Love and Mud from Roland Leighton to Vera Brittain; Patrick Shaw-Stewart on the Attractions of Athens

It’s been a while since we’ve heard from Patrick Shaw-Stewart. He’s in a reflective mood, today:

A simple calculation reveals the fact that I have now been the better part of ten months from England, and getting on for eight ashore. (That will be truer when it reaches you; I always like to do myself full justice.) It’s a much longer period than I have ever stayed in one place before with so few comings and goings, and it certainly is a quaint locality to choose to make one’s record of. Broadly speaking, I have disliked it all intensely, but not nearly so much as I disliked the more preparatory stages of the warrior’s career on Salisbury Plain last winter. (Probably the only period of the war I have really tolerated was when I was at the Crystal Palace and could dine in London every night.) But on the whole I’m glad I came here and not to France; one will bore one’s grandchildren slightly less with one’s doddering anecdotes of the Chersonese, because they will be slightly less widespread. (Not but what one will bore them a good deal.) And it is
something to have the sun so obliging as to rise beyond Ida and set over Samothrace. And one bit of real genuine fun I have got out of it—forty-eight hours in Athens, for which I machinated for months…  The thing that I remember perhaps most distinctly was, the real bath in the hotel; after that, the temple of Nike Apteros…

Yes, the tale’s the thing, and leave in Athens is a powerful reward for a very dirty classical scholar. He describes the leave today to another correspondent as well–Lady Desborough, the mother of his fallen friends Julian and Billy Grenfell. Will she hear of the glorious bath?

We got there on the Saturday morning, and had a gloriously fine afternoon on the Acropolis and in the Acropolis Museum. I was overjoyed with it, having always expected Athens would be disappointing. Then the modern side of it appealed greatly to the Peninsular[1] veteran, and I may as well confess that I spent most of the night in an Athenian night club. (They have an opposite rule to London; you mayn’t leave before 3 a.m.) In the morning we went to the Museum, full of amazing things, and in the afternoon to Eleusis, where we met seven Germans, with a dachshund—a strange sight and sensation, one felt vaguely as if one ought to entrench…[2]

 

Roland Leighton and Vera Brittain are, by the way, back in epistolary gear. Roland has been writing regularly:

France, 28 November 1915

I have just been out for a walk behind the trenches to get warm. It is very cold, and unless you keep moving about your feet soon become more like ice than feet. The men have begun to get ‘trench feet’ (commonly called frostbite, though the doctor says it isn’t the same thing exactly) from standing still on sentry duty at night. They ought to be much better off than last year, though, to judge from the grandmotherly care lavished on them by the powers that be.

A rather different point of view on the preparations for winter than the cynical dismay expressed by Raymond Asquith.

Personally I like cold weather very much, provided I can move about enough to keep warm: and I am one of the fortunate persons who don’t get troubled with chilblains. It is an advantage to be on the fat side this weather, I imagine!

A fair report. But can we strive for the poetical?

I don’t think that when one can still admire sunsets one has altogether lost the personality of pre-war days. I have been looking at a bloodred bar of sky creeping down behind the snow, and wondering whether any of the men in the trenches on the opposite hill were watching it too and thinking as I was what a waste of Life it is to spend it in a ditch.

…It will feel like coming to another planet to come back to England, or rather to certain people in England. My leave, of course, is not definite at all yet and may not even come off for some long time. But I have hopes; and anticipation is very sweet, and better often, one thinks, than the realisation. It was so last time, I remember.

[Very much love, sweetest. Goodnight.]

So Roland is back on good behavior–sweet, but not unthinkingly so. And today the mails confirm the restored connection–the breach is healed. Today we have sweet nothings, mud, and socks.

France, 30 November 1915

Your very sweet letter nearly made me cry too. It reminded me of how much I had really deserved the former one. No, it would not have been better to have thought the things and not written them: though they did hurt me, perhaps more than you thought they would. But it was very good for my Infallible Majesty; and you are very adorable when you are angry.

★ ★ ★ ★ ★

You would be very amused if you could see me now. The snow has melted and rain taken its place, with the result that the trenches are half full of liquid mud, suddenly-thawed traverses have fallen and blocked the way with earth and sandbags, and everyone is wading around in what the Ordnance Stores describe as ‘boots, gum, thigh’. I am wearing some now, and came into the dug-out a moment or two ago looking like a peripatetic ball of mud, which proceeded to peel off various outer garments, shake some superfluous mud on to the floor, and sit down to write a letter. My top half is now more or less normal, but I am a sticky mess all down below. One cannot help feeling a child’s pleasure in getting muddy, though; and apart from the difficulties of locomotion I enjoy myself thoroughly.

★ ★ ★ ★ ★

Do you really want to send me a Christmas present, or can you leave it till I come back on leave? The most charming present would be just a letter from you–and, if you like, a book. Please do not send me anything of the ‘Winter Comforts for our Troops’ variety—though I cannot picture you doing so! If your Mother would like to send me another pair of those extra large socks she sent a little time ago they would be very useful for wearing in my gum boots.

With which domestic detail I will go off to dinner.[3]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. i.e. Gallipoli, with a play on Wellington's long-ago campaign on the Iberian Peninsula
  2. Patrick Shaw-Stewart, 155-6.
  3. Letters From a Lost Generation, 191-3.

Thomas Hardy in the Churchyard; Raymond Asquith on Romance, Snow, and Sorceresses

Thomas Hardy‘s elder sister Mary–a quiet, steady presence in his life for three-quarters of a century and the subject of several poems–was buried today “in the cold and the wet” of Dorset. The death of an elderly woman, after an illness, was a different sort of blow than the death of a young man in his prime like Hardy’s cousin. But for a man facing his late seventies amidst the ruinous folly that much of his writing had seemed to predict–thematically, at least–it still came as a very heavy one.

Buried her under the yew tree where the rest of us lie. As Mr. Cowley read the words of the psalm “Dixi Custodiam” they reminded me strongly of her nature, particularly when she was young: “I held my tongue and spake nothing: I kept silence, yea, even from good words.” That was my poor Mary exactly. She never defended herself; and that not from timidity, but indifference to opinion.[1]

It is hard to not to see the English churchyard, the yew, and, of course, the heavy weather–apparently there was a cold, day-long drizzle. By the time Hardy will write tomorrow’s letter–in which the phrase “where the rest of us lie” will turn up again–he will have a bad cough and a bronchial infection.

 

What with all this poet-meeting and fiancé-fight-patching-up we’ve been a few days without an update from Raymond Asquith–but he’s been staying on point. If it’s not fois gras and champagne in billets, it’s discomfort nearer the line:

26 November 1915

We marched this morning from our old billets to a ruined French town about a mile behind the firing line. It snowed fiercely all the time we were on the march and was very cold and uncomfortable.

But it’s not all bad:

We are better housed now than one has any right to expect so near to the front and in a place which has been (and occasionally still is) so heavily shelled as this. There is no glass in our windows and the walls and ceilings and furniture are all perforated with shrapnel, but we have a fire and beds which are unexpected joys in billets of this character . . . I got an excellent luncheon of soup, omelette and beer at a local estaminet for 2 francs. The phlegm of the French contrasts very favourably with the hysteria of the English. People still live and do their business in these shattered houses and a few doors down this street I heard the children in an infants’ school chanting their lessons…

27 November 1915

…The chocolate and cigarettes have arrived safely…  Today was a beautiful winter day, brilliant sun and hard frost. The sky was very clear and full of aeroplanes. I counted 7 of ours in a sort of flock being terrifically shelled by the Huns. It is really a very pretty sight, the flash of the shrapnel and the little ball of white smoke which keeps its identity for a quarter of an hour or more before it is dissipated. But this again has been so often described that one is ashamed to mention it.

Yes, he has still not shaken what seems to be his second-greatest fear of life in the trenches: the fear of writing predictable or boring letters. At least we’re in a good position to compare, and rule. So what else is new?

I’m afraid we shall suffer a good deal from cold in the trenches tomorrow but anyhow they are dry this time and if we can only be sure of getting back for our 2 days “out” to these excellent billets I shall endure the 2 days “in” with equanimity…

diana manners cooper 1914

Circe

But those were only letters to the wife. What about when he picks up the pen to have a go at Diana Manners?

28 November 1915

Your letter has forced its way through.a very dirty night to my dug-out in an isolated fortress of sand-bags–A lotus in Lapland, a snow-flake stained with wine. The Baptist’s head was not more welcome to Salome. I was near the end of my or anybody’s bent, for damp and cold and boredom, when it came. But if there had been nothing else with it but the words “or ever man” it would have carried me through another 24 hours, and nothing can do more than that. God bless you, Dilly, for your wit. It sometimes makes me think He loved the world after all.

When your letter came–(in the morning)–I was reading the Odes of Horace (the only book I have here or want) and was in the middle of one, in which he tells how Penelope and Circe were both soppy about Ulysses “Laborantes in uno Penelopen vitreamque Circen” and was thinking what an apt epithet for you was “vitreous” which means glassy–hard, brilliant and of an aquamarine tint, reflecting well too, which you do; not that this exhausts you, nothing does not even your mother. But somehow “vitreous” gives me the physical sensation of you which is what I want, (and of course what every one wants), but in truth I believe it is only because the adjective is eked out by the substantive–CIRCE–what a word! I know none to equal it in charm. Will you write me any word which you think better or as good? How I adore words don’t you? better than all things and almost all people . . .

raymond asquith, 1915

Ulysses

Yes, that’s better than the usual “it’s cold here and that sucks.” Far better. A challenge risen to. And I’m sure, friends, that we don’t miss the aptness of all this. Yes, he is at pains, once again, to let us know that he is reading Horace. Bully for the old classics scholar. But what a good allusion–it’s Ulysses again and, of course, one of those bits that remind us that the famously faithful husband, away at the wars, striving to return to his faithful wife, is also having a terrific dalliance with an enchantress…  well played. But the dalliance, I think, is aspirational–neither Asquith nor any other member of the coterie has yet won her attentions.

And today, a century back, it’s back to Ithaca and the aged wife and the cold barren crags and all that:

29 November 1915

…I am in command of a platoon in an isolated redoubt away from the rest of my company with orders to hold out to the last gasp in the event of an attack.

Fortunately nothing is less probable as we have completely (so far as one can judge) broken the spirit of the Boche in this part of the line. We shell him every day for hours and he hardly ever replies. Last night it was freezing, but now there is a thaw with a raw wind and rain, but I am better off for dug-outs than ever before, having a bedroom (with mattress, looking glass and writing table) a sitting-room and a kitchen for Needham. The men all have dug-outs too, so that it is difficult to get them to do any work. The only disadvantage is the loneliness and having to walk a certain distance up an inadequate communication trench for my dinner in the front line, a wet puzzling journey in the dark with bullets singing over one’s head; if it were not for the German rockets, I should get lost every time. Being the only officer, I have to stay up most of the night, but I doze a good deal, read a little Horace, write a few letters, or mesmerise myself by gazing at the lovely broad flame of my giant candle, aspiring like a spirit and shaped like an Achaean spear-head.

Ah, there’s something here still. The experiential gulf has yet to wash him down:

…I’m afraid this life tends to make me even more egotistical than usual. It is a mistake, and a very common one, to suppose that the details of one’s life are different from the details one is used to. Anyhow by this time War-life has become more of a routine and convention than peacelife ever was and it is the doings of all of you who live at home that have grown romantic and wild and highly-coloured…[2]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. F. E. Hardy, The Life of Thomas Hardy, 371-2; Blunden, Thomas Hardy, 154.
  2. Life and Letters, 220-2.

Tea in Bethune with Graves and Sassoon–Woeful Crimson, Braggadocio, and a Redeemer; The Master of Belhaven Assailed by a Priest

Of all the war’s journeys–all the war’s written journeys, that is–Sassoon‘s Progress is the most attractive. It is as charmed in its literary arc as it is torturous in its military evolution. If his trials and triumphs, his illusions and disillusions, provisional victories and sharp losses could stand for the experience of many young volunteer subalterns in a terrible war, then his writing life is graced by a luck he does not seem to have earned. He has written little and accomplished less in his twenty-nine years, but family connections and an appealing personality have already led to several important contacts in the literary world, namely Edmund Gosse, Robbie Ross, and Eddie Marsh. It was Marsh who arranged the quintessential pre-war crossing of paths, when Sassoon had breakfast with Rupert Brooke.

If that was the breakfast-before-the-war, it’s time already for tea. Today it was not patronage but chance commissions and opaque bureaucratic distribution that brought Sassoon together with another young officer recently assigned to the 1/Royal Welch Fusiliers, Robert Graves.

November 28th

Walked into Béthune for tea with Robert Graves, a young poet in Third Battalion and very much disliked. An interesting creature, overstrung, and self-conscious, a defier of convention. At night went up again to Festubert with working-party. Dug from 12 to 2 a.m. Very cold. Home 4.15.[1]

There is actually a double sleight there–Graves is in the Third Battalion in the sense that he entered the Royal Welch through the Special Reserve (the Third Battalion is the Reserve formation, rather than a fighting unit). Sassoon is thus aligning himself with the fox-hunting Regulars, who look down on such non-professionals, even though he only joined the army a few weeks earlier than Graves, and the Regiment many months later. Not to mention the fact that Sassoon has a few days with the troops and none in real combat while Graves has spent several months on active service with the Welsh Regiment and the 2/Royal Welch and was with the Regiment when the second battalion was battered on the first day of the Battle of Loos.

And that’s that. “I met this strange fellow, and we had tea. I can neither confirm nor deny that we showed each other our work in progress…” (My, er, paraphrase.) Nor does the entrance of this formidable character into Sassoon’s life does earn–yet–any mention in “Sherston’s.” The Memoirs are concerned, at this point, with his acclimation to the trenches and with establishing the characters of his own company and platoon. The tall, poetical defier of convention called “David Cromlech,” will not be introduced until months later, in the second volume of “Sherston’s” memoirs.

Graves, whose memoirs are both more and less “true” than Sassoon’s–no names are changed in Good-Bye to All That, but, then again, no diaries are painstakingly transposed and many tall tales are told–puts the meeting in its proper place. Which is to say he mentions it just after his transfer to A Company of the 1/Royal Welch, and also that he makes clear the literary character of their friendship from the very beginning. It’s a good scene:

A day or two after I arrived I went to visit ‘C’ Company Mess, where I got a friendly welcome. I noticed The Essays of Lionel Johnson lying on the table. It was the first book I had seen in France (except my own copies of Keats and Blake) that was neither a military text-book nor a rubbishy novel. I stole a look at the fly-leaf, and the name was Siegfried Sassoon. Then I looked around to see who could possibly be called Siegfried Sassoon and bring Lionel Johnson with him to the First Battalion. The answer being obvious, I got into conversation with him, and a few minutes later we set out for Béthune, being off duty until dusk, and talked about poetry.

“The answer being obvious” can–and probably does–mean two different things. That only one man in the room looked like a serious reader, and that only one man in the room looked like he could have such a name, i.e. looked Jewish.[2] This would be an attraction for Graves, who was no anti-Semite: Sassoon was an oddity, with a touch of exoticism something like his own much-played-up Celtic connections. But still, here the clumsy enfant terrible has made a point of reminding us that his new friend also didn’t quite belong…

And as quick as Sassoon was to remind us of his social superiority–the oddness of this rather middle class Graves fellow, not a hunting man–Graves reminds us of his literary advantages. He mentions Sassoon’s privately printed poems before getting to his own.

…We went to the cake shop and ate cream buns. At this time I was getting my first book of poems, Over the Brazier, ready for the press; I had one or two drafts in my pocket-book and showed them to Siegfried. He frowned and said that war should not be written about in such a realistic way. In return, he showed me some of his own poems. One of them began:

Return to greet me, colours that were my joy,
Not in the woeful crimson of men slain…

Siegfried had not yet been in the trenches. I told him, in my old-soldier manner, that he would soon change his style.[3]

There’s so much going on here. Graves acknowledges one thing, at least, that Sassoon will elide–their friendship is, from the first, about poetry. Graves puts his big feet in here with characteristic lack of subtlety, representing himself as an almost-important poet, when in fact he hasn’t yet had anything printed anywhere other than his school magazine. Sassoon’s privately printed verses had, at least drawn some attention, and in the literary hobnobbing game he has a leg up, as Harry Ricketts has it,

Both counted themselves as among Eddie Marsh’s up-and-coming protégés, but Graves had only been promised a meeting with the late and now great Rupert Brooke, Sassoon had actually had breakfast with him.

Yes, but Graves is already a Captain, and has been in a battle, and spent months in the trenches. Ah but only a Reserve Captain, and only nineteen…

All true enough. It’s a tossup, perhaps, but one that Graves is eager to win. The larger point is that they like each other, that their shared interest in poetry is a powerful attraction and that–no surprise here–this new friendship between two young men is competitive from the start, with ambition and affection jostling uneasily against each other.

And yet readers are continually surprised by it. Ricketts also writes that “Poetry sparked the friendship but, ironically, neither at first thought much of the other’s poems.”[4] Do you think? No–there’s no irony in this. It is abundantly clear that Sassoon had talent, the proverbial “way with words,” but neither the taste nor the hard good sense to know what merits conversion into verse that–“ironically”–marks a successful poet. Graves was young and unformed, powerful but gawky in prosody as in society. Each saw something in the other, and it’s probably true that Graves, nearly friendless in France and brooding after several difficult months with the especially stuffy and anti-intellectual 2nd Battalion, needs Sassoon more, and more immediately.

I’m not sure where the assumption comes from that when a young man makes a new friend their shared interests must be mutually supportive and conflict free–but it’s a silly notion. Each thought the other interesting and was glad to talk poetry. Each also thought the other to be a little odd and to write very tasteless, uncool verse. Naturally.

But before we get to the poetry itself, there is one more issue to be disposed of, namely sexual attraction.

There wasn’t any, a fact which both men were clear about. I hate to label people with “our” identity markers when they themselves didn’t have the option of publicly labeling themselves in a similar way, or even to allow their inclinations to be known without suffering severe personal and professional consequences. The matter is made even more complicated by the changes in orientation and identity that people go through in life, and also by my hang-up here about not discussing the century-back “future” of these writers, lest it destroy our sense of living in their (centennial) present.

But anyway, needs must. At this point, for lack of a better word, Sassoon was gay. He had written “coded” but clearly homeoerotic poems, and while he takes the sexual edge off of his love for his comrade David Thomas when he fictionalizes it in the Memoirs, it is hard not to see it as a sincere and complete affection, the love of an adult man–age twenty-nine–for another man. It was not reciprocated, but then again Sassoon had almost certainly not acted on his desires at all. Whoever he wanted to have sex with, he was not looking for sex.

Graves, likewise inexperienced, was at this time in love with a younger school friend, a fact which he will boldly discuss. But, as Graves tells the story, this love was chaste, even prudish, and crazily unrealistic–a product of the bizarre combination of bottled sexual urges, ignorance, physical violence, and semi-approved homoeroticism that characterized many British Public Schools at the time.[5] So there is–or there will be (apologies for looking ahead)–a major difference in their sexual personae. Graves, just twenty, is in love with an idealized boy, who is in fact gay and sexually active, but he–Graves–has a horror of sex and will end up realizing that this is “just a phase,” as we like to describe it. (Still?) He will, in fact–semi-spoiler here–end up indulging in a rather deafening, almost hysterical heterosexuality.

None of which should really matter, nor should it attract the attention of commentators at this point in the story. Perhaps I’m being prudish myself, but if it seems like historical overreach to assume that they should have loved each other’s writing if they hit it off as friends, it seems like an even worse instinct–a combination of basic writerly nosiness and (worse) a vague sort of homophobia–to assume that because we have two men deciding to have tea together–and because one has written about having a crush on a boy and the other will eventually love other men–there must have been a sexual spark. I don’t want to be a scold, but this is a friendship sparked by a book on a table, and propelled by two little sheaves of poetry-in-progress. If, like most Great War writers, neither had ever written about his sexual desires, we wouldn’t speculate. Nor would we dally here if they were both unimpeachably straight…

Even if one holds–irrefutably, pointlessly–that no relationships are completely asexual, their histories can’t be written from that belief rather than from the available testimony. Right here, right now, sex is not on the table[6]–poetry is.

Graves has quoted for us a few lines of Sassoon’s “To Victory.” Which is a snarky move, but an effective one. It’s very old fashioned, silly almost to decadence. I can’t improve upon Graves’s decision to simply snicker at the first two lines, but quoting more can illustrate the other important thing about the poem: it is an anti-war poem, but only in the old sense of denying the reality of the war. The key, already, is that woeful “woeful crimson”–beautiful vowels and a lovely image, but unreal. It’s page-poetry, fantasy, not the mud and blood of actual war.

Then there’s this:

I want to fill my gaze with blue and silver,
Radiance through living roses, spires of green…

I am not sad; only I long for lustre,—
Tired of the greys and browns and the leafless ash.
I would have hours that move like a glitter of dancers
Far from the angry guns that boom and flash.

This is a poem that damns the war for its ugliness–not ugliness as a permanent blight on those who experience it, but as an inconvenience to the lovely dream-life of interrupted aesthetes.

So what effect did meeting Graves have on Sassoon’s poetry? Sassoon has denied us any direct, immediate evidence, and Graves has quietly claimed to have made, in his “old-soldier’s manner,” all the difference in the world.

So, who is right?

Well, the circumstantial evidence is heavily on Graves’s side. Here is the poem which Sassoon first drafted this very day, a century back. (Although the text given below incorporates changes made later on.)

Drafted before tea in Béthune? I doubt it.

 

The Redeemer

Darkness: the rain sluiced down; the mire was deep;
It was past twelve on a mid-winter night,
When peaceful folk in beds lay snug asleep;
There, with much work to do before the light,
We lugged our clay-sucked boots as best we might
Along the trench; sometimes a bullet sang,
And droning shells burst with a hollow bang;
We were soaked, chilled and wretched, every one;
Darkness; the distant wink of a huge gun.

 

I turned in the black ditch, loathing the storm;
A rocket fizzed and burned with blanching flare,
And lit the face of what had been a form
Floundering in mirk. He stood before me there;
I say that He was Christ; stiff in the glare,
And leaning forward from His burdening task,
Both arms supporting it; His eyes on mine
Stared from the woeful head that seemed a mask
Of mortal pain in Hell’s unholy shine.

 

No thorny crown, only a woollen cap
He wore—an English soldier, white and strong,
Who loved his time like any simple chap,
Good days of work and sport and homely song;
Now he has learned that nights are very long,
And dawn a watching of the windowed sky.
But to the end, unjudging, he’ll endure
Horror and pain, not uncontent to die
That Lancaster on Lune may stand secure.

 

He faced me, reeling in his weariness,
Shouldering his load of planks, so hard to bear.
I say that He was Christ, who wrought to bless
All groping things with freedom bright as air,
And with His mercy washed and made them fair.
Then the flame sank, and all grew black as pitch,
While we began to struggle along the ditch;
And someone flung his burden in the muck,
Mumbling: ‘O Christ Almighty, now I’m stuck!’

 

The last line came later than today, it’s true. And the meat of the poem, the experience, came from the working parties of the last few nights. And the (rather forthright!) Christian imagery is deep in the bones of English poetry…

But can this “distinct change of direction” really not have something to do with the pushy, (over)-confident young captain and his own rather dreadful “shocker” poems full of misery and gore?

“Here at last is War poetry based on actual experience rather than literature,” writes Jean Moorcroft Wilson, one of Sassoon’s biographers. Well, yes–except for the fact that there is no need to separate the inseparable. (False dichotomy, etc.) Like any poem–like any poem other than the utterly naive or the intensely allusive–“The Redeemer” is a product of the writer’s experience and his reading. And this one surely shows the influence of a friendly rival as well. It’s a little obtuse to imply that a gospel-referencing poem in simply rhymed iambics is not “based on literature–” it’s not where it comes from but where it is trying to go that makes all the difference.[7]

Sassoon has turned about, or settled in–he has, in any case, found a new direction for his poetry. Not back to the halcyon nineties or the beautiful, operatic, pre-war days, not longing to find its way to a shelf of prettily-printed leisure verse. But into the trenches, to see what the poet can see.

It’s worth reminding ourselves, finally, what the new poem is not. It is not bitter, it is not angry, it is not disillusioned. The soldier is idealized, his motivations are simple, pure, and untroubled–for England–and his journey (that word again) consists of hardly a step. It’s realism, but not yet three-dimensional, not yet plastic or swift.

Siegfried Sassoon leads a charmed life. Aimless and well-supported, he saw the war as a way out of the doldrums. And the war has shielded him from its worst, so far, instead delivering him into a battalion that has–within three days–provided him with a sense of “home,” the stuff for better poetry, and a friend to spur him onward.

 

It’s Robbie and Siegfried’s day, but I can’t resist one burst of bitter wit from Ralph Hamilton, the Master of Belhaven, who has been enduring–with much diary-ward complaint–a series of freezing and poorly organized marches into reserve. His battery, half-destroyed on the 15th, has been rearmed, but it’s the entire division which is rotating out of the trenches. And yet there is neither comfort nor rest to be found:

Moringhem, 28th November, 1915

A truly dreadful day. To begin with, it had been freezing hard all night after yesterday’s thaw, and the road was one sheet of ice. The horses could not keep their feet, and fell every few yards…  It was a twenty-two-mile march and in my whole life I have never felt such cold…  twenty degrees of frost, and… there was a strong wind… that went through one like a knife…

On arrival we were horrified to find that this–our rest-camp for a month–is about the worst thing in billets we have struck since we came out. It is a tiny and poverty-stricken village, where one can buy nothing. Even bread cannot be had…

Harvey and I have clean and Spartan rooms in the priest’s house, but it is miserably cold…  He is a cheery soul, and played marches on his harmonium. Very painful to listen to, but he meant it well. We retaliated with Wagner on our gramophone.

…The cold depresses me; I would rather be in action again–if it was warm.[8]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Diaries, 21.
  2. The Sassoons were a prominent Persian Jewish family, but Siegfried identified strongly with his mother's very English family, and not his (absent) father's. He was a Jew neither by traditional standards nor by upbringing, and was at this time a member of the Church of England--like "George Sherston." (Not that any of this would have any baring on his appearance or the reaction of other Englishmen to it.) By the way, although I occasionally stumble upon them in the same sentence, it's striking--despite the different nature and scale of their achievements--that Sassoon's semi-fictionalizing is ever analyzed without invoking Proust, another novelist/memoirist whose main character bore striking resemblances to the author except for the fact that he was neither of Jewish ancestry nor gay...
  3. Good-Bye to All That, 173-5.
  4. Strange Meetings, 58.
  5. On which see Peter Parker's The Old Lie.
  6. Or on the telly.
  7. Wilson, Siegfried Sassoon, 213-219.
  8. War Diary, 121-2.

Vera Brittain in Tears; Siegfried Sassoon Hard at Work in the Moonlight

It’s night work again tonight–overnight–for Siegfried Sassoon.

November 27

Go out again, starting 9.45 p.m. in brilliant moonlight and iron frost. Dig from 12 to 2. Home 4.15.

“Home!” Affect or a casual, habitual usage? Hard to tell, so no use, then, in making a big deal of how swiftly the trenches come to be “home…”  But then again he is not yet in the front line trenches–this is night work conducted from support positions. More close reading!

Men get soup in ruined house at Festubert.

This diary will be a poet’s notebook. We’ve already seen it serve as the jumping-off point for an odd translation into memoir. But it’s also evidence of what made Sassoon a good officer from the first–careful concern for his men. But poet’s notebook, I was saying:

The moon shines up through matchwood skeleton rafters of roofs.

A good literary moon, this month.

Up behind the trenches the frostbound morasses and ditches and old earthworks in the moonlight with dusky figures filing across the open, hobbling to avoid slipping, inhuman forms going to and from inhuman tasks.[1]

Very nice. And we have the diary, whole and unexpurgated, to know what was going through the head, some of these days, of the poetical, observant, “indoor” Sassoon–rather than the quietly successful sportsman that his superiors welcomed to the Battalion.

With all this fine observation of his two-nights’-worth of war’s inhumanity it’s almost like he’s poised on the edge of some breakthrough, ready to meet someone special, someone who will help him shake off the Weald of Youth and all the pretty cobwebs of the nineties and write fine descriptive poetry… sleep well, subaltern, tomorrow is a big day…

 

As is today, for Vera Brittain. The boy had begun to kick at the traces and she had called him to order… and then had to wait an interminable, ambiguous stretch while her letter found its way to him and his reply reached her in London. It was a gamble, a doubling-down on the most important articles of personal faith. Love and honesty, the Romantic defiance of their separate personhood in a centrifugal world.

And yet Vera has been busy–busy busy, as a V.A.D., but also perhaps busy getting on with a world in which she cannot quite depend upon the emotional support of her soldier-boy fiancé.

Saturday November 27th

Had a letter from Dorothy Grist offering somewhat belated congratulations on my engagement. And I had one from Roland–one that nearly made me cry, for it was so very Roland, and yet a Roland I had never actually come across before—someone penitent, remorseful, almost humble, with a half-fear, which I could read between the lines, of having even temporarily alienated my love for him. For it was in answer to the one I wrote when I was angry at the scarceness of his letters & the sense of personal infallibility in them.

They’re going to be o.k.!

…The dead Roland was only sleeping, then. But I nearly wept, and was sorry I had hurt him & wrote him a sweet letter in my off-duty time. I was nearly mad with longing for him, I wanted him so.[2]

Ah. And how much of this longing will pass the (internal) censor?

1st London General Hospital, 27 November 1915

Your letter of the 22nd was brought into my ward this morning, & when I read it, it nearly made me—even me—cry. And I wished then that I hadn’t written quite as I did. Not that, I must confess, I didn’t mean every word I wrote. I am often unkind to people in general, but I never have any temptation to be unnecessarily cruel to someone whom I love as I love you. And I am never quite sure whether it is not possible to have a love that suffers too long and is too kind, but perhaps it would have been better to have thought the things and not written them. Oh! I don’t know. I was so very angry that day. And now I am so sorry–not exactly that I was angry, but that I have really hurt you. I can’t tell you how much I wanted to see you after I had read your letter. If only you had taken the other letters with you, instead of leaving them on the table at H[ebuterne] I think you might have found things in them that would have made the sting of the other less sharp.

She is ready–she even reminds him that he should now know that she has been ready–to meet him halfway. There is much between them, much binding them together. And much, too, that is pulling them apart, the dangers of soldiering most of all.

I am sorry your leave is not to come at present, yet, if you don’t in the meantime ‘get hit by something’ (what a cruel little wretch that small phrase of yours makes me feel!) it will probably be better as far as I am concerned, for you to have it in a month or so’s time rather than now. If you came now, the most you could see me would be in my 3 hours a day off-duty time, and possibly one day’s leave, granted me as a great concession by the Matron…  by the end of the year, I shall have the right to ask for a week of my fortnight…….

Oh! don’t ‘get hit by something’ in the meantime! When I think how all my world would go down into the abyss……..[3]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Diaries, 20.
  2. Chronicle of Youth, 290.
  3. Letters From a Lost Generation, 190-1.

Tolkien Among the Trees of Kortirion; Olaf Stapledon Proposes a Private Universe; A Poem of Lost Love from Roland Leighton; A Poem of a Lost World from Edward Thomas; Wilfred Owen’s Socks; Rowland Feilding’s Bad Knee

Apologies in advance–but today is one of those days where too much is written: four letters to lovers, three significant poems, two postcard missives, and a bike accident’s bad knee.

Throughout the autumn John Ronald Tolkien has been quietly training. He is now in Rugeley Camp, Staffordshire, but he has been able to take some short periods of leave in Warwick. This is Shakespeare country–or, now, Middle Earth. During the last few days Tolkien has written a poem which takes the natural beauty and history of Warwick and runs toward Elfland. “Kortirion Among the Trees,” as revised, begins

O fading town upon an inland hill,
Old shadows linger in thine ancient gate,
Thy robe is grey, thine old heart now is still;
Thy towers silent in the mist await
Their crumbling end, while through the storeyed elms
The Gliding Water leaves these inland realms,
And slips between long meadows to the Sea,
Still bearing downward over murmurous falls
One day and then another to the Sea;
And slowly thither many years have gone,
Since first the Elves here built Kortirion.

He is young, and preparing to go to a dismal foreign war, but here is a sensibility familiar to anyone who has read his mature writings.[1] He is not looking forward, but rather backward; not ahead, but off at an angle from the secular, mundane world; and he feels neither joy nor despair, but a sweet sadness for what has been, and always will be, lost:

Thou art the inmost province of the fading isle

Kortirion is, and isn’t, England. It will become, as his personal mythology develops, Tirion upon Tuná, the chief city of Valinor, the undying realm proper to the Elves, (almost) never to be glimpsed by mortal man. But for now, it would seem, the “Faery Realms” are not entirely removed–the world is not broken. And–to the speaker of the poem, at least–they still offer restoration, healing, contentment. For this relief and wonder, he would forswear all other adventure:

I would not seek the desert, or red palaces
Where reigns the sun, nor sail to magic isles,
Nor climb the hoary mountains’ stony terraces;
And tolling faintly over windy miles
To my heart calls no distant bell that rings
In crowded cities of the Earthly Kings.
For here is heartsease still, and deep content,
Though sadness haunt the Land of withered Elms
(Alalminore in the Faery Realms);
And making music still in sweet lament
The Elves here holy and immortal dwell,
And on the stones and trees there lies a spell.

It would seem that Tolkien has already drafted the poem, and mentioned it in a letter of the past few days to Edith. Here is today’s letter, camp monotony among enchanted dreams:

The usual kind of morning standing about.and freezing and then trotting to get warmer so as to freeze again. We ended up by an hour’s bomb-throwing with dummies. Lunch and a freezing afternoon. All the hot days of summer we doubled about at full speed and perspiration, and now we stand in icy groups being talked at! Tea and another scramble–I fought for a place at the stove and made a piece of toast on the end of a knife: what days!

I have written out a pencil copy of ‘Kortirion.’ I hope you won’t mind my sending it to the T.C.B.S. I want to send them something: I owe them all long letters. I will start on a careful ink copy for little you now and send it tomorrow night, as I don’t think I shall get more than one copy typed…

Fine, Ronald, but at a certain point a fellow has to choose between his friends and his beloved–between the fellowship and Luthien.

No on second thoughts I am sending you the pencil copy (which is very neat) and shall keep the T.C.B.S. waiting till I can make another.[2]

 

And in a truly remarkable near-crossing of paths, Wilfred Owen will be on guard duty at his camp tomorrow, and make toast on a bayonet!!!  Today, however, nothing worth the postage, except for the post-script.

Postcard [Postmark 26 November 1915]

Too downright tired to get off a decent letter to anybody… splendidly well! and happy (after 4.30 p.m.)

Your own W.E.O.

Socks fit perfectly…[3]

 

That was a little silly, but my mentioning-all-socks-letters policy is firm–and it’s Thanksgiving today, after all, over there.

A much better follow-up to Ronald’s letter to Edith is Olaf’s letter to Agnes. They have recently decided to make their engagement public, and Olaf Stapledon–a seriously sincere lover and a dreamer, like Tolkien–has been putting a lot of thought into the ring.

I am getting a simple ring made for you as a symbol. You are particular about jewelry, & share my distrust of it. But this is a symbol, & you will wear it, will you not? You may wear it out, or take it off & lose it, or pawn it and sell it, without incurring my displeasure (!), but the symbol must be given as usual. It is to have a single whole pearl. the gold being worked into slender leaves. I have been laboriously designing it, with the help of another ring as model. The pearl is a little symbol of what you are to me, a symbol in its perfect roundness, its purity & its softness. It is also a symbol of what our love is to be, a perfect complete sphere, in which the two halves are indistinguishable. The leaves are the foliage of Mother Earth, upon which the pearl is like a flower. Inside the ring, following father’s example, I am venturing on an inscription, a wee one. There will be this little sign αω, which I invented last night, α is the Greek alpha & ω, is omega. Both are small, not capitals, which are Α and Ω, the divine symbol. But αω, the small letters, stand for Agnes & Olaf, & joined together they form a sort of little universe, a microcosm, essentially the same & yet different from the Great God’s Universe. Also I think we will have in the ring the good English word ‘Yea,” which is the mighty everlasting yea of God to the world, and your blessed “yes” to me. These inscriptions will be very tiny, on the inside surface. I do hope you will like the ring. I am very fearful, since we have never talked on the subject.[4]

Like Tolkien, Stapledon has persisted in his young love for a young woman despite the opposition of family/guardian. Each is steadfast in an old-fashioned way, each has a tremendous imagination trained elsewhere (the stars, in Olaf’s case, rather than Elfland or the English past), and each will draw on the deep places of their religious beliefs as well as their extreme writerly creativity in creating other worlds. And this transmutation of a little Greek learning into a private symbol is very much something Tolkien would do. He too is prone to designing his own signs and monograms, but he will take it a bit further and design new script to carry them, new languages to secret the significance of the new holy names.

And I can’t resist pointing out that Stapledon’s “Yea” is one letter off not only from the forthcoming arch-Modern coda (“yes I will Yes.”) but also from “Ea,” the word of creation that called his world into being.

 

A busy day, today, but I wanted to include as well Rowland Feilding‘s last letter for some time, lest some loyal readers wonder where he has gotten to. Alas, must now endure recuperation from his ignominious bicycle crash knee injury:

November 26, 1915. Merville.

I have had to give it up, and am back at the Casualty Clearing Station, in bed, and am to be sent to England.[5]

Unfortunate–and lucky. It’s still a blighty one, and Feilding won’t be back until winter has come and gone.

 

But I have been withholding a sheaf of writing from our central young lovers. First we find that Roland Leighton is back on track as a conscientious correspondent and attentive lover:

France, 26 November 1915

Just a short letter before I go to bed. The Battalion is back in the trenches now and I am writing in the dugout that I share with the doctor. It is very comfortable (possessing among other things an easy chair, stove, an oil lamp, a table complete with tablecloth) and I am feeling pleasantly tired but not actually sleepy. Through the door I can see little mounds of snow that are the parapets of trenches, a short stretch of railway line, and a very brilliant full moon.

I wonder what you are doing. Asleep, I hope–or sitting in front of a fire in blue and white striped pyjamas? I should so like to see you in blue and white pyjamas.

You are always very correctly dressed when I find you; and usually somewhere near a railway station, n’est-ce pas? I once saw you in a dressing gown with your hair down your back playing an accompaniment for Edward in the Buxton drawing room. Do you remember?

Well, folks, we’re on the third letter of the day from a young men in his early twenties to his betrothed, and that’s about as erotically charged as it will get. Sex, at least for such well-brought-up and serious youths, is in the future. But youth–youth, now:

……I am often regretful that you should be at the Hospital after all. I picture you as getting up at the same too early hour every morning, to go out into a cold world and to a still colder and monotonous routine of fretful patients and sanguinary dressings and imperious sisters…….. and then late to bed, to begin all over again tomorrow. It all seems such a waste of Youth, such a desecration of all that is born for Poetry & Beauty. And if one does not even get a letter occasionally from someone who despite his shortcomings perhaps understands & sympathises it must make it all the worse……… until one may possibly wonder whether it would not have been better never to have met him at all or at any rate until afterwards. I sometimes wish for your sake that it had happened that way.[6]

Alack, the turn to the dark mood. There was no need–here is what Vera was writing on the very same day:

Friday November 26th

I almost enjoyed the actual work to-day. It was a lovely morning, bright and energy-inspiring, and all the time I thought to myself of an expression, “the top of the fullness of life,” which I believe someone first used about the trenches…  Stayed for supper at the hospital because it is such a cheerful meal…[7]

So, no, Roland–do not despair. She loves you, and can soldier on, as you do–better it would seem, in some ways. Soon she will receive his apology letter, and all manner of things will be well.

Except not, it would seem, in his mind. I must dutifully insist on treading carefully (for the hundredth time here, at least) when trying to plumb century-old thoughts. It’s not just the old mug’s game of diagnosing states of mind through written words, over-weighted as if they are pure truth and not one-time performances. It’s also the influence of our reading angle: the war! The trenches!

So who knows what is going on with Roland. He certainly seemed sincerely contrite–he surely regretted, that is, allowing (the war to influence) himself to express his anxiety and sadness through a provocative neglect of Vera. But they are far apart–leave around Christmas beckons, but they have not laid eyes on each other since the summer. And he has been keeping things from her (at least one very big thing–his conversion to Catholicism).

So today–exactly today–a century back, he is feeling tenderness and love, but also doubt. He could be killed at any time, he seems to say, and then would she be better for having known him?

But which comes first, the worry over the potential pain of the relationship, or the pressure of the war? Trick question, of course.

Sometime around now Roland wrote another poem which addresses these issues. It sounds very much of a piece with today’s letter:

Hedauville

The sunshine on the long white road
That ribboned down the hill,
The velvet clematis that clung
Around your window-sill
Are waiting for you still.

Again the shadowed pool shall break
In dimples at your feet,
And when the thrush sings in your wood,
Unknowing you may meet
Another stranger, sweet.

And if he is not quite so old
As the boy you used to know,
And less proud, too, and worthier,
You may not let him go–
(And daisies are truer than passion-flowers)

It will be better so.

This we will return to.

 

Finally, a maturer poet has regained some momentum. The first poem of Edward Thomas‘s late autumn return to verse had been There’s Nothing Like the Sun. At some point between then and today he had written “The Thrush–“everybody likes a good gloomy thrush, whether portending hope or implying inside information.[8] Today, a century back, it was “Liberty,” the third in this sequence of autumnal, explicitly Keatsian poems.

There is too much here to treat in passing–an answer to Hardy’s grim-yet-uplifting thrush, the quiet but unyielding presence of death in all three poems, a mood of month-counting and year-numbering that seems premature (it’s only November!) but never really is, for a confirmed melancholic and fine-sieved past-sifter. But “Liberty” is a doozy, and I give it here guiltily, knowing that it should be given isolation, contemplation, and commentary–it’s doing a little more with the moon than our young lovers, above.

The last light has gone out of the world, except
This moonlight lying on the grass like frost
Beyond the brink of the tall elm’s shadow.
It is as if everything else had slept
Many an age, unforgotten and lost
The men that were, the things done, long ago,
All I have thought; and but the moon and I
Live yet and here stand idle over the grave
Where all is buried. Both have liberty
To dream what we could do if we were free
To do some thing we had desired long,
The moon and I. There’s none less free than who
Does nothing and has nothing else to do,
Being free only for what is not to his mind,
And nothing is to his mind. If every hour
Like this one passing that I have spent among
The wiser others when I have forgot
To wonder whether I was free or not,
Were piled before me, and not lost behind,
And I could take and carry them away
I should be rich; or if I had the power
To wipe out every one and not again
Regret, I should be rich to be so poor.
And yet I still am half in love with pain,
With what is imperfect, with both tears and mirth,
With things that have an end, with life and earth,
And this moon that leaves me dark within the door.

Nor is that all. If the war lurks in the background of the clear-eyed, downhearted fatalism of this sequence, it is front and center in another poem which Thomas began today, but set aside. He will not finish “This is No Petty Case of Right or Wrong” for a month, but it could hardly be more different–in its subject matter, its address, its anger, its willingness to parse and conclude–than the three poems he has just written.[9]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. My rule/superstition about not revealing the lifespan of a young soldier-writer seems a bit fruitless in the case of someone as popular and latterly celebrated as Tolkien.
  2. Letters, 8; Chronology, 75-6.
  3. Collected Letters, 367.
  4. Talking Across the World, 115-16.
  5. War Letters to a Wife, 70.
  6. Letters From a Lost Generation, 189-90.
  7. Chronicle of Youth, 290.
  8. By which I mean to refer to both "Hedauville," above, and a plot point in The Hobbit.
  9. Hollis, Now All Roads, 257.

Siegfried Sassoon in the Trenches; Raymond Asquith on Boredom and Ecstasy; Vera Brittain Gets a Hint of Roland

Now that he has at last reached France, Siegfried Sassoon‘s progress toward the line has been much smoother, much less dramatic than most. Or perhaps his diary, clipped and impatient in anticipation of real war, makes it feel that way. On the 23rd there were a few lines about the postings of the various men in his draft, concluding with “Posted to first R.W.F.” Yesterday we saw that timetable for the slow train to Béthune, where he met the battalion, and then the all-important (but tersely stated) first meeting with his company. And today, a century back, he was already at work:

Went on working-party, 3 to 10.30 pm. Marched to Festubert village, a ruined place, shelled to shreds. About 4.30, in darkness and rain, started up three-quarters of a mile of light tram-lines through marsh, with sixty men. They carried hurdles up the communication-trenches about three-quarters of a mile, which took two hours. Flares go up frequently, a few shells go high overhead; the trenches are very wet; finally emerge in a place behind the first and second-line trenches, where we are digging new trenches with high command-breastworks.[1]

This time, when he quotes his own diary in Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man, there are only tiny cosmetic changes to the original. The real events of George Sherston’s life are proving to be awfully Sassoonish.[2]

 

Raymond Asquith, a century back, is once again writing self-conscious meditations on his new life (to Diana Manners) and meta-trench-letters in which he bemoans his own writing (to his wife Katherine):

. . . Out here one’s outlook on life, military life I mean, changes very rapidly–every now and then moments of excitement and almost of happiness even in the trenches, occasionally a moment almost of ecstasy when one marches in late at night after a week of dirt and bullets and finds a feather bed and a bottle of the Boy [champagne] awaiting one; then horrible reactions of boredom and nausea as one’s mind collapses under the pressure of prospect and retrospect and the monotony of a great desert of discomfort and danger with no visible horizon. But usually one is very equable, looking no further ahead than the next meal and feeling that really life is very much the same everywhere, war or no war. . .

And to Katherine, who has already been told about the champagne and feather beds,

. . . There was an ugly rumour last week that we were going to pop the parapet… but the whole idea has been dropped now… I’m afraid this is even a more tiresome letter than usual but this life dries up the flow of general ideas and blurs the outlines of language…[3]

 

“More tiresome than usual” might do, today, to describe the day-to-day tracking of a certain affair. By now Roland Leighton has apologized abjectly and sincerely for his beastly behavior… but the mails are slower than usual, and Vera Brittain has only now received his semi-conscious reparations letter, written before he had received her indignant howler.

Thursday November 25th, 1st London General Hospital, Camberwell

Was off this morning, but did nothing in particular but write letters and have a bath. In fact I did very little work all day, as in the afternoon the hospital was open to visitors. So I just stood about & watched them coming round & made many-tail bandages. We made the ward look very nice by clearing away all the bowls, instruments etc., & putting a table with chrysanthemums on it in the middle. Then after tea 15 of us V.A.D.s who came about the same time had to go to Matron’s office & talk about signing on. We were very pleased because we were all asked to sign & no one was told she was unsatisfactory. I had a sort of inward jubilation afterwards at having done something so irrevocable–something which I simply cannot get out of.

Vera, under distant pressures and lesser disciplines, takes a step forward on her own approach to the line. And belatedly we discover the real news of the day.

I had a letter from Roland too. He is staying with the Somerset Light Infantry till Dec. 10th & is there in the capacity of Assistant Adjutant. The letter, though short had much more hint of his real personality than his letters have had for a long time.[4]

So Vera wrote a short letter in a calm but guarded tone, letting Roland know that she might be able to visit his family as well as her own on an upcoming holiday. She hopes, I think, that he has realized the error of his ways, although without acknowledging his unfairness in not only leaving her letterless but then writing with that note of cynical/debonair resignation at the growing gap between them. Which would be a bitter pill, considering all the energy and faith they have poured into the fierce effort to remain close, to tell each other the truth, to fight all insidious influence that the war might exert to pull them apart.

So it must have been with something of a heavy heart that she resumed an ordinary correspondence with the boy she had recently railed at, pushing him to acknowledge the hurtfulness of his withdrawal… Keep fighting the good fight, kids, but allow for the wartime mails…

 

And a happy note to end on, today. Edward Hermon sent a short letter home, his last before going on leave. He is only days, then, from meeting the newest member of his family, soon to be christened Kenneth Edward Hermon–the lad will share not only his father’s name but the initials of his regiment, King Edward’s Horse.[5]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Diaries, 20.
  2. Complete Memoirs, 248.
  3. Life and Letters, 219-220.
  4. Chronicle of Youth, 289-90.
  5. For Love and Courage, 140-1.

Ford Madox Ford on All the Fun in Heaven; Siegfried Sassoon Reaches His Battalion; Lord Crawford on General Faces

Ford Madox Hueffer is now in uniform, a humble lieutenant drilling with a New Army battalion of the Welsh Regiment. But his writing continues to march to the presses. It’s been an odd pile of war writing so far–two books of (essentially) propaganda, a lightheartedly scathing story mocking a lordly neighbor that doubled as invasion-scare propaganda, a novel that will come to be regarded as a Modernist masterpiece which, despite its title–The Good Soldier–has nothing to do with the war, a grandstandingly pro-enlistment Boccacian conversation piece, and now, today, a short story that thumps squarely into the popular press breadbasket of religious/sentimental uplift.

“Fun! It’s Heaven,” which appeared in The Bystander of today, a century back (at right), is not only “more overtly propagandistic” but downright silly. It’s maudlin, following in the footsteps of Arthur Machen and many others, and might seem like a put-on. But no: it’s coming from crazy old Ford Hueffer–and it’s sincere.

The story opens promisingly, with a doctor and a lay sister sitting in a stark room like the set for a Dickensian production of an O’Neill play:

The room was lit by a skylight from above, so that it resembled a tank in which dim fishes swim listlessly. The walls were of a varnished grey point; an immense and lamenting Christ hung upon a cross above the empty grate; a mildewed portrait of the last Pope but one made a grim spot of white near the varnished door.

In the room a doctor and a lay sister discuss a distraught young woman who has decided to take the veil. Her sweetheart has been killed, and she is convinced that he must be in heaven, having the fun that he had always loved to have.

She is also, by the by, having visions of him, returned from beyond the grave to revel in popular music and pastries at a tea shop. This tea shop is then–not only in her eyes but in those of the doctor/narrator as well–overtaken by a mystical vision of British regimental continuity, all the khaki-clad Tommies turning briefly into the cockade-sporting Redcoats of Marlborough‘s time. And the young woman–the teenage pseudo-widow about to take the veil–is worried that her young soldier had too much fun in this brief phase of his life, partying on even as he was training to take lives.

It’s this fixation on fun that saves the otherwise bizarre combination of treacle and sour, dour realism. The question is carried from the young woman’s report of her beau’s brief life into the doctor’s experience by bands playing the upbeat songs that the dead soldier had loved. By the end of the story the doctor and the nurse/nun are humming the lively tunes themselves, and averring that heaven must be real:

And he began to hum the jerky melody whilst the old Religious nodded her head. In a room above the young girl was trying to persuade the Mother Superior that she had he vocation for that cloistral life. Her sweetheart lay dead in Flanders.

Assuredly if there were no Heaven we whom Flanders has not yet claimed must will one into existence with all the volition of united humanity.[1]

It’s a little wild, very much unexpected. Why is our modern master behaving a little like a demotic American miracle enthusiast? Because of where he’s going, of course. The author has multiple presences in the story: he is the old doctor, ruminating on the harmless fun of the doomed youths, yet he also looks on like the mildewed pope, a troubled but firm Catholic. And he has decided to march off to Flanders himself

 

Siegfried Sassoon, sprung yesterday from bureaucratic limbo, made his way today from Étaples to Béthune.

November 24

Paraded with kit at 2.30 a.m. and went to station. Train started 5.30. Arrived Béthune 10.15 and found Battalion in billets there. After lunch went out to C. Company billets at Le Hamel.[2]

The diary expands and softens in his Memoirs, which remind us that “Dick,” his friend and chaste love-object, is with him:

Everything was behind us, and the First Battalion was in front of us.

And, of course, the sound of the guns.

On our roundabout journey we stopped at St. Pol and overheard a few distant bangs–like the slamming of a heavy door they sounded.

“Dick” and “George Sherston” are new to this, but one of their companions, Joe Barless–“a gimlet-moustached ex-sergeant-major who was submitting philosophically to his elevation to officerdom”–has been out before. Sassoon had just mentioned Barless’s habit of spitting on the floor in order to mark the class distinction. Now it signifies something else:

Barless had been out before; had been hit at the first battle of Ypres; had left a wife and family behind him; knocked his pipe out and expectorated, with a grim little jerk of his bullet head, when he heard guns. We others looked at him for guidance now, and he was giving us all we needed, in his taciturn, matter-of-fact way, until he got us safely reported with the first battalion.

Sassoon, perhaps a bit self-consciously–this is Sherston, his “outdoor self,” who is doing the thinking, after all–that the “sober-coloured country all the way from Etaples had looked lifeless and unattractive… A hopeless hunting country, it looked.” But the binary vision soon pulls back and apart, and we find the mind of “Sherston” questioning his manner of first recording this introduction to the war–questioning, but approving.

And at this crisis in my career I should surely be ready with something spectacular and exciting. Nevertheless, I must admit that I have no such episode to exhibit.

An apt verb there, no?

The events in my experience must take their natural course.

Aha–so a claim at least for chronicle at the root of memoir. Sassoon writes a fictionalized version of his life–just a page before he was bidding farewell to the entirely invented Aunt Evelyn, and he even, oddly, changed today’s train arrival time by fifteen minutes–but he is at pains to let us know, in Sherston’s narrative voice, that he will not fudge “events.” A few pages later he even mentions his diary to back up his claim to precision in the manner of the time of his train’s arrival… the time which he has changed… but only by fifteen minutes.

Got it?

So we have binary vision blurring around the issue of historical verisimilitude: let this (fictional) novel promise to be up front about its (invented) departures from the truth… No: let this memoir coyly change the truth, but assure you that there will not be inventions from whole cloth. It’s a whole-cloth fictionalization most rigorous in its sourcing, and a true history only mildly altered to create a (mostly fictional) fictional guise…

Nor was the “hunting country” reference wasted. “Colonel Winchell” proves to be a hunting man, already told by a friend back home of Sherston’s achievements (shared by Sassoon) as a fox hunter and victorious rider in local cross-country races. So this diffident young man with a meager military background is at once accepted into the social world of the Regular Army. Being able to talk hunting “gave one an almost unfair advantage in some ways.”[3]

 

Lastly, today, an amusing bit from Lord Crawford. This is in the way of an acorn buried against the coming winter. The unassuming general he describes will one day bid fair to be the only general whose care and intelligence will be approved by writerly posterity.

Wednesday, 24 November 1915

Another visit from General Plumer. He has a pleasant plum coloured face modelled on the structure of a parroquet. What we want are generals with the faces of tigers or vultures or alligators—something that can fight…[4]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Saunders, ed. War Prose, 140, 149-54.
  2. Diaries, 20.
  3. Complete Memoirs, 244-8.
  4. Private Lord Crawford, 83.

Robert Frost Advises Edward Thomas on War and Death; Raymond Asquith Hobnobs with Royalty and Churchillity; Siegfried Sassoon is Assigned

Franconia NH
November 23 1915

Dear Edward

I have reached a point this evening where no letter to or from you will take the place of seeing you. I am simply down on the floor kicking and thrashing with resentment against everything as it is. I like nothing, neither being here with you there and so hard to talk to nor being so ineffectual at my years to help myself or anyone else…

Frost is as downhearted as an Edward Thomas letter, it would seem. And he writes in part to confess his failure to help Thomas by finding him American publishers, a failure that is especially galling because Thomas had helped Frost so much in England with his reviews and his contacts.

But if I haven’t succeeded in doing anything for you, I havent succeeded in doing anything for myself. If I seem to have made any headway with the American reading crowd, it is by what was done for me before I left England…

I havent even dug in on this farm yet. I am still a beggar for the roof over our heads. And you know how it is with us; Elinor is so sick day and night as to affect the judgement of both of us; we cant see anything hopefully though we know from experience that even the worst nine months must somehow come to an end. The devil says “One way or another.” And thats what Elinor says too this time. There is really cause for anxiety. We are not now the strength we were.

Hooray for reference-catching! This is Tennyson’s Ulysses, a sincere–or is it ironic?–straight-down-the-middle reference to the all-time-greatest Poem for Aging Heroes, (and a favorite of the far younger Charles Sorley). Things are bad, nevertheless they will strive, seek, find, not yield…

But all that is left unsaid. They are poets, confirmed in a fast friendship–but, come on now, they are also twentieth century men. Frost pulls out of the hug with a thumping back-slap:

Is this in the miserable confidential tone they are curing you of by manly discipline? You wont be able [to] hit it off with the like of me by the time the war is over. You’ll be wondering how you ever found pleasure in grovelling with me in such self-abasement—walking about the fields of Leddington—in the days that were. Couldn’t we run ourselves down then without fear of losing too much favor with each other?

Frost next addresses a serious matter which Thomas had raised in a recent letter–diffidently, as is his wont–but clearly with the hope of receiving some advice.

Do you want me to tell you the best thing that has come to me for a long long time, let you take it as you will from the will to be agreeable or from perversity. It is the news that the country may not ask of you all that you have shown yourself ready to give. I dont want you to die (I confess I wanted you to face the possibility of death); I want you to live to come over here and begin all over the life we had…

Use should decide it for you. If you can be more useful living than dying I dont see that you have to go behind that. Dont be run away with by your nonsense…

Goodbye Soldier
R.[1]

This is beautiful–“I don’t want you to die”–and devastating in its simplicity. It’s facile to say that only a great poet could cut straight to the heart of the matter like that, but maybe the truth is that only a twisted, honor-hobbled, half-faux-medieval, deeply mixed-up group of over-educated, class-ridden cads could go so far out of the sight of such a blindingly obvious statement. All men–all but the cursed dullards and those in abject despair–fret about their death, and most consider carefully before taking a decision that greatly increases its likelihood. But it’s striking how little “but that would probably get me killed” works its way into the written accounts of wartime quandaries. There is “sacrifice,” and “service,” and a host of manly ways of expressing the need to do one’s best, to see what one is made of, to not let down the side, etc., but little voicing (i.e. writing) of the idea, yet, that enough voluntary submission to mortal risk is enough.

 

Raymond Asquith, meanwhile, is living the high life as his Division takes a turn in reserve. He fills his wife Katherine in on his local French social successes:

23 November 1915

…Winston rode over and took tea with me. He seemed very well and in good spirits at having substituted the trenches for the Cabinet. He thinks that the war will last all through next year and that conscription is coming shortly.

I dined last night with Cavan [divisional commander] at Divisional H.Q. He was very nice, gave me a good dinner and an excellent bottle of champagne and played bridge afterwards quite well for 50 centimes a hundred.

The Prince of Wales was there and gave me a long and fragrant cigar–his only contribution to the evening’s sport, but a sufficient one…[2]

 

And Siegfried Sassoon, moldering in Étaples since the 18th, learned today that he would be assigned to the First Battalion of the Royal Welch Fusiliers–this is not the Second Battalion which we have followed with Dr. Dunn, but the other Regular army formation of the regiment, now in billets near Béthune. He will join them tomorrow.

 

References and Footnotes

  1. The Letters of Robert Frost, 391-3.
  2. Life and Letters, 219.

Roland Leighton, Self-Satisfied Beast, Writes Contritely to Vera Brittain; Olaf Stapledon Gets an Engaging Letter; George Coppard on the March, and Swanky Officers; Raymond Asquith on the March… Drinking Champagne and Dropping Names

First, today, a long march–then three letters from soldiers to their beloveds, including the one you’ve all been waiting for, if only because you are sick and tired of my interest in every twist and turn of Vera Brittain and Roland Leighton’s relationship.

George Coppard of the Royal West Surreys has been helping to hold the line near the Hohenzollern Redoubt since the late stages of the battle of Loos, with front-line stays of up to ten days between rests. Today, a century back, the battalion marched off for their first real rest. An excellent, rather earthy memoir of this day’s march:

Each step we took was in the right direction, away from the war area. And as we marched our spirits soared, in spite of our 80-pound load. The senior officers, as befitted their station, sat astride well-groomed horses. The troops marching immediately behind the horses kept a wary eye on their hindquarters. Any sign of a tail elevation was quickly noted and evasive action was taken when necessary, accompanied by mock cries of alarm. Occasionally the riders would dismount to stretch their legs. Immaculate as always, with spurs a-jingling, ‘D’ Company CO, Captain Hull, would scrutinize the ranks and pick up somebody with a button unfastened on his tunic, or similar trifle. This would be the signal for the CSM and sergeants to get all pepped up and start yelling commands. ‘That man there!’ ‘Put yer hat straight!’ ‘Pick ’em up, left right, left right!’ There was no visible reaction against all this, but every Tommy muttered ‘Bastards!’ under his breath, I’ll wager.

Along the straight cobbled roads we marched. The tree-lined sides stretched ahead, the perspective drawing them together in a never-changing V for a couple of kilometres or so. There would be a slight change of direction and straight ahead another taunting V. As the distance increased, so likewise did the weight of our packs, and the more cruel the cobble-stones became to our feet…

Ah, but still they sang, to the accompaniment of mouth-organs. Coppard gives several example of the irreverent tunes, but, alas, no Tipperary for these boys anymore.[1]

 

Yesterday Olaf Stapledon had added a paragraph to a long letter-in-progress to Agnes Miller. It raised a rather weighty subject so often raised before, but this one dared to advance the subject. They have an understanding… but wouldn’t she prefer a frank public engagement?

Today, a century back, as if by magic, he received a letter from her, several weeks in transit from Australia–“Wondrous Fates!”–suggesting the very same thing. Olaf is thus immediately awash in talk of ring sizes–but of course disdain for such material thing, but then of course of course the appropriateness of symbols, so…[2]

 

And now to Vera and Roland. At last–the mail had been interrupted by his temporary posting to another regiment–he has received her blistering reply to his passive-aggressive (or languorous-wounding, but that doesn’t slip as smoothly off the pen) provocation of some weeks ago. And he is most contrite:

France, 22 November 1915

Dearest,

I do deserve it, every word of it and every sting of it. ‘Most estimable, practical, unexceptional Adjutant . . . ’

Oh, damn!

I have been a perfect beast, a conceited, selfish, self-satisfied beast. Just because I can claim to live half my time in a trench (in very slight, temporary, and much exaggerated discomfort) and might possibly get hit by something in the process, I have felt myself justified in forgetting everything and everybody except my own Infallible Majesty. And instead of calling it selfishness pure and simple I call it ‘a metamorphosis’, and expect in consequence consideration and letters which can go unanswered. No, I don’t deserve to get any letters at all—only to be ignored as completely as I have ignored you—and Mother.

And it was going so well! But Vera doesn’t mind that…

The problem, of course, is insoluble: when do the conditions a soldier finds himself in–discomfort and the risk of death–excuse neglect, despair, even casual cruelty? Well, always and never, but that’s impossible in practice. It must be somewhere in between–as with nearly all things, in any decent relationship. They have to muddle on. The value here is not in the dramatic heights (depths?) of the apology but in the acknowledgment, and the grand effort to re-connect, to begin again their work of bridging the gap that yawns between the trenches and home.

But it’s pretty dramatic, nonetheless:

I got your letter as soon as I arrived at H[ebuterne] this afternoon and it made me so furious with myself that I left the rest lying on the table and rode straight back again. I don’t think I have ever been so angry or despised myself so much. I feel as if I hardly dare write to you at all. And to make it worse I have given up any chance of getting any leave before Christmas in order to be with this Battn. for a month instead of only a week.

Oh, damn![3]

But what does that matter, now that he has seen the error of his ways?

 

A sweet and open but physically distant relationship, a fiery one now again drawing closer, and finally, today, the low-key frustration of an established marriage.

Perhaps I am over-scrutinizing Raymond Asquith‘s letters, turning a new officer into an enigma. Perhaps he’s just moody, and suffering under the pressure of danger and responsibility, the sort of pressure that a golden boy, brilliant scholar, rising banker, and son of a prime minister cannot directly discuss in his correspondence with his wife–or with other women left behind. Today it is to Katherine Asquith and–good weather, a reprieve from the trenches–all is well:

22 November 1915

We got out of the trenches all right on Saturday night. It was bright moonlight and frost and I expected to have trouble, but we only lost 2 men, one shot in the head the other in the leg by a machine gun which they turned on to one of our platoons. It was very pleasant marching back–a clear beautiful night just the right temperature for a walk; and still pleasanter to get home to my kind landlady and a bottle of “the boy” [champagne] consumed with immense gusto just before midnight and followed by 10 hours in a soft bed…

Only two men, and one will probably survive. Not bad! Apparently Asquith missed the OTC exit interview in which one is reminded to keep at least one short sentence of regret in between the death of a subordinate and the next mention of champagne…

Life is cheap out here in the bright moonlight. And we’ve got a nice billeting anecdote to get to:

Madame Brunei Gailly who owns this house which is much the best in the town has developed an elderly caprice for me which has not been displaced even by the confession that she forced from me the other day that I was 37 and had a wife and two children or my utter inability to sustain conversation with her in her own tongue. It is really most fortunate as the Commanding officer came here with 3 interpreters and an adjutant and tried to get the house as his H.Q. but the old lady obstinately resisted him–swore that she would have no one here but me. This is the first real success I have ever had with your sex. In another 10 years I shall be irresistible.

Ah, there was an amusing story to get to. Well I understand now. Next time perhaps then omit “shot in the head?” Dissonance, what?

Oh and one more thing–guess who’s here?

By an odd chance Winston was attached to the H.Q. of the Battn. (2nd Grenadiers) which relieved us last Saturday, and I might easily have seen him but just didn’t. He is really a splendid fellow and comes out of the war better than anyone, I think…[4]

Speaking of ten-years-from-irresistible. Well, it’s a small world, but this also seems like something out of the old world. Churchill, out of power and in semi-disgrace for the grandstanding and strategic impositions that have resulted in the disastrous waste of Gallipoli, has left the government and taken up a mid-level position in the Grenadier Guards. It either reminds me of Taft serving as a Justice after his presidency or that dumb movie in which Bill Pullman plays a presciently bland flyboy president who straps back into a fighter to repel the alien invasion…

Actually, it’s tremendously Roman. Churchill interfered to parlay political position into a pet campaign, and it didn’t work. Well, he’s young and well connected, so he grabs a praetorship and heads for the violent provinces, in search of whatever glory might be found to boost his future political prospects..

 

References and Footnotes

  1. With a Machine Gun to Cambrai, 50-52.
  2. Talking Across the World, 113-16.
  3. Letters From a Lost Generation, 188-9.
  4. Life and Letters, 218-19.

Max Plowman Moulders in the Ambulances; Roland Leighton Might Be Missing a Letter or Two; Tolkien Among the Trees

Another writer with a slow-starting war is Max Plowman, a pacifist (though not a Quaker) who had chosen the Field Ambulance as a compromise between principle and patriotism. Like Olaf Stapledon, he has struggled with the decision, but unlike Stapledon he has neither made it to France nor successfully resisted the sense that serving in an Ambulance unit was really doing enough. A letter of today, a century back, sheds some light on a process that several of our writers have gone through but few have written about. Plowman, stuck in training in the rather unmilitary-sounding Bishop’s Stortford, explains to Janet Upcott the slow process of trying to find an infantry battalion that will give him a commission now.

…Meanwhile I know you’ll be sorry with me to hear that the Oxford & Bucks is “off”… the C.O. wrote quite amiably to me the other day saying that he was having a number of officers pushed on to him & consequently has absolutely no vacancies. Here endeth the second lesson. All I have done subsequently is to fill in the name of Co. Williams’ battalion on my “blue form” & post that to the War Office again. I don’t suppose I shall ever hear of it. –I am really sick of the whole middling business & I see now I ought to have taken the opportunities half a dozen at a time. –It seems odd that it should be so difficult & so elaborate & stage-doory to be of any use… if you could do anything by way of mentioning me I should be most awfully grateful…[1]

Oh, there will be vacancies.

In the same letter Plowman announced that he had found a new title for his contemplated book of poems, and was replacing Nietzsche as the epigraph–“I suppose I shall have to sacrifice that enjoyable piece of devilment”–with Blake on “bearing the beams of love.” So not all roads lead to the trench poem–or at least not yet.

 

Roland Leighton remains either unaware or, depending on how you see it, culpably half-aware of his epistolary spat with his fiancée Vera Brittain.

France, 21 November 1915

I am still with the Somerset L.I. [Light Infantry] and hear today that I am to stop here until Dec. 10th (a month in all)… I got one letter from you a day or two ago addressed to me here, & finding it somewhat of an enigma presume that there is some correspondence for me waiting with my own Battn. I shall try to ride over there to collect it tomorrow, if I can. I gather that you must have been down to Heather Cliff but shall probably be enlightened by your former letters.[2]

Yeah, you’re going to want to borrow that horse, buddy.

 

Also today, a century back, John Ronald Tolkien began work on a poem he called Kortirion Among the Trees. He remains in training camp at Cannock Chase, although he may have begun the poem on a short leave spent in idyllic and history-infused Warwick.[3] He will enclose a copy in a letter next week, and we’ll read it then.

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Bridge Into the Future, 38-9.
  2. Letters From a Lost Generation, 188.
  3. Chronology, 75.