospective, and if you don't want to know what will happen, in the course of the next few years, to Vera and her friends and family, you should hold off on even beginning the book. Spoilers, you understand.
  3. The opening chapters of Testament of Youth include a careful and complete dissection of the different snobberies which she fought to free herself from.
  4. ToY 71-2.
  5. ToY 81.
  6. ToY 85.

Shylock in Weimar

May 2nd, 1914

Charles Hamilton Sorley was a very clever boy. The writings of a precocious teenager are usually either brash or precious, maddeningly naive in their enthusiasms, so overconfident as to seem ridiculous with any passage of time.  Charlie Sorley, though, is charming enough–and serious enough, and rigorously self-aware–to dodge this doom. The son of a professor, a star student at Marlborough (and football player, and classical skeptic, and OTC member, and a surreptitious mainstay of the school magazine), Sorley earned a scholarship to University College, Oxford in December 1913.  He seems to have been unusually self-contained, socially successful yet fond of taking long solitary runs, happy both at home and at school. He once decided to walk home from school at the beginning of vacation, a trek of over a hundred miles which he accomplished in three days.  Instead of spending a lazy final term at Marlborough he went to Germany in January to spend a few months working up the language and pursuing a haphazard and self-organized–but serious–program of study. An astonishingly not-irritating young man! With Sorley taking himself off alone at eighteen to Schwerin and then Jena, learning German well enough to attend lectures, reading seriously and studying ancient Greek on his own, it is impossible not to think of today’s pointless gap years and academically derisible study abroad programs. It is easy enough to slip into “it was a different time, a better time, when boys were serious…” but that is all-but-complete rubbish. The lack of chaperones or Student Services is indicative of a time when university was a rare privilege and all classes expected more or less adult behavior from older teenagers as opposed to a serene fecklessness well into the 20s (not that the rich didn’t produce many such). Maturity and immaturity broke differently, then and there–dreaminess and idealism where we might expect surliness or cynicism, but a willingness to shoulder the adult burdens of work, independence, and military service that are much more rare now, at least in the privileged and highly educated classes of the Anglophone West. We will be parsing maturity quite a bit, this summer (and, I hope, rejecting the term as too broad and redolent of psychobabble), so let’s just not that Sorley was unusual, for his time or any other.

In February he had written to the Master of Marlborough, reporting on his progress in German and enthusing about Germany–the people so nice, the language “glorious.”  Even their thunderous patriotism, which in England would seem to be the worst sort of mindless jingoism, is somehow attractive.  Over the next months his letters home to friends and family are full of reports on academic progress and weighty discussions–of nationalism, socialism, literature, and drama–interspersed with little vignettes and observations of German life.  Though thoroughly charmed by Germany and sorely–ha!–tempted to “go native,” he still saw the seamy side of romantic nationalism and of celebrating heroically violent postures. He remained an observer and kept hold both of his critical faculties and his Englishness (or, to be precise, English-bred Scottishness; since all books of a century back are very concerned with “blood” and “forbears,” we should note that Sorleys were lowland Scots of long standing, in England only from the time of the Professor’s appointment). He was also apparently without any of the casual anti-semitism that mars the writing of many of his British contemporaries, noting German hypocrisies about Jews, and commenting as well on the strange co-existence of intense studiousness in the gymnasiums with beery brawling among the younger students at the University and of hig regard for England and all things English and knee-jerk nativism.

We could, if we were so inclined, find beautiful ironies in the fact that Sorley spent much of the spring wrestling with Goethe’s Faust, the preeminent masterpiece of German literature.  He worked through it, reading and re-reading; he saw it acted; he thought and wrote about it for weeks more.  Too easy: many deals are yet to be made, and the devil comes in many guises, most of them only accidentally demonic.  But the main reason we won’t dwell here is that Sorley’s other literary interest that spring, his only temptation away from a life lived in German, was, naturally, Thomas Hardy.  We’ll return to this subject when Sorley catches up with Hardy’s most recent poetry, but it is no remarkable coincidence that this wise young scholar/writer/budding poet is deep into Hardy.  And yet a coincidence worth remarking on, no?

As he turned nineteen he was obsessed with Jude the Obscure, the last and most devastating of Hardy’s novels–reading and re-reading it (a meritorious habit), singing its praises in letters, mailing copies to friends,  even translating portions into German.  (This the source of one of his best jokes about German hypocrisy: reading “Jude” as the German word for “Jew,” his new friends were unwilling to read a book with a Jewish protagonist–except, of course, for the gospels).  Young Sorley was a good reader as well as an assiduous one, tracing the swelling theme of the ironies of fate in Hardy’s novels.  He wrote in late April that “All the fury with the world which comes down in a storm in Jude is only just traceable in the thinnest and finest irony that runs throughout The Trumpet Major.”[1]

This brings us to May 2nd, when Sorley took a day trip to Weimar, the “intellectual capital” of Germany. A letter of May 4th to his school friend A.E. Hutchinson opened with a giddy description of the bureaucratic wrangles it took to get himself installed as a student at Jena (“and so I am and remain until the 5th of August a stud. phil.”), then continued with an amusing account of dutifully “doing” Weimar by himself, seeing the sights (“Schiller’s discarded pyjamas”) then getting bored enough to buy, write, and send off a number of postcards. But the day is saved by the decision to go see a performance of The Merchant of Venice:

which I had always thought before was a most commonplace thing. Now I see it is far the biggest tragedy that Shakespeare ever wrote. The audience (especially a German audience) took part in the tragedy, because they laughed at Shylock and considered him a comic character throughout. As a glance at the life and methods of ordinary Christians it is simply superb. And the way the last act drivels out in a silly practical joke—while you know Shylock is lying in the same town deliberately robbed of all that he cared for—is a lovely comment on the Christian life.[2]

In a letter dated May 8th, Sorley recounts the “pilgrimage” to Weimar in more sober language.  He omits the scathing critique of Christian hypocrisy as well, yet in describing the same performance to his parents he repeats some of the same phrases–and why not?  The budding poet had, perhaps under Hardy’s influence, made a critical discovery.  He’s on to something here, and who among us doesn’t reuse the same clever bits in different contexts?

The audience (especially a German audience) took part in the tragedy, because they saw in Shylock only a common character and the villain rightly wronged. The acting of all the Christians was splendidly commonplace…  And the farce of the fifth act crowns the tragedy. It was a most effective use of anti-climax. Besides Shylock, the only other person who acted with distinction was Jessica… During the rest of the scene while the ring farce was in progress she stood apart a little, and I think she thought of Shylock. It was a remarkable and original performance.[3]

This should be a general reminder to readers to also go and see plays, I suppose. But what an experience: to sit there in the audience and to realize the existence of a new form of dramatic irony. There are two plays going on, and some mysterious and presumably accidental complicity of the actors. The rest of the audience is getting it all wrong, revealing something horrible about humanity: a German crowd laughing at the agony of a Jew, chuckling along where they should be groaning, or held, at least, by the complexity of Shakespeare’s intentions. And the young British student, watching his countryman’s play suddenly expand to incorporate the audience and its shallow laughter–a new spectacle, joint production of Shakespeare’s text, the actors’ capabilities, and the audience’s prejudices.  Enthusiastic as he as been about Germany, Sorley can’t be German now, and perhaps he will always hesitate longer in contemplation of the cruelty of one group to another, or the pain of any one person, any victim of fraud, or fate, or malevolence.

Good training for a poet.  And this would be good stuff to save up for a smashing literary paper at Oxford, no?  But here’s the last level of irony, for today, the inevitable, relentlessly treading historical kind… and we don’t even need our whole century back, not even the scant decades it will take to see how much enjoyment a German audience can take from real Jewish misery.

The simpler, more personal irony, is that Charlie Sorley will not, in fact, remain a “stud. phil.” in Germany through the fifth of August. Like hundreds of other young men, the late summer will be a time to consider whether to go up to Oxford at all.

References and Footnotes

  1. The Letters of Charles Sorley, 154.
  2. The Letters of Charles Sorley, 160.
  3. The Letters of Charles Sorley, 164.

Guns on the Channel

May 1st, 1914

Today’s Fortnightly Review opens with a new poem by Thomas Hardy.

Channel Firing

That night your great guns, unawares,
Shook all our coffins as we lay,
And broke the chancel window-squares,
We thought it was the Judgment-day

And sat upright. While drearisome
Arose the howl of wakened hounds:
The mouse let fall the altar-crumb,
The worms drew back into the mounds,

The glebe cow drooled. Till God called, “No;
It’s gunnery practice out at sea
Just as before you went below;
The world is as it used to be:

“All nations striving strong to make
Red war yet redder. Mad as hatters
They do no more for Christ his sake
Than you who are helpless in such matters.

“That this is not the judgment-hour
For some of them’s a blessed thing,
For if it were they’d have to scour
Hell’s floor for so much threatening.

“Ha, no. It will be warmer when
I blow the trumpet (if indeed
I ever do; for you are men,
And rest eternal sorely need).”

So down we lay again. “I wonder,
Will the world ever saner be,”
Said one, “than when He sent us under
In our indifferent century!”

And many a skeleton shook his head.
“Instead of preaching forty year,”
My neighbour Parson Thirdly said,
“I wish I had stuck to pipes and beer.”

Again the guns disturbed the hour,
Roaring their readiness to avenge,
As far in land as Stourton Tower,
And Camelot, and starlit Stonehenge.


Thomas Hardy did not fight in the Great War. He was an old man when it began, a giant of English literature long retired from writing the novels that had made him famous yet in the midst of producing one of the most important bodies of English poetry. He belongs here for two reasons. First of all, he was a secular prophet, one of the few writers who, amidst the blithe imperialism, jingoism, and ignorant confidence that characterized the years leading up to the war, did not let slip his long, tight grasp on human nature in all its foolishness and helplessness. “Channel Firing” is not the only poem of his written with a poetic intelligence so sharp that it seems not so much to cut to the human heart of the matter as to leap ahead, insight transmuted into foresight. Second, because he came to be honored and accepted by the young war poets. We will see several scarred young veterans lash out at the old Victorians who had led them to war, devised its slaughterous strategies, and yet seemed cheerfully unable to comprehend its horrors and miseries. The war writers will heap hatred on these old gentlemen in England now abed, even going so far (in the grip of traumatized fury) as to wish upon ignorant civilians the pain and death that had been the lot of the young in the trenches. But Hardy they respected, and accepted, and turned to for wisdom.  He is admitted here on their authority. We will hear from The Young Poets about this strange relationship–from Sassoon and, much sassooner, from SorleyBlunden, who wrote a biography of Hardy, seems to make Hardy at once a sort of poetic dream-general and Dumbledorian guide and a link to that before-time when war and poetry and thoughtless heroism might all share the same tent:

“Thomas Hardy lived beyond the Victorian age to be the personal friend of many who had had their first experience of mature life as young soldiers in the War of 1914-1918… As a child, he could and did hear of fantastic history, such as the retreat from Moscow, from those who had taken their small but intense part in it, and so when he spoke of Napoleon a hundred years after Napoleon’s passing, to hear him was as though the flaming belfries of Moscow and the unshaven jowl of the thwarted Corsican were just outside the window… his presence suggested the potential corps commander.  Immensely peaceful as he was, thoroughly wise on the problem of force and bloodshed in international argument as he showed himself in speech and in writing, his being still kindled at the hint of heroic contest.  He may not have known that distinctly.  There were many things about himself that he did not know.”[1]

This is not so much a case of contentment with the influence of father-poets as something like the reverse of the situation in which a rare young prodigy is welcomed among the elderly masters of his art in recognition of a craft-knowledge very rare in one his age.

This note of timelessness, of the continuities between war–and writing about war–that stretch over centuries, is a bit dissonant here.  Not, perhaps, in the theme of this project, that is, but in terms of the later echoes.  Strange to revere a grandfather-poet given that the literature of the Great War will come to be remembered and read as a wrenching and wretched break with tradition.  But when prophets speak, even in veiled tones, and both the wise and the angry listen, we should probably listen too–and besides, Hardy is the lone old prophet, and the young poets will not always be as welcoming to the more literally paternal generation.

“Channel Firing,” though first published today, was written toward the end of April, and, prophetic sounding of guns from the East aside, it is of a piece with Hardy’s work at the time.  He had given up novel writing long before, after the great successes and great scandals of his last novels, which combined authorial mercilessness with a fierce determination to force issues of sex and class (and not the kind of class and money worries where rich suitors or richer uncles reliably turn up) before the Victorian readership.  His great project of the century’s first decade had been The Dynasts, averse dramatization of the Napoleonic wars–great wars then a century back–and there were cannonades heard from across the water then too.  This was read and respected but probably not much beloved.  Then in 1912, his wife Emma, whom he had ceased to love and virtually ignored in favor of a younger woman who obsessed him (and  became his second wife) suddenly died and Hardy, stricken by grief and remorse, almost as suddenly, became a great poet.  (The book to read here is Claire Tomalin’s biography.)  As a poet now he was a gnarled old hybrid thing, his renewed but tragic Romanticism grown crookedly together with fatalism and the dismay of old age, yet all of the feeling was held in check by his realist’s eye, and his hand was controlled, in the end, by the prickly intelligence of an old master ironist.  (He would never let metaphors get so out of hand, now).  In the spring of 1914 Hardy was at work on the collection that we will see published in November, Satires of Circumstance.  His second wife–and first biographer–denies the charge of literal prophecy.  Hardy, like many, supposed that war “had grown too coldly scientific to kindle again for long all the ardent romance which had characterized it down to Napoleonic times, when the most intense battles were over in a day, and the most exciting tactics and strategy led to the death of comparatively few combatants.”  Hardy may indeed have been amazed at the guns of August, yet all of his poems of loss and misunderstanding and hovering violence and voices from beyond the grave show that his poetic faculties, however unrecognized by the man going about his day (or the woman going about it with him), were gearing up for war.

Paul Fussell places Hardy, and Satires of Circumstance, at the very beginning of The Great War and Modern Memory (scroll down rather a bit here). It is fitting, then, to have both Influential Writers here at the beginning: let us point to one old man who looms over our reading (although Fussell was barely in middle age when he produced his great book–and still fired with a rather youthful sort of anger–he is now both old and dead) and note that he is pointing to an older man who seems, in a way, to have gotten to the whole thing ahead of time, poetry before history, as it were. (Hardy is not the only great writer enlisted as a prophet of the Great War–C.E. Montague would draft Shakespeare as the original and uncensored writer of the Great War long before Harold Bloom got around to impressing him as the writer of each and all–but Hardy was surely the only great, living writer, to move unerringly through the war’s moods and find himself, in the end, proven dismally right about war and human nature.)  The Great War and Modern Memory goes on to present readings both nuanced and powerful of many of the writers who anchor this project, but it comes back in the end to “Channel Firing,” heard again by Vernon Scannell along with the cross-channel gunfire of yet another war–and Fussell ropes in Arnold and Pynchon, too, along the way. Good fun, and more anon.

Thumbing through Fussell, I find the phrase “uncanny foresight,” as well as the immediate presentation of Hardy as the Necessary Teacher for any reader of Great War writing.  The crushing near-determinism of his tragic novels are our basic training for Great War disillusionment, the granite-hard and rough-edged ironies of his late poetry the special OTC course that prepares us to read through the whole war without falling out along the way or falling into darkness. But we must read ever so carefully: irony is an explosive thing, and a century’s mouldering in shifting and sometimes corrosive literary soil can lead to an excavation turning in a moment’s mishandling into a bloody mess.

We will return to irony, to its several definitions and Swiss army utility and myriad misuses, in due time, but right now I must complicate the question of Hardy and his influence with that of Fussell and his: it is best said at the outset that, while Fussell might get carried away at times, over-focusing his ironic lenses or scanting the seriousness of persistently patriotic or war-loving thoughts, there’s no use denying my fealty to his claim that irony is the only “appropriate interpretive means” for reading the war. There are shades and shadings of this, but the basic formula is confident expectation plus time plus war equals brutal disillusionment. That’s the war in a nutshell, but don’t take it from me: click here for the (properly) unavoidable Fussell quote, alive and well in the embedded quotations of the centennial zeitgeist.

Fussell wrote very well, and usually very wisely, but I am not advocating complete discipleship.  In fact, even if you don’t like his style–his elitism, his snarkiness, his gleeful profanity–or his substance–the heavy hand with Freud and Frye, the dismissal of David Jones as a minor poet and mere autodidact–you’ve got to deal with him.  Geoff Dyer: “The issue of mediation has been compounded by Paul Fussell… it is now difficult to read about [the war] except through the filter of Fussell’s ground-breaking investigation and collation of its dominant themes.”[2] Still true: and the first lens on that filter is today’s poem.

Fussell was not the first to notice Hardy’s foresight.  Blunden found it “not surprising that in the ill-fated year 1914 he should be among those most prescient of the storm.”  Some sort of judgement day was coming, and an unimaginable, ungodly assemblage of big guns, and many warm young bodies soon to join the sleeping skeletons.  Even if starlit Stonehenge endures, we’re still stuck with the problem of all that Camelot-stuff, of how it shaped the minds of the men who will respond to the guns of August.

References and Footnotes

  1. Blunden, Thomas Hardy, pages 1-3.
  2. Dyer, The Missing of the Somme, page 84.