The strange/glorious/dismal January efflorescence of war poetry continues, today, a century back: we have a long and soon-to-be-much-quoted war poem from Ford Madox Hueffer, another poem from Francis Ledwidge, and a letter recording Wilfred Owen‘s next step toward the line.
Today is also the day that two other war poets, having independently discovered each other, made contact. So I will put my faith in your patience (and your hunger for poetry) and first discuss the odd, chatty, many-connection-making letter in which Robert Graves replies to a letter of introduction from Robert Nichols.
Nichols, an early volunteer officer who was shell-shocked at Loos (also Graves’s first battle) has long been at home, and now discharged from the army–and he has attained a notable level of poetic success. His Invocation is, although both too early and too hopeful to fit with the verse now being written under the influence of Charles Sorley, far more widely read than the initial efforts of Sassoon or Graves. In fact, with Grenfell and Brooke dead, Nichols is, a century back, perhaps the most celebrated of the “soldier poets.” Yet Nichols has evidently read Graves’s Over the Brazier and found much there that is worthwhile: he wrote to Graves asking for permission to dedicate his next book of poems, in part, to him. Graves greets this rather grand gesture with both genuine enthusiasm and awkwardly emphatic reciprocal fealty.
Captain Robert Graves
3rd R W Fus.
7 January 1917
Dear Robert Nichols,
…Of course you may: I’d simply love it. It’s hard to say how cheered I am: Orderly Room and battalion drill and company ledgers and the town of Liverpool and the enforced society of young gentlemen whose sole amusements are liqueur shifting and promiscuous fornication, had almost convinced me that there was no God in Heaven nor any bay trees on Parnassus. I feel tremendously honored.
Funny how things happen. As you may suspect, I’m a very very ardent Sorleian and when I saw your letter in the Westminster Gazette about him… I asked S. Sassoon (a poet of some note who funnily enough has strayed into this battalion and shares a hut with me) who you were because I felt sure you were a fellow of the right stuff. He reminded me of that Oxford Poetry book and I remembered that your things were far and away the best in the collection and that Eddie Marsh was very keen on them.
Eddie Marsh–of course. Despite his desirable status as a poet with a growing public (not to mention as a soldier whose “neurasthenia” has resulted in a not-dishonourable discharge from the army) Nichols has happened upon the Marsh zone rather late, but most profitably. After sending Invocation to Marsh, “almost instantly he had entered the small circle of Marsh’s closest friends.” With Brooke dead and Churchill out of power, this is not what it once was, perhaps–but Marsh is still very much the central node of the network of Georgian poets and their nascent band of assertive little brothers, the War Poets.
Somewhat awkwardly, of course, this younger generation is not looking up to Rupert Brooke at all–they have found another idol, the dead poet of 1915 whose legacy will be the poetry of 1917 and 1918, while 1914 (“and other poems”), while remaining broadly popular, will fall from poetic regard.
I’ve got a very bad memory, worse since I met an old shell last July, and I somehow didn’t connect the two. Did you know Sorley before his death? I met him at Oxford in 1913 when we were both up there for scholarships, but didn’t realize who he was–wasted opportunities, horrid to lack back on…
Graves has invented this memory of meeting Sorley–honestly, wishfully, invented, I believe, rather than duplicitously–and of course he forgets that “who he was” would have been a very clever, unusually mature and reserved potential scholar, not yet the author of Marlborough and Other Poems nor noticeably set in that direction. And now, with Sorley in mind, Graves presumes–these fits of grandiosity do not serve him well–to critique his older friend to his new one.
This fellow Sassoon, not exactly a prepossessing name for a poet, perhaps, was out in France with me in 1915 and is a most extraordinary good man… and says what he means very courageously. No Union Jack flapping or sword waving, but just a picture of France from the front trench, and our ‘brutal and licentious soldiery’. He’s not musical, always, but it’s good stuff; original too and not redolent of Masefield as is so common these days and contains no ode either to Kitchener or Rupert Brooke. Look out for his The Old Foxhunter and Other Poems about February or March, with William Heinemann. I was to have brought out a second volume at the same time, but hitches occurred…
A bit of hemming and hawing follows, and then some preemptive self-criticism about his own published work–Graves evidently wants Nichols to approve of him as a fellow war poet.
Well, cheeroh, and best of luck and don’t recover from your shell-shock too soon. I’m rather stupidly going back to France this week with only one lung–having deceived the medical board. Chiefly because I want to hurry into hospital again and do a bit of writing for which soldiering provides no leisure.
Francis Ledwidge, is fired up, these days–and homesick and fairy-struck. He goes back to yesterday‘s theme–those fairies who lurk just at the edge of the fields we know, just at the edge of our dreams. But there is something of a shock at the end of this one.
The Dead Kings
All the dead kings came to me
At Rosnaree, where I was dreaming.
A few stars glimmered through the morn,
And down the thorn the dews were streaming.
And every dead king had a story
Of ancient glory, sweetly told.
It was too early for the lark,
But the starry dark had tints of gold.
I listened to the sorrows three
Of that Eire passed into song.
A cock crowed near a hazel croft,
And up aloft dim larks winged strong.
And I, too, told the kings a story
Of later glory, her fourth sorrow:
There was a sound like moving shields
In high green fields and the lowland furrow.
And one said: “We who yet are kings
Have heard these things lamenting inly.”
Sweet music flowed from many a bill
And on the hill the morn stood queenly.
And one said: “Over is the singing,
And bell bough ringing, whence we come;
With heavy hearts we’ll tread the shadows,
In honey meadows birds are dumb.”
And one said: “Since the poets perished
And all they cherished in the way.
Their thoughts unsung, like petal showers
Inflame the hours of blue and gray.”
And one said: “A loud tramp of men
We’ll hear again at Rosnaree.”
A bomb burst near me where I lay.
I woke, ’twas day in Picardy.
January 7th, 1917
A deft reawakening to the reality of war.
Wilfred Owen, too will find his reality defined by the sound of explosions today, a century back. I promise to find time in the next few days to really dig into what Owen is experiencing, but suffice it to say that if his letters have suddenly sobered up, it’s because his initiation into combat has not been easy. The weather is terrible, and they are headed for a nasty section of the front.
Sunday, 7 January 1917
My dear dear Mother,
It is afternoon. We had an Inspection to make from 9 to 12 this morning. I have wandered into a village cafe where they gave me writing paper. We made a redoubtable March yesterday from the last Camp to this. The awful state of the roads and the enormous weight carried, was top much for scores of men. Officers also carried full packs, but I
had a horse part of the way.
It was beginning to freeze through the rain when we arrived at our tents. We were at the mercy of the cold, and, being in health, I never suffered so terribly as yesterday afternoon. I am really quite well, but have sensations kindred to being seriously ill.
As I was making my damp bed, I heard the Guns for the first time. It was a sound not without a certain sublimity. They woke me again at 4 o’clock…
But Owen withholds further comment there, which I am once again tempted to interpret as wisdom: there will be more of this, so let us wait until our experience is deeper…
The letter goes on in Owen’s new manner–one sentence paragraphs likes faits divers, which veer from matter-of-fact to comic to foreboding. He still wants to be deep, to write heavily… but now, at least, he doesn’t trust himself to. Owen is treading lightly into this new unknown, feinting toward serious statements and then pulling back…
I have had to censor letters by the hundred lately. They don’t make inspiring reading.
This morning I have been reading Trench Standing Orders to my Platoon. (Verb. Sap.)
Needless to say I show a cheerier face to them than I wear in writing this letter; but I must not disguise from you the fact that we are at one of the worst parts of the Line.
I have lost no possessions so far; but have acquired a pair of boots and a map case (presents). And of course my valise is heavier by much dirt…
I can’t tell you any more Facts. I have no Fancies and no Feelings.
Positively they went numb with my feet.
Love is not quenched, except the unenduring flickerings thereof. By your love, O Mother, O Home, I am protected from Fatigue of life and the keen spiritual Cold.
Your own W.E.O.
And our last poem today is quite amazing. Just yesterday Ford Madox Hueffer, was writing a letter that was at once self-serving (the subtext being “I am a good writer, and would like a cushy job from you) and feeling towards both an honest appraisal of shell shock and a literary approach to writing seriously about fragmented experience. And he was complaining of his own stupidity, poor memory, and shaky sanity. Yet today he wrote a poem, fluidly an quickly, in a very different vein, which will not only turn up in many anthologies–which is to say that it is neither difficult nor offensive nor heavily “disillusioned” nor, as so many of Ford’s writings, unnecessarily provocative–but is also quite good. He has not made close friends in the 8th Welch, but he has made friends, and lost them.
I think it’s fair to say that “One Day’s List” is unique in his oeuvre; I’m certainly not sure how to comment on it. Modern? Yes. Traditional? In a way. A lament, a threnody, a war poem? Sure. Honest, true, and a new take on the ever-growing subject of loss, and coping with loss? I think so. Yesterday Sassoon imagined the German dead and the English dead in some underworld; today it’s the Germans and the Welsh in heaven…
One Day’s List
Died of Wounds.
Knapp, 0. R. — 2nd Lieut. Welch Regt.)
My dears . . .
The rain drips down on Rouen Town
The leaves drip down
And so the mud
Turns orange brown. . . .
A Zeppelin, we read, has been brought down.
And the obscure brown
Populace of London town
Make a shout of it,
Clamouring for blood
And reductions in the price of food . . .
But you — at least — are out of it. . . .
Poor little Arnott — poor little lad . . .
And poor old Knapp,
Of whom once I borrowed a map — and never returned it.
And Morris and Jones . . . and all the rest of the Welch,
So many gone in the twenty-four hours of a day . . .
One wonders how one can stay . . .
One wonders. . . .
For the papers are full of Kelch,
Finding rubbishy news to make a shout of it,
But you at least are out of it.
One wonders how you died . . .
The mine thunders
Still where you stuck by Welch Alley and turned it. . . .
The mine thunders
Upwards — and branches of trees, mud, and stone,
Skulls, limbs, rats, thistles, the clips
Of cartridges, beef tins and wire
To the heavens in fire
From the lips
Of the craters where doubtless you died,
With the Cheshires and Wiltshires and Welch
Side by side.
One wonders why you died,
Why were we in it ? . . .
At home we were late on parades.
Seldom there to the minute,
When “B.” were out on Cathays
We didn’t get much of the lectures into the brain. . . .
We talked a good deal about girls.
We could all tell a story
At something past something, Ack Emma !
But why? why? Why were we there from the Aisne to Mametz,
Well — there’s a dilemma. . . .
For we never talked of glory,
We each thought a lot of one girl,
And waited most days for hours in the rain
Till she came:
But we never talked of Fame. . . .
It is very difficult to believe
You need never again
Put in for week-end leave,
Or get vouchers for the 1.10 train
From Cardiff to London. . . .
But so much has the Hun done
In the way of achievements.
And when I think of all the bereavements
Of your mothers and fathers and sweethearts and wives and homes in the West,
And the paths between the willows waiting for your tread,
And the white pillows
Waiting each for a head,
Well …. they may go to rest!
And, God help me, if you meet a Hun
In Heaven, I bet you will say, “Well done,
You fought like mad lions in nets
Down by Mametz.”
But we who remain shall grow old,
We shall know the cold
Winter and the rain of Autumn and the sting
Of poverty, of love despised and of disgraces,
And mirrors showing stained and ageing faces,
And the long ranges of comfortless years
And the long gamut of human fears. . . .
But, for you, it shall be forever spring,
And only you shall be forever fearless,
And only you have white, straight, tireless limbs,
And only you, where the water-lily swims
Shall walk along the pathways, thro’ the willows
Of your west.
You who went West,
And only you on silvery twilight pillows
Shall take your rest
In the soft sweet glooms
Of twilight rooms. . . .
No. 2 Red Cross Hospital,
References and Footnotes
- Graves has got the title of the forthcoming The Old Huntsman wrong; the sort of hunting solecism which would drive Sassoon to distraction. ↩
- Sic! There, I said it! Wrong accent... ↩
- In Broken Images, 61-3. The end of the post-script mentions--disapprovingly, of course--Wheels, the modernist journal/anthology edited by Edith Sitwell. Its first issue, published in 1916 (and regrettably left all but unmentioned here) positioned it as an alternative to Marsh's anthologies and featured work by Edith's brother Osbert (and their younger brother Sacheverell) and his friend Bimbo Tennant. These, for now, are the rival cliques of poets... ↩
- Collected Letters, 423-4. ↩
- Morris and Arnott are listed in the C.W.G.C. records as being killed two days apart, on the 21st and 23rd September, 1916. Jones I have not found. Nevertheless, they may all well have appeared in the same newspaper casualty list. ↩