30 April 1915
My darling Flossie
Thank you awfully for your letter. I’m so glad you had win at Cheltenham… What are your colours? What is the name of the steed? Of course I will buy him. Please reserve him for me at once. £800 or £8,000–all the same to the rich. Do you remember when you tried to sell me that nice horse with his hock down to the fetlocks… I remember the amused look on your face that evening and on mine! Flossie did you really have a fall on the flat? Poor little girl! But if you have really taken to that golf I shall never speak to you again…
A playful tone from the man who wrote “Into Battle” yesterday. But soon the razzing turns a trifle elegaic:
We will have great fun after this war, you and Hubert and me… We will fairly knock them in the Old Kent Road.
We’ve been assisting at this battle for the last week, but have been no nearer the fighting than getting shelled a bit. I’m writing this in a Belgian farm, where we are billeted. It’s full of refugees–old men and old women and young children. You see them all day streaming down the roads, carrying everything they can in their arms, and with little carts drawn by dogs; it is too pathetic.
I wish I could get some fighting. The only fighting I can get is boxing. A private in the A.S.C. challenged me at a show the other night, but I hit him with great violence below the fifth rib (as the Bible says) and he subsided with a nasty groan…
If the Homeric fighter thing is in any way a pose, it’s a consistent one. Grenfell loves fighting and the glory of winning, be it the normalized and relatively safe combat of the boxing ring or war itself. Nor is it necessarily out of character to note the plight of the Belgian refugees. To be Homeric is not to be a full-time monster–that would be Achilles in his blood-lust, not the typical hero in his everyday brutality–and any fighter might have sympathy for the young and old victims of war. (A truly committed Homeric hero emulator would, however, see rape, pillage, and the enslavement of useful non-combatants as the victor’s natural right…)
But note the lack of distinction in that last paragraph: Grenfell has knocked out a British private, and sees it as only a poor substitute for killing a German. I should go thumb through my Homer to see if any of the heroes, during the intensely contested athletics scenes, similarly rank that non-mortal competition as less desirable than battle itself. If memory serves, they compete fiercely in athletics for the sake of their glory and do the same in battle, without commentary on how different defeat in discus is from defeat in battle. (And when four heroes contest in throwing or racing, they tend to all get prizes–just like little league in these benighted days!–which should indicate that the emphasis-after-winning is on glorious display, not the meaning of defeat.)
Squint one way, and Grenfell is finding his pre-Christian warrior spirit with the help of his fine classical education. Squint another, and he’s a polite, well-bred, clever psychopath, happy to be where (or close to where–damn all this waiting around that the cavalry has been doing) his inclinations can be indulged.
30 Apr 1915
I haven’t written to you for ages and ages. First I went to Paris for four days (and saw Casie on the way back)–and then we have been up here to assist at the fighting. We’ve been up just a week doing Fire Brigade, which has meant lying all day in the fields, with the horses…
I was asleep in the sun when they started the heavy bit of shelling; and they ragged me terribly because they said I slept on through the first 3 shells that fell in the garden. I don’t believe I did; anyhow when I got up a man staggered into me, very white and gibbering, saying he had been hit in the legs. I carried him to a doctor…
I did love seeing Casie; I’ve never seen her looking so well and radiant and pretty, and we had the greatest fun. She was so good with the wounded Tommies, who all seemed to love her; she was just exactly “right there” with them…
And Paris! I can’t imagine how I have lived so long without being there… I saw a bit of everything… It was the biggest “experience” of New Things I’ve ever had in my life, bigger than India…
I do love getting your letters, and you’ve been awfully good in writing such a lot. I got another tonight, dated 27th, and the shirts & socks…
Goodbye, Mummy darling. Best love to Dad and all the family.
How sad about R Brooke. J.
Achilles, one imagines, would seem different, too, if we had his chats with Briseis and he letters home to Thetis side by side.
Actually, that’s perfect–Achilles is very different when he interacts with his mother, tearfully bemoaning the injustices of his fate. And Julian Grenfell’s mother, the bizarre and irrepressible Lady Desborough, is really more of a major goddess in British society than Thetis was among the Olympians. She too, encourages her son in his martial exploits, and blanches neither at the heated words of the poem she is now being sent nor the terribly cool descriptions he has written of actually killing. Grenfell doesn’t get to kill with the brazen spear in a moment of perfect competition, the better man the victor, the lesser man dead. He has killed three men by lying close and quiet, and shooting them unawares. War is different now–but mummy is still proud.
A sampling, then, of the first outpouring of verse in memory of Brooke.
Our F.W. Harvey, of the 5th Glosters, produced a poem headed “To Rupert Brooke,” subheaded “Dead in Defence of Beauty.” The opening lines, unfortunately, meet the expectations that such a sentimental beginning might raise:
Sweet singer of this latter day/ Whom Death unkindly takes away…
It gets slightly better. Harvey writes as a grateful reader, beseeching the poet’s shade to
…Take the praise/ Of all who in these sordid days/ Have needed liveliness.
And then it gets worse. Harvey can have a light touch, but not here:
…ne’er the less/ Thy end’s sheer glory. Evermore
Joy diadems thy death to all/ Who loving thee–love beauty more,
Since in thy death thou showest plain/ …The things that made the songs remain.
So. A poem with very traditional diction and some rather questionable sentiments. What would Grenfell make, for instance, of the assertion that there is “Glory” in dying before battle from sunstroke (or a mosquito bite)? The verse is hackneyed and the point is unfortunate–Harvey seems to be arguing that to die in uniform is somehow to die for an idea of beauty that seems–especially if “the songs” we are to think of are the famous 1914 sonnets–to be yoked together with patriotism and righteous war. The Germans don’t have poets?
And yet Harvey is not exactly wrong, even if this is not exactly where, perhaps, he would have the emphasis fall: Brooke has written “songs” for a patriotic purpose, and his death has immeasurably increased their effectiveness. So does anyone who praises Brooke do so without some complicity in the war effort? Churchill was not slow off the mark on that one, and I think the answer is, simply, “no.” All praise of Brooke, however sincere, will be, for the duration, a contribution to the transmutation–of poet to symbol, and verse to pro-war propaganda.
Aubrey Herbert, who was with Brooke at the pyramids, and will serve at Gallipoli, will hit many of the same notes in this later poem. But he also goes in for more direct homage:
Bitter loss his golden harpstrings and the treasure of his youth;
Gallant foe and friend may mourn him, for he sang the knightly truth.
Joy was his in his clear singing, clean as is the swimmer’s joy;
Strong the wine he drank of battle, fierce as that they poured in Troy…
The reference to “swimmers” there is to one of the more famous lines from the 1914 sonnets, which is cleverly done. But much of the rest of this doesn’t hold up–the “knightly truth” that death can be construed as a romantic/nationalist sacrifice? And he didn’t ever get a chance to drink the wine of battle…
I’m carping, I’m niggling, I’m taking the hatchet to century-old poems–I realize. The point is, in part, to show how writers less skillful than Brooke will come to surround him like moss on an old stone, fixing him to one place in the history of the writing of this war. He is responsible for putting the stone there, but now they are weighing him down. Here’s how Herbert finishes, giving Brooke over to the most poetical of birds:
Sleep you well, you rainbow comrade, where the wind and light is strong,
Overhead and high above you, let the lark take up your song.
And how about John Masefield, a non-combatant who nevertheless was very much involved with the war (and, as we will see, with its writing) and is even now in France, working as a hospital orderly. When he returns he will take a walk to a place where he and Brooke had recently been a year before, and commune with his thoughts about death, and Skyros:
But from one grave that island talked to me;
And, in the midnight, in the breaking storm,
I saw its blackness and a blinking light,
And thought, “So death obscures your gentle form,
So memory strives to make the darkness bright;
And, in that heap of rocks, your body lies,
Part of the island till the planet ends,
My gentle comrade, beautiful and wise,
Part of this crag this bitter surge offends,
While I, who pass, a little obscure thing,
War with this force, and breathe, and am its king.”
Much better–a poem rather than a gesture. He takes the loss of a friend and a writer and uses it to grapple with the task of memory, and of moving on.
Brooke’s friend and fellow Georgian Wilfrid Gibson takes a more romantic or ghostly approach to a similar theme, writing a sort of rhapsodic eulogy (or elegaic rhapsody?) in several stanzas. Brooke’s personal and poetic beauty are very prominent:
And as we neared the roaring ruddy flare
Kindled to gold your throat and brow and hair
Until you burned, a flame of ecstasy.
The golden head goes down into the night
Quenched in cold gloom—and yet again you stand
Beside me now with lifted face alight,
As, flame to flame, and fire to fire you burn . . .
Then, recollecting, laughingly you turn,
And look into my eyes and take my hand.
“Ecstasy” will repeat in this poem, after a more precisely rendered visitation of Brooke’s spirit to Gibson’s “garret:”
…looking up, I saw you standing there
Although I’d caught no footstep on the stair,
Like sudden April at my open door.
Though now beyond earth’s farthest hills you fare,
Song-crowned, immortal, sometimes it seems to me
That, if I listen very quietly,
Perhaps I’ll hear a light foot on the stair
And see you, standing with your angel air,
Fresh from the uplands of eternity.
Gibson goes on to recall moments of Brooke’s actual life–and to allude, too, to his earlier, better writing–before closing with a flurry of classical allusions (Styx, Lethe, etc).
Just two more! I don’t want to come off as (too much of) an elitist or a boor. You can do good poetry–or, at least, a simple an inoffensive memorial verse–with stock poetic images (e.g. birds and flowers) and classical allusions. And you can write appalling dreck. For example, here (first one, then the other):
I never knew you save as all men know
Twitter of mating birds, flutter of wings
In April coverts, and the streams that flow—
One of the happy voices of our Springs:
A voice for ever stilled, a memory,
Since you went eastward with the fighting ships,
A hero of the great new Odyssey,
And God has laid His finger on your lips.
Pleasant and simple, the diction poetic but not heavy-handedly antique, the simplest and least problematic Homer reference… a modest elegy. Now another:
Out of the primal dark
He leapt, like lyric lark,
Singing his aubade strain;
Then fell to earth again.
We garner all he gave,
And on his hero grave,
For love and honour strew,
Rosemary, myrtle, rue.
Son of the Morning, we
Had kept you thankfully;
But yours the asphodel:
Hail, singer, and farewell!
Bad rhythm, awkward alliteration, rhyme-forced reversed-diction, and an image that calls to mind a Monty Python version of German romanticism: Ron Obvious leaping upward out of a cupboard, with tiny lark’s wings upon his back…
This will be a lot of legacy to live down–Brooke has become a shooting star with an awfully long, dusty trail.
So. What about the war itself, you ask? If you have read this far and are still asking, I’m flattered. So:
The last of the scales are falling from the eyes of Billy Congreve, a brave and energetic Regular officer. The war is being written, day by day, but not truthfully. There are only two possible explanations:
I see that all our papers at home treat this Ypres affair almost as if it were a victory for us, and talk about our ‘vigorous offensive’. What offensive we have made has been badly handled and quite useless. As regards regaining the ground lost, we cannot do more until the French shove up on our left. Our papers are damnably incorrect, or else Sir J. French is lying.
And finally, still at Oxford, and farther indeed from thoughts of (modern) war, the young Ronald Tolkien wrote a poem today, a century back. It’s an odd piece, about a mythical city–“Kôr,” a “City Lost and Dead”–the name of which he has borrowed from the Victorian adventure/romancer H. Rider Haggard. The short poem goes in for medievalisms–“A sable hill, gigantic, rampart-crowned”–and pseudo-Romantic ambiance–“There slow forgotten days for ever reap/ The silent shadows.”
And yet it’s neither a fever dream nor a ruin fit for the pith-helmeted adventurer. It’s the city that will become (or has been) Tirion upon Túna, in Valinor, the eternal home of the High Elves–a giant city, a haunted city, a magnificent city, suitable for elves of ancient power, nothing like little goblin feet or precious Victorian fairies. I forbear to copy the poem, because Tolkien, even a century on, is outlived by many more than nine lawyers, black garbed and swift and merciless on their iron-shod black steeds. But you can catch a glimpse here.
Like You and Me, the poem looks like something of this world, something any young writer with a poetic inclination could produce–but it’s actually a little piece of a different place, the world he has just begun to build. Undateable, but much more significant to his life’s work, is Tolkien’s progress on the first lexicon of the invented language that will become Quenya, the older form of Elvish. He seems to have been busy coining words and shaping the morphology throughout this spring, and Kôr will be one of the first place-names he defines.
References and Footnotes
- Thompson, Julian Grenfell, 280-2, 330-1. ↩
- Boden, F.W. Harvey, 76. ↩
- A pseudonym, apparently, for Katherine Mary Dalton Renoir, who will become a prolific writer of mysteries. ↩
- According to wikipedia, Borges was fond of this guy. Which is perhaps the strangest fact I've learned yet, in nearly a year of constant Great War reading and writing. ↩
- Armageddon Road, 131. ↩
- Lost Tales I, 136. ↩