Isaac Rosenberg’s Daughters of War; Francis Ledwidge’s Gods of Greece; Siegfried Sassoon Declares the Death of Youth

Some days we make do with an update and a diary excerpt or two… other days three important poets are writing about their minds and their methods.

Isaac Rosenberg posted a letter to Eddie Marsh today, which probably included a draft of his difficult, sui generis, mythological poem “Daughters of War.” It also contained an attempt to allay the perplexity the poem would cause:

I am now fearfully rushed, but find energy enough to scribble this in the minute I plunder from my work. I believe I can see the obscurities in the ‘Daughters’, but hardly hope to clear them up in France… The first part, the picture of the Daughters dancing and calling to the spirits of the slain before their last ones have ceased among the boughs of the tree of life, I must still work on. In that part obscure the description of the voice of the Daughter I have not made clear, I see; I have tried to suggest the wonderful sound of her voice, spiritual and voluptuous at the same time. The end is an attempt to imagine the severance of all human relationship and the fading away of human love. Later on I will try and work on it, because I think it a pity if the ideas are to be lost for want of work. My ‘Unicorn’ play is stopped because of my increased toil… It is to be a play of terror—terror of hidden things and the fear of the supernatural. But I see no hope of doing the play while out here. I have a way, when I write, to try and put myself in the situation, and I make gestures and grimaces.[1]

Of the play, more anon, I hope. And this almost touching personal detail is a reminder of just how difficult it must be to write poetry in the trenches, especially as a private. Of course he gestures and grimaces–and many writers talk to themselves, at their leisure, in rooms of their own…

As for “Daughters of War,” the poem has been long in gestation–Rosenberg sent an early draft to Gordon Bottomley in December–and it has been growing in power. Like the ancient poets who dreamt Valkyries and Amazons–and like David Jones and his Sweet Sister Death–Rosenberg summons up female embodiments of war’s power.

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…

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…

 

Next to this wrenching vision, full of sex and death, the melodious prose and harmonious rhymes of Francis Ledwidge seem to come from an entirely different war, a different era. They don’t, of course–they come from the same day. These are very different sensibilities: our two poets in the ranks and out of the working classes share very little else than those three facts of their identity.

Ledwidge wrote another letter to the prominent writer Katherine Tynan today, a century back, and it begins with a strange confusion.

19.6.17

This is my birthday. I am spending it in a little red town in an orchard.

Actually, it is not his birthday. Which goes a longer way to show one of the larger cultural and social gaps among our writers than a ream of commentary about Ledwidge’s rural roots or Lord Dunsany‘s reflexive condescension towards his Irish “peasant” protégé. It seems that birthdays were little regarded in rural County Meath a century and another score of years back, and even when he enlisted Ledwidge did not know the date of his birth. His mother, flustered, confused his and his brother Joe’s, or so the story goes. Our Frank Ledwidge was born on the 19th, but of August–his twenties have two months left to run.

Again I think of how this sort of confusion might have arisen in Rosenberg’s family too, with an absent father and Yiddish-speaking mother, or how Ledwidge and his surviving siblings might have shared, like Rosenberg and his brother, the “family suit.” But for such similarities there are more striking differences. Rosenberg is a child of the London slums. And Ledwidge?[2]

There is a lovely valley just below me, and a river that goes gobbling down the fields, like turkeys coming home in Ireland… I was down here earlier in the spring, when all the valley wore its confirmation dress, and was glad to return again in the sober moments of June. Although I have a conventional residence I sleep out in the orchard, and every morning a cuckoo comes to a tree quite close, and calls out his name with a clear voice above the rest of the morning’s song, like a tender stop heard above the lower keys in a beautiful organ…

If you go to Tara, go to Rath-na-Ri and look all around you from the hills of Drumcondrath in the north to the plains of Enfield in the south, where Allan Bog begins, and remember me to every hill and wood and ruin, for my heart is there. If it is a clear day you will see Slane Hill blue and distant. Say I will come back again surely, and maybe you will hear pipes in the grass or a fairy horn and the hounds of Finn…

Ledwidge also enclosed three new poems, “The Find,” “Stanley Hill,” and “The Old Gods:”

I thought the old gods still in Greece
Making the little fates of man,
So in a secret place of Peace
I prayed as but a poet can:

And all my prayer went crying faint
Around Parnassus’ cloudy height,
And found no ear for my complaint,
And back unanswered came at night.

Ah, foolish that I was to heed
The voice of folly, or presume
To find the old gods in my need,
So far from A. E.’s little room.[3]

 

Siegfried Sassoon has not written in his diary since beginning to work on his “declaration.” Today, a century back, he is very much still in declaration mode, railing angrily at the waste of the war and the evil cynicism of those who prolong it.

June 19

I wish I could believe that Ancient War History justifies the indefinite prolongation of this war. The Jingos define it as ‘an enormous quarrel between incompatible spirits and destinies, in which one or the other must succumb’. But the men who write these manifestos do not truly know what useless suffering the war inflicts.

And the ancient wars on which they base their arguments did not involve such huge sacrifices as the next two or three years will demand of Europe, if this war is to be carried on to a knock-out result. Our peace-terms remain the same, ‘the destruction of Kaiserism and Prussianism’. I don’t know what aims this destruction represents.

I only know, and declare from the depths of my agony, that these empty words… mean the destruction of Youth. They mean the whole torment of waste and despair which people refuse to acknowledge or to face; from month to month they dupe themselves with hopes that ‘the war will end this year’.

And the Army is dumb. The Army goes on with its bitter tasks. The ruling classes do all the talking. And their words
convince no one but the crowds who are their dupes.

The soldiers who return home seem to be stunned by the things they have endured. They are willingly entrapped by the silent conspiracy against them. They have come back to life from the door of death, and the world is good to enjoy. They vaguely know that it is ‘bad form’ to hurt people’s feelings by telling the truth about the war…

The diary continues, wandering into violent territory as Sassoon decries the bloodthirstiness of women and imagines a mob awakening to “lynch” the “dictator” who has plunged it into war.

The soldiers are fooled by the popular assumption that they are all heroes. They have a part to play, a mask to wear. They are allowed to assume a pride of superiority to the mere civilian. Are there no heroes among the civilians, men and women alike?

Of the elderly male population I can hardly trust myself to speak. Their frame of mind is, in the majority of cases, intolerable. They glory in senseless invective against the enemy… They regard the progress of the war like a game of chess, cackling about ‘attrition,’ and ‘wastage of man-power’, and ‘civilisation at stake’. In every class of society there are old men like ghouls, insatiable in their desire for slaughter, impenetrable in their ignorance.

Soldiers conceal their hatred of the war.
Civilians conceal their liking for it…[4]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Collected Works, 375; Moorcroft Wilson, Isaac Rosenberg, 359-61.
  2. See Curtayne, Francis Ledwidge, 183.
  3. The Years of the Shadow, 294-6.
  4. Diaries, 175-6.

Duff Cooper Gets the Call; Henry Williamson is Laid Low; C.E. Montague Draws Strength From Hardy; Woolf Praises Sassoon; Francis Ledwidge Gropes Toward God; Isaac Rosenberg Lifts His Eyes to the Larks

I don’t mean to make fun of Duff Cooper–he is a capable man, and not nearly as daffy as he sounds in his journal–but, until today, all we’ve heard of his recent decision to take an Army commission is that is seemed to yield positive short-term results in his endless pursuit of Diana Manners. Ah–but has he forgotten the other woman in his life? Yes, yes he has.

In the afternoon Mother telephoned. She has found about my prospects of joining the army. She is naturally much upset–it is most awkward.[1]

 

Nor did I set out to make fun of Henry Williamson, today, but this disjunction between diary and novel is… also pretty funny:

Thursday, 31 May. Kicked on head by Tommy.

The editors add, helpfully, that “Tommy was a mule.” Which, given that Williamson is a mule-riding Transport Officer–and despite the fact that he describes stubborn men as “mules”–should probably be taken literally, and not as a slight on the stubborn character of some insubordinate “Tommy Atkins.”[2]

In the novel, instead of this misadventure, Phillip Maddison attend a conference held by Captain Hobart in which he is initiated into further tactical secrets of the coming Messines Ridge attack. There is much admiration expressed for General Plumer, the rare innovator among the British senior officers and the man most responsible for the novel use of what are essentially early modern siege warfare tactics scaled up by several orders of magnitude and undertaken over the course of many months: there will be some very big mines. Which, of course, were top secret at the time.

After the conference Phillip goes walkabout, as he so often does. Leaving his work to his sergeant, Phillip strolls past signs and organizational tapes and models and remarks on the fact that every possible preparation for the coming attack has been carefully thought out. He is then struck by the idea that if such detailed tactical information were to be passed on to the men of the Machine Gun Company, surely it would be a good thing for morale, and who better to lecture them than himself…[3]

 

But today is a busy day, and with those bits of silliness out of the way we can move toward a few more formal literary accomplishments.

First, I’d offer this definition of a worthy novel: a book that can offer intellectual and emotional support to a reader burdened by cares and mired in doubt, yet far from any easy resonance with its subject matter. We have a nomination, then, today, from C.E. Montague, writing to his wife:

May 31, 1917

A man here has got The Return of the Native and I borrowed it last night and read the first few pages again. How wonderful they are—I do believe the finest opening ever written for a novel of that kind. I shall try, at odd times, to read on. There is something massive and hill-like about Hardy which makes him good to read during this passing madness of the world—he helps one to feel what a mass of durable things in human nature as well as in other ‘nature’ are going on all right, all the time, and will be there to come back to when the evil time is overpast.[4]

 

Time in its dogged unidirectionality is a strange thing. Thomas Hardy has held out an austere kind of hope to many of our writers, and his approval meant more to Siegfried Sassoon than that of any writer… but if one were to try to sell an unacquainted reader on the merits of Sassoon’s poetry today, a more powerful endorsement might be felt to come from a review of his verses that was published today, a century back, in the Times Literary Supplement:

…the beauty in them, though fitful, is of the individual, indefinable kind which comes, we know not how, to make lines such as we read over each time with a renewed delight that after one comes the other.[5]

Thus Virginia Woolf on The Old Huntsman and Other Poems.

 

We also have a relative rarity, today: a long letter from Francis Ledwidge. Written from reserve billets in France, to Katherine Tynan, it shows Ledwidge in the thick of the action and, characteristically, able to wring beauty from the terror and violence of his surroundings.

I would have written to thank you for the sweets, only that lately we were unsettled, wandering to and fro between the firing-line and resting billets immediately behind. This letter is ante-dated by two hours, but before midnight we may be wandering in single and slow file, with the reserve line two or three hundred yards behind the fire trench. We are under an hour’s notice. Entering and leaving the line is most exciting, as we are usually but about thirty yards from the enemy, and you can scarcely understand how bright the nights are made by his rockets. These are in continual ascent and descent from dusk to dawn, making a beautiful Crescent from Switzerland to the sea. There are white lights, green, and red, and whiter, bursting into red and changing again, and blue bursting into purple drops and reds fading into green. It is all like the end of a beautiful world. It is only horrible when you remember that every colour is a signal to waiting reinforcements or artillery, and, God help us if we are caught in the open, for then up go a thousand reds, and hundreds of rifles and machine-guns are emptied against us, and all amongst us shells of every calibre are thrown, shouting destruction and death. We can do nothing but fling ourselves into the first shell-hole and wonder as we wait where we will be hit. But why all this

I am indeed glad to think you are preparing another book of verse. Will you really allow me to review it? I don’t want money for doing it. The honour would be more worth than money…

A. E. sets me thinking of things long forgotten, and Lord Dunsany of gorgeous Eastern tapestry and carpets. Do you get such impressions from the books you love? I met a traveller in Naples who told me that he never read Andrew Marvell but he remembered a dunce’s cap and a fishing-rod he had when a boy, and never could trace the train of thought far enough back to discover where the connection lay. I am writing odd things in a little book whenever I can. Just now I am engaged in a poem about the Lanawn Shee, who, you remember, is really the Irish Muse. One who sees her is doomed to sing. She is very close to you. I am writing it in the traditional style of the ‘Silk of the Kine.’

Here are the opening verses:

Powdered and perfumed the full bee
Winged heavily across the clover,
And where the hills were dim with dew,
Purple and blue the West looked over…

There is some more of this exercise in willful aestheticism, but Ledwidge also includes a finished poem in a very different vein:

 

Ascension Thursday, 1917

Lord, Thou hast left Thy footprints in the rocks,
That we may know the way to follow Thee,
But there are wide lands opened out between
Thy Olivet and my Gethsemane.

And oftentimes I make the night afraid,
Crying for lost hands when the dark is deep,
And strive to reach the sheltering of Thy love
Where Thou art herd among Thy folded sheep.

Thou wilt not ever thus, O Lord, allow
My feet to wander when the sun is set,
But through the darkness, let me still behold
The stony bye-ways up to Olivet.

 

Yet neither Sassoon nor Ledwidge can lay claim to the most important poetic reference point of today. Isaac Rosenberg wrote recently to Gordon Bottomley (the letter was posted today, a century back) about a number of things, including his new work alongside the Royal Engineers, putting out barbed wire at night. The letter mentions both Dead Man’s Dump and Daughters of War, and also seems to indicate that he has completed “Returning, We Hear the Larks,” a poem which can speak for itself, about many things, not least that a poet walking in the shadow of the valley of death who chooses not to look to God might also look to nature–even here–and then, through nature’s verse-entwined messengers, to poetry.

Sombre the night is:
And, though we have our lives, we know
What sinister threat lurks there.
Dragging these anguished limbs, we only know
This poison-blasted track opens on our camp—
On a little safe sleep.
But hark! Joy—joy—strange joy.
Lo! Heights of night ringing with unseen larks:
Music showering on our upturned listening faces.
Death could drop from the dark
As easily as song—
But song only dropped,
Like a blind man’s dreams on the sand
By dangerous tides;
Like a girl’s dark hair, for she dreams no ruin lies there,
Or her kisses where a serpent hides.[6]

References and Footnotes

  1. Diaries, 54.
  2. Anne Williamson, Henry Williamson and the First World War, 157.
  3. Love and the Loveless, 144-5.
  4. C. E. Montague, 161.
  5. See Moorcroft Wilson, Siegfried Sassoon, 360.
  6. I'm not entirely convinced by Moorcroft Wilson's dating of the poem to May 1917, but it seems plausible... and this is a poem that can't be left to slip through the cracks entirely...

Alfred Hale Gets Buttoned Up Right; Isaac Rosenberg Posts a Powerful Horror; Siegfried Sassoon Has a Volume of his Own; Wilfred Owen is Nervy in Limbo

Alfred Hale managed to get to sleep on his first night in camp, but he also managed to sleep with the wrong group of recruits–men of a higher fitness classification than he. He is, however, still in better shape than his poorer comrades: last night he had paid for dinner and a shave–his first correct guess at camp conditions, as the men scraping away with cold water over a tin basin at 6:30 soon discovered. One more paragraph, then, with Hale and his exquisite decline into the indignities of army life, before his memory blurs from specific mornings into the general daily tribulations of Thetford.

But, as I say, we went on parade that morning in companies at 7.30. Owing to my mistake of the night before, I found myself among the B2 men and after the parade was over was duly drilled with them by the sergeant with the loud bullying voice whose help I had so rashly invoked the night before. Before the drill began we were inspected by an officer… He said nothing to me, but as soon as his back was turned a corporal beckoned me out of the line and buttoned an unnoticed button of my tunic up for me in a sort of awestruck way. I felt much as a small boy would feel whose mother had taken his hat off for him on entering a church.

After cutting a “figure of fun” in drill, Hale is released for breakfast, and manages to find his own proper company, under the rule of a more kindly sergeant. But he is still in the army…[1]

 

Isaac Rosenberg is an inconsistent letter-writer. Not just in terms of the flow of correspondence–that too, but a nearly penniless private will generally not write as often as a well-heeled officer–but in tone as well. A recent letter to Eddie Marsh was couched in grand terms, high-flying and allusive; today’s effort is grammatically sketchy and must be one of the few letters to end up in Marsh’s inbox that mentions, in passing, running a wagon over corpses–Rosenberg has completed a draft of Dead Man’s Dump.

My Dear Marsh,

We are camping in the woods now and are living great. My feet are almost healed now and my list of complaints has dwindled down to almost invisibility. Ive written some lines suggested by going out wiring, or rather carrying wire up the line on limbers and running over dead bodies lying about. I dont think what Ive written is very good but I think the substance is, and when I work on it I’ll make it fine. Bottomley told me he had some very old poems in The Annual but of course its too bulky to send out here. Your extract from his ‘Atlantis’ is real Bottomleyian. The young Oxford poets you showed my things to Ive never come across yet, and I ll soon begin to think myself a poet if my things get admired so.

Im writing to my sister to send you the lines as she will type several copies

Yours sincerely

I R

I trust the colonial office agrees with you.[2]

It probably doesn’t, but the patron’s patron–Churchill–will be back doing war work soon enough.

So this letter is on the way, but Marsh’s thoughts today were surely with a more intimate protégé: it was today, a century back, that Siegfried Sassoon‘s The Old Huntsman was at last published.

 

Finally, there is Wilfred Owen‘s letter to his sister Mary. It begins ordinarily enough, with social banter and a list of new acquaintances. Wilfred entertains hopes of making useful publishing connections among these new friends… the 13th Casualty Clearing Station would seem to be a strange place to network, but there it is.

Two lines in the letter are of particular note. First, though Owen is at a forward hospital in France and not among “nerve” specialist, we have what I can’t help but see as an early example of a coming common theme, namely the all-powerfulness of psychiatrists.

…The Nerve Specialist is a kind of wizard, who mesmerises when he likes: a famous man. He is a friend of Dr. Keeble and the Reading Botany People!

You must not entertain the least concern about me because I am here. I certainly was shaky when I first arrived. But today Dr. Browne was hammering at my knees without any response whatever. (At first I used to execute the High Kick whenever he touched them) i.e. Reflex Actions quite normal.

So Owen believes himself to be improving. But what was the cause of his affliction?

You know it was not the Bosche that worked me up, nor the explosives, but it was living so long by poor old Cock Robin (as we used to call-2/Lt. Gaukroger), who lay not only near by, but in various places around and about, if you understand. I hope you don’t!

That would be the second weighty line. It is the same incident which he described in the long letter to his mother about his traumatic tour in the front line–but it is described with one crucial difference. At first it seemed that Lt. Gaukroger had been buried, “covered with earth,” near where Owen had to shelter. Now it would seem that his comrade’s dismembered remains had been scattered about.

I have no intimation at all about my next move.

Meanwhile I have superb weather, sociably-possible friends, great blue bowls of yellow Mayflower, baths and bed ad lib. Soon I shall have Letters from Home.

Your own W.E.O. x[3]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. The Ordeal of Alfred Hale, 52-4.
  2. Collected Works, 316.
  3. Collected Letters, 455-6.

Vera Brittain’s Next Worst Day, or the Afterlife of Rupert Brooke, XVIII: Geoffrey Thurlow and Safety, Vera Brittain and The Dead, and the Maimed; Alfred Hale Appeals to the Recruiter; Isaac Rosenberg’s Dead Man’s Dump; Scott Moncrieff Adrift; Home Service for Tolkien

We’ll begin with a few May Day updates on our writers–none of them, today, in the bloom of health or fitness. Last will come Vera Brittain, who absorbs yet another blow. And with her writing we will move from the day to the month, and compare two very different poems about the new dead of this third wartime spring.

 

Alfred Hale has some tenuous connections to our regulars. He was an Oxford friend of Ralph Vaughan Williams (the idol of Ivor Gurney) and a very minor composer and arranger in the same style, and he attended Uppingham school, albeit years before Roland Leighton, Edward Brittain, and Victor Richardson. Now forty-one, his life of single, artistic, privileged pottering about is not unlike what some of our young men might have aged into, but for the war… and there’s the rub. Hale is most conspicuously different from our other informants in that he was immediately and completely horrified by the idea of going to war, and has done his best to avoid it. He was glad to have failed an early physical with the Navy, and he dodged the first draft by stalling and then ageing out–but the new rules are sweeping up even disinclined forty-something non-sporting country gentlemen. Today, a century back, he does his best not to impress.

‘As to my being over age, that had been settled against me by the recent Act… the rejection… was another matter. If I could bet a rejection certificate… from the Naval authorities, well and good…. But I was advised to act quickly.’ Thus the very courteous Recruiting Officer… A very nice old recruiting sergeant was also sympathetic. I was never likely to be much good as a soldier, that he saw with half his professional eye, and he hinted as much if he did not say so.

But Hale is caught in a predictable trap: the Navy has only to remark, with raised institutional eyebrow, that his failure to measure up to its high standards is no guarantee that the Army will likewise reject him. Hale leaves the matter in the hands of his solicitor, but little hope remains.[1]

 

Charles Scott Moncrieff, wounded at Arras, is still in hospital in France–and he is not well. His leg is mangled and, to judge from today’s letter, his spirit has been damaged as well.

No. 20 General Hospital, Camiers,
1st May, 1917.

In the evening I heard a great swell of hundreds of men’s voices singing some of the popular Catholic hymns—“Jesu my Lord, my God, my all”—and some others. Presently my priest came in, the one who wrote to you; he tells me they have Benediction every day of the week in one of the huts, but yesterday for a weekday must have been enormously attended. He agreed to bring me Holy Communion this morning, which I was very grateful for. At night I had not such a bad time, thinking rather than sleeping, but still feeling this awful inability to control or co-ordinate my thoughts, which is, I suppose, a result of the shell shock. I find it so hard to grasp that this great nocturnal space bounded by the four corners of my bed—and with so much always new and unknown in it—has just the one inhabitant. . . .[2]

 

Also today, a century back, John Ronald Tolkien went once more before a medical board. The verdict: “He is improving but requires hardening.” This will mean, in practice, an extended period of home service, in Yorkshire, with time to write and his wife nearby.[3]

 

Kate Luard‘s diary has shown hints of strain, of late–not surprising, given that she has helped to lead a hospital through several weeks of intense and emotionally draining work as the casualties of Arras passed through. But now that the most terribly wounded have died and most of the others have been moved to larger hospitals further in the rear, there is time for relaxation–and for psychological letdown.

May Day and a dazzling day and very little doing in this Hospital. G. and I celebrated the occasion by going to the woods in the morning, starry with anemones and never a leaf to be seen, but blue sky and fresh breezes and clear sunshine. It is all a tremendous help, physically and psychically…

Some of us and Capt. B. have been having a bad fit of pessimism over them all lately, wondering what is the good of operations, nursing, rescues, or anything, when so many have died in the end. But even a few miraculous recoveries buck one up to begin again.

A Suffolk farmer boy is dying to-night…

I had a letter from a brave Glasgow mother, full of gratitude and incoherence, ending up, ‘And don’t forget to let us know how you are keeping.”[4]

This string of ups and downs–one day’s record–is not very representative of her writing style (the daily diary entries are often composed as topical letters). But it is, I think, emotionally accurate. Sister Luard is–she must be–enormously mentally tough, but the enormous suffering and the constant loss takes its toll nonetheless. It’s striking that there is no answer suggested here–no invocation of religion or patriotism. Just the increasingly common question, but especially vivid coming from a nurse so close to the front lines: what is this all for? What is the good of continuing in a policy which reduces so many men to such a state?

A fair question. But there’s nothing for it but to go on–and take whatever solace one can from the lives that can be saved.

 

And so to Vera Brittain.

May 1st

Had two cables–one to say that Victor’s eyesight was hopelessly gone, the other–an hour later–that Geoffrey was killed in action on April 23rd…

Sat out on the rocks’ edge in front of Night Quarters & suddenly something seemed to tell me to go home. Nothing much doing in Malta–& chances of Salonika seemed further off than ever; decided to go home for Edward’s sake & Victor’s, & if he wishes it, to devote my life to the service of Victor, the only one (apart from Edward, who is different) left of the three men I loved. For I loved Geoffrey… I spent the rest of that day on the rocks, feeling all the time that I was not alone but that Geoffrey was there & if I looked up I should see him standing beside me. . . .

A letter from Geoffrey arrived the same day–“By one of those curious chances which occurred during the war with such poignant frequency,” as she will later write. Once could also see it as one more example of the war’s uncanny literariness–but perhaps we remember the cruelest ironies best.

His last letter to me–dated April 20th–arrived that evening. He told me they were going up “for a stunt” in two or three days, & said his only fear was that he should fail at the critical moment, & that he would like to do well for the School’s sake. Often, he said, he had watched the splendour of the sunset from the school-field. And then, perhaps seeing the end in sight, he turned as usual to his beloved Rupert Brooke for comfort & finished with

‘War knows no power safe shall be my going
Safe tho’ all safety’s lost, safe where men fall
And if these poor limbs die, safest of all’

My dear dear Geoffrey!

Vera is ready with an apt–and devastatingly sad–counter-quotation. Geoffrey, before battle, quoted “Safety;” she, drawing from the same sonnet sequence that has framed these middle years of the war, quotes “The Dead:”

He leaves a white
Unbroken glory, a gathered radiance,
A width, a shining peace, under the night.[5]

Looking back, Brittain will remember the hours of “suspended physical animation” on the rocks as a time of almost numinous intensity, but Geoffrey’s ghostly presence will prompt a memory that makes much more concrete how she now might “serve” her surviving friend:

And all at once, as I gazed out to sea the words of the “Agony Column” advertisement, that I had cut out and sent to Roland nearly two years before, struggled back into my mind.

“Lady, fiancé killed, will gladly marry officer totally blinded or otherwise incapacitated by the war.”

I even remembered vaguely the letter in which I had commented on this notice at the time.

Yes: a great deal has changed since she wrote that letter, to Roland, which scoffed at the quaintly Victorian self-sacrifice of certain old maids.

There is one small, terrible change in her quotation of her own letter in the later memoir.[6] In the letter, she writes of “a business arrangement, with an element of self-sacrifice which redeems it from utter sordidness. Quite an idea, isn’t it!”

In retrospect, the final exclamation point becomes a question mark.

“Quite an idea, isn’t it?” Was it, Geoffrey? wasn’t it? There was nothing left in life now but Edward and the wreckage of Victor–Victor who had stood by me so often in my blackest hours. If he wanted me, surely I could stand by him in his.

She decides to try to come home.

That night–quiet as all nights were now that so few sick and wounded were coming from Salonika–I tried to keep my mind from thoughts and my eyes from tears by assiduously pasting photographs of Malta into a cardboard album. The scent of a vase of sweet-peas on the ward table reminded me of Roland’s study on Speech Day, centuries ago.

And, a century on, I suppose we must be grateful, in some aesthetically presumptive and heartless way, for the terrible things that happened to good writers.

Surely, surely there must be somewhere in which the sweet intimacies begun here may be continued and the hearts broken by this War may be healed![7]

Vera Brittain will soon begin the poem that will serve us for a first “month poem” today:

 

In Memoriam G.R.Y.T.

(Killed in Action, April 23rd, 1917)

I spoke with you but seldom, yet there lay
Some nameless glamour in your written word,
And thoughts of you rose often—longings stirred
By dear remembrance of the sad blue-grey
That dwelt within your eyes, the even sway
Of your young god-like gait, the rarely heard
But frank bright laughter, hallowed by a Day
That made of Youth Right’s offering to the sword.
So now I ponder, since your day is done,
Ere dawn was past, on all you meant to me,
And all the more you might have come to be,
And wonder if some state, beyond the sun
And shadows here, may yet completion see
Of intimacy sweet though scarce begun.

Malta, May 1917.

 

This is a good poem; also, a traditional one. A poem about an individual, a dead man remembered not for his death or its horror or pain or futility but for his life. Which is right, and good, and we should all have friends like Vera Brittain to remember us, and to draw on hopeful traditions that see a possibility of love and friendship after death.

 

But there are other ways to see the dead, and to write them. Another poem written this month, a century back, is Isaac Rosenberg‘s Dead Man’s Dump. It’s neither a short poem nor a very long one, but it’s almost too harrowing to read in its entirety. It draws on Rosenberg’s experience working in a labor battalion in the aftermath of battle. A few stanzas, then:

The plunging limbers over the shattered track
Racketed with their rusty freight,
Stuck out like many crowns of thorns,
And the rusty stakes like sceptres old
To stay the flood of brutish men
Upon our brothers dear.
The wheels lurched over sprawled dead
But pained them not, though their bones crunched,
Their shut mouths made no moan.
They lie there huddled, friend and foeman,
Man born of man, and born of woman,
And shells go crying over them
From night till night and now.
The air is loud with death,
The dark air spurts with fire,
The explosions ceaseless are.
Timelessly now, some minutes past,
Those dead strode time with vigorous life,
Till the shrapnel called ‘An end!’
But not to all. In bleeding pangs
Some borne on stretchers dreamed of home,
Dear things, war-blotted from their hearts.
Maniac Earth! howling and flying, your bowel
Seared by the jagged fire, the iron love,
The impetuous storm of savage love.
Dark Earth! dark Heavens! swinging in chemic smoke,
What dead are born when you kiss each soundless soul
With lightning and thunder from your mined heart,
Which man’s self dug, and his blind fingers loosed?
A man’s brains splattered on
A stretcher-bearer’s face;
His shook shoulders slipped their load,
But when they bent to look again
The drowning soul was sunk too deep
For human tenderness.
They left this dead with the older dead,
Stretched at the cross roads.

 

References and Footnotes

  1. The Ordeal of Alfred M. Hale, 37.
  2. Diary, 128-9.
  3. Chronology, 100.
  4. Unknown Warriors, 120-1.
  5. Chronicle of Youth, 340.
  6. I am relying, of course, on two different transcriptions of a hand-written letter I haven't seen...
  7. Testament of Youth, 342-46.

Alf Pollard’s Enthusiasm for the Game; Isaac Rosenberg’s Aching Feet; Patrick Shaw Stewart is Summoned; Wilfred Own Describes His Longest Tour

We have four letters today, in more or less a representative distribution: two to mother, one to a patron, and one to a comrade.

But the first letter-to-mum is an unusual one, from an unusual (here, at least) writer. Alf Pollard and the H.A.C. have a lull in the action today, and he is able to fill mater in on his latest doings.

Dearest Ladybird,

Here we are again, out once more. I have had some most interesting and exciting times since last writing, including going over the top again. I am once more in charge of the Company as the man senior to me got laid out with a bullet. I shall probably be a Captain again in a day or two but one never knows as somebody else senior may be sent along. You see, the present arrangement of the government is that all promotions are by seniority irrespective of fighting qualities. So really one has no chance of being more than a Second Lieutenant whatever one does. However I don’t care a bit what rank I am.

I had a most exciting adventure in a Hun trench the other day. I cut through their wire and got into their trench thinking it was unoccupied, but soon discovered it was full of Huns and consequently had to beat a hasty retreat. I got out all right fortunately. I heard a rumour that the Brigadier has recommended me for a bar to my M.C. in consequence of this little business so if you keep your eyes glued on the paper you may shortly see my name in it. Don’t think I have been taking any unnecessary risks because I have not. I have merely done what I have been asked to do.

Well, dear old lady…

Best of spirits and having a good time. By the way, I gave killed another Hun. Hurrah!

Well, cheerioh!

This letter is one of the few Pollard takes the trouble to preserve, and he does so with an explanatory comment, namely

…because it throws such a clear light on my attitude towards war… I thoroughly enjoyed going into action… People tell me I must have a kink in my nature; that my zest to be in the forefront of the battle was unnatural. I do not agree with them…[1]

No, he assures us, he is merely very highly motivated to win the war, and believes that the British Army can, and soon. If this is a gambit to convince those horrified by enthusiasm for killing into accepting what we might term the “realism” of his statements, it’s not a very good one.

Yes, it’s a war, and it is much more deeply illogical to believe that your side is in the right and yet still hope to bring about a satisfying conclusion without violence. But this is a pacifist’s dilemma, and it doesn’t explain the enthusiasm for personal violence. Invoking the common terminology of war and sport–“keen to win”–does nothing to show that there is some moral through-line from the young officer excited to get his name in the paper for killing people and the responsible adult who seeks to defeat German militarism and liberate France and Belgium, accepting that there will be a price to pay for this, in blood.

Then there is the question of the “kink.” I don’t think a discursus into human evolutionary biology and the sociology of violence is necessary here, but it’s tempting… Briefly (and sloppily), this is indeed a “kink…” and yet it is quite natural. Most of us are by nature (as well as nurture) horrified by direct physical violence unless driven to it by some extreme emotion–terror, jealousy, even rage have some clear evolutionary benefits. But we don’t generally kill without passion–we could hardly have evolved in small, cooperative groups otherwise. And yet, some people lack this inhibition… some of them may become violent sociopaths or psychopaths, others may lead normal lives unless they are at some point given a handful of weapons and asked to go and hunt down other people, for God and for Country. Presumably their sang froid during hunting for food over the thousands of generations of Prehistory preserved their genes despite their danger to the group–after all, they win decorations and bounties get their names preserved among the valorous…

Apologies for the fast-and-loose “science” without careful hypothesis or actual evidence, which is , of course, not science at all. But I do think a glance at the animal and the “early man” beneath the recently-civilized human being yields plausible explanations… What put me in mind of this, actually, was Pollard’s choice of the phrase “forefront of the battle.” This was probably borrowed, perhaps at some remove, from translations of ancient epic: nothing could be more Homeric than the idea that the best men–those who are the leaders of contingents, those who earn fame and glory and prizes–fight literally before (i.e. “in front of”) the rest of the men in the battle, those lesser men who prefer less direct, less deadly, missile-weapon-oriented conflict.

Pollard is not insane, nor is his happy warrior pose “unnatural,” but he is very unusual: he has the mentality of a Homeric hero, someone who values glory–“winning”–so highly that the taking of lives doesn’t really enter into the moral calculus, even though they recognize that in other contexts killing is wrong. Although Pollard is capable of recognizing the brutality and sadness of war, he is also more than capable of forgetting it. He does not see the unavailing suffering of other men as detracting from the meaningfulness of glory or the positive valence of skillful, violent action–and this, now, is beginning to put him at odds with several writers more prominent in this project.[2]

But we can continue to explore this attitude in subsequent posts. Pollard’s letter is also included in the memoir at this point because he wishes to connect his realistic “attitude towards war” with his exceptional talent for it. He can’t really claim to be modest, but he can argue that what he does next is all in the service of winning (which he could have phrased as “ending”) the war…

 

We followed several units-with-writers during the attack of the 23rd, and of course failed to discuss many others. One of these was the Hood Battalion of the Royal Naval Division, badly mauled during the advance. Two of the remaining “Argonauts” of the Gallipoli expedition are still with the Division–Bernard Freyberg now commands a brigade, while Arthur “Oc” Asquith, Raymond‘s younger brother, commanded the Hood battalion in the assault, leading it close behind the British barrage in the assault on Gavrelle. The attack was successful, but at the cost of nearly 200 casualties, including seven officers killed outright. Today, a century back, Asquith wrote to his old comrade Patrick Shaw Stewart. Shaw Stewart had schemed successfully to leave his cushy post in the East to return to the battalion, and danger. But there has been rather a long interlude, spent largely in futile pursuit of the divine Diana, followed by a stint on a refresher course at Le Touquet. Now he is summoned directly.

My dear Patsy,

Come as soon as you can. I lost 3 Company C.O.s the day before yesterday.

Love, yrs Oc.[3]

 

Also today, a century back, Wilfred Owen wrote to his mother. It was his first letter in a long while, and in it he describes the longest, hardest time of his service in France (we have drawn on this letter already). The 2nd Manchesters, down on the southern part of the British line, made an assault more than two weeks ago, before Owen had rejoined from hospital. Since then they have not been in an attack, but–no doubt due to the concentration of force for the Battle of Arras–they have remained an awfully long time in front-line trenches.

25 April 1917  A. Coy., My Cellar

My own dearest Mother,

Immediately after I sent my last letter, more than a fortnight ago, we were rushed up into the Line. Twice in one day we went over the top, gaining both our objectives. Our A Company led the Attack, and of course lost a certain number of men. I had some extraordinary escapes from shells & bullets. Fortunately there was no bayonet work, since the Hun ran before we got up to his trench…

The reward we got for all this was to remain in the Line 12 days. For twelve days I did not wash my face, nor take off my boots, nor sleep a deep sleep. For twelve days we lay in holes, where at any moment a shell might put us out. I think the worst incident was one wet night when we lay up against a railway embankment. A big shell lit on the top of the bank, just 2 yards from my head. Before I awoke, I was blown in the air right away from the bank! I passed most of the following days in a railway cutting, in a hole just big enough to lie in, and covered with corrugated iron. My brother officer of B Coy, 2/lt Gaukroger lay opposite in a similar hole…

This we have already read–but it is worth re-reading, as Owen will be dealing with the after-effects for a long time to come.[4]

 

And finally, today, and we get a rare update from Isaac Rosenberg, writing to Eddie Marsh:

My Dear Marsh,

My sister wrote me you have been getting more of my ‘Moses’. It is hardy of you, indeed, to spread it about; and I certainly would be distressed if I were the cause of a war in England; seeing what warfare means here. But it greatly pleases me, none the less, that this child of my brain, should be seen and perhaps his beauties be discovered. His creator is in sadder plight; the harsh and unlovely times have made his mistress, the flighty Muse, abscond and elope with luckier rivals, but surely I shall hunt her and chase her somewhere into the summer and sweeter times. Anyway this is a strong hope; Lately I have not been very happy, being in torture with my feet again. The coldness of the weather and the weight of my boots have put my feet in a rotten state. My address is different now

Pte I R 22311
7 Platoon
120th Brigade Works Coy
B.E.F.

There is more excitement now, but though I enjoy this, my feet cause me great suffering and my strength is hardly equal to what is required.

I hear pretty often from G Bottomley and his letters are like a handshake: and passages are splendid pieces of  writing. Have you seen Trevellyans ‘Annual’ which G.B. writes me of.

Rosenberg is a strange bird, and this is a strange letter. He writes to thank Marsh for any efforts he might be making on behalf of his poetry–“Moses” is conceived of as a major work. But the affectation of ease and middle class bonhomie and faux-classicism sits oddly alongside of the infantryman’s complaints about his feet… although surely Rosenberg knows this. So what is he up to?

Perhaps not much, other than making clear a fairly obvious fact: privates in labor battalions can’t do much to improve their large-scale literary undertakings, but hope to keep up their tenuous connections to the world of literary patronage nonetheless. Alas, too, that his connection to Gordon Bottomley came so recently–the “Annual” which Rosenberg is rather obviously hoping to have sent to him is the same publication for which Eleanor Farjeon edited eighteen poems by “Edward Eastaway.”

Do write me when you can.

Yours sincerely

Isaac Rosenberg[5]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Fire-Eater, 199-200.
  2. Which is not to say that Pollard wouldn't have held the more popular belief in 1917--he would have, by far. War heroes are popular; they always have been, and even if 1916 and 1917 and the Western Front were, to mangle some metaphors, the cradle of the grave of that illusion--even if skepticism about the virtues of violence will grow in the aftermath of this war, and remain higher than before it--the idea that talented warriors should be praised was many times more popular than the idea that they should protest the pointless murder they were involved in both perpetuating and risking. (And then, of course, there is Siegfried Sassoon, who wants to win a medal for just the sort of stunt Pollard describes, and also thinks that the war is pointless murder...
  3. Jebb, Edwardian Meteor, 226.
  4. Collected Letters, 452-3.
  5. Collected Works, 315-6.

Isaac Rosenberg, Strained and Weak; F.S. Flint is Read (by Richard Aldington) and Freely Given (by Ford Madox Hueffer)

Today is a day of literary letters, headed back across the channel in loose formation, nodding to each other in terse recognition, and speeding their pleas to the same few destinations. First, a wilting off-shoot of the Georgian/Dymock set–and after him the Modernists.

Isaac Rosenberg had written to Gordon Bottomley in early January about his plans–lousy and otherwise–and his reading.  He was fairly chipper, then, even about his miseries: “I fancy it was a touch of the flue… I wonder if Aeschylus as a private in the army was bothered as I am by lice.” Less so, in a letter postmarked today, a century back:

Dear Mr Bottomley

Your letters always give me a strange and large pleasure; and I shall never think I have written poetry in vain, since it has brought your friendliness in my way. Now, feeling as I am, castaway and used up, you don’t know what a letter like yours is to me. Ever since Nov, when we first started on our long marches, I have felt weak; but it seems to be some inscrutable mysterious quality of weakness that defies all doctors… I believe I have strained my abdomen in some way…[1]

Still, the letter included a “sketch” of “Louse Hunting,” and all was not as dark as Rosenberg’s mood. Not long ago Eddie Marsh had written–informally, of course–to Rosenberg’s adjutant, with the result that he will be transferred, probably at some point this month, from the “works” battalion to a less labor-intensive job in a trench mortar unit.[2]

 

It’s a small literary world: Bottomley is good friends with Edward Thomas and central to the now far-flung Dymock crew. Rupert Brooke was the strongest connection between Dymock and the Georgian Anthology, but Bottomley and de la Mare are others, and even if Thomas has avoided Marsh’s influence they are known to each other. And Marsh, of course, is not intervening lightly in Rosenberg’s military career–he was also a crucial early patron. Between Bottomley and Marsh there are few promising young writers of somewhat traditional verse more than one friendly letter away.

But oh yes–there are other literary microcosmoi, and with our advantage of historical vantage, we know that another small world considering au courant and modern will grab the stage and boot Georgian Poetry into the footlights. Or footnotes.

The Modernists, grouped around a few small journals,[3] see the Georgians more as almost indecently exposed targets of opportunity, prim ladies showing a touch of ankle while the Imagists are stripping to their all togethers to describe. Although Richard Aldington ceded his editorial post at The Egoist to his wife, H.D., when he went for a soldier, he still knows who and what to read.

Yesterday, a century back, Aldington wrote to F.S. Flint, his good friend and fellow subaltern in the Modernist enterprise; today, the august Ford Madox Hueffer, something of an elder statesman among the young ruffians (how’s that?) aimed a missive at the same target. We may set a record, today, for box-barrage-style name-dropping.

Although Aldington could hardly be more unlike his fellow poetical footslogger Ivor Gurney in either personality or poetic  predilection–Gurney has made a literal Dymock pilgrimage–the two rising poets and private soldiers offer the same criterion for poetic appreciation: is it pack-worthy?

My dear Franky,

I carried your poem and Manning’s poems in my pack for I know not how many kilometres–what more devotion to
literature can you ask? I am immensely pleased by your poem, & as I wrote to H.D., feel that it justifies amply your months of silence… Certainly, compel Monro to print the poem in a chap-book & add any “dug-outs” you have…

The horrid thought strikes me that, if U.S. goes to war, Amy will insist on writing and publishing patriotic verse. This must be barred strenuously–we have foreborn to intrude our nationalism, to “let wrath embitter the sweet mouth of song”; so must she. I have sent H.D. a few scraps of vers libre put down from time to time recently. They may not be much good, for I think they are lazy due to a state of intoxication derived from the happy discovery that one can boil Quaker Oats in one’s “billycan”…

This concern–that Amy Lowell will influence the decline of Modern poetry in America even as she has helped to elevate in England, fades into yet another reverie about war’s end. A popular topic, this winter:

I am back for “a rest”, having shed no blood of my own or anyone else’s, save when I gashed my thumb on a bullybeef tin. And poor May Sinclair will go on thinking I’m an ’eroe”! What women have to answer for! After the war–when everything will of course be ideal–we must rendez vous in your earthly paradise & idle long days in sun and long grass… I desire my Horatian otium cum dignitate [leisure with dignity] just as much as ever. If I get back you will not find me a rampagious & lustful legionary, but the same apostle of pastoral culture as of old. Old books, old wine, old pictures–young women & young songs…

Well, I will conclude this empty raving…

Au revoir, old lad, & a hundred congratulations on your fine piece of work.

R.

“Empty raving,” quotha? Naturally, but this is something a man–a ponderous master like Ford Madox Hueffer–could do with a lighter sort of brio, especially if he is behind the likes of drunken junior Modernist officer cadets like Manning…

Attd. IX Welch, No. 6, 1.B.D.
B.E.F., France
19.2.17

I very ungraciously didn’t answer yr. letter–wh. reached me in the far South. However, I was lazy there–where the Mediterranean spurts up into the rosemary and lavender. But this is the bare, cold & trampled North, with nothing
but khaki for miles & miles…Bare downs… & tents… & wet valleys… & tents…& AAC guns… & mud… & bare
downs…& huts…& bare downs…& RFC…& mud…& motor lorries… & mud… & bare downs.

And I am promoted to Adj.–& run a Bn. much as I used to run the Eng[lish] Rev[iew]–It’s the same frame of mind, you know, & much, much easier–or more difficult, according to one’s mood…

Surely this great literary effort must in effect be some sort of preamble?

I want to ask you a favour: I somehow pine to publish a vol. of poems before the war ends or I am killed. Cd. you, do you think?, arrange for someone to publish:

Antwerp
The Old Houses
Two or three poems written in the trenches & other nasty places
& Heaven

in one volume? And could you collect and arrange them, somewhat in that order?

…I fancy it wd. make a pretty good volume. I have got rather a good one written to the dead of the Welch Regt & so on…. Let me know?

I do admire yr. work very much–you know. “Cadences” is an ever so beautiful volume.

And here’s the funny bit. “I admire your work very much.” Enough to schlepp it? Surely yes? You are, after all, an officer, with a servant, who hasn’t been in trenches in months, you must have trunks of books…

I gave it to some people in Mentone–not because I.did not value the gift, but because it wd. spread yr. fame a little–& because in my valise here it wd. only disintegrate amongst revolvers & straps & the mud in wh. one lives.

Goodbye, my dear.

I am personally very happy in this sort of life: in the end it suits me better to write:

“O.C. Canadaous will detail a fatigue party of 1 NCO & 10 men at 4:30 a.m…” than to watch the Mediterranean foam spattering over rosemary and lavender–for I don’t believe I am really, really Highbrow–as you truly are.

But God bless you, all the same…[4]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Liddiard, ed., 89-90.
  2. See Moorcroft Wilson, Isaac Rosenberg, ch. 18.
  3. E.G. Blast, tied to various writers we read here, including Ford, below; and the newer Wheels, featuring the Sitwells and other Grenadier Guardsmen, several Imagist Anthologies... and yes, there are also people like Pound and Eliot being published, somewhere, presumably...
  4. Imagist Dialogues, 182-6.

Isaac Rosenberg Goes Louse Hunting; Thomas Hardy Blows Off Junker and Jingo Alike

Today, a century back, Thomas Hardy asserted his internationalist-humanist bona fides, issuing a stiff rebuke to Percy Ames of the Royal Society for Literature. Ames had had the temerity to invite Hardy to throw his literary weight behind what seems to have been an effort to identify ethical virtues exclusively with the entente nations.

Max Gate, Dorchester. February 8th, 1917.

Dear Sir:

I regret that as I live in a remote part of the country I cannot attend the meeting of the Entente Committee.

In respect of the Memorandum proposing certain basic principles of International education for promoting ethical ideals that shall conduce to a League of Peace, I am in hearty agreement with the proposition. I would say in considering a modus operandi:

That nothing effectual will be done in the cause of peace till the sentiment of Patriotism be freed from the narrow meaning attaching to it in the past (and still upheld by Junkers and Jingoists)—and be extended to the whole globe.

On the other hand, that the sentiment of Foreignness—if the sense of contrast be necessary—attach only to other planets and their inhabitants if any.

I may add that I have written in advocacy of these views for the last twenty years.

Yours truly,
Thomas Hardy.[1]

As Hardy stiffly points out, he may be a pessimist but he has also long been, if not quite a universalist, at least an internationalist. And after his tentatively rousing–and yet not embarrassingly violent or narrowly nationalist–early war poems, he has since put his poetry to work in this same vein of heart-broken but firm humanism. The Pity of It expresses precisely the sentiments of this letter, and with considerably more power: if Junkers are unforgivable Prussians, then Jingoists are unforgivable Britons.

Hardy, once again, shows that it is not just the magnitude and power of his poetry that has won him the admiration of young war poets like Siegfried Sassoon. He is rare among old men in recognizing that, if the war-mongers on each side are much the same, then their victims among the young men of their own nation are more alike to each other than to their Jingoist or Junker leaders… We can only complain that he is not three generations ahead of his time in science fictional commitments: in this day and age his casual assumption that the inhabitants of other planets must be inescapably foreign would be considered sadly conservative and blinkered…

 

But life on the line goes on. Isaac Rosenberg reports from near the front lines on his latest physical–and he is chagrined to note that he has passed. But he has a sketch for Eddie Marsh (which I can’t find) and some accompanying verses. Alas for the sketch!

My Dear Marsh,

I was told the other day by the Captain that he had heard from you about me. He had me examined, but it appears I’m quite fit. What I feel like just now—I wish I were Tristram Shandy for a few minutes so as to describe this ‘cadaverous bale of goods consigned to Pluto’. This winter is a teaser for me; and being so long without a proper rest I feel as if I need one to recuperate and be put to rights again. However I suppose we’ll stick it, if we don’t, there are still some good poets left who might write me a decent epitaph.

The stiff upper lip/gallows humor pose is unusual for Rosenberg. I think he may be in good spirits: how terrible is misery of the body, anyway, if it stimulates art?

I’ve sketched an amusing little thing called ‘the louse hunt,’ and am trying to write one as well. I get very little chance to do anything of this sort, but what I have done I’ll try and send you. Daumier or Goya are far in perspective. How do find the Colonial Office after the Treasury?

Yours sincerely

Isaac Rosenberg

Pte I. R. 223117 Platoon F. Coy 40th Division
Works Batt. B.E.F.[2]

The poem is “Louse Hunting,” another of Rosenberg’s ironic mini-masterpieces. Sterne might lurk in Rosenberg’s thoughts, but the mention of Goya seems much more apt. This poem has the grim humor–or the queasy marriage of revelry and nastiness–of some of Goya’s The Disasters of War, albeit in a minor key.

Louse Hunting

Nudes—stark and glistening,
Yelling in lurid glee. Grinning faces
And raging limbs
Whirl over the floor one fire.
For a shirt verminously busy
Yon soldier tore from his throat, with oaths
Godhead might shrink at, but not the lice.
And soon the shirt was aflare
Over the candle he’d lit while we lay.
Then we all sprang up and stript
To hunt the verminous brood.
Soon like a demons’ pantomime
The place was raging.
See the silhouettes agape,
See the gibbering shadows
Mixed with the battled arms on the wall.
See gargantuan hooked fingers
Pluck in supreme flesh
To smutch supreme littleness.
See the merry limbs in hot Highland fling
Because some wizard vermin
Charmed from the quiet this revel
When our ears were half lulled
By the dark music
Blown from Sleep’s trumpet.

 

Goya, perhaps, but it also may be that these leaping, firelit figures in their battle against “wizard vermin” are a travesty of Brooke, with his beautiful, well-born swimmers into cleanness leaping… it’s a horrible scene, but humorous. And–wonderfully–the curtain drops at the end as if some Shakespearean imp had presented the scene all along…

What could follow this vaunting, brilliant, lousy Walpurgisnacht? Not much–so two little reminders will close out the day:

 

In the early morning hours today, a century back, Alf Pollard earned his MC, beating back German counter-attacks on the scratch position taken by assault late last night. There is a lengthy narrative of the episode in his memoir, Fire-Eater.[3]

 

Finally, Edward Thomas is working up to the line–and to some considerable letters, in the next few days–so we can skip today’s diary, which covers a nervously busy but indecisive day for both Thomas himself and his battery. But I do like this jotting, Ariel to Rosenberg’s Caliban: “Enemy plane like pale moth beautiful among shrapnel bursts.”[4]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. The Letters of Thomas Hardy, V, 202.
  2. Collected Works, 313-5.
  3. Fire-Eater, 168-86.
  4. War Diary (Childhood), 160.

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.

A Comedy of Flares and Scrounging for Sidney Rogerson; Saki Falls In; Manning’s Bourne and the Westshires March for the Front; Isaac Rosenberg’s Timely Poem of Destructive Hoards

Today, a century back, is the second in front-line trenches for Sidney Rogerson and the 2nd West Yorkshires, and it begins with a jolt. Yesterday ended, more or less, with the late night arrival–with, once again, only two casualties–of the ration party.

With the day’s duties successfully accomplished and the enemy contenting himself with shelling of a desultory nature and mostly directed far away in rear, I curled myself up on the trench floor and was soon off to sleep. Hardly had my senses left me than I was up and on edge in a second! Shells had begun to fall more quickly all around us! Then, with  a whoosh of metal overhead, down came the barrage! Explosions whirled, stamped and pounded the tortured ground; the splitting hiss and band of the field guns screaming above the deep, earth-shaking thud! thud! of the heavies until they blended into the one steady pandemonium of drumfire. The trenches rocked and trebled, while their garrisons, blinded by the flashes, choked by the acrid fumes, pressed themselves tight to the sodden walls as the avalanche of metal roared above and all around them.

Out of the smoke along the trench emerged a runner, crouching low. “Front line–Verey lights–urgent!”

Amidst the barrage, a grim sort of comedy. The Verey lights–flares that can be used to communicate with the artillery–can’t be found. But a box of abandoned German flares turns up.

“Are you sure they are the white ones?” I roared back across the din. “Yes sir…”

The flares are sent with the runner back up the perilous hundred yards to the front trench. Rogerson, convinced that the German barrage is the prelude to an assault on his isolated position, readies his men.

Suddenly, from about the position of Fall Trench, over the brow there was a hiss, and up flew a rocket. Horror of horrors! It burst with a rosy glow and hung, a ball of claret light, over our line! Before it had died a second went up, bursting this time into golden rain. That German box of lights had been a mixed lot for signal purposes! But what had we done? Whatever request to the enemy had we in our extremity sent up? For a few breathless minutes we waited, momentarily expecting the barrage to be shortened and fall on our unlucky heads.

Instead, just as a thunder-shower abruptly ends, so the shelling on the instant died away, as suddenly as it had begun… after much fruitless conjecture over the first claret affair, we decide that he golden rain rocket must mean “Lengthen range: we are here…”

It turns out that this guess is correct. A very lucky accident indeed. Forgotten amidst the barrage is Robinson, the NCO who had gone scrounging. He returns safely, but only after spending a “smelly half-hour in the same shell-hole with ‘two dead Jerries,’ getting lost, and almost walking into the German lines.”

But once again, all of this midnight activity is only the beginning of Rogerson’s long day. After a few hours’ sleep, followed by the dawn ritual of stand-to, the day proves to be so foggy that they can move about in the open for the first time, and survey their circumstances.

Between the trenches, we found, were only enemy dead, here a field-grey arm poked out of a shell-hole, there a heavy boot, here a man lay, head on crooked arm, as if asleep; there the remains of three or four littered the crater made by the shell that killed them. Beside the communication trench a huge German lay sprawled on his back, arms and legs splayed starfish-like, sightless eyes gazing perplexedly heavenward…

A scrounging soldier presents his officer with a small piccolo taken from this corpse’s pocket. Soon afterwards, they jump back into the trench upon receiving word that the colonel is soon to arrive, in company with the brigadier. While Rogerson does not hesitate to criticize the out-of-touch staff, he is equally careful here to praise the colonel, the commanding officer of their battalion, whose daily tour of his forward positions involves at least four hours of “strenuous walking.” Some memoir-writers claim never to have seen a brigadier in a forward trench; but Rogerson’s Brigadier-General Fagan was there, today, a century back. The colonel’s praise of their efforts at trench improvement prompts a reflection on esprit de corps, and how many men will be able to look back fondly on the war as a time during which, despite the horror and the hardships, they belonged to a group that looked after all its members and took pride in its accomplishments:

In spite of all differences in rank, we were comrades, brothers, dwelling together in unity. We were privileged to see in each other that inner, ennobled self which is in the grim, commercial struggle of peace-time is all too frequently atrophied…

The rest of the day involves continuous movement punctuated by meals. A tour of the trenches, breakfast a tour of older German positions nearby; lunch. Then a paean to tea, then evening stand-to. Trench routine indeed: Corporal Robinson once again requests permission, at dusk, to go out “scrounging.” It is once again denied in such a way as to allow it. As night comes on, a runner comes up with orders: there will be a dummy attack tomorrow, on their front, at 5:45. But this must mean that the attack, elsewhere, will be real…[1]

 

Further to the north, the 22nd Royal Fusiliers assemble to support this attack. Lance-Sergeant Hector Munro is back among them, though he is not yet entirely recovered from his bout with malaria.[2] Also nearby were Frederic Manning and the 7th King’s Shropshire Light Infantry, and thus Bourne, Shem, and Martlow of the “Westshires.” One of The Middle Parts of Fortune‘s many representative subordinate characters–Miller, the profligate coward, the canny, several-time deserter-on-the-eve-of-action–comes to the fore today.

And the next day was the same, in all outward seeming. They got their tea, they washed, shaved, and had their breakfast, smoked, and fell in on parade, in the ordinary course of routine. The extra weight they were carrying was marked, but the overcoat worn banderole had been washed-out, a rumour among the men being that the colonel had sent a man up to Brigade, equipped as they had ordered, to show the absurdity of it. As he arrived in front of A Company’s huts, Bourne, Shem and Martlow found groups of men talking among themselves.

“What’s up?” he asked. “Miller. ‘E’s ‘opped it, again. I knew the bugger would. ‘E’s a bloody German spy, that’s what ‘e is. They should ‘ave shot the bugger when they ‘ad ‘im! One o’ them fuckin’ square’eads, an’ they let ‘im off!”

There was an extraordinary exultation in their anger; as they spoke, a fierce contemptuous laughter mingled with speech.

“Yes, they let a bloody twat like ‘im off; but if any o’ us poor fuckers did it, we’d be for th’ electric chair, we would. We’ve done our bit, we ‘ave; but it wouldn’t make any differ to us’ns.”

The angry, bitter words were tossed about from one to another in derision…

So the insider who squandered the value of corporate identity, who couldn’t hack it, who was forced into self-exile, has defaulted once again. If he is found he will likely be shot.

But that doesn’t matter. What matters, I think, is that the man who failed, the coward who ran, helps to bind the others to the group they are in, the implicit decision they have made to face battle, together, rather than save themselves, for the moment and become outcasts (and risk being executed by their own army). Miller’s work, then, is done.

The men fell in; and Captain Marsden, with Mr Sothern and Mr Finch, came on parade. The final inspection was a very careful one. Bourne noticed that Marsden, who often spoke with a dry humour, restricted himself to a minimum of words. He saw that one of Bourne’s pouches didn’t fasten properly, the catch being defective. He tried it himself, and then tried the clipped cartridges inside, satisfying himself apparently that they fitted into the pouch so tightly that they would not fall out until one clip had been removed. Anyway he ignored it, and loosening Bourne’s water-bottle, shook it to see if it were full. Bourne stood like a dummy while this was going on, and all the time Captain Marsden looked at him closely, as though he were trying to look into his mind. It angered Bourne, but he kept his face as rigid as stone: in fact his only emotion now was a kind of stony anger. Some of the men had forgotten to fill their bottles, and were told what bloody nuisances they were. Eventually it was over, and they went off to their huts for what little time was left to them. One had a vague feeling that one was going away, without any notion of returning. One had finished with the place, and did not regret it; but a curious instability of mind accompanied the last moments: with a sense of actual relief that the inexorable hour was approaching, there was a growing anger becoming so intense that it seemed the heart would scarcely hold it. The skin seemed shinier and tighter on men’s faces, and eyes burned with a hard brightness under the brims of their helmets. One felt every question as an interruption of some absorbing business of the mind. Occasionally Martlow would look up at Shem or Bourne as though he were about to speak, and then turn away in silence.

“We three had better try and keep together,” said Shem evenly. “Yes,” answered the other two, as though they engaged themselves quietly.

And then, one by one, they realised that each must go alone, and that each of them already was alone with himself, helping the others perhaps, but looking at them with strange eyes, while the world became unreal and empty, and they moved in a mystery, where no help was.

“Fall in on the road!”

With a sigh of relinquishment, they took up their rifles and obeyed, sliding from the field into the road, which was about five feet lower, down a bank in which narrow steps had once been cut, though rain and many feet had obliterated them. The details crowded there, to see them go. They fell in, numbered off, formed fours, formed two deep, and stood at ease, waiting, all within a few moments. A few yards on either side, the men became shadows in the mist. Presently they stood to attention again, and the colonel passed along the ranks; and this time Bourne looked at him, looked into his eyes, not merely through and beyond him; and the severity of that clear-cut face seemed today to have something cheerful and kindly in it, without ceasing to be inscrutable. His grey horse had been led down the road a few minutes before, and presently the high clear voice rang through the mist. Then came the voices of the company commanders, one after the other, and the quick stamping as the men obeyed, the rustle as they turned; and their own turn came, the quick stamps, the swing half-right, and then something like a rippling murmur of movement, and the slurred rhythm of their trampling feet, seeming to beat out the seconds of time, while the liquid mud sucked and sucked at their boots, and they dropped into that swinging stride without speaking; and the houses of Bus slid away on either side, and the mist wavered and trembled about them in little eddies, and earth, and life, and time, were as if they had never been.[3]

 

We must keep our attention fixed on the Somme, this week, so I will omit a letter from Edward Thomas to Eleanor Farjeon thanking her for her work on “The Trumpet.” But a very different sort of poet, Isaac Rosenberg, also on the Somme front (though safe in a salvage battalion), got a poem in the mail today to Gordon Bottomley, a member of Thomas’s circle and now an important mentor to Rosenberg. Rosenberg is a strange and wonderful poet, and no one else has quite his knack (although David Jones will approach similar ground from another angle) of putting the current conflict in a biblical frame.

And, thus framed, ancient and eternal warfare seem a fitting backdrop to the latest and last of the Somme.

We are now on a long march & have done a good deal towards flattening the roads of France. I wrote a little thing yesterday which still needs working on.[4]

 

The Destruction Of Jerusalem By The Babylonian Hordes

They left their Babylon bare
Of all its tall men,
Of all its proud horses;
They made for Lebanon.

And shadowy sowers went
Before their spears to sow
The fruit whose taste is ash,
For Judah’s soul to know.

They who bowed to the Bull god,
Whose wings roofed Babylon,
In endless hosts darkened
The bright-heavened Lebanon.

They washed their grime in pools
Where laughing girls forgot
The wiles they used for Solomon.
Sweet laughter, remembered not !

Sweet laughter charred in the flame
That clutched the cloud and earth,
While Solomon’s towers crashed between
To a gird of Babylon’s mirth.

References and Footnotes

  1. Twelve Days on the Somme, 51-75.
  2. Languth, Saki, 276.
  3. The Middle Parts of Fortune, 208-10.
  4. Liddiard, Poetry Out of My Head and Heart, 85.

Vera Brittain Laid Low, Dorothie Feilding Disappoints a Wonderfully Brave Man; Isaac Rosenberg Strives to Stay in with Marsh; Ivor Gurney on Everything and Cake Too

A number of writers are busy today, a century back. There is going, coming, preening, editing, boasting, chatting, wagering, wondering…

 

In the “record time of five days” aboard the speedy Britannic, Vivian de Sola Pinto, drained and ill after months of fever, has reached England:

On 10th October 1916 we were steaming into Southampton Water on a chilly, wet, misty English autumn afternoon. It was thirteen months since I left England, but mentally I seemed at least half a century older than the callow youth who stood on the top deck of the Northdown on that fine September evening in 1915 and dreamed of a triumphal entry into Constantinople.[1]

 

Vera Brittain, who had been outward bound on the very same ship, perseveres in finding a note of romance and adventure in her first overseas service–despite being very ill, she seems rather pleased with the hubbub in this letter to her brother Edward. Solar topees! Empire and travel!

Imtarfa Hospital, Malta, 10 October 1916

The day before we landed at Malta, 16 of us, self included, were quite suddenly seized with some variety or other of fever, but whether dysentery, malaria, enteritis or some other species no one seems to know . . . I am very much better now and my temperature is down to normal again . . . Everyone here is very busy trying to trace the origin of our disease so as to find out exactly what is the matter with us . . . We have had quite 12 doctors in here, sometimes, five at once. Three of them are lady doctors, all very charming too, in khaki tussore coats & skirts, dark blue ties & solar topees. I am quite tired of giving my name (& wish it was Jones so that I didn’t have to spell it every time), my age, my detachment number, particulars of what I had to eat lately, etc etc. They have taken blood tests of various kinds . . .[2]

 

Nor can I pass up this episode in the strange life of Lady Dorothie Feilding. Romance! Adventure!

10th Oct

Mother mine–

Life is really very odd isn’t it? I told you Hughie’s friend of the Cornwall, Mr Vaughan RN,[3] you saw in London, turned up here! He got permission through D.I.D. who knows him, to spend 3 days leave out here as he wanted to see me again. He turned up here with the mail on the lorry one day & we put him up at our barracks & Jelly & I took him about in the car with us to show him things & fed him at no 14. He is a very nice soul, I like him very much, but was so sorry because before he left he asked if there would be any chance for me to marry him & I had to say I couldn’t. Poor soul, he’s always had a very lonely time of it through life & was very devoted to his gunner brother who was killed not long ago at Ypres. You remember his writing to me about it when I was home don’t you?

I think men are wonderfully brave sometimes at making up their minds don’t you? Everything really is very odd these days. The days when things weren’t odd seem so far away, almost like a dream.

This sudden proposal of marriage–from a friend of her dead brother who has lost his own brother–puts Lady Dorothie into a reflective mood. Even more unusually, it seems to plunge her into a mode of plainspoken self-expression.

A lot of blessés [wounded] the other night. Poor poor devils. But the more one can help them right out here at the pulse of things the more this actual work means to one. I can’t describe it, but it’s very real, & it means more to me everyday some how.

God bless you dear & goodnightD[4]

 

Isaac Rosenberg writes from the other end of the social scale. Laboring with a salvage unit on the Somme, he does his best to keep up the tenuous but crucial connections he has to London’s literary world. In this letter to Marsh he is careful–I think that’s the word–to praise the divine Rupert as well as their mutual friend Lascelles Abercrombie (whose interest in Rosenberg is due to Marsh’s recommendation). Does Rosenberg lay it on a bit thick?

[Postmarked October 10, 1916]
22311 A Coy 3 platoon
11th K.O.R.L. B.E.F

My Dear Marsh,

You complain in your letter that there is little to write about; my complaint is rather the other way, I have too much to write about, but for obvious reasons my much must be reduced to less than your little. My exaggerated way of feeling things when I begin to write about them might not have quite healthy consequences…

My Lilith has eloped with that devil procrastination, or rather, labours of a most colosal and uncongenial shape have
usurped her place and driven her blonde and growing beauty away. I have written something that still wants knocking into shape I feel too tired to copy it out, but later on I will, if you care to see it I came across that poem on clouds by poor Rupert Brooke. It is magnificent indeed, and as near to sublimity as any modem poem.

The poem I like best of modem times in Abercrombies Hymn to Love, It is more weighty in thought, alive in passion and of a more intense imagination than any I know….

Do write when you can.

Yours sincerely

Isaac Rosenberg[5]

 

A more comfortable poet-patron relationship is that between Ivor Gurney and Marion Scott. Miss Scott has helped Gurney immensely, and it is due to her that his poems are beginning to be read and his compositions have been several times performed. But she is a local sort of patroness, content to hover in that gray area between benefactress and amanuensis. Gurney seems eager to please, but he does not fawn–and the very prolixity and disorganization of his letters may be a sign of trust…

He has recently received both a number of parcels and a set of comments and corrections of his work–body and soul together. Two days ago he wrote in thanks:

8 October 1916

My Dear Miss Scott: We are in rest, and at present I myself am in quiet, with a sore foot that has compelled a little respect, so here’s a letter. I do not know whether the packet sunk the other day had any of my letters on board, but hope not. There will be bloody fighting if the Germans sink our parcels; if you have sent one I have not received it yet, let us hope frightfulness has not been carried to so extreme a limit. All the things you send arrive in good condition…

A long ramble about her corrections to his work, his hope for poems and music to come, and somewhat sanguine celebration of recent victories…

The Verdun victory is a very great one, do you not think? The Marne; the Thiepval — Contalmaison — La Boisselle… Verdun. Belles victoires!

…The truth is, as Hardy says, that the English fall back on stoical fatalism; and whatever it is they believe, it is not Christianity. They go to Church, and desire something spiritual, but it is nothing the Churches give them. They are fine, but self-reliant not relying on God…

Sore foot indeed. The chatty letter goes on at some length, and includes a rough poem draft (“Robecq”). Only two days later–today, a century back, Gurney is writing to Scott once again, full of literary exuberance.

He segues from praise of otheres’ books and their praiser’s–“Did you read G K Cs[6] review of Masefields “Gallipoli” in the Observer? O, it is a noble piece of praise”–to gentle mockery of his own work. He quotes his own recent “Serenity,” then mocks its incompleteness, as if to say “this is poetry, fine, but poetry is lacking…”

Nor steel nor flame has any power on me.
Save that its malice work the Almighty Will;
Nor steel nor flame has any power on me;
Through tempests of hell fire I must go free.
And unafraid; so I remember still
Nor steel nor flame has any power on me
Save that its malice work the Almighty Will.

Which is all very well; but what about Mud and Monotony? And Minnies and Majors?

A just question! Gurney sounds more like St. Francis than a poet of modern war. But he is all over the place, of late–this is another letter that shows either the effects of a tired and harassed infantry private writing fluidly about whatever is on his mind at the moment or evidence of a manic phase of mental illness–or both.

Gurney has high hopes for victory:

If I had £20 — a large supposition — I would bet the end comes . . .  by the end of November 5£. By Christmas £10. By End of Feb £15 and by August £20. You will not convince me that such already panicky losers will hold out long…

And then, weirdly, the supposed retreat of the German defenders turns from a note of triumph to a strangely pathetic scene, before veering into black comedy: “Stand-to” is the dawn ceremony at which the front line infantry all come on duty (during the night they work, or rest while taking turns as sentries) together to repel any possible dawn attack. As a display of readiness (and also as a way of enforcing that readiness among themselves) they all fire a few rounds.

No Man’s Land is in the last degree desolate, and nothing could seem sadder than the old willow tree I shoot at during Stand to. There are no Germans and one must shoot at something at Stand to. It was partridges that a
corporal discovered two days ago. He shot 3, but as he had to wait till evening again, the rats got one more than he did. No bon.

Without segue, Gurney now produces a “trench dialogue.” It seems that I have worked too hard today to present a bouquet of different century-back words and experiences… Gurney himself provides multitudes…

Trench dialogue

Cook drops bacon in the mud.
(Cook). — !———–!!! — !
(Passer by, sympathetically) No bon, eh?
(Cook). Compree me explique no bon?
(Passer by.) Na pooh fini, eh?
Cook Wee, no — bon at all.

Such accomplished linguists our gallant soldiers have already become.

Or. Trench Dialogue no 2

Entitled Rations

Prometheus Unbound (off duty.) General expletives.
Chorus (Sympathetic silence)
Prometheus No Bon! No Bon!!
Chorus Dont compree.
Prometheus Compree no grub?
Chorus Whatt!!
Prometheus. Compree no——– grub?
Chorus (dejectedly) Me compree. Wee, Wee. (Goes off to spread the news.)
Prometheus HE comprees! And me.

These are the real Trench dialogues. The Spurious may be told by their unlikeness to these models, so Greek in their perfection of form…

What is going on on with Gurney and these strange almost proto-Beckett playlets? An excess of good humor? Simple capering for Miss. Scott’s benefit?

In the end, Gurney returns to the private soldier’s postal necessity–the chance of caloric subsidy via parcel:

May I request that your next parcel be more substantial with a cake and some sort of paste. Anchovy lasts a deuce of a time…

Will you send me, sometime, the 6d Edition (Nelsons) of Wild Wales? Or that which once was 6d? It is a wonderfully companionable book, and long, beautifully trench-fittingly long; although one skips so much in Borrow.

Body and soul together…

Best wishes to you, and for the quick return to health of all the invalids:

Your sincere friend

Ivor Gurney[7]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. The City That Shone, 182.
  2. Letters From a Lost Generation, 278-9.
  3. Royal Navy, rather than registered nurse...
  4. Lady Under Fire, 168-9.
  5. Collected Works, 312-3.
  6. Gilbert Keith Chesterton.
  7. War Letters, 105-9.