Two very important poems today, a century back–very different ones, and important for different reasons. The poem received shows the spark of one of our central friendships catching, roaring into longer life. The poem written is the finest testament-in-verse of a poet’s turning toward war that this war will produce.
First, Robert Graves is back on duty, temporarily assigned to the 3rd Battalion (a training/depot formation, not a combat battalion) at one of the Royal Welch base camps in England. He has recently received a verse letter from Siegfried Sassoon.
27 May 1916
My dear Sassons,
Nous Voici at Litherland again (not that I’ve ever been here before but I’ve heard such a lot about it) and bored with it already. Of course everyone was very affable and I’ve met a lot of old comrades-in-arms… but the subalterns are all at present terrified of my three stars and are ridiculously respectful, and I’m tired of playing at being a senior officer.
Graves, we should remember, not only found a sort of side-door into the wartime army through the Special Reserve but found himself in an odd bureaucratic fast lane where he was swiftly promoted Captain without any real experience. Tall, battered, odd, still only twenty years old and with tall tales to tell of Loos and months of trench fighting, he must have been intimidating indeed to New Army subalterns still waiting to come out. And I doubt he was really very tired of it.
However, I managed to get my Medical Board to give me ‘General Service’ and don’t expect to wait long before getting out again.
More banter about young officers on the town follows, before Graves gets around to his real news.
A great, hardly bearable disaster has overtaken R.G. His Peter has been taken from him by the terrible old mother who has been nosing around and reading all his letters. So terribly has she been shocked at finding quotations from Samuel Butler… and at such signatures as ‘ever yours affectionally, Robert’ and ‘best love, R’ that she has extracted a promise from the poor lad that he will have nothing to do with me till he leaves Ch’house… so I am now widowed, laid waste and desolate…
There are several ironies here. Graves confessed himself… “enamored” may be the best word, of young Peter, still a schoolboy, who had been several years behind Graves at Charterhouse. Graves courted scandal by speaking out about such infatuations–the “romantic friendships” that arose in the intense, all-male atmosphere of a boarding school–but always claimed that he was prudish and almost entirely pre-sexual at school and that he no sexual interest in Peter. On this there is no real reason to doubt him, unreliable though he often is. Yet Graves has previously received information–given in a spirit of homophobic nastiness, but seemingly true–that Peter was in fact gay, and sexually active.
So the “terrible old mother”–perhaps suspecting something she dislikes in her own son, perhaps not–has moved to block his relationship with the awkward young captain, the fellow who consorts with the likes of Eddie Marsh and who writes flowery poetry and is overly affectionate…
Graves, bereft of his first passion, melodramatically “widowed,” will turn now to other friendships to sustain him. Sassoon, too, has recently lost his own chaste love and his lonely among his unpoetic peers. (To muddy the waters further, Sassoon’s sexual chastity is complicated by homosexual inclinations, though never toward Graves.) But despite his losses, his social reservations and a budding poetic rivalry, Sassoon values his odd young friend Graves. The two step forward now, after the stormy short coracle-jaunt of their initial front-line friendship, into the sturdier and more seaworthy craft of a long-term epistolary-and-visiting relationship, based on mutual interests and aiming, in hope, at things-after-the-war.
Sassoon values Graves enough, apparently, to devote some of the halycon leisure of his days at the Fourth Army School to writing a long letter, a testament to friendship in verse. And never mind what Sassoon is actually up to right now–the ironies of postal delays apply to comrades at home as much as to loved ones left behind.
But back to Graves’s letter for a moment:
Your jingle letter was quite one of the nicest I’ve ever had: you are a dear. One of these days I’ll try a reply…
I gave your love to Eddie: he’s in good form these days…
‘I want to go home’–to France.
The jingle letter, then:
A Letter Home
(To Robert Graves)
Here I’m sitting in the gloom
Of my quiet attic room.
France goes rolling all around,
Fledged with forest May has crowned.
And I puff my pipe, calm-hearted,
Thinking how the fighting started,
Wondering when we’ll ever end it,
Back to hell with Kaiser sent it,
Gag the noise, pack up and go,
Clockwork soldiers in a row.
I’ve got better things to do
Than to waste my time on you.
Robert, when I drowse to-night,
Skirting lawns of sleep to chase
Shifting dreams in mazy light,
Somewhere then I’ll see your face
Turning back to bid me follow
Where I wag my arms and hollo,
Over hedges hasting after
Crooked smile and baffling laughter,
Running tireless, floating, leaping,
Down your web-hung woods and valleys,
Where the glowworm stars are peeping,
Till I find you, quiet as stone
On a hill-top all alone,
Staring outward, gravely pondering
Jumbled leagues of hillock-wandering.
You and I have walked together
In the starving winter weather.
We’ve been glad because we knew
Time’s too short and friends are few.
We’ve been sad because we missed
One whose yellow head was kissed
By the gods, who thought about him
Till they couldn’t do without him.
Now he’s here again; I’ve been
Soldier David dressed in green,
Standing in a wood that swings
To the madrigal he sings.
He’s come back, all mirth and glory,
Like the prince in a fairy story.
Winter called him far away;
Blossoms bring him home with May.
Well, I know you’ll swear it’s true
That you found him decked in blue
Striding up through morning-land
With a cloud on either hand.
Out in Wales, you’ll say, he marches
Arm-in-arm with oaks and larches;
Hides all night in hilly nooks,
Laughs at dawn in tumbling brooks.
Yet, it’s certain, here he teaches
Outpost-schemes to groups of beeches.
And I’m sure, as here I stand,
That he shines through every land,
That he sings in every place
Where we’re thinking of his face.
Robert, there’s a war in France;
Everywhere men bang and blunder,
Sweat and swear and worship Chance,
Creep and blink through cannon thunder.
Rifles crack and bullets flick,
Sing and hum like hornet-swarms.
Bones are smashed and buried quick.
Yet, through stunning battle storms,
All the while I watch the spark
Lit to guide me; for I know
Dreams will triumph, though the dark
Scowls above me where I go.
You can hear me; you can mingle
Radiant folly with my jingle.
War’s a joke for me and you
While we know such dreams are true!
Excellent stuff–a stroke at the heart of this project: two young poets and soldiers, fast in friendship, writing of war and each other, of loss and hope… It’s a mood, only a mood. Yet it’s one in which we can take heart: with friends like these, and with so much poetry to write, dreams will triumph…
Well, it’s one of the hearts of this project. Will friendship save men from war? Of course not. It does a great deal: more, generally, than the love of women, who are sequestered across the experiential gulf; more, certainly, in almost every case, then the comforts of philosophy, religion, nationalism, or even literature.
But in the end these men are alone when they make their decisions about the war. The big decisions, and the ones that follow: more restricted, but sharper–and ever closer to the feared end.
“No one cares less than I,Nobody knows but God,Whether I am destined to lieUnder a foreign clod,”Were the words I made to the bugle call in the morning.But laughing, storming, scorning,Only the bugles knowWhat the bugles say in the morning,And they do not care, when they blowThe call that I heard and made words to early this morning.
In this “dissident, dissonant” poem, there is a blanket denial of “war poetry” in favor of an implicit opposition of war vs. poetry.
But then, today, Edward Thomas wrote the following, the poem that stands as something like the programmatic poem of his own changing approach to the war:
As the Team’s Head BrassAs the team’s head-brass flashed out on the turnThe lovers disappeared into the wood.I sat among the boughs of the fallen elmThat strewed an angle of the fallow, andWatched the plough narrowing a yellow squareOf charlock. Every time the horses turnedInstead of treading me down, the ploughman leanedUpon the handles to say or ask a word,About the weather, next about the war.Scraping the share he faced towards the wood,And screwed along the furrow till the brass flashedOnce more.The blizzard felled the elm whose crestI sat in, by a woodpecker’s round hole,The ploughman said. “When will they take it away?”“When the war’s over.” So the talk began—One minute and an interval of ten,A minute more and the same interval.“Have you been out?” “No.” “And don’t want to, perhaps?”“If I could only come back again, I should.I could spare an arm. I shouldn’t want to loseA leg. If I should lose my head, why, so,I should want nothing more. . . . Have many goneFrom here?” “Yes.” “Many lost?” “Yes, a good few.Only two teams work on the farm this year.One of my mates is dead. The second dayIn France they killed him. It was back in March,The very night of the blizzard, too. Now ifHe had stayed here we should have moved the tree.”“And I should not have sat here. EverythingWould have been different. For it would have beenAnother world.” “Ay, and a better, thoughIf we could see all all might seem good.” ThenThe lovers came out of the wood again:The horses started and for the last timeI watched the clods crumble and topple overAfter the ploughshare and the stumbling team.
The clods are not friable symbols anymore, to be tossed in the general direction of Rupert Brooke‘s slick pieties. These are real clods, clumps of today’s earth, not some idealized future resting placing.
Thomas will shortly declare his literal allegiance to such things, to the English earth he has walked and loved and written about all his life. They refuse, now, to be overlooked. We’ve seen this sort of figure before in Thomas’s writing–Lob, for instance, just one of many grounded Bombadils that cluster like so many horn-handed angels and devils, disputant upon Thomas’s shoulder, and trudge, too, through so much of his poetry. English earth and an honest old Englishman, and his conversation skillfully rendered in Frost’s mode: real, everyday, forceful as prose, unforced as poetry.
And no need, today, for much authorial screening. The ploughman’s interlocutor is a soldier, but one who has not been “out” yet, and is not sure he wants to–this is Thomas’s precise position. If other poets pictured themselves having a fairly superficial conversation with a less educated natural figure (hardly a pure figure of nature, though, in as much as he is breaking the earth for agricultural purposes–but rustic enough) we might roll our eyes. And lesser poets would drive the point home: what good pondering contingency and the enormous and irrevocable changes wrought by war?
Thomas lets the moment speak for itself. The plow moves on, and the English earth is changed, forever. But of course it is: all change is irrevocable, and (as some good English Georgian/Georgic follower of Heraclitus must certainly have noted, sometime, somewhere) you can’t plow the same furrow twice. There’s no good dwelling on what one cannot know, no deals to be done with the maw of war before you enter it.
More, still: if the speaker is Thomas, on a particular tree, gazing upon particular clods, then this is no poetic moment out-of-time, but a real instant.
And then there is the fact that Thomas must also be alluding to the clods which open Thomas Hardy‘s In Time of ‘The Breaking of Nations’ and daring, then, to correct the old master. Hardy’s clods are eternal clods–pieces of the eternal and ancient rural world feared and loved by Hardy–to be set against the particular follies that man wreaks upon his paltry, passing history.
Thomas’s clods are turned and fall upon a patch of English earth, in the spring of 1916. It’s plowing time, and time to recognize that the war goes on, without pause, without giving any hints as to its intentions, sinister or benign.
This, then, is a big moment, the realization that war waits on no man. It cannot be a coincidence that Thomas will soon shift from letting the whims of the military bureaucracy take him where it will to actively seeking… well, active service. The decision to fight rather than lecture and train, to seek a combat commission rather than remaining a rear-echelon NCO, may be understated patriotism, but it is patriotism nonetheless, or at least a new willingness to let the facts of the war contain him, instead of insisting on arriving at some purely individual stance.
Matthew Hollis takes the assumption just a step further. In the poem’s ellipsis, he believes, Thomas “had understood something invaluable, and realised what was wrong with the scene in which he sat: that the world he enjoyed was contingent upon those who where willing to fight for it.” If there is no dodging the war–the very fallen elm on which he sits, the very clods have already been affected–then he might as well seek it out.
There is no distinction to be made, anymore, between the poet’s beloved rural England, and those other furrows men are plowing through the steel-torn fields of France.
References and Footnotes
- In Broken Images, 50-1. R. P. Graves, Robert Graves, The Assault Heroic, 148. ↩
- I want to just let this poem roll on--it's a letter in verse, after all, not self-serious "poetry," and shows Sassoon's skills as a versifier, akin to his pre-war effort in which a satire of Masefield galloped off into skillful homage... but anyway: these Celtic tree spirits really do seem to prefigure some rather dotty later work by Graves... ↩
- Longley, The Annotated Collected Poems, 299. ↩
- Hollis, Now All Roads, 285-8. See also Longley, The Annotated Collected Poems, 300-2. ↩