Vera Brittain on Night Duty and Edward in Italy; Back to the Front for Carroll Carstairs; Siegfried Sassoon and Robert Nichols Sing for their Society Supper, but Wilfred Owen Misses the Party

It’s an unsettled sort of day, today, a century back, with new experiences that are none too welcome. We have, first off, a letter from Edward Brittain to his sister Vera, his first from Italy.

I am rather disappointed with this part of the country — we are close to where Vergil was supposed to be born and the city forms the adjective so often applied to him (even in Tennyson’s ode to Vergil) – it is flat and not specially interesting apart from its novelty.

Mantua, that is: and a much more mainstream deployment of a decent classical education than some of the heroically obscure place-references of Patrick Shaw Stewart and the other argonauts. But what clever chap can resist such a minor violation of the rules about revealing military locations?

We marched through the city yesterday — it is old, picturesque and rather sleepy with narrow streets and pungent smells; we have been accorded a most hearty reception all the way and have been presented with anything
from bottles of so-called phiz, to manifestos issued by mayors of towns; flowers and postcards were the most frequent tributes. Some of the country we passed through was very fine; apres la guerre finie there are several places where you and I might like to stay a while…

But Vera has other things to worry about, today–or rather tonight.

That same evening I was sent on night-duty to an acute medical ward. Since each of my previous night-duties had become a sharp, painful memory of telegrams and death and brooding grief, I did not welcome the change, and wrote to my mother in a sudden fit of despondency, deepened by the renewed recollection that Edward, my fellow-survivor, was far away and depressed:

“I feel very old and sad these days, though Sister ‘Milroy’ . . . tells me she feels like my mother when she goes out with me, though she’s only eight years older. I wonder if I shall ever be eight years older, and if the next eight could possibly be as long as the last three. I suppose I am saturated with War, and getting thoroughly war-weary, like everyone else.”[1]

 

Carroll Carstairs, our American officer of the Grenadiers, was in the area as well, returning to the line after leave.

Trains! French trains… I watched the smoke from the engine drift into separate wisps that looked like shrapnel bursts. Leaning back in my seat, I felt myself being carried along by destiny itself.

The drums reminded me that I was back again, feeling, in the process of a slight readjustment, unreality in the midst of the greatest reality. While I was away the Battalion had moved by route march from Ypres to the Somme.[2]

Which is but a way of indicating that we will, shortly, as well.

 

But first, once again, to London. Today’s most interesting event, from a war literature point of view, was a crossing-of-paths between the two most significant soldier-poets of 1917, Siegfried Sassoon and Robert Nichols. Robert Graves is the key node between the two of them, having been enthusiastically talking them up to each other for months and very hopeful that the three shall form a musketeerish bond, but he is on duty in Wales, and actually in command of the garrison of the Royal Welch at Rhyl. Which was perhaps a good thing, as the three together might have made for an explosive stew of intense eagerness and disparate social anxieties.

Instead, the two poets met with the capable Robbie Ross to smooth the way. Tonight, then, was yet another soldier-poet dinner at the Reform Club, and it might very well have gone badly. Nichols’s Ardours and Endurances has been “the hit of the season,” but Sassoon’s assessment was not favorable. He is surely correct that Nichols was “not as good as Sorley,” and posterity has certainly agreed–but that would be getting ahead of ourselves. But it should be fairly obvious that the poems will not wear that well: they are pretty, but they ring hollow in too many places. Nichols was (too) confident in his talent, but then again he knew himself to be a lightweight in terms of military service compared to Sassoon, that well-known fire-eater and wearer of the MC, and that easily could have been a point of unpleasantness.

Had Nichols suspected that Sassoon knew himself to be the better poet–or if he knew how much Sassoon shared Graves’s scorn for his personal failings (i.e. Nichols’s adventures with shell shock and venereal disease)–it might have degenerated into a butting of heads or a competition in offense-taking. And Nichols had either missed–or chosen to overlook–the rather pointed use of the word  “ardours” in “Fight to the Finish,” which suggests that Sassoon recognized him for a bit of a phony and was willing to take a shot at him in print.

So, again, it was lucky that they had Robbie Ross, “expert conversational masseur.” The dinner went well and the friendship began, but the three did not retire thereafter to Ross’s flat in Half Moon Street, the decadent chambers to which Wilfred Owen had recently been initiated. No: they had been set up! Ross, after dining with them, duly delivered the two poets to a literary gathering at the home of Sibyl Colefax, “a rising society hostess, a ‘duchess-snob’, who liked to collected literary lions.”

Once they arrived, the poets, bait for the real prey–society eminences–learned that they were expected to perform. Nichols had done such a public reading before, and was a happy ham. He went first, melodramatically declaimed his verses, and then, even worse, was followed by a piano interlude of ragtime tunes played by Ivor Novello. Sassoon was thus perfectly primed to displease, and he certainly tried to, reading “The Hero, “The Rear-Guard,” and the famously controversial “They,” with its soldier “gone syphilitic” and blunt mockery of conventional religion.

It’s hard to tell if this was Sassoon just being “tough,” or, rather, whether he was trying to needle Nichols (who had seen nothing as horrible as the Hindenburg Tunnel, but did indeed know the horrors of syphilis). If Sassoon was “genuinely impressed” by Nichols, as one biographer has it, he was also irritated by his performance, which caused Sassoon “acute discomfort.”

But in any case Sassoon was a poor reader and he was out of every one of his various elements–this was not the sort of crowd that would either be impressed by a minor gentleman-sportsman from Kent with an MC, charmed by the handsome young jock-aesthete, or approving of quiet aloofness as a substitute for active wit.

Was he trying to shock the bourgeois? Perhaps, but one should credit him with a more nuanced appreciation of class: this wasn’t that crowd either. These were experienced high society women, flying far above the mere bourgeois, and three and a half years into the war. Lady Cynthia Asquith only recorded Sassoon’s shyness and prominent ears, while Vita Sackville-West, not surprisingly, saw through the ambitious Nichols, calling him “a horrid little bounder.”[3]

But what does that signify? At least the poets performed, and the ladies had something to say. Sassoon still had some dwindling notoriety as a protest poet, and some might notice that his poems “shocked” to good effect. Nichols was popular, and he delivered the goods, no matter that they are second-rate. The two will soon be invited back again, to enliven our last blogging December with their tales of the war’s largest literary waymeet…

 

Unfortunately for Wilfred Owen, however, his luck has run out–or it hasn’t yet run away enough for such things. He was in London too, today, a century back, on the way back home after visiting his cousin Leslie Gunston, and went to the Poetry Bookshop, where he was pleased to exchange winks with Harold Monro when a customer spoke of Sassoon. But then he was off to Shrewsbury, unaware that Sassoon and Nichols were with Ross…[4]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Testament of Youth, 392; Letters From a Lost Generation, 382.
  2. Generation Missing, 118.
  3. Moorcroft Wilson, Siegfried Sassoon, I, 423; Ricketts, Strange Meetings, 128-131.
  4. Hibberd, Wilfred Owen, 283.