The Master of Belhaven Readies a Raid; Ivor Gurney in Love

Ralph Hamilton, Master of Belhaven, makes his final preparations for the artillery support for a local raid on the German lines. He has himself had quite an adventure as a forward observer not that long ago, but it is his duty, now, to restrain his subordinates from similar acts of derring-do.

The thaw has come with a vengeance now, and the country is in an awful state. The roads are three inches thick with mud… After lunch I went to B Battery and met the special liaison officer for the raid–Walsh–from C Battery. I gave him his final orders in writing and forbade him to go over the top with the raiders. I can’t afford to have good officers killed in joy riding. The raid is tonight…[1]

 

Meanwhile, there is an affair of a different sort brewing in Scotland. Ivor Gurney‘s role here has been that of the neurasthenic poet or the febrile, forgetful composer–an attenuated artist, living for his art, in any case. And that picture is incomplete, of course. He has also been a soldier and, in a salvage company, a sort of professional scavenger, writing intermittently of some of the war’s most dispiriting scenes. And since most of the letters we read are to Marion Scott, there are still layers of reserve that we might forget to notice amidst the impassioned poetic utterances. She is a friend as well as a patron, but there is still propriety, and the fear of provoking new and unpleasant emotional responses… so we have heard nothing, yet, of Annie Drummond.

Annie Nelson Drummond was a twenty-nine-year-old Scottish V.A.D. nurse at the Edinburgh War Hospital where Gurney spent much of October and November. Of all the people he met in his time there, she “made the most dramatic and lasting impression on him. She touched his heart and captured his imagination in a way that no other woman had been able to do.” She also, clearly, captured his esteem as well as his imagination, his bodily love as well as his metaphorical heart. Gurney has been reticent about the relationship not only because it was improper–nurses were not supposed to enter into relationships with patients–but also because, to be frank and/or craven, he had every reason to suspect that news of the affair might cause Scott to break with him, and both her friendship and her aid to his career (she singlehandedly produced his book, Severn and Somme, and saw several of his compositions to performance) were too valuable to risk.[2]

But Gurney has been away from Edinburgh for nearly two months now, and he misses Drummond badly. It seems that a letter or two reached him, and that they were able to plan to spend a weekend together. It is this combination of longing and expectation that seems to have prompted Gurney to write of Drummond to his friend Herbert Howells.

Fittingly, the first clear reference to Drummond (she has appeared–I did not notice–in previous letters under code-names of one sort or another) is in a letter from some time over the last few weeks, the date of which is lost.[3]

My Dear Howells…

…[ ] Nelson Drummond is older than I thought — born sooner I mean. She is 30 years old and most perfectly enchanting. She has a pretty figure, pretty hair, fine eyes, pretty hands and arms and walk. A charming voice, pretty ears, a resolute little mouth. With a great love in her she is glad to give when the time comes. In Hospital, the first thing that would strike you is “her guarded flame”. There was a mask on her face more impenetrable than on any other woman I have ever seen. (But that has gone for me.) In fact (at a guess) I think it will disappear now she has found someone whom she thinks worthy.

A not unimportant fact was revealed by one of the patients at hospital — a fine chap — I believe she has money. Just think of it!

Pure good luck, if it is true (as I believe it is). But she is more charming and tender and deep than you will believe till you see her….

I forgot my body walking with her; a thing that has not happened since……………when? I really dont know.

Drummond would probably not be offended by this reference to her money. (Although, of course, if they are intimate and she would not be offended, then why would he not have asked?) A sensible Scotswoman (although not so sensible as not to become involved with a patient under her care, and one with an “artist’s temperament,” not to say mental health issues past and present, and a penchant for parentheticals), Drummond hailed from the upper reaches of the working class, a descendant of several female businesswomen. But she can’t have much money–she does not seemed to have worked (outside the home: she ran much of the household and raised her younger siblings while her parents worked) until she began nursing after the outbreak of war.

Two more letters to Howells, the latest dated today, a century back, follow in turn:

Going North to Edinburgh

My Dear Howells: I have just written you a letter telling you of my coming up here. Please dont say anything about it to anyone but the Taylors. It will need explanation I am not ready to give yet, and of course my people will want to know why I did not go home — but a week-end leave is so short…

It is amusing to see Gurney walking the same balance as Wilfred Owen: leaves are few (far fewer for a soldier like Gurney than an officer like Owen), and the demands of family and friends must both be weifhed–or, rather, the demands of family must be set against a personal preference for seeing particular friends…

16 January 1918, Wednesday

My Dear Howells: Enclosed with this you will find a letter enclosed written just before I was hastening North to Edinburgh.

…Your criticisms are true. As to similarity — well, perhaps I wont admit anything but similarity in method. As to linking them up more tightly, that may come; but as to setting the things I do in an orthodox fashion — well it could be done; but I live attempting difficult things, and this is my way.

Wait till I am out of this though.

But enough about the criticism of his book:

Well I have just been up to Edinburgh, about that magnificent place, and in and out to Bangour.

Herbert Howells, it is just perfectly and radiantly All Right. I have reach Port, and am safe. I only wish and wish you could see her and know her at once. You and Harvey.

My Goodness, but it was a hot pain leaving her. We had a glorious Saturday afternoon and evening together. A glorious but bitterly cold Sunday evening. A snowy but intimate Monday evening. For the first time for ages I felt Joy in me; a clear fountain of music and light. By God, I forgot I had a body — and you know what height of living that meant to me. Well I’ll say no more.

Being in the Army is worse and better for me filled with memories and anticipations and being where I am — in surroundings that mock all beautiful dreams.

But to get her and settle down would make a solid rock foundation for me to build on — a home and tower of light.

Like you I see in her first of all a beautiful simplicity — her very first characteristic, — As you see in Dorothy. The kind of fundamental sweet first-thing one gets in Bach; not to be described, only treasured.

Well, well; why bore you? You know what I think and how it is with me.

May good luck be with you in this thing and all things:

Yours ever

I.B.G.[4]

Gurney is far from the most precise of poets, but it is nevertheless amusing to read that in the throes of this new love he both “forgot my body” and “forgot I had a body.” Many-splendoured thing indeed.

 

References and Footnotes

  1. War Diary, 440.
  2. See Blevins, Song of Pain and Beauty, 137.
  3. The printed text is marked--delightfully or creepily, take your pick--"[Mouse-eaten and incomplete]."
  4. War Letters, 240-2.

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

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

11 January 1918

My dear Sassons

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

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

Love

Robert.[1]

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

11 January 1918

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Your sincere friend

Ivor Gurney[2]

 

References and Footnotes

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

Edward Horner and E. A. Mackintosh at Cambrai; Ivor Gurney Assesses Siegfried Sassoon

Yesterday, the Battle of Cambrai began: a marked success of tactical coordination followed by an advance of two or three miles–nearly five in some places. This was one of the quickest and least costly advances of the entire war, and an especially stark contrast to the long, dismal slog of Passchendaele. But the German line was not shattered, the penetration was narrow, and there were numerous reserves in place. Before the battle was twenty-four hours old it stalled, and today, a century back, the strategic tide (if it had ever been high for Britain) began to ebb.

 

The 18th Hussars had ridden into battle yesterday, cavalry following up the initial tank-and-artillery advance. They were now holding the village of Noyelles, south-east of Cambrai, and preparing to go forward when they were met by a local German counter-attack. Lieutenant Edward Horner–heir to Mells manor in Somerset, brother-in-law of Raymond Asquith, dear friend of Diana Manners and Duff Cooper, stalwart of the Coterie–was shot and killed, apparently by a sniper. His death was as quick as the cavalry’s wait to return to action had been long.

In a few years, Horner will become one of the last of England’s warriors to be memorialized by equestrian statue.

 

The 4th Seaforth Highlanders and the rest of the 154th brigade attacked at 6:30, from yesterday’s German front line toward the village of Cantaing. They advanced with pipes skirling, with both cavalry and tanks in sight and aircraft overhead, but by early afternoon they were pinned down in the open, taking machine-gun fire from Bourlon Wood as well as from numerous strafing planes. At some point before 3:30, Ewart Alan Mackintosh, one of Scotland’s most promising young poets, was killed, probably either by sniper or machine gun fire.

It was, we may fervently hope, not much like he had written it in his short, sharp, agonizing poem “Death:”

E. A. Mackintosh

 

Because I have made light of death
And mocked at wounds and pain,
The doom is laid on me to die
Like the humble men in days gone by
That angered me to hear them cry
For pity to me in vain.

I shall not go out suddenly
As many a man has done.
But I shall lie as those men lay
Longing for death the whole long day
Praying, as I heard those men pray,
And none shall heed me, none.

The fierce waves will go surging on
Before they tend to me.
Oh, God of battles I pray you send
No word of pity no help, no friend,
That if my spirit break at the end
None may be there to see.

 

It’s an eerie thing that even an entire slim book on Mackintosh can’t turn up much evidence about who may have been there to see, or not, and to tell what Mackintosh suffered.[1]

 

And we march onward. In England, Ivor Gurney, out of the hospital at last, is in good spirits. And he has been reading his own reviews…

21 November 1917 (P) Pte Gurney 241281, B Co 4th Reserve
Batt:, Gloucester Regt, Seaton Delaval, Northumberland.

My Dear Friend: Alas, for the two months! Today I am on ordinary training, and that means but a short stay if nothing happens…

Two of the local reviews have reached me. They are just what I expected—and didnt want. But I got a delightful letter from Haines — the man who knows Gibson and Abercrombie—which said how pleased he was at his first glance, and how it seemed to be a not unworthy companion for Sassoon’s Book, and Sorley-Turner, whom I have not read.

This, surely, must be Charles Hamilton Sorley–Gurney has mentioned him before, and that he has not been able to read him. Alas that Gurney, with his humble origins and Will Harvey long imprisoned, doesn’t have poetic comrades (in the military sense–Marion Scott could hardly be a better or more attentive friend) to read his work and pass him the latest books. No, instead he makes do with none-too-fresh poetic gossip (more or less accurate, at least), which he now passes on to Marion Scott.

By the way, some time ago Sassoon walked up to his colonel, and said he would fight no more. Flashes, of course: and blue fire. There were questions in the House, and a general dust-up; but at last they solved it in a becoming official fashion, and declared him mad, and put him in a lunatic-asylum; from which there will soon come a second book, and that it will be interesting to see…

It will indeed. From here, though, Gurney’s poetic gossip runs from the pacifist/heroic toward the ironic/practical.

When Rupert Brooke went abroad, he left his copyrights equally between Gibson, Abercrombie, and De La Mare. They have had £2000 each! That’s why Gibson has not died, and his family. Poetry pays — it took a War to make it; but still, there you are.

Best wishes: Your sincere friend Ivor Gurney[2]

It pays, but–we can’t forbear asking, given what was happening at Cambrai as he wrote–at what cost?

 

References and Footnotes

  1. There are no clear eyewitness accounts, and the bare fact that he was reportedly shot in the head is both entirely possible and faintly suspicious, since instantaneous and painless deaths were often described to next of kin in order to spare them the details of the actual death. See Campbell and Green, Can't Shoot a Man With A Cold, 206-10.
  2. War Letters, 231-2.

Ivor Gurney is Back in Harness; Rowland Feilding’s Connaught Rangers Confess; Sapper Martin in Lombardy

We have another day of minor movements, today, as three of our writers look ahead to coming things.

Ivor Gurney, writing to Herbert Howells today, a century back, is making ready to leave the hospital. His touch of gas–and touch on the keyboard–have kept him out of the fray long enough to miss the rest of the year’s fighting. And to see his book in print…

17 November 1917

My Dear Howells…

Well; here am I, back in harness, and hot to be sent to Command Depot. (Dear old Army!) The notices of my book were out yesterday, and you will probably receive one soon. Could you collar the Morning Post reviews anywhere? The New Statesman? New Age? Nation? Possibly you might see one lying about and collar the bit. It is a crime, but here excusable, I think…

Pte Gurney I.B. 24I28I
B Co
4th Reserve Battallion T.F.
Gloucester Regiment
Seaton Delaval
Northumberland

(Hear, hear!)
So write sometime.

A horrid rumour has reached me that we shall get our embarkation leave next Thursday and be off on the next draft. If so, I shall apply for a commission, just after the 6 days. (Shudders of surprise after) Farwell. Au Revoir. Auf Wiedesehn. Goodbye:

Yours ever I.B.G.[1]

So Gurney is in high spirits–and contemplating a commission. Most of the reviews are not yet out, but they will be generally favorable. As for that commission, well, we shall see…

 

Sapper Jack Martin‘s diary has, over the last few days, begun the most interesting account I’ve read of a new and sideways movement: a body of British troops moves neither up the line nor west toward rest or blighty, but south and east,  to Italy. His long train had whisked the battalion from the mud and misery of Northern France to the pleasant autumn of the Riviera over several days, and then, two evenings ago, a century back, they had crossed into Italy.

Yesterday was a day of food-related misunderstandings, with gifts of jam and nuts and fruit going back and forth and a search for familiar sorts of bread. There is a swift resorting to stiff English stereotypes, as Martin decides that the soil is “too fertile,” which leads the men to be deplorably lazy. He is impressed, however, with the industry of the women-folk and the cleanliness of the houses, and there is an interesting comment tacked on to the end of a predictable description of the English soldiers clowning around by adding vowels to the end of all of their words in order to “speak Italian:”

They couldn’t understand any hilarity amongst men going to war. This particular type of wonderment we found all the way along the march. It has been said that an Englishman takes his pleasures sadly, but it should also be remarked that he can take the serious business of life jocularly.[2]

Today, a century back, they left the rails at Asola, in Lombardy, and began a long march which Martin will describe as “in the nature of an Elizabethan progress.” Marching through a marketplace of enthusiastic Italians, past their Brigadier, who took their salute from his hotel balcony, they marched 17 1/2 miles, the first few accompanied by “crowds of children.” They will have sore feet, after their long train journey–but they also have white Italian bread, and “sausages and potatoes in a Trattoria outside the billet.” Which sounds a great deal better than bully beef or a wan omelet in an Estaminet–but perhaps that is my own prejudice, or the stale palate or long (literary) familiarity with the British soldier’s French diet.[3]

 

And then there’s France, where the Somme region will not be quiet for much longer. Rowland Feilding will write of tonight, a century back, that “the whole battalion flocked to confession” in a converted barn in Ervillers. They did so because the orders had been given to pack up and prepare for a march to the front, first thing tomorrow morning.[4]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. War Letters, 230-1.
  2. This observation seems to have been added at a later date.
  3. Sapper Martin, 129-35.
  4. War Letters to a Wife, 226.

Another Last Hurrah for Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen, and Ten Pounds of Distance; Ivor Gurney is to Convalesce; Edward Brittain is Bound for Italy

Today, a century back, was a day of departures.

In Edinburgh, Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen spent a last evening together at the Conservative Club before Owen left to begin his leave and eventual return to duty. Sassoon will remember a hilarious evening of bad poetry–but that was last week. What Owen will remember is an inspirationally amicable meeting with an awkward post-script. Sassoon left him at the club–curfew at the hospital, after all, while Owen was going directly to a night train en route to Shrewsbury–with a sealed envelope, to be opened only after they parted.

Owen, naturally, waited no more than a minute or two. He hoped, perhaps, to be in possession of some grave confidence or juicy secret. Instead, he was in possession of a ten pound note and a suggestion that he use it to enjoy his leave.

I sat on the stairs and groaned a little, and then went up and loosed off a gourd, a Gothic vacuum of a letter, which I ‘put by.’[1]

The groan is generally interpreted as being directed at the money, or the assumptions that preceded such a gift. It is a strange situation, surely: Sassoon is wealthy and his wartime activities were never curtailed for want of funds; Owen is not, and could indeed use the sum to enjoy his leave, but while friends might ask each other for loans–even “loans” that will not be repaid–this unsolicited parting gift would have felt more like a tip than a favor. Owen is not in immediate need, and so a gift of money implies an assumption of social inequity. At least I think that’s how the class system worked in such a case.

But the groan could just as well be for the general inadequacy of the letter, its mere friendliness when Owen might have hoped for something more passionate. But he is not offended, really, it’s the groan of a joke gone wrong, not of agony and betrayal. The best evidence for this will be Owen’s very passionate reply–but, as he writes above, his first draft (the “gourd, a Gothic vacuum” is a reference to the bad poetry they have been mocking together) was not fit for sending…[2]

It’s an amusing coincidence, then, that the Cambridge Magazine of today, a century back, carried “The Wooden Cross,” one of Sassoon’s less satisfactory attempts at a memorial poem, written for his old hunting friend Gordon Harbord. Harbord, neither intellectual nor literary, had old claims on Sassoon’s affections–and that was a friendship that would never have included an unsolicited bank note in a sealed envelope…

 

Ivor Gurney, also near Edinburgh, is also leaving–or, at least, it was today, a century back, that he got the news:

3 November 1917

My Dear Friend: Well, to business, (probable.) Chuck out — Tuesday. London 7.30. High Wycombe, Friday Morning. Gloucester Sat: night (as late as can be.)

There’s a bit of luck; owing to slight indigestion (presumably due to gas; wink, wink!) I am to go to Command Depot for two months — a sort of Con: Camp in Khaki. I hope they will keep me for two months, and then of course, if the indigestion isn’t cured……….

This can be read as a Conspiracy to Malinger, but it needn’t be. Gurney is an old soldier, now, and certainly in no hurry to rush back for a winter at the front, what with his weak stomach (never mind his troubled “nerves”) and his ability to serve the army elsewhere, in his capacity as Convalescent Accompanist.

And, perhaps, get a little time to compose…

No, the song is not done, when I’m with you perhaps. Two months Con Camp! O Composition…

with best wishes: Your sincere friend Ivor Gurney[3]

 

Finally, today, a date of which I’m not terribly sure–Vera Brittain remembers it, however, and probably with good reason, and apparently because it was the date she received a letter from her brother, not far away in the Salient:

But on November 3rd, when the Flanders offensive was subsiding dismally into the mud and Edward was daily expected home on leave, a brief, mysterious note came from him, written in the vaguely remembered Latin of the Sixth Form at Uppingham:

Hanc epistolam in lingua Latina male conscripta…

It is with a frustrated humility that I insert that ellipsis: Vera Brittain copied out the whole Latin letter. I can’t unpack it all, anyway, but the beginning reads: “This letter, written in bad Latin…”

It’s a creative attempt to foil the censors, but rather a silly one. If the idea is to keep classified information from the Germans, doubting their ability as Classicists hardly seems the wisest choice. Edward does, however, use further circumlocution (so to speak) to hint at the crucial news, and Vera is able to figure it out. But before she fully absorbs the significance of the letter, she turns it into the means of settling a score:

Calling desperately upon the elusive shades of Pass Mods, I managed to gather from this letter that Edward’s battalion had been ordered to join the British and French Divisions being sent from France under Lord Plumer and General Fayolle to reinforce the Italian Army. When I had recovered a little from the shock, I took his note to the C. of E. padre, a burly, rubicund individual whose manner to V.A.D.S was that of the family butler engaging the youngest between-maid, and with innocent eyes asked him to translate. As I had suspected, he had not the remotest idea where to begin, and after much protest about the thinness of the notepaper, and the illegibility of Edward’s clear handwriting, he was obliged, to my secret triumph, to confess his ignorance…

After putting one over on the hapless clergyman, she reflects on what the transfer might mean.

Well, it does make it necessary to mention, very much in passing, another of 1917’s major strategic developments.[4] The Italians have lately come close to collapsing under a strong Austro-German offensive, which is now threatening the Veneto. But, as always, “close” means little: winter is coming, and the Germans, perturbed by the tactical success around Ypres and the arrival of the Americans, are withdrawing their troops from the Italian front to send them to France. Italy will not collapse entirely under merely Austrian pressure, but the allies must go and show the flag, regardless.

For Vera Brittain, however, the calculus was more simple: Edward will be safer–probably–but farther away.

Although I was glad that Edward had left the Salient, I couldn’t help being disappointed that he was going so far away after I had manoeuvred myself, as I had hoped, permanently near him for the duration of our wartime lives.

“Half the point of being in France seems to be gone,” I told my family, “ and I didn’t realise until I heard he was
going how much I had . . . looked forward to seeing him walk up this road one day to see me. But I want you to try
and not worry about him more because he is there . . . no one who has not been out here has any idea how fed-up everyone is with France and with the same few miles of ground that have been solidly fought over for three years. There is a more sporting chance anywhere than here. Of course there has been great talk about the migration . . . and all the men whose units are going are very pleased.”[5]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Collected Letters, 504-5.
  2. See Hibberd, Wilfred Owen, 279-80.
  3. War Letters, 230.
  4. It seems that I may have succeeded in entirely avoiding mention of the Russian Revolution--it does crop up in the seventh paragraph or so of Gurney's letters, from time to time, but I often trim those. This is not simple negligence but rather a decision born out of a combination of despair at giving a decent big picture view along with all these closeups and a commitment to the principle that, in this sort of project, things should only matter to readers if and when they matter to the writers.
  5. Testament of Youth, 390-1.

November, and Gurney’s Acquiescence; Duff Cooper Makes the Grade

November will see the end of the battle of Passchendaele, still churning on but more or less invisible to us: none of our main sources remain in the thick of it, and the final, brutal push will be borne by Canadian troops. Then there will be another attack at Cambrai–a promising tank action–but it’s hard to avoid the sense that, for the group of writers assembled here, the war has moved into a phase that has more to do with acceptance than anticipation–or, perhaps, more to do with explicating past experience than experiencing new things.

There will be more cross-pollination this month, too. Isaac Rosenberg, behindhand, will read Mr. Britling, and–finally!–Sassoon. Despite his early acquaintance with Eddie Marsh–a generous patron but not one to ignore the huge social distinctions among his proteges–Rosenberg has never been brought together with his fellow “Georgians” (not that his loose, powerfully emotional verse fits any better among their restrained and traditional forms than he, a young Jew from what we might call the inner city, fits among the tweedy country-lane-strollers). Nevertheless, it is striking that it was not until this month that he will read Sassoon for the first time, while paging toward his own work in a reverse-alphabetical number of Georgian Poetry.

As for Sassoon, he will finally meet Robert Nichols, whom Graves has long been promoting as a possible third musketeer, while Graves will stake his claim to one of the many “adversarial” or antithetical ways of writing about the war with his pointedly-titled collection Fairies and Fusiliers.

And on another flank of the poetic front, Ivor Gurney–after Rosenberg perhaps the most important enlisted poet–will finally have a chance to join the conversation, as his first collection of verse, with its similarly double-weighted title–Severn and Somme–comes out. We will take our “month poem,” then–and our tone–from Gurney:

 

Acquiescence

Since I can neither alter my destiny
By one hair’s breadth from its appointed course;
Since bribes nor prayers nor any earthly force
May from its pathway move a life not free —
I must gather together the whole strength of me,
My senses make my willing servitors;
Cherish and feed the better, starve the worse;
Turn all my pride to proud humility.
Meeting the daily shocks and frozen, stony,
Cynical face of doubt with smiles and joy —
As a battle with autumn winds delights a boy,
Before the smut of the world and the lust of money,
Power, and fame, can yet his youth destroy;
Ere he has scorned his Father’s patrimony.

 

As for today itself, a century back, we have one thing only, and in a very different tone. It’s well worth the periodic reminder that the sort of “experiential” history to which this project is devoted is fatally flawed: to generalize from personal experiences is only to approximate, not to grasp or translate or identify or explain. We don’t actually have, that is, generalized experiences. Even if our interpretations of our experiences might be affected by our knowledge of what others around us are experiencing, it would take unusual empathy for this effect to be at all significant. We live only our own lives, and sometimes we are happy for petty reasons on calamitous days, or focused on the terrible blister we got on the victorious march. More to the point, anyone who fights in a war has (at least) two different age identities: the time he or she has lived on the earth, and the time he or she has spent in uniform. (Then, of course, and most significant, comes the time spent in danger, and in combat.)

In other words, November 1917 is, generally speaking, a month of misery and acquiescence, the 40th month of the war, the fourth month of Third Ypres, the fourth autumn of wretched mud. But for Duff Cooper, the war is four months old, and a matter of drills, barracks, and exams. A cadet since July, he has endured nothing worse yet (other than the loss of so many friends who went earlier) than the boredom, discomfort, and pettiness of old school officer training.

Two days ago, a century back, Cooper sat for the examination that would qualify him as an officer. Today he will learn how he did–but not before the army puts him through one more morning of casual emotional cruelty…

I got up early feeling nervous and depressed. It was a cold misty morning. After breakfast we were told to parade in the ante-room at 8. We were trembling, prepared to hear our fate. But it was only Clutterbuck who talked to us about the examination. He said we hadn’t done as well as he expected and warned us that a great many had failed. We were then dismissed til nine o’clock feeling far more depressed than before. At nine we assembled again and waited three sickening quarters of an hour before the Commandant arrived. At last he came and proceeded to read out very slowly and deliberately and in no order the names of those whom he would recommend for commissions. It was a slow and agonizing torture. Twenty-seven names were read out and then came mine. The relief and delight were unspeakable. There were fourteen failures–none of my friends amongst them. The rest of the day was spent in handing in our kit and equipment–a pleasant duty. Oh the relief that Bushey is over. If I wake up for a moment in the night I remember it and go to sleep smiling. I wonder I could ever have borne it.[1]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Diaries, 60.

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

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

26 October 1917

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

Gloucester Cathedral 1900…

Head boy sometime

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

Also the Westminster Board.

Mr Sharpe (a good man) for Piano…

Centre-forward for Kings School

Owner of the “Dorothy” (defunct)

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

crack platoon shot July 1917

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

Army Feb. 9th (?) 1915

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

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

 

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

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

Sassoon provided the chief amusement:

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

The extracts included bizarrely eccentric lines such as

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

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

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

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

Very bad poetry is funny, it’s true…

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

H.D.

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

References and Footnotes

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

Ivor Gurney Hears the Music of the Stars; Siegfried Sassoon Stands Up a Board and Still Fails to See the Moon

Another digressive letter from Ivor Gurney of today, a century back, contains one of the nicest expressions of his musicality. And by “nice” I mean something that I can more or less grasp–only actual musicians would be able to follow much of his discussions with Marion Scott, and these I generally puzzle over, than omit. But not only can we grasp this one, perhaps, but we might even connect it to his war–to something, at least, that he sees before him:

Last night — O lucky me! — a Scottish Rifle sat up besides the stove with me, which glowed and made believe it was a fire. And he had travelled and could talk, and we had the same politics and the same tastes. His eyes were steady, his laugh open and easily provoked, and a smile that could not be long checked being chiefly an affair of the eyes. O well, it must have been 12.30 when we illicitly walked under the stars, watching Orion and hearing his huge sustained chord…

Gurney then writes into the letter a bass and treble clef, fitting them out with the chord he heard: a grand D Major, with the F# only present in the bass.

From this heavenly synesthesia,[1] he segues directly into verse, quoting Hilaire Belloc, then Yeats, and then delivering himself of this programmatic declaration:

The great test of Art—the Arts of Music, Writing, Painting anyway is to be able to see the eyes kindly and full of calm wisdom that would say these things behind the page. I will not try to write verse in England. Once out there, it will leak from me in vulgar streams.

With best wishes,

Your sincere friend Ivor Gurney[2]

 

And there we must leave Gurney to traipse only a few miles away to another War Hospital on the outskirts of Edinburgh. The segue is not poetic, alas, but a question of “out there–” in two senses. We will learn that the path back to the trenches can take different turns for different men and, more curiously, that it must have been clear in Scotland last night, and cloudy tonight…

Today, a century back, is the big day for Siegfried Sassoon: he recently announced his readiness to return to active service, his protest notwithstanding, and Dr. Rivers agreeably arranged a Medical Board, which is intended to end the fiction of his having a (symptomatic) “war neurosis” and pronounce him fit for duty. So off to the board he goes… or off to the waiting room, at least.

Even if you don’t know the story, you can probably guess that Sassoon–Mad Jack, the quiet poet, the petulant schoolboy–is not going to proceed according to plan.

I regret not using more of Sherston’s Progress lately, because it’s really good stuff… my excuses are that Sassoon puts few dates into it, that these are often slightly off, that he writes this section in a much more openly “binary,” flash-forward-ridden way, and that it is still, technically, a fictionalized memoir rather than a “straight” personal history.[3]

But in volume three of Sherston’s memoirs the fiction is growing thin. Rivers is Rivers, too influential to be damned by faint pseudonym. And although poetry–and therefore Owen–doesn’t enter into Sassoon’s account of “Sherston’s” stay at “Slateford,” everything else is more or less exactly where it should be. He tells us of his intolerable roommate, the relief of getting a lonely garret to himself, the consolations of literature as the weather turns against golf, etc. And very nicely, too. But about today he has different feelings.

There are two ways of telling a good story well — the quick way and the slow way. Personally I prefer a good story to be told slowly. What I am about to tell is not a good story. It is merely an episode which cannot be left out. A certain abruptness is therefore appropriate.

Well, rats! But this is protesting too much, isn’t it still a good story?

On the appointed afternoon I smartened myself up and waited to be called before the medical board. I was also going to tea with the astronomer, who had promised to let me have a look at the moon through his telescope. But I was feeling moody and irritable…

Sassoon–or, rather, just barely, Sherston–wonders if he didn’t perhaps have a touch of a cold coming on, which might explain… no, no, it doesn’t. He doesn’t let himself off and, as promised, he skips the story.

The Board was running late, he didn’t like to be kept waiting, and so he walked out: Lt. Siegfried Sassoon, M.C., former prominent pacifist and alleged neurotic, “cut” the Medical Board that was to decide his fate, with the excuse that the army shouldn’t make him late for tea.

The story is missing its middle, but it has a lovely last word. Naturally, when “Sherston” arrived, the astronomer’s telescope was not working (though, in a wry detail, Sassoon got instead a glimpse at a mysterious instrument and a lecture on the precise measurement of “infinitesimal fractions of a second”). The conclusion?

So even the moon was a washout.

But one point we can certainly take away from Sassoon’s treatment of the episode: there’s no need to over-complicate the story. A cold? An adamantine sense of social propriety? Others suggest, plausibly, a “fit of pique.” But isn’t it plausible that Sassoon wasn’t quite sure about his decision, or that he wanted more time with Rivers, the father figure who had recently abandoned him for his own sick leave, and knew that Rivers would cover for him?

In any case, that is precisely what happened. Rivers was furious with Sassoon–the only time, “Sherston” tells us, that he was so–but before the interview is over he laughs, forgives, and agrees to schedule a new Board in a month’s time.[4]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Which reminds me more than a bit of Tolkien, who will cast his cosmological creation in musical terms, with heavy emphasis on starlight--and who brings Orion recognizably into the stars of Middle Earth.
  2. War Letters, 225-6.
  3. Another reason, I think, is that I once read Sassoon's laying-open of his youthful follies as a commendable effort in biographical soul-shriving. I'm not so sure, now: he stays in control of the effort, and seems at times to be almost political in his careful revelations, as if he is revealing what he must in such a way that he will earn commendation, while keeping the most embarrassing stuff safely hidden...
  4. Complete Memoirs, 551-2. See also Moorcroft Wilson, Siegfried Sassoon, I, 418.

Rowland Feilding Belatedly Locates the Machine Guns of the Somme; John Ronald Tolkien Still Suffers from its Fevers; Ivor Gurney on the Courage of Women

Rowland Feilding has been mixing light letters about life in reserve with accounts of how he is spending his own free time (which, as a battalion commander, can be considerable), namely walking the old battlefield of the Somme and remembering what he and his men endured during the Battle of Ginchy last September 9th.

You will remember what a terrific fire we encountered when we attacked at this place. I have ever since been curious to know where that fire came from, and how so powerful a concentration of machine-guns could have complete escaped our artillery. Now I know. A well-concealed and winding trench, branching into two, and worked in conjunction with nests of shell-holes adapted as machine-gun positions! That is what we ran into, and it was a hopeless task we undertook that day…[1]

 

One of the casualties of the Somme–of its infectious diseases rather than its bullets, shrapnel, or gas–was John Ronald Tolkien. He has yet to return to full health, and, after a severe relapse which put him in the hospital for nine weeks, he went before a Medical Board today in Hull. The report was middling:

He has still not recovered his strength; he suffers from debility and pain in his arms and shins, and he looks delicate

Declared “30 per cent disabled,” Tolkien was sent back to the 3rd Lancashire Fusiliers at Thirtle Bridge, for light duty. The board’s decision may be changed later, but for now Tolkien has some reason to hope that he has seen the last of the trenches.[2]

 

Alas for Ivor Gurney that this is not true. He remains in hospital, but with a wink and a nod: his lungs are more or less fine–it is his talented fingers which keep him there, accompanying all the would-be singers in their own recoveries.

16 October 1917

My Dear Friend: This is a most lovely morning, and I ought to be out on the hills somewhere instead of writing letters, even to you. For letter writing is work of a sort, though I like it not badly here, and in France it is often a pleasure.

There is not much to tell you, there is no masterpiece of chiselled and exquisite verse…

Is it wise of me to play music? Well, I do, but know only too well that the effort to forget will be an extra difficulty against the little serenity I shall have in France. Unless I grow stronger of soul of course, and so much stronger is unlikely. The things I should most like to write are things of beauty with a vinegary ending, something after “The Fire Kindled”. Heine I believe is famous for that sort of thing. It is best to be Shakespeare but good to be Heine — though not Thersites.

Gurney is almost always etceterative–and occasionally tremendous. What an idea–to write beautiful, vinegary things, like Heine. And Thersites is a rare reference, but an excellent one: Gurney perhaps remembers him as the one common soldier who makes a role for himself in the Iliad, where Thersites is an ugly, misshapen grumbler amongst the gleaming heroes and handsome demigods who lead the Greek army, a would be mutineer who is scorned and battered into silence by his betters. But he is, nevertheless, a common man with a voice in the great poem.

Gurney is, as usual, writing to Marion Scott, and he segues now from his own classically-cast ambition (and muted grumbling) to a consideration of women at war. It is typical of his intelligence that he takes an observation (and one which runs against the grain of all-too-typical prejudices) and proceeds without much fanfare to a sensitive (and sensible) reconsideration of a Big Concept–courage, in this case  .

…Nurses are really wonderful people to do so many things distasteful and still to smile. There is a very nice set of nurses here (have I told you?) that could hardly be better. They call this the “Ragtime Ward”, a name of envy given by men oppressed in places of female dragons and discipline. The courage of women is certainly not less than that of men. To my mind, that is. The serene performance of hateful duties, and the refusal to be depressed by them is the finest form of courage. The more sensational are the wilder forms — no higher. There are a few soldiers who go on till they are knocked out, not heeding wounds, most of these comparative few have supported their nerves only too freely beforehand. The rest may be the flower of earth, but the man who can be brotherly and crack a joke on a winter night in a shell hole has undoubted undeniable unsupported courage, which is not always certain of the spectacular gentlemen, who may be Berserk or drunk. But there! It is only my preference perhaps for serene and quiet strength rather than for the violent kind. Violence is waste of energy.

Here endeth the umptieth lesson…

Your sincere friend Ivor Gurney[3]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. War Letters to a Wife, 215.
  2. Chronology, 102.
  3. War Letters, 222-4.

Ivor Gurney’s Memory, After Music; Wilfred Owen Drafts a Masterpiece

Ivor Gurney has been writing letters nineteen to the dozen lately from a hospital near Edinburgh, and I promised that we would get caught up. His letters are all over the place–at some points nearly manic–and much of what he has to say he has already said, and recently. Gurney is cooped up in the hospital, dragooned into bashing out popular tunes for sing-songs, uncertain if the swallowed gas that landed him here is causing much real trouble, or that his mind isn’t

An undated letter to Marion Scott praises some of the personalities he has met since landing in the hospital, and strains to produce verse:

Damn the War!

…Last night I played Bach and Beethoven for two hours, and got a little into swing towards the end. That was good. I am too lazy to write, and besides nothing will come to me when I try to pump — the bilge pumps, I think, by the results.

Memory, let all slip

Memory, let all slip save what is sweet
Of Ypres plains.
Keep only autumn sunlight and the fleet
Cloud after rains.

Blue skies and mellow distance softly blue;
These only hold
Lest I shall share my panged grave with you.
Else dead. Else cold.

Needless to say, a failed ode to forgetting trauma is not the greatest indicator of good spirits. Another letter discusses minor tragedies–lost manuscripts–and the uplifting arrival of a chaplain “touched with greatness, supremely alive, warmblooded, interested, interesting, fine looking with eyes of humourous power.” (There is also a remarkable pen portrait of “a coalminer of Fife,” an autodidact and force of nature (“he had the Celtic temperament”) whose charisma invigorates Gurney.

They talk of the power of great music to move–but, with no little irony, Gurney’s powers to make lesser music now cause him to stay put.

I am likely to be here another fortnight, for on the colonel’s inspection I was one of the very few not marked Con: Camp. “Why?” “Accompaniments, my dear”. For once, I saw the Army winking its eye at me, and wunk back.

I really like “wunk back.” There are also polite interrogations of Scott and interminable discussions of grand strategy (it’s hard not to suspect that Scott wrote of these things to Gurney because she wanted to write about the war without writing about the experience of the trenches, and that Gurney wrote back in a similar spirit–to please her and to think about less-than-completely-traumatic things).

And there is a delightful discussion of soldiers’ slang and humor… But I will–I must!–cut it short, since we have a very big poem to get to.

…Hearing a few casual catchwords flying around, it struck me that you might like to know some of them — such as I can remember. Poor bare jests, almost too familiar to remember at will.

There is one (just heard for the thousandth time) which brings a picture of a tragic roll call. A man may be shouted for who is not present, and the room answers, “On the wire, at Loos”. A lighter answer, a mock of this last, is “Gassed at Mons”.

Amusing, you see, because although British casualties at Mons were extremely high, it was before gas was used…

A coming strafe means carrying parties, and they are greeted with “More iron rations for Fritz”…

And many similar expressions, plus the rather surprising assertion that “an officer always takes whisky into the line, and his being drunk on any critical occasion is always condoned.”

This we are meant to pass by with a shrug, it’s merely how things go, more or less. But Gurney’s letters do get on to a subject that will occupy us today, and, increasingly, for the rest of the war: namely, how the soldier goes on fighting when the experiential gulf that yawns between them and those at home is so well-defended with a box barrage of lies. Speaking of the typical Tommies of his acquaintance, Gurney writes that

Their faith in newspapers has been sorely shaken for ever by the comparison of accounts with realities. But chiefly by the contrast between the phrase “Mastery of the Air” and the reality. Parliament is a haunt of people who talk and dont care what happens to him and his like.

Today’s letter to Scott begins with a seriocomic rant against low-quality writing implements.

The man who would attempt to write verse with a pencil when a pen is handy and convenient to him would rob a church without more thought than he would give to the flicking of cigarette ash — which indeed is frequently the trick of the melodramatic villain. For the writing of music there can be none so foul of spirit as to contemplate aught but the pen as instrument…

Let us use ink whenever Fate and Supply allow us, for so we shall show ourselves cognisant of and grateful for the civilisation of Europe, that once again has survived onslaught of the barbarian; who showed himself nakedly to all when he would destroy a “scrap of paper”, and the work of pen and ink without a pang…

Gurney is hard to take in large doses, and he is sometimes minor, and sometimes something close to very great, a composer and a poet full of sound and fury:

 

After Music

Why, I am on fire now, and tremulous
With sense of Beauty long denied; the first
Opening of floodgate to the glorious burst
Of Freedom from the Fate that limits us
To work in darkness pining for the light,
Thirsting for sweet untainted draughts of air.
Clouds sunset coloured. Music . . . O Music’s bare
White heat of silver passion fiercely bright.
While sweating at the foul task, we can taste
No Joy that’s clean, no Love but something lets
It from its power, the wisest soul forgets
What’s beautiful, or delicate, or chaste.
Orpheus drew me, as once his bride, from Hell
If wisely, she or I, the Gods can tell.[1]

 

Gurney will continue to try to find ways of wrestling the truth of the war into a traditional poetic context–capitalized Beauty and Music, uneasily combined with images and memories of the trenches. But Wilfred Owen has taken a great leap forward, toward one of the greatest of the war’s poems, and one that, more than any other, succeeds in addressing–and riveting–the attention of the reader on the far side of the experiential gulf. Here he sets out to separate–emphatically, calmly, and unassailably–the combat soldier’s truth from the old lies of his “friends” far from the trenches.

At Craiglockhart, today, a century back, (and only a few miles, again, from where Gurney writes) Owen wrote a first draft of what will become Dulce et Decorum Est. I assume that everyone is familiar with this poem; but I’ll put it here nonetheless–its power certainly holds up…

 

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs,
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots,
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of gas-shells dropping softly behind.
Gas! GAS! Quick, boys!—An ecstasy of fumbling
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time,
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime.—
Dim through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.
In all my dreams before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.
If in some smothering dreams, you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,—
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

 

Siegfried Sassoon will remark that he did not realize how terrible Owen’s few weeks on the line last winter were–but these verses would seem to hint strongly at just such an experience. (They also give the lie, as it were, to Gurney’s insistence that swallowing gas was no worse than a cold–although clearly Gurney had received a much lower dose.) And we must read carefully to notice that in between Owen’s cheerful, busy, haler-and-heartier-by-the-week days at Craiglockhart come terrible nights of “disastrous dreams”–dreams in which his helpless sight has been replaying these traumas.

So, you know–biography, experience. But also poetry: while many serious readers of Owen prefer his more subtle poems, this is still a remarkable achievement for a young man who was writing forgettable verse only months ago. (This is one of the least forgettable poems I know.) The task here is simple and direct, like the poem’s address: show what this is that has happened, and what it was like. Declare not some foolish overweening confidence in “what it all means,” but show what it proves cannot be true. This does the job with the efficiency and clarity of a mature poet.

 

References and Footnotes

  1. War Letters, 214-22.