Robert Graves Rattles a Poetic Sabre at Siegfried Sassoon; Ivor Gurney on Edward Thomas, but not Marion Scott

One sign of the strain in the friendship between Robert Graves and Siegfried Sassoon is that this letter sounds less like half of an epistolary dialogue than like a two-handed conversation between Graves and himself.

11 January 1918

My dear Sassons

I’m sure if you bit old Flood’s ear nicely you could get leave to come to the wedding. Should be rather a rag as all the best sort of people will be there: no relations but a very few will be allowed to come on after the ceremony to drink champagne at the studio in Appletree Yard, only the elect people of God will be there… The date is fixed for January 23rd: meanwhile I have been to see Sir James Fowler re chests and so on and he says it’s no good my going on active service though my lungs are soundish. Says I’ll break down. So I stay back I suppose: it seems rather silly after all my sabre rattling: still I suppose it’s good news for Nancy…

I have just written a poem that Robbie says is a masterpiece. It seemed all right when I casually examined it the morning afterwards… I think it’s rather a hit… Called ‘The God Poetry.’..

Love

Robert.[1]

Does Graves suspect that Sassoon will not exert himself to come to the wedding? Wangling leave from Ireland might be a bit difficult even for a not-recent-ex-protester/hospitalized officer, and Sassoon has shown no inclination to want to come…

It’s tempting, then, to read Graves’s new ode to the power of poetry as a reminder to Sassoon of what binds them together–or should bind them together, in Graves’s view of things. But it’s not clear if he sent a copy of the poem with the letter or only mentioned it, to dangle before Graves. In any case, it can also read as an example of how different–despite their friendship and the mutual enthusiasm of 1916 to mid-1917–their approaches to poetry actually are.

Now I begin to know at last,
These nights when I sit down to rhyme,
The form and measure of that vast
God we call Poetry, he who stoops
And leaps me through his paper hoops
A little higher every time.

 

Tempts me to think I’ll grow a proper
Singing cricket or grass-hopper
Making prodigious jumps in air
While shaken crowds about me stare
Aghast, and I sing, growing bolder
To fly up on my master’s shoulder
Rustling the thick stands of his hair.

 

He is older than the seas,
Older than the plains and hills,
And older than the light that spills
From the sun’s hot wheel on these.
He wakes the gale that tears your trees,
He sings to you from window sills.

 

At you he roars, or he will coo,
He shouts and screams when hell is hot,
Riding on the shell and shot.
He smites you down, he succours you,
And where you seek him, he is not.

 

To-day I see he has two heads
Like Janus—calm, benignant, this;
That, grim and scowling: his beard spreads
From chin to chin: this god has power
Immeasurable at every hour:
He first taight lovers how to kiss,
He brings down sunshine after shower,
Thunder and hate are his also,
He is YES and he is NO.

 

The black beard spoke and said to me,
‘Human fraility though you be,
Yet shout and crack your whip, be harsh!
They’ll obey you in the end:
Hill and field, river and marsh
Shall obey you, hop and skip
At the terrour of your whip,
To your gales of anger bend.’

 

The pale beard spoke and said in turn
‘True: a prize goes to the stern,
But sing and laugh and easily run
Through the wide airs of my plain,
Bathe in my waters, drink my sun,
And draw my creatures with soft song;
They shall follow you along
Graciously with no doubt or pain.’

 

Then speaking from his double head
The glorious fearful monster said
‘I am YES and I am NO,
Black as pitch and white as snow,
Love me, hate me, reconcile
Hate with love, perfect with vile,
So equal justice shall be done
And life shared between moon and sun.
Nature for you shall curse or smile:
A poet you shall be, my son.’

 

While we are on the subjects of poetry, paeans thereto, and the mutual appreciation of war poets, Ivor Gurney wrote a very long letter today, a century back, to his friend and patroness Marion Scott. After the initial pleasantries, we’ll skip to the most relevant part–the part that puts his judgment years ahead of Graves’s:

11 January 1918

My Dear Friend: Your gift came today, received with pure pleasure and sincere thanks. It looks most fascinating, and will be read as soon as possible. The song is ready written out but must be tested on some piano.

And now I’m going through your long and most interesting letter…

Yes, Edward Thomas is a very poetic soul indeed, and English at the core. Please write about them. Haines knew him intimately, and talks of him a lot…

Interestingly, Scott seems to have tossed her own poems into the midst of a wide-ranging conversation on English poetry. I don’t know what they were like, good, bad, decent, or indifferent. As for Gurney, though he puts up a strong critical barrage, it proves to be a distraction or demonstration–he clearly doesn’t want to tell her what he thinks, which does not bode well…

About your work I am going to be simply honest. I don’t know what to say, and that’s true. Should you go on writing? Well, I care only for Music of strong individuality… It is the same with verse — I care only to hear what I could not do myself; I like what is beyond me.

But as to the use of making a body of English music there is no doubt, whether it has genius or not; but I, who am paralysed by doubt, before writing, as to whether it is worth while or no, cannot be expected to give advice. Literature? Now, could I — could I give any opinion? Can’t you ask Mr Dunhill, who must have read some things of the kind you mean? I am simply in the dark—dont know.

Consider what l am — the semi-invalid who tried to write and the fairly fit man totally out of touch with everything!!!

Your influence may be strong for good anyway, but you have a perfect right to please yourself, not ask hopeless, fed-up, people like myself…

I feel ashamed to close now, but even this must be paid for by writing illicitly tonight after Lights Out… It’s worth it.

You are a good friend indeed. Letters are not here what they are in France, but gratitude (I like G K Cs definition) has not become so dead in me that I am not glad to get your warm hearted vivid letters…

Your sincere friend

Ivor Gurney[2]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. In Broken Images, 91.
  2. War Letters, 238-40.