Bayoneting With Edward Heron-Allen; Wilfred Owen’s “Last Words”

First, today, another very entertaining entry from our great latecomer, Edward Heron-Allen. He is recently commissioned, still under training, and very much in England. But he has advanced, thematically, as far as the “Bull Ring.” Other than this not being in France–and the instructor not being notably Scottish–it fits the pattern well:

…I was detailed to watch advanced bayonet practice which was extremely interesting and real. The men start in a trench, go ‘over the top’ in waves, across a plateau of sand jumping obstacles, and over a ditch into a trench where they stab recumbent sand bags, painted to represent Huns. They form on the other side and rush a row of hanging Hun-bags, and then make a final charge on the last trench, which means a six foot jump landing with one’s bayonet well through another row of Hun-bags. A concealed instructor pulls wires which make Hun heads bob up on the way, and you have to jab those en passant. As the men yell furiously the whole time the scene is cataleptically exhilarating to watch, and the men evidently enjoy it vastly. I should not care to do it myself![1]

 

Wilfred Owen, though he could hardly top this, also has some exhilaration to share. In this rather strange letter to his mother, he describes how exploring the older parts of Scarborough with a Belgian painter led to an aesthetic euphoria.

Last night I took an artist johnny—called Claus…  (a fat old tub, with round spectacles, and a conical head) …to Scarborough, where there’s not a house built since 1780, not a street much wider than Claus, and miles of it, mind you, miles of glorious eighteenth century. It was twilight…

Not a soul in the alleys.

Not a lamp lit. A dim moon—and the Past.

And we got excited. What excited us, who shall say? We jumped about, we bumped about, We sang praises, we cursed Manchester; we looked in at half open doors and blessed the people inside. We saw Shakespere in a lantern, and the whole of Italy in a Balcony. A tall chimney became a Greek Column; and in the inscriptions on the walls we read romances and philosophies.

It was a strange way of getting drunk. I wonder if the people in the officers’ bar suspected that evening how much more cheaply a man can get fuddled on fresh air and old winding passages?

Very nice, and refreshingly un-1918: it’s a passage that throws us back to Baudelaire or ahead to Dylan, c. 1965.

But it’s still 1918, and euphoria is not all that Owen has been experiencing:

I am sorry you have disturbing and daylight-lingering dreams. It is possible to avoid them: by proper thinking before sleep. I confess I bring on what few war dreams I now have, entirely by willingly considering war of an evening. I do so because I have my duty to perform towards War.

Sudden seriousness. And, perhaps, another explanation for the metaphorical drunkenness. Owen seems to have exorcised another segment of his war experience in producing this poem draft, which he prefaces with a stern warning to his mother, whose Christian faith he risks offending:

There is a point where prayer is indistinguishable from blasphemy. There is also a point where blasphemy is indistinguishable, from prayer.

As in this first verse:

Last Words[2]

‘O Jesus Christ!’ one fellow sighed;
And kneeled, and bowed, tho’ not in prayer, and died.
And the Bullets sang—‘In vain’
Machine Guns chuckled ‘Vain’
Big Guns guffawed ‘In vain’

‘Father and Mother!’ one boy said.
Then smiled—at nothing like a small child; being dead.
And the Shrapnel Cloud
Slowly gestured ‘Vain!’
The falling Splinters muttered ‘Vain’.

‘My Love!’ another cried, ‘My love, my bud!’
Then, gently lowered, his whole face kissed the mud.
And the Flares gesticulated, ‘Vain’
The Shells hooted, ‘In vain’
And the Gas hissed, ‘In vain’.[3]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Journal, 165-6.
  2. This will be revised and re-titled "The Last Laugh."
  3. Collected Letters, 533-34.

A Petty Victory for Wilfred Owen, and a Harsh Defeat for the Royal Welsh

Despite the constant false alarms along the Western Front, we are now entering another quiet period on the line. So we’ll catch up with Wilfred Owen, writing today both to his mother and to his hapless rhymester cousin. To his mother, Owen makes a sweetly grandiose gesture, using the fruits of his labor to fan the flames warming the heart of his greatest supporter…

Tues. Morning.

…The £ 1 : 1 : 0., my first proud earnings, must be used on superb coal-fires in your room. It is only poetic justice. Stoke up!

I have ‘written’ profusely last week, but nothing of a topical nature…

But Owen has another correspondent with whom he’d like to discusses his earnings. He sends an amusing postcard to Leslie Gunston, who has been offended by Owen’s experiments with pararhyme (and also, perhaps, by Owen’s manifest success and rather cool response to his own effortful verses). Owen sought to amuse (or annoy) Gunston by altering a popular comic postcard to read as follows:

A Little Health, A Little Wealth, A Little
House, and Freedom—and at The End,
I’d Like a Friend, And Every Cause to Need Him.

The internet being bountiful, I located what seems to be another copy of the original post-card, as written on by a different (but also ironic/scornful) card-sender, here. Owen’s message is straight to the point: I am confident in my methods, thank you very much.

Quite as delighted to have your blunt criticism as your first postcard. I suppose I am doing in poetry what the advanced composers are doing in music. I am not satisfied with either. Still I am satisfied with the Two
Guineas that half-hour’s work brought me. Got the Cheque this m’ng!

Your W.E.O.[1]

Now hold on a second: one guinea (£ 1/1/0, i.e. one pound and one shilling, so 1/20th more valuable than a pound, and much more than 1/20th more prestigious) or two? Is he shortchanging mother dearest, or bragging to cousin-left-behind?

 

In an even lighter vein, we’ll close with the entirety of today’s entry in Doctor Dunn’s chronicle of the 2nd Royal Welsh. It is a grim harbinger of the dour struggles that will loom large in the ruck and scrum of modern times:

February 12th: The Welsh Division played disappointing Rugby against New Zealand, and was beaten by 14 points to 3.[2]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Collected Letters, 531.
  2. The War the Infantry Knew, 445.

Siegfried Sassoon Ships Out; The Master of Belhaven on Anticipation and Artillery

Siegfried Sassoon left London on a noon train, accompanied to the station not by his mother and aunt but rather by Robbie Ross and Roderick Meiklejohn. He dined at Southampton and boarded a ship for France–but not for France. This time France is only a way station to the east…[1]

 

 

We should catch up with Ralph Hamilton, Master of Belhaven. On the 7th, he spent “six solid hours… on the type-writer” devising a plan to withdraw his batteries in the event of a successful German advance.

it was a most complicated business, but with all the “wind” there is blowing, we cannot afford to leave anything to chance…

Indeed not. So even as the army is drawing down its infantry manpower it is devising plans of retreat in the face of the expected German offensive…

The next day brought rumors among the battery officers of all leave being stopped, while the 9th saw Hamilton comparing his headquarters with those of a neighboring artillery brigade and deciding that he much preferred his own, despite its discomfort–it was cramped, yes, but that was because it was tucked away in a quarry, safe from all but the most unfortunate of high-angle direct hits.

Then, yesterday, a sudden bombardment opened up, the infantry sent up the S.O.S. signal by flare, and Hamilton’s batteries all responded at their top rate of fire. But nothing happened–this was not the German attack, which must wait for weather both warmer and drier if it is to break through.

Once again, Hamilton investigates the source of the costly error…

Templeux, 11th February, 1918

I have been trying to find out what really happened last night. It seems that the Germans began by bombarding our frontline trenches, and then sent up ______ and ______ rockets, which happens also to be our S.O.S. signal… we wasted over seventeen hundred shells, and the Hun now knows where our barrage comes down.[2]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Diaries, 211; Moorcroft Wilson, Siegfried Sassoon, I, 441.
  2. War Diary, 450-4.

Edward Heron-Allen Analyzes a Word of Command; Wilfred Owen Has Made an Influential Friend; Vera Brittain’s Poetic Ambitions, and What Comes Out in the Wash

We can sketch Siegfried Sassoon‘s leave in London only in appointment-book fashion. Yesterday it was friends and music; today, family. Sassoon spent the day at an aunt’s house, his mother having come up from Kent for the day.[1]

 

Meanwhile, back in Kent, Edward Heron-Allen, still learning the ropes of infantry drill, has a quite surprisingly funny rendition of the strange contortions of drill-ground commands. These are choreographic orders that began as simple English words but have been altered by years of shouting at men who already know the stereotyped commands into what seems like a foreign language. Heron-Allen is, after all, a splendid linguist…

…The colonel appeared and marched us off. His word of command is astonishing when you don’t know it. First an extraordinary gurgle, which I afterwards learned to mean ‘4th Queen’s Own’, and then, with great lucidity ‘mootwryicolleroo’ which the intelligent military interpreted as ‘move to the right in a column of route’, and so we marched off…[2]

 

And Wilfred Owen, back in Scarborough, is belatedly realizing the social heights to which his friendship with Sassoon has delivered him, as he will describe in tomorrow’s letter to his mother.

Yesterday, I had tea in the Club in Scarborough, and taking up Who’s Who was amazed to find that Roderick Meiklejohn who invited me to dinner at the Reform was Mr. Asquith’s private secretary while Mr. Asquith was in office…

Meiklejohn, as it happens, will spend tomorrow morning with Sassoon…[3]

 

We also learn, today, that Vera Brittain has been rather busier than she has led us to believe. Not only has she written enough poetry for a small book, but she has sent them off–bereft of influential literary friends though she is–to a publisher, received a favorable reply, and already written to her brother about it. Verses of a V.A.D. is on it’s way, and Lieutenant Brittain sounds just a bit jealous…

Italy, 10 February 1918

Very glad to hear that Erskine Macdonald was so favourable in his criticism; it is certainly rather unusual–I should think–for him to half-finance a first volume of any sort…

I am extremely busy again with all sorts of work–chiefly range practices and difficulties connected with washing men and clothes. The most excellent system of giving a man clean underclothes every time he went to the baths which we had in France cannot apparently be done here. The present system is to have a Corps laundry; all kinds of units send clothing when asked to do so: the result is that the company has to have (say) 50 shirts, 45 pants, 55 socks, and 30 undervests collected. This of course leaves a lot of men without a change of certain garments; then at some time or other they will carefully return to you washed 35 shirts, 50 pants, 40 socks, and 20 undervests. At present we are doing some of the washing ourselves. A few people come over and drop bombs when the moon is favourable — otherwise there is not much war going on.[4]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Diaries, 211; Moorcroft Wilson, Siegfried Sassoon, I, 441.
  2. Journal, 153.
  3. Collected Letters, 530.
  4. Letters from a Lost Generation, 389.

A View, a Poem, a Hunt, a Truce of Sorts, and a Poet’s Death

A quick tour today, a century back, of the literary war: from poetry to killing and from a cathedral-crowned vista to a quagmire.

The poetry we have read before: Wilfred Owen wrote to his mother, enclosing a copy of his recent success.

28 January 1918

Here then is the Nation.

I hope you’ll not hawk it about or make much of it to anybody whoever. I’m proud of one thing and that’s the decent amount of room they give under the impressive tide POETRY !

…There is nothing to tell you…

Always your W.E.O.[1]

 

Siegfried Sassoon, too, has a success to report:

January 28

Limerick Hounds at Fedamore

…A good hunt of an hour and fifteen minutes… Found two at Rockbarton and dug one out (both bad
foxes). Rode Sheeby’s bay mare—a lovely ride. Strong southwest wind, and rain later in day. Home 5.30. Best hunt I’ve had Since the war. Took one fall—my own fault.[2]

 

And Rowland Feilding isn’t quite sure whether the status quo on his front indicates success or failure, wisdom or defeatism–or some sensible middle course.

January 28, 1918.

Left Sub-Section (Right Brigade)
(Tombois Farm to Island Traverse), Lempire.

We came up into the Front line this evening, relieving the 1st Royal Munster Fusiliers, and this morning, in anticipation, I went round the trenches—the same that I left to go home on leave on the 23rd December.

The change is remarkable. I left the trenches frozen like rock. I find them, to-day, half full of sticky mud; twice as wide and half as deep owing to the caving of the sides; two layers of trench-boards buried 2 feet deep in glutinous mud. It is a labour to walk in them, and to-day being a clear, sunny day it was not an occasion for easy cuts across the open.

Even so, for long stretches of these trenches you are under full view of the enemy—about 500 yards away; But he does not shoot, which suggests that his trenches are no better than ours (which, no doubt, is the case), and that he does not want us to shoot at him.

Indeed, for a few days past I find that the officers on duty on both sides have been making it a practice to walk along the parapet, so as to avoid the quagmire of the trenches. This morning, however, when an officer on our side tried it, the enemy opened with machine-gun fire: so this highly irregular practice is now at an end, which is perhaps as well…[3]

 

Meanwhile, in the semi-peacefulness of reserve, Dr. Dunn of the Royal Welch–or one of his contributors–waxes rhapsodic today about the scenery around St. Omer.

January 28th–On rising I looked down on a lawn of vivid green sparkling with dew, which continues into a glade in the trees that surround the house; closing the glade, framed in black stems and branches, was the weathered grey Cathedral, aloft on its hill, standing in relief in liquid winter sunlight against a clear blue sky. It was an enchanting scene, awakening visions of faerie…[4]

 

And it was today, a century back, that the Canadian Medical Officer and poet John McCrae died, at Boulogne, of pneumonia. He was the author of “In Flanders Fields,” perhaps the most popular poem of the war.

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Collected Letters, 529-30.
  2. Diaries, 207.
  3. War Letters to a Wife, 248-9.
  4. Dunn, The War the Infantry Knew, 439.

Miners and a Black Book; Max Plowman Hears from Rivers; Siegfried Sassoon Rides the Emerald Isle; Isaac Rosenberg is Not Strong

Two very different publications of today, a century back, are worth noting. The Nation, one of the few periodicals willing to publish “anti-war” poetry, ran Wilfred Owen‘s poem Miners. The poem was written, despite its unusual pararhyme, in a matter of hours, promptly submitted, and is published now only two weeks after the event–a topical and quietly political work, and as such a confirmation of Owen’s complete and Sassoon-influenced departure from his youthful aestheticism.

And The Imperialist, Noel Pemberton-Billing’s histrionic nativist scandal sheet, ran an article claimingthat German intelligence held a “black book” which contained the names of 47,000 British gay men and lesbians who had been blackmailed and compromised. This might be insanity (quite literally, in the case of Pemberton-Billing’s assistant Harold Spencer), but Pemberton-Billing’s ridiculous lies played ably enough on existing hatreds for the political effects to be distressingly real. The Imperialist specialized in anti-German polemic (with virulent anti-Semitism lumped in for good measure) and was prepared to exploit not just homophobia but class resentment, using salacious allegations to get traditional folks all worked up against fancy London types and their immoral goings on, which must of course conceal deep disloyalty to a vague and negatively-defined ideal of British greatness…

So Wilfred Owen has gotten a poem in the paper–and earned two guineas for it–and on the very same day that the gay literary community he has just had the privilege of joining comes under siege.

 

Elsewhere, today, Max Plowman wrote to his close friend Hugh de Selincourt. The letter opens with an apology for not having written sooner–it runs along the lines of the “I wrote the simple letters first” excuse.

…My dear, I feel rather like a snake that has forgotten to shed its skins for the past few years & now begins the healthy business. I didn’t expect my self-assertion to have that effect particularly but it seems to be happening… I see now that preface & my Right to Live (in large measure), & those little topical verses, very much as signs of irritation the snake has with skins which did not fit it. Bitterness comes through low living & I see now that mine was all the more acute because I thought the low living inevitable…

Plowman eventually moves past this high-minded metaphorical mode and writes of reading about bellicose speeches given by leading politicians in both Germany and Britain.

And then it slowly dawned on me that it wasn’t my duty to stand between men with consciences of tanned hide & try & filter the stream of lies & hypocrisy they poured at one another…

In any actual fighting for peace I feel I should now be useless… I’ve got to start more or less where I left off 3 years & more ago & work like a galley slave to catch up.

He has come to see his service as an infantry officer–as A Subaltern on the Somme, in fact–as an unbecoming interlude in the life of a politically aware pacifist. But, of course, he is still an army officer, under arrest and awaiting trial–at least in the loose and philosophical sense of the word, if not necessarily the juridical.

…What shall I tell you about my affairs? …I live in a top room of a large house… & there I have my meals brought me as I don’t want to inflict my necessarily chilling company on the “Mess”, & all day long (subject to conditions) I do just what I damned well please. And this will last I think until next Friday when I go for my ordinary Board. I expect to be put under arrest any day after that… the charge will be “Refusing to obey an order.”

What is to be done? And who might be able to help?

Oh you know I wrote to X——-? He did not reply but evidently sent my letter on to Dr ________, F.R.S. (The Camb. psychological Professor) we were both under at Edinburgh.

We know who this is. I can’t be certain, actually, that X is Sassoon, but it certainly sounds like him. In any case, Sassoon and Plowman shared a doctor who was a Cambridge professor and an FRS–W.H.R. Rivers. Thus it must be Rivers who, as we will read below, is willing to help with Plowman’s “case.” But in what way, exactly? Is this another offer to “cure” a patient by thinking him through the ramifications of his pacifism?

Plowman and Sassoon are both writers, both young officers troubled by all that they have seen. And Plowman was even quite literally shell shocked before being sent to Rivers to be treated. But as that distinction suggests, the differences in the manner and motivation of their pacifist protests are considerable.

______wrote the day I came here saying he was at Hampstead & would like to know if he could be of any use… which is extraordinarily decent of him, don’t you think? If I were to have any trouble with the Medical people he might be an excellent Court of Appeal. He says X—–has returned to duty & is quite happy in it, & of course as X——-merely acted on the question of British war aims he was to be satisfied. A queer half-way house, but I daresay it was useful…[1]

This logic is a bit hard to follow. What is “useful,” to Plowman? Does he want Rivers to help shunt his protest aside, and have it be deemed an after-effect of shell shock? I don’t think so. I think he may want the opposite–but does he imagine, then, that Rivers offers to help him to pacifist martyrdom by asserting his sanity and full recovery from shell shock?

Well, at the very least it’s clear that Plowman is not at the stage where he desires any sort of half-measure. He won’t fight any more, and his objection is not on the score of war aims, a minor detail in the monstrosity of war without end…

 

Speaking of Siegfried Sassoon, as I think we probably have been, it’s quite true that he is back on duty and “quite happy:”

January 26

Motored with two Irishmen to a place eighteen miles from Cork—Roore’s Bridge—to meet of the Muskerry Hounds. A grey, windy day, southwest wind. Rode a chestnut of J. Rohan’s—good performer. A poor day’s hunting, but very enjoyable. Fine country—along the River Lee–a wide, rain-swollen stream, flowing down long glens and reaches. The whole landscape grey-green and sad and lonely. Ireland is indeed a haunted, ancient sort of land. It goes deep into one’s heart.[2]

 

Finally, today, another writer both slightly connected to all of the turmoil of literary London–he has long been in touch with, and occasionally helped by, Eddie Marsh–and very far away from it. Isaac Rosenberg writes to remind his old patron that he still lives, however miserably, and that he still reads, and writes. After a long bout of illness, Rosenberg is back in the trenches, and it is not going well.

My dear Marsh,

I have been in topsy turveydom since I last saw you and have not been able to write. Even now it is in the extremest difficulties that Im writing this. I wanted to talk about the Georgian Book which I had sent over to me but have not had time to more than glance through. I liked J. C. Squire poem about the ‘House’ enormously and all his other poems. Turners are very beautiful and Sassoon has power. Masefield seemed rather commonplace, but please don’t take my judgment at anything because I have hardly looked at them. I am back in the trenches which are terrible now. We spend most of our time pulling each other out of the mud. I am not fit at all now and am more in the way than any use. You see I appear in excellent health and a doctor will make no distinction between health and strength. I am not strong…

Yours sincerely

I Rosenberg[3]

Rosenberg does not ask, but it is unlikely that there are any strings near enough to Marsh’s hand (through Winston Churchill’s) to pull him all the way out of the trenches…

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Bridge into the Future, 93-4.
  2. Diaries, 206.
  3. Collected Works, 320-1.

Wilfred Owen Reports to Mother; Kipling’s Soldier Breaks Down

We take a deep breath today after the excitement of seeing one of our poets married off–and two of our writers hit if off. (What could go wrong?)

We heard something of Wilfred Owen‘s impressions of the wedding, yesterday, but I might as well give the rest of the letter–a prompt after-action report to his mother–that he wrote upon returning to duty, today, a century back.

Thursday, 24 January 1918 Scarborough

Just five minutes and half a sheet of paper left to tell you what a good, full, & profitable 24 hours I had in London.

Lunched with Ross. Wells was there, but at another table, whence he waved to me from afar. Had a few words after lunch, but we were in a hurry to drive off. The wedding was nothing extraordinary…

Dined at the Reform again with Roderick Meiklejohn of the Liquor Control Board. (Lord Rhondda was the nearest person to me at lunch!) Then repaired to Half Moon St. with Meiklejohn, & passed the evening with Ross and two Critics. At 2 a.m. found my way to Imperial Hotel, and started up this morning by the 10 a.m. from King’s Cross.

Feel much refreshed. Dearest love. W.E.O.[1]

The presence of Charles Scott Moncrieff in this letter is, perhaps not surprisingly, heavily veiled: he is merely one of “two critics!”

 

And in the fictional future-past of today, a century back, Strangwick, the traumatized soldier at the heart of A Madonna of the Trenches, breaks down, unable to bear the weight of confusion and guilt about the death of his “uncle” three days earlier.

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Collected Letters, 528.

Angelic Voices and Parade Ground Shouts: Young Lovers at the Graves-Nicholson Wedding

Robert Graves and his best man, George Mallory,[1] left Wimbledon early for the church in Piccadilly. The rest of the family followed, as his father, A.P. Graves, recorded in his diary:

Mr. Sassoon’s invitation (declined) to the festivities. Berg Collection, NYPL

Amy [his wife, Robert’s mother] in her wedding war paint, a fine green velvet with gold trimmings and a suitable hat … then the rest of us … we taxied, 5 inside, to Apple Tree Yard and thence walked to Church. I had a new suit (grey morning) admired of all but Amy and neat bowler and gloves, and a trimmed head and beard. We were almost the first arrivals, but the Church filled up…

Robby looked fine and said his responses firmly and clearly, as did Nancy. She was in a beautiful blue check dress with veil and had a wonderful bouquet arranged by her good father. The choir boys sang beautifully and the Parson was in earnest.[2]

Well, that’s that–a fine wedding, and no dissenting opinions!

Except, of course, for Robert’s own description of the event. This comes afterward, and is marked by the same combination of comic precision, irresistibly truth-y tone, and general untrustworthiness shared by most of his writing:

Nancy and I were married in January 1918 at St. James’s Church, Piccadilly, she being just eighteen, and I twenty-two. George Mallory acted as the best man. Nancy had read the marriage-service for the first time that morning, and been so disgusted that she all but refused to go through with the wedding, though I had arranged for the ceremony to be modified and reduced to the shortest possible form. Another caricature scene to look back on: myself striding up the red carpet, wearing field-boots, spurs and sword; Nancy meeting me in a blue-check silk wedding-dress, utterly furious; packed benches on either side of the church, full of relatives; aunts using handkerchiefs; the choir boys out of tune; Nancy savagely muttering the responses, myself shouting them in a parade-ground voice.[3]

See, funnier! And there being no digital record of the relative (ha!) volume of Graves’s voice or the choir’s tunefulness, these semi-objective facts are lost in the mire of history.

And isn’t that just fine? Of course the parents of the somewhat wild, troublesome boy–not so long ago reported dead–are pleased to see him wed a girl from a good family, and find euphony everywhere; and of course the young man suddenly uncertain of how exactly he and his very young, fiercely independent/feminist bride will actually manage (not least this coming evening) remembers discord, shouting, and muttering…

There were many other witnesses: school friends from Charterhouse, family friends from both sides, Robbie Ross and Eddie Marsh, a smattering of less closely-connected celebrities, including Max Beerbohm and the great architect Edwin as Lutyens. But let’s stick to our trusted–or familiar, at least–sources…

 

Wilfred Owen was there as well, feeling perhaps a little nervous to be at a London wedding of two scions of much-higher-up-the-middle-class artistic families. In his report to his mother he will channel, it seems, the spirit of Mrs. Elton (see the very end of Emma):

The wedding was nothing extraordinary. Not a great crowd of people, but a very mixed one. Some were dressed in the dowdiest unfashion. Possibly these were celebrities in their way? George Belcher was the greatest surprise: togged up in 1870 costume, a very striking figure.

Graves was pretty worked up, but calm. The Bride, 18 year’s old, was pretty, but nowise handsome.

Oh, but he was pleased about one thing, as another letter to his cousin Leslie (the earnest but untalented poet) confides:

Heinemann was there; and Edward Marsh, the Georgian Anthologist tho’ I did not know him as such till afterwards. I was introduced as ‘Mr. Owen, Poet’ or even ‘Owen, the poet’.[4]

 

Also in attendance was Charles Scott Moncrieff, a valued friend of Graves’s since his positive review of Over the Brazier and his help in getting Fairies and Fusiliers published. But Moncrieff was not particularly thrilled to be there–he had also reviewed, and far less favorably, several of Graves’s friends, including Nichols, who was there, and Sassoon, whom he might have expected to be, but, of course, wasn’t. Moncrieff, too, was still on crutches and in a leg brace–his wounded leg will never heal completely and was still giving him severe pain.

Nor had Moncrieff’s morning been free from emotional stress and personal risk. Still a serving officer recently appointed to a desk job at the War Office, and he was habitually indiscreet about his sexual preferences–which sounds like a species of criticism but is in this case evidence of considerable moral courage: Moncrieff had gone to court this morning, a century back, to try to secure the release of a friend who had been arrested for “gross indecency with a male person.” He had failed, and seen his friend was sentenced to a year in Wormwood Scrubs.

Given the anti-gay witch hunt then being stirred up by the thoroughly revolting (and somehow familiar) Noel Pemberton-Billing, a right-wing M.P, whose personal rag The Imperialist has been lately thriving on a heady mix of hate-mongering and conspiracy theories, Moncrieff was either loyal but rash or loyal and carefully calculating, i.e. that his MC and his wound would give him some protection from gay-bashing rabble-rousers. Which it might–for a little while.

So today, a century back, Moncrieff was out of sorts for many good reasons.

I was too sore… in mind and body, to regard very closely the quiet little person who stood beside me in a room from which I longed to escape…

This quiet little person was Wilfred Owen. They will meet again, this evening, at dinner and then at Robbie Ross’s flat in Half Moon Street, where a lively literary discussion lasted into the wee hours. Ross, with his old fame as Oscar Wilde’s most loyal friend, is about to become the prime target of the Pemberton-Billing attack.

Owen was probably relatively unaware of the quasi-political threat facing London’s prominent semi-closeted gay intelligentsia, but it seems unlikely that there would have been no mention of the noxious cloud creeping toward Ross. Nevertheless, today, from his lunch with Ross and their arrival at the wedding together to the late night gathering, marked a sort of double arrival for Owen: he was now at the center of London gay social life, and he had arrived as a poet.

There is a marked tendency among biographers to speculate as to what was talked about all evening[5]–Owen’s poetry? the new sound effects of Owen’s Miners? French translation? Ross’s foolish decision to allow an upcoming performance of Wilde’s Salome?–but I don’t think we actually know. Still, it will soon be clear that Owen and Moncrieff did more than cross paths. They parted as “intimate” friends–an ambiguous adjective which may or may not have already (i.e. tonight, a century back) have carried a wink and a nudge.

There’s another tendency among later writers to go for a nice irony or parallelism today: Graves had flirted with homosexuality for a long time but was now, with all of his gay friends in attendance, committing to heterosexuality–meanwhile, two of his gay friends meet, and sparks are struck…  The problem is that Graves, despite his own scandal-and-sales-courting later emphasis on his schoolboy love, was never really sexually interested in men. He was passionate, prudish, and living in all-male social environments, so he fell in love with a boy and was passionate about his friendships with other young men. But when he met the strong-willed, artistic, unconventional Nancy Nicholson, he fell in love with her, and the speed of their marriage suggests not just old ways or wartime accelerations but also, probably, an interest in attaining to physical intimacy right quick.[6] Nor does Owen’s sexuality seem to have required an evening at Robbie Ross’s for confirmation: in all likelihood he has been aware of, and relatively at peace with, his own sexuality for some time. But it is hard to tell, as such topics never come up in the family letters.[7]

Nevertheless, Owen’s friendship with Moncrieff will blossom–soon, if not tonight–into something more, probably for Owen and certainly for Moncrieff. Moncrieff will accompany Owen back to his hotel around 2:00 a.m. tomorrow, a century back, and also put him in touch with an old friend living in Scarborough. Strangely, perhaps, since Owen was less sophisticated, less experienced, and four years younger, it is Moncrieff, the decorated, wounded, handsome critic who is most smitten with the quiet little poet…[8]

 

But let’s not forget about the rest of the heteronormative festivities, as recounted in the Groom’s suspiciously candid later reminiscences:

Then the reception. At this stage of the war, sugar could not be got except in the form of rations. There was a three-tiered wedding-cake and the Nicholsons had been saving up their sugar and butter cards for a month to make it taste like a real one; but when George Mallory lifted off the plaster-case of imitation icing, a sigh of disappointment rose from the guests. However, champagne was another scarce commodity, and the guests made a rush for the dozen bottles on the table. Nancy said: ‘Well, I’m going to get something out of this wedding, at any rate,’ and grabbed a bottle. After three or four glasses, she went off and changed back into her land-girl’s costume of breeches and smock. My mother, who had been thoroughly enjoying the proceedings, caught hold of her neighbour, E. V. Lucas, the essayist, and exclaimed: ‘Oh, dear, I wish she had not done that!’ The embarrassments of our wedding-night (Nancy and I being both virgins) were somewhat eased by an air-raid: Zeppelin bombs dropping not far off set the hotel in an uproar.[9]

Funny, my other London sources do not mention an air raid that night…

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Yes, that George Mallory, once Graves's teacher at Charterhouse--they had since climbed together in Wales.
  2. R.P. Graves, Robert Graves, The Assault Heroic, 191-2.
  3. Good-Bye to All That, 272.
  4. Collected Letters, 528-9.
  5. Yes, I realized belatedly, that I had just done so.
  6. This will be, for Graves, the beginning of a checkered but fervent career of extolling/pursuing the feminine, uxoriously, literalily, and otherwise...
  7. Except, perhaps, in some of the editorial elisions later performed by his brother.
  8. Findlay, Chasing Lost Time, 140-3.
  9. Good-Bye to All That, 272-3.

Siegfried Sassoon in Ireland, and not London, Bound for Egypt, not France

It’s Robert Graves‘s wedding’s eve, and all through Britain a few poetical types are bestirring themselves and brushing down their formal wear–unless they’re not.

 

Wilfred Owen has secured leave, and is coming to the wedding. But he has had to placate his mother, so instead of a leisurely journey to London and a night at a hotel, he will take a very indirect journey from Scarborough to London, spending the night in Shrewsbury and then hurrying up on an early morning train.[1]

 

Siegfried Sassoon prefers not to. He will draw heavily on a recent diary entry when he comes to write George Sherston’s experiences of this period, then reclaim “Sherston’s” experiences as his own when he circles back for the second biography in his own name. (The veil grows ever thinner, unless it’s that the thin layer of air trapped between the author’s skin and the woolly garment of fiction grows ever clammier…)

In any event, Sherston-Sassoon-Sherston is happy, and still tacitly (in his published writings) indifferent to Graves’s wedding. It might have been hard, true, to get leave from Ireland–but it doesn’t seem that he tried.

By the time I had been at Limerick a week I new that I had found something closely resembling peace of mind…

Toward the end of my second week the frost and snow changed to soft and rainy weather.

And we know what that means. But Sassoon seems to have had only one “exhilarating” and truly carefree hunt in heavy Irish country before reality began to reassert itself:

At the end of the third week in January my future as an Irish hunting man was conclusively foreshortened. My name came through on a list of officers ordered to Egypt. After thinking it over, I decided, with characteristic imbecility, that I would much rather go to France. I had got it fixed in my mind that I was going to France…

So instead of angling to go to Graves’s wedding, Sassoon is angling to get to France, where heavy fighting is soon to be expected, rather than the presumably less intense fighting in Palestine or Mesopotamia. But his telegram to the 2nd Battalion asking to be posted out there will have no effect. (Sassoon mentions that the C.O. broke his leg around this time, which accords with Dunn’s note that Major Kearsely, who was perhaps temporary C.O. during another officer’s leave, slipped while on horseback and “sprained or fractured” his knee on January 19th. This is useful irony: a brave officer (“himself a fine horseman”) goes down on icy pavé in shell-ravaged Ypres while Sassoon recklessly leaps Irish walls and ditches on a hired hunter.[2]

 

And at Red Branch House, Wimbledon, the Graves family and friends foregathered, admiring presents–perhaps including the eleven apostle spoons sent by Wilfred Owen (the 12th, he explained, had been shot for cowardice)–and planning the details of the next day’s affair. Three of Robert’s four siblings were there (Rosaleen, a relatively recently-enrolled V.A.D. nurse, could not get leave) as was his best man–his former schoolmaster, friend, and climbing partner George Mallory, who was now an officer in the heavy artillery.[3]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Hibberd, Wilfred Owen 297.
  2. Dunn, The War the Infantry Knew, 433. Sassoon, Complete Memoirs, 564-6.
  3. R.P. Graves, Robert Graves, The Assault Heroic, 191.

Wilfred Owen, Shunted to Shrewsbury; John Ronald Tolkien at Twenty Per Cent; Siegfried Sassoon has a Dream

Wilfred Owen, “Major Domo” though he is, has been called on the carpet regarding his rather self-indulgent request concerning leave… and not by a military superior, mind you, nor about whether he will take leave, but rather whither.

19 January 1918, Scarborough

My dear darling Mother,

That was a naughty tentative letter of mine. I meant to call at Home on the way. If I can get away on Tuesday Morning, I shall arrive Shrewsbury a few minutes to 5 p.m. There surely will be an early morning train to London, arriving noon or one p.m.

The wedding is at 2.30.

So that’s going to be kind of a hectic morning…

But Owen has cause to be in a very good mood, despite his mishandling of maternal preferences. He not only began a poem shortly after hearing the news of the Podmore Hill disaster but finished shortly after that, set it directly to The Nation, and had it accepted, all in a week. Never has Owen had such swift success.

With your beautiful letter came a proof from the Nation of my ‘Miners’. This is the first poem I have sent to the Nation myself, and it has evidently been accepted. It was scrawled out on the back of a note to the Editor; and no penny stamp or addressed envelope was enclosed for return! That’s the way to do it.

‘Miners’ will probably appear next Saturday, but don’t order a copy…

Of course the Leave is not absolutely certain. It is a kind of duty both to myself and Graves to go to the Wedding. You know how hard it will be to start away on Wednesday Morning.

Always your W.E.O.[1]

 

Also today, a century back, John Ronald Tolkien went before yet another Medical Board. He has still been running a temperature and having regular relapses of other symptoms, but things are tightening up as a manpower shortage is looming: he is ruled only 20% disabled and given another month’s home service, with the possibility of more active duty afterwards.[2]

 

And finally, Siegfried Sassoon. He has been happy, and busy, and, therefore, not writing a whole lot. Until today, a century back:

January 19

And another week has fled. Frost and snow till Wednesday. Now it’s warm and rainy. I walked out to Adare this afternoon. At the end of the journey I suddenly came upon the wide, shallow, washing, hastening, grey river; the ivy-clad stones of a castle-ruin planted on the banks, amid trees. Very romantic scene, on a grey evening… Strange peace of mind now. The last two weeks have been a complete rest for mind, while body stood about for hours on parade, watching the boys drill and do P.T. or lecturing lance-corporals in barrack-room…

Robert Graves is married on Tuesday. Sent me his new poem “The God Poetry” yesterday. Very fine. Hunt Monday, and go to Cork for Anti-Gas Instruction till the end of the week. Hunt Saturday with Jerry Rohan’s hounds.

The quick proceeding from poetry to hunting–the indoor Sassoon overwritten by the outdoor Sassoon–is more dismissive of Graves, I think, than a harsh comment on the poem (which he evidently did send) would have been.

Reading Colvin’s Keats, Hardy’s new poems, and dipping into Barbusse now and then (all this apart from my military text-books which I study again!!)

This is quite a literary diet, and indoor Sassoon is more energetic than the peaceful/mindless tone of the diary entry would suggest. Keats for the lyric soul, Hardy for the hard-nosed satirist, and Barbusse (in French) for the new possibilities of war-writing.

Which he duly produces, writing a poem into the journal directly after closing today’s entry with  this two-sentence, half-cryptic, half-revealing cri de coeur. Outdoor Sassoon is happy huntin’ and drillin’ far from mental strife; indoor Sassoon is reading and writing and doing reasonably well–but he is homesick for the place of his mental and emotional rebirth…

How many miles to Craiglockhart? Hell seems nearer.[3]

 

The Dream

I

Moonlight and dew-drenched blossom, and the scent
Of summer gardens; these can bring you all
Those dreams that in the starlit silence fall:
Sweet songs are full of odours.
While I went
Last night in drizzling dusk along a lane,
I passed a squalid farm; from byre and midden
Came the rank smell that brought me once again
A dream of war that in the past was hidden.

II

Up a disconsolate straggling village street
I saw the tired troops trudge: I heard their feet.
The cheery Q.M.S. was there to meet
And guide our Company in…
I watched them stumble
Into some crazy hovel, too beat to grumble;
Saw them file inward, slipping from their backs
Rifles, equipment, packs.
On filthy straw they sit in the gloom, each face
Bowed to patched, sodden boots they must unlace,
While the wind chills their sweat through chinks and cracks.

III

I’m looking at their blistered feet; young Jones
Stares up at me, mud-splashed and white and jaded;
Out of his eyes the morning light has faded.
Old soldiers with three winters in their bones
Puff their damp Woodbines, whistle, stretch their toes:
They can still grin at me, for each of ’em knows
That I’m as tired as they are…
Can they guess
The secret burden that is always mine?—
Pride in their courage; pity for their distress;
And burning bitterness
That I must take them to the accursèd Line.

IV

I cannot hear their voices, but I see
Dim candles in the barn: they gulp their tea,
And soon they’ll sleep like logs. Ten miles away
The battle winks and thuds in blundering strife.
And I must lead them nearer, day by day,
To the foul beast of war that bludgeons life.

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Collected Letters, 527-8.
  2. Chronology, 104.
  3. Diaries, 203-4; poem version from Counter-Attack and Other Poems.