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. 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.”
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:
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
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.
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.
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. . . .
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…
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.
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.