Julian Grenfell has taken a significant turn for the worse. Three members of his immediate family wrote, today about the decline, each in his or her own manner. Lady Desborough, to her diary:
25 May With Julian all day long. Less well. Talked a little in morning, but did not speak again after 2.30pm. With him all night. Very Peaceful & looking so happy.
Lord Desborough replied to a note of concern from Lord Kitchener:
My dear Kitchener
I am so grateful to you for your two letters… It is most kind of you.
Julian is I deplore to say very bad: there is little or no hope now. I quite thought yesterday that he was going to pull through–but I am afraid it is not to be….
Yours sincerely Desborough
And word had reached Julian’s lighthearted brother Billy, bound for now for the trenches. He wrote a letter which combines a decent attention to the hopeless task of addressing a family calamity with fealty to some very Julian-like values which, even if we were to suppose that they were expressed in order to give solace to his parents, read as strangely self-involved. Very, very Julian-like:
My dear daddy
I got your second letter today with the less good account of dear Ju. The issue lies with God alone now, & He will decide for the best–I pray to Him to be with you all in these days of trial, & to uphold the splendid courage you have shewn through all.
I thank him too for having allowed the dear boy to show his glorious valour to all the world before he was struck down.
What better fate could one desire for a loved one–“Sed miles, sed pro patria…”
Hm. Isn’t that a fitting touch? God’s hands, and remember that he did well (“glorious valour”) and–ah, has brilliant Billy delved deep into the classics to find a fitting classical tag? It does sound a bit like a famous bit of Horace–something about dying “pro patria,” something that is due to be famously re-purposed by one of our trench poets to be. Summoning Roman fortitude in this moment is a nice touch…
But it’s not Roman, not really. It’s Victorian/Edwardian, through-and-through, a quotation from an English-poem-with-Latin-kicker by Henry Newbolt, poet laureate of idiot muscular British Christian imperialism and the chest-puffing, lip-stiffening way of the gentleman. The four Latin words are lifted from the last line of Clifton Chapel, a celebration of the brave death of a young man, who “fell” far away fighting. The “sed“–“but” is the usual “translation”–is concessive: alas for the boy who died–young, and far away, but a soldier, but for the homeland.
On the one hand, positive values. Sometimes war is necessary and soldiering is honorable (and few Britons a century back yet questioned the necessity and honorableness of the current war) and patriotism is a good thing (when it’s our “patria,” anyway). On the other, sport and war and God and country and the denial of grieving, all tangled up, and to the general detriment of, well, everything. Patriotism may be good, violence may be well-directed, but not for long,not out of such a tangle of unqualified emotional commitments. But this is an inappropriate argument to be having over a young man’s deathbed–I apologize.
From later accounts we learn that Julian was aware of the nearness of death.
On 25 May Julian said to Monica ‘Goodbye Casie’; and to his mother–‘Hold my hand till I go’. Ettie [Lady Desborough] saw how ‘a shaft of sunlight came in at the darkened window and fell across his feet’. He smiled at her and said ‘Phoebus Apollo’. After that–‘He did not speak again, except once, to say his father’s name’.
Julian Grenfell lingered, unconscious, on into the night.
A little uncanny, then, are the thoughts that Donald Hankey–who is not far away from Boulogne now, and preparing to enter the trenches for the first time himself–jotted down today, a century back. These are solemn consolations for those in the Grenfells’ situation, and also something of a rebuke to my own ranting. It’s one thing to rail at the convenient pieties of vicious young fighters like the Grenfell brothers, but Hankey is a deeply serious and committed Christian, serving in the ranks in order to better serve his flock after the war:
Death is a great teacher: from him men learn what are the things they really value….
True religion is betting one’s life that there is a God.
In the hour of danger all good men are believers: they choose the spiritual, and reject the material.
The death of a hero convinces all of eternal life: they are unable to call it a tragedy.
It’s an awkward transition, from the bedside of a dying soldier to… well, to anywhere. But especially to a writer still in civilian clothes in England. And yet perhaps it’s precisely within the spirit of this project to spend the rest of today on the doings and writings of Edward Thomas.
If we were in the business of quick-and-dirty (or compelling-but-perhaps-rather-shallow) comparisons–and who isn’t?!?–it would be easy to set Grenfell and Thomas up as twin avatars of two different types of war poetry, their portraits gazing quiet daggers at each other over the ornate hearth, glances not quite connecting, like Holbein’s Cromwell and More.
There they are, diffidently confronting each other over the war in verse: the aristocratic sportsman and cavalryman and the middle class naturalist and prodigious walker; the aloof loner, feared or respected more than befriended, and the family man with his dozens of fast friendships, ambulatory, amatory, and epistolary; the decisive lover of battle, never so happy than when freed from responsibility or looking for creatures to kill, and the keeper-fearing, path-in-the-woods-pausing, ever-vacillating temperamental artist.
Thomas’s letters have been full of the joys of May, of late, but also of deeper uncertainty–about his writing, his finances, and his fate. Should he volunteer? Emigrate? Could he continue to put the best of himself into poetry that was garnering little interest from publishers?
To Jesse Berridge, today, he wrote with an update on his prose chores, and also to offer up his poems, once again, for review.
…just about the end of March I began a new piece of work, a life of Marlborough. After 6 or 7 weeks reading I began the writing last week & it will keep me close at it for I don’t quite know how long, but less than 2 months I hope. Then I shall be free or empty & have to make up my mind what to do if there isn’t any work.
Thomas needed, as he wrote to Harry Hooton on the 19th, “an honest reader’s opinion because I seem to be committed to a new path that does not promise money and I want any confirmation I can get that it promises at any rate some advance in effectiveness.” But confirmation or not, he still needed cash. He laid out his options before Berridge:
I tried to get a job at the historical section of the War Office, but only had my name put down on possibly a very long list…
I am still suffering from my ankle or perhaps I should regard some military service as the thing for me especially if ordinary work fails. Nobody that I know well has enlisted so I am really at sea as to how men really feel about it & if my own hesitations are at all common…
That second sentence is worth a brief note–it must have seemed, reading here last fall, that every middle class Englishman, no matter if he was legally blind, halt, or pushing sixty, stumbled straight to the recruiting sergeant when the world began. Millions did, but we were hearing from far too many recent Public School graduates. Away from that distorting effect it’s quite true that many men–especially those no longer in their twenties, those with family responsibilities–had never felt crushing pressure to enlist. Many hesitated–few wrote about it as much as Thomas did. They hesitated, and, indeed, they hadn’t even been called. And the waves of young volunteers without dependents are subsiding, now–which is why we shall shortly hear serious talk of proposals for Britain’s first-ever conscription law.
Anyway. From there Thomas touches base–spring, nightingales–and asks for Berridge’s help:
It has been a most lovely Spring here. We had a nightingale singing close to the house for 3 weeks. I have gone on with my versification & I will send you some specimens with this, & I should like to know if you find anything to like among them… I have sent some out to all the possible papers & without success…
To Eleanor Farjeon he had written, on the 22nd, with a similar report and request for aid. Farjeon had read many of Thomas’s poems, offered criticism, and even typed and mailed out many of them. But he tended to dismiss her comments even more completely than those of his (male, published) friends. Gordon Bottomley has recently criticized Thomas’s prosiness-in-verse, however, and Thomas acknowledged the comment that he was “using words in the spirit of the prose writer &… everyday syntax” as “quite an essential remark…”
Acknowledged–but did not exactly agree to correct. No ellipsis in the original, but instead a parry: “& yet not one I can do anything with but remember..
This, too, was why Thomas desired anonymity for his published verse–he was being judged with his prose in mind. To Farjeon he wrote that
Gordon Bottomley… tells me I am still too much bound [by] my prose methods of statement. I suspect he is right, but of course I can’t do anything but hope that experience and honesty will lead me to a better way if there is one (for me)…
So, three days ago, a century back, he was near despair. As he went on to tell Farjeon, his time is overwhelmed with the hack biography and his mind nearly overcome with worry for the future:
I am in the thick of writing [Marlborough]—very slowly, but as I do 6 or 7 hours a day I have covered many pages already. It is mostly paraphrase so far with some bits of argument on points of character and conduct. In 30 or 40 such days, if I keep the pace up, I could put the blessed thing behind me, and yet I know I may find myself with nothing to do afterwards and nothing to hope for either. If it were right and reasonable to leave England in the present state of things I suppose I ought to go and really try to get something out of New York and Boston; also if I could seem to afford it…
This quandary will only intensify: exile might mean penury; work may dry up and may be killing his poetry anyway; so, war?
But every day is a new day. Two days back, the 23rd, Thomas took a long walk, stumbled onto a beautiful scene, and was roughly and wonderfully manhandled by the muse.
He came home and drafted a poem–his production dwindles with his time, but his power seems to wax under the pressure. Minutes or hours later he wrote to Frost in a mood of deep melancholy–with an admixture of quiet exultation. (This, I think, was the mood that turned him toward thoughts of his distant friend and inevitable “rival”–if that term must needs encompass any pair who are driven to better work by the other’s presence, no matter their mutual love and admiration.)
Frost will know how to read Thomas’s shyly proud little announcement: “it seemed I had dried up, owing to Marlborough, but I have done a thing today.” This was Sedge-Warblers, the poem that spurred his pen on. But Thomas missed Frost, and in a post-script the next day (yesterday, a century back) he laid out his thoughts about the future:
P.S. Of course I keep thinking about the chances of coming over this year. In any case it will be hard to seem to be able to afford it, so that I could perhaps only risk it if I really made up my mind I would see editors as much as possible. I dread them as much as that keeper. I hate meeting people I want to get something out of, perhaps…
I don’t feel at all certain. Like everything else that means an unusual & conscious step it looks impossible, like becoming a teacher or a soldier–I suppose I ought to write a long short story about a man who didn’t enlist.
I tell you I wish you were in Gloucestershire as God is (‘as sure as God’s in Gloucestershire’ is a proverb you probably know) or instead of him. There are a good many moments when I feel there is hardly anybody that matters except God in Gloucestershire or any other county. I have been very impatient with people lately & yet sorry they have drifted off.
Let’s leave the lives, for the poetry.
In a few days we will have cause to look at Into Battle again; today we will read Sedge-Warblers.
Not yet six months a poet, Edward Thomas’s skill with rhyme and rhythm is such that his first version of Sedge-Warblers fell into the form of an ingenious double sonnet. The revision–of yesterday, a century back, and the version usually printed–is still a complex play on that most familiar form, yet it reads as smoothly as the freest of free verse.
The first long stanza is a beautiful feint–a beautiful feint toward beauty. The poet comes upon a babbling brook, entertains thoughts of nymphs and the sacred abundance of nature, and captures the music of his thoughts in language tripping and sweet and pure, sound and sense in harmony.
It’s real poetry, not least because, as his notebook confirms, the poem was begun en plein air, in the moment. The great walker-poet has walked into inspirational beauty, and, though exhausted by his slogging pursuit of Marlborough’s armies, he has risen to the muse’s challenge.
And then he’s off in another direction entirely, and the reader, wrong-footed, must hurry to catch up.
And yet, rid of this dream, ere I had drained
Its poison, quieted was my desire
So that I only looked into the water,
Clearer than any goddess or man’s daughter,
And hearkened while it combed the dark green hair
And shook the millions of the blossoms white
Of water-crowfoot, and curdled to one sheet
The flowers fallen from the chestnuts in the park
Far off. And sedge-warblers, clinging so light
To willow twigs, sang longer than the lark,
Quick, shrill, or grating, a song to match the heat
Of the strong sun, nor less the water’s cool,
Gushing through narrows, swirling in the pool.
Their song that lacks all words, all melody,
All sweetness almost, was dearer then to me
Than sweetest voice that sings in tune sweet words.
This was the best of May–the small brown birds
Wisely reiterating endlessly
What no man learnt yet, in or out of school.
This is brilliant. Larkin couldn’t have done this better, though he would have greyed and scuffed down the diction.
How many larks have we seen already? And we have many larks to go before we sleep. The lark is a great singer, for centuries the poets’ favorite herald of the dawn. And soon the war poets will undertake an ironic counter-march against this tradition, many of them noting the incongruity of the lark singing on among the corpses and desolation, at the break of day in the trenches.
The Sedge-Warbler Sings, Longer Than The Lark
But Thomas is too subtle to violently ironize the lark. He simply moves beyond, to the humble sedge-warbler.
What is this bird that “sang longer than the lark?” Longer, and straighter. Thomas, in other moods, loves sweetness. But he recognizes that a sweet tooth, in life or in poetry, will not satisfy consistently. Here he finds something more important. The best of May is not pure beauty and sweetness, but a sort of common wisdom–something that will last longer than lark song.
Thomas is a great bird poet, but often a conventional one, whose birds signify mysteries or infinities, or represent transcendence or the higher purities of nature. Sure. And the lark is lovely, eloquent, ethereal. But you can’t every day host exaltations–what of the simple bouquets? What of the falls, the confusions and wrenches of life?
Here, in this poem, the sedge-warbler is human, and wise, its song “re-attaches the speaker-as-poet to the earth.” Instead of desire–a dangerous, larkish thing, for desires can be irrational or impossible to fill, or even self-destroying–the sedge-warbler seems to impart real, measured knowledge. Not every day is ripe for sweetness, not every sonnet must be a love song. Edna Longley makes this point by positing an apt, if rather pedantic, deepening of the natural analogy: “Thomas assumes (rightly) that birdsong, the most complex utterance by any other species, and the lyric poem have a common evolutionary origin.” So the lyric poet waxes wise, and sings of more than mere beauty.
One final comparison.
Julian Grenfell’s two best-known poems–other than Into Battle, which will soon be published and far eclipse them–also celebrate animals. How do they compare to these manifold birds of Edward Thomas? Well now. Grenfell chose the swiftest and sleekest (the best and most beautiful, the Greeks would say) of hunters, the greyhound, and the most fierce and deadly of the beasts of venery the boar.
That Thomas is a much more skillful and subtle poet while Grenfell was a talented amateur writing in a somewhat hackneyed style is not the point. It’s what they lived, and what they saw, and how they chose to make their experienced worlds into verse…