Easter Sunday, in Church: Vera Brittain Battles Despair and Volunteers to Darn Socks, and Rupert Brooke is Volunteered for Apotheosis; Edward Thomas Lobs a New One

Sunday April 4th

Easter Sunday.

I woke feeling sad & unrested, but with the words so clearly stamped upon my mind that almost someone might have just spoken them close beside me, “And the Echoes of Despair slunk away tor the laugh of a brave, strong heart is as a death-blow to them.”[1] So I arose & went to the Early Service, resolving I would not despair, though to-day has been one of the days when I have felt he can never return. The worst of it is that the more I feel that, the more I picture to myself all that might happen if only he did return.

After church we spoke to Miss Hyland, & I offered to do some work tor the Hospital as college things did not take up all my time. I said I was willing to scrub floors or anything else, but she said there was no necessity for that if I could darn, as other people could do floors who could only cobble stockings. She said she would give me some work. I was very glad, especially as I can do some now, without waiting till the Long Vacation. The more I have to do the better I shall be able to endure life, especially if I am able to do work directly useful in the War.[2].

Writing later on, Vera Brittain noted her good fortune: she was incompetent in most types of housework, needlework, etc., but she could actually mend socks with some skill. Thus she escaped having to answer the more direct challenge to her sacrificial resolve of being invited to do real laboring women’s work down on a hospital floor. But she would continue to remember this modest volunteering effort as the first thing that gave her a sense of war-ward (and, thus, Roland-ward) satisfaction.

When, a few days later, I sat surrounded by coloured wools in the hospital’s vaccine-room and attacked the colossal holes, I felt that I had advanced at least one step nearer to Roland and the War.[3]

 

Miserably ill in Alexandria, Rupert Brooke today made his single greatest step toward fame, moving in a leap from being famous among Rugbyites, Cantabridgians, poetry lovers, and a certain segment of society, to being All England’s Soldier-Poet. This elevation was handed down from a literal pulpit, that of Dean William Inge, in St. Paul’s Cathedral. The dean read ‘The Soldier’ and asserted that Brooke’s “pure and elevated patriotism” would allow him to “take rank with our great poets–so potent was a time of trouble to evoke genius which must otherwise have slumbered.”

This, it should be noted, is very good publicity–especially when it was written up in tomorrow’s Times The article included a reference to the glowing review of New Numbers, in which the “war sonnets” were first published. And they too, were elevated, transformed. These are no longer merely five sonnets, the latest work by the most prominent of the Georgian poets, they are now both “The War Sonnets” and “The War Sonnets.” Thus Rupert Brooke has been both elevated and simplified–he will no longer be much read as a mildly innovative Georgian, but only as the First Great War Poet, a man whose “genius” has been prodded awake by the Hun.[4]

With great publicity comes great loss of complexity.

So the dean has helped make Rupert Brooke a household name, but he has also begun the tradition of misreading him as a sort of noble Anglican knight, a latter day St. George, his lance dripping crimson ink. This notion was helped along by a nice bit of spontaneous drama in St. Paul’s, when a committed pacifist objected loudly to the Dean’s reading and had to be hustled out, as the Times gleefully reported. Dean Inge, equal to the heckling, responded with some warlike verses from Isaiah… and there you have it: Rupert Brooke, onetime Cambridge decadent, Modernist skinny-dipper, socialist, bisexual, atheist–a poet who first made his name with innovative and off-putting verse–is now the unofficial Young Laureate of Muscular (But Sensitive) Christianity.

Brooke will respond to the news with his usual rueful sarcasm–oh dear, famous, am I? But he asked for it. It’s not that he did anything indecent–he longed for fame, at times (when he was not longing for extinction–or perhaps then most of all), but he had never gone to exceptional lengths to attract it. But these poems at least made a play for it–consciously or semi-consciously, he has written down to the new popular war poetry market, so this sudden leap to fame is great good fortune, but good fortune that he had positioned himself for…

The fame of the “War Sonnets” is both a calculated success and a self-inflicted wound: Brooke knew full well that soldiers going to war were not “swimmers into cleanness leaping/Glad from a world grown old and cold and weary.” Never mind the jolly rhythm and internal rhyme, it’s the sense of the the thing: this is a combination of the most basic blind romanticism about war and the most egregious “aha! we’ve been decadent!” historical opportunism. He felt that way, some of the time–but he retained the sense of sinfulness and despair that he claims to have shed. And, as we have, seen, his letters dwell on the horrors of war on the outskirts of Antwerp more than the rebirth of soldiering.

The swimmer fits better as Brooke the Poet than Brooke the Soldier–the cleanness then not some absurd and very dangerous idea of war as purifying but simply the abandonment of difficulty and complexity and the embrace of the trumpet tones of traditional pro-war verse.

So it’s not that there is no subtext, or no true personal element lurking behind the lyric. It’s just that the Brooke that we find here is a poet sheltering from the more difficult questions behind a big shiny shield. Reading the rest of “Peace” makes it quite clear that the thanks offered to God at the sonnet’s beginning are not really those of a good Christian nationalist, but rather of a neurotic poet who sees the war as a release from his own insecurity, uncertainty, and self-loathing. This is a sinner hoping for death, not a brilliant boy in armor ready to lead a charge. But, dazzled by the brightness of the thing, we might miss this, and cheer him on.

It gets better–and worse. “The Dead” (again I give the same link to an older post, to spare “spoilers” about Brooke’s future which accompany most web versions of the poem) is great, rousing, Tennysonian stuff. Bugles blow, blood is, most famously, “the red/ sweet wine of youth,” and everything is as pretty as a Neoclassical canvas. Then there are some slack verses, tending toward lists of poetical cliches… and then a rousing finale, the sonnet entitled “The Soldier:”

If I should die, think only this of me:
That there’s some corner of a foreign field
That is for ever England. There shall be
In that rich earth a richer dust concealed;
A dust whom England bore, shaped, made aware,
Gave, once, her flowers to love, her ways to roam,
A body of England’s, breathing English air,
Washed by the rivers, blest by suns of home.

And think, this heart, all evil shed away,
A pulse in the eternal mind, no less
Gives somewhere back the thoughts by England given;
Her sights and sounds; dreams happy as her day;
And laughter, learnt of friends; and gentleness,
In hearts at peace, under an English heaven.

You can see how a big-time preacher would make a fine Easter dinner out of this. In a little while we’ll return, and read it with some fellow soldier-poets as our guides–other early war poets, not just the disenchanted and traumatized poets who will be sure to let us know that the “cleanness” was sucking mud and that blood is salty, not sweet, and stickier even than wine.

But just now it’s important to appreciate what this sonnet does so well. It’s a little bit like the pop music trope of the well-regarded, troubled song writer who puts out some fetching stuff… and then sells out with aplomb to pen the big hit record. Just hit the big notes, man–love, love, love, and personal pronouns. Just like the early Beatles.

And Brooke does: field, dust, earth, body, sun, river, air–even the English “ways” the all our poets love to roam. The simple, solid, homeward rhymes are lovely, too. And, most of all, there’s the repetition, the drumbeat behind the brass and the sighing strings: England, England, England’s, English, England, English.

This is, of course, another familiar move: the tragically-inclined young poet anticipating an early death, wrapping his reputation around it like an oily rag around the head of an arrow, then drawing back and aiming high. If he should die, millions now are poised to think of him…

 

So that might be the most famous poem of the war. During the war it certainly was. But for many readers–those who I have been following, above–it represented a falling off or a selling out: a young poet consciously decided to write a traditional war poem, to run to the top of the nearest tall building and wave his flag, instead of pursuing his own path through the countryside.

Which is what Edward Thomas continues to do. His verses don’t proclaim England, but patiently explore it, as verses should. He is worrying over the real contours of the English earth–as Brooke once did–approaching it from different angles, scuffing at it, letting the dirt run through his fingers.

On April 1st Thomas had written Wind and Mist, a blank-verse dialogue with “a generic affinity” to Frost’s work. But it is rooted in the here and now, and it’s first speaker looks out over the fields of Hampshire and remarks that

Had we with Germany
To play upon this board it could not be
More dear than April has made it with a smile.

The poem, though, is about a house–too exposed, up there, amidst the wind and mist–the house in Steep in which the Thomases had dwelt from 1909 to 1913. A beautiful but difficult place, and one the speaker thinks he might wish to return to–

if I could;
As I should like to try being young again.[5]

Then on the 2nd came A Gentleman, another short, rustic, Frost-meets-Hardy dialogue, and, today, Digging, a poem literally of the English earth, ending

It is enough
To smell, to crumble the dark earth,
While the robin sings over again
Sad songs of Autumn mirth.

A fertile few days, then. But these, so far, are the least of it. Yesterday Thomas began–and today, a century back, he finished–Lob, in many ways the most important of his poems of the English countryside. The verses stride like Thomas himself, out into the South Country in loose rhymed pentameters, and back into the past.

It began, perhaps, in the same “generic” Frostian manner, with a speaker struck by a memory beginning to pursue it. But from there it strikes out immediately for Thomas’s own territory. England, again–Wiltshire, to be specific–but the quest is not for the land itself but for the man who embodies it, who inhabited it always and is its spirit still.

Lob is, at first, lost among the place names and memories, but soon we find him, a vague figure wandering in the past, and bestowing names, even as his own shifts and changes: he names the landscape, he gives the local flora its colorful folk-names. He sings, and the poem sings with him (its flowing, flooding music as different from tomorrow’s knotted Easter memorial as two poems can be), and soon we are careening through history and folklore, finding Lob in Jack (of beanstalk fame), in Robin Hood, in Herne the Hunter, and in the veterans of Hastings, Agincourt, Waterloo (battles, you may note, fought in England… and France… and Belgium.)

So the beloved English landscape now has its genius loci. Thomas had written about such a figure before, in a few of the poems we’ve seen–he might stop at the White Horse for a drink, or he might very well be man and badger at once–and in several earlier prose works as well. Lob has his roots in Thomas’s memories of David “Dad” Uzzel, a real-life Wiltshire Bombadil, a countryman wise in the ways of wood and stream who had taught the boy–an escaped suburbanite–much, and spoken with the straightness and honesty that Thomas associated with the countryside (as against the hypocrisy and suffocation of town–and church, and society).

But this poem is not really about Lob himself. It’s not the spirit but the land that matter most. The real English earth. As Edna Longley comments, Thomas–who recently “sneaked” two of his own poems into his anthology This England–has now smuggled the whole anthology into one poem. It began with the search for an identifiable person and place, then becomes a tour through the landscape and flora, then encompasses English folklore, gathering it all into something of a statement about the nature of Englishness, and the uses of English poetry.

There’s a lot more, here. Too much. But one last thing, today: the poem ends as it had begun, by invoking Wiltshire–the specific country of Thomas’s boyhood rambles–rather than “England” once again. Why? Why not embrace This England, in the end?

Because, I think, Thomas is too hard-headed to think that he can land all of England in one poem. Or, having come so close, he wonders how it might be misused. Repeat England six times and you are good only for broad-bore patriotism. Too general to be useful–except, perhaps, to generals and their recruiting sergeants. Thomas is surely guilty, from a sociological perspective, of romanticizing rural England, and the hard lives of the humble men (and women–where are the women?) who inhabited it. But, in the end, he wriggles out of idealization, and would admit that there is one man behind this Lob, and one place behind This England.

Is it too much to suggest that this is yet another early inkling of the verdict on the war that will be rendered most succinctly by Hemingway, who will write of “the concrete names of villages?” Does Thomas suspect that even the loveliest, the most musical (and learned, and sincere) paean to England will pale, beside the facts of war?

Tomorrow he will face the question of the soldiers who will never return to their English woods…

So. How about a compromise? In the poem’s early lines Thomas looked for the right village, then embraced all England, and then retreated, in the end, to the county-compromise of Wiltshire. This is England, then, by synecdoche–better than stereotype, generalization, excision, or analogy.

The praise for this poem will come pouring in, soon. It’s “his most confident performance yet,” a fact which Eleanor Farjeon recognizes immediately. Frost will pound his fist on this one–“you are a poet, or you are nothing,”–and others will immediately grasp that this is an achievement. So in due time we’ll return to it with their commentary–taking a winding path back hither is surely better than belaboring today any further. But Thomas, I think, did not need to wait for his friends’ praise, and benefits nothing from century-on analysis–he knew how sure this poem was.[6]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. She is quoting the novelist Olive Schreiner, the author over whom she and Roland first enthused, and grew close.
  2. Chronicle of Youth, 171
  3. Testament of Youth, 140.
  4. The quotations from the Times appear in both the Hassall and Jones biographies.
  5. See Longley, Edward Thomas, The Annotated Collected Poems, 73-5, 209-11.
  6. Hollis, Now All Roads, 220-2. Longley, Edward Thomas, The Annotated Collected Poems, 211-224.