A strange day, today, of poetic discoveries, lengthy disquisitions, and exquisite avoidances.
First, Edward Thomas. I haven’t been certain how to handle the odd overlaps–and silent interstices–of his many writings, and now things get complicated. There are letters a-plenty, but he has also been writing poems–including, for the first time, love poems. And he has been, for three months now, carrying on something very close to a love affair with Edna Clarke Hall.
The two had met sixteen years before, when both were already married, and already unhappy. There had been an attraction–a fairly intense attraction–some get-togethers, with others present, and, then, nothing more for fiftreen years. Edna now lived, now, a century back, and as hap happened to hap, within walking distance of Hare Hall Camp. She had two children, but she was lonely–her husband spent the week in London, working as a barrister and directing charities that cared for the children of prostitutes. Thomas turned up one day in November, and the friendship was rekindled. They began meeting for walks and wide-ranging talks–Clarke Hall was a successful painter and an amateur poet–and for… well, who knows what else.
There has been no scandal, but Thomas does not discuss the relationship in his letters. Were the meetings “innocent?” Or were the two already emotionally or sexually intertwined? We don’t know, and we won’t know–it’s not even clear whether they met only a few times or regularly, for months. If it really was an “affair” (although, again, there is a region of connection–and infidelity–that swells for miles on either side of the thin line of sexual betrayal) then it is hardly likely that Thomas would write to his circle of friends about it. They were all men who knew his family, who had heard him lament not only his incompatibility with his wife but his poor treatment of her. All except for Eleanor Farjeon, who loved him but had nevertheless been accepted by Helen Thomas as a family friend and fellow unrequited lover. Another strange complication. But anyway: no letters about Clarke Hall, yet.
And by the same token, as this relationship suddenly, er, blossoms anew, Thomas could hardly not have written poetry about it. He had written very little that could be described as love poetry, until, suddenly, last week, “Those Things That Poets Said,” which despairs of love’s future, and “No One So Much As You,” which certainly does not. There was even a playful poem on Valentine’s Day which certainly sounds like the sort of thing a courting, flirtatious poet would write.
She is most fair,
And when they see her pass
The poets’ ladies
Look no more in the glass
But after her.
On a bleak moor
Running under the moon
She lures a poet,
Once proud or happy, soon
Far from his door…
There’s the straight goods. But Thomas is wily, slippery. Here’s the last stanza:
She is to be kissed
Only perhaps by me;
She may be seeking
Me and no other; she
May not exist.
A coy glance to the lover, and a rude gesture to the biographical critic… But back to the second poem. It begins:
No one so much as you
Loves this my clay,
Or would lament as you
Its dying day.
You know me through and through
Though I have not told,
And though with what you know
You are not bold.
None ever was so fair
As I thought you:
Not a word can I bear
Spoken against you.
Who was this to? What was it about? Today’s letter to his wife may be a gentle laugh and shake of the head. But we are suspicious folk, and it smacks rather of painful reading…
Thursday 24 February 1916 Hare Hall, Gidea Park, Romford
Fancy you thinking those verses had anything to do with you. Fancy your thinking, too, that I should let you see them if they were. They are not to a woman at all. You know precisely all that I know of any woman I have cared a little for.
This is probably quite true–or can be meant as completely true, in the moment. Thomas was neither a fink nor a coward, and he had made a point of discussing the original relationship with Clarke Hall with his wife Helen. He even openly discussed a more distressing infatuation with a schoolgirl. So they do discuss their problems, and his attractions to other women. But has he mentioned, yet, the return of Edna?
And however truthful he may have been so far, the letter continues with a curveball. (A googly? Apologies for national idiomatic lapses.)
They are as a matter of fact to father. So now, unless you choose to think I am deceiving you (which I don’t think I ever did), you can be at ease again. Silly old thing to jump so to conclusions. You might as well have concluded the verses to Mother were for you. As to the other verses about love you know my usual belief is that I don’t and can’t love and haven’t done for something near 20 years. You know too that you don’t think my nature really compatible with love, being so clear and critical. You know how unlike I am to you, and you know that you love, so how can I? That is if you count love as any one feeling and not something varying infinitely with the variety of people.
I’m just going to leave that last paragraph alone. There’s a whole marriage there, decades of misery, probable blind-spots and half-truths, and either a tongue-in-cheek avoidance of the issue or an unbearable condescension and shutting-down of the woman who has stood quite a lot from him over the years. Either way, it’s too much for this blog… So let’s sweep this all under the rug for now, o.k. Edward?
Thank Bronwen for her letter and give her a large kiss.
We are all fairly deep in snow today. I got one snowball in the ear but luckily only on the flesh of the ear…
I am all yours Edwy
Two short notes to cleanse the palate:
T. E. Hulme is going after Bertrand Russell again in The New Age today (available here), but I am happy enough to admit a lapse of interest in this almost-completed political-philosophical run.
And our Siegfried is on leave, due to have arrived in London this morning at Waterloo at 10 a.m. He will spend the night tonight, a century back, with his Uncle Hamo Thorneycroft, the sculptor and friend of Thomas Hardy. Thence he will go to the family home, Weirleigh, where he must see his mother–for the first time since the death of Uncle Hamo’s namesake, Siegfried’s brother, Hamo Sassoon.
And now, ladies and gentleman, Robert Graves, in the grip of a new and most significant enthusiasm.
24 February 1916
My dear Eddie
I am sorry to hear that you never got my long letter written in January all about how much I loved Georgian Poetry, and kindred subjects. An eight sheet letter gone west! And I’ll never be able to recapture my first fine, careless rapture after the first reading of the splendid book which is perhaps the most treasured possession I have out here…
If you think this is laying it on thick, well: it gets thicker. Graves is awfully young, sometimes. He may believe that he is being reasonably complimentary instead of obsequious, and even if this is a miscalculation, the fawning is interspersed with Graves’s gawkily appealing (sometimes in the “can’t… look… away…” sense) overconfidence. He writes that he loves “nearly every piece in it… and most of all Rupert‘s ‘Heaven’ and ‘The Great Lover’ and ‘The Soldier’ and all the rest.” And yet he intersperses criticisms of Masefield and Bottomley.
Here’s the thing, though: this letter comes not so much to praise Eddie Marsh as to sound the gong of his impending burial. Well, that’s over-dramatic. But still, Graves isn’t writing to thank a mentor for guidance but rather to pass on a recommendation of his own:
I’ve just discovered a brilliant young poet called Sorley whose poems have just appeared in the Cambridge Press (Marlborough and Other Poems, 3s. 6d.) and who was killed near Loos on October 13th as a temporary captain in the 7th Suffolk Regiment. It seems ridiculous to fall in love with a dead man as I have found myself doing but he seems to have been one so entirely after my own heart in his loves and hates, besides having been just my own age and having spent just the same years at Marlboro’ as I spent at Ch’house. He got a classical scholarship at University College, Oxford, the same year as I was up and I half-remember meeting him there.
“Half-remember?” This seems more of a wishful crossing of paths than even half a memory of one. Would it be possible to run down the lists of who sat for which scholarship exam on which day? Perhaps… but 1913 was so long ago.
In any event, Graves is very serious in his enthusiasm for Sorley’s new book, writing “Don’t you like this:” and then copying out for Marsh almost the entirety of All the Hills and Vales Along. He follows this up with opportunistic literary criticism:
He seems to have been under Rupert’s influence rather in his method. Listen:
Victor and vanquished are a-one in death:
Coward and brave: friend, foe. Ghosts do not say,
“Come, what was your record when you drew breath?”
But a big blot has hid each yesterday
So poor, so manifestly incomplete.
And your bright promise, withered long and sped,
Is touched, stirs, rises, opens and grows sweet
And blossoms and is you, when you are dead.
Well, perhaps, perhaps not. Sorley loathed Brooke, and this, the second of his “Two Sonnets,” is unusual, not a typical example of Sorley’s tragically early “late” style. Graves, however, is smitten with the story of Sorley as much as the poetry. Or at least its stark outline.
He wrote that out here in June: he came out, like me, in May.
Graves’s next subject is of course his own work. He brags a bit about having become a competent lecturer, repeating the familiar line about “how to keep happy, though in the trenches.” But what he really want to talk about is poetry. He is confident that he will soon have a book of verse in print, and he proposes–or tells Marsh that he has proposed to Monro–the new catch phrase ‘C’est la guerre‘ as a title. The phrase has
been consecrated by countless instance of French and Belgian fortitude in trouble and is perhaps the best-known expression in all the allied armies. It has a laugh and an apology in it and expresses just what I want, an explanation–an excuse almost–for the tremendous change in tone and method and standpoint which you must have noticed between the first and last parts of the verse-cycle, a hardening and coarsening and loss of music.
It does seem like a good title–but it does not seem as if publishers are as sanguine as Graves. Still, things are moving: only yesterday, Robert’s father, Alfred Perceval Graves, who has been handling his son’s poetic affairs, noted that Marsh had arranged to see some of Robert’s poems printed in the Westminster Gazette–and claimed credit for revising them.
So enthusiasm, and even a bit of rivalry, with Charles Sorley, now three months dead. Graves’s more or less flatly incorrect idea that Sorley was influenced by Brooke is nonetheless revealing: Graves is not the only person to read Sorley’s poems in the modest volume prepared by his parents, but he will be both an important advocate for Sorley’s work and something of a disciple. Brooke is dead, and he has a death-grip on the popular image of war poetry. But Sorley has sketched out the path away from such gauzy, inspirational, empty-calorie war poems, and Graves is eager, now, to help make that path a well-traveled highway.
Before we get to today’s piece of not-that-short short fiction, an update from the recent tribulations in Kate Luard’s hospital. Sister Luard had taken a moment early this morning to write an exultant note about the nearly miraculous improvement shown by one of her patients–the long-hopelessly ill but tenacious “Medical boy”–after steady doses of Atropin. Later in the day, she wrote again.
Thursday, February 24th
The world is still fast bound in frost and snow and we have some very sick men in. The poor boy in the Medical succeeded in dying this afternoon after a hideous illness of a fortnight.
One patient sinks, and another rises.
The Flying boy is better, thank Heaven. The drip treatment is doing wonders with his leg, and he is getting over the shock…
Don’t look up “The Drip Treatment” if you don’t really want to know.
But I think it’s worth breaking in again to note just how unique Luard’s position is, here. She is betwixt and between: behind the front lines, yet far from safe; not a civilian but not a soldier either; not quite as old as young soldiers’ mothers, but too old to be a sister or a sweetheart. And it’s that last one that’s really new–who do we have that can sympathize with both the clueless mothers and their sweet, suffering children?
When I showed him the bit in the C. in Chief’s communiqué about him in The Times to-day he said: ‘If mother sees that I expect she’ll feel bucked.’ Poor Mother–she writes such jolly letters to him, which he insists on my reading to him–anxious one day because he hasn’t written, and relieved the next because he has. Evidently she thinks each day he may have to be looked for or not have come home…
And since it’s been a nice short post, let’s include an entire story–or “sketch, rather”–written by Noel Hodgson today, a century back. No need to read it, of course, but it’s a pretty good piece. It’s in the “trench veteran explains the life to the folks at home” vein, and it anatomizes one of the everyday stressors of trench duty, the dangerous drudgery of the working party. This is the sort of work that got Roland Leighton killed.
There is mud, and muddled communications, a heavy front-load of bureaucracy for a young subaltern and dangerous physical loads for his men. This is a relatively cheerful piece, balancing realism with the implicit requirement to show high morale in adversity among the common British soldiers… but it makes clear the misery of these fatigues.
The sketch is notable, too, for certain claims that will become typical of Great War first-person writing, whether explicitly autobiographical or fictional. One of these is the simple, yet gratingly paradoxical “you–you to whom I am writing–cannot know what it’s like.” Well, Hodgson puts it better: “Now begins one of those lamentable progresses of which no conception can be gained by anyone who has not made them.” And yet you are writing, and we are reading, and we are not doing so to be at one with out hopeless ignorance across an experiential gulf of time and space… Also, Hodgson will not be the last writer to reach for Bunyan, and describe no man’s land as a “slough of despond.”
The Working Party
The Brigade begins it, always. To us—“resting” in close billets comes a message, over the wire to our Orderly Room. It is a humble edifice of sandbag and brick, our Orderly Room, built with an eye to efficiency rather than to beauty, and measuring twelve feet by sixteen. Inside it this afternoon are a red-hot brazier, the regimental sergeant-major, the Orderly Room sergeant and his clerk, a dog, the telephonist on duty, with his relief asleep on the floor, and seated on a ration box that cheerful tyrant, the adjutant. All of them, except the sleeper and the dog, are smoking, the brazier in particular, and the atmosphere has attained a richness not known in civilian society. The telephonist has been conducting one of the unintelligible discussions pertaining to his kind for some minutes. This results in a pink paper being laid before the adjutant. Which reads;—
“O.C. 9th Devonshires,—You will find the following fatigues, 100 men and 2 officers to report to Lieut. Exe; R.E., at Hubert cross-roads at 6 p.m., 50 men and one officer to report to O.C. 2nd Aberdeen Highlanders at 6.30 p.m.
Y. Zedd, Capt., —th Inf. Bde.”
The adjutant presses down the tobacco in his pipe, “Parade states, Richards.” The sergeant hands him a bunch of papers, after a brief study of which he begins to write swiftly on a message pad.
Ten minutes later a second pink form is borne into the Headquarters of D Company; a batman hurries from
Headquarters and rouses a sleepy company-sergeant-major from his bunk, who crosses to Headquarters, and re-issuing shortly afterwards, lays hold on his orderly sergeant, with the result that Privates Jones, Smith, Robinson, and their fellows are warned by their respective section-commanders to “parade at 5.45 in fighting order and capes for working-party.” In the Army the “little fleas have lesser fleas” is reduced to a science, and is known as de-centralisation of command. Note that we say working-party—we are not conscripts, and “ fatigues ” are for prisoners, not for decent soldiers.
It is ten minutes to six, and fifty men, shrouded in the long capes which are the best gift the Government has ever made to their soldiers, are drawn up on the road, while a small rain filters down upon them. Presently in the growing dusk appears a subaltern, armed with an electric torch and a broom handle. The voice of the sergeant-major rings out, “Parade, ’tchun,” and the fifty men click into immobility. Turning sharply on his heels the sergeant-major salutes, “Working party present, sir; fifty men under Sergeant Grant.” “Thank you, sergeant-major,” says the subaltern, returning the salute, “we shall be back about midnight; warn the cooks.”
He turns to the line of cloaked figures . . . with a rattle of equipment and splash of boots in mud, the party moves off. On either side of the road are innumerable shell holes, most of which are relics of a notable offensive, during which this suffering country underwent twenty hours of the most appalling shell-fire in the history of the war. All along two miles of road are shattered houses, broken carts, ruined barns, and the countless potholes half filled with water, where the German shells burst on that fierce day. But at present all is peace, and the men step out cheerily with a cheerful noise of converse, in spite of mud and rain, till they arrive at a crossroads in the centre of a ruined village, where the completest chaos since the Fire of London appears to be in progress. The ration-parties of four regiments, four hundred men on working-party, two dozen limbered wagons, half a Field Company of R.E. are seething here, and two indefatigable R.E. officers and a M.P. Sergeant work like heroes to forestall confusion—and succeed. By eight o’clock all will be clear and orderly again.
“I think,” says our subaltern, “a short cut is indicated; advance in single file—left wheel,” and he leads the way among the heaps of blasted masonry, through the rent graveyard where a gaunt crucifix stands unshaken and protestant among the desolation, out on to a rough and broken road. The rain has ceased, and a strong breeze is driving ragged cloud-drifts over the fitful moon; one of the periods of quiet that often occur at night has settled upon the line, and even the whicker of spent bullets is not heard. Pipes and cigarettes are put out for safety’s sake, as we know how accurately the enemy has this road marked down, and at any moment a whirlwind of shells may punish a careless act. But to-night we are in luck and peace lasts till the party arrives in the reserve trenches, where two companies of the Aberdeens are stationed. Here the party is halted under cover of a bank, while the subaltern goes off to report. Soon he returns with adjutant of the Aberdeens, who shows him his task, the transportation of a vast pile of “doorsteps” to the front line. “Doorsteps” are contraptions of corrugated wood, seven or eight feet long and twenty inches wide, used for flooring muddy trenches.
These would more generally be referred to as “duckboards.”
The subaltern measures the heap with his eye; “two men to each doorstep,” he orders, and theleading couple lay hold on their burden. “One man can carry a doorstep,” suggests the adjutant. “Yes, but he can’t swim with it,” is the prompt reply, as the second pair lift their timber from the pile. The adjutant agrees, laughing, “Well, it’s your funeral, any way.”
Now begins one of those lamentable progresses of which no conception can be gained by anyone who has not made them. The trenches being water-logged the advance is over the open; the open ground happens to be a marsh, in which at every step the water flows in over the boot-tops; intersecting it are numerous ditches, some bridged by a narrow plank, some not at all, in which lurk some four or five feet of mud and water. Across this slough of despond staggers the long file of carriers, expanding and contracting like a concertina. The leading man falls down, dropping his end of the doorstep with a jerk that nearly dislocates his companion’s neck; into them bump the next pair and halt abruptly, with the result that doorstep No. 3 hits the rear member of the couple a severe blow on the back of the head. This happens all down the line, and a crackling fire of profanity accompanies it. Performing miracles of agility with his broom handle the subaltern gets the procession on the move once more. Naturally, each pair wait till their “next-ahead” has moved, with the result that they lose half-a-dozen yards, and by the time all are under way the line extends for two hundred yards. Then doorstep No. 7 falls, and when it is retrieved. No. 6 is already disappearing in the darkness. Immediately arises a plaintive wail of “Steady in front; not so fast, which ultimately reaches the subaltern’s ears. He halts the head of the column and ploughs back in the slough till he finds No. 7, to whom he addresses an admirably terse invective, and then joins up the broken centipede. Up-to-date they have advanced a bare four hundred yards and have been eighty minutes on the job. The first ditch how bars their progress, an affair of eight foot width, of which the banks are more treacherous than sloping ice, spanned by a single ten-inch plank, itself covered in mud. Privates Burns and Clatworthy, bearing the first doorstep, decide unanimously that any attempt to cross in couples will be disastrous. In the absence of the officer who is blasphemously regulating traffic in rear, they think it will be a sound plan to throw the doorstep over first and then cross singly. “One, two, three—’eave,” and a soggy splash announces the arrival of the doorstep on the further bank, Messrs. Burns and Clatworthy cross in high content, and discover to their dismay that the doorstep is not to be found.
“What’s up?” comes the hoarse query of Private Wood, with No. 2 doorstep. “ T’ blanky thing’s lost i’ the muck,” is the wrathful reply. “Damn fool,” says Wood dispassionately, and puts down his doorstep and sits on it. The subaltern now arrives fuming, and the errant timber is dug up, coated in slime, to the intense disgust of Burns and Clatworthy, and the grim satisfaction of Private Wood. Now is apparent the use of the long broom-handle, which is held by Sergeant Grant and the officer banister-wise beside the plank, to prevent the men falling off. One man does contrive to fall off, but only goes in waist deep. “Who’s yon?” asks Sergeant Grant fiercely, as the lamentable figure is hauled out like a cork from a bottle. “When Ah’ve gotten this—mud off me Ah’ll be Deakin,” is the gloomy response. “You’ll be deekin’ (looking) to find yer ain feet, laddie,” a Hibernian voice in rear proclaims, and a subdued laugh rumbles out of the darkness.
A cheerful bit–and notice how non-violent this piece has been. Is this the “live and let live” we have heard about, or does the working party not present a decent enough target to German machine-gunners in the front and reserve lines? Well, it doesn’t matter, for–in another very typical invocation of the strangely oblique relationship between the laboring infantryman and the dogs of war–it’s the artillery, pursuing its inscrutable motives, that decides whether danger and death will interrupt this slog.
So the pilgrimage continues, with infinite labour and little incident except on one occasion when a Boche gunner, finding time heavy on his hands, fires two shells on, to the Hubert cross-roads. Some signaller in the vicinity rouses a neighbouring battery, and a sudden bark from behind our trenches is followed by four wicked red snaps of shrapnel over some German billet far away. This is the policy of retaliation, which is an excellent policy for all except the person retaliated on, who is invariably entirely innocent of the original aggression. As a rule it is a case of “visiting the sins of the gunners upon the infantry.” On this particular occasion there must have been some Boches within the scope of our response who were hurt by our promptness, for no less than three salvoes burst soon after in the region of the reserve trenches of the Aberdeens. The British gunners, possessing ammunition and feeling piqued, promptly laid a barrage on to the German support line and caught a large wiring party on the hip. Our subaltern, taught by experience, passed back an order for all his men to drop their doorsteps and lie on them. Events fully justified his caution, for brother Boche began to traverse the Aberdeens’ front trench with machine-guns, and to plop a large number of trench-mortar canisters into the space between the front and the support lines. At length the hostility died down, and both sides turned to the laborious task of conveying their wounded back to the dressing stations.
Again: cheerful, with no narrator’s voice to lament or complain or point out foolishness. This is a grunt’s-eye-view setch, and if the grunt’s complaining is only of the cheerful British working man’s sort, well, then all is well with His Majesty’s Armies.
And yet it is very clear here that these men have been sent out to a job without the higher-ups taking any interest in their welfare. If their subaltern was new, or a fool, or too interested in courage and face, they would have taken heavy casualties. There is no heroism here but finishing the task, and the only answer to enemy fire is to lie down in the mud and hope for survival. “Passive suffering,” which will one day be a phrase invoked in the debate about Great War poetry, is clearly already a proper theme for even implicitly pro-war-effort fiction. How could it not be?
The carrying party rises stiffly and prepared to take up their burdens.
* * * *
At half-past twelve there may be descried on the road that runs between the crump-holes, a party of fifty men and an officer tramping homeward to the strains of “Turn the dark cloud inside out, till the boys come home.” Cheery little cigarette-ends gleam in the darkness, and the subaltern is smoking what was once a fine specimen of Fribourg and Treyer’s art in pipes. They are soaked to the waist, but the night is over and the day is approaching when no man can work—because the Boche sees him—so why be gloomy? Moreover, soup is in sight, and rum.
Into the ruined farm they swing, and halt smartly. “Left turn—by the right—there will be soup and rum issue at once—dismiss.” The men turn to the right, salute, and fall out in a babel of sound. From the cookhouse appear two men haling a steaming dixie, and the subaltern fetches from Headquarters a large stone jar. In the centre of the billet is a glowing brazier; steam of soup mingles with steam of drying trousers; blankets are unrolled and boots removed. In the doorway the subaltern measures out the 1-64 of a gallon of rum, to which each man is entitled, into a tiny mug, and each in turn tosses it off with “good health, sir.” The youngest soldiers cough and splutter at the raw spirit to the infinite diversion of the old hands, who ask them, “What’s your number?” well knowing what will be the result of an attempt to reply. Last of all the subaltern drinks his tot. “Good-night, boys, you worked very well,” and off he stumps to Headquarters, where his servant is ready for him with hot tea and dry breeches. The mail is in with several letters, which he reads while drinking his tea before the dying fire. Then a couple of blankets, bundle of straw, and Lethe, dreamless and deep.
In the Orderly Room the adjutant, sticky-eyed and blinking, is writing: “Work report. A party under Sec.-Lieut. Smith carried from Old Line to Orkney Terrace.”
It is over—till to-morrow night.
February 24th, 1916.