Two poets, today, one in the intimate struggle of family life; the other alone with his reading.
First, Siegfried Sassoon, still lowering and at Litherland camp.
Medical Board gave me another month’s home service…
Another sharp frost and thick fog this morning. Reading Curzon’s Monasteries in the Levant which Meiklejohn sent me at Christmas. More amusing than Eothen, but Doughty’s Arabia Deserta spoils one for every other book of that sort.
I heartily agree–there will be subsequent editions of Doughty’s bizarre masterpiece carrying an introduction by T.E. Lawrence, so there’s another Great War writing connection for us. But, while it’s extremely appropriate that Sassoon-at-loose-ends is reading heavyweight Victorian travel literature, he is also reading something rather hotter off the presses. But this diary entry will take its sweet time getting there:
…Those four months away from the Army blotted out the slight sense of discipline I had managed to acquire, much against my will. I want to go off and play golf and be independent and alone, all the time! My absurd decoration is the only thing that gives me any sense of responsibility at all. And the thought of death is horrible, where last year it was a noble and inevitable dream. And nothing left but to watch the last flare-up, and try to dodge through to the end, the victory that is more terrible than defeat—exhaustion, and blind men with medals, and everyone trying to clean up their lives, like children whose little make-believes have been smashed and ruined in the night.
This is as close as Sassoon will get to sounding like mid-60’s Dylan; but he’s under a rather different influence: the book of the year (it’s that time, for critics, isn’t it? Or have I missed it?) is certainly H.G. Wells’ Mr. Britling Sees it Through. Sassoon now copies out a lengthy quotation from the book, which he is in the middle of reading:
Mr Britling says: ‘Everywhere cunning, everywhere small feuds and hatreds, distrusts, dishonesties, timidities, feebleness of purpose, dwarfish imaginations, swarm over the great and simple issues . . . It is a war now like any other of the mobbing, many-aimed cataclysms that have shattered empires and devastated the world; it is a war without point, a war that has lost its soul, it has become mere incoherent fighting and destruction, a demonstration in vast and tragic forms of the stupidity and ineffectiveness of our species.'
Word perfect–Sassoon was copying carefully.
I can’t do H.G. Wells justice in just a few paragraphs here. I hardly know the breadth of his work, and like most Americans I think of him as a founding father of Science Fiction first and foremost… and very little after that. But Mr. Britling was a major book, a real attempt to use the novel to wrestle with, for lack of a better term, current events. And there is a Wells-like figure at the center of the book: Mr. Britling is a man of letters, given to sweeping pronouncements in newspaper articles, late-night fits of writerly inspiration, and serial affairs that seem, implausibly, to hardly intrude upon his home life.
But Mr. Britling is not Mr. Wells (Sassoon does not copy down quotation marks to show that Mr. Britling, rather than a narratorial or authorial voice, is speaking; his editor does add them later). Mr. Britling has something Mr. Wells does not: a seventeen-year-old son.
The course of the book’s events are easily summarized: we get an extremely idyllic Summer of ’14 (seen through the eyes of an American visitor), which includes casual witty brilliance, highly competitive amateur sports, and a benevolent, endearingly self-serious German tutor. This is followed by much time in Mr. Britling’s mind as he adjusts to the realities of the war. His young secretary (i.e. personal assistant) joins up, taking a commission, but his own boy idealistically enlists in Kitchener’s Army, in the ranks. He is underage, so he will be stuck safely in training, unable to serve overseas for more than a year… and Mr. Britling goes on planning (and only rarely completing) self-important think-pieces on the war.
And then things begin to unravel–young Hugh Britling had lied about his age in order to avoid the need for parental consent for combat deployment, and he is sent to France in 1915. The 1914 confidence about Empire and the thrill of rising to the challenge begin to fall flat with the bloody balls-up of the Battle of Loos. And Mr. Britling writes on…
I suppose I will stop there, since my paltry summary has reached the spot, more or less, from which Sassoon quotes. No spoilers, of course… although this book was published months ago, a century back. But you know what must happen.
What’s of more interest to us–or of more direct interest–is how the book affected our writers.
It certainly seems to be something like the consensus best “state of Britain” novel of 1916, and they are all reading it: Wilfred Owen was reading something by Wells in November, likely Mr. Britling, as was Isaac Rosenberg, more recently. Robert Graves will shortly (in terms of the lived chronology of his memoir) discuss the book and its author in his usual fashion–which is to say inaccurately, and with an eye for stirring up trouble. And reader Richard Hawkins reminds me that Gilbert Frankau, an author whom I have more or less abandoned here (not because I don’t like his writing–I don’t, but it’s instructive–but rather because there are just not enough dates), will also remember meeting Wells at about this time. Frankau, too, will take a pot-shot at him, too, in his memoir.
Virtually every novel and memoir by a Great War combatant addresses the question of what I have been calling “the experiential gulf” and “the conflict of the generations.” They must comment–wryly, sadly, in still-hot fury–on the ways in which fatuous old men on the home front fail to understand/stereotype/disrespect the young men in uniform while at the same time being complicit in, and often profiting from, their senseless slaughter. So it’s… perhaps “amusing” is not the best word… that Frankau treats Wells dismissively as a cynical anti-imperialist who welcomes the destruction of the war while Graves mistakes the man for the creation and makes Wells into Mr. Britling and Mr. Britling into a chirping optimist, an embodiment of the smug older generation who are staggered by the war but can’t even bear to face that fact… Wells was nothing so simple, nor was his creation.
I shouldn’t drone on about Wells’s book. The quotation Sassoon uses, above, is fair and representative: it’s about Mr. Britling’s hesitant, increasingly despairing attempts to cope. He’s not smug, after a while; nor does he fail to see how terrible the war has become. Graves didn’t read the book–or didn’t read far enough–and simply used it as something that sounded like it should attract his derision… but it shouldn’t. It’s not a great book, and the ending is not, to my mind, very satisfactory. But that is because it was written during the dark middle of the war–it could hardly end in despair (and still be publishable, or artistically true to its aspirations to speak for some general type of English mind) and it certainly couldn’t end on an uplifting note…
It’s interesting, then, that Sassoon is moved by the lesson this middle-aged intellectual places at the heart of his novel about a middle-aged intellectual, and striking that Sassoon then puts it to his own purposes, namely preparing to go out to France again with a grim heart and clear eyes…
But Sassoon, too, is fibbing, albeit in a much more venial way. When Sassoon comes to memoir-ize his diaries–not in the “George Sherston” trilogy but in the later series of memoirs in propria persona–he rewrites the date of this intense encounter. (Did these silly fellows, who dreamed big and expected to die young, not imagine posthumous publication of their private writings?)
On New Year’s Eve I was alone in my hut reading Mr. Britling Sees It Through, which was more of a revelation to me than anything I had met with, and seemed to light up the whole ground of the War. Someone was speaking his mind fearlessly, and since it happened to be the mind of H.G. Wells I devoured his pages in a rapt surrender of attention. Finally I came to a startling passage that checked my rapid reading. For several minutes I sat staring at the words. Then I copied them carefully into the small note-book in which I recorded my nocturnal ruminations. I was in the panoramic and retrospective state of mind induced by New Year’s Eve, and this was what one of England’s most powerful imaginations told me.
I suppose it’s not impossible that Sassoon was still reading the book four days later, but as he is working directly from his diary, it certainly seems to be the case that he is moving the reading-event in order to make it serve more precisely as his reflection upon the year. (Which is amusing given his actual diary entry on the 31st, which we will see in due time–it mentions nothing more reflective than a grumpy game of golf.) So, a minor point, but… BOO! He was not copying this out on New Year’s Eve, but rather today, a century back…
After the quotation, as above, Sassoon then gathers himself for retrospective reflection. It’s amusing, again, that the older Sassoon condescends to his younger self while fudging the timing of his experiences for a slight dramatic effect:
The words are alone on the flimsy little page. I didn’t venture to add my own commentary on them. But I am moderately sure that I remarked to myself, ‘That’s exactly what I’d been thinking only I didn’t know how to say it!’ Nevertheless I had already written on a previous page, ‘The war is settling down on everyone…'
Compared with most of my cogitations, this was quite explicit…
And so Sassoon at simultaneously gives himself credit for finding the true 1916 mood in himself as well as in Wells’s pages and cuts his young self down:
The diary indeed discloses very little of my actual state of mind about the War. Some of its entries suggest that I was keeping my courage up by resorting to elevated feelings. My mental behavior was still unconnected with any self-knowledge, and it was only when I was writing verse that I tried to concentrate and express my somewhat loose ideas…
So we shouldn’t trust the diaries, but we can trust this one novelist-over-forty (fifty, even!), but we can (implicitly) trust the later memoirs? It’s going to be quite a year…
And today, a century back, Edward Thomas left his family at High Beech to return to “Tintown,” Lydd, and his artillery training. Comparing letters to memoirs is especially strange when they are written by two women who loved the same man–or, rather, when he is writing to one woman and being written about by the other.
First, Eleanor Farjeon’s correspondence with Thomas around this Christmastime, which she had done so much to make so miraculous:
I had sent to High Beech my own budget of presents to add to the gaiety, and with Edward’s I enclosed as a Christmas card a new London-Town Nursery Rhyme:
ST MARY AXE
Saint Mary, ax. Saint Mary, ax.
Saint Mary, ax your fill.
Saint Mary, ax whatever you lacks
And you shall have your will.—
O bring me a Rose, a Christmas Rose
To cUmb my window-siU.—
You shall have your Rose when Heaven snows.
Saint Mary, sleep until.
Thomas responded on Christmas Day, from the bosom of his family:
Christmas High Beech
My dear Eleanor, I am bloated with your presents. But that is not their fault. The apples were and are delicious, and the poem is I think one of your very happiest. Why do I like the last line so much? What does the ‘Until’ remind me of? Or is it just that it reminds me of something else that is good?
…The Christmas tree is afoot. It is 5.50, and Baba has no suspicions. Goodbye. I hope we shall meet next Christmas time.
Thomas wrote to Farjeon again, yesterday, a century back, but kept the letter as he left High Beech, posting the Christmas one instead. Then, tonight, back at camp, he found a second parcel (or, rather, the first, sent when Farjeon still thought he would be unable to get Christmas leave) and wrote a new note.
27 xii 16
My dear Eleanor, I only found your cake this morning. It is very good. If you and a cup of tea would appear it would be excellent— only of course I shouldn’t mind whether it was or not. I am going to send you in exchange some verses I made on Sunday. It is really Baba who speaks, not I. Something she felt put me on to it. But I am afraid I am meddling now. A real poem would include and imply all these things I am writing, or so I fancy.
These verses we shall read in two days, when he sends them to “Baba,” his daughter Myfanwy. The next line, well… bear it in mind when we read his wife Helen’s reminiscences:
…It is curious how I feel no anxiety or trouble as soon as I am back here, though I was so very glad to be at home.
I will just copy out the verses and send this off.
Goodbye. Oh, the Christmas tree was a great success. Baba went pale with surprise as she came into the room and found it. Thank you.
From Helen Thomas’s memoir I will excerpt with a heavy hand, as she writes a great deal over the same few days between the writing and the posting of this letter… but there is no surprise here: a wife surprised by the sudden return of her soldier husband will write intensely, and intimately… his visit was only three days, but here it seems longer. For Helen the visit is a miraculous in-gathering of the family, but also a chance for their often tense marriage to find a moment of calm before the the war pulls them apart.
…in the evenings, when just outside the door the silence of the forest was like a pall covering too heavily the myriads of birds and little beasts that the frost had killed, we would sit by the fire with the children and read aloud to them, and they would sing songs that they had known since their babyhood, and Edward sang new ones he had learnt in the army–jolly songs with good choruses in which I, too, joined as I busied about getting the supper. Then, when Myfanwy had gone to bed, Bronwen would sit on his lap, content just to be there, while he and Merfyn worked out problems or studied maps. It was lovely to see those two so united over this common interest.
But he and I were separated by our dread, and we could not look each other in the eyes, nor dared we be left alone
The days had passed in restless energy for us both. He had sawn up a big tree that had been blown down at our very door, and chopped the branches into logs, the children all helping. The children loved being with him, for though he was stern in making them build up the logs properly, and use the tools in the right way, they were not resentful of this, but tried to win his rare praise and imitate his skill. Indoors he packed his kit and polished his accoutrements…
And I knew Edward’s agony and he knew mine, and all we could do was to speak sharply to each other. ‘Now do, for goodness’ sake, remember Helen, that these are the important manuscripts, and that I’m putting them here, and this key is for the box that holds all important papers like our marriage certificate and the children’s birth certificates, and my life insurance policy. You may.want them at some time; so don’t go leaving the key about.’ And I, after a while, ‘Can’t you leave all this unnecessary tidying business, and put up that shelf you promised me? I hate this room, but a few books on a shelf might make it look at bit more human.’ ‘Nothing will improve this room, so you had better resign yourself to it. Besides, the wall is too rotten for a shelf’ ‘Oh, but you promised.’ ‘Well, it won’t be the first time I’ve broken a promise to you, will it? Nor the last, perhaps.’
Oh, God! melt the snow and let the sky be blue. The last evening comes. The children have taken down the holly and mistletoe and ivy, and chopped up the little Christmas-tree to burn. And for a treat Bronwen and Myfanwy are to have their bath in front of the blazing fire. The big zinc bath is dragged in, and the children undress in high glee, and skip about naked in the warm room, which is soon filled with the sweet smell of the burning greenery. The berries pop, and the fir-tree makes fairy lace, and the holly crackles and roars. The two children get into the bath together, and Edward scrubs them in turn – they laughing, making the fire hiss with their splashing. The drawn curtains shut out the snow and the starless sky, and the deathly silence out there in the biting cold is forgotten in the noise and warmth of our little room. After the bath Edward reads to them. First of all he reads Shelley’s The Question and Chevy Chase, and then for Myfanwy a favourite Norse tale. They sit in their nightgowns listening gravely, and then, just before they kiss him good night, while I stand by with the candle in my hand, he says: ‘Remember while I am away to be kind. Be kind, first of all, to Mummy, and after that be kind to everyone and everything.’ And they all assent together, and joyfully hug and kiss him, and he carries the two girls up, and drops each into her bed.
And we are left alone, unable to hide our agony, afraid to show it. Over supper, we talk of the probable front he’ll arrive at, of his fellow-officers, and of the unfinished portrait-etching that one of them has done of him and given to me. And we speak of the garden, and where this year he wants the potatoes to be, and he-reminds me to put in the beans directly the snow disappears. ‘If I’m not back in time, you’d better get someone to help you with the digging,’ he says. He reads me some of the poems he has written that I have not heard — the last one of all called Out in the Dark. And I venture to question one line, and he says, ‘Oh, no, it’s right, Helen, I’m sure it’s right. ’
Thomas never does seem interested in Helen’s thoughts about his writing. There are others for that… friends. And she knows this, and–as if to assert her primacy, her one prior and unassailable claim, Helen Thomas’s memoir moves from the intimacies of poetic language to the greater intimacies of marriage, of sexual companionship…
And I nod because I can’t speak, and I try to smile at his assurance. I sit and stare stupidly at his luggage by the wall, and his roll of bedding, kit-bag, and suitcase. He takes out his prismatic compass and explains it to me, but I cannot see, and when a tear drops on to it he just shuts it up and puts it away. Then he says, as he takes a book out of his pocket, ‘You see, your Shakespeare’s Sonnets is already where it will always be. Shall I read you some?’ He reads one or two to me. His face is grey and his mouth trembles, but his voice is quiet and steady. And soon I slip to the floor and sit between his knees, and while he reads his hand falls over my shoulder and I hold it with mine.
‘Shall I undress you by this lovely fire and carry you upstairs in my khaki greatcoat?’ So he undoes my things, and I slip out of them; then he takes the pins out of my hair, and we laugh at ourselves for behaving as we so often do, like young lovers. ‘We have never become a proper Darby and Joan, have we?’ ‘I’ll read to you till the fire burns low, and then we’ll go to bed…’
That would have been last night, a century back.
So we lay, all night, sometimes talking of our love and all that had been, and of the children, and what had been amiss and what right. We knew the best was that there had never been untruth between us. We knew all of each other, and it was right. So talking and crying and loving in each other’s arms we fell asleep as the cold reflected light of the snow crept through the frost-covered windows.
Edward got up and made the fire and brought me some tea, and then got back into bed, and the children clambered in, too, and sat in a row sipping our tea. I was not afraid of crying any more…
I stood at the gate watching him go; he turned back to wave until the mist and the hill hid him. I heard his old call coming up to me: ‘Coo-ee!’ he called. ‘Coo-ee!’ I answered, keeping my voice strong to call again. Again through the muffled air came his ‘Coo,-ee’. And again went my answer like an echo. ‘Coo-ee’ came fainter next time with the hill between us, but my ‘Coo-ee’ went out of my lungs strong to pierce to him as he strode away from me. ‘Coo-ee!’ So faint now, it might be only my own call flung back from the thick air and muffling snow. I put my hands up to my mouth to make a trumpet, but no sound came. Panic seized me, and I ran through the mist and the snow to the top of the hill, and stood there a moment dumbly, with straining eyes and ears. There was nothing but the mist and the snow and the silence of death. Then with leaden feet which stumbled in a sudden darkness that overwhelmed me I groped my way back to the empty house.