Isaac Rosenberg wrote to Gordon Bottomley today, a century back, a letter in much the same vein as his recent missive to G.M. Trevelyan–but this one includes a new poem, composed during Rosenberg’s hospitalization for influenza:
Dear Mr. Bottomley
I enclose a poem Ive just written–its sad enough I know–but one can hardly write a war poem & be anything else. It happened to one of our chaps poor fellow–and I’ve tried to write it…
I do hope for that time to come when I shall be free to read and write in my own time; there will be the worries again of earning a livelyhood; painting is a very unsatisfactory business; but I can teach–though after the life I have lived in the army I don’t think it would matter much to me what I did. I will write again soon.
Yours sincerely, Isaac Rosenberg.
Fret the nonchalant noon
With your spleen
Or your gay brow,
For the motion of your spirit
Ever moves with these.
When day shall be too quiet,
Deaf to you
And your dumb smile,
Untuned air shall lap the stillness
In the old space for your voice–
The voice that once could mirror
Of moving being,
Stirred by responsive voices near,
Suddenly stilled for ever.
No ghost darkens the places
Dark to One;
But my eyes dream,
And my heart is heavy to think
How it was heavy once.
In the old days when death Stalked the world
For the flower of men,
And the rose of beauty faded
And pined in the great gloom,
One day we dug a grave:
We were vexed
With the sun’s heat.
We scanned the hooded dead:
At noon we sat and talked.
How death had kissed their eyes
Three dread noons since,
How human art won
The dark soul to flicker
Till it was lost again:
And we whom chance kept whole–
To make a place for them who knew
No pain in any place.
The good priest came to pray;
Our ears half heard,
And half we thought
Of alien things, irrelevant;
And the heat and thirst were great.
The good priest read: ‘I heard.
Dimly my brain
Held words and lost. . . .
Sudden my blood ran cold. . . .
God! God! It could not be.
He read my brother’s name; I sank–
I clutched the priest.
They did not tell me it was he
Was killed three days ago.
What are the great sceptred dooms
To us, caught
In the wild wave
We break ourselves on them,
My brother, our hearts and years.
Wilfred Owen, too, has been very productive, even while meeting new poet-friends and gallivanting with local ergotherapeutic acquaintances. Owen is very busy, but not front-line-soldier busy. And, although technically still hospitalized, he is physically healthy and psychologically something close to… serviceable, as it were. It is Owen’s good fortune that instead of writing to patrons and entrusting his manuscripts to the mails, he has an influential friend at his elbow and need only report on his progress in chatty letters to his mother…
…I wrote quite six poems last week, chiefly in Edinburgh; and when I read them to S.S. over a private tea in his room this afternoon, he came round from his first advice of deferred publishing, and said I must hurry up & get what is ready typed. He & his friends will get Heinemann to produce for me. Now it is my judgment alone that I must screw up to printing pitch…
Yours ever W.E.O. x
So we’ve had two writers living the writing life: writing, networking, writing. But is that, really, the whole story? These are poets: where’s the trauma and the poisonous, self-destructive drinking? Where’s the selfish, relationship-destroying sexual unrest? Come on!
Well, first we have Frederic Manning. A sympathetic Medical Board forgave him his latest alcohol-related breakdown, and assigned him to light duty without blaming him for his conduct. But this may have been a deal, a way for both Manning and his superiors to avoid disgrace. He’s still drinking, and today, a century back,
he formally requested that he be “allowed to resign my commission on the grounds of ill health. Owing to nervousness and constant insomnia I feel that I am unable to carry out competently my duties as an officer.”
There’s honor there, or an attempt at an honorable exit before another inevitable failure.
Ford Madox Hueffer, like Manning, had been shelled on the Somme. And like Manning, it’s not quite clear to what extent his military experiences exacerbated underlying personality issues. He has consulted the eminent Dr. Henry Head in recent months, and remains something between terminally melodramatic and clinically paranoid.
But though it no doubt made things worse, Ford can’t blame all his bad behavior on the war. He and Violet Hunt, who have for years considered themselves married (Ford being unable to obtain an English divorce from his wife), are… on the rocks. Hueffer has found himself to be impotent, and came up with a brilliantly original excuse: it wasn’t his problem, it was hers.
Despite writing in her diary that “He is not sane,” Hunt nevertheless decided to humor her pseudo-husband’s contention that “he could have her ‘through another woman.'”
This seems less like one of those times when modern bohemians are on the cutting edge of sexual experimentation than one of those times when men serve up ridiculous lines and get away with it, perhaps because the woman in question is cornered and feels that she has no better option. Hunt had recently met Stella Bowen, an attractive 24-year-old Australian painter, and she decided to invite Bowen and her roommate Phyllis Reid to stay the weekend when Ford was next due home on leave.
So today, a century back, Ford–forty-three and not in the best physical or mental condition, met Bowen and was evidently attracted to her. Nothing happened tonight–he and Hunt argued after another unsuccessful sexual encounter of their own–but the plan to have Hunt tempt him “through” another woman will end in disaster. Or it will be all too successful, depending on how one looks at it. In any case, Ford and Bowen will soon be conducting an affair…
Something rather similar will show up, in due time, in the Parade’s End tetralogy, where the love between Tietjens and Valentine Wannop is presented as pure and powerful rather than sordid and grim. Eschew biographical criticism though perhaps we should, it also looks every bit like a fantasy of female devotion concocted by an aging, frustrated novelist…
References and Footnotes
- Liddiard, Poetry Out of My Head and Heart, 112-5. I have used instead of Liddiard's transcript a later version of the poem, with few changes other than corrections and a switch of old-fashioned pronouns for modern. ↩
- Collected Letters, 502-3. ↩
- Marwil, Frederic Manning, An Unfinished Life, 185. ↩
- Saunders, Ford Madox Ford, A Dual Life, II, 38-9. ↩