Ivor Gurney in a Nutshell; Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon Eat, Drink, and Mock Merrily; Herbert Read the Very Model of the Modernist Company Commander

A day, today, of striking contrasts. First, Marion Scott seems to have asked Ivor Gurney for some biographical details, presumably for some task related to the publication of his Severn and Somme, which she has single-handedly seen into the press. He responded with a charmingly inexact potted bio:

26 October 1917

Details of the Life and Crimes of the private named Gurney.

Gloucester Cathedral 1900…

Head boy sometime

I have forgotten when I got the Scholarship (I have asked Mrs Hunt to tell you.)
Stanford — Composition
Mr Waddington (whom I like very much) for Counterpoint…

Also the Westminster Board.

Mr Sharpe (a good man) for Piano…

Centre-forward for Kings School

Owner of the “Dorothy” (defunct)

2nd best batting average
3rd best bowling — last term of school

crack platoon shot July 1917

Author of “Severn and Somme”
and a further unborn imbecility.

Army Feb. 9th (?) 1915

Proficiency pay. C[onfined to].B[arracks]. every now and then. Sang Widdecombe Fair
blushingly at Albert Nov: 1916

Wounded Good Friday night — or rather on the Sat:
Gassed (?) at Ypres.[1]

 

A few miles away in Edinburgh, Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon spent the day together. It was something of a last hurrah,[2] since Owen’s Medical Board–not to mention Sassoon’s make-up Board–is looming on the horizon. But it was a low-key last hurrah, centered on two things dear to combat soldiers: food and laughter. Owen will write, tomorrow:

I am so happy with Sassoon. Spent all day with him yesterday. Breakfast, Lunch, Tea & Dinner, chiefly at the Conservative Club…[3]

Sassoon provided the chief amusement:

After a good dinner and a bottle of noble Burgundy had put us in good spirits, I produced a volume of portentously over-elaborate verse, recently sent me by the author. From this I began to read extracts—a cursory inspection having assured me that he would find them amusing.

The extracts included bizarrely eccentric lines such as

When Captain Cook first sniff’d the wattle
And love Columbus’d Aristotle…

Which left Owen “surrendering to convulsions of mirth in a large leather-covered armchair.” Before joining Owen in this surrender, Sassoon managed to get as far as:

What cassock’d misanthrope
Hawking peace-canticles for glory-gain,
Hymns from his rostrum’d height th’epopt of Hate?

O is it true I have become
This gourd, this gothic vacuum?[4]

Very bad poetry is funny, it’s true…

 

Herbert Read, however, is a serious-minded Modernist, and, in today’s letter to Evelyn Roff, he writes… well, perhaps from the heart, perhaps to impress, perhaps some of both. But he certainly becomes the first poet here to quote an abstract contemporary poem in lieu of describing what his latest tour in the line was like–in lieu of Dante, Bunyan,  or the Bible. It’s also, for us, a remote crossing of paths: the poem he quotes–almost accurately–is by the important Modernist H.D., wife of Richard Aldington (and current hostess of D.H. Lawrence).

We have had a terrible time–the worst I have ever experienced (and I’m getting quite an old soldier now). Life has never seemed quite so cheap nor nature so mutilated. I won’t paint the horrors to you. Some day I think I will, generally and for the public benefit.

This casual-but-major statement of intent, with Read’s habitual mix of studied rationality stretched thin over his ambition, is especially noteworthy if we follow his train of thought. It makes very good sense, of course, to go from horror to the hope of writing to the question of what writing the war might accomplish… which would be some sort of attempt to bridge–or at least signal across–the yawning gulf that separates combat veterans from civilians. Very good sense: but I feel as if we don’t often see these two thoughts nakedly next to each other, and in this order. Sassoon feels the gulf and then writes in anger and in ways which are neither didactic nor conciliatory; Read wants to write, and then thinks of the gulf…

I was thoroughly ‘fed up’ with the attitude of most of the people I met on leave–especially the Londoners. They simply have no conception whatever of what war is really like and don’t seem concerned about it at all. They are much more troubled about a few paltry air raids. They raise a sentimental scream about one or two babies killed when every day out here hundreds of the very finest manhood ‘go west’.

…and then he comes back to the anger. This we saw as long ago as 1915, but it is getting worse.

And yet Read pulls up short again, and turns, doing an unusual sort of somersault back over the gulf. He will describe war, but he will use the words of a civilian and a woman–a woman moreover in a position analogous to the letter’s addressee: both are women in England with long experience in waiting for the next letter, and fearing the next telegram.

Of course, everyday events are apt to become rather monotonous. . . . but if the daily horror might accumulate we should have such a fund of revulsion as would make the world cry ‘enough!’ So sometimes I wonder if it is a sacred duty after all ‘to paint the horrors’. This reminds me of a poem I’ll quote–by one of our moderns and a woman at that.

Another life holds what this lacks,
a sea, unmoving, quiet—
not forcing our strength
to rise to it, beat on beat—
a stretch of sand,
no garden beyond, strangling
with its myrrhlilies—
a hill not set with black violets
but stones, stones, bare rocks,
dwarf-trees, twisted, no beauty
to distract—to crowd
madness upon madness.

Only a still place
and perhaps some outer horror
some hideousness to stamp beauty,
a mark
on our hearts.

H.D.

Perhaps the quotation has too much of the gesture about it–“See, I read women!”–but it’s not impossible to read it as whole sincere. This is a novel way of reaching out to Roff, across the gulf, and implying that she is to be considered an honorary combatant, able to understand something of its horror and not get hysterical about “a few paltry air raids.” And even if it is working hard to emphasize their connection, it’s not a bad quotation at all: the poem, with its horror and ruinscape and madness, is quite a good fit for the Salient in 1917. Which, I suppose, could be said of a lot of Modernist poetry, especially for those readers who might find the Christian framework of the old standby descriptions of Hell or the Slough of Despond off-putting…

In any event, Read is not just the impressively intellectual and in-touch boyfriend, here: he is also, to a surprising degree, given the emphasis on accumulating horrors, a happy warrior. This is not as uncommon a combination as we might think–Sassoon is the most obvious analogue, of course, but we might also remember gentle Roland Leighton‘s thirst for a decoration–and Read should, even in a somewhat preening letter, be given credit for facing up to the apparent contradiction.

War is horrible, but he’s enjoying himself; it’s more than can be borne, but he’s bearing it quite well:

My military progress continues… I  am now commanding a company… I thoroughly enjoy my despotism… I have got a fine lot of lads though they are fastly decreasing in numbers… they are a gallant crew: we have more decorations in our company than in any other in the battalion. I got four Military Medals today out of seven for the battalion. And damn proud of it we all are…

My subalterns (notice the ‘my’–sort of possessive pride) are quite a good lot…

The day grows long, so instead of transcribing the characters-of-the-company piece which closes the letter, I will merely summarize his band of brothers. They are much what we would expect: the quiet old guy of thirty or so; the sturdy, pretty-eyed optimist; the boastful but efficient sportsman; and, most promising, the “young rake of the cockney variety”…[5]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. War Letters, 226-7.
  2. But not as much as Sassoon remembers it to be, since he seems to confuse/conflate two memories, including aspects of their next evening out in this description, or vice versa...
  3. Collected Letters, 503.
  4. Siegfried’s Journey, 64-65. See also Hibberd, Wilfred Owen, 278-9. The unfortunate author was one Aylmer Strong; Sassoon presented Owen with the volume.
  5. The Contrary Experience, 112-14.