Wilfred Owen Writes to Siegfried Sassoon, Father-Confessor, Colonel, and Prophet; Lord Dunsany Dines with the Company

Today, a century back, two days after writing, then shelving a way-over-the-top letter to Siegfried Sassoon, Wilfred Owen sat down once again to write… a still-pretty-over-the-top letter to Siegfried Sassoon. I don’t think it needs much more introduction (or commentary).

5 November 1917

Mahim, Monkmoor Road, Shrewsbury

This was not the photograph in question, but rather the Philpot portrait (Fitzwilliam Museum); but see below

My dear Sassoon,

When I had opened your envelope in a quiet comer of the Club Staircase, 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’ (as you would recommend for such effusions) until I could think over the thing without grame.[1]

I have also waited for this photograph.

Show some rich anger if you will. I thank you; but not on this paper only, or in any writing. You gave—with what Christ, if he had known Latin & dealt in oxymoron, might have called Sinister Dexterity. I imagined you were entrusting me with some holy secret concerning yourself. A secret, however, it shall be until such time as I shall have climbed to the housetops, and you to the minarets of the world.

 

There is indeed a slight resemblance between the heretical sun king and the rebel poet

Smile the penny! This Fact has not intensified my feelings for you by the least—the least grame. Know that since mid-September, when you still regarded me as a tiresome little knocker on your door, I held you as Keats + Christ + Elijah + my Colonel + my father-confessor + Amenophis IV in profile.

What’s that mathematically?

In effect it is this: that I love you, dispassionately, so much, so very much, dear Fellow, that the blasting little smile you wear on reading this can’t hurt me in the least.

If you consider what the above Names have severally done for me, you will know what you are doing. And you have fixed my Life–however short. You did not light me: I was always a mad comet; but you have fixed me. I spun round you a satellite for a month, but I shall swing out soon, a dark star in the orbit where you will blaze. It is some consolation to know that Jupiter himself sometimes swims out of Ken!

If this sounds like a poem, that’s because it soon will be, a long effort entitled “This is the Track” and containing the lines:

To be a meteor, fast, eccentric, lone.
Lawless; in passage through all spheres.
Warning the earth of wider ways’, unknown
And rousing men with heavenly fears.

This marks the end of surely one of the most courageously sustained effusions that Sassoon has ever been subjected to. He must be writhing–and also flattered. Returning to the letter at hand, we find Owen, confident that his outburst of adoration will not have spoiled the friendship, returning to earthly matters:

To come back to our sheep, as the French never say, I have had a perfect little note from Robt. Ross, and have arranged a meeting at 12.30 on Nov. 9th. He mentioned staying at Half Moon St., but the house is full.

I have ordered several copies of Fairies & Fusiliers, but shall not buy all, in order to leave the book exposed on the Shrewsbury counters…

The connection between Sassoon and Owen is intense and important, even if it is not fully reciprocal. Sassoon esteems the young poet, and if he does not seems quite capable of intense warmth without intense passion, he clearly “values the relationship,” as we would say in our mercenary way. And Owen professes love for regard, friendship, and reading/editing/poetic fellowship–these things are the most important.

But Owen is not some blithe innocent or fashionably fancy-free poetic adventurer; he’s an ambitious poet, and Sassoon’s gift of entree into the literary world by means of associations with Roberts Ross and Graves is very welcome too… And it’s endearing that Owen reports his little scheme for drawing attention to Graves’s new book. With self-consciousness of his silliness, sure–but he still reports it.

Sassoon is a beloved friend–loudly and enthusiastically beloved, but still not the be-all-end-all. There is also Owen’s family, and the society of his many friends and contacts from his ergotherapeutic activities.

I am spending happy enough days with my Mother, but I can’t get sociable with my Father without going back on myself over ten years of thought.

What I most miss in Edinburgh (not Craiglockhart) is the conviviality of the Four Boys (L. vivere—to live) Someday, I must tell how we sang, shouted, whistled and danced through the dark lanes through Colinton; and how we laughed till the meteors showered around us, and we fell calm under the winter stars. And some of us saw the pathway of the spirits for the first time. And seeing it so far above us, and feeling the good road so safe beneath us, we praised God with louder whistling; and knew we loved one another as no men love for long.

Which, if the Bridge-players Craig & Lockhart could have seen, they would have called down the wrath of Jahveh, and buried us under the fires of the City you wot of.

This would appear to be one of the more open–though still oblique–references to homosexuality in Owen’s edited letters: the fire-buried city in question is surely Sodom, one of the two “Cities of the Plain” which another of our writers (and soon-to-be-path-crosser) will eventually choose as the euphemistic title of the fourth volume of the first English translation of the greatest French novel (or simply novel) then being written (or at any point). Got it?

To which also it is time you committed this letter. I wish you were less undemonstrative, for I have many.adjectives with which to qualify myself. As it is I can only say I am

Your proud friend,

Owen[2]

 

A much less dramatic/interesting/significant letter will play the “secondly, and anticlimactically” role, today. But Lord Dunsany‘s correspondence with Lady Beatrice is suddenly available these days, and perhaps we will wring some insights from it eventually. As it is, however, he seems a bit… aloof.

My Darling Mink,

The officers of D. Company gave me a dinner last night at the Club. We walked back  arm in arm with me in the middle, either to show that that was their natural and usual way of going home, not a necessity, or else to show that if ever I wanted help to get home after dinner, I should have it…[3]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. A helpful note from the editor explains that "SS cannot explain this word."
  2. Collected Letters, 504-6.
  3. Amory, Lord Dunsany, 146.

Two Poetic Heroes Take Stock: Robert Frost on All His Swag, While “Edward Eastaway” Looks to Join His Friend Between Boards; Herbert Read Proclaims his Aesthetic Creed

Yesterday, 2nd Lieutenant R. H. Beckh was singing the praises of his billets. Tonight, a century back, he led a patrol toward the German lines. They stumbled into a German position, and Beckh was shot and killed.[1]

 

In England, Edward Thomas was both keeping up with his correspondence and taking unusually active steps toward furthering his poetic career. To Eleanor Farjeon, he wrote a comfortable sort of from-the-bosom-of-my-family letter:

15 viii 16

My dear Eleanor,

Mother wants me to thank you for her letter… She is really much better. Now the rain has laid the dust she has been out and that has done her good…

It is a lovely calm evening after rain and not a little sun. I came up and sold some books and had tea with John Freeman and de la Mare and a brother in law of his who may publish some Eastaway in a volume.

This would be Roger Ingpen of the small publishing house Selwyn and Blount–Thomas joked that Ingpen must be “both Selwyn and Blount.” And of course Thomas–the well-known poetry critic who, after much rejection and discouragement, has published a few poems as “Edward Eastaway” but gotten nowhere close to a book of his own–will not get away with just tossing this in. Farjeon’s comments with something like an exasperated sigh “How casually he mentions the teatime with… Ingpen.” Interesting a publisher, during wartime, in the poetry of a writer with no real poetic reputation and no interest in writing patriotic pablum is no small breakthrough.

Nevertheless, the letter continues conversationally, and without explicit thanks–perhaps it is too early, yet, to count one’s chickens–for all of Farjeon’s unrequited help in getting Thomas’s poems into manuscript and typescript. But Thomas has other things on his mind, too.

… I wish suddenly I was an Officer going out now. I am most impatient. Yet the book on Artillery instruments I am reading is not a thing I could master in the boat train, neither…

Frost hasn’t written for an age…[2]

Poor Edward. He will write to Frost today as well; this Selwyn and Blount situation is big news, however diffidently he wishes to report it. But he is wrong about Frost–or, at least, correct by no more than a matter of hours. Frost was busy today, as well, a century back:

Franconia N.H.
August 15 1916

Dear Edward:

First I want to give you an accounting. I got here a year ago last March, didn’t I? I have earned by poetry alone in the year and a half about a thousand dollars—it never can happen again…

Still one feels that we ought to have something to show for all that swag; and we have: we have this farm bought and nearly paid for. Such is poetry when the right people boom it…

This, by the way, is a direct thank-you to Thomas, rather more forthright than Marcel’s aunt, but still perhaps slightly obscure: it was Thomas, in the early days of their friendship, who wrote multiple reviews and worked hard to get the word out on Frost’s North of Boston, “booming” it on both sides of the Atlantic.

I dont say how much longer the boom can last. You can fool some of the people some of the time, but you can’t fool all of them all the time, as Lincoln more or less put it. It may be that the gulfs will wash us down. Nevertheless what
we have done, we have done (and may He within Himself make it pure, as the poem has it)…

Those wily moderns! This, after the nod to Lincoln, is a double dose of Tennyson: Frost quotes first from Ulysses, then from his “Morte D’Arthur.”

It’s funny: I preach and preach the gospel of the rejection of Romanticism as a war-time mode, writing perhaps far too often here as an earnest latter-day apostle of the quietly serious poets like Thomas and Sorley, not to mention the rising poets of protest. But zealotry–commitment, that is, to the point of categorical exclusion–has no place in poetry: “The Charge of the Light Brigade” is a great ringing piece of foolishness, an affront to soldiers everywhere who might fondly hope to do their duty without dying in a futile charge. But Ulysses pays for all

 

Back, then, to Thomas, Frost’s brave fellow-oarsman, and fis second letter of today:

15 viii 16

My dear Robert

…I have had you all in mind continually these last few days. For I have been at Steep on sick leave after vaccination, which gave me headaches &c for a week. Much of the time I spent in sorting letters, papers & books, as I may not have a home for some time to come.

Helen & the children are going to the seaside. I may go at any moment to my new unit which may be in London & may be anywhere. They will move during September & soon after that I might be far off. This waiting troubles me. I really want to be out. However, I daresay I shan’t be till the winter. I wrote some lines after a period in hospital— largely because to concentrate is the only happy thing possible when one is bored & helpless. Today came a chance of getting a book out. A brother in law of De la Mare’s publishes in a small way & I am to send him a batch to look at…

I brought a big load of books up with me to sell today & am sending away 2 more cases. I burnt a pile that would have roasted a sheep 2 nights ago

No news of anyone… Bottomley I may see at the end of the month when everyone is away & I may have some leave between leaving my old corps & joining the new. I should like to go up there & bathe in the lake with the bird’s eye primroses & the silver sand. There is nothing like the solitude of a solitary lake in early morning, when one is in deep still water. More adjectives here than I allow myself now & fewer verbs.

Goodbye all & my love to you all.
Ever yours

Edward Thomas.[3]

 

Finally, today, we have a letter from Herbert Read, in camp in Staffordshire. He is writing to a young woman whom he wished to impress with his seriousness. It’s a very… serious letter, and I won’t transcribe it all here, but a few excerpts will give a sense both of Read’s personality and of how his heavy-duty reading (and way of reading) shapes his worldview. Usually we do the “young subaltern, innocent” or watch how the romantic mindset and the Public Schools attitude prepare (or fail to prepare) a young man for the trenches. Read has the seen the trenches, but he will be going back to much worse. And fore-read is fore-armed.

And now I must report that I am very pleased with myself–I wrote the Read section a few days ago, and promptly forgot that he discusses Romanticism. A riposte to Frost!

15.viii.16    Rugeley Camp, Staffordshire

I believe our difference about Pessimism is merely terminological. My pessimism does not deny all effort or defeat all hope–there never was such a hopeful and ambitious soul such as this… This pessimism sees life at its real worth and accepts it as such… And it does realize the possibilities of man… My old friend Nietzsche was a pupil of Schopenhauer and a pessimist of the first water; but there never lived such a prophet of the noble and enthralling possibilities of man….

This leads me naturally on to the next subject upon which I desire to ‘hold forth’–Romanticism. Romanticism is–in literature–the confusion of the human with the divine. Now you can regard the divine as merely an abstract idea, or as ‘an atmosphere, ubiquitous yet intangible’, or as something very real and omnipresent; but whatever you do you must not imagine for a moment that man is a constituent of it… And of course you can see the same false spirit in Idealism in Philosophy, and in Christianity.

Well, young Herbert, what do we mean by the “divine?” What about the semi-divine, the heroic? There seems to be precious little room for poetic nuance. For, that is, the ale-slopping good fellowship and romantic high-heartedness that has been a major strain of English poetry since before its beginning.

The next line on from Frost’s Tennyson quote is “It may be we shall touch the Happy Isles/And see the great Achilles, whom we knew.” This is no “false spirit!” Not for men who look to friendship as they gather their morale in anticipation of the trial of combat… But Read, I think, considers himself too serious for all this. No sloppy thoughts!

By the way, neutrality is the worst and most cowardly of attitudes… Remember Nietzsche: A yea, a nay, a straight line, and a goal.

This reads (apologies) like the brow-furrowings of a young man out to impress a young woman. A poet needs comrades…

Next, albeit with a clear note of self-aware pedantry, Read scolds his friend for her limited view of literature, while bounding up the mast to nail his colors as high as may be.

You seem to imagine that it is the aim or object of Literature to give moral instruction to its generation! Do, for heaven’s sake, assure me you don’t mean this. The ‘purely literary standpoint’ is all that matters not only in Literature, but in Life… Art is the redemption of Life… Only thus can we approach the Divine–only thus become immortal. There you have my creed! I stand or fall by it![4]

Yes, yes, but a man must live, too. And provide for his family, and dream with his friends…

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Powell, A Deep Cry, 117.
  2. Farjeon, Edward Thomas... 208-9.
  3. Elected Friends, 140-5.
  4. The Contrary Experience, 74-6.

The March of the Welch Pauses: Siegfried Sassoon Has a Proustian Moment, but Robert Graves Would Him Outgripe; Roland Leighton at the Movies and Vera Brittain Back to Quoting Brooke; Raymond Asquith Sidesteps the Subject of Poetical Harlots; Thomas Hardy on the Slipping World

Siegfried Sassoon and the First Battalion, Royal Welch Fusiliers are in transit today, and the new subaltern is in a dreaming, strolling mood. Not for nothing has the first volume of his fictionalized memoirs–Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man–not yet given way to the second, which will be called Memoirs of an Infantry Officer. The boy has been taken out of the Kentish Weald… only to find fellowship and paradoxical “peace” amidst a familiar, lovely landscape.

December 5

Up at 6… at 6.45 I escaped from the stuffy billet, where Tommy was finishing his bacon and eggs by the light of a candle, and in the pallor of the morning went up the street of Bourecq, where the cocks are crowing, climbed the road to the high land southwest of the village, and so for an hour or two it is well with me. For over the hill a mile or two of road brings me to a church and a few houses, clumps and lines of tall trees standing up against the faint colours of a watery daybreak; and the homely caw of a rookery, sailing out to their day’s business. The curé gives me good morning as I trudge past his gate and round under the high garden-wall up the narrow lane with crazy buildings on the right side. And so out to the bare cornlands with a distant view of woods and ploughland, and steeples, and to the north and east the chimneys of some colliery-places. And I step out along a straight road, paved and poplar-guarded, until the light has broadened and it’s full day–8 o’clock–and the church-bells come up from below, and from far and near. And a troop of mules clatters along to meet me, at their morning exercise, turbaned Indians and whistling Tommy Atkins leading them. So I must be turning back. But as I sit on a milestone the sun comes out and gives me his golden stare, and a thrush sings a little way off, the first I’ve heard in France.[1]

Lovely: the thrush, our number three bird-of-significance (after larks and nightingales, of course), as well as the sun and frying bacon and companionship with both “Tommy” (David Thomas) and the idealized whistling “Tommies.” It’s the essence of life at war as Sassoon is currently experiencing it: beloved men superimposed on the beloved landscape. And, if we like, we can take a rare opportunity to match temporal specificity with geographic exactitude. Google earth? Ah well, I played around with “street view” for a few minutes, but I’m not sure I can find the garden wall or the poplars… it’s better in writing isn’t it? But, as I know that many readers–weak vessels!–pine for illustrations, here’s the result of an indiscriminate search:

001-120554

Poplars Lining the Road, Somewhere in France

After this idyllic morning, Sassoon’s battalion was swept up by the deliberate peristalsis of the war, spending ten hours on a train and ending the day with a midnight march toward their new rest billet.

Much of this made it into Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man almost unaltered. But Sassoon will do some, er, outside reading in between the writing of the  “chronicle” (diary) and the “history” (memoir). Some very influential, very French reading. An interpolation most Proustian:

We had averaged four miles an hour, and it was now after ten; a dark, still night, with a little rain at times. Men, transport horses, officers’ chargers, limbers, and field-kitchens (known as “the cookers”) were unloaded. All this took two hours. We had some tea. . . .  If I could taste that tea out of the dixies now I should write it all very much as it was. Living spontaneity would be revived by that tea, the taste of which cannot be recovered by any effort of memory.[2]

Fifteen minutes after midnight we moved off…[3]

Binary vision, and historian’s lament. We are reminded that though we draw date and time and train and duration from the diary, there is an enormous distinction–another yawning gulf, never to be completely bridged–between the lost reality that was so immediate when the diary was written (though, in point of niggle, already lost) and the dutiful efforts of the memoir writer. The past is lost. But we try, we labor, we save what we can.

 

And sometimes we would rather spar, or wave around our flimsy swords in hope of provoking attention. Not that it’s a contest, but Robert Graves, also now serving in the 1/Royal Welch, would outgripe Sassoon on this move:

Our ‘A’ Company had an even more laborious experience than his ‘C’ company. We got up at five o’clock one morning, breakfasted hastily, packed our kits, and marched down to the railhead three miles away. Here we entrained all Battalion stories, transport, and transport animals. This took us to the middle of the morning. We then entrained ourselves for a ten-hour journey… ‘A’ Company was then ordered to do the detraining job too. When we had finished, the dixies of tea prepared for us were cold. The other companies got a couple of hours’ rest; we had only a few minutes.[4]

A for effort, Robbie, but I’d rather have a C of memories…

 

And in London, the epistolary renaissance between Vera Brittain and Roland Leighton continues:

Sunday December 5th—Monday December 6th

Quiet night-duty. While I was away at second dinner my Sister heard the same mysterious footsteps coming up the ward as I heard the night before & looked & saw nothing. Night-duty is certainly a nerve-stirring business.

Two more letters from Roland came at supper–both delightful. He says my letter in answer to his apologetic one nearly made him cry…

He says the cold out there has gone now and changed to rain, making the trenches a sea of mud–which, however, he does not seem really to mind. I don’t think physical conditions can affect him as much as they do some people–or else his endurance is unusually splendid. Perhaps it is that.

He wants me to leave his present for Christmas till he gets his leave–well, till then!

After supper Turner & I went to Brixton, which does not sound romantic. But it was a lovely morning of sun and wind after a very wet night, and I felt intensely thrilled to feel the freshness of the air & to see the red-brown tower of Brixton town hall, & two white spires in the distance, against a background of racing clouds in a pure rainwashed sky. It made me think of Rupert Brooke’s lines–

We have found safety in all things undying.
The winds, & morning, tears of men & mirth.
The deep night, & birds singing, & clouds flying.
And sleep, & freedom, & the autumnal earth.

How glad I am I am not a professional nurse! One day I shall have time to contemplate and enjoy the things I love.[5]

Things really are looking up–Vera’s faith in the future is restored, and along with it her habit of using poetry as hope’s, er, chariot.

Roland, meanwhile, is in a chatty mood, glad to have the chance to continue to demonstrate his reduced hauteur with some self-deprecating humor.

France, 5 December 1913

I have just come back from a ride with the C.O. in the course of which my horse stumbled jumping a ditch and landed me ingloriously in the mud! Which was annoying and somewhat dirty.

You would never guess where I was yesterday evening. In a cinema, of all places! The A.S.C. run one in this village–in a barn, with seats, electric light, two performances nightly and a change of programme every day. It is quite civilised for a village only 4 miles from the trenches, n’est-ce pas?

We go back to trenches on Tuesday & I shall be in the ‘confortable’ dug-out that you envy again for a few days–till Friday or Saturday I expect, when I shall probably get orders to return to my own Regiment…

Good night, dear. I suppose that to you nowadays it ought to be Good morning rather.[6]

 

One more letter, from a subaltern to his woman, of gossip and mud. But that’s not all–Raymond Asquith is also reading poetry, and responding gratefully to his wife Katherine’s efforts to keep him up with all the home news:

5 December 1915

A delightful long letter from you last night written from Berkeley St with all the gossip and scandal of the town…

I am tired of seeing nothing but very muddy men.

I got a poem, by the way, from Dottie this morning by [W. H.] Davies about a dying harlot, which she says is having a great vogue, as I can well believe. Personally I don’t much care about it, and it belongs to the simple obscure type which always exasperates me. And even in that genre it is neither so simple as Blake nor so obscure. You might tell me when next you write what it means and why, if at all, it is good. You often know these things when I don’t.

One of these days, when the Great Relationship Chart of Great War Writing is commenced, it will become very clear just how far W.H. Davies–the “super tramp,” Georgian poet, friend of Edward Thomas and the Dymocks, and answer to the common pub quiz stumper of “who was the fourth man at that breakfast?“–and Raymond Asquith are from each other. And yet, now, connected. Raymond seems to be humoring Katherine, to some extent, yet it is still very odd that “Dottie” has sent him a poem–perhaps A Fleeting Passion–about a man’s encounter with a prostitute.

Who would do such a naughty thing? Why, Diana Manners–“Dillie,” “Dottie,” etc.–of course. Asquith’s frequent letters to Manners–the spark of their circle, the queen of the Coterie, the most desirable single woman in society–are flirtatious and naughty, and he doesn’t seem to have passed along all of her witticisms to his wife. Is it possible, then, that this sharing of a scandalous poem–“I think you should determine the ‘meaning’ of this one, my dear”–is an almost-sheepish way of covering his flank?

He certainly hints at a “reading” of the poem, (or the fact of its “vogue” and/or its being sent to him?) giving us an odd Blake reference and a complaint of simplicity and obscurity. Yet he withholds judgment. Nowhere else have I found Raymond Asquith unwilling to render a firm opinion…

Diana Manners may have been trying to put Asquith in an amusingly compromised position. So he parries by telling his wife rather than have her find out some other way. Or, perhaps, he is playing the same game: he volleys the poem back toward England, where Katherine Asquith can take it up with Diana Manners and see if she is embarrassed. Not bloody likely.

But it’s just a poem, in the end, and I don’t think we’re supposed to read too much into it. In other words, this is an extension of witty banter (with class overtones: relatively few are the English poets notable for their low class status, but Blake and Davies are among them) rather than some sort of subtle accusation of real-life prostitute patronage. Not that that wasn’t necessarily going on…

In any event, there is cordial bonhomie and little passion of any sort in the rest of the letter:

I’ve just finished a very disagreeable 2 days in the trenches. A great deal of rain and hardly any sleep…

I am the only officer so it is rather lonely, but less uncomfortable than I had feared. I sleep in a battered farm house–rather a nice stagey sort of kitchen with low oak beams and a hearth and chimney 10 ft. wide. In another part of the house are 1/2 dozen men with a machine gun and there is a room where Needham cooks me a pork chop at irregular intervals…

No worries, then, about Asquith’s ability to write the war, or to be other than a bore, at least for today. Some pleasant light-verse letter-bits, now, and a play at the billets-pastoral:

Today has been warmer and sunny with birds singing or at any rate twittering: almost like Spring. In these parts the evening instead of being full of linnets’ wings is full of the humming of aeroplanes . . .

Last night was very black with a gale of wind and drifting clouds lit up spasmodically by German searchlights. I wished you were here to keep me company, my sweet, as I sat down at 10.30 p.m. to my pork chop. The décor was rather what I used to picture in old days when we used to make plans for roasting chestnuts together in lonely cottages on stormy nights. No wolves, but Boches do as well.

Tomorrow evening I return for 2 days more to the front line, then back to rest for 6 days in safety and comfort. I am so fat that I am unworthy to be called thy husband. It seems rather hard that you should be married to a portly man. . .[7]

Asquith, the most anxiety-ridden of our well-bred letter-writers (about his writing, that is) has done a strange thing. He has written, albeit in his own inimitable register of sharp wit and wide reference, what I think of as a Henry Williamson letter: long but shapeless, and skipping from topic to topic as the tired mind of the writer wanders. Maybe that whole Dottie-poem thing really is on his mind…

 

Lastly today, there is a letter from Thomas Hardy to Sidney Cockerell. It’s a sad one, dealing mostly with the recent death of Hardy’s sister. I’ll excerpt a bit, but I include it here mainly because of the terrific simile at the end.

Max Gate | Dec 5: 1915

My dear Cockerell:

…I have lost my elder sister since I last wrote. I don’t think you ever met her—though now I wish you had done so, as you & she had much in common, in respect of your interests in art… She was almost my only companion in childhood.

We send kindest remembrances. It is a gloomy time, in which the world, having like a spider climbed to a certain height, seems slipping back to where it was long ago.

Ever yours
Thomas Hardy.[8]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Diaries, 23.
  2. This (spoiler implicit) is directly under the influence of Proust. Sassoon has read the master and been taken up entire by one of his book's central experiences/images/arguments. It's important to remember, oh reader, that the madeleine--dipped in a far gentler vessel than an army dixie--is not a memory-bearing capsule to be taken at need but a sensual assault, a stimulator of involuntary memory far sharper than any recall that originates in an effort of the will. The writer may strain over his diary, his notes, his conscious memories--but there is a power beyond him...
  3. Complete Memoirs, 252.
  4. Good-Bye to All That, 177.
  5. Chronicle of Youth 291-2.
  6. Letters From a Lost Generation, 196-7.
  7. Life and Letters, 223-4.
  8. Letters, V, 135.

Tea in Bethune with Graves and Sassoon–Woeful Crimson, Braggadocio, and a Redeemer; The Master of Belhaven Assailed by a Priest

Of all the war’s journeys–all the war’s written journeys, that is–Sassoon‘s Progress is the most attractive. It is as charmed in its literary arc as it is torturous in its military evolution. If his trials and triumphs, his illusions and disillusions, provisional victories and sharp losses could stand for the experience of many young volunteer subalterns in a terrible war, then his writing life is graced by a luck he does not seem to have earned. He has written little and accomplished less in his twenty-nine years, but family connections and an appealing personality have already led to several important contacts in the literary world, namely Edmund Gosse, Robbie Ross, and Eddie Marsh. It was Marsh who arranged the quintessential pre-war crossing of paths, when Sassoon had breakfast with Rupert Brooke.

If that was the breakfast-before-the-war, it’s time already for tea. Today it was not patronage but chance commissions and opaque bureaucratic distribution that brought Sassoon together with another young officer recently assigned to the 1/Royal Welch Fusiliers, Robert Graves.

November 28th

Walked into Béthune for tea with Robert Graves, a young poet in Third Battalion and very much disliked. An interesting creature, overstrung, and self-conscious, a defier of convention. At night went up again to Festubert with working-party. Dug from 12 to 2 a.m. Very cold. Home 4.15.[1]

There is actually a double sleight there–Graves is in the Third Battalion in the sense that he entered the Royal Welch through the Special Reserve (the Third Battalion is the Reserve formation, rather than a fighting unit). Sassoon is thus aligning himself with the fox-hunting Regulars, who look down on such non-professionals, even though he only joined the army a few weeks earlier than Graves, and the Regiment many months later. Not to mention the fact that Sassoon has a few days with the troops and none in real combat while Graves has spent several months on active service with the Welsh Regiment and the 2/Royal Welch and was with the Regiment when the second battalion was battered on the first day of the Battle of Loos.

And that’s that. “I met this strange fellow, and we had tea. I can neither confirm nor deny that we showed each other our work in progress…” (My, er, paraphrase.) Nor does the entrance of this formidable character into Sassoon’s life does earn–yet–any mention in “Sherston’s.” The Memoirs are concerned, at this point, with his acclimation to the trenches and with establishing the characters of his own company and platoon. The tall, poetical defier of convention called “David Cromlech,” will not be introduced until months later, in the second volume of “Sherston’s” memoirs.

Graves, whose memoirs are both more and less “true” than Sassoon’s–no names are changed in Good-Bye to All That, but, then again, no diaries are painstakingly transposed and many tall tales are told–puts the meeting in its proper place. Which is to say he mentions it just after his transfer to A Company of the 1/Royal Welch, and also that he makes clear the literary character of their friendship from the very beginning. It’s a good scene:

A day or two after I arrived I went to visit ‘C’ Company Mess, where I got a friendly welcome. I noticed The Essays of Lionel Johnson lying on the table. It was the first book I had seen in France (except my own copies of Keats and Blake) that was neither a military text-book nor a rubbishy novel. I stole a look at the fly-leaf, and the name was Siegfried Sassoon. Then I looked around to see who could possibly be called Siegfried Sassoon and bring Lionel Johnson with him to the First Battalion. The answer being obvious, I got into conversation with him, and a few minutes later we set out for Béthune, being off duty until dusk, and talked about poetry.

“The answer being obvious” can–and probably does–mean two different things. That only one man in the room looked like a serious reader, and that only one man in the room looked like he could have such a name, i.e. looked Jewish.[2] This would be an attraction for Graves, who was no anti-Semite: Sassoon was an oddity, with a touch of exoticism something like his own much-played-up Celtic connections. But still, here the clumsy enfant terrible has made a point of reminding us that his new friend also didn’t quite belong…

And as quick as Sassoon was to remind us of his social superiority–the oddness of this rather middle class Graves fellow, not a hunting man–Graves reminds us of his literary advantages. He mentions Sassoon’s privately printed poems before getting to his own.

…We went to the cake shop and ate cream buns. At this time I was getting my first book of poems, Over the Brazier, ready for the press; I had one or two drafts in my pocket-book and showed them to Siegfried. He frowned and said that war should not be written about in such a realistic way. In return, he showed me some of his own poems. One of them began:

Return to greet me, colours that were my joy,
Not in the woeful crimson of men slain…

Siegfried had not yet been in the trenches. I told him, in my old-soldier manner, that he would soon change his style.[3]

There’s so much going on here. Graves acknowledges one thing, at least, that Sassoon will elide–their friendship is, from the first, about poetry. Graves puts his big feet in here with characteristic lack of subtlety, representing himself as an almost-important poet, when in fact he hasn’t yet had anything printed anywhere other than his school magazine. Sassoon’s privately printed verses had, at least drawn some attention, and in the literary hobnobbing game he has a leg up, as Harry Ricketts has it,

Both counted themselves as among Eddie Marsh’s up-and-coming protégés, but Graves had only been promised a meeting with the late and now great Rupert Brooke, Sassoon had actually had breakfast with him.

Yes, but Graves is already a Captain, and has been in a battle, and spent months in the trenches. Ah but only a Reserve Captain, and only nineteen…

All true enough. It’s a tossup, perhaps, but one that Graves is eager to win. The larger point is that they like each other, that their shared interest in poetry is a powerful attraction and that–no surprise here–this new friendship between two young men is competitive from the start, with ambition and affection jostling uneasily against each other.

And yet readers are continually surprised by it. Ricketts also writes that “Poetry sparked the friendship but, ironically, neither at first thought much of the other’s poems.”[4] Do you think? No–there’s no irony in this. It is abundantly clear that Sassoon had talent, the proverbial “way with words,” but neither the taste nor the hard good sense to know what merits conversion into verse that–“ironically”–marks a successful poet. Graves was young and unformed, powerful but gawky in prosody as in society. Each saw something in the other, and it’s probably true that Graves, nearly friendless in France and brooding after several difficult months with the especially stuffy and anti-intellectual 2nd Battalion, needs Sassoon more, and more immediately.

I’m not sure where the assumption comes from that when a young man makes a new friend their shared interests must be mutually supportive and conflict free–but it’s a silly notion. Each thought the other interesting and was glad to talk poetry. Each also thought the other to be a little odd and to write very tasteless, uncool verse. Naturally.

But before we get to the poetry itself, there is one more issue to be disposed of, namely sexual attraction.

There wasn’t any, a fact which both men were clear about. I hate to label people with “our” identity markers when they themselves didn’t have the option of publicly labeling themselves in a similar way, or even to allow their inclinations to be known without suffering severe personal and professional consequences. The matter is made even more complicated by the changes in orientation and identity that people go through in life, and also by my hang-up here about not discussing the century-back “future” of these writers, lest it destroy our sense of living in their (centennial) present.

But anyway, needs must. At this point, for lack of a better word, Sassoon was gay. He had written “coded” but clearly homeoerotic poems, and while he takes the sexual edge off of his love for his comrade David Thomas when he fictionalizes it in the Memoirs, it is hard not to see it as a sincere and complete affection, the love of an adult man–age twenty-nine–for another man. It was not reciprocated, but then again Sassoon had almost certainly not acted on his desires at all. Whoever he wanted to have sex with, he was not looking for sex.

Graves, likewise inexperienced, was at this time in love with a younger school friend, a fact which he will boldly discuss. But, as Graves tells the story, this love was chaste, even prudish, and crazily unrealistic–a product of the bizarre combination of bottled sexual urges, ignorance, physical violence, and semi-approved homoeroticism that characterized many British Public Schools at the time.[5] So there is–or there will be (apologies for looking ahead)–a major difference in their sexual personae. Graves, just twenty, is in love with an idealized boy, who is in fact gay and sexually active, but he–Graves–has a horror of sex and will end up realizing that this is “just a phase,” as we like to describe it. (Still?) He will, in fact–semi-spoiler here–end up indulging in a rather deafening, almost hysterical heterosexuality.

None of which should really matter, nor should it attract the attention of commentators at this point in the story. Perhaps I’m being prudish myself, but if it seems like historical overreach to assume that they should have loved each other’s writing if they hit it off as friends, it seems like an even worse instinct–a combination of basic writerly nosiness and (worse) a vague sort of homophobia–to assume that because we have two men deciding to have tea together–and because one has written about having a crush on a boy and the other will eventually love other men–there must have been a sexual spark. I don’t want to be a scold, but this is a friendship sparked by a book on a table, and propelled by two little sheaves of poetry-in-progress. If, like most Great War writers, neither had ever written about his sexual desires, we wouldn’t speculate. Nor would we dally here if they were both unimpeachably straight…

Even if one holds–irrefutably, pointlessly–that no relationships are completely asexual, their histories can’t be written from that belief rather than from the available testimony. Right here, right now, sex is not on the table[6]–poetry is.

Graves has quoted for us a few lines of Sassoon’s “To Victory.” Which is a snarky move, but an effective one. It’s very old fashioned, silly almost to decadence. I can’t improve upon Graves’s decision to simply snicker at the first two lines, but quoting more can illustrate the other important thing about the poem: it is an anti-war poem, but only in the old sense of denying the reality of the war. The key, already, is that woeful “woeful crimson”–beautiful vowels and a lovely image, but unreal. It’s page-poetry, fantasy, not the mud and blood of actual war.

Then there’s this:

I want to fill my gaze with blue and silver,
Radiance through living roses, spires of green…

I am not sad; only I long for lustre,—
Tired of the greys and browns and the leafless ash.
I would have hours that move like a glitter of dancers
Far from the angry guns that boom and flash.

This is a poem that damns the war for its ugliness–not ugliness as a permanent blight on those who experience it, but as an inconvenience to the lovely dream-life of interrupted aesthetes.

So what effect did meeting Graves have on Sassoon’s poetry? Sassoon has denied us any direct, immediate evidence, and Graves has quietly claimed to have made, in his “old-soldier’s manner,” all the difference in the world.

So, who is right?

Well, the circumstantial evidence is heavily on Graves’s side. Here is the poem which Sassoon first drafted this very day, a century back. (Although the text given below incorporates changes made later on.)

Drafted before tea in Béthune? I doubt it.

 

The Redeemer

Darkness: the rain sluiced down; the mire was deep;
It was past twelve on a mid-winter night,
When peaceful folk in beds lay snug asleep;
There, with much work to do before the light,
We lugged our clay-sucked boots as best we might
Along the trench; sometimes a bullet sang,
And droning shells burst with a hollow bang;
We were soaked, chilled and wretched, every one;
Darkness; the distant wink of a huge gun.

 

I turned in the black ditch, loathing the storm;
A rocket fizzed and burned with blanching flare,
And lit the face of what had been a form
Floundering in mirk. He stood before me there;
I say that He was Christ; stiff in the glare,
And leaning forward from His burdening task,
Both arms supporting it; His eyes on mine
Stared from the woeful head that seemed a mask
Of mortal pain in Hell’s unholy shine.

 

No thorny crown, only a woollen cap
He wore—an English soldier, white and strong,
Who loved his time like any simple chap,
Good days of work and sport and homely song;
Now he has learned that nights are very long,
And dawn a watching of the windowed sky.
But to the end, unjudging, he’ll endure
Horror and pain, not uncontent to die
That Lancaster on Lune may stand secure.

 

He faced me, reeling in his weariness,
Shouldering his load of planks, so hard to bear.
I say that He was Christ, who wrought to bless
All groping things with freedom bright as air,
And with His mercy washed and made them fair.
Then the flame sank, and all grew black as pitch,
While we began to struggle along the ditch;
And someone flung his burden in the muck,
Mumbling: ‘O Christ Almighty, now I’m stuck!’

 

The last line came later than today, it’s true. And the meat of the poem, the experience, came from the working parties of the last few nights. And the (rather forthright!) Christian imagery is deep in the bones of English poetry…

But can this “distinct change of direction” really not have something to do with the pushy, (over)-confident young captain and his own rather dreadful “shocker” poems full of misery and gore?

“Here at last is War poetry based on actual experience rather than literature,” writes Jean Moorcroft Wilson, one of Sassoon’s biographers. Well, yes–except for the fact that there is no need to separate the inseparable. (False dichotomy, etc.) Like any poem–like any poem other than the utterly naive or the intensely allusive–“The Redeemer” is a product of the writer’s experience and his reading. And this one surely shows the influence of a friendly rival as well. It’s a little obtuse to imply that a gospel-referencing poem in simply rhymed iambics is not “based on literature–” it’s not where it comes from but where it is trying to go that makes all the difference.[7]

Sassoon has turned about, or settled in–he has, in any case, found a new direction for his poetry. Not back to the halcyon nineties or the beautiful, operatic, pre-war days, not longing to find its way to a shelf of prettily-printed leisure verse. But into the trenches, to see what the poet can see.

It’s worth reminding ourselves, finally, what the new poem is not. It is not bitter, it is not angry, it is not disillusioned. The soldier is idealized, his motivations are simple, pure, and untroubled–for England–and his journey (that word again) consists of hardly a step. It’s realism, but not yet three-dimensional, not yet plastic or swift.

Siegfried Sassoon leads a charmed life. Aimless and well-supported, he saw the war as a way out of the doldrums. And the war has shielded him from its worst, so far, instead delivering him into a battalion that has–within three days–provided him with a sense of “home,” the stuff for better poetry, and a friend to spur him onward.

 

It’s Robbie and Siegfried’s day, but I can’t resist one burst of bitter wit from Ralph Hamilton, the Master of Belhaven, who has been enduring–with much diary-ward complaint–a series of freezing and poorly organized marches into reserve. His battery, half-destroyed on the 15th, has been rearmed, but it’s the entire division which is rotating out of the trenches. And yet there is neither comfort nor rest to be found:

Moringhem, 28th November, 1915

A truly dreadful day. To begin with, it had been freezing hard all night after yesterday’s thaw, and the road was one sheet of ice. The horses could not keep their feet, and fell every few yards…  It was a twenty-two-mile march and in my whole life I have never felt such cold…  twenty degrees of frost, and… there was a strong wind… that went through one like a knife…

On arrival we were horrified to find that this–our rest-camp for a month–is about the worst thing in billets we have struck since we came out. It is a tiny and poverty-stricken village, where one can buy nothing. Even bread cannot be had…

Harvey and I have clean and Spartan rooms in the priest’s house, but it is miserably cold…  He is a cheery soul, and played marches on his harmonium. Very painful to listen to, but he meant it well. We retaliated with Wagner on our gramophone.

…The cold depresses me; I would rather be in action again–if it was warm.[8]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Diaries, 21.
  2. The Sassoons were a prominent Persian Jewish family, but Siegfried identified strongly with his mother's very English family, and not his (absent) father's. He was a Jew neither by traditional standards nor by upbringing, and was at this time a member of the Church of England--like "George Sherston." (Not that any of this would have any baring on his appearance or the reaction of other Englishmen to it.) By the way, although I occasionally stumble upon them in the same sentence, it's striking--despite the different nature and scale of their achievements--that Sassoon's semi-fictionalizing is ever analyzed without invoking Proust, another novelist/memoirist whose main character bore striking resemblances to the author except for the fact that he was neither of Jewish ancestry nor gay...
  3. Good-Bye to All That, 173-5.
  4. Strange Meetings, 58.
  5. On which see Peter Parker's The Old Lie.
  6. Or on the telly.
  7. Wilson, Siegfried Sassoon, 213-219.
  8. War Diary, 121-2.

Edward Thomas Articles His Word; Wilfred Owen Feels Traitorously Idle

Edward Thomas produced two poems today, a century back. He is still roaming, still deciding what is to be done. And, although he is writing verse again, the atmosphere of pressurized brooding through which he stumbles infuses his poetry. Thomas wrote to Gordon Bottomley last week, announcing that he would go to America “if other things fail… But I am told I shall have to change my spots if I am to get on there—English people say so—& I do not really know of a method of doing so.”[1] Would this leopard, burning bright, now change his spots?

Under the Woods is a familiar sort of Thomas nature poem, but it broods heavily on time past and loss. Yet not, perhaps, as much as a second poem drafted the very same day.

This would be The Word, which puts his thoughts on memory in a new light. It’s also something of a companion piece to Words: the linguistic inquiry now seems retrospectively secularized, as Thomas approaches “the” Word from an unaccustomed, implicitly sacralized direction.

The poem starts out, however, in that familiar Thomas mode. Let us harrow the past and rake up sorrow:

There are so many things I have forgot,
That once were much to me, or that were not,
All lost, as is a childless woman’s child
And its child’s children, in the undefiled
Abyss of what can never be again.

But then a swift curve:

I have forgot, too, names of the mighty men
That fought and lost or won in the old wars,
Of kings and fiends and gods, and most of the stars.
Some things I have forgot that I forget.
But lesser things there are, remembered yet,
Than all the others.

Ah. So, here’s a claim that is surprising only in its familiarity: look to the less heralded! (It reminds me, not least, of Emily Brontë’s Often Rebuked.) There’s a twinge of something like populism–or that’s what it might seem to be, until he turns again, to tell us what–if history’s great names and the very heavens begin to fade in memory–will bind him to his past selves. It’s Edward Thomas! Always expect birds:

One name that I have not–
Though ’tis an empty thingless name–forgot
Never can die because Spring after Spring
Some thrushes learn to say it as they sing.

Hope in birdsong–of course. And this recalls another skeptic poet’s grim reanimation by hope: Thomas’s thrush is perched upon Thomas Hardy’s Darkling darling. (And if words were things, as they are only in a thoroughly sub-created world–a world wrought by the hand of man–then we might throw a line forward to another more literally wordy and informative thrush, growing old hard by the back door of a mountain lonelier than Brontë’s.)

So Thomas reaches toward Hardy, but he makes a slightly different claim: this isn’t a pastoral thrush, administering solace, but a Proustian thrush avant la lettre.

There is always one at midday saying it clear
And tart–the name, only the name I hear.
While perhaps I am thinking of the elder scent
That is like food, or while I am content
With the wild rose scent that is like memory,
This name suddenly is cried out to me
From somewhere in the bushes by a bird
Over and over again, a pure thrush word.

The wild rose scent. The purity of bird song. This is powerful, yet it flirts with conventional poetic posturing, does it not? Poetry is singing, a more wholesome and all-consuming thing than mere saying.  Words like empty facts crumble away.

But one question, at least, is not really settled: can the poet make words that will retain that savor of memory, that will capture the present and preserve it in signs, to be read or heard and experienced in other times?

And if not, then what is the good of writing it down and seeing it published?

 

Lastly, today, Wilfred Owen continues to come along. He has heard the early talk of conscription, a thing which would snatch away his chance of moulting into gentility on his return from abroad.

5 July

Bordeaux
Dearest Mother,

…What is this about all Englishmen between 15 and 60 being enrolled, ‘or something ?’ Don’t forget about Artists’ Rifles. I had the rare pleasure of a letter from Father two days ago. He learnt my last news without
your intervention, interpretation, or amelioration, I see! But you had better not send on this, most unliteratic of letters…

I feel an increasing indisposition for any of the things that most should engage me; and thought once the cause was in myself. But it is the war after all. l don’t see how it can end, I don’t see. I only feel traitorously idle: if not to England then to France.

Yours ever,

Wilfred[2]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Letters from Edward Thomas to Gordon Bottomley, 153.
  2. Collected Letters, 344-5.