Wilfred Owen on “Militarian Subjects”–or Not; Olaf Stapledon Can’t Forget That There Are Trenches in the World

Wilfred Owen‘s letter of today, a century back, begins in a rather precious mode of poetic reverie but then quickly subsides back toward the plane of daily life. First, he tells his mother of plans to visit the school with which had been very involved during his “ergotherapy” at Edinburgh. This is a happy subject–a remembrance of good times, the pleasure and fulfillment he felt in teaching and in the admiration of the boys for the young officer come to instruct them. But while the mood stays jaunty–it almost always does, in these letters–the thread leads straight back to war. There is a shadow, even in a breezy letter from this sunny, undecorated, unheralded “major domo,” of the substance of Sassoon‘s protest–and of Owen’s determination (which may make his mother profoundly uncomfortable) to treat the suffering of the soldiers in Christian terms.

13 December 1917, Scarborough

Dearest Mother,

It is the quarter of an hour after lunch. The coffee has given me satisfaction and everybody else. (I serve coffee after lunch as well as dinner.) So I sit in the middle of my five-windowed turret, and look down upon the sea. The sun is valiant in its old age. I draw the Venetian blinds, so that the shadow of the lattices on the table gives an illusion of great heat…

Yesterday I was sent the Tynecastle School Magazine, very amusing. Mrs. Fullerton writes again this morning, reminding me how I promised to go up there for my first leave.

‘You can imagine our welcome better than I can write’ they say. Now, I find that Leave from Friday Night to Monday Night is granted every month! But Mrs. Fullerton is leaving the school for ever on the 21st. in order to be with her husband who will soon get sent out again.

There is much talk of Education for the ‘A 4’s’ of the Battalion, that is the tender younglings. I have been ‘approached’ on the subject, but I shall not consent to lecture on Militarian subjects. The scheme either comes of a desperate feeling that the race is going to perdition intellectually or else it is a Jesuitical movement to catch ’em young, & prepare them for the Eucharist of their own blood.

Dearest love from W.E.O.[1]

 

Interestingly, our other letter today is from Olaf Stapledon, the young pacifist whose entire war service has been a protest, as well as a “sacrifice” in the looser sense of something given (at great length and effort) where it might have been (selfishly) withheld. Stapledon, home on leave–in Merseyside, just across the island from Scarborough–is stewing, disgusted with the complacency and luxury which persist.

Stapledon and Owen are very different men in very different positions, but it’s tempting to consider some sort of equivalency. Stapledon, despite a period of crisis about the rights and wrongs of serving as an ambulance man (rather than as either a soldier or a pacifist abstainer, ready for the other martyrdom of prison and social ignominy) has been shielded from the full misery of the war: he has not had to fight, or sit for many hours under enemy shelling. He has been in danger and he has seen terrible things, but nothing so terrible as a long, muddy tour in front-line trenches. So is he, in late 1917, only now approaching the mild level of disgust of a 1915 or early 1916 infantryman, while Owen has gone through all that in a few short weeks at the front (and a few long months recovering) and moved beyond it, to happy forgetfulness pottering about in a base job, picking out furniture, visiting old friends, and not thinking about what comes next?

Tempting–but I should have resisted. What’s the point, after all, of a strict timeline (i.e. the whole war, day by day) if I don’t resist the temptation to validate it by twisting it in different directions? Suffice it to say that today, a century back, Stapledon–who has never doubted that fighting the war is wrong–is wondering about who and what those who are fighting are fighting for. Are those for whom the sacrifices are allegedly being made worthy of them? The logical next step is to question, again, whether taking any action that enables the continuation of the war is morally justifiable.

Annery

13 December 1917

. . . I am all adrift, all sixes and sevens and so bored, bored to tears with the war and my own stodgy self. This leave has been somehow unreal. It has largely consisted in going round talking platitudes to people about the war, and in slipping back comfortably into the artificial life that we all lead at home in our most excessive middle class luxury. Plates & dishes & knives & forks & furniture beyond the wildest need, & all so beautifully clean. Fires, hot baths, dainty food–& yet there are trenches in the world.[2]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Collected Letters, 516.
  2. Talking Across the World, 260.

David Jones Under Fire, while Wilfred Owen Draws the Blinds

Today is another quiet day–between the rehearsal and the big poetry reading in London, that is. On the actual front, at least where David Jones‘s battalion of the Royal Welsh Fusiliers is holding trenches, it is less so:

On 11 December the bombardment was so intense that they retreated from the forward trench. The enemy advanced, entered the trench under cover of the barrage and, finding it empty, retired.[1]

 

And that’s all I know about that. At Scarborough, Wilfred Owen wrote to his mother, mixing news of his minor doings with strong reassurances that she remains his most favored correspondent.

Tuesday!!!
My own Mother,

I wonder how you are disporting yourself at Alpenrose. Life here is a mixture of wind, sand, crumbs on carpets, telephones, signatures, clean sheets, shortage of meat, and too many money-sums. But I like it. For one thing I fell so suddenly into mental preoccupations that there was no dallying with regrets for leaving Home. I have not even written to Sassoon or anyone.

Yup, the same old bouyant tone… covering up a bold faced lie?  Unless there is a worse-than-usual mix-up about the dating of Owen’s letters (which is far from impossible), he wrote to Sassoon only five days ago.

Is something afoot? Perhaps! (Probably not). Owen natters on uneventfully for the rest of the letter:

We are getting four maidservants and a page, as these boys are being overworked at present. You would love to see me keeping an eye on the charwoman…

I ‘get out’ for an hour or two daily, if only to promenade the ‘arrested’ subaltern… There is also a Major under arrest for striking a private. I have to keep looking them up.

The Hotel is a pleasanter place even than the Queen’s at Southport, well furnished & commodious. My room has hideous furniture, but a comfortable bed—and fireplace. My personal servant had a bad shell shock in Gallipoli, while lying sun-stricken. He was about a year in hospital, but has all his wits about him now. . . .[2]

I must now go and see that every blind is drawn, aye and double-drawn.

Always your own W.E.O![3]

it is only a coincidence, I think–but an eerie one–that one of his best poems ends with the same action, “And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds.”

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Dilworth, David Jones and the Great War, 179.
  2. Here, with no clue as to why, the editor, Harold Owen, omits "seventy-seven words."
  3. Collected Letters, 515-16.

Isaac Rosenberg on Walt Whitman; Olaf Stapledon Talks Pacifism and Wishes for Sweeter Music

We get a rare look into the mind of Isaac Rosenberg today, a century back, as a letter survives that he wrote from hospital–where he is still recovering from the flu–to his old friend Joseph Leftwich. And his mind is about where we would expect it to be: careful to acknowledge the good fortune of a bad illness, and otherwise dwelling on poetry.

Dear Leftwich,

I am in hosp and have been for here about 2 months—lucky for me—I fancy—as I got out of this late stunt by being here. My brother Dave on the Tanks got a bullet in his leg and is also in hosp—also my wilder brother in the S.A.H.A. is in hosp—And now your letter has been buffeted into hosp, and that it has reached me must be looked upon as one of the miracles of this war.

Rosenberg then goes on to discuss a contemporary poet, and the forefather that they both admire:

We never spoke about Whitman—Drum Taps stands unique as War Poetry in my mind. I have written a few war poems but when I think of Drum Taps mine are absurd.

Well, then, with such a towering forebear, what can we do but bank the fires of ambition, sweep out the cold ashes of the muse’s inadequate fires, and abandon the cold hearth of–wait? What’s that you said?

However I would get a pamphlet printed if I were sure of selling about 60 at 1s each as I think mine may give some new aspects to people at home—and then one never knows whether you’ll get a tap on the head or not: and if that happens—all you have written is lost, unless you have secured them by printing. Do you know when the Georgian B. will be out? I am only having about half a page in it and its only an extract from a poem…

I. Rosenberg[1]

It flew by there, but it’s worth noting. There are two stated reasons for writing: first, because even if your work is not as strong as that of your honored predecessor it may still contain something new; second, because if you are killed, it’s likely that only the published work will survive.

 

And as for our own Walt Whitman, the multitudinous Olaf Stapledon (true, he’s a different sort of writer-dreamer, and not primarily a poet, and ardently in love with his fiancée, so all the parallels aren’t quite there, but he is a passionately effusive and unbounded writer serving the war’s wounded), we have an interesting series of observations on the state of militarism.

Annery
Agnes, 8 December 1917

Home again! Cheers! And after such a quick journey. . . . Missed the connection for Liverpool, had an elegant light lunch at Euston, embarked for L’pool at 2.20… I travelled third. In the compartment were an R[oyal]F[lying]C[orps] man, an R[oyal]G[arrison]A[rtillery] man, two infantry men one of whom was a New Zealander, and two young civilians of whom one was a discharged soldier. Very soon we got talking, first about the British and French fronts, then about the war in general. And I was surprised at the outspoken pacifism of everyone present. There was first a whisper then a trickle of remarks, then I said I was F[riends]A[mbluance]U[nit] and then everyone began to grow voluble about the war and the fact that if only some people weren’t making a profit out of it, it would have been wound up long ago. The RFC man came from Preston. He was very bitter, in his broad Lancashire dialect. The discharged soldier talked a lot of palpably extravagant rubbish, but on the main points he agreed entirely with the rest. His extravagance was chiefly merely anti-monarchical. (Not that I am a monarchist; but I don’t think the matter is worth bothering about.) The New Zealander was a lad who had not yet been to France, and all he cared for was looking at the scenery. But the rest! I assured them that the average French poilu was every bit as “bad” as they were, and they said, “No wonder.” . . .

And so here am I home again, writing at my old desk in the red room to the girl I have written to so often from this place. . . . Annery is the same as ever, & Caldy is as lovely as ever. I have treadmilled the old pianola as usual. But somehow this time it does not satisfy me at all. I want handmade music again, and I want it made by your hands.[2]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Collected Works, 357-8.
  2. Talking Across the World, 258-9.

Wilfred Owen: Here is Poetry; Sassoon’s Example Furthered, and Traduced; Cynthia Asquith and Duff Cooper on the Air Raid–and (at Long Last!) a Discussion of Rasputin’s Endowment

Wilfred Owen is proving himself to be a man at ease with many roles: he runs a military hotel by day, but in his free time he vies with antique dealers, writes chatty letters to his mother, composes febrile poetry, and attends to the delicate balance of camaraderie and flattery (not to say worshipful enthusiasm) best calculated to hold his new friend’s personal interest while also soliciting his critical attention…

6 December 1917 Scarborough

My friend,

I shall continue to poop off heavy stuff at you, till you get my range at Scarborough, and so silence me, for the time. This ‘Wild with all Regrets’ was begun & ended two days ago, at one gasp. If simplicity, if imaginativeness, if sympathy, if resonance of vowels, make poetry I have not succeeded. But if you say ‘Here is poetry,’ it will be so for me.

What do you think of my Vowel-rime stunt in this, and ‘Vision’? Do you consider the hop from Flea to Soul too abrupt?[1]

Alas, I am not sure which poem “Vision” refers to, But the “flea”  bit is Owen is asking Siegfried Sassoon‘s advice about “Wild with all Regrets.” Owen’s self-deprecating comments are not simply pro-forma: the draft needs work.

But there is no lack of confidence here either, as the second paragraph shows. Owen is asking advice, but he is also pointing to a significant innovation in his poetry, the use of what he calls “vowel-rime,” a sort of half-rhyming that is unconventional yet fits very well with what is emerging as his method: to write traditionally-structured poems that go deep into horror and pathos while avoiding triteness. To rhyme in a way more consonant with speech is to avoid chiming, to avoid sounding just a bit too much like Tennyson, who never sung of shell-shocked men or bodies torn apart by explosives.

 

 

Following Owen’s presentation of evidence on how Sassoon’s influence is advancing the cause of war poetry, we have a sort of cross-examination to deal with. If Sassoon’s lead in speaking directly of the war’s horrors, of taking a colloquial voice in formal diction (more Hardy than Kipling, in its antecedents; more Drummer Hodge than Barrack Room Ballads) and using it to criticize the war can spur Owen towards his masterpieces of anguish, can his example also be betrayed for the purposes of military propaganda?

Oh, yes indeed. Gilbert Frankau, a rare presence here but a vigorous one during the war as he worked to stake a claim to the literary territory a brow and a half down the ladder of popular taste from Robert Nichols, is eager to support the cause. Even–and, if we are to be consistent, this is much to his credit, in a way–to the point of insisting on the rightness of its most disturbing concomitants. Like shooting your own men for running away. After all, doesn’t one propagandize pour encourager les autres?

Today, a century back, Frankau wrote three stanzas of Sassoonish pith that one would like to read as bitterly ironic. But if the form is Sassoonish, the mode isn’t: this will be the preface to a long, unironic, and “pitiless” poem in which the spirit of the titular deserter is barred from Valhalla…

 

The Deserter

I’m sorry I done it, Major.’
We bandaged the livid face;
And led him out, ere the wan sun rose,
To die his death of disgrace.

The bolt-heads locked to the cartridges;
The rifles stead to rest,
As cold stock nestled at colder cheek
And foresight lined on the breast.

‘Fire’ called the Sergeant-Major.
The muzzles flamed as he spoke:
And the shameless soul of a nameless man
Went up in cordite-smoke.[2]

 

It is a commonplace–or should be–of the study of the war’s literature to remind the reader that pro-war poetry and deeply traditional stuff were overwhelmingly more popular than Sorley/Sassoon et. al., during the war, and that “Disenchantment” didn’t set in until the wave of memoirs crested ten years after the armistice. And yet… Frankau’s little piece is not Brooke or “In Flanders Fields” or even an updated “Light Brigade.” It’s not simply pro-war, pro-violence, or a troublingly untroubled depiction of violent death: it’s a vindictive celebration of cold-blooded killing. A bloody-minded jingo could surely argue that “such things are necessary,” and even make the point that these poetic chaps should be commended for reminding us of what happens to bloody cowards, the stick to the carrot of heroic satisfaction…

But that doesn’t it make it any less disgusting. Sassoon perfected the hammer-blow line-end to make us feel the terrible waste of war. Frankau reduces it once more to doggerel, and celebrates that waste.

 

So much for war literature in England, today.

And what about the war? Well, there was an air raid in the early morning, which Sassoon, in London between hunts, only mentions in passing when he returns to his diary (he will, however, have something more to say about it presently, in a letter). But Cynthia Asquith weighs in with a nice dismissive mot:

Thursday, 6th December

Was woken at five by guns—another air-raid at last! I like them with my dinner, not with my dreams, felt sleepy and bored…[3]

 

Which would be the best upper-class-diary-mention-of-the-air-raid were it not for Duff Cooper‘s entry in the field. Cooper, on leave for the weekend, manages to undermine his own recent idealization of the halcyon trip to Venice, then give us our most bizarre and tangential mention of the events of Russia’s conspicuously eventful year, and only then get to the air raid…

Dined… in Upper Berkeley Street… Bertie Stopford drove me home. He is a notorious bugger and was very attentive to me, saying I looked younger than when he last saw me which was in Venice before the war, He has been in Russia for some time and talked to me about the murder of Rasputin. After Rasputin was dead, Felix [Yusupov] Elston fell on the body and beat it. Felix told Stopford this himself. He suspects that there had been some relationship between Felix and Rasputin. The great charm of the latter for women was that when he had them he never came and so could go on forever. Also he had three large warts on his cock.

I have forgotten to mention that at five o’clock this morning there was an air raid…

So the bombing didn’t make the biggest impression, being less notable, on first consideration, than third-hand information about Rasputin’s genitalia. What a piece of work is man, etc.

Cooper, who had never yet been in London for a major air raid, found it strange. “It was difficult to realize that this was war going on in London.” But he was not unduly alarmed, and considered it a good first test of his courage under fire. He was back in bed before the anti-aircraft guns ceased….[4]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Collected Letters, 514-15.
  2. See Hibberd and Onions, ed., Winter of the World, 190-1.
  3. Diaries, 377.
  4. Diary, 62.

Duff Cooper: “The Dance is Over;” Wilfrid Ewart Arrives in Bourlon Wood; Wilfred Owen Directs the Staff

Before we go to Cambrai–and then back to England, where the battle’s losses are hitting home–we have Wilfred Owen reporting to his mother on his new assignment, his first spell of “Home Service” and “Light Duty” after the long and happy interlude at Craiglockhart. He is in Scarborough, one of his Regiment’s reserve bases, and he is playing an entirely unfamiliar role. But I should let him explain:

23 November 1917 6 (Reserve), Bn. Manchester Regt.
Northern Cavalry Barracks, Scarborough

Dearest Mother,

I have been put on a species of Light Duty which I little expected: I am Major Domo of the Hotel. There is a Mess President, the Doctor, Capt. Mather, whom I knew at Witley, and like very much; there is also a Food Specialist…

I have to control the Household, which consists of some dozen Batmen, 4 Mess Orderlies, 4 Buglers, the Cook, (a fat woman of great skill,) two female kitcheners, and various charwomen!

Owen is not exactly “Major Domo,” but rather “Camp Commandant” in the incongruous setting of a seaside hotel full of reserve officers of the Manchester Regiment. It is strange for the gentle, middle class poet to be managing domestic staff, and in the coastal town where his family once holidayed when he was a teenager.

He seems amused–at first–and so amuses his mother:

They need driving. You should see me scooting the buglers round the dining-room on their knees with dustpan and brush! You should hear me rate the Charwoman for leaving the Lavatory-Basins unclean. I am responsible for finding rooms for newcomers, which is a great worry, as we are full up. This means however that I have a good room to myself, as well as my Office!

I keep two officers under arrest in their rooms; & spent a dismal hour this morning taking one of these for exercise.

I get up at 6.30. to see that the breakfast is ready in time.

I spent this morning in Correspondence, and Inspection of rooms, working from 5 a.m. to 12. This afternoon I ordered from the Grocers and the Greengrocers vast quantities of food…

The list goes on, as his lists often do, so we’ll skip a bit:

It is interesting work but hardly ‘lighter’ than a Platoon Commander’s!

But here’s an irony: though safer, this sort of job is a danger to the thing Owen most values, now:

Confound this business mood which possesses me! It, as much as the busy-ness of my hours, will prove disastrous to my poems. But things will slack down next week, and so shall my temper…

I think I am marked Permanent Home Service.

He is not.

Always your own

W.E.O.[1]

 

Now to France, where Wilfrid Ewart was in Bourlon Wood, which has become, as these unexpected woods tend to do, the center of a vicious fight, the sort of place where advances bog down and horrors multiply. It was “a nightmare sort of place–pitch dark and none knew its torturous ways or quite where the Germans were.” His battalion resisted the urge to panic–a good thing, as the German counter attack that was rumored did not materialize. Not yet: but their machine guns are thick in the far side of the wood.

Ewart is now very much amidst the remnants of the attack of two and three days ago. It is as if the Cavalry and the Highlanders are still suffering the loss of our Edward Horner and E.A. Mackintosh: Ewart writes that, late in the night tonight, “[w]e… found some very windy Highlanders and dismounted cavalry…” shattered forces who are being replaced, now, by the Guards. Tomorrow, it will be the turn of Ewart’s First Scots Guards to try to push through the wood.[2]

 

Yesterday, a century back, Duff Cooper was gazetted as a “full blown Officer in the Grenadiers.” Today he was on leave in London, celebrating by playing bridge with a friend…

We had just finished two rubbers and we had settled down to a game of skip when Sybil came in and said she wanted to speak to me for a minute. I left the room feeling rather annoyed at her mysterious ways. On the landing she said ‘Edward has been killed and Diana is waiting for you outside.’ I went down and found Diana standing by the area railings crying. We got into a taxi and drove away… Edward meant so much in our lives. I loved no man better… By his death our little society loses one of the last assets that gave it distinction. to look back on our Venice party now, only four years ago, is to recall only the dead. The original four were Denny, Billy, George [Nairne?] and Edward of whom not one remains. The most precious guests… were Raymond and Charles… Only Patrick and I remain… I being to feel that the dance is over and that it is time to go.[3]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Collected Letters, 508-9.
  2. Scots Guard, 146-7.
  3. Diaries, 60-1.

Vera Brittain on Night Duty and Edward in Italy; Back to the Front for Carroll Carstairs; Siegfried Sassoon and Robert Nichols Sing for their Society Supper, but Wilfred Owen Misses the Party

It’s an unsettled sort of day, today, a century back, with new experiences that are none too welcome. We have, first off, a letter from Edward Brittain to his sister Vera, his first from Italy.

I am rather disappointed with this part of the country — we are close to where Vergil was supposed to be born and the city forms the adjective so often applied to him (even in Tennyson’s ode to Vergil) – it is flat and not specially interesting apart from its novelty.

Mantua, that is: and a much more mainstream deployment of a decent classical education than some of the heroically obscure place-references of Patrick Shaw Stewart and the other argonauts. But what clever chap can resist such a minor violation of the rules about revealing military locations?

We marched through the city yesterday — it is old, picturesque and rather sleepy with narrow streets and pungent smells; we have been accorded a most hearty reception all the way and have been presented with anything
from bottles of so-called phiz, to manifestos issued by mayors of towns; flowers and postcards were the most frequent tributes. Some of the country we passed through was very fine; apres la guerre finie there are several places where you and I might like to stay a while…

But Vera has other things to worry about, today–or rather tonight.

That same evening I was sent on night-duty to an acute medical ward. Since each of my previous night-duties had become a sharp, painful memory of telegrams and death and brooding grief, I did not welcome the change, and wrote to my mother in a sudden fit of despondency, deepened by the renewed recollection that Edward, my fellow-survivor, was far away and depressed:

“I feel very old and sad these days, though Sister ‘Milroy’ . . . tells me she feels like my mother when she goes out with me, though she’s only eight years older. I wonder if I shall ever be eight years older, and if the next eight could possibly be as long as the last three. I suppose I am saturated with War, and getting thoroughly war-weary, like everyone else.”[1]

 

Carroll Carstairs, our American officer of the Grenadiers, was in the area as well, returning to the line after leave.

Trains! French trains… I watched the smoke from the engine drift into separate wisps that looked like shrapnel bursts. Leaning back in my seat, I felt myself being carried along by destiny itself.

The drums reminded me that I was back again, feeling, in the process of a slight readjustment, unreality in the midst of the greatest reality. While I was away the Battalion had moved by route march from Ypres to the Somme.[2]

Which is but a way of indicating that we will, shortly, as well.

 

But first, once again, to London. Today’s most interesting event, from a war literature point of view, was a crossing-of-paths between the two most significant soldier-poets of 1917, Siegfried Sassoon and Robert Nichols. Robert Graves is the key node between the two of them, having been enthusiastically talking them up to each other for months and very hopeful that the three shall form a musketeerish bond, but he is on duty in Wales, and actually in command of the garrison of the Royal Welch at Rhyl. Which was perhaps a good thing, as the three together might have made for an explosive stew of intense eagerness and disparate social anxieties.

Instead, the two poets met with the capable Robbie Ross to smooth the way. Tonight, then, was yet another soldier-poet dinner at the Reform Club, and it might very well have gone badly. Nichols’s Ardours and Endurances has been “the hit of the season,” but Sassoon’s assessment was not favorable. He is surely correct that Nichols was “not as good as Sorley,” and posterity has certainly agreed–but that would be getting ahead of ourselves. But it should be fairly obvious that the poems will not wear that well: they are pretty, but they ring hollow in too many places. Nichols was (too) confident in his talent, but then again he knew himself to be a lightweight in terms of military service compared to Sassoon, that well-known fire-eater and wearer of the MC, and that easily could have been a point of unpleasantness.

Had Nichols suspected that Sassoon knew himself to be the better poet–or if he knew how much Sassoon shared Graves’s scorn for his personal failings (i.e. Nichols’s adventures with shell shock and venereal disease)–it might have degenerated into a butting of heads or a competition in offense-taking. And Nichols had either missed–or chosen to overlook–the rather pointed use of the word  “ardours” in “Fight to the Finish,” which suggests that Sassoon recognized him for a bit of a phony and was willing to take a shot at him in print.

So, again, it was lucky that they had Robbie Ross, “expert conversational masseur.” The dinner went well and the friendship began, but the three did not retire thereafter to Ross’s flat in Half Moon Street, the decadent chambers to which Wilfred Owen had recently been initiated. No: they had been set up! Ross, after dining with them, duly delivered the two poets to a literary gathering at the home of Sibyl Colefax, “a rising society hostess, a ‘duchess-snob’, who liked to collected literary lions.”

Once they arrived, the poets, bait for the real prey–society eminences–learned that they were expected to perform. Nichols had done such a public reading before, and was a happy ham. He went first, melodramatically declaimed his verses, and then, even worse, was followed by a piano interlude of ragtime tunes played by Ivor Novello. Sassoon was thus perfectly primed to displease, and he certainly tried to, reading “The Hero, “The Rear-Guard,” and the famously controversial “They,” with its soldier “gone syphilitic” and blunt mockery of conventional religion.

It’s hard to tell if this was Sassoon just being “tough,” or, rather, whether he was trying to needle Nichols (who had seen nothing as horrible as the Hindenburg Tunnel, but did indeed know the horrors of syphilis). If Sassoon was “genuinely impressed” by Nichols, as one biographer has it, he was also irritated by his performance, which caused Sassoon “acute discomfort.”

But in any case Sassoon was a poor reader and he was out of every one of his various elements–this was not the sort of crowd that would either be impressed by a minor gentleman-sportsman from Kent with an MC, charmed by the handsome young jock-aesthete, or approving of quiet aloofness as a substitute for active wit.

Was he trying to shock the bourgeois? Perhaps, but one should credit him with a more nuanced appreciation of class: this wasn’t that crowd either. These were experienced high society women, flying far above the mere bourgeois, and three and a half years into the war. Lady Cynthia Asquith only recorded Sassoon’s shyness and prominent ears, while Vita Sackville-West, not surprisingly, saw through the ambitious Nichols, calling him “a horrid little bounder.”[3]

But what does that signify? At least the poets performed, and the ladies had something to say. Sassoon still had some dwindling notoriety as a protest poet, and some might notice that his poems “shocked” to good effect. Nichols was popular, and he delivered the goods, no matter that they are second-rate. The two will soon be invited back again, to enliven our last blogging December with their tales of the war’s largest literary waymeet…

 

Unfortunately for Wilfred Owen, however, his luck has run out–or it hasn’t yet run away enough for such things. He was in London too, today, a century back, on the way back home after visiting his cousin Leslie Gunston, and went to the Poetry Bookshop, where he was pleased to exchange winks with Harold Monro when a customer spoke of Sassoon. But then he was off to Shrewsbury, unaware that Sassoon and Nichols were with Ross…[4]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Testament of Youth, 392; Letters From a Lost Generation, 382.
  2. Generation Missing, 118.
  3. Moorcroft Wilson, Siegfried Sassoon, I, 423; Ricketts, Strange Meetings, 128-131.
  4. Hibberd, Wilfred Owen, 283.

An Unwelcome Arrival, A Literary Lunch, and a Rueful Transfer

Wilfred Owen‘s first day in London as the new find/friend of Siegfried Sassoon began well: he lunched with Robbie Ross, who was both a central hub of literary London and the most important contact that a young gay Englishman could make. And it seems to have gone well: Owen left with an invitation to dine at the Reform Club tomorrow.[1]

 

As for Sassoon, left behind at Craiglockhart instead of among new friends and old in London, he found yet another reason to bemoan his company and circumstances, today, a century back: Lady Ottoline Morrell, his erstwhile friend and Pacifist/protest backer, has stubbornly insisted on visiting him in Scotland, despite the fairly obvious “I don’t really want to see you” tone of his recent letters.

Having failed to put off Ottoline’s threatened visit… he made the most of her stay. Though she felt neglected and complained bitterly of his thoughtlessness in booking her into one of Edinburgh’s most expensive hotels… he had accorded her exactly the same treatment as he had Graves, that is, fitted her round his games of golf.[2]

And just as Owen’s London literary life will hit a new high tomorrow, Sassoon’s relationship with Morrell will reach a new low.

 

And finally, today, there was an exchange of ordeals for Alfred Hale, our poor (but independently wealthy), clumsy (but musical), hopelessly incompetent airman. After two miserable months as a batman serving a Royal Flying Corps officer at a training facility–which meant long days of chopping wood and tending the officers’ stoves–“he was shunted to clerical work.” This would seem like a reprieve–but not so fast, dear reader. Hale may not be a hale or hardy outdoorsman or gifted with the skills and personality of a capable servant… but he is also utterly befuddled by machines, even those as simple as the typewriter or telephone…[3]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Hibberd, Wilfred Owen, 280-1.
  2. Moorcroft Wilson, Siegfried Sassoon, I, 418-9.
  3. The Ordeal of Alfred Hale, 119.

Lord Dunsany Finds Comfort Among Friends, and a Near Miss and Wordsworth

Edward John Moreton Drax Plunkett, 18th Baron of Dunsany, has had a less than exalted military career. He’s never fit in well with his brother officers–perhaps because he is a prickly sort of character, perhaps because he’s a literary chap (and a fantasy-inclined literary chap at that), or perhaps because he was briefly an officer in the prewar army and had quit, thus demonstrating a preference for the life of a prickly, literary, adventurous, wealthy lord to that of a career army officer… For these reasons–or because of his outspokenness or his intermittent speaking up for an enlisted poet–and also certainly because of his status as a peer and the fact that his wound was bravely but awkwardly obtained in Dublin–Dunsany has spent very little time at the front. So it is with eager appreciation that he has found himself accepted, at last, into the less socially intimidating milieu of a line battalion.

He has found fellowship–friends and comrades, if not yet quite a band of brothers. And this makes him very happy. But how did it come about?

Because out here, where titles and outside interests are not of much account, he has passed the one test that really matters.

My Darling Mink,

We are well out of the way of shells and will still be when you get this letter. I hope you may some day meet all the officers of D. Co. with whom I have soldiered. They are all my friends, even Lacey, a typical ranker: they probably all started out with a prejudice against my inexperience, which I think changed in every case under shell-fire…

That is, the logically assumed that a titled, ex-professional officer with so little trench experience was either being protected or had previously proven to be a grave liability. But, as with Robert Graves and so many others, he finds that social resistance is not zealously maintained against an officer who can do his job under fire.

And, even better, the mixed lot of men now officering old Kitchener battalions are likely to be less hostile to the consolations of literature than a mess full of regular officers.

…and another is Williams… a journalist on the Manchester Guardian with a good appreciation for poetry. One night I was rummaging among philosophy to find comfort and he said did I know Wordsworth’s Ode to Duty. I asked him to repeat it, which he could not do, but he said what he could remember of it as we went along the line and I certainly found it inspiring. I don’t think I told you that I was hit one night but not hurt. It was that night, but it was later on that we were talking about Wordsworth, towards dawn.

Ever your loving

Pony[1]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Amory, Lord Dunsany, 147.

Another Last Hurrah for Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen, and Ten Pounds of Distance; Ivor Gurney is to Convalesce; Edward Brittain is Bound for Italy

Today, a century back, was a day of departures.

In Edinburgh, Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen spent a last evening together at the Conservative Club before Owen left to begin his leave and eventual return to duty. Sassoon will remember a hilarious evening of bad poetry–but that was last week. What Owen will remember is an inspirationally amicable meeting with an awkward post-script. Sassoon left him at the club–curfew at the hospital, after all, while Owen was going directly to a night train en route to Shrewsbury–with a sealed envelope, to be opened only after they parted.

Owen, naturally, waited no more than a minute or two. He hoped, perhaps, to be in possession of some grave confidence or juicy secret. Instead, he was in possession of a ten pound note and a suggestion that he use it to enjoy his leave.

I sat on the stairs and groaned a little, and then went up and loosed off a gourd, a Gothic vacuum of a letter, which I ‘put by.’[1]

The groan is generally interpreted as being directed at the money, or the assumptions that preceded such a gift. It is a strange situation, surely: Sassoon is wealthy and his wartime activities were never curtailed for want of funds; Owen is not, and could indeed use the sum to enjoy his leave, but while friends might ask each other for loans–even “loans” that will not be repaid–this unsolicited parting gift would have felt more like a tip than a favor. Owen is not in immediate need, and so a gift of money implies an assumption of social inequity. At least I think that’s how the class system worked in such a case.

But the groan could just as well be for the general inadequacy of the letter, its mere friendliness when Owen might have hoped for something more passionate. But he is not offended, really, it’s the groan of a joke gone wrong, not of agony and betrayal. The best evidence for this will be Owen’s very passionate reply–but, as he writes above, his first draft (the “gourd, a Gothic vacuum” is a reference to the bad poetry they have been mocking together) was not fit for sending…[2]

It’s an amusing coincidence, then, that the Cambridge Magazine of today, a century back, carried “The Wooden Cross,” one of Sassoon’s less satisfactory attempts at a memorial poem, written for his old hunting friend Gordon Harbord. Harbord, neither intellectual nor literary, had old claims on Sassoon’s affections–and that was a friendship that would never have included an unsolicited bank note in a sealed envelope…

 

Ivor Gurney, also near Edinburgh, is also leaving–or, at least, it was today, a century back, that he got the news:

3 November 1917

My Dear Friend: Well, to business, (probable.) Chuck out — Tuesday. London 7.30. High Wycombe, Friday Morning. Gloucester Sat: night (as late as can be.)

There’s a bit of luck; owing to slight indigestion (presumably due to gas; wink, wink!) I am to go to Command Depot for two months — a sort of Con: Camp in Khaki. I hope they will keep me for two months, and then of course, if the indigestion isn’t cured……….

This can be read as a Conspiracy to Malinger, but it needn’t be. Gurney is an old soldier, now, and certainly in no hurry to rush back for a winter at the front, what with his weak stomach (never mind his troubled “nerves”) and his ability to serve the army elsewhere, in his capacity as Convalescent Accompanist.

And, perhaps, get a little time to compose…

No, the song is not done, when I’m with you perhaps. Two months Con Camp! O Composition…

with best wishes: Your sincere friend Ivor Gurney[3]

 

Finally, today, a date of which I’m not terribly sure–Vera Brittain remembers it, however, and probably with good reason, and apparently because it was the date she received a letter from her brother, not far away in the Salient:

But on November 3rd, when the Flanders offensive was subsiding dismally into the mud and Edward was daily expected home on leave, a brief, mysterious note came from him, written in the vaguely remembered Latin of the Sixth Form at Uppingham:

Hanc epistolam in lingua Latina male conscripta…

It is with a frustrated humility that I insert that ellipsis: Vera Brittain copied out the whole Latin letter. I can’t unpack it all, anyway, but the beginning reads: “This letter, written in bad Latin…”

It’s a creative attempt to foil the censors, but rather a silly one. If the idea is to keep classified information from the Germans, doubting their ability as Classicists hardly seems the wisest choice. Edward does, however, use further circumlocution (so to speak) to hint at the crucial news, and Vera is able to figure it out. But before she fully absorbs the significance of the letter, she turns it into the means of settling a score:

Calling desperately upon the elusive shades of Pass Mods, I managed to gather from this letter that Edward’s battalion had been ordered to join the British and French Divisions being sent from France under Lord Plumer and General Fayolle to reinforce the Italian Army. When I had recovered a little from the shock, I took his note to the C. of E. padre, a burly, rubicund individual whose manner to V.A.D.S was that of the family butler engaging the youngest between-maid, and with innocent eyes asked him to translate. As I had suspected, he had not the remotest idea where to begin, and after much protest about the thinness of the notepaper, and the illegibility of Edward’s clear handwriting, he was obliged, to my secret triumph, to confess his ignorance…

After putting one over on the hapless clergyman, she reflects on what the transfer might mean.

Well, it does make it necessary to mention, very much in passing, another of 1917’s major strategic developments.[4] The Italians have lately come close to collapsing under a strong Austro-German offensive, which is now threatening the Veneto. But, as always, “close” means little: winter is coming, and the Germans, perturbed by the tactical success around Ypres and the arrival of the Americans, are withdrawing their troops from the Italian front to send them to France. Italy will not collapse entirely under merely Austrian pressure, but the allies must go and show the flag, regardless.

For Vera Brittain, however, the calculus was more simple: Edward will be safer–probably–but farther away.

Although I was glad that Edward had left the Salient, I couldn’t help being disappointed that he was going so far away after I had manoeuvred myself, as I had hoped, permanently near him for the duration of our wartime lives.

“Half the point of being in France seems to be gone,” I told my family, “ and I didn’t realise until I heard he was
going how much I had . . . looked forward to seeing him walk up this road one day to see me. But I want you to try
and not worry about him more because he is there . . . no one who has not been out here has any idea how fed-up everyone is with France and with the same few miles of ground that have been solidly fought over for three years. There is a more sporting chance anywhere than here. Of course there has been great talk about the migration . . . and all the men whose units are going are very pleased.”[5]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Collected Letters, 504-5.
  2. See Hibberd, Wilfred Owen, 279-80.
  3. War Letters, 230.
  4. It seems that I may have succeeded in entirely avoiding mention of the Russian Revolution--it does crop up in the seventh paragraph or so of Gurney's letters, from time to time, but I often trim those. This is not simple negligence but rather a decision born out of a combination of despair at giving a decent big picture view along with all these closeups and a commitment to the principle that, in this sort of project, things should only matter to readers if and when they matter to the writers.
  5. Testament of Youth, 390-1.

November, and Gurney’s Acquiescence; Duff Cooper Makes the Grade

November will see the end of the battle of Passchendaele, still churning on but more or less invisible to us: none of our main sources remain in the thick of it, and the final, brutal push will be borne by Canadian troops. Then there will be another attack at Cambrai–a promising tank action–but it’s hard to avoid the sense that, for the group of writers assembled here, the war has moved into a phase that has more to do with acceptance than anticipation–or, perhaps, more to do with explicating past experience than experiencing new things.

There will be more cross-pollination this month, too. Isaac Rosenberg, behindhand, will read Mr. Britling, and–finally!–Sassoon. Despite his early acquaintance with Eddie Marsh–a generous patron but not one to ignore the huge social distinctions among his proteges–Rosenberg has never been brought together with his fellow “Georgians” (not that his loose, powerfully emotional verse fits any better among their restrained and traditional forms than he, a young Jew from what we might call the inner city, fits among the tweedy country-lane-strollers). Nevertheless, it is striking that it was not until this month that he will read Sassoon for the first time, while paging toward his own work in a reverse-alphabetical number of Georgian Poetry.

As for Sassoon, he will finally meet Robert Nichols, whom Graves has long been promoting as a possible third musketeer, while Graves will stake his claim to one of the many “adversarial” or antithetical ways of writing about the war with his pointedly-titled collection Fairies and Fusiliers.

And on another flank of the poetic front, Ivor Gurney–after Rosenberg perhaps the most important enlisted poet–will finally have a chance to join the conversation, as his first collection of verse, with its similarly double-weighted title–Severn and Somme–comes out. We will take our “month poem,” then–and our tone–from Gurney:

 

Acquiescence

Since I can neither alter my destiny
By one hair’s breadth from its appointed course;
Since bribes nor prayers nor any earthly force
May from its pathway move a life not free —
I must gather together the whole strength of me,
My senses make my willing servitors;
Cherish and feed the better, starve the worse;
Turn all my pride to proud humility.
Meeting the daily shocks and frozen, stony,
Cynical face of doubt with smiles and joy —
As a battle with autumn winds delights a boy,
Before the smut of the world and the lust of money,
Power, and fame, can yet his youth destroy;
Ere he has scorned his Father’s patrimony.

 

As for today itself, a century back, we have one thing only, and in a very different tone. It’s well worth the periodic reminder that the sort of “experiential” history to which this project is devoted is fatally flawed: to generalize from personal experiences is only to approximate, not to grasp or translate or identify or explain. We don’t actually have, that is, generalized experiences. Even if our interpretations of our experiences might be affected by our knowledge of what others around us are experiencing, it would take unusual empathy for this effect to be at all significant. We live only our own lives, and sometimes we are happy for petty reasons on calamitous days, or focused on the terrible blister we got on the victorious march. More to the point, anyone who fights in a war has (at least) two different age identities: the time he or she has lived on the earth, and the time he or she has spent in uniform. (Then, of course, and most significant, comes the time spent in danger, and in combat.)

In other words, November 1917 is, generally speaking, a month of misery and acquiescence, the 40th month of the war, the fourth month of Third Ypres, the fourth autumn of wretched mud. But for Duff Cooper, the war is four months old, and a matter of drills, barracks, and exams. A cadet since July, he has endured nothing worse yet (other than the loss of so many friends who went earlier) than the boredom, discomfort, and pettiness of old school officer training.

Two days ago, a century back, Cooper sat for the examination that would qualify him as an officer. Today he will learn how he did–but not before the army puts him through one more morning of casual emotional cruelty…

I got up early feeling nervous and depressed. It was a cold misty morning. After breakfast we were told to parade in the ante-room at 8. We were trembling, prepared to hear our fate. But it was only Clutterbuck who talked to us about the examination. He said we hadn’t done as well as he expected and warned us that a great many had failed. We were then dismissed til nine o’clock feeling far more depressed than before. At nine we assembled again and waited three sickening quarters of an hour before the Commandant arrived. At last he came and proceeded to read out very slowly and deliberately and in no order the names of those whom he would recommend for commissions. It was a slow and agonizing torture. Twenty-seven names were read out and then came mine. The relief and delight were unspeakable. There were fourteen failures–none of my friends amongst them. The rest of the day was spent in handing in our kit and equipment–a pleasant duty. Oh the relief that Bushey is over. If I wake up for a moment in the night I remember it and go to sleep smiling. I wonder I could ever have borne it.[1]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Diaries, 60.