The Fall of Asquith; Isaac Rosenberg’s “Daughters Of War;” Edmund Blunden’s Battalion Refits Under the Shadow of Discipline

The big news in Britain today, a century back, was political–or it will be, when it becomes public. H.H. Asquith’s polite and unwieldy liberal/coalition government has been hanging by a thread for months, and today that thread, with a final tug from David Lloyd George and his supporters, snapped. The policy of including a great number of middling ministers in the war council had led to a general sense of sluggish mediocrity in government, but the fact that two years of war had produced shortages and stress and hundreds of thousands of combat deaths, but no real victories meant that the desire for political change now outweighed the preference for unity in wartime.

Britain has a king, a prime minister, and a near-generalissimo in General Haig–but only one of these three could really be sacked. Since the death of Lord Kitchener (and the fall of that rapscallion Churchill) there has been no truly charismatic figure in government–except for David Lloyd George, the prime mover behind the ministerial revolt. Lloyd George was a Welsh Liberal MP who had moved from the Exchequer to become Minister of Munitions and then, in July, Secretary of State for War (replacing Kitchener), gathering steam as he went. His forceful personality was in contrast to Asquith’s, as was his reputation for energy and efficiency, particularly in helping to meet the enormous challenge of organizing a war economy–this was enough.

And what to say about Asquith? Here he has been a background figure, less a politician than the bereaved father of the far more dashing Raymond.

He must have had considerable political talents to survive so long, but H.H, Asquith is remembered now more for his bizarre and egregious behavior toward women. He was a “predatory correspondent” who wrote obsessive letters divulging national secrets to two sisters in turn–both friends of his daughter, and upon whom he lavished endearments and possible physical attentions–and he groped at least several women, not always with any kind of consent, in the back seats of chauffeured cars. Would that this creepy aggression were strange and unfamiliar behavior in political figures.

Asquith was also a conciliator, an organizer, and a ball-roller. But these talents brought him only so far, and this evening, a century back, he tendered his resignation to the king.

 

But enough politics–politics will pass away, eventually, and we have poetry to get to.

Isaac Rosenberg, toiling still in a salvage battalion working on the Somme battlefield, has finished a poem. Today, a century back, he wrote to two of his contacts in the world of contemporary poetry (the third, whom he mentions, being Eddie Marsh), enclosing a version of “Daughters of War” in each letter.

It’s a small world, English poetry, and the first of Rosenberg’s letters is to Gordon Bottomley, Edward Thomas‘s friend and lay-analyst/confessor. Bottomley’s ill-health, which keeps him from the usual doubts directed at men not yet in uniform, is mentioned by all his correspondents; Binyon, in his late 40’s, has served two stints in France as a hospital volunteer.

Dear Mr. Bottomley

I know what it costs you to write a letter especially now this cruel weather has set in. Mr Trevelyan gave me good & cheering news of you, and also all the literary adventures at The Sheiling. Since I last wrote to you I have been feeling pretty crotchety–& my memory has become weak and confused. I fancy the winter has bowled me over but I suppose we must go lingering on. What you say of my poem might lend colour to Marsh’s belief that you are too indulgent to me, but give me half a chance and you will see it’ll be the other way about. I am enclosing the poem I spoke about. I think it has nine parts of my old fault to one of my new merit; but I fancy you will like the idea.

I am grieved at the misunderstanding about Wells. I forgot quite what I said but I know it was one of the rarest pieces of pleasure I have had out here, when you sent me his book.

Of this book–which may well have been Mr. Britling Sees it Through, more anon.

Since neither of the slightly different manuscripts Rosenberg sent to Bottomley and Binyon was in the final form, I’ll half-compromise and include the published text of “Daughters of War” below.

But first, the letter to Laurence Binyon, a very prominent poet whose “For the Fallen” is already perhaps the most-popular-save-Brooke English poem of the war.

Dear Mr Binyon,

I have thought about the poem & your suggestions but it is impossible for me to work on it here…

We are in a rougher shop than before & the weather is about as bad as it can be but my Pegasus though it may kick at times will not stampede or lose or leave me. I felt your letter very much but we are young & its [sic] excitement for us…

This–having a spirited winged horse for a metaphorical muse–is no small thing at all.

I wonder if you like this new poem. It has my usual fault of intricacy I know but I think the idea is clear…[1]

 

Daughters Of War

Space beats the ruddy freedom of their limbs,
Their naked dances with man’s spirit naked
By the root side of the tree of life
(The under side of things
And shut from earth’s profoundest eyes).

I saw in prophetic gleams
These mighty daughters in their dances
Beckon each soul aghast from its crimson corpse
To mix in their glittering dances:
I heard the mighty daughters’ giant sighs
In sleepless passion for the sons of valour
And envy of the days of flesh,
Barring their love with mortal boughs across–
The mortal boughs, the mortal tree of life.
The old bark burnt with iron wars
They blow to a live flame
To char the young green clays
And reach the occult soul; they have no softer lure,
No softer lure than the savage ways of death.

We were satisfied of our lords the moon and the sun
To take our wage of sleep and bread and warmth–
These maidens came–these strong everliving Amazons,
And in an easy might their wrists
Of night’s sway and noon’s sway the sceptres brake,
Clouding the wild, the soft lustres of our eyes.

Clouding the wild lustres, the clinging tender lights;
Driving the darkness into the flame of clay
With the Amazonian wind of them
Over our corroding faces
That must be broken-broken for evermore,
So the soul can leap out
Into their huge embraces,
Though there are human faces
Best sculptures of Deity,
And sinews lusted after
By the Archangels tall,
Even these must leap to the love-heat of these maidens
From the flame of terrene days,
Leaving grey ashes to the wind-to the wind.

One (whose great lifted face,
Where wisdom’s strength and beauty’s strength
And the thewed strength of large beasts
Moved and merged, gloomed and lit)
Was speaking, surely, as the earth-men’s earth fell away;
Whose new hearing drank the sound
Where pictures, lutes, and mountains mixed
With the loosed spirit of a thought, Essenced to language thus

‘My sisters force their males
From the doomed earth, from the doomed glee
And hankering of hearts.
Frail hands gleam up through the human quagmire, and lips of ash
Seem to wail, as in sad faded paintings
Far-sunken and strange.
My sisters have their males
Clean of the dust of old days
That clings about those white hands
And yearns in those voices sad:
But these shall not see them,
Or think of them in any days or years ;
They are my sisters’ lovers in other days and years.’

 

If the fault of such a poem is “intricacy”–some difficulties of rhythm, an opacity of surface meaning–then, yes, the strengths are clear, and clearly Rosenberg’s. There is a pictorial vividness here and a power that blasts out of the squalor of the trenches like an enormous mine… a powerful blast, that would be (kick, feeble pegasus!) but not one that hurtles some beautiful missile free and clear: one, rather, that is a contiguous upheaval of the human quagmire in which it grew…

 

Finally, today, Edmund Blunden‘s battalion has begun a period of rest and refitting in deep reserve. After the nastiness and bewilderment of the last days of the Somme, Blunden’s prose now recovers some of its peaceable pastoralism.

In M Camp I acquired an extraordinary facility in issuing the nightly rum ration. There were so many (I forget the exact tally) to be served from each jar; each man brought his own favourite vessel at the welcome call “Roll up for your rum,” and confronted you with the need for all sorts of mental mensurations. The indefatigable dear Worley held up his candle, or put on his pocket torch, as I stood at the door of each billet, and it was rare that anyone went short. The precious drops were fairly distributed, and when all was done Worley would prolong my visitation, in defiance of military principles, by luring me into his tent to join a party of old stagers whose bread and cheese were the emblem of an unforgettable kindness. And there was an occasion or two in which Cassells and myself were the guests of those good souls at a veritable banquet. An estaminet by St. Jans ter Biezen was then the scene of much music, much champagne, and a dinner of the best…

There began naturally some mention of Ypres, and I was intending a flying visit (much to the cynical amusement of Lintott, who knew the place), when, instead of going forward, we went still farther away. This excess of good fortune was less real than it ought to have been, for we could not place it at all — it was out of our line. We went back to a nook of quietude and antiquity discoverable on the map some few miles behind St. Omer…

But Northern France in December is not Eden, and there’s a new sort of snake in the garden. Blunden has shown respect and admiration for Colonel Harrison, his commanding officer–but old Regulars tend to have certain prejudices, which can be taken advantage of…

At the station, as we entrained, we saw two officers standing beside the line, evidently pleased to see us; and one was waving his hand and singing out messages to the old hands. This was Vidler, who had been one of the battalion’s first casualties, and with him was his old schoolfellow Amon, a survivor from old grim combat in the Loos district. These joined us, and the life of the battalion was enriched beyond words. Not so can I mention the advent of another officer who had turned up at M Camp with a sinister, dry, and staffy accent, recommending himself to Harrison as a “special reserve” officer and being accepted by that good old soldier, whose sole weakness was a prejudice for the professional. The intruder was immediately given the duties of second in command, and, strutting with redoubled vanity and heel clicking, on Harrison’s going on leave, actually reigned over the battalion for a short time. In vain did we mutter and hint that this man was a liar, for Harrison was glad to receive someone with what he thought “discipline” in him, and easily allowed his wish to deceive him.[2]

Ah, but he had us at “staffy accent,” didn’t he? It seems like we have only begun to know Blunden and his battalion, and yet now they have entered into their “Silver Age.” And winter, as well… but our Rabbit will shortly follow his CO on leave, visiting home for about a week before making it back to the front in time for an “Ypres Christmas.”

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Liddiard, ed., Poetry Out of My Head and Heart, 66-7, 86.
  2. Undertones of War, 128-9.