Oxford, 1 May 1915
I was up at 3.45 this morning for the famous May Morning ceremony… as the clock struck four all the people turned towards the tower & became absolutely silent. Then immediately after, as the sun was rising, the choristers on the top of Magdalen tower sang the May Morning Latin hymn, turning towards the sun… I could quite easily have wept at the beauty & pain of it. I couldn’t help thinking how different everything is from what we pictured it would be, & how you had meant to be here, & how you would have loved it if you had been…
Vera’s letter then turns to discuss the apparent lack of progress in the war. She notices that the Territorial regiments seem to be suffering the most at Ypres, almost as if Kitchener’s Army is being held back form some other onslaught–as indeed it is. She then reproaches herself for her weakness:
When I read your letters & find how you never complain of anything by so much as a word, dear, although I know you shrink from horror & ugliness just as much as I do, I feel I am not being one little bit brave.
I hear Mother is sending you out some socks for your men. I am glad you are giving us some faint idea at last of things you want. I do feel such pleasure in sending them.
Goodbye for the present–very best of love–
Vera Brittain is a kindred spirit, always looking back and looking ahead, remembering and fretting, waiting and hoping. She will return to this May Day in verse–a day to remember, like Speech Day, for its beauty, for its aching sense of bright hopeful promises, and for what came after.
We will come back to today when Vera does, but we’ll turn, before the end of this post, to Roland Leighton‘s “response,” a long letter to her also begun today, a century back.
But it ain’t only Oxford. Everywhere, spring has sprung. And with it poetry has bloomed,and burgeoned, and flowered…
In honor, then, of the first of the month, here are several month-dated poems, all written during–or about–this first springtime of the war.
This is the first appearance here of William Noel Hodgson, the son of a bishop, a prolific athlete at Durham School, and a talented scholar. He was working toward a second degree at Oxford (Christ Church) when the war began, but soon volunteered and was commissioned in the 9th Devonshires. At this point he is still in training and, like so many other subalterns of Kitchener’s Army, he was writing verse.
(Apologies for the spacing–there is skillful rhythm here, but I find myself unable to easily reproduce indentations in this silly program.)
Splendide Fallax [i.e. Gloriously Deceptive”]
It was the time of snowdrops,
They wandered thro’ the lawn;
Her eyes were like the ocean,
His hair was like the corn;
And she saw nought besides him ;
But he that duty guides him.
And love must be forsworn.
It is the time of roses
And she goes by forlorn,
Nor sees the summer splendour.
Nor feels the breath of morn.
The trees are green above her
But no more comes her lover
And hark! they mow the corn.
Sure-footed, and efficient: there are young lovers about to be parted. It’s springtime and roses, and sprouting corn. And hark–a clever ending, especially if you had had the thought that hair “like the corn” is straining ye olde poetic diction. Ah, but it becomes a gentle nudge, doesn’t it? “Mowing, my friends, is a pastoral image.” It’s more subtle than a similar move that Wilfred Owen will one day make, admonishing the reader directly for confusing men and flowers.
Hodgson also wrote “Durham” this month, which is more schoolboy Brooke or innocent Grenfell than young man’s Thomas. I’ll give the first and last stanzas, which convey the (familiar) sentiment well enough:
On death’s frontier lie broken
Half-a-hundred empty schemings
And a thousand fairy dreamings,
By the stark word, “Battle,” spoken,
Ultimate and simple passions in the men are re-awoken…
When our bones long since are rotten.
One above the dying embers
Shall grow young as he remembers,
Names and faces half-forgotten.
With the ancient loves and friendships of thy tenderness begotten.
The 9th Devonshires will go to the front in July.
About Eric Fitzwater Wilkinson I know very little. He was a graduate of Leeds University, a schoolmaster when the war broke out, and soon a lieutenant in the 8th (New Army) battalion of the West Yorkshire regiment, which is about to arrive at the trenches. At some point this month, near Laventie, he wrote this poem. It could stand as the representative of all other traditional early trench poems–up with the lark and down with the nightingale:
TO A LARK AT DAWN BETWEEN THE TRENCHES
Thy song comes thrilling through the air
a ‘ glorious stream of melody—
A golden flood.
What precious chance has kept thee there.
Singing thy strains of faerie glee,
Where all is blood?
We cannot see thee, wondrous bird;
The dawn has scarce begun as yet;
The moon still high.
But friend and foe thy song have heard.
And none who hear it can forget
Nor check a sigh.
Because thy music, wildly sweet.
Seems still to call us from the ground
To soar and fly;
But we, alas, have leaden feet;
Unloveliness is all around.
Men fight and die.
’Tis no fit place for such high lore.
For we are bound, we cannot rise—
Till the blood mist clears.
But fly to him who launched the war.
Sing, sing to him and ope’ his eyes
To human tears.
Alas! poor sprite! thy fate with him
Were poor indeed. For one who wrongs
A world entire,
To glut ambition’s idle whim,
Will never hearken to thy songs
Of hallowed fire.
Then stay with us. The nightingale
Shall sing all night her sad, sweet dirge
For death and pain;
But Dawn thine own free voice shall hail.
And in the heart high Hope shall surge
And soar again.
And grim-faced men with weary eyes
Shall turn their thoughts from blood and strife.
Across the foam.
To where, beneath Old England’s skies.
Thy sisters sing of love and life
To those at home.
May Wedderburn Cannan was born in Oxford, the daughter of Charles Cannan, Dean of Trinity and director of the Oxford University Press. Naturally, perhaps, she was both a volunteer and a poet. She had joined a VAD–“Voluntary Aid Detachment” before the war, and in late April 1915 she went to Rouen. At this point in the war VADs–amateur middle and upper class volunteers, mostly women, with scant formal training in nursing–were still mostly scorned, and not allowed closer to the front than Rouen, which was a railhead miles behind the front lines.
Cannan could be compared unfavorably, then, with Lady Feilding (or Mairi Chisholm and Elsie Knocker), amateurs who found their way to the front by joining foreign Red Cross units. Or she could be compared with the Nursing Sister, a woman with extensive and valuable nursing experience who nonetheless worried constantly that she would be kept, because of her sex (her gender, we would say), away from where she could do the most good.
Neither comparison would be quite fair. The Pervyse crew were outliers, with unusual connections or skills and the willingness to buck against the traces of English sexism. Cannan did what she could, within the current bounds of convention–she volunteered, and when she was sent to run a soldier’s canteen, she did. Later, she will do more.
Her poetry, too, is conventional, but it captures a moment, a slice of experience, and it flashes forward to the prevailing mood of mid-war poetry: wistful, sentimental, fending off a darkness unvisualized with memories of the better times.
Cannan later wrote the following poem, which commemorated her month near the front:
26 April—25 May 1915
Early morning over Rouen, hopeful, high, courageous morning.
And the laughter of adventure and the steepness of the stair.
And the dawn across the river, and the wind across the bridges.
And the empty littered station and the tired people there.
Can you recall those mornings arid the hurry of awakening.
And the long-forgotten wonder if we should miss the way,
And the unfamiliar faces, and the coming of provisions.
And the freshness and the glory of the labour of the day?
Hot noontide over Rouen, and the sun upon the pity.
Sun and dust unceasing, and the glare of cloudless skies.
And the voices of the Indians and the endless stream of soldiers.
And the clicking of the tatties, and the buzzing of the flies.
Can you recall those noontides and the reek of steam and coffee.
Heavy-laden noontides with the evening’s peace to win.
And the little piles of Woodbines, and the sticky soda bottles,
And the crushes in the ‘Parlour’, and the letters coming in?
Quiet night-time over Rouen, and the station full of soldiers.
All the youth and pride of England from the ends of all the earth,
And the rifles piled together, and the creaking of the sword-belts,
And the faces bent above them, and the gay, heart-breaking mirth.
Can I forget the passage from the cool white-bedded Aid Post
Past the long sun-blistered coaches of the khaki Red Cross train
To the truck train full of wounded, and the weariness and laughter.
And ‘Good-bye, and thank,you. Sister’, and the empty yards again?
Can you recall the parcels that we made them for the railroad.
Crammed and bulging parcels held together by their string.
And the voices of the sergeants who called the Drafts together.
And the agony and splendour when they stood to save the King?
Can you forget their passing, the cheering and the waving,
The little group of people at the doorway of the shed.
The sudden awful silence when the last train swung to darkness,
And the lonely desolation, and the mocking stars o’erhead?
Can you recall the midnights, and the footsteps of night watchers,
Men who came from darkness and went back to dark again,
And the shadows on the rail-lines and the all-inglorious labour,
And the promise of the daylight bring blue the window-pane?
Can you recall the passing through the kitchen door to morning,
Morning very still and solemn breaking slowly on the town.
And the early coastways engines that had met the ships at daybreak.
And the Drafts just out from England, and the day shift coming down?
Can you forget returning slowly, stumbling on the cobbles,
And the white-decked Red Cross barges dropping seawards for the tide,
And the search for English papers, and the blessed cool of water,
And the peace of half-closed shutters that shut out the world outside?
Can I forget the evenings and the sunsets on the island,
And the tall black ships at anchor far below our balcony,
And the distant call of bugles, and the white wine in the glasses,
And the long line of the street lamps, stretching Eastwards to the sea?
…When the world slips slow to darkness, when the office fire burns lower,
My heart goes out to Rouen, Rouen all the world away;
When other men remember I remember our Adventure
And the trains that go from Rouen at the ending of the day.
And now a shifting of gears. The influential Modernist peridical The Egoist (Volume II, Number 5) came out today. With all this larking about and remembering Rouen there’s no time for the Modernists today. But geez, marshaling your artillery on the flanks while the young enthusiasts of the soon-to-be old guard rush to their death in a flowery frontal assault is… good strategy. What, precisely, is the explanation for the fact that the death rate among committed modernists was so much lower than that of the major talents of a more traditional bent?
We’ll come back to that. In the meantime, if you’d like to see what May Sinclair published today, or Amy Lowell, or H.D., or her husband Richard Aldington, or D.H. Lawrence, or what Harold Monro thought of their Imagist brethren, well… check it out at the link above. There’s even a short verse from T.E. Hulme, “now in the trenches of Ypres” written in 1908 but cited here as an early moment in the “History of Imagism.” Many of these writers will have their day here too, but not today.
But stop! I do have to write a little bit about Lawrence, whose poem ‘Eloi, Eloi, Lama Sabachthani?‘ (quoting Jesus on the cross) is a remarkably explicit early anti-war poem. Lawrence, who will be persecuted for his pacifism, foregrounds the murderous destructiveness of war and the insanity of the men of avowedly Christian nations killing each other by the thousands.
I shot my man, I saw him crumble and hang/ A moment as he fell–and grovel and die.
And God is good, for I wanted him to die/ and twist and grovel…
It gets more horrible, and notably graphic, too. Lawrence is neither a prude nor a soldier, but he anticipates what many prim soldier boys will realize with a start during training, namely that penetrating with the bayonet is for many an unavoidably sexual image:
Like a bride he took my bayonet, wanting it…
…And I, the lover, am consummate
This kind of stuff complicates the image of a straight march from flowery Georgian patriotism to the poetry of horror and protest, doesn’t it?
So, back in the end here to our writers in the trenches. Roland Leighton reported a few days ago that
We have left our trenches in the wood, and have been since 6 p.m. last night holding another piece of the line… there are no primroses or violets here, but only sandbags and boarding and yellow slag. Which is perhaps as it should be.
Today, still in the same area, he writes again.
Flanders, 1—3 May 1913
Yesterday we got rushed off suddenly to occupy a line of support trenches, and had to stay in them till 3.30 a.m. this morning. We are to hold them again this evening, I believe; which, with nothing more inspiring to do than sit still in the rain for the most part of the night, does not sound inviting. Still, at the worst it is good practice, and you can listen to the undulating roar of a distant artillery bombardment from the direction of Ypres not with
equanimity but with a certain tremulous gratitude that it is no nearer. Someone is getting hell, but it isn’t you–yet…
I recently mentioned Epicureanism. Roland’s thought is, I think unwittingly, almost an exact paraphrase of a famous Epicurean definition of contentment, from the beginning of book II of Lucretius’s De Rerum Natura:
Pleasant it is, when over the great sea the winds shake the waters,
To gaze down from shore on the trials of others;
Not because seeing other people struggle is sweet to us,
But because the fact that we ourselves are free from such ills strikes us as pleasant.
Pleasant it is also to behold great armies battling on a plain,
When we ourselves have no part in their peril.
We can only hope that Roland gets to lines seven and eight:
But nothing is sweeter than to occupy a lofty sanctuary of the mind,
Well fortified with the teachings of the wise.
Well. It is fortified, at least, with the essential English spirit, that of the well-bred outdoorsman:
This morning I took a digging party of 50 men about 2 miles the other side of our wood…
It was a glorious morning and from where we were on the hill we could see the country for miles around. It looked
rather like the clear cut landscape in a child’s painting book. The basis was deep green with an occasional flame-coloured patch in the valley where a red-roofed farm house had escaped the guns.
Just below the horizon and again immediately at our feet was a brilliant yellow mustard field. I left the men digging and went to look at some of the houses near. All the windows were without glass and the rooms a mass of debris… I enclose a rather pathetic souvenir that I found among the rubbish in the ruins of one of the rooms—some pages from a child’s exercise book.
Soon after I came back to the trench a German howitzer battery that had caught sight of us sent over 38 3.5″ shells, which fortuitously hit nearby, though they were all within thirty or forty yards of us. Luckily you can always hear this sort coming and we had time to crouch down in the bottom of the trench…
The explosion blows a cloud of earth and splinters of shell into the air, so that when they fire a salvo (all four guns together) the effect is rather terrifying and you wonder if the next one will come a yard or two nearer and burst right in the trench on top of you. I do not mind rifle fire so much, but to be under heavy shell fire is a most nerve-racking job.
And today, a century back, the liner Lusitania set sail from New York, bound for Liverpool with a cargo of, most notably, neutral civilians and concealed munitions.