(What could be more mulish than beginning a long, multi-hued, and unusually eventful post with a very bad poem? Skip a little!)
I have some (fairly obvious) prejudices to confess. There is a tendency here to read prose–however overtly fictional–for its “historical” value, while at the same time approaching each poem first from an aesthetic point of view and then perhaps working in toward its deeper meanings. This is, in part, because poetry rarely any longer describes specific combat events. The days of the “Light Brigade”–still less of a hundred Greek hexameters of precisely described spear penetrations–are over. Good poetry may help elucidate experience, but there’s little point in reading bad poetry that can’t really be brought to bear on historical specifics. Yet there are still old-fashioned versifiers producing poems immediate and specific enough to speak to a particular event of interest. Can the struggle to render a horrifying defeat in clunky heroic stanzas give insight into the actual experience?
So, yes, there was another aspiring poet in the Rifle Brigade during yesterday’s desperate fighting around Hooge. Colin Mitchell, of the 8th Battalion, hacked out these verses in the aftermath:
Hooge! More damned than Sodom and more bloody,
‘Twas there we faced the flames of liquid fire.
Hooge! That shambles where the flames swept ruddy:
A spume of heat and hate and omens dire;
A vision of a concrete hell from whence
Emerged satanic forms, or so it seemed
To us who, helpless, saw them hasten hence.
Scarce understood we if we waked or dreamed.
“Stand To! Stand To! The Wurtembergers come!”
Shouting vile English oaths with gutter zest.
And boastful threats to kill they voice, while some,
In uniforms of grey and scarlet dressed,
Wear flame-projectors strapped upon their backs.
How face a wall of flame? Impossible!
“Back, boys! Give way a little; take the tracks
That lead to yonder wood, and there we’ll fill
Such trenches as are dug, and face the foe,
And no Hell-fire shall move us once we’re there.
We’re out to win or die, boys; if we go
Back and yet back, leaving good strongholds bare,
We’ll save our lives, perhaps, but not our name.
There’s no one in this well-trained company
Who’d save his skin and perjure his good fame.
I won’t transcribe the whole thing, but it does continue, and Mitchell should be credited with including not just the stirring words of the brave defenders but also descriptions of the damage done by the German weaponry:
…The scarlet splash
Shows everywhere, and everywhere the maimed
Are crawling, white-lipped, to a dug-out where
The doctor in a drip of sweat seems framed,
So hard he works to hide the horrid stare
Of wounds adrip; while many pass away,
And need no lint to bind their frailty,
For God has ta’en them; ’tis their triumph day
And all their sins shall expiated be…
A rather desperate turn, there, in defeat, toward theological consolations.
From the trenches of traditional poetry to the rarest airs of militarized Modernism. Ford Madox Hueffer delivered a review of Blast II today, in the form of an all-guns-blazing counter-attack against the initial critical onslaught. Many of his judgments can only provoke a little grin from we-who-are-burdened-with-the-dramatic-irony-of-the-future–yes, Fordy, indeed: others will find this odd new American T.S. Eliot to be of interest.
Much of the rest of the review is actually less about high art or Modernism or the rendering of brash artistic theory into printed practice than it is about our basic question: how is the war to affect writing? Ford finds the self-declared Vorticists to be somewhat compromised, but admirably, partially, appropriately. He approves of the fact that their work–Wyndham Lewis and all the rest of his flock–has been inflected by the mood of the war, but not changed beyond recognition. They are themselves–modernist tricksters and tub-thumpers, yet, due to the horrors and disasters and disappointments of the war, less “jaunty” about their “larks.”
Ford, as was always his wont, turns toward himself at the end of the piece. But he does so by way of a quotation from Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, foremost of the modern artists who have died on the battlefield:
I have made an experiment. Two days ago I pinched from an enemy a Mauser rifle. Its heavy, unwieldy shape swamped me with a powerful image of brutality. I was in doubt for a longtime whether it pleased or not it pleased me. I found that I did not like it. I broke the butt off; with my knife I carved on it a design, through which I tried to express a gentler order of feeling, which I preferred. But I will emphasize that my design got its effect, just as the gun had, from a very simple composition of lines and effects.
I find that a very touching and wise passage of prose. And I will ask the reader to observe that it contains the thoughts of an artist who had a mystical and beautiful mind and who had been long under fire. Is it not interesting and valuable to observe what such a mind selects? If Blast had presented us with nothing else it would have been justified of its existence.
And I find this a very revealing and precise passage of prose. Ordinarily I would have to follow this up with some coy suggestions about how we must wonder whether Ford will put his money where his mouth is, whether he will risk his flesh for the greater power of his pen. But we’ve got a very handy letter to that effect, to the poet Lucy Masterman:
Campden Hill Road
My dear Lucy,
You may like to know that I went round to the W[ar] O[ffice] after seeing you and got thrown into a commission in under a minute—the quickest process I have ever known…
I can assure you, for what it is worth, that it is as if the peace of God had descended on me—that sounds absurd—but there it is! Man is a curious animal…
Relief, and a sense of peace–as with Edward Thomas. But Ford has a commission, and more writing to do.
And, at last, high in the hills of the Franche-Comté, our two Legionnaires cross paths:
Walked up to Plancher-les-Mines with Victor Chapman; there met Farnsworth, who is in the 1er Étranger, and we all had dinner together. A dozen sous-officiers–old légionnaires–were in the room, drinking and making good cheer. These were men who had been at Arras, and the camaraderie of soldiers whose bond is that of great exploits achieved in common was of a sort which does not exist among us, and which I envied…
Alas, but that is all. There is no report from either Farnsworth or Seeger, today, on what they thought of their fellow Harvard man and aspiring writer. Seeger, instead, launches into a major philosophical statement-of-purpose:
Perhaps historic fatality has decreed that Germany shall come out of this struggle triumphant and that the German people shall dominate in the twentieth century as French, English, Spanish, and Italian have in preceding centuries. To me the matter of supreme importance is not to be on the winning side, but on the side where my sympathies lie.
Feeling no greater dignity possible for a man than that of one who makes himself the instrument of Destiny in these tremendous moments, I naturally ranged myself on the side to which I owed the greatest obligation. But let it always be understood that I never took arms out of any hatred against Germany or the Germans, but purely out of love for France. The German contribution to civilization is too large, and German ideals too generally in accord with my own, to allow me to join in the chorus of hate against a people whom I frankly admire.
It was only that the France, and especially the Paris, that I love should not cease to be the glory and the beauty that they are that I engaged. For that cause I am willing to stick to the end. But I am ready to accept the verdict of History in this case as I do, and everyone does, in the old cases between Athens and Sparta, or between Greece and Rome. Might is right and you cannot get away from it however the ephemeridae buzz. “Victrix causa diis placuit, sed victa Catoni.” It may have to be the epitaph on my tomb. I can see it on some green slope of the Vosges, looking toward the East.
What exactly were they drinking? This is a serious dose of fatalism, at a time when there is no very particular reason to despair. It seems very American–or, perhaps, German–to write of capital-D Destiny in such Historical terms and to choose to align oneself with some sort of beautifully-conceived disaster.
The quote, from Lucan’s Pharsalia, the maddest and most horrifying of the Latin epics, is well chosen: “the winning side pleased the gods, but the defeated pleased Cato.” This casts Germany as Caesar, the nascent emperor about to destroy the remnants of the old (very oligarchic) republic.
But there is a nearer parallel, a lost cause that has placed a prior claim on the reference: the quotation was a popular choice for Confederate memorials. An ugly association, although perhaps one unknown to Seeger.
Nevertheless, it is unusual to see such a willingness to relinquish the gods and truth and right and history. Seeger, perhaps, is prone to the dramatic gesture–recall his jealousy of Rupert Brooke–and indulging in a stock poetic fantasy of a beautiful and tragic and sacrificial death. But still: Germany’s aggression and responsibility for starting the war were broadly accepted (and have become so once again, mutatis mutandis), and, ever since the great advances of the first few months, the war in the West had been a stalemate. Why relinquish the gods to accept the role of Cato? Isn’t there a war to win?
I am within a hair of being precisely as sorry and as glad as you are.
You are doing it for the self-same reason I shall hope to do it for if my time comes and I am brave enough, namely, because there seems nothing else for a man to do.
You have let me follow your thought in almost every twist and turn toward this conclusion. I know pretty well how far down you have gone and how far off sideways. And I think the better of you for it all. Only the bravest could come to the sacrifice in this way…
I have never seen anything more exquisite than the pain you have made of it. You are a terror and I admire you. For what has a man locomotion if it isnt to take him into things he is between barely and not quite understanding…
Your last poem Aspens seem the loveliest of all. You must have a volume of poetry ready for when you come marching home.
I wonder if they are going to let you write to me as often as ever.