A Gathering at Mrs. Colefax’s: Nichols, the Sitwells, Graves, Sassoon, and Sorley; Eliot and Huxley too; and Cynthia Asquith is Very Glad She Went

At precisely 5 o’clock in the afternoon of today, a century back, a reading–to benefit charity, as well as, naturally, the stature of the participants–began in Mrs. Colefax’s drawing room, in Argyll House, King’s Road, Chelsea. The eminent Edmund Gosse presided, insisted on speed, and then immediately launched into a rambling introduction memorable only for the fact that he broke off to scold a late arrival–T.S. Eliot, coming straight from work. Gosse then read a poem or two by the absent Robert Graves, and, after ceding the limelight, kept the attention of the crowd by “snapping” at the other poets throughout the night.[1]

Next came Robert Nichols, opening with a poem of Gosse’s (yes, that sort of thing flattered Gosse) and following with several of his own. Nichols was either a compellingly dramatic reader and performer, or he made an ass of himself by screaming and capering. It depends on whose account you favor–Sassoon’s opinion of his friend seems to state the former sort of opinion, but the language rather implies the latter. Nichols also read two poems by Charles Sorley, who has now been dead for twenty-six months. These didn’t, alas, make much of an impression–When You See Millions of the Mouthless Dead was evidently not on the bill.

Other performers included all three Sitwells–Osbert (still an unwounded and inexplicably free-and-easy-in-London subaltern of the Guards), Edith, and Sacheverell–as well as the actress Viola Tree, Irene Rutherford Mcleod, and Aldous Huxley. Irene Macleod impressed several of the onlookers, if more with her performance–“fierce, rapt”–than her work. It’s not clear what she read, but her next volume of poems will be dedicated to Aubrey de Sélincourt, classicist and fighter pilot, now languishing in a German P.O.W. camp.[2] Huxley had been rejected for military service because of his eyesight, spent some time at a desk job in the Air Ministry, and was now a young teacher at Eton and tending toward pacifism. He was probably thrilled to be there, but he did not take kindly to Gosse, whom he described as “the bloodiest little old man I have ever seen.” And while we’re at it we’d better get Huxley’s other much-quoted mot out of the way: it’s a description of Nichols, who, Huxley wrote, “raved and screamed and hooted and moaned… like a Lyceum Villain who hasn’t learnt how to act.” Which sounds like a hatchet job–or just a broad-for-effect version of Sassoon’s opinion. Nichols, however, had been previously put down by Vita Sackville West, and with much deadlier efficiency.

As for the Sitwells, only Sacheverell’s poetry impressed, but Edith’s work with the Wheels anthologies had forged an all-important link between “society” and Modernism. This, “the first recorded sighting of the three Sitwells operating publicly as a team,” was something of a coming out party for the artistically ambitious siblings.[3]

Among the literary lights in the audience was Arnold Bennett, who enjoyed the occasion and found Eliot’s choice of light verse–The Hippopotamus (which is indeed charming and light, for a half-realized and possibly self-deceiving satire on the Church of England)–to be the “best thing” about the evening. And of course it would be, as well, in any account that looked back on the day in the fullness of time and literary-consensual retrospect. T.S. Eliot! Months after “Prufrock!” Reading a satire as second-fiddle to a syphilitic third-rater and some absent “Georgian” war poets! Come on!

But Eliot wasn’t Eliot yet–he was an American of indeterminate talent whom no one, really, had read. His strange ascent had barely begun, while Robert Nichols was selling a ton and had surely achieved peak Robert Nichols. It was his show: he would have seemed the one to bet on. Not schoolboyish Huxley, who would soon give up poetry, and probably not the three slightly freakish Sitwells, at once too outré and suspiciously like aristocratic enthusiasts rather than major talents. And certainly not the amusing American banker, either: despite the English affinity for light satiric verse, it has hardly been a typical route to poetic world-conquest.

Eliot, however, enjoyed himself. After having written a purposefully obscene and nevertheless nasty letter to Ezra Pound about his invitation (“Shitwells,” etc.) he will soon manage a faintly preening letter to his mother.

I assisted in a poetry reading last week at the house of some rich person for the benefit of something. A hundred and fifty people were induced to pay 10/6 each, so it was rather a rich audience… It was rather amusing, as the audience and most of the poets were very solemn, and I read some light satirical stuff, and some of them didn’t know what to make of it…[4]


Which brings us to another attendee, whose judgment in most things I’ve recently come to trust. Cynthia Asquith gives us the most balanced–and most thorough–review of the evening:

Wednesday, 12th December

…Went with Mamma to the Poets’ Reading at Mrs Colefax’s. Somehow it was ever so much better than Elizabeth’s Parnassuses—smaller, more intime, and above all shorter. All the poets were young and most of them had fought in the war. It was very moving. I liked Nichols enormously, with his bright, intensely alive, rather stoat-like face. He read again in the same intensely passionate dramatic way: I like it, but a great many people don’t. As well as his own, he read two—as I thought—very beautiful poems by Sorley who was killed at twenty years of age. Gosse was in the chair and acquitted himself quite well. Three Sitwells, all looking very German—Osbert, Sacheverell, and Edith—all read from their works. The author of ‘Prufrock’ read quite a funny poem comparing the Church to a hippopotamus. There was a young man called Huxley, and a very remarkable, fierce, rapt girl called McLeod who read her own clever poems beautifully. Siegfried Sassoon didn’t appear, but his poems were read by this girl. Mamma was very much moved by the war poems. I was very, very glad I went. Dined with Freyberg at the  Trocadero again and we went on to play poker at Ruby’s—I won £3 2s. Freyberg took me home and found his way into the hall with me.[5]

All very interesting, not least in the sincerity of emotion in Asquith’s reaction to the reading. Jaded as I am by the years on this project, it’s hard not to see a society charity reading as something of a hollow performance (especially when, as we know, but Asquith didn’t, that the young poets present had seen very little of the worst of the war, compared to those who were absent). But Cynthia Asquith, who actually went to this and many other charity-literary events, know of what she writes, and was moved.

So much for the famous evening at Mrs. Colefax’s. And afterwards? It doesn’t seem, judging from Asquith’s diary, that Freyberg attended the reading, although at least one later writer assumes that he did.  It would have been interesting, certainly, to have him and his V.C. lording it over the doubly-absent M.C. of Sassoon. Regardless, Freyberg’s pursuit of the hesitating Asquith will shortly encounter Sassoon as something of an intellectual obstacle. If Freyberg wasn’t there, then Asquith surely discussed the reading with him at dinner, and Freyberg knows the poetry well enough to have at least have an opinion (which is not to say, of course, that he knows it well). Remarkably, even as flirtation (and/or unwanted advances) continues between the two, their disagreement on the whys and wherefores of Sassoon’s position will soon come between them, and his anti-war war-hero literary cachet will turn Sassoon into a shadow rival to Freyberg and his  muscular/dashing appeal.


References and Footnotes

  1. It should be noted here at the outset that this gathering is crying out to be the focal point of a trendy (if minor-key) potted literary history... but as far as I know its only wholly-owned chapter, even, is the one in Ricketts's book. The problem is that for all the writers, celebrities, and diarists present, no one wrote a very full account, or recorded much about what was actually read. No program survives, and so the evening remains only half-imaginable.
  2. Mcleod and de Sélincourt will marry after the war; her poetry seems to stop as his career (Herodotus, Livy, etc.) takes off; they will have two daughters, and become, naturally, the in-laws of Christopher Robin.
  3. Ziegler, Osbert Sitwell, 78.
  4. The Letters of T.S. Eliot, 241.
  5. Diary, 379-80.

Hugh Quigley Signs Off; Wilfred Owen has a Chat with H.G. Wells; Thomas Hardy Despairs of Progress

Well, Hugh Quigley has burned bright and brief, here. I have to confess that, due to oversights and backlogs and such-like failures of the will, I had never read the book until it was almost too late–namely this August, well after he began writing, a century back.[1] So I could have made a bit more of Quigley, here, and gotten to know him through (in two senses) his writing. But perhaps not too much, or too well: his verbosity, his combination of Romantic idealism, frequent illusion, and chronologically torturous meditations on actual events was not a great fit for this project–they are more like sermons than letters. But it is a fascinating book, and I wish I knew more about him. In any case, it’s over. Today, a century back, Quigley wrote his valedictory from a hospital in Scotland (the location for literary war letters in 1917).

It’s hard to even summarize the many pages of philosophical musing, rhetorical posturing, and (yes, another trio of adjective-noun pairs! It’s infectious) proto-historical flag-planting that he managed to write, so we’ll make do with brief excerpts and long ellipses. It’s somewhat uncanny that he closes his reflections today, given what this date signifies to us–though it is of course the very last November 11th that will mean nothing to anyone then and there.

Glasgow, 11 November, 1917

Perhaps when the matter remains by me I might resume my ideas concerning the Passchendaele Ridge battle, not the historic, but the purely individual–something of the soul and nothing of the material. What can be the value of any thought expressed as a form of literature, even in embryo as it is in my letters, when it deals with mere ephemeral attributes, things, passing, even now past and gone to a limbo unregretted perhaps, vague monuments to perverted endeavour? I can still see those guns ranged along the Menin Road; their heads crowned with laurel leaves, which, on nearer approach, were bits of green paper strung on nets. A curious association, that of the laurel leaf: Ariosto and Tasso were crowned with it to express a love of serene, sun-flooded beauty; now we crown them to express our admiration of nature not beautiful, but strictly utilitarian…what lives?–is it the image or the gun?

True, the references to epic poets of the Italian Renaissance were not strictly necessary–although, as perhaps Quigley knows, Tasso used contemporary military knowledge when he wrote his epic, which was “based on historical events” (as we would say) and has a whole sub-plot involving siege warfare, artillery, and an enchanted wood… but never mind! Despite his elaborate style Quigley is getting to the heart of the question. Are we here for true facts recorded (i.e. the gun) or the varieties of human experience, as transmuted into literature?

But Quigley is not really interested in such pedestrian questions–he flies above the fray, so to speak, and looks down from a great height, too high for binaries such as history vs. literature or the horror of war vs. the rightness of the cause.

The sin of war is not surface; it goes to the very heart and centre of being, for the thought is ever poised of life dormant given to death–death a present thing… This reflection destroys every longing for the unattainable, for the glory, for the radiant unknown, and centres on the body itself, a grovelling physical fear rarefied and intensified to spiritual debasement.

The matter at hand, for him, is philosophical. Or spiritual, although not expressly religious. So maybe it’s literary-spiritual? In any event, the horror that Quigley found, in war, was tempered not only by the consolations of literature but redeemed, at least potentially, by the beauty that a committed Romantic might wrest from it by means of his art…

That attempt to answer intuitively the call of the beautiful in nature, even in the bleak horror of shell-holes, seemed the essence of life to me, the only thing worth seeking in the misery of this war. The call was everywhere, a fascinating thing; even within the fetid, slimy horror, of shell-holes it vibrated, for even there beauty smurred the filth with pure green and brought grass over it to hide the wound. But the final beauty of all lay in the spirit itself…

A glorification of the spirit undoubtedly, but if one neglected this spirit and faced reality, then life would have been unbearable in its bleak misery… The visionary triumphed over the warrior, and war itself became an abstraction, known only to a nightmarish imagination.

After a good deal more on philosophy, both historical and personal, as well as his Idealism and a none-too-subtle criticism of British generalship, the book comes back in its final paragraph to a less ambiguous position on the war:

War has ennobled the man to the angled, has stamped in gold the finest part of him, yet at what a price, what an agony, what a desecration of life! With that note of horror I shall close, for if every one could visualize always this horror and know its human application, war would absolutely cease, and our ruddy generals find a new occupation other than that of spreading an aureole round hell. There is only one thing real in life, and that is eternity. War remains at best a nauseous blasphemy.[2]


After such a peroration, no letter of Wilfred Owen to his mother could seem prolix or high-flown. But today’s brief note is very much down to earth, anyway–or to the earthen pavements of literary London, and the giants who walk it.

Dearest Mother,

I have just lunched with Ross, H. G. Wells, & Arnold Bennett. Wells talked exclusively to me for an hour over the coffee, & made jokes at the expense of the Editor of the Daily News, who joined us. I think I can’t honestly put more news under one penny stamp!

Your W.E.O.[3]


Speaking of literary eminence, and writers inclined to look down on human affairs from a height (ah, but this one doesn’t overwrite!) we have a letter today from Thomas Hardy, still the one elder held by our war poets in unbesmirched renown. The letter happens to be to Hamo Thornycroft, uncle of Siegfried Sassoon, and it lays bare a not entirely surprising despair, which is itself unsurprising in its effects–he is tired of London and correspondence, but he writes still, and wonders about the course of the war:

My dear Thornycroft:

Many thanks to the shade of Ovid for jogging your elbow to write—for to tell the truth we have been so benumbed by the events of the times as to have almost given up writing letters—or rather I have, for my wife still manages to keep on—unless some friend gives me a lead. However we are quite well, though London seems to get further & further off. We were there two days in the summer, & there was not time to do much, or see anybody, as you will imagine…

Do you think the raids will go on? They must cost our enemies an amount out of all proportion to the results. As to the war generally, it is not exhilarating to think that Germany is in a better position (or seems so, at the moment) than she was in three years ago, after all our struggles.

Kindest regards to all.

Yrs always sincerely

Thomas Hardy[4]


References and Footnotes

  1. It turns out that the title, Passchendaele and Somme, is inaccurate, and was probably stuck on this short collection of long, high-flown letters just to get the Two Most Disastrous Names next to each other in a bookshop window--Quigley was on the Somme before he was in the Passchendaele battle, and apparently saw no significant action there.
  2. Passchendaele and the Somme, 170-185.
  3. Collected Letters, 507.
  4. The Letters of Thomas Hardy, V, 231-2.

Jack Martin on a Just Punishment; Wilfred Owen Among the Literary Lights; Siegfried Sassoon Disabuses Lady Ottoline Morrell

Jack Martin, now waiting for reassignment to Italy, has an amusing story today, a century back, of generalship-as-moral instruction:

Had a practice stunt on the dunes repelling imaginary Austrians. I was running a Visual Station and of course we had divested ourselves of our equipment but the runners had to keep theirs on. Presently the Brigadier came along and after a few enquiries said ‘A shell has now dropped here and killed those men who are wearing their equipment. So they can get back to their billets at once…’ We leave here on Monday but I haven’t heard any details yet.[1]

Primary school teachers would greet this particular adverse stroke of artillery-fortune with approval, I think.


But the main action is not behind the lines in France today, but rather at home, in London and Edinburgh. Wilfred Owen’s letter, written tomorrow (a century back) to his mother, tells the tale best.[2] It’s a bit like one of those irritating “which living writers would you most like to eat dinner with?” questions. Except that he actually is:

Had a memorable dinner at the Reform last night, & stayed talking with Ross till one A.M. I and my work are a success. I had already sent something to the Nation which hasn’t appeared yet, but it seems the Editor[3] has started talking of me, and Wells told me he had heard of me through that Editor! H.G.W. said some rare things for my edification, & told me a lot of secrets. I only felt ill at ease with him once, and that was when he tried to make me laugh at Arnold Bennett. Wells is easily top dog when it comes to jests, and I’m afraid I took his side, and told Bennett I disapproved of his gaudy silk handkerchief!

…I got Bennett into a corner about Sassoon. I think they ‘noticed’ me because I stood up to them both politely when they shook hands to go, and argumentatively….[4]


Yesterday I quoted Siegfried Sassoon‘s biographer, Jean Moorcroft Wilson, on how Sassoon treated the visit of Lady Ottoline Morrell much as he had Robert Graves’s: by going about his business–namely playing golf–and only afterwards paying her some attention. But there was another sense in which LadyOttoline’s visit was similar to Graves’s: there were hard feelings deriving from an explicit clarification of sexual orientation.

While sexual attraction does not seem to have ever been an important element in the Graves-Sassoon relationship[5]–Graves had a crush of some sort but was not interested in sex, while Sassoon was not physically attracted to Graves–Graves opened a rift in the relationship when he announced his love for Nancy Nicholson. In this case, Lady Ottoline had evidently cherished certain hopes, but Sassoon will now definitively disabuse her. Today, a century back, they had a long walk and a short answer, in which “he told her quite specifically that he could ‘only like men, that women were antipathetic to him.'”

This wasn’t any lighthearted clearing of the air–“but, darling, I’m gay!”–but rather a fairly nasty encounter. Sexual preference aside, Sassoon has frequently shown a contempt for women bordering on (or making lengthy inroads into) misogyny, and he also apparently told Lady Ottoline, who was even more eccentrically dressed today than usual, that she was too “artificial” to take seriously. Sassoon, as self-absorbed as most poets and also as self-absorbed as most thoughtlessly immature young men, seems to be exhibiting merely a doubled cruelty, rather than any subtle binary vision. Lost in all this, too, is the context: he may have mocked Lady Ottoline behind her back the whole time he accepted her hospitality and made use of her connections, but adding this belittling sting to his rejection of her may not just be callousness or callowness–he is also clearing his flank as he retreats, leaving no question that he no longer wants anything to do with the pacifist/protest movement…[6]


References and Footnotes

  1. Sapper Martin, 123.
  2. Hibberd, Wilfred Owen, 280-1.
  3. H.W. Massingham; the poem in question is "Miners," to be published in January.
  4. Collected Letters, 507.
  5. This with all this with the usual caveats about reading between the lines in situations where openness about homosexuality was not possible, plus the usual complexity of parsing lines of love in tumultuous relationships.
  6. Moorcroft Wilson, Siegfried Sassoon, I, 418-9.

Siegfried Sassoon at the Reform; John Masefield in Mametz Wood; Rowland Feilding Risks an Irish Derby; Wilfred Owen Avoids a Breakdown

Siegfried Sassoon,continues to recover from his shoulder wound–and to take advantage of certain… advantages… of his position. Dining out from his London hospital, his old contacts with the world of literary eminence now put the heroic young poet in the way of some of the leading lights of London literature.

May 2

Lunch with Robbie Ross and Roderick at Reform. Talked to Wells and Arnold Bennett—the latter very affable… Sat in Hyde Park 3.30-4.30 in warm sun—very pleasant…[1]


One literary luminary that Sassoon does not know is John Masefield–which would be awkward, considering that Sassoon’s best pre-war work, “The Daffodil Murderer,” was a satire of his work. Now the prosy shoe is on the other poetic foot, and while Sassoon lunches at the Reform Club, working on his literary rolodex, Masefield is tramping about the ruined areas of the Somme, working on a war book. He is close to the scene of Sassoon’s earlier bout of heroics, but much closer, in location and tone, to David Jones.

I went today up to Mametz Wood, where a German machine gunner once had a nest in a tree. He was killed in his nest & stayed there till he fell to bits, but his nest is still there & two kestrels have built in it, & there are violets in blossom below & wood anemones. I believe every tree & nearly every bush in that big wood is dead, & the same in every wood in the battlefield; most of the big trees cut down by the fire & the rest blasted.[2]


Rowland Feilding is far from such horror, and yet not far enough. Any experienced commander must worry, now, that even the war’s most pleasant and convivial scenes might suddenly become killing grounds.

May 2, 1917. Birr Barracks {Locre).

The battalion has twice played football lately against battalions of the Carson (36th) Division, and I am sorry to say got beaten both times.

On the second occasion there was a big crowd of soldier spectators—certainly 2,000 or 3,000. The ground was the best that could be found, but was rather “close up,” and would not have been chosen had this large attendance
been foreseen. Moreover, the day (Sunday) was the clearest of days, as it happened.

When I arrived, the sight of the crowd, I confess, made me anxious. A hostile aeroplane overhead with wireless apparatus; a German battery behind; a sudden hurricane bombardment with shrapnel; and considerable damage might have followed. And I was the senior officer present.

But to stop a match in process of being cleanly fought before a sporting audience between the two great opposing factions of Ireland, in a spirit of friendliness which, so far as I am aware, seems unattainable on Ireland’s native soil–even though in sight (or almost in sight) of the enemy–was a serious matter; and I decided to let the game go on…[3]


Last and not least, today, is Wilfred Owen. He is safe, once again–but that is not to say that all is well, precisely.

2 May 1917
13th Casualty Clearing Station

Dearest Mother,

Here again! The Doctor suddenly was moved to forbid me to go into action next time the Battalion go, which will be in a day or two. I did not go sick or anything, but he is nervous about my nerves, and sent me down yesterday—labelled Neurasthenia. I still of course suffer from the headaches traceable to my concussion. This will mean that I shall stay here and miss the next Action Tour of Front Line; or even it may mean that I go further down & be employed for a more considerable time on Base Duty or something of the sort. I shall now try and make my French of some avail . . . having satisfied myself that, though in Action I bear a charmed life, and none of woman born can hurt me, as regards flesh and bone, yet my nerves have not come out without a scratch. Do not for a moment suppose I have had a ‘breakdown’. I am simply avoiding one.

This seems like wisdom, although we must take it only tentatively, coming as it does from a young man just diagnosed with a “nerve”–i.e., psychiatric–condition writing to his mother–and hard on the heels of a rather dramatic statement about his confidence in his own destiny.

But Owen really does not seem troubled, despite the state of his nerves. Should he be upset not to be going into action?

At the first Ambulance I arrived at in the Car, a Corporal came up to me with a staid air of sleepy dignity that seemed somehow familiar. And when he began to enter in a Note Book my name & age, we knew each other. It was old Hartop of the Technical! Bystanding Tommies were astounded at our fraternity. For the Good old Sort brought back in an instant all the days of study in Shrewsbury, and the years that were better than these, or any years to come… He was reading the same old books that we ‘did’ there. I was jolly glad to see them again, & to borrow…

Reading material thus acquired, Owen does work back to the subject of his current status. He seems to be reassuring himself–and his mother–that his hospitalization for nerves is a war wound honestly come by. It is, of course, as we have learned–he is suffering from posttraumatic stress, an after-effect of both physical concussion and emotional trauma. But there was little consensus on this matter, then, and Owen can’t help but think of what he is experiencing in terms of the more desirably incontrovertible bullet wound:

If I haven’t got a Blighty in this war, I will take good care not to get a Blight, as many have done, even from this Regiment. I should certainly have got a bullet wound, if I had not used the utmost caution in wriggling along the ground on one occasion. There was a party of Germans in a wood about 200 yds behind us, and his trench which we had just taken was only a foot deep in places, & I was obliged to keep passing up & down it. As a matter of fact I rather enjoyed the evening after the Stunt, being only a few hundred yds. from the Town, as you knew, and having come through the fire so miraculously; and being, moreover, well fed on the Bosche’s untouched repast!!

The next line is a good one, especially for us: Owen is startled by what we might term the historical immediacy of the written word:

It was curious and troubling to pick up his letters where he had left off writing in the middle of a word! If we had gone down from the line next day all would have been very well, but we were kept up (in another part of the line) for 9 days after it: under incessant shelling…

Your last Parcel has arrived, and I enjoyed the Munchoc right well. I had some compensation for lost parcels in being given a parcel sent to an officer who was wounded the first day he joined us. It is a regimental custom never to send Food Stuffs back after Officers who go down to Hospital! I shall soon want some more Players. Nothing else yet!—Don’t omit to address C.C.S. 13…

How strange that the fact that I am in Hospital means that all cause of uneasiness about me is removed from you!

Do not hawk this letter about! Nay, I would rather you told no one I am a Casual again!

Your very own Wilfred[4]

We will keep a close eye on Owen and his nerves.


References and Footnotes

  1. Diaries, 163.
  2. Letters From France, 268.
  3. War Letters to a Wife, 169-70.
  4. Collected Letters, 453-4.

The War is Changing: the End of the Short First Year; Lord Dunsany Introduces Francis Ledwidge, Again; Charles Sorley Has Arrived; Edward Thomas on the Afterlife of Rupert Brooke (Part VI!); C.E. Montague Writes but Can’t Write; Donald Hankey Prays; Max Plowman Preaches a Pacifist’s Arms

It’s the first of June, and we’ll have month-dated writings today from Edward Thomas (on Rupert Brooke), Lord Dunsany (on Francis Ledwidge), and Max Plowman (on the soldier’s duty to die). A veritable cache of writing for June, June the glorious First–and much of it is quite compelling, if I do say so myself.

But I want, first, to continue with the theme I’ve been expounding lately, namely the widespread sense that a sea change has come over the war. These last few weeks have come to seem like the end of the “early war” of hope and happy violence, of the small professional army, of general confidence in a strategic breakthrough. At the same time, the men of the New Armies are arriving in France in ever greater numbers, their brute, hunkering trench mortars and inelegant hand grenades displacing the rapid musketry and saber-swaggering of the old order even as their much more diverse literary sensibilities begin to rewrite it.

Historians love to reshuffle unyielding dates to create eras–that “long 19th century” only ended last August, for some–and it’s hard to resist the temptation to do so here. Stalemate began on the Western Front in December, but perhaps it wasn’t accepted as inevitable (by the common soldiers–the generals, for better or worse, never did) until the failure of Aubers Ridge and the bitter success of Second Ypres. The rhythm of attack, recover, attrition, and then the build-up to the big attack will recur, but relentless trench warfare is now the expected experience.

In terms of the lives of the representative soldiers, the first phase could hardly be over until the Grenfell twins and their cousin Julian had been killed, nor could the second really begin until some of our bright young men bound for Oxford last August were in France and in harm’s way: Robert Graves arrived a few weeks ago, Roland Leighton not long before that, and we’ll read Charles Sorley’s first letter from France today. And Donald Hankey, who attended Sandhurst but later studied theology at Oxford, spent his first day in the line today as well. He wrote a short meditation which we will see below–and he’ll write his first letter tomorrow.[1] Our handful of representatives of the working classes, too, are on their way: Francis Ledwidge and Will Streets will be embarking within weeks, and George Coppard today was “in France at last, with one of the first divisions of Kitchener’s New Army. I was very excited… We marched through Boulogne and up the long drag to St. Martin’s camp.”[2]

The third piece of the puzzle–after the strategic course of the war and the social composition of the armies–is the writing. Here there is something of a lag: the first phase couldn’t possibly be over until Into Battle had joined The Soldier atop the pantheon of early war verse. The new memoir writers will have to work through their agonies of innocence and their  anxieties of influence before they break through, and nor will the trench poets be able to radically alter the poetry of war for some time yet. But the great memoirs–Graves, and Sassoon soon enough–reach back to the summer of 1915.

Still. The short first year of the war is over, now, and the long second year begins. It will last thirteen months, until July 1st 1916, and the opening of the battle of the Somme.

Here, then, there will begin to be a transition away from letters and toward the memoirs and novels and poetry of those who are new to soldiering, but not to writing. If the most typical document of the first year here was the professional soldier’s letter home to his wife or mother, soon it will be the dateable fragment of memoir. But it will be a slow change, and I hope always to keep many voices speaking at once.



Edward Plunkett, Lord Dunsany

Speaking of the difference a year makes, our first bit of “month-dated” writing for June 1915 is explicitly written to address the enormous changes of the last year.

In 1912 a young, self-taught man from the rural laboring classes of county Meath sent his poetry to Lord Dunsany. Dunsany was the descendent of a long line of Anglo-Irish barons and a major landowner and local magnate. He was also a writer interested in Irish renewal, and he saw something in the poetry of Francis Ledwidge–enough to offer not only frank advice but also financial support.

Dunsany had written, in June 1914, a preface for a prospective volume of poems. It was monumentally condescending–“I hope that not too many will be attracted to this book on account of the author being a peasant”–but it was otherwise sunny and sure, seeking to introduce Ledwidge as a promising new poet of rural life. But by the time Songs of the Fields was still advancing toward the press, and both poet and patron were now Royal Innisking Fusiliers. Circumstances called for a lordly new preface:

Basingstoke Camp

I wrote this preface in such a different June, that if I sent it out with no addition it would make the book appear to have dropped a long while since out of another world, a world that none of us remembers now, in which there used
to be leisure.


Francis Ledwidge, Astonishingly Literate Peasant

Ledwidge came last October into the 5th Battalion of the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers, which is in one of the divisions of Kitchener’s first army, and soon earned a lance-corporal’s stripe.

All his future books lie on the knees of the gods. May They not be the only readers.

Any well-informed spy can probably tell you our movements, so of such things I say nothing.

DUNSANY, Captain, 5th R. Inniskilling Fusiliers

June, 1915

Did I mention that Dunsany, though now remembered as one of the seminal early authors of literary fantasy, was in his own time best known as a dramatist? Melodramatic indeed, but at least it trumpets today’s theme…

Ledwidge’s poems will soon be in the press, and the 5th Royal Inniskillings aboard ship.


Edward Thomas had finished his piece on Rupert Brooke a few weeks ago, but it will run in this month’s English Review. Another fitting observance for today, then: Our most subtle critic and poet, a man who has spent the first year of the war hesitating by those forking paths in the woods, assesses the sacrificial darling of the war’s first year.

On April 23rd the poet Rupert Brooke died of sun stroke at Lemnos in his twenty-eighth year. He was a second lieutenant in the Royal Naval Division, on his way to the fighting in the Dardanelles. No poet of his age was so much esteemed and admired, or was watched more hopefully. His work could not be taken soberly, whether you liked it or not. It was full of the thought, the aspiration, the indignation of youth; full of the praise of youth. Many people knew the man or the reputation of his personal charm. Wherever he went he made friends, well-wishers, admirers, adorers. He was himself a friendly man, with humour and good humour added. Successful in many fields—he played in the eleven and the fifteen for Rugby school; he won a fellowship at King’s Collesfe, Cambridge; he was celebrated as a golden young Apollo, in Mrs. Cornford’s phrase—”Magnificently unprepared For the long littleness of life,”—his attractiveness included modesty and simplicity. He stretched himself out, drew his fingers through his waved, fair hair, laughed, talked indolently, and admired as much as he was admired. No one that knew him could easily separate him from his poetry: not that they were the same, but that the two inextricably mingled and helped one another.

Edward Thomas is no pre-post-modernist, but yes: this will be a full-throated denial of the alleged biographical fallacy. While it’s true that treating the man and the work as one was more or less a given, a century back, Thomas is still going to extremes here, clearly intimating that, with such a dominating personality, it’s hard to believe that the poetic reputation was not inflated.

He was tall, broad, and easy in his movements. Either he stooped, or he thrust his head forward unusually much to look at you with his steady, blue eyes. His clear, rosy skin helped to give him the look of a great girl. The papers nearly all said something about his “beauty,” his good looks, his “glamour”; one said that he was one of the handsomest Englishmen of our time. And just before he died it happened that one of his last-published sonnets was quoted in St. Paul’s Cathedral by the Dean:— “If I should die, think only this of me:/ That there’s some corner of a foreign field/That is for ever England…

So, instantly he took his share of the fame that comes to young poets dying conspicuously and unexpectedly, but not unprophesied by themselves…

His poems had referred a good deal to death, long before the war began. He was so eager for enjoyment and performance worthy of a very lofty conception of life and youth, that death, and old age, and the end of love, could not but confront him prodigiously. He varied between a Shelleyan eagerness and a Shelleyan despair. It was characteristic of him to apply the Shelleyan epithet “swift” to a girl’s hair…

Characteristic–which is to say repetitive. Thomas continues by inter-weaving many of the best lines from Brooke’s output with brief comments of his own. Which is a good method, I have no doubt.

Eventually, though, Thomas works around to an assessment:

He did not attain the “Shelleyan altitude where words have various radiance rather than meaning,” but perhaps no poet better expressed the aspiration towards it and all the unfulfilled eagerness of ambitious self-conscious youth. His promise is more generally spoken of, but it was a rare and considerable achievement to have expressed and suggested in so many ways the promise of youth.

This is just, and it balances too the critic’s responsibility to imply (at least) what the poet might lack, while still avoiding speaking ill of the recently dead. The closing thoughts of the piece are shadowed by Thomas’s own biographical criticism:

When the war came to Europe, apparently a minor peace came to his heart, not with imagined “love’s magnificence,” but ridding him of “all the little emptiness of love,” in a new life of which he wrote : — “Oh! we, who have known shame, we have found release there…

His reputation is safe : it was never greater than now, when he stands out clearly against that immense, dark background, an Apollo not afraid of the worst of life.[3]


Only a week ago, Charles Sorley was unsure when his battalion would march away from camp. Today he wrote two letters from France. The first is to his parents–and, wouldn’t you know it, it comes with the first request for a parcel.

7th Suffolks, 12th Division,

B.E.F., 1 June 1915

I have just been censoring letters: which hardly puts one in a mood for writing. Suffice it that we are in a little hamlet, or rather settlement of farms; the men on straw, the officers in old four-posters: within sound of the guns. Nothing disturbs these people. I have never felt so restful…

The reading of a hundred letters has brought home to me one need. Could you send me out some of those filthy Woodbine cigarettes the men smoke–they all ask for them. Pour moi, I am well provided for the present.

So far our company are separated from the rest. It is like a picnic, and the weather is of the best.

He also wrote–to Arthur Watts, a fellow New Army subaltern–a jocular and yet more forthcoming first letter.

1 June 1915

Having begun in ink I continue in pencil. Schottische Sparsamkeit [Scottish Frugality]. You aren’t worth ink. Besides ink hardly gives that impression of strenuous campaigning I am wishful to produce.

…We arrived at dawn: white dawn across the plane trees and coming through the fields of rye. After two hours in an oily ship and ten in a grimy train, the “war area ” was a haven of relief. These French trains shriek so: there is no sight more desolating than abandoned engines passing up and down the lines, hooting in their loneliness. There is something eerie in a railway by night.

But this is perfect. The other officers have heard the heavy guns and perhaps I shall soon… There are clouds of dust along the roads, and in the leaves: but the dust here is native and caressing and pure, not like the dust of Aldershot, gritted and fouled by motors and thousands of feet. ‘Tis a very Limbo lake: set between the tireless railways behind and twenty miles in front the fighting. Drink its cider and paddle in its rushy streams: and see if you care whether you die to-morrow.

It’s hard to tell what sort of intimacy he had with Watts, how they might read letters to each other. But Sorley has an unusual way of existing in a liminal zone–not simply between playfulness and seriousness (most of our writers manage that) but between quiet euphoria and a counter-punching melancholy. It makes him seem–and perhaps this is a true seeming–to be untrusting of his own happiness, dogging himself by making the expected dark jokes out of his expectancy.

And, of course, he nails the irony of proximity on his first try–it’s idyllic; and violent death is near.

It brings out a new part of one’s self, the loiterer, neither scorning nor desiring delights, gliding listlessly through the minutes from meal-time to meal-time, like the stream through the rushes: or stagnant and smooth like their cider, unfathomably gold: beautiful and calm  without mental fear. And in four-score hours we will pull up our braces and fight.

Lovely. But watch this: his mood distrusts the future tense, and he will now seek to exert–playfully, but seriously–control over his future in the trenches. We don’t see all that much of the future perfect tense here, now do we?

These hours will have slipt over me, and I shall march hotly to the firing-line, by turn critic, actor, hero, coward and soldier of fortune: perhaps even for a moment Christian, humble, with “Thy will be done.” Then shock, combustion, the emergence of one of these: death or life: and then return to the old rigmarole. I imagine that this, while it may or may not knock about your body, will make very little difference to you otherwise…

“Critic, actor, hero, coward and soldier of fortune: perhaps even for a moment Christian.” This is the young writer’s self-knowledge, then, his authorial stamp on his own future. Brilliant stuff. We shall see. Interestingly, his closing note is wistful–neither “friend” (or “comrade”) nor “walker, thinker, writer” were among his list of future roles.

The moon won’t rise till late, but there is such placid weariness in all the bearing earth, that I must go out to see. I have not been “auf dem Lande” [in the country] for many years: man muss den Augenblick geniessen [one must enjoy the passing moment].

Leb’ wohl [farewell]. I think often of you and Jena: where I was first on my own and found freedom. Leb’ wohl.[4]


Donald Hankey is in the trenches today–his first day under fire. Characteristically, his first impulse is to write of his religious experience. A letter will follow tomorrow.

June 1, ’15–I have seen with the eyes of God. I have seen the naked souls of men, stripped of circumstance. Rank and reputation, wealth and poverty, knowledge and ignorance, manners and uncouthness, these I saw not. I saw the naked souls of men. I saw who were slaves and who were free: who were beasts and who men: who were contemptible and who honorable. I have seen with the eyes of God. I have seen the vanity of the temporal and the glory of the eternal. I have despised comfort and honored pain. I have understood the victory of the Cross. O Death, where is thy sting? Nunc dimittis, Domine. . . . [5]


And with C.E. Montague, today, a stern reminder of the difference between contemporary experience and historicizing retrospect. Just three days ago I included a long, lyrical excerpt from Disenchantment, pegging it as the greatest expression of the New Army’s experience at the end of the First Spring, before the First Year of the war turned. But Montague wrote that later on. Today, in a letter to Allan Monkhouse, we are suddenly peering down through the other half of Sassoon’s bifocals, and we find Montague (almost) unable to write what he would:

…I have not opened a book, except drill and musketry manual, since we came here, and the idea of writing anything seems fantastic, though one is almost choked with the mass of curious, strange, amusing things that there are to describe. You can imagine what a feast it is to live day and night, in a smallish barn when not on parade, with 29 people wildly different from one another in every way and utterly unable to disguise their characters under all the little tests we are put to by this pigging together. Everybody knows who shirks the job of washing greasy plates in cold water. If Arnold Bennett were here, he would spend all the time putting down what some of the men say, and our great controversies at night about all manner of things are so delicious that I am tempted to encourage them long after ‘Lights Out’, at ten o’clock, in spite of the thought of reveille at five…

Yesterday I declined, with some misgiving, an offer, which was made to all the N.C.O.’s here, of work as a sergeant in the West African Frontier Force… We were all rather torn between the chance of immediate service abroad and the dear of being stuck up somewhere on the Congo for the rest of the war, perhaps in profound peace…[6]

Two observations, then: First, the kernel of his great description of training camp life is already here in this letter. He may wax rhapsodical, but his bifocals seem clear. Second, Montague may be older and wiser, but he too will gain wisdom from the agonies of experience. He’s in his 50s, but he is young enough to serve, and young enough to keep a weather eye against any diversions that might keep him from the cauldron…


Last, and probably least, is our “month poem,” from the pen of Max Plowman. Plowman is a committed pacifist recently enlisted in the RAMC. So here’s a poem in the traditional manner, but with a different message. Exactly what the message is… well, I couldn’t say. It’s a little… poetic. But Plowman does seem to take a step in the direction of future war poetry–away from heroism and the glories of battle, and toward the unavoidable reality that the common soldier’s lot is to suffer. That there may be killing, but there will certainly be dying.

 Another Call To Arms

Take up your arms, my soldier.
You were not meant to fight,
For Loveliness has given to you
Her spirit of delight;

And you have fought with demons
These armies never knew;
The direst enemies of life
Have been afraid of you;

And while through sloth and weakness
Men let the monsters loose,
You fought for life’s great loveliness
And sought life’s perfect use.

Yet now from your high mountain
I bid you wend your way
To dip your hands in carnage,
And like death’s hireling, slay.

And now you stand and tremble,
Now Terror gapes at you
Whom Courage never offered
A task that you could do.

Take up your arms, my soldier;
No cross of wood is yours,
Before you reach Gethsemane
Blood from your spirit pours.

And you shall die, my soldier,
The day you swear to kill.
Take up your arms, my soldier,
And do it with a will.

For in your weakest brother
Your soul must find a place;
Now for that greater selfhood
Your little self efface.

The nations move as children
And you must be a child.
Take up your arms, my soldier,
Nor think your soul defiled.

Liberty in her travail
Has pains too deep for thought,
And many skeins are tangled
Ere Fate’s design is wrought.

Die on the cross, my soldier,
Nor pray the cup pass by;
For he shall rise transfigured
Who knows the hour to die.

June, 1915.[7]

Plowman’s heavy-handed invocation of Christian imagery in the final stanzas brings the didactic point of the poem home: your arms, soldier, are not the brazen instruments of our heroic achievement, not the symbols of your knighthood, not even the tools of your trade. They are your cross–the fact that you have been compelled (there is no conscription yet, and Plowman does seem to resolutely support the troops, as we would say) to bear them absolves of some guilt. But not of the responsibility of understanding what it is that weapons do. (And whether the last two lines should be read, simply, as Christian affirmation or whether something else is going on, well… I do not know. Probably the former.)

Plowman began the war a principled pacifist, and he preaches here about the realities of war–terror, carnage, pain–that most poets so far have preferred to omit. But he has a long journey before him.


References and Footnotes

  1. Kissane, Without Parade, 140.
  2. With a Machine Gun to Cambrai, 16.
  3. English Review, June 1915, 324-327.
  4. The Letters of Charles Sorley, 267-9.
  5. A Student in Arms, 191.
  6. Elton, C.E. Montague, 110-11.
  7. Plowman, A Lap Full of Seed, 72-4.