Francis Ledwidge will dream a troubled dream tonight. This is hardly surprising: things have not been going well for the young Irishman. His assumption that the difficult decision to fight for Britain would be rewarded by honorable service in a short war and better employment afterwards was looking increasingly foolish; he had lost the love of his life to another man; and his first book of poetry had been many months in the press.
With his battalion’s embarkation looming, Ledwidge now ran a very good chance of being killed or wounded fighting for the empire whose rule he repudiated. To make matters worse, his patron Lord Dunsany had recently been recalled. Dunsany–a wealthy lord and a fantasist to boot–had been too independent for the army the first time around, and he was proving to be so again. His men may have loved him: there is a tale of a mock battle that ended with his company provisionless and many miles from camp, and the exhausted men ordered to fall out along a village street; then, a few moments later, their Lord and captain appeared, heavy-laden, after having bought up all the bread and butter and stout in village. This sort of thing might win the loyalty of one’s soldiers, but it is highly unlikely that Dunsany’s Regular appreciated his idiosyncratic and individual style.
So Dunsany was sent back to the Inniskillings depot in Ireland to train the newer battalions, and Ledwidge was now without a sympathetic eye among the battalion officers. Ledwidge’s heart was in Ireland, his body was in England, and his fate seemed to be over the water as well–in France, or, worse, the Dardanelles. Tonight, a century back, he dreamed of white birds over the ocean–an Elvish dream.
From an old world poetic relationship between a “peasant” poet and his lord and patron, then, to a brave new world of poetic friendship: Edward Thomas has finished the draft of the loathed Marlborough book and is catching up on his letter-writing–there are three today to three other poets. But it is Robert Frost he thinks of most… Frost who has gone back to America, with Thomas’s son. America, which promises a new start…
The yearning to be away, to be writing, to be free for a moment from uncertainty and financial pressure, is terribly acute. But still not enough to overcome Thomas’s mighty inertia, and an Englishman’s sense that something must be done.
Three days ago Thomas had written to Frost, his problems “endless:”
15 vi 15
My dear Robert
This is chiefly to tell you that I have been re reading ‘Mending Wall’, ‘The Hired Man’, The Mountain’, & ‘The 100 Collars’ & liking them–enjoying them–more than I ever did. Do you imagine this is to atone for what I said of ‘Two Roads’? It may be, but I don’t believe it is.
I have been talking to my mother about going to America. She does not really resist much, but pretends to assume I mean after the war…
There is a weak alternative too–if some branch of the army will take me in spite of my weak foot: I believe the Royal Garrison Artillery might. Frankly I do not want to go, but hardly a day passes without my thinking I should. With no call, the problem is endless…
It all comes of not believing. I will leave nothing to chance knowingly. But, there, I suppose the believers calculate to the best of their ability…
I have finished the book.
“Nothing to chance?” Frost would have smiled: “ah, but that would mean making a decision, Edward.”
And today, a century back, Thomas wrote again to Frost, declaring himself closer:
18 vi 15 Steep, Petersfield
My dear Robert,
These last few days I have been looking at 2 alternatives, trying to enlist or coming to America. Helen points out that I could try America & then enlist if it failed, but not the other way round. Is it asking you to prophesy if I ask you to say what you think I might do in New York & Boston? You see I must not think of coming over to see you & cut down trees if I can’t persuade myself there are definite chances of coming back with a connection or getting connections…
Nothing happened in town. I lunched with my agent who had no luck with my proverbs & could only suggest an anthology of amiable things said in English about Russia… Not me. I ran into de la Mare & I am afraid we gave one another hardish looks. Then I saw Davies who has got an idea that de la Mare is to be provided with a pension to eke out his £400 a year or so, & I confess to being sore at the thought of the dispensation…
If you can write soon.
Yours ever, Edward Thomas
The rumor is true: although Walter de la Mare is much more comfortable than Thomas (one did not “eke” on £400 in 1915), he has won a pension of a hundred pounds a year that that will leave him free to write–or more free that is. Thomas is a good friend, and generous (as the fact of his confession shows), but he cannot help but give in to jealousy, here… de la Mare is lucky, and he has not asserted himself on behalf of Thomas’s poetic endeavors, either.
In his letter of today to Eleanor Farjeon, Thomas seems to try the old procrastinator’s trick of announcing a deadline, even though there is none but himself to enforce it:
Tomorrow and Saturday I shall wind up at home and then if the weather holds start cycling on Sunday towards Gloster though not much in a holiday mood.
I have got myself to the point of thinking that America is a chance and that I see no other. Waiting for something to turn up is of course quite in my line, but I have done a good deal of it, and if nothing does turn up before the end of July I shall begin to decide how many days I ought to give to New York and how many to Boston.
Frost can give me some introductions, he being well on his way, with his book in a 3rd edition out there…
It’s almost as if the plan evolves slightly each time Thomas takes out a new page and readdresses the issue. To Gordon Bottomley:
18 June 1915 Steep
My dear Gordon,
…Now I am going to cycle & think of man & nature & human life & decide between enlisting or going to America before I enlist. Those are the alternatives unless something turns up out of the dark.
Vera Brittain‘s diary has dried up recently as she prepares for exams. But today she transcribes much of the latest letter from Roland Leighton, in the trenches. He rather ominously describes tinkering with a new sort of hand grenade and then tosses a different sort of bombshell into a post-script:
“It is possible that I may be able to get 6 days’ leave in the near future.’’ My mind suddenly felt confused & the approaching Plato paper went right out of it. Oh! when is “the near future’’? If it can only be soon–if it can only really happen. To look into those dark eyes, after all they have seen & I have felt–ah I no one can know what it would mean. Sometimes I have felt that I would forgive the future if it would only bring him to me once again– give me one hour to blot out wisdom. At other times I have thought I couldn’t bear to see him till the war is over, that though I am out for hard things there is just one I could not endure, & that is to live over again the early morning of March 19th on Buxton Station. But now that there is a chance I may have to do it, I know it is worthwhile. One is willing to pay the bitterness of death for the sweetness of life…
I went to Plato feeling that this paper could be what it liked. As it happened it was a splendid one. I absolutely dreaded Unseens this afternoon; but I could do nearly all the Greek one & the whole of the Latin.
After dinner came the Going-Down Play. It was as usual a sort of pantomime, representing expeditions of various Oxford celebrities to the Never-Never Land, & of course bringing in topical events. As Miss Rowe was stage-managing & Miss Sayers a leading light, I heard that it was unusually good even for a going-down play. The definite “take-offs” were simply excellent. Miss Sayers with her chorus became Dr Allen to the life…
I have learnt to love Oxford very dearly. Even if I do come back next October in the ordinary way, Oxford will
always mean more to me because I have felt about it as I have this term.
So farewell to Oxford, and farewell today to another pillar of the first year on A Century Back. Morgan Crofton‘s opinions on the conduct of the war have grown quite acerbic over the past few months, and I’ve wondered whether the amount of time he seemed to spend away from his unit–he was often assigned to remain with the horses when the regiment was in the trenches–indicates that his attitude was perceived by the regimental authorities as less than excellent. Or perhaps the silences and similarities in his history and Dunsany’s are influencing my reading of each…
In any event, Crofton was reassigned today–back to England to train replacement troops. Later on he will be sent to Dar Es Salaam–not the hottest of the war’s hot spots. Today marks the final entry of the published diary, but let’s go back a few days and take a brief farewell tour of my favorite bluff baronet-ly diarist:
A topping day. Felt very like a schoolboy going home for his holidays. The leave papers were a very long time in coming…
At 11 o’clock the leave papers were still missing, so we decided to go ourselves to the office at Wardrecques to get them. Having said goodbyes all round we started at 12 o’clock…
The road was very dusty, the motor was very stuffy, and the day was sweltering, but none of us cared tuppence about such trivial irritations, and we hummed merrily along towards’ Boulogne and our boat. Halfway there a tyre burst with a terrific report. This was jolly and for half an hour we sat by the side of the road in the dust and glare waiting for repairs. Motor after motor rushed by covering us with a thick stifling powder…
We fetched up at Boulogne about 2.45, and at once boarded the packet Invicta. The sea was fairly calm…
We reached Folkestone about 5 o’clock, and at once boarded the London train which left at 5.30. Luxmoore, the padre Felling and myself shared a compartment and had an excellent dinner en route. Reached Victoria about 7.15.
Wednesday June 16
Got my hair cut, and had a general clean up….
Thursday June 17
Lunched with Torrie at the Cavalry Club, who said that he had fixed up my transfer to Windsor. He gave me a lot of instructions on the work which he wished done for the drafts.
And Crofton, who wrote a book on Waterloo during his hiatus from the army, leaves our centennial parade with a centennial flourish:
Friday June 18
The Centenary of Waterloo…
During the afternoon received at the Marlborough Club a telegram from the Adjutant General telling me to postpone my return to France.