Isaac Rosenberg is Blunted; Edmund Blunden Hits the Books

Another quiet February day… Isaac Rosenberg has now joined the first battalion of his regiment–a completely new unit for him, as far as friendship and emotional support are concerned. He does not seem to be in good spirits.

We had a rough time in the trenches with the mud, but now we’re out for a bit of a rest, and I will try and write longer letters. You must know by now what a rest behind the line means. I can call the evenings—that is, from tea to lights out—my own; but there is no chance whatever for seclusion or any hope of writing poetry now. Sometimes I give way and am appalled at the devastation this life seems to have made in my nature. It seems to have blunted me. I seem to be powerless to compel my will to any direction, and all I do is without energy and interest.[1]

 

And although he will say nothing about this in his memoir, it would appear that Edmund Blunden–the harmless shepherd, the good-natured innocent–was temporarily appointed battalion adjutant today, a century back. Or so says the battalion diary. It also notes that that the C.O. was sent away on a course, which would have meant that the adjutant was temporarily in command, hence the vacancy. Still, it is an ample indication of the state of things in 1918 that a twenty-one-year-old amateur, not yet three years removed from his post as Senior Grecian at Christ’s Hospital, is now running the day-to-day affairs of a several-hundred-man unit, judging expenses, dispensing justice, etc…

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Collected Works, 378.

Three Poems for February: Edmund Blunden’s Deceitful Calm, Vera Brittain’s Dream Grown Vain, and Siegfried Sassoon’s Upteenth Idyll; Thomas Hardy Looks to Past Collapse; Kipling and the War at Home; Happy Birthday Muriel Spark

And so we come to February, a strange month. It will be slow, here (though enlivened by two strange and awesome childhood visitations by later writers, on which see below). In fact, it’s really the last “slow” month of the war. Is the end in sight? Well, in hindsight, yes. But, then, of course, to see February in this light is a violation of the terms of our compact. Yes, a German offensive is expected, and yes, the strategists see this spring and summer as crucial, because Germany is under tremendous pressure to strike a winning blow after the collapse of Russia and before the weight of the United States can turn the tide on the Western Front. But “the strategists” have been promising breakthroughs for several years now, and we can hardly be look complacently forward and congratulate them for being right. And yet…

I have three poems, today–one dated to the day and the other two appearing as “month poems.” And the first one, at least, is a bit of a cheat. The argument I’m trotting out here is that this February occupies a doubly ironic position: there is no reason to expect–or so the poor bloody infantry would feel–any change, any way to remember another cold, muddy month in the fourth winter of a war of attrition. And yet there is no way to remember this month other than as the month before[1] the last German offensive, before everything changed.

On the other hand, many things stay the same, so we’ll hear from two great Victorian writers as well. And on the other, other hand, “everything changed;” so we’ll also hear from a Modern woman as yet unborn–this morning, that is–and yet at the top of her game.

 

Gouzeaucourt: The Deceitful Calm

How unpurposed, how inconsequential
Seemed those southern lines when in the pallor
Of the dying winter
First we went there!

Grass thin-waving in the wind approached them,
Red roofs in the near view feigned survival,
Lovely mockers, when we
There took over.

There war’s holiday seemed, nor though at known times
Gusts of flame and jingling steel descended
On the bare tracks, would you
Picture death there.

Snow or rime-frost made a solemn silence,
Bluish darkness wrapped in dangerous safety;
Old hands thought of tidy
Living-trenches!

There it was, my dears, that I departed,
Scarce a plainer traitor ever! There too
Many of you soon paid for
That false mildness.[2]

 

So Edmund Blunden, looking back only to look ahead, and writing yet another agonized version of the survivor’s poem, this time in retrospect and prospect at once.

 

Vera Brittain, barred by her gender from any sense of comradeship in the face of death–indeed, from any tighter embrace of danger (she’s done as much as she can, in that regard, to get to a hospital in France)–is already a three-fold survivor. Her poem–written this month, a century back, amidst the calm that Blunden would remind us is about to be disturbed–looks steadfastly back at the first love she lost. This is more than personal mourning or general disenchantment. Given the short lines and traditional rhymes this reads, at first, as a rather prim poem–which makes the sharpness of its despair surprising: a pretty thing with jagged edges.

 

Roundel

(“Died of Wounds”)

 

Because you died, I shall not rest again,
    But wander ever through the lone world wide,
Seeking the shadow of a dream grown vain
            Because you died.

 

I shall spend brief and idle hours beside
    The many lesser loves that still remain,
But find in none my triumph and my pride;

 

And Disillusion’s slow corroding stain
    Will creep upon each quest but newly tried,
For every striving now shall nothing gain
            Because you died.[3]

 

 

Siegfried Sassoon is also sad today–“very sad,” in fact.

February 1 (Limerick, Maine)

Went to the Meet… but weather very wet and stormy, and hounds went home from the meet… Twenty-three miles for nothing… Very sad.

Once again Outdoor Sassoon comes home from a hunt and writes a poem, its music sweet and its sentiment… sentimental.

 

Idyll

In the grey summer garden I shall find you
With day break and the morning hills behind you
There will be rain-wet roses; stirring wings;
And down the wood a thrush that wakes and sings.
Not from the past you’ll come, but from that deep
Where beauty murmurs to the soul asleep:
And I shall know the sense of life re-born.
From dreams into the mystery of morn
Where gloom and brightness meet. And standing there
‘Til that calm song is done, at last we’ll share
The league-spread quiring symphonies that are
Joy in the world, and peace, and dawn’s one star.

February 1[4]

 

And back in England, two great men of the older generation (two different older generations, really) cope with the war in very different ways. Sometimes it seems as if there are really only two modes of being an old (i.e. past military age) man in times like these: you either lament the war and all its foolish, backward, wickedness, or you fantasize about taking part.

Thomas Hardy, in this letter to Edward Clodd, takes the first course.

Max Gate, Dorchester, Feb 1. 1918.

My dear Clodd:

My best thanks for “The Question” which I shall read with interest, as I do everything of yours…

What a set-back this revival of superstition is! It makes one despair of the human mind. Where’s Willy  Shakespeare’s “So noble in reason” now! In another quarter of a century we shall be burying food & money with our deceased, as was done with the Romano-British skeletons I used to find in my garden.

Sincerely yours,

Th. Hardy.[5]

 

And then there’s Rudyard Kipling–a great writer in a different mode. In terms of sheer narrative energy and storytelling verve he is almost without peer–which says little enough about his life or his politics, which are both far less exemplary and entertaining. But I don’t comment, here, upon his imperialist writings, or his celebrations of the manly spirit of adventure. I just quote from this letter, about how, having sussed out the movements of the enemy by careful observance of the natives, he has to stay home this weekend to defend his castle against maliciously anti-Kipling rioters and other crypto-socialist/peacenik undesirables.

Bateman’s
Burwash
Sussex

Feb. 1.1918.

Dear Colonel–

I ought to go up to London tomorrow for the week end as I have a good deal of important business there. But I understand that some sort of “demonstration” with regard to the food question is being planned by some of the women in the village, for Saturday night, which is not the sort of thing to leave behind one as it might easily end in window-breakings and other things that would upset our maids…

There has been in our service a Mrs. Smith–sister of Fennels–who has been here as charwoman. She has suddenly given notice for no reason though she has no other work and has been carried by us through hard times; and I understand that she is among the women concerned.

This seems to point to Bateman’s as one of the objectives in the “demonstration.”

Very sincerely

Rudyard Kipling

The editor of Kipling’s letters notes that there are no records of disturbances in Sussex this weekend, a century back. There is general unhappiness about food shortages at home, and Kipling is far from the only person in Britain tempted to believe the rumors of nefarious doings afoot. But if any vengeful members of the working class laid siege to Kipling’s Keep, he seems to have annihilated them in complete secrecy… I imagine that his gardeners diligently kept the grass short, otherwise I would imagine the Great White Hunter stalking up and down in the long grass in pith helmet and tweeds, shouldering his elephant gun…[6]

 

Finally, to begin a week in which we observe (in a very clever and literary way!) the birthdays of two major women writers of the mid-20th century, I should mention that Muriel Spark was born today, a century back. This would be trivia rather than literature were it not for her brilliant, lacerating satirical story, “The First Year of My Life.” This makes Spark surely the youngest person to contribute a properly dated fictionalized memoir to A Century Back.

The story begins with these memorable sentences:

I was born on the first day of the second month of the last year of the First World War, a Friday. Testimony abounds that during the first year of my life I never smiled.

It’s viciously good–and, much like Blunden’s backward-looking song of February–it rather spoils the outcome of the war, noting her babyish progress at each of the major milestones to come. Reader, the war will end in November, and the unsmiling baby will grow up to write a great deal, and little enough of it smile-provoking…

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Well, there were also three quiet weeks at the beginning of March...
  2. Later published in Undertones of War.
  3. Later published in Verses of a V.A.D.
  4. Diaries, 208-9.
  5. Collected Letters, V, 247.
  6. The Letters of Rudyard Kipling, IV, 482.

Rowland Feilding and the Admonitory Death of Private Mayne; A Mining Disaster in Staffordshire; Siegfried Sassoon Suspicious in Peace of Mind, C.E. Montague Melancholy at Football; Rudyard Kipling Hatches an Ode-iferous Plot

This is one of those days of discombobulated experience–but it’s hard not to feel that there is some link between all these different disasters, impression, and feelings. The war is everywhere…

Rowland Feilding‘s thoughts are dwelling on the repulse of a German raid by one of his Lewis gunners, a swift and savage burst of violence on a generally quiet front. When the action occurred, two days ago, Feilding was bracketed, here, by protesting young officers. He would never himself step away from the narrow passage of duty and make a public protest… and yet, in his letter to his wife of today, a century back, he makes it clear how much he–a middle-aged battalion commander with Regular army experience–loathes the way the higher-ups (be they no higher than Division, a mere two steps up the ladder, since he commands his own battalion) are disconnected from the experience of the soldiers. Once more the scarlet tabs of the staff officer begin to seem like a bright badge of moral cowardice…

January 12, 1918. Fillers Faucon

The incident of the morning before last had so filled me with pride of the battalion that I confess I have been aghast at receiving—instead of any acknowledgment of the successful and heroic repulse of the German raiders by Private Mayne and his companion—the following memorandum, which has been circulated in the Division.

I quote from memory:

“Another instance has occurred of an enemy patrol reaching within bombing distance of our line. This must not occur again. Our patrols must meet the enemy patrols boldly in Noman’s Land,” etc., etc., etc.

How simple and how grand it sounds! I think I can see the writer, with his scarlet tabs, seated in his nice office 7 or 8 miles behind the line, penning this pompous admonition.

So Private Mayne, it seems, will go unrecognized and unrewarded–In the meantime he has died, and I can only
say, “God rest his soul”![1]

There is a note that Private Mayne–Private Joseph Mayne, of Ardcumber, Cookstown, Co. Tyrone, son of James and Mary–was mentioned posthumously in despatches. This, short of the V.C., was the most recognition a dead soldier could hope for (strange phrase, that). And a private–an Irish private–killed in a small action, on the defensive was never going to receive any major reward, even though his heroic gallantry in manning his gun after his body had been mutilated by German grenades surely saved the lives of several of his comrades.

 

And at the Podmore Hill Colliery, in Staffordshire, today, a century back, an accumulation of coal dust and “firedamp”–methane–exploded, ripping through coal seams worked by several hundred men. Rescue efforts were unavailing and the final toll will prove to be 156 miners–men and boys. This was the third deadly explosion in the mine, and the second in three years. Wilfred Owen will read of the disaster, naturally, and he will choose to write about it as well, unable not to conflate the sudden death of so many by fire and gas (and some of them very young) with the horrors of the war itself. And, by the time Miners is complete, it will be one of his most wide-open poems, in terms of historical experience and deliberate reaching toward the universal… the miners are seen not only as soldiers, but as in some sense linked even with the ancient life whose remains they are harvesting at such peril so far below the ground, and with the years to come, which they will not see.

 

News of this disaster–but what are 156 poor men against the daily toll of the war?–will spread slowly, and so we see several of our writers merely going about their business.

For Siegfried Sassoon, this business now is a numb and pleasant–suspiciously numb and pleasant–idyll. It is almost as if he is being visited by a premonition of the mining disaster, in all its frank horror and heavy symbolic weight.

January 12

Peace of mind; freedom from all care; the jollity of health and good companions. What more can one ask for? But it is a drugged peace, that will not think, dares not think. I am home again in the ranks of youth–the company of death. The barrack clock strikes eleven on a frosty night. ‘Another night; another day’.[2]

 

C.E. Montague–a man of something near to an opposite temperament from Sassoon’s–is feeling much the same way:

On January 12, Montague was back at Rollencourt. There was a pause in operations, and he played ‘a good game of football’; but was ‘intensely melancholy, these days’, over the public situation. ‘Now’, he says, ‘is the time to learn and practise fortitude, but it is hard.’[3]

 

But life persists, and pastimes persist. Montague plays football, Sassoon will go hunting when he can, and Rudyard Kipling–who, whenever he makes a brief appearance in a Great War history, is generally depicted as utterly destroyed by the death of his son–continues to bear up as best he can. He is at work–naturally–on a collaborative project involving Horace. Not to translate him, study him, or make the great Roman poet somehow applicable to Britain’s war effort, but rather to concoct a spurious, tongue-in-cheek Fifth Book of Odes. (Horace wrote four.) In Latin. Is there satirical intent? Sure. Is it, or was it ever, broadly accessible? Perhaps a bit more back then, but, really… not so much.

Bateman’s
Burwash
Sussex
Jan 12.1918

Dear Fletcher:

I am, as you know, no scholar when it comes to the Latin but I think it’s lovely… I think this is going to be glorious larks!

…I’ve got a new Fifth Booker whereof Hankinson Ma. is preparing the translation. It came out in the Times ever so long ago under the title The Pro-Consuls but I perceive now that Horace wrote it. Rather a big effort for him
and on a higher plane than usual – unless he’d been deliberately flattering some friend in the Government. I’ll send it along.

Ever yours

Rudyard Kipling[4]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. War Letters to a Wife, 246-8.
  2. Diaries, 203.
  3. Elton, C.E. Montague, 200.
  4. Letters, IV, 479-80.

Duff Cooper, Hunched Against Loss; Ford Madox Ford Flogs Footsloggers

Duff Cooper‘s third day of mourning for Patrick Shaw Stewart occasions an unfortunate metaphor:

January 6th. I played tennis in the morning… I felt more and more depressed as the day went on. I had enjoyed my visit and had felt happier in my misery than I thought possible. I had been like one with a bad wound in a hospital and I felt that I was leaving the hospital before the wound was healed… I was indeed treated like an invalid these days, given the best of everything, sat in the best places, everyone being very kind to me….[1]

 

Just before Christmas I mentioned a new poem by Ford Madox Hueffer. “Footsloggers” is finished, now, which leaves Ford with nothing to do but to undertake the miserable task of flogging an “unrepresentative” piece of his work. He wrote to the editor James B. Pinker today, a century back:

…won’t you have a shot at something new?

I attach a long poem I have just completed. It expresses the spirit of the poor old Infantry & of the Bn. in which I have the honour to serve in a war that no other poet johnny has even attempted…

After all few poets–and no man of letters of my standing–[have] been twice out to France, actually on service & in trenches, without wangling any sort of job on the staff, but just sticking it in the Infantry for love of the job.

This is hyperbole, self-serving conceit, over-the-top self-marketing, etc., etc. It’s true that Ford’s service in an actual line battalion was rare for a writer of his age and achievement. But several prominent poets have a seen a great deal more action than he; and if one may become a “poet johnny” simply by wishing oneself one–and writing verse–than hundreds such have attempted and achieved what he is now doing…

If we try to put him in the best possible light, than perhaps Ford is simply suffering from a sort of hopeful, wilful ignorance. He probably feels that he is above reading through Georgian Poetry or the new anthologies, filled with poems by second-rate talents, etc. But to lump them all together, while simultaneously making a virtue of each quirk and failure of his own war service smacks less of making a confident pitch than of blithely ignoring both the sharper suffering and the literary efforts of a mass of “poor old infantry.” If he really wants to rest his pitch on the fact of his high literary “standing,” then all he does is call attention to the fact that so many very good writers who have seen much worse do not have a national literary standing yet, either  because they are too young, dead, or unable to produce work steadily while “sticking in it” far longer than he did…

Well, a poet–especially one with several households to support–must eat, and a footslogger must slog.

But, for those of you looking ahead to bigger and better projects, well: so too, is he:

P.P.S. Could you get me a commission for a novel–either about fighting or not about fighting. I have two ideas… I wrote about half a novel in the Salient, but got tired of it when I cracked up. That one was not about fighting–but I could do a very good one about trench warfare, too.[2]

Option A sounds very promising…

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Old Men Forget, 72.
  2. The Letters of Ford Madox Ford, 85-6.

Olaf Stapledon Plays Defense; Duff Cooper Takes the Last Blow

The antipodean mails have caught up with Olaf Stapledon, leaving him to respond to two very different letters from his beloved, Agnes Miller. First the personal, then the political:

. . . In one you talked about our inevitable drifting apart in all this absence; and all that you said was wise and comforting, and rests on the solid base rock of our now-long-standing love. It will all come right when we meet. Meanwhile let us always be frank and say just what we feel, so that we may know where we are, nicht war? Naturally I also have ups and downs of feeling. Life would be unendurable if one were always at the excruciating zenith of feeling. In the absence of summer the little beasts hibernate, to save themselves for keener living when the sun returns. With us also there must needs be much hibernating of the keen spirit of “being in love.” Be sure it will wake again in full vigour when the time comes…

As for the second letter, Stapledon’s rehearsal of his motivations and justifications is especially interesting in light of Max Plowman‘s recent deliberations:

In one letter you talked about the FAU and my relations with it… As to the whole question of my being in the F.A.U. here is a summary of the matter: I joined largely because I was in a hurry to get out & do something, partly because I was nearing pacifism. (I was practically promised a commission before joining the FAU. There was not much question of pacifism at first.) My pacifism strengthened itself in the Unit, till now it is pretty firm. It is of course a compromising sort of idea in my case—simply “I’ll do all that the state commands save whatever seems utterly wrong.” If everyone were ready to do this work & no more there would be no war. That seems to me the reasonable and—what shall I say?–the gentlest course. And I do hold that reasonableness and gentleness are the qualities most needed today. Of courage and masterfulness the world has already shown itself to have a glorious sufficiency. Anyhow here I am in the middle course, the compromise, by no means contented with it, but aware that if I were to  take either of the other two courses it would be less from a sense of duty than from the longing to be out of an uncomfortable position. . . .

Haste now. Love me. I cannot change from loving you, in spite of all hibernating.

Your own

Olaf Stapledon[1]

 

And in London, the weight of the war comes home again. Duff Cooper‘s diary records his shrinking circle’s latest loss:

I dined at the Ritz in Lionel [Tennyson]’s sitting room. It was a bachelor party. I arrived first, then Michael. We had to wait some time for William Rawle who was the fourth. He came at last and said ‘I’m sorry I’m late. Patrick Shaw-Stewart has been killed.’ I felt stunned. This is the last blow. Lionel, Michael and William were all sad but none of them could have felt what I did. I courted forgetfulness in champagne but didn’t get much comfort.[2]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Talking Across the World, 267-8.
  2. Diaries, 63.

Horseplay with Alf Pollard; Reading and Reflection with Vera Brittain, Olaf Stapledon, Cynthia Asquith, and Edmund Blunden; Wilfred Owen Goes Out a Poet; Thomas Hardy in the Moon’s Bright Disbelief

The last day of the year, with its predictable subjects of reflection and memorable rituals, is often described even in otherwise sparsely dated accounts. So we’ve got a lot of material, and will check in today with not only most of our remaining regulars but also a half-forgotten figure or two.

One of the latter is Alf Pollard, V.C., now spared further death-defying heroics in the front line. His tale of the year’s end foreshadows important developments on the Western Front. He has been assigned to teach at a Lewis Gun school, and without the Lewis gun, a mobile light machine gun, it is extremely difficult for infantry to sustain their own advance. Moreover, many of his students are particularly innocent, fresh, and eager for the fray:

There were nineteen Americans altogether in the school. They were all picked officers who had been sent on ahead of their army to learn as much as possible about British methods. They were a quiet, studious crowd, more like a party of bank inspectors than soldiers…

Of course they had their legs pulled unmercifully…

I was guilty of organising a rag against them on New Year’s Eve… According to custom we British had a merry party to see the old year out. The Americans on the other hand carried on with their studies all the evening and retired to bed as usual at ten o’clock.. It seemed to me that they might at least have thrown aside the dignity of being the advanced guard of the American Army for one night…

Close on one o’clock in the morning, I and three other fellows entered quietly by one door.[1]

Ah, but that’s next year, already. And that’s the sort of tale told by a man who was never deeply troubled by the violence of the war. Pollard is both psychologically suited to fighting, and more or less immune to doubt. Which does not make him less honest than more sensitive writers: many men–especially men who are not at the front and not likely to see it anytime soon–spent New Year’s Eve in a spirit of holiday horseplay, deliberately forgetful of other things. Others, no less honest, will nevertheless feel constrained to write something in a mood of solemn reckoning.

 

Edmund Blunden has been sustained through his long and relatively scatheless service by his feelings of fellowship with his battalion. But he is away from the old battalion as much as he is with it now, and this signaling course seems both endless and pointless… but it does allow Blunden, even without being on an active front, to close the year with one of its characteristic sights: the mute messages of signal flares, playing over a background noise of ordnance.

I began to be careless whether I was in the line or out of it; nothing seemed to signify except the day’s meals, and those were still substantial, despite the lean supplies of the people at home. The price of all luxuries in the shops was rising fast, but still one could manage it; why trouble about getting back to the battalion? This was the general spirit, and we did not lament when the course was lengthened and the year ended with us waving flags in unison in the snow, or rapping out ludicrous messages to the instructors’ satisfaction, or listening to muddled addresses on alternating current.

At the moment of midnight, December 31, 1917, I stood with some acquaintances in a camp finely overlooking the whole Ypres battlefield. It was bitterly cold, and the deep snow all round lay frozen. We drank healths, and stared out across the snowy miles to the line of casual flares, still rising and floating and dropping. Their writing on the night was as the earliest scribbling of children, meaningless; they answered none of the questions with which a watcher’s eyes were painfully wide. Midnight; successions of coloured lights from one point, of white ones from another, bullying salutes of guns in brief bombardment, crackling of machine guns small on the tingling air; but all round the sole answer to unspoken but importunate questions was the line of lights in much the same relation to Flanders as at midnight a year before. The year 1918 did not look promising at its birth.[2]

 

For the Asquiths, the old year ended with a pleasant surprise–an unexpected leave for Herbert Asquith (“Beb,” to his wife). Whether for convenience or out of courtesy–or a certain delicacy–Herbert had telegraphed ahead on the 27th to let her know that he was on his way. Not coincidentally, perhaps, Bernard Freyberg, a constant presence in Cynthia’s diary for weeks now, disappears.

Today, a century back, Cynthia and Herbert had a walk and a talk, in which she discovers how happy she is that her husband is not inclined toward the family business. Even the son of the former prime minister is aggrieved at what appears to be a callous prolongation of the war…

Beb and I walked up to the top of the New Hill and back via Coscombe. It was one of the most lovely-looking days I have ever seen. Beb is in very good form—in good, lean looks and very keen and eager—seething with indignation against the Government and the ‘hate campaign’ of the civilians. He is ashamed of the way England brutally snubs every peace feeler, and reiterates that, either we should negotiate or else fight with all our might, which he says would mean doubling our army in the field. He speaks with rage of the way we are not nearly up to strength at the Front and says it is to a large extent merely a paper army. In existing circumstances a military victory is quite out of the question until America can really take the field, which will not be for years—and he thinks all the lives now being sacrificed are being wasted, it’s like going about with a huge bleeding wound and doing nothing to bind it up. Thank God Beb isn’t in the House of Commons! I should never have the moral courage to face the reception given to the kind of speech he would make.[3]

Siegfried Sassoon may have had more allies than he knew.

 

Olaf Stapledon would disagree with little of what Asquith is saying. But he is neither politician nor officer, and he is possessed of a much sunnier spirit. Sunny enough, anyway, to relate this pleasantly furry little portent of the coming year:

The other day someone in clearing out some straw came on a queer little beast hibernating. He was rather smaller than a rat and far more elegant, having a delicate brown back, a white underneath, with a black line dividing the two shades. He had a long and furry tail; in fact he was rather like a dormouse, only bigger and fatter & greyer. I saw him lying on his back in someone’s hand with his four dainty feet in the air and his tummy rising & falling ever so gently with his slumberous breath. After a while he opened his mouth and yawned but did not wake up. Some sympathetic fellow put him by the fire, the warmth of which naturally came to him as a hint of spring, so that he finally woke up and ran away. The frost must soon have induced him to find another corner in the straw and turn in again for the rest of the winter. It was very strange to see the little beast in his winter trance, so peaceful he was, almost as still as death, but without death’s stiffness. He let people wind his tail round their fingers and move his legs about and he went on heavily sleeping all the while. One kept thinking of Bergson’s elan vital, the great universal Life, that lay in him patiently awaiting the spring & the opportunity of further creativeness.

It is the last day of the year. Best wishes for the New Year to my Agnes. May there be peace. May the world begin its new and happier age. May you & I meet and marry and begin our new & happier age also. With all my love

Your own Olaf Stapledon[4]

Stapledon is a good writer, isn’t he? With ingenuous brio and a near-total absence of cynicism he takes the microcosmic beast and the whole universe, the world war and the love that carries his hope through all the horror.

And even with all the power of the internet at my disposal (for a good four minutes or so) I can’t do better on beast-identification than Stapledon. This is perhaps not surprising… Anyway… probably a dormouse!

 

But some of those who are away from the front prefer not to think of the war at all, as its fourth year draws to a close. Wilfred Owen, writing to his mother, is not so much solemn as pompously/mock-pompously portentous. And why not? It has been a momentous year for him: action and injury, shell shock and recovery, promotion from poetic striver to protegé-of-the-young-poets. The full effect of their help–and, more importantly, of his new confidence in his poetry–will be felt this year. He is melodramatic and self-aggrandizing, here… and correct:

31 December 1917, Scarborough

My own dear Mother,

…I am not dissatisfied with my years. Everything has been done in bouts: Bouts of awful labour at Shrewsbury & Bordeaux; bouts of amazing pleasure in the Pyrenees, and play at Craiglockhart; bouts of religion at Dunsden; bouts of horrible danger on the Somme; bouts of poetry always; of your affection always; of sympathy for the oppressed always.

I go out of this year a Poet, my dear Mother, as which I did not enter it. I am held peer by the Georgians; I am a poet’s poet.

I am started. The tugs have left me; I feel the great swelling of the open sea taking my galleon.

Buoyant, and beautiful. But then the galleon bobs on the tide, and the lookout looks back.

I take Owen to task, in these boyish letters to his mother, for being a self-centered young man. And he is–but he is also possessed of enormous powers of sympathy.

Last year, at this time, (it is just midnight, and now is the intolerable instant of the Change) last year I lay awake in a windy tent in the middle of a vast, dreadful encampment. It seemed neither France nor England, but a kind of paddock where the beasts are kept a few days before the shambles. I heard the revelling of the Scotch troops, who are now dead, and who knew they would be dead. I thought of this present night, and whether I should indeed—whether we should indeed—whether you would indeed—but I thought neither long nor deeply, for I am a master
of elision.

But chiefly I thought of the very strange look on all faces in that camp; an incomprehensible look, which a man will never see in England, though wars should be in England ; nor can it be seen in any battle. But only in Étaples. It was not despair, or terror, it was more terrible than terror, for it was a blindfold look, and without expression, like a dead rabbit’s.

It will never be painted, and no actor will ever seize it. And to describe it, I think I must go back and be with them.

We are sending seven officers straight out tomorrow.

I have not said what I am thinking this night, but next December I will surely do so.[5]

 

I wondered, on Christmas, whether Vera Brittain‘s description of that night might have run into New Year’e eve. If not, her Christmas gifts may well have: she has begun reading poetry again, including two writers who have featured slightly here. She mentions not only “an impressive poem called ‘The City of Fear’ by a certain Captain Gilbert Frankau, who had not then begun to dissipate his rather exciting talents upon the romances of cigar merchants” but also reading

some lines from E. A. Mackintosh’s “Cha Till Maccruimein,” in his volume of poems A Highland Regiment, which Roland’s mother and sister had sent me for Christmas:

And there in front of the men were marching.
With feet that made no mark.
The grey old ghosts of the ancient fighters
Come back again from the dark. . . .

Her brother Edward, the one of her ancient fighters who has not yet failed to come back, is thinking along much the same lines as he wrote to her today, a century back:

Italy, 31 December 1917

It has been a rotten year in many ways — Geoffrey and Tah dead and we’ve seen each other about a week all told: so there’s a sob on the sea to-night. I don’t seem to be able to write decently; so often I feel tired and fed up when I’ve done my ordinary work and so waste what little spare time I have; I wish I could manage to write to you more…[6]

 

Often at the beginning of the month I discuss a poem that was written or published during the month (but can’t be fixed to a particular day). But this month-inaugurating habit has such a hopeful, generous cast to it, doesn’t it? Why not mention poems at the end of the month as well?

Well, in December 1917 Thomas Hardy published Moments of Vision, a tremendous collection by a great poet–an old, cranky, great poet still either disesteemed by many as a novelist of less than impeccable writerly morals or ignored as an eminent Victorian who could surely have little to say to the current moment. Well, the more fool them. But as Hardy himself predicted, the book attracted little notice, since it offered little solace and tended to make people face an uncomfortable truth and “mortify the human sense of self-importance by showing, or suggesting, that human beings are of no matter or appreciable value in this nonchalant universe.”

I don’t need the poem to bring Hardy into the end of 1917 as the voice of doom…  there are, too, several end-of-year letters that will also serve…

To James Barrie:

We wish you as good a new year as can be hoped for, & a better one than the old…

To Edmund Gosse, and picking up Owen’s nautical theme:

Just a word of Salutation to you & your house on this eve of the New Year, for which you have our best wishes as fellow passengers in this precious war-galley…

And to Henry Newbolt:

…I don’t know that I have ever parted from an old year with less reluctance than from this.

…Always sincerely

Thomas Hardy.[7]

Yes, always sincere. And what of the old man himself, tonight, a century back?

Went to bed at eleven. East wind. No bells hear. Slept in the New Year, as did also those “out there.”[8]

This, I think, is why Hardy, more than any other eminent older man of letters, will be pardoned, by the young solider poets, of all offenses related to the Experiential Gulf or the Conflict of the Generations. He thinks, in his private thoughts, of what it must be to be a soldier, cold, at the front. And when he gestures to the troubled times, he does not do so without noticing the discomforting dramatizing of just such a gesture, from an old man snug abed…

In this spirit, then, and to see out the year, one of my favorite (write it!) of Hardy’s poems from the recent book. Happy New Year!

I looked up from my writing,
And gave a start to see,
As if rapt in my inditing,
The moon’s full gaze on me.

Her meditative misty head
Was spectral in its air,
And I involuntarily said,
“What are you doing there?”

“Oh, I’ve been scanning pond and hole
And waterway hereabout
For the body of one with a sunken soul
Who has put his life-light out.

“Did you hear his frenzied tattle?
It was sorrow for his son
Who is slain in brutish battle,
Though he has injured none.

“And now I am curious to look
Into the blinkered mind
Of one who wants to write a book
In a world of such a kind.”

Her temper overwrought me,
And I edged to shun her view,
For I felt assured she thought me
One who should drown him too.

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Fire-Eater, 241.
  2. Undertones of War, 202-3.
  3. Diaries, 385-6.
  4. Talking Across the World, 266.
  5. Collected Letters, 520-1.
  6. Letters From a Lost Generation, 387-8.
  7. The Collected Letters of Thomas Hardy, V, 236-9.
  8. The Life of Thomas Hardy, 378-9.

Olaf Stapledon Need Not Worry About Parting; Robert Graves Has a More Pleasant Walk in the Snow; Cynthia Asquith and Bernard Freyberg Clash… Over Siegfried Sassoon’s Hero; The Loves and Letters of Patrick Shaw Stewart

In a few moments it will be back to the Souls/Coterie and their tangle of letters and affairs, but we’ll begin today, a century back with a lonelier–and purer–soul. Olaf Stapledon, still home, still on leave, writes again to Agnes Miller, in Australia, and he takes yet another small step toward an uncharacteristic despair.

Sunday night, the last night of leave. I go early tomorrow. This evening Mother played some Rubinstein on the piano and part of it was a “melody” that you used to play. It brought back ancient days. Father and I had such a wet walk this morning. Thurstastone was all one driving blizzard.— But what’s the use of writing you a sort of schoolboy diary? The last night of leave is a poor night. It’s bad enough for oneself but it’s worse for one’s people; and their sorrow makes one grieve far more. It’s good to talk to you tonight, for I am not on the point of leaving you—alas, partings need not worry us, for we have not yet our meeting. You are always as near as ever, and as far.[1]

That rather sets the tone, doesn’t it? Despair and sorrow and high romance–and, that, of course is the use of writing such a diary.

 

Robert Graves, however, is more fortunate: his beloved is near at hand. His biographer notes yet another visit to Nancy Nicholson–and confirms that the Merseyside weather had reached London by evening.

On Sunday, after an early lunch, he went into town again, and did not arrive back in Wimbledon until three in the morning, after walking the last last of the journey, all the way from Putney, in a driving blizzard.[2]

 

Actually, it seems that it was snowing in London throughout the day. Last night, a century back, Cynthia Asquith locked her bedroom door after (somehow!) using “purple passages” of Shakespeare to hold off the advances of Bernard Freyberg. Today the two resumed their contest of wills in a proxy battle over–wait for it!–the poetry of a certain young writer absent from–though present in verse at–a recent soirée.

Sunday, 16th December

Slept badly after agitating evening and woke to swirling snowstorm. Mary resurrected and joined us after breakfast. Freyberg inveighed against the Georgian Poets and reproached me for holding a brief for Siegfried Sassoon. I maintained that, having fully demonstrated his personal physical courage, he had earned the right to exhibit moral courage as a pacifist without laying himself open to the charge of cloaking physical cowardice under the claim of moral courage. Freyberg is very uncompromising in his condemnation and, with some justice, says it is offensive to come back and say, ‘I can’t lead men to their death any more’—it implies a monopoly of virtue, as if other officers liked doing it because they acquiesced in their duty.

Yes, “some justice”–which is what Rivers led Sassoon to see, although–and this is an important distinction–with an emphasis more on the position of the men-to-be-led-to-their-deaths than on the unfairly maligned virtue of the other officers…

But Freyberg, an Argonaut, a 1914 volunteer, a V.C., and a young brigadier, is too canny, at least, to bring only a medal to a poetry fight. He has read some of Sassoon, and he has a practical objection:

He thought the poem called ‘The Hero’ caddish, as it might destroy every mother’s faith in the report of her son’s death. Certainly Siegfried Sassoon breaks the conspiracy of silence, but sometimes I strongly feel that those at home should be made to realise the full horror, even to the incidental ugliness, as much as possible.[3]

A strange “but” in that last sentence–but it is fascinating, of course, to find a woman at home taking the side of the poets’ realism/horror while the eminent fighting soldier stands up for the non-caddishness of comforting lies. Asquith’s declaration here is very much like the intense enthusiasm of later readers of Great War Poetry: not only does she hold a brief for Sassoon, but it’s essentially the same brief that has become canonical. She would deny the experiential gulf–or, rather, she would recognize it and esteem those poets who try to write across it, and read eagerly in order to be one of the better sort of home-front people, who read in order to understand the true war…

There are several ironies here, including Sassoon’s habit (which should be apparent to Asquith if she has read his books) of expressing a casual nastiness towards both aristocratic patronesses and older women and Asquith’s scoring such high marks in our implied hierarchy of worthy readers/home front loved ones while her husband, unmentioned in these sections of her diary, is overseas, and she is embroiled in a pseudo-affair with a brother officer…

But back to the practical point: there’s a war on, and someone must write something to a million grieving mothers. Freyberg has probably written dozens–he has been both a company commander and a battalion commander. And is absolute truth always a virtue? Was he definitively wrong to strive to find some balance between truth and mercy?

Here is ‘The Hero,’ then, Sassoon’s no-holds-barred assault on the convention of the C.O.’s condolence letter. It is also, incidentally, one of the few poems to feature a female character and yet not treat her scorn–condescension, perhaps, but not contempt.

‘Jack fell as he’d have wished,’ the mother said,
And folded up the letter that she’d read.
‘The Colonel writes so nicely.’ Something broke
In the tired voice that quavered to a choke.
She half looked up. ‘We mothers are so proud
Of our dead soldiers.’ Then her face was bowed.

Quietly the Brother Officer went out.
He’d told the poor old dear some gallant lies
That she would nourish all her days, no doubt
For while he coughed and mumbled, her weak eyes
Had shone with gentle triumph, brimmed with joy,
Because he’d been so brave, her glorious boy.

He thought how ‘Jack’, cold-footed, useless swine,
Had panicked down the trench that night the mine
Went up at Wicked Corner; how he’d tried
To get sent home, and how, at last, he died,
Blown to small bits. And no one seemed to care
Except that lonely woman with white hair.

 

There are other Argonauts abroad in London, and they have crossed paths all too quietly.

Missing, alas, from Diana Manners and Duff Cooper‘s diaries are accounts of Patrick Shaw Stewart‘s recent leave. The most probable explanation is simple awkwardness: Shaw Stewart has seen a great deal of the war, and Cooper is only recently commissioned, so there is a great gap of experience there, and experience is an incontestable, unexchangeable currency of honor… and yet it is the new subaltern Cooper who is on the verge of–to fall into the old sexist language, here–winning the prize they both coveted, and not the brigadier with the V.C.

Diana Manners avoided Shaw Stewart, seeing him only for a few meals, even when the two were thrown together (with Duff and a number of others) last weekend at a house party in Somerset. Shaw Stewart still enjoyed the party, describing a bag of fifty pheasants as “not a bad change from the winter campaign,” but, ignored by the woman he loved (and was still doggedly pursuing, by letter when not in person), he spent much of his time and energy on his more unconventional but equally intense relationship with “Ettie,” Lady Desborough, the light of the Souls, now fifty and the mother of Shaw Stewart’s dead friends Julian and Billy Grenfell.

Strange and intertwined as all these relationships are, it’s still remarkable to note that today, a century back[4] Shaw Stewart returned from leave to take over command of his battalion from Oc Asquith (the youngest of the three brothers, now promoted brigadier) after having left Manners (the intimate friend and best epistolary sparring partner of Raymond Asquith, the eldest of the three brothers) and Cooper behind, and then been seen to the train, a few days ago, by his friend and Naval Division colleague Bernard Freyberg. That’s right: Freyberg, who has been laying siege to the matrimonial loyalty of Cynthia Asquith, wife of the middle brother, Herbert, and who has let off all his guns to deter a nuisance foray in the form of a Siegfried Sassoon poem.

Shaw Stewart used that train journey to write to Lady Desborough, playfully refuting her suggestion that he had bought notepaper in order to write to “his girl friends–“even though he does fact continue to write to Diana Manners “almost daily.”

I did buy the notepaper, but it was to write to you to tell you how infinitely I adore you and how perfect and essential you have been to me this leave. What should I do without you? You are Julian and Billy, Edward and Charles to me, and then you are yourself.

Strange and effusive, but fitting, perhaps, for a letter between one of the great melodramatic late Victorians and an “Edwardian meteor.” And however overcooked we might find their social self-celebrations, however overheated their prose, there is no denying the fact that Lady Desborough, who has lost two of her three sons, and Shaw Stewart, who has lost the four friends he names (and many others), are united by harrowing and tremendous loss.

But, once more at the front, his letters–and loves–seem to have fallen into a more predictable course. Perhaps Diana was frustratingly cold when he was in England, but now, in the trenches, where it is bitterly cold in all too unmetaphorical sense, the old habit of reaching out to her, of telling his days to her, is still of great comfort: she is completely unobtainable, but the thoughts still warm him, perhaps. Shaw Stewart, ever the classicist, makes a nice tale of an ordinary, if severe, unpleasantness of winter duty:

Church Parade at 11 am… I thoughtfully issued an order that great-coats might be worn; then, proceeding through the icy blast to put on my own–the one you know too well–I found it caked with mud and the blood of my faithful uncomplaining horse. So, mindful of Hector’s rule that “it is impossible to make prayer to Zeus, lord of the clouds, all bespattered with mud and filth,”[5] I attended without, and nearly died of cold, besides having to sing to hymns without the band…

I inherited Oc’s half-shed and succeeded in putting on first, silk pyjamas, then flannel pyjamas, and then a fur lining, and then everything else on top, and in not waking more than twice in the night feeling cold…[6]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Talking Across the World, 261.
  2. R. P. Graves, Robert Graves, The Assault Heroic, 188-9.
  3. Diaries, 380-1.
  4. I think; the dating is not terribly clear. Oh for uniformly prim footnoting!
  5. Iliad VI, c. 263.
  6. Jebb, Patrick Shaw Stewart, An Edwardian Meteor, 236-8.

Dr. Dunn on Passchendaele: Unburyable Corpses and Magical Light; George Coppard in Blighty; Phillip Maddison at Cambrai; The Master Learns the Cathedral

Today, a century back, George Coppard, shot through the leg during the battle of Cambrai, arrived at Birkenhead Borough Hospital:

It was not a fancy place, but after the turmoil of war it seemed as near to heaven as I was likely to get. Britain was still celebrating the victory of the the Third Army [at Cambrai] and the bells of the churches had rung out in praise. At that time the tank thrust was regarded as the first real turn of the tide against German might… fresh from the fray, I attracted my little share of attention from the visitors and nursing staff… but there was trouble ahead.

And not just with the strategic failures at Cambrai; Coppard’s wound, which has severed the femoral artery and been staunched by his own none-too-sterile thumb, was both too deep to easily repair and liable to infection…[1]

 

Cambraiis no victory–but at least it took us away from Passchendaele. Remember Passchendaele? Tens of thousands of infantrymen are still there, holding the miserable wasteland into the winter. Today brings one of the most striking passages in Dr. Dunn’s narrative of the 2nd Royal Welch Fusiliers. He[2] has been on leave and, returning, is struck anew by the sheer wretchedness of the battlefield. Dunn would never make such a dramatic statement, but… only men could make such a hell.

At dawn I went with Radford round part of the line. Many scarcely recognizable dead lie about, a few of them Germans. Passchendaele is not quite levelled… Mud flows through entrances, and rain drops through the cracked cemented-brick floors roofing the cellars, on to the occupants… When the position is overlooked the men are pinned down by day, and numbed with cold by day and night… In the morning some of our planes came over in an objectless-looking way…

A rapidly filling cemetery… is a most unrestful place. It is the labour of a squad to keep the dead in their graves. A sapper officer was killed and buried in the morning; his tormented body had to be reburied twice during the day.

The next line comes as a shock. But should it?

But for all the havoc up here the effect of a glint of sunshine on the waste is magical.[3]

 

Ralph Hamilton, the Master of Belhaven, is in Amiens, on the way back from an officers’ course in England.

Let’s see: misery, destruction, attrition, mass death… all modern and unavoidable, now. But perhaps one of the more overlooked ways in which the Great War qualifies as the first modern war is that the regular rotations of leaves and courses–and habits like tourism while on military journeys–rarely stop.

I had a good lunch there and went to see the Cathedral with an excellent guide-book. I spent an hour there and discovered all sorts of interesting things that I did not know before…

He will reach his batteries, still on a quiet sector of the Somme, after midnight…[4]

 

Finally, today, Henry Williamson is still in England on Home Service, but Phillip Maddison, his tireless alter ego, is drawing nearer to the cauldron of Cambrai. His “diary,” which fills several pages of the novel Love and the Loveless at this point, is an improbably knowledgeable (he is still, despite his brush with greatness, a mere lieutenant charged with resupplying a Machine Gun Company currently in reserve) crib from the history books, explaining all the movements of, for instance, the Guards in Bourlon Wood.

But tonight the company moves up, and Williamson writes a long scene full of many familiar elements–the confusion of a night relief, the misery of a march under fire–and some stranger ones, such as the description of horses and mules “screaming” through their gas masks. When the German counter-attack breaks through, Phillip will be, as always, on the scene.[5]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. With a Machine Gun to Cambrai, 130.
  2. I believe it's Dunn himself; it's sometimes difficult to tell who the "speaker" is.
  3. The War the Infantry Knew, 417.
  4. War Diary, 414.
  5. Love and the Loveless, 333-49.

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.

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.