Herbert Read is a difficult man… a difficult man to keep tabs on and, it would seem, to love.
Rugeley Camp, Staffordshire
I find our differences crystallized in one sentence of your last letter–‘And though one must agree that man is not a constituent of the divine (who has said he is?) surely you agree that the divine is one of the constituents of man?’ I don’t agree anything of the sort. Man is a constituent of the divine. The divine is not a constituent of man. There you have my creed plain enough. Read, mark, and learn: and call yourself a pessimist.
Evelyn Roff shared Herbert Read’s interest in philosophy–if not in pre-marital sex–but surely the tone of these letters was not… congenial. We’ve seen many attempts at bridging the gap, at strengthening relationships stretched by the long separations and by the parts of a soldier’s life that a wife or girlfriend can’t spare. But Read seems to believe that formal intellectual sparring will do the trick…
Apart from names I believe I have as much zest for life as you. I regard it as a great heroic fight–a challenge to be accepted with laughter and song. Besides which there is all the intense joy in the beauty of things and in the love of persons. And I can live untroubled by the thoughts of an “After…’ The only immortality that troubles me is the immortality to be created in ‘things of beauty, joys for ever’…
I am a happy exultant Pessimist!
…I’ve got a wonderful little book–The Freudian Wish–the pathology of thought, etc. Also a fine volume of poems by D.H. Lawrence.
From one relationship that bodes well but doesn’t sound right to one that cannot go anywhere, yet seems to do wonderfully. Alas for Eleanor Farjeon, whose friendship with Edward Thomas is burdened by occasional condescension, awkward praise, unrequited love and, now, their mothers as well. “Granny Thomas” is actually Edward’s mother, and she takes up the pen for her son, who has an abscess in his hand. (Thomas’s propensity for such maladies lends support to his belief that he was suffering from diabetes.)
13 Rusham Rd.
Balham S W
Aug. 25. 1916
How good you are to me, and how well you write. I read your last letter all myself, and without any discomfort, so you see I really am getting better, though I am not supposed to do much, and the field of visible things is still very dark to me…
Perhaps you know that Edward left the Romford Camp on Tuesday, and has to report at St. John’s Wood this afternoon. Poor boy, he is not at all well and has a bad abscess on his right hand, and ought to have a few more days for rest, and I should love to have him, but in these days the powers that be show no mercy, tho’ I am not without hope he may return tomorrow. Now he asks if he may add a postscript and of course I agree knowing well it will make my letter less dull.
This is all I can say dear and so Goodbye and happy days be yours.
With love from
Farjeon seems pleased by “Granny’s” affection. Edward’s post-script was to ask a favor, of course: for months now, Thomas, training in London, has been billeted on his parents. Now he hopes to live more conveniently with Farjeon’s mother.
…Am I impudent in asking whether, if I am to be billeted out, I might possibly be billeted at 137 without inconvenience? I don’t know what the billet money would be but it might be enough to cover the cost of my living (minus the champagne). You will tell me as directly as I ask, won’t you?
If I am any good I will call and see your Mother tomorrow. But my poisoned hand has simply left me a wreck, good for nothing at all, in spite of 3 days rest here.
The champagne is a joke, the billeting money decent, and Farjeon’s mother would have no problem putting up the lonely, married soldier-poet she loves–or so Farjeon writes. But in the two days that have elapsed since this letter, all the plans have changed again. Thomas, it seems, is now officially an artillery cadet, and boarding in. Still, he will lean on loyal Eleanor…
From Cadet P. E. Thomas
Royal Artillery School
27 viii 16
My dear Eleanor,
If I possibly can and I think I can, I will come round immediately after I am dismissed at 6 tomorrow. Then we can have dinner out or in as you like. You see I am not at St John’s Wood. All the R.G.A. men are here. It is too far off for me to sleep out, but I hope I can work at your house sometimes. There will be a great deal to do. Thank goodness my hand is mending fast, and so am I. I have been resting yesterday and today at Rusham Rd. We get practically every week end. The result is I got tired of logarithms and wrote 8 verses which you see before you. When I come I should like to borrow about the last 12 things I have written. I want to send them to the prospective publisher I told you about, with these if they are good enough…
I’m not sure which verses these are, but the progress toward a volume of poetry is significant. As is Farjeon’s role in it, not only as typist but as first reader and critic.
Wilfred Owen, meanwhile, has big plans. While his erstwhile fellow Artists’ Rifles’ cadet is finding his way toward the artillery, Owen is beginning to aim higher than the infantry. In a letter of four days ago to his brother Colin he raised a new hope:
There are changes happening daily, but I remain. Briggs went this morning to be attached to another Regiment; no choice of his. One or two are trying for the R. Flying Corps. Shall I? I think so.
Of the last Draught that went out, men I had helped to train, some are already fallen…
That letter then soars into a blizzard of half-self-aware pontification (word of the day, apparently) for his young brother. But today, a century back, his eyes are still on the skies:
Sunday 27 August
Manchester Regiment, 5th Battalion
My dearest Mother,
…The C.O. himself told me on Thursday that he was putting me down for the New Battalion, so that I am not being kicked out of the Manchesters, whatever happens. The C.O. appears to have found my work—or my person—not too offensive to him.
There is only one other of the Artist Batch now left…
I was on the point of sending in an application for the R. Flying Corps, when, at tea, the C.O. spoke to me about being kept on. I said ‘I thank you, sir’, being an Englishman.
But I still have a big idea of turning to Flight.
It is not quite a determination, or I might say it would certainly come about. There are ways and means, and I will work them, if I decide to. Tuesday I am going up to London, on Dental Leave, in order to see a high official at the War Office. Nothing succeeds in Aerial Matters without some boldness. So I am starting well.
I have not sent in my application for Transfer, as, once I did so, I should commit myself to the C.O’s eternal displeasure. Now what do you think about it.?
Flying is the only active profession I could ever continue with enthusiasm after the War…
By Hermes, I will fly. Though I have sat alone, twittering, like even as it were a sparrow upon the housetop…
Owen is swept away, again, by this idea, which–as he probably realizes, between the high-flying bits of bluster–does not sound terribly practical. But to dream of flight!
If I fall, I shall fall mightily. I shall be with Perseus and Icarus, whom I loved; and not with Fritz, whom I did not hate. To battle with the Super-Zeppelin, when he comes, this would be chivalry more than Arthur dreamed of.
Zeppelin, the giant dragon, the child-slayer, I would happily die in any adventure against him. . . .
But I am terrified of Fritz, the hideous, whom I do not hate.
Fondest wishes for a fine old Aberystwithian Holiday.
Your own Wilfred
It seems a little strange to object primarily to the deadliness of being an infantry officer and then dream of becoming a pilot: yes, there is little glamour in the infantry in a trench war, and fighter pilots will indeed take on the mantle–at least for propaganda purposes–of latter-day knights. But pilot training is deadlier than grenade-handling, by a long shot…
Owen is hard to read in these letters… but it’s probably the case that he has been worried about being accepted in his regiment, being seen as acceptable to his battalion commander. Now he can play up the promise of the Flying Corps knowing that he is likely to be assigned to an active battalion before long…
Finally, it would seem that there are ways to be prophetically almost-witty and to not only somehow clamber up onto the right side of history blind and backwards… and then slip right off the other side, showing your saddle-girths to the sky. I joked yesterday about Raymond Asquith‘s cutting edge opinions on the benefits of vaccines, breast-feeding, and the proper deployment of national care-giving resources. Today, a century back, in a letter to Diana Manners, he has a chance to seem ahead of his time once again. Asquith, defender of gay rights?
. . . All the morning I have spent conferring with a bn. officer who wants me to defend him at a Court Martial on a charge of “homosexualism”, as these overeducated soldiers persist in misnaming these elementary departures from the strict letters of “Infantry Training 1914”. His story seemed a very queer one even to me who esteem myself a man of wide sympathies. But I am hoping to persuade Sir E. Carson to take my place, as I think the situation demands a deeper reservoir of cant than anyone but an Ulster covenanter can extemporarily command. . .
This is pretty interesting, really, and I wish we knew more about the case. It’s not quite clear whether Asquith deserves any credit for his “wide sympathies,” here. It’s good to know that he is not a fulminating homophobe, but he is also trying to get out of the job and may be telling Manners about it more for the frisson/ability to demonstrate his cutting-edge disdain for convention than to show that he really doesn’t care where a man finds love or sex. As for the case itself, it seems clear that most units would tolerate a certain amount of more or less clandestine homosexual activity. Again, this may have something to do with the idea that consenting adults might do as they wish, English gentlemen respect privacy, etc., but it may have more to do with simple expediency–which is what Asquith is getting at with his “Infantry Training” joke. In an all male world it made more sense to look the other way than to aggressively prosecute gay men or men who took some comfort among their fellow soldiers. It seems likely that there were many who lived more or less conventionally heterosexual lives at home but refused the only likely such option in France–government-inspected and approved mass-market brothels in reserve-billet towns–and looked among their comrades instead. After all, this is the England that recently sent Oscar Wilde to jail, and also the England that tolerated more or less open homosexuality in the artistic reaches of the middle and upper classes, and in which the sexual availability of off-duty Guardsmen (the non-commissioned soldiers of Asquith’s regiment, among others, which were stationed in London in peace time) was a cliché of urban decadence. Hence the more-than-ordinary-in-military-legal-cases requirement for cant.
I know nothing about this case and shouldn’t speculate, but it is somewhat likely that one of three things posed a more significant problem than, simply, “homosexualism,” and pushed the case toward a court-martial. First, the officer may have earned the enmity of his commander, and not necessarily because of an uncompromising hatred of homosexuality. It might be cynically seen as a sure-fire way to force a man our. Second, the officer might have failed to be discreet, which was a serious problem given the hypocrisy of the situation and the high bar for social reserve in Guards regiments. Asquith would, I’m sure, overlook a gay man who could be trusted not to be publicly exposed as such, but not a man who was a likely embarrassment. Third, while we, today, would note that homosexuality in and of itself does not cause this problem, it would have seemed to present a serious and legitimate threat to discipline if the gay officer had seemed to take an interest in any men under his command. In an all-male army, heterosexual abuse of rank wasn’t possible, but there are obvious problems not only of potential coercion (this, one imagines, might often be overlooked in an army in which some men were assigned to be body servants, were tied to wagon wheels or flogged for minor offenses and sometimes shot for serious ones, and in which all might be sent to their deaths) but of accusations of favoritism. Coercion is bad: favoritism is worse, especially in the form of a sexual relationship between officer and man. No cracks from the learned Asquith about Spartans or Thebans would be appropriate in such a case. In the British Army, all personal beliefs aside–as in most societies’ armies–it would be a bad thing if the private soldiers of a platoon had good reason to believe that their officer will protect one of them more than others.
I am speculating, and shouldn’t–I don’t know who this officer was or what indiscretion lead to the prosecution. But I have been thinking of a sad case we will encounter in the future, and Asquith’s view is not insignificant testimony on a thorny issue…