Siegfried Sassoon Packs for Palestine; Isaac Rosenberg is Sent Packing

I suppose it is neither terribly perceptive nor strikingly original to note the importance of reading to writing and, in return, the utter dependence of reading on writing. Still, there is perhaps slightly more to say here than to make small jokes about the blindingly obvious–a reminder, at least, of one of the Fussell-inspired beginning places of this project: when you come to the task of describing something frightening, emotionally intense, and both utterly unlike your previous experiences and almost literally unimaginable to your future readership, you may be thrown back in confusion on the resources of your reading. In other words, all books derive in part from the books their writers read, but war books more than others.

Siegfried Sassoon likes to play the innocent or the ingenue–he failed to take a degree, he wasn’t a serious scholar, and he finds himself to be overawed by the presence of powerful intellects. Perhaps; but he is still intelligent and serious, and growing less diffident. And he’s packing literary weight, now:

February 7

Orders to embark Southampton next Monday.

Books to take to Egypt:

Oxford Book of English Verse
Keats
Wordsworth
Shakespeare’s Sonnets
Hardy, Moments of Vision
Crabbe, The Borough
Browning, The Ring and the Book
A Shropshire Lad
Meredith, Poems
Oxford Dictionary
Hardy, The Woodlanders

Barbusse, Le Feu
Pater, Renaissance
Trollope, Barchester Towers
Surtees, Mr Sponge’s Sporting Tour, Facey Romford’s Hounds
Bunyan, Holy War
Plato, Republic
Tolstoy, War and Peace (3 vols)
Scott, The Antiquary[1]

It’s quite a list: heavy on the essentials of English poetry, a few crucial “war books,” a late emphasis, perhaps, on autodidactic self-improvement, and then a few personal touchstones. The list explains where Sassoon is coming from as a poet much better than his “binary”–which is to say shaped with a heavy hand, and half-occluded–memoirs or his contemporary jottings and letters, and it is worth examining somewhat closely. Also, who doesn’t love to read a list of books?

Where do we begin? Blue-bound, of course, on India paper. The Oxford Book. Where else? This is the essential point of reference, the common ground codified and certified by the great University. And England’s poetic soil is green and fertile, if not always uncomplicatedly pleasant.

The most important poets are supplemented in their own volumes–Keats, the essential Romantic; Wordsworth, if ambition should point in that direction; Browning is perhaps a bit surprising, but he ranked quite high among the young Sassoon’s closer Romantic forebears. Crabbe, whose The Borough is a work describing everyday life in heroic couplets, is a bit of an outlier, but he might be there to strengthen Sassoon’s intention to write directly and descriptively about what the soldiers are experiencing.

Shakespeare’s sonnets, of course. Even though several are included in the Oxford Book, a lyric poet abroad might feel naked without them.

Of the later Victorians, Meredith and Hardy. Meredith, too, might be there for his unromantic emphasis on everyday life. And Thomas Hardy, Sassoon’s family friend at one remove, his more-than-polite correspondent, and something, perhaps of a poetic dream-mentor: he is becoming a Doktorvater or poetic grandsire while Rivers has become the dream father of Sassoon’s suffering soul.

But the choice of Hardy is interesting: not the enormous Satires of Circumstance, which is more essential to Sassoon’s 1916 poetry than any other examplar–and perhaps quite well remembered, by now–but the newest volume of poetry, Moments of Vision, together with The Woodlanders. Although this is one of Hardy’s later novels, it is something of a throwback to his early “Wessex” novels, treating of love in a rural setting in which, while not all goes well, to say the least, it does not end in utter calamity. It was broadly popular, too–not, in other words, one of the heavy-hitting late career novels which both sustain Hardy’s reputation to this day and helped finish him as a novelist in censorious Victorian Britain.

If there is one book that both advances the tradition of the rural English Lyric and narrows it to suit a certain sensibility–inclined to tragedy, to gently-posed but bitter irony, and toward a worship of the young male form that is at least implicitly homoerotic–it is Housman’s A Shropshire Lad. The poems are good–sometimes very good–but their influence on Sassoon’s generation is out of proportion to their merit-in-a-vacuum. (Which is not a thing that actually exists, of course. See Peter Parker’s Housman Country on all this.) Housman doesn’t really stand alongside Shakespeare, Keats, Wordsworth, and Hardy–but he does, in Sassoon’s valise.

Then there’s the Pater and the Plato–signs of an awakened intellectual appetite or ambition–bracketed by a few significant war books. Shorter, more recent, and French is Barbusse’s Le Feu (Under Fire) the first really influential realistic depiction of modern war. It’s a better book than All Quiet–which won’t be published for a decade, anyway–and should be read in its place. It’s got the horror and the intensely-lived experience, but without the heavy narrative hand on the wheel. Sassoon, Graves, and Blunden will all read this book…

It’s hard to tell whether War and Peace is there as a Modern War Essential or as a Great Book that is also a great way to spend a great deal of time in boats, trains, and dusty camps. Probably the latter, although Sassoon would have very much enjoyed Tolstoy’s own first-person fictions of warfare–the Sevastopol Sketches–had they been available.

Whether Bunyan’s second book (generally he’s a one book author, except for Protestant Allegorical or Siege Warfare completists) is there because Sassoon knows that it’s an allegory from static warfare (they all tried to use Pilgrim’s Progress when they could, but it’s a quest narrative, and they were going nowhere, so only the Slough really appealed) or whether because he just thought there might be some as-yet-untapped veins of Christian allegory in the tradition suitable for the smelting-into-satire, I am not sure. But I incline to the latter, once again.

Let’s see: then there is Trollope, and Scott, which are entertaining things; holes, perhaps, in his literary education, or middleweights to spar with before Tolstoy if he gets a bit windy.

Last, and very certainly least, are two novels by Surtees, who sits uncontested upon the throne of middlebrow Mid-Victorian fox hunting literature.

I am not going to pretend that I have read all the books on this list. However, since the point of such lists (or, at least, of publishing and then re-posting them) is to posture at imagined adversaries with pointy paper antlers, I will assert that I have read most of them, mostly, and thereby imply that those readers who haven’t have a lot of work to do.

But when I confronted my own failings in regard to Sassoon’s list, I decided that, rather than pay close attention to Meredith (or some of the other poets) or Trollope, I would read Surtees. Sassoon loves reading him–I believe he calls him his favorite author, somewhere–and perhaps this might offer a window into the meeting of the minds of the allegedly binary Sassoon: he is reading, but he’s reading about hunting. Well, I have to report… not so much. A few chapters in, Mr. Sponge is entertaining, but not memorable–kind of like Dickens arrested at the Pickwick stage, dressed in a clean waistcoat, told to mind his manners about all that social reform stuff, and rusticated. But then again I haven’t gotten to the allegedly excellent hunt scenes, which may be the missing link between Renaissance epic and cinematic car chases that I have been looking for all these years…

A preliminary conclusion, then: it’s a false lead to look for literary inspiration in the two hunting novels. Sassoon is bringing along old favorites to reread, and the very fact that they treat of the war-analogous activity of hunting in its innocent mid-Victorian days (and, more importantly, in the long moments of prewar innocence during which they were first read) suggests that he is not reading the, with any thought toward his own writing (not that that means that they won’t have any influence). The analogy is probably to modern soldiers who might bring along Ender’s Game or (closer to home, here) The Lord of the Rings.

 

This post should probably end lightheartedly, with a challenge to lay bets upon just how much he will actually read during his time in Egypt and Palestine. But we have instead a weird and ominous transition through tenuous connections. Sassoon is off to Palestine–not only the ancient homeland of his father’s people, but also rather near to the much more recent homeland of his father’s (but most especially his great-grandfather’s) family. And he is bringing books on Greece, Russia, and many an English covert.

Isaac Rosenberg, whose Jewishness is not something he could deny,[2] is now reaching actively toward it. But that’s not the real irony–the real irony is that just as Sassoon has accepted Palestine when he really wants France, Rosenberg is desperate to escape France for Palestine. He has many hopes, transfer-wise, but has begun to focus them on the Jewish battalion, which is to be sent to serve in that theater of the expanding war.

There is another much more direct connection between Sassoon and Rosenberg, but I am fairly certain that this connection–Eddie Marsh–would never have made much of it. Sassoon’s snobbery (which might, in a familiar irony, contain an anti-semitic strain) would not have appreciated being connected with the rough-edged and impassioned Jewish poet-artist from the slums, nor would their styles have been congenial.

In any event, Rosenberg is putting his hopes in Marsh. Can Churchill’s secretary save him from France and his declining health? Perhaps, but not today. Today’s transfer will get Rosenberg out of the trenches, but not out of a fighting unit destined for more combat in France. He was sent from the 11th King’s Own Lancasters, about to be disbanded in the reorganization of infantry brigades from four to three battalions, but not to any cushy billet: The 1st King’s Own may be in rest in Bernaville at the moment, but they are an old Regular battalion and part of the 4th Division, and their services will be required should the Germans attack, as they are expected to do shortly.

Rosenberg will feel the dissolution of his old unit much as David Jones did, and it will affect his writing. Perhaps because of the endless war, his separation from his old unit, the doldrums of February and the promise of an attack in March–for any of these reasons, or all, or none and simply from the nature of his mind and powerful, grim poetic gift–his writing, too is dwelling increasingly on historical suffering and destruction and on Jewish themes. Which go rather well together. When Rosenberg finishes and mails the next batch we will have a date on which to read them, but for now it is a long lonely train trip for him, and a wait for us for his poetry, undated and unrecorded as he is sent from unit to unit and task to task…[3]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Diaries, 210. Jean Moorcroft Wilson, Siegfried Sassoon, I, 440, reports that he abandoned some of the weightier (in a literal sense) volumes, but then bought them in Egypt--he is a man who sticks to his list, evidently.
  2. Not that Sassoon is an apostate or a traitor to his people or anything so dramatic as that. He had few memories of his father and almost no contact with traditional Judaism. He was not Jewish by any then-accepted standard, and was raised as an Anglican by his mother. But he was socially able to treat his Jewishness, such as it was, as only an exotic part of his family's past, and his extreme Englishness of manner probably made it hard for all but the truly impassioned anti-semites to hate him once they knew him. If a man writes better English poetry than you, plays better cricket than you, and rides to hounds, hurling old slurs is bound to look a little silly... Not that other forms of anti-semitism wouldn't have dragged him down in other situations, but if there were more than sneers thrown at him by other "gentlemen," he doesn't have anything to say about it.
  3. Moorcroft Wilson, Isaac Rosenberg, 390-1.

Robert Graves and the End of Siegfried Sassoon’s Grand Gesture

We’re caught between two timelines, today, and just when we begin to knot together the lives of three poets, their views on the ethics of creative response to the war, and several closely-connected questions of conscience, consciousness, and the varieties of mental health in the post-traumatic infantry officer.

We might go by Siegfried Sassoon‘s days of the week, as he sets them out in his memoir–in which case today is his third day in the more confined purgatory he brought upon himself when he refused to accept a medical exam.

On Tuesday my one-legged friend… handed me an official document which instructed me to proceed to Crewe next day for a Special Medical Board…

On Wednesday I… was learning by heart as many poems as possible, my idea being that they would be a help to me in prison, where, I imagined, no books would be allowed…

On Thursday… I received an encouraging letter from the M.P. who urged me to keep my spirits up and was hoping to raise the question of my statement in the House next week. Early in the afternoon the Colonel called to see me. He found me learning Keats’ Ode to a Nightingale. “I cannot see what flowers are at my feet. Nor what soft. . . ”

What soft was it, I wondered, re-opening the book. But here was the Colonel, apparently unincensed, shaking my hand, and sitting down opposite me, though already looking fussed and perplexed. He wasn’t a lively-minded man at the best of times, and he didn’t pretend to understand the motives which had actuated me. But with patient common-sense argument, he did his best to persuade me to stop wanting to stop the War. Fortified by the M.P.’s letter in my pocket, I managed to remain respectfully obdurate, while expressing my real regret for the trouble I was causing him. What appeared to worry him most was the fact that I’d cut the Medical Board.

‘Do you realize, Sherston, that it had been specially arranged for you and that an R.A.M.C. Colonel came all the way from London for it?’ he ejaculated ruefully, wiping the perspiration from his forehead.

The poor man — whose existence was dominated by documentary instructions from ‘higher quarters’, had probably been blamed for my non-appearance; and to disregard such an order was, to one with his habit of mind, like a reversal of the order of nature. As the interview dragged itself along, I began to feel quite optimistic about the progress I was making. The Colonel’s stuttering arguments in support of ‘crushing Prussian militarism’ were those of a middle-aged civilian; and as the overworked superintendent of a reinforcement manufactory, he had never had time to ask himself why North Welsh men were being shipped across to France to be gassed, machine-gunned, and high explosived by Germans. It was absolutely impossible, he asserted, for the War to end until it ended well, until it ended as it ought to end. Did I think it right that so many men should have been sacrificed for no purpose? ‘And surely it stands to reason, Sherston, that you must be wrong when you set your own opinion against the practically unanimous feeling of the whole British Empire.’

There was no answer I could make to that, so I remained silent and waited for the British Empire idea to blow over…[1]

But there is another, more solid chronology, in which all of this would seem to have happened–despite Sassoon’s having assigned the days of the week to match today’s date–some four days ago.

In the passage quoted above, “George Sherston” goes on to wish he could speak with the influential anti-war philosopher “Tyrell.” This is Bertrand Russell; but in real life, Sassoon’s pacifist friends have been outflanked. Or, rather, Robert Graves has stolen a march for his friend’s military reputation and the honor of the Regiment. There is more than a bit of dumb show in this, I think: Sassoon was advised and coached by a number of influential older writers and activists in London. But where are they now? Their protégé has written his statement and it is set to be widely publicized after a question is asked about it in the House of Commons. But why is no one staying with their man? Knowing Sassoon, and then leaving him to face the military consequences of his action alone seems like poor tactics…

And so, when Graves arrived yesterday–a date supported by the timing of his departure from the Isle of Wight and day in London–he found Sassoon lonely (this is emphasized in both of their accounts) and vulnerable to persuasion. So by now, in this timeline, it’s a done deal: Sassoon has attended a second medical board (arranged within hours[2]–more evidence that Graves’s persuasions are coordinated with an opaque but irresistible War Office decision to take the medical route) and been deemed to suffer from a “war neurosis”–shell-shock, in other words, or what will come to be called “combat fatigue,” and then, later, PTSD.

Graves emphasizes Sassoon’s debilitation at this time–he has been having waking nightmares and is physically worn down and exhausted. The implication is that, even though Sassoon really did hate the war, we might consider his statement to have been written in a moment of weakness. Yet Sassoon does not depict himself as ill, only distraught and intellectually confused about where his loyalties and ethical responsibilities should lie… but he gave in, nonetheless.

And, if this letter from Graves to Eddie Marsh is correctly dated, it was today, a century back:

19 July 1917
3rd RWF, Litherland, Liverpool

My Dear Eddie

It’s all right about Siegfried. After awful struggling with everybody (I arrived at 59 minutes past the eleventh hour) I’ve smoothed it all down and he’s going away cheerfully to a home at Edinboro’. I’ve written to the pacifists who were to support him telling them that the evidence as to his mental condition given at his Medical Board is quite enough to make them look damned silly if they go on with the game and ask questions in the House about his defiance…[3]

The statement will still be read in the House–but now, crucially, the army will be able to imply (and its allies in the House explain) that the brave officer in question is, alas, not quite in his right mind, and resting comfortably in a hospital in Edinburgh…

 

So let’s skip ahead a bit in Sassoon’s own chronology, and read his fictionalized account of the crucial encounter. Stewing of a Sunday morning at the end of his lonely week, George Sherston is even considering going to church, despite his preference for poetry as a spiritual aid.

Sitting in a sacred edifice wouldn’t help me, I decided. And then I was taken completely by surprise; for there was David Cromlech, knobby-faced and gawky as ever, advancing across the room. His arrival brought instantaneous relief, which I expressed by exclaiming: ‘Thank God you’ve come!’

He sat down without saying anything. He too was pleased to see me, but retained that air of anxious concern with which his eyes had first encountered mine. As usual he looked as if he’d slept in his uniform. Something had snapped inside me and I felt rather silly and hysterical. ‘David, you’ve got an enormous black smudge on your forehead,’ I remarked. Obediently he moistened his handkerchief with his tongue and proceeded to rub the smudge off, tentatively following my instructions as to its whereabouts. During this operation his face was vacant and childish, suggesting an earlier time when his nurse had performed a similar service for him.

This is good writing, no? Sassoon’s quiet wit and his poetic gift for satire borrowed by the novelist/memoirist to rough in the character of his friend with a few heavy strokes about his appearance. But it’s not kind… Graves is not the only one who does not place consideration for the feelings of old friends uppermost in his mind when memoir-writing. In any case, the gawky child has the upper hand, and listens to “Sherston” explain himself.

…When I started this anti-war stunt I never dreamt it would be such a long job, getting myself run in for a court martial, I concluded, laughing with somewhat hollow gaiety.

In the meantime Dated sat moody and silent, his face twitching nervously and his fingers twiddling one of his tunic buttons. ‘Look here, George,’ he said, abruptly, scrutinizing the button as though he’d never seen such a thing before, ‘I’ve come to tell you that you’ve got to drop this anti-war business.’ This was a new idea, for I wasn’t yet beyond my sense of relief at seeing him, ‘But I can’t drop it,’ I exclaimed. ‘Don’t you realize that I’m a man with a message? I thought you’d come to see me through the court martial as “prisoner’s friend.”’ We then settled down to an earnest discussion about the political errors and insincerities for which the fighting men were being sacrificed. He did most of the talking, while I disagreed defensively. But even if our conversation could be reported in full, I am afraid that the verdict of posterity would be against us. We agreed that the world had gone mad; but neither of us could see beyond his own experience, and we weren’t life-learned enough to share the patient selfless stoicism through which men of maturer age were acquiring anonymous glory…

And there I should cut Sassoon off, before we fall afoul of the rule prohibiting explicitly ex post facto judgments from our writers.. The two friends continue to debate the whys and wherefores of pacifism and protest, until the patience of Graves/Cromlech grows thin:

David then announced that he’d been doing a bit of wire-pulling on my behalf, and that I should soon find that my Pacifist M.P wouldn’t do me as much good as I expected. This put my back up. David had no right to come butting in about my private affairs. ’If you’ve really been trying to persuade the authorities not to do anything nasty to me, I remarked, ‘that’s about the hopefullest thing I’ve heard. Go on doing it and exercise your usual tact, and you’ll get me two years’ hard labour for certain, and with any luck they’ll decide to shoot me as a sort of deserter.’ He looked so aggrieved at this that I relented and suggested that we’d better have some lunch. But David was always an absent-minded eater, and on this occasion lie prodded disapprovingly at his food and then bolted it down as if it were medicine.

After lunch the debate resumes, and thus it comes to a head:

“…the main point is that by backing out of my statement I shall be betraying my real convictions and the people who are supporting me. Isn’t that worse cowardice than being thought cold-footed by officers who refuse to think about anything except the gentlemanly traditions of the Regiment? I’m not doing it for fun, am I? Can’t you understand that this is the most difficult thing I’ve ever done in my life? I’m not going to be talked out of it just when I’m forcing them to make a martyr of me!

‘They won’t make a martyr of you.’ he replied.

‘How do you know that?’ I asked. He said that the Colonel at Clitherland had told him to tell me that if I continued to refuse to be ‘medically boarded’ they would shut me up in a lunatic asylum for the rest of the War. Nothing would induce them to court martial me. It had all been arranged with some big bug at the War Office in the last day or two.

‘Why didn’t you tell me before?’ I asked.

‘I kept it as a last resort because I was afraid it might upset you.’ he replied, tracing a pattern on the sand with his stick.

‘I wouldn’t believe this from anyone but you. Will you swear on the Bible that you’re telling the truth?’

He swore on an imaginary Bible that nothing would induce them to court martial me and that I should be treated as insane. ‘All right then, I’ll give way.’ As soon as the words were out of my mouth I sat down on an old wooden break-water.

So that was the end of my grand gesture. I ought to have known that the blighters would do me down somehow, I thought, scowling heavily at the sea. It was appropriate that I should behave in a glumly dignified manner, but already I was aware that an enormous load had been lifted from my mind. In the train David was discreetly silent. He got out at Clitherland. ‘Then I’ll tell Orderly Room they can fix up a Board for you to-morrow.’ he remarked, unable to conceal his elation. ‘You can tell then anything you bloody well please!’ I answered ungratefully. But as soon as I was alone I sat back and closed my eyes with a sense of exquisite relief.

Sassoon himself wastes no time in unmasking the irony of this hostile-friendly intervention, so we’ll break our rules and step forward to look back on the truth of this moment:

I was unaware that David had probably saved me from being sent to prison by telling me a very successful lie. No doubt I should have done the same for him if our positions had been reversed.[4]

On this, on several grounds, there should be a great deal of doubt.

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Complete Memoirs, 506-8.
  2. Unless I am wrong on the chronology or Graves is wrong on the date; it seems possible, though, that the Board was arranged today, in a way that enabled Graves to know in advance about Edinburgh, but took place tomorrow, presumably with medical officers who could be assembled locally... NB/correction: After seeking help from Anne Pedley in the writing of the July 23rd post, it now seems quite clear from Sassoon's record that Graves arrived today and the board was indeed set for tomorrow, a centuryback.
  3. In Broken Images, 79.
  4. Complete Memoirs, 509-13.

Robert Graves Attends a Board While Siegfried Sassoon Skips One; Edmund Blunden Passes the Chateau at Vlamertinghe; Francis Ledwidge Writes “Home”

Today, a century back, Robert Graves had a hastily-arranged medical board at Osborne House, on the Isle of Wight, and, despite his recent nervous exhaustion and his bad lung, he was approved to return to duty. Graves has already written to the C.O. of the Welsh Depot (technically, the 3rd Battalion), and he surely indicated to the board that he needed to be passed fit–and therefore granted leave–in order to help a comrade. He probably made it quite clear that he intended to go and help suppress Siegfried Sassoon‘s anti-war protest, and he left for London immediately after the board.

Meanwhile, Sassoon himself cut his own medical board–a shocking breach of good manners, as the depot commandment will explain to him. This is the first sign that the army is likely to simply ignore Sassoon’s direct challenge, treating the fiery and rebellious “Mad Jack” with bureaucratic circumspection. Sassoon has written a protest, but he has slapped no particular face with his duelist’s gauntlets, and the Army, in its lugubrious wisdom, seems likely to shrug aside so impersonal an attack. There will be another board soon…[1]

 

With all of these poets appearing before doctors, writing business letters, and dashing about Britain, we’ve had little time, lately, for poetry. So I will bend the rules a bit today and include two poems that I am almost certain were written this week, or about the events of this week, a century back.

First, Edmund Blunden. His battalion diary for today matches this passage of his memoir:

The battalion camped in readiness among the familiar woods west of Vlamertinghe, but the woods were changed, and the parting genius must have gone on a stretcher. No Belgian artisans were hammering strips of tarred canvas on the hut roofs now; there were holes of various sizes among the huts. Wooden tracks led this way and that in puzzling number through the crowded airless shadows, and new roads threw open to the public a district suited for the movements of a small and careful party. At the corner where one insolent new highway left the wood eastward, an enormous model of the German positions now considered due to Britain was open for inspection, whether from  the ground or from step-ladders raised beside, and this was popular, though whether from its charm as a model or  as a military aid is uncertain. Vidler and Tice inspected it, at least, as stern utilitarians…

Blunden recalls happier times in the Salient–what could be more natural for the pastoral soldier-poet-memoirist, and what could be stranger, really, to the non-soldier than war fondly recalled? Blunden’s memoir is uncanny, though, in its ability to stay within his sensibility–the sharp description, the mixture of foreboding and grudgingly admitted realism and delicate natural beauty (the wildflowers are coming!)–while also being of this moment in the war. It is, after all, the summer of the highly-detailed models, the siege-enthusiast’s historical fetish indulged before the deluge…

But let’s return to Blunden, and the road, and what the summer foliage conceals:

The road toward Vlamertinghe was newly constructed of planks and forced a publicity on farmlands to which I had only gone before on some pleasant trespass. It took one presently through a gorgeous and careless multitude of poppies and sorrels and bull daisies to the grounds of Vlamertinghe Chateau, many-windowed, not much hurt but looking very dismal in the pitiless perfect sun. Its orchards yet clung to some pale apples, but the gunners were aware of that; the twelve-inch gunners, whose business here seemed like a dizzy dream. Under several splendid untrimmed trees, among full-flooding grass, shone certain rails, and on these rails were some tremendous iron engines, with gaping mouths; standing behind, if you could keep your eye unblurred at the titanic second of their speaking, you could see their mortal monosyllables of inferno climbing dead straight into the sky…[2]

That is about as portentous and heavy-handed as Blunden can get. He will also write this day’s march in verse, beginning, again with uncharacteristic directness, by placing a famous line from Keats in this terrible new context:

 

Vlamertinghe: Passing the Chateau, July 1917

‘And all her silken flanks with garlands drest’—
But we are coming to the sacrifice.
Must those flowers who are not yet gone West?
May those flowers who live with death and lice?
This must be the floweriest place
That earth allows; the queenly face
Of the proud mansion borrows grace for grace
Spite of those brute guns lowing at the skies.
Bold great daisies’ golden lights,
Bubbling roses’ pinks and whites—
Such a gay carpet! poppies by the million;
Such damask! such vermilion!
But if you ask me, mate, the choice of colour
Is scarcely right; this red should have been duller.

There is nothing more ominous than beautiful Blunden beginning to sound like satiric Sassoon.

 

It’s not quite fair to Francis Ledwidge to place a somewhat vague poem of his right after this taut stroke of Blunden’s… and yet they fit. They are, certainly, very much poems of mid-July, 1917. Both men know, now, that battle in Flanders is fast approaching. Both think of home–Keats is home, for Blunden–and struggle to see what they can of the unspoilt world in the warscape they inhabit. If Ledwidge is more successful it may be because he is more determined to wish away reality–and it may be because he is writing in the moment, when such wishful thinking is a practical element of emotional health as well as a literary exercise. Some morning this week, when the guns fell silent for a few moments, Ledwidge wrote “Home.”

Home

A burst of sudden wings at dawn,
Faint voices in a dreamy noon,
Evenings of mist and murmurings,
And nights with rainbows of the moon.

And through these things a wood-way dim,
And waters dim, and slow sheep seen
On uphill paths that wind away
Through summer sounds and harvest green.

This is a song a robin sang
This morning on a broken tree,
It was about the little fields
That call across the world to me.

Belgium,
July, 1917.

 

References and Footnotes

  1. R.P. Graves, Robert Graves, The Assault Heroic, 352. Moorcroft Wilson, Siegfried Sassoon, I, 383.
  2. Undertones of War, 166-7. 11th Battalion Royal Sussex War Diary, 88.

Wilfred Owen’s Sonnet on the Unknown Soldier; Edwin Vaughan Meets a Madman; Victor Richardson to Vera Brittain: a Boy No More; Edward Thomas’s Most Beautiful Letter

We have a frightening short scrap on shell shock, today, and three letters from soldiers. Each of the two longer letters, different in tone but oddly parallel, will find a space for unvoiced love and for the repurposing of poetry–both Victor Richardson and, even yet, Edward Thomas, write themselves into a new light. As does Wilfred Owen, with verse of his own.

Since Owen’s is a lighter sort of new light, let’s start with him.

Perhaps it’s the concussion; perhaps it’s the leisure time in bed, but Owen is once again writing to a sibling about his bucolic post-war dreams:

24 March, 13th Casualty Clearing Station

My dear Colin,

In my walk this afternoon, considering at leisure the sunshine and the appearance of peace (I don’t mean from the news) I determined what I should do after the war.

I determined to keep pigs.

It occurred to me that after five years development of one pig-stye in a careful & sanitary manner, a very considerable farm would establish itself.

I should like to take a cottage and orchard in Kent, Surrey or Sussex, and give my afternoons to the care of pigs. The hired labour would be very cheap, 2 boys could tend 50 pigs. And it would be the abruptest possible change from my morning’s work…

This, young Colin Owen must be thinking, is madness, a result of that knock on the head. After all, big brother Wilfred has been raised to be a young gentleman, and considers himself an aspiring highbrow poet-aesthete!

Perhaps you will think me clean mad and translated by my knock on the head. How shall I prove that my old form of madness has in no way changed? I will send you my last Sonnet, which I started yesterday. I think I will address it to you.

Adieu, mon petit. Je t’embrasse. W.E.O.

SONNET—with an Identity Disc

If ever I had dreamed of my dead name
High in the Heart of London; unsurpassed
By Time forever; and the fugitive, Fame,
There taking a long sanctuary at last,
—I’ll better that! Yea, now, I think with shame
How once I wished it hidd’n from its defeats
Under those holy cypresses, the same
That mourn around the quiet place of Keats.
Now rather let’s be thankful there’s no risk
Of gravers scoring it with hideous screed.
For let my gravestone be this body-disc
Which was my yoke. Inscribe no date, nor deed.
But let thy heart-beat kiss it night & day . . .
Until the name grow vague and wear away.

This is private.
I stickle that a sonnet must contain at least 3 clever turns to be good.
This has only two.[1]

That’s about right–the yoke, the deed/screed rhyme… but perhaps by the time we come to the lips wearing away the inscription on the identity disk the joke has been too fully-sprung. But it is clever, and a good sign–this is no renunciation of Keats, or of love poetry in the best Romantic mode. Despite the jokes and the self-deprecation this is a love sonnet which takes up an ironic condition of the front line soldier-poet–the desire for fame, the likelihood of an unknown grave–and makes a lovely-sounding thing out of hope and fear.

 

While Owen is making clever jokes in the leisure of his concussion, Edwin Vaughan is coming to know how prolonged, repeated, unbearable concussions can affect a man. A group of replacements has reached his battalion, including a man named Corbett.

He it appears was a splendid NCO until he was badly wounded on the Somme in 1916, after which he went quite silly. Whenever he goes into the line he goes mad, though he never shows fear. At one time he secured a dugout, and if any stranger or undesirable visitor entered it, he hammered the fuse of a dud 9.2″ shell with an entrenching tool, until he was again alone…[2]

 

We’ll close with another letter from Edward Thomas, but first, I want to spend a little time on one of the letters written to Vera Brittain. She is far away in Malta, but the three young soldiers she cares for are all once more heading toward battle. Her brother, Edward–wounded on the first day of the Somme–is the safest, still working on training courses and yet to rejoin a fighting battalion. Geoffrey Thurlow and Victor Richardson, however, are in infantry battalions in France, preparing for the offensive. Victor Richardson, the sturdy, smiling Third Musketeer of Uppingham Days, has been an officer in the trenches for quite some time now–and he doesn’t write, any longer, from a subordinate or suppliant position. This is the first letter to Vera, I think, in which he assumes intellectual equality and writes as if they were essentially the same age.

France, 24 March 1917

My dear Vera,

Mrs Leighton has just sent me Rhymes of a Red Cross Man. They are indeed excellent, but their vivid realism is oppressive at least I find it so just now. With regard to ‘Pilgrims’ it is true in part. It is true that none of us would wish those we love to do other than ‘smile and be happy again’. But none of us wish to die… I venture to say that there is not one officer, warrant officer, N.C.O., or rifleman who looks on death as ‘The Splendid Release’. That is the phrase of ‘a Red Cross Man’ and not of a member of a fighting unit.

So Victor is no longer willing to accept uncritically the views that surround him. Vera has tended patronize him–he’s the fondly regarded lesser light, never as bright or as high-flying as Roland or her brother. But although she is by now “accustomed… to the sudden tragic maturities of trench life” she is surprised to see the sweet boy she remembers write now like tough-minded officer, too wise for easy answers. Victor, sounding more like Roland than he ever has, continues:

I often wonder why we are all here. Mainly I think, as far as I am concerned, to prevent the repetition in England of what happened in Belgium in August 1914. Still more perhaps because one’s friends are here. Perhaps too, ‘heroism in the abstract’ has a share in it all.

Victor Richardson believes, now, that “the attitude of 90% of the British Expeditionary Force” is one of cheerful resignation, as typified in “a marching song to the tune of Auld Lang Syne that the little old men have been heard to sing:

We’re here because
We’re here because
We’re here because
We’re here.”

And “here” is France, with the Spring Offensive growing ever nearer.

But not near enough for his taste:

The situation as far as we are concerned is at present only slightly changed, but I hope that on the day of the hunt it will alter considerably. You speak of being anxious about Geoffrey Thurlow. At the present moment I would gladly change places with him. He is probably well away and over the country by now, and open warfare has none of the terrors of breaking new ground…

Edward doesn’t seem to enjoy his Musketry Course. Just as I did he is taking it far too seriously. I can’t define exactly how he has changed since July 1st. In that one day I think he aged ten years. I wonder if I shall be the same: I don’t think so somehow or other, but it is quite impossible to say.

I can quite understand your desire to wander further. I am a restless spirit myself–in fact you yourself once accused me of being a rolling stone.

Well, Vera, I may not write again–one can never tell–and so, as Edward wrote to me, ‘it is time to take a long long adieu’.

Ever yours

ah[3]

This “valedictory resignation” will make Vera Brittain feel, when she reads this letter, that Malta and France–with more and more U-boats between them–are impossibly far apart. The old romantic idea that fierce feelings of closeness can stave off separation is getting harder to sustain.[4]

 

Finally, today, Edward Thomas wrote to his wife, Helen.

Arras
24 March 1917

Dearest,

I was in that ghastly village today. The Major and I went up at 7.30 to observe; through the village was the quickest way. I never thought it would be so bad. It is nothing but dunes of piled up brick and stone with here and there a jagged piece of wall, except that the little summerhouse placed under the trees that I told Baba about is more or less perfect. The only place one could recognize was the churchyard. Scores of tombstones were quite  undamaged.

Now is this Thomas’s writerly restraint, or the fact that he is unwilling to–or simply not interested in–frightening his wife with grim visions. If scores of tombstones were quite undamaged, others surely, were wrecked, and graves were damaged… and few of our writers avoid such horrific bounty as the irony and horror of ancient graves disturbed by modern war. Thomas would seem to prefer this–and yet, as his narrative moves on, he avoids neither destruction nor death.

All the trees were splintered and snapped and dead until you got to the outskirts… No Man’s Land below the village was simply churned up dead filthy ground with tangled rusty barbed wire over it… On the way we saw a Bosh fight two of our planes. He set one on fire and chased the other off. The one on fire had a great red tail of flame, yet the pilot kept it under control for a minute or more till I suppose he was on fire and then suddenly it reeled and dropped in a string of tawdry fragments.

Our new position—fancy—was an old chalk pit in which a young copse of birch, hazel etc. has established itself.

Fancy–why? This turns out to be a complicated question. Edward Thomas is something of a chalk-pit enthusiast, and he described and considered the symbolism of several chalk pits in his prose, and then in his poem “The Chalk-Pit.” This is a poetic dialogue (the form heavily influenced by Frost) in which two speakers discuss the resonances of an empty chalk pit–a man-made dell now overgrown with trees.

Then two more figures are invoked: a “man of forty” remembering coming there with “a girl of twenty with… hair brown as a thrush.” So it would seem as if Thomas is not just recalling any one of the chalk pits in the English countryside which they may have walked by in recent years, but the time of his long-ago courtship with Helen. The poem may also–although this would imply a strange sort of deceit–remember Thomas’s infatuation, some nine years before, with a teenage girl he met while away from home working on a book.[5]

But all that is rather too much, and it’s not certain that Thomas is even thinking of his poem. But a chalk pit is an evocative place, an old work of man that has been reclaimed by nature and thus “can be admired without misanthropy,” a most characteristic line. The chalk pit and its trees are Thomas’s ideal context:

…a silent place that once rang loud,
And trees and us–imperfect friends, we men
And trees since time began; and nevertheless
Between us we still breed a mystery.

And now–fancy–he will be living in one while he assists in bombarding the new German positions east of Arras.

Our dug out is already here, dug by the battery we are evicting. It is almost a beautiful spot still and I am sitting warm in the sun on a heap of chalk with my back to the wall of the pit which is large and shallow. Fancy, an old chalk pit with moss and even a rabbit left in spite of the paths trodden almost all over it. It is beautiful and sunny and warm though cold in the shade. The chalk is dazzling. The sallow catkins are soft dark white.

What quotidian concern could cast a pall over this lovely scene?

All I have to do is to see that the men prepare the gun platforms in the right way, and put two men on to digging a latrine.—I am always devilish particular about that.

This is a rambling letter to a wife, I know–it’s not a gripping account of modern war. But it’s all one song, as another sage once said, and it means something–something important–that Thomas writes so much, here, and so beautifully. Their marriage has been a troubled one, and if Helen is close to his heart theirs is not an intimate intellectual relationship; he rarely writes his poetry with or to her. But now he nearly is–this is as close to verse as he has gotten, since he came to France.

There are a few long large white clouds mostly low in the sky and several sausage balloons up and still some of our planes peppered all round with black Bosh smoke bursts. I ate some oatcakes for lunch just now. They were delicious, hard and sweet.

And it’s not just this sort of prose, and the chalk-pit and the trees–we have a thrush, too, and our sudden bloom of snowdrops to carry on. Am I overselling it? Probably. I’ll need an ellipsis for the paragraphs that keep track of parcels and acquaintances…

The writing pads were quite all right, though no longer so necessary after Oscar had sent me half a dozen…

…this particular place has never been shelled yet, so though I hear a big shell every now and then flop 200 or 300 yards away it feels entirely peaceful. But I can’t get over the fact that there is no thrush singing in it. There is only a robin. I don’t hear thrush ever. All the bright pale or ruddy stems in the copse and the moss underneath and the chalk showing through reminds me of Hampshire…

The wheat is very green in some of the fields a little behind us and they are ploughing near our orchard. I hope the old woman will get back to her cottage and apple trees and currant bushes and snowdrops and aconites and live happily ever after.

It is very idle of me to sit here writing, but the men are all at work and I can’t help them except by appearing at intervals and suggesting something obvious that ought to be done…

Now I have had tea and oatcakes and honey and also a cake from Burzard’s Mrs Freeman sent me. I am having an agreeably idle evening, but then I am up with the lark tomorrow for 24 hours at the O.P. No letters today and tomorrow I shan’t get them if there are any. Never mind. All is well.

I am all and always yours

Edwy

A timeless letter, a brave sally against loneliness, and the gulf, and misanthropy. A long moment of peace and love stolen from the war, and a record of coincidence between poetry and life… but with a post-script:

The latest is that perhaps we shan’t go in to the chalk pit. The general is always changing his mind.[6]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Collected Letters, 446.
  2. Some Desperate Glory, 64.
  3. Letters From a Lost Generation, 326-8.
  4. Testament of Youth, 334-6.
  5. Longley, Edward Thomas, The Annotated Collected Poems, 236-9.
  6. Selected Letters, 153-5.

Will Harvey and Ivor Gurney Together at Last; Gurney on the Stoics, the Depressives, the Poets, and the Music of the Shells; Wilfred Owen Mystified by the Troops

Today, a century back, two friends and fellow Gloucestershires finally crossed paths in France. Or, at least, we are finally aware that they have. Frederick “Will” Harvey came out long before his close friend Ivor Gurney, earned kudos and took a German prisoner, killed a man and won a medal, and was sent back for officer training, one of the thousands of middle class and professional men who joined the ranks of Kitchener’s Army and were shaken out and upward as more officers were required. The newly-minted 2nd Lieutenant has now been posted to Gurney’s battalion, the 2/5th Gloucestershires, and they were able to meet today, and talk. That officer and man should meet as friends would have been an impossibility in the old Regular Army, but in the New Army it is a not uncommon occurrence. It was a good thing, though, that Harvey and Gurney were not in the same platoon, or even the same company.

Harvey, who looked like a mild-mannered clerk is actually a bit of a fire-eater.[1] Any battalion commander faced with a new officer with the ribbon of the DCM (won by enlisted men, often for aggressive valor) would do well to keep an eye on him. Instead, when Harvey pointed out the long hedge in no man’s land that would give good enough cover for a daylight patrol to discover the location of the nearest German posts, the colonel was non-committal. They will plan a conventional evening raid in the near future…

And as for that crossing of paths, it is attested to by this long, fascinating, and worrisomely meandering letter of Gurney’s to his friend and patron Marion Scott:[2]

August 1916 (E)

Dear Miss Scott:

The address on the label of the packet of M. S. is shaky and would not impress a real expert in such matters, but it seems to be yours, and so I guess that you are out of danger, and will soon be able to resume that correspondance which is inevitably fated some day to be the joy and wonder of my biographers. That is, if my biography is not fated to be one line in the casualty list, with the wrong number and a J. instead of an I — as is set forth on my identification disc. I hope you have not been having too evil a time of it though, and that this is the last attempt at dissolution for a long time…

So, after politely joking a bit more about what was evidently a serious illness, Gurney gets down to business.

I have just finished a setting of Masefields “By a Bierside”, and this will come to you either now or when we get back out of trenches. I hope you will like it. I will praise it so far as to say that I believe there was never anybody could have set the words “Death opens unknown doors” , as it is set here. The accompaniment is really orchestral, but the piano will get all thats wanted very well. It came to birth in a disused Trench Mortar emplacement…

A private soldier managing musical composition in a front line position does seem even more impressive than the usual trick of writing poetry.

…everything is queer here. I feel like a cinematograph shadow moving among dittoes…

It is bad to hear that you cannot sleep. Read Dr Johnsons works, or Addison’s, which are nearly as bad…

Gurney, who has struggled as times–even before the war–to maintain a firm grip on his sanity, now writes a most unusual, most apt and most upsetting explanation of the psychological mechanics of wartime fear:

The fear of death in sickness is widely different from that in a strafe. The most of us do not fear death very much. Hardly at all, in fact. It is hearing the shells and mortars soaring down to wipe you out, and the spiteful gibbering of the machine guns which may get you that does the trick. If a hypochondriac in the last stage of depression were to stand by a river, having fully made up his mind to drown himself when his waistcoat would come off; if a boy were to throw a brick at such he would dodge it. It is the same instinct that makes war dreadful, but by a merciful dispensation relieves the flat boredom of living among sandbags.

This letter is a spasmodic affair, and has already been interrupted 3 times, but we get on.

Mrs Voynich has sent me M Aurelius and Epictetus. The last is a game old boy, and I should dearly love to watch him in a strafe, but M Aurelius is a pious swanker in comparison, though he says some lovely things. Epictetus remains among the persons decidedly worth getting to know; perhaps after the next strafe.

This is forbearance, no? Here we find a man whose lot it is to lie in a trench and be shelled receiving, politely, two stoic philosophers sent by a non-combatant, warm and safe and dry!

I don’t know Gurney well enough to know if he is earnest or politely appalled, but I suspect some chuckling middle ground. Gurney then wanders off a bit. I’ll intersperse my ellipses with his own, so we get some sense of his mind… but death hangs over all of this,

Keats certainly was no end of a poet. If he had lived? And Schubert? Well, no one can say. (If the violet were not so frail. . .)  …Shelley wrote well too… Walt Whitman is my man however and I want to write in music such stuff as “This Compost”. Everyday my mind gets less sick and more hopeful someday of sustained effort…

I wonder whether any up to date fool will try to depict a strafe in music. The shattering crash of heavy shrapnel. The belly-disturbing crunch of 5.9 Crumps and trench mortars. The shrill clatter of rifle grenades and the wail of nosecaps flying loose. Sometimes buzzing like huge great May flies, a most terrifying noise when the thing is anywhere near you.

Interestingly, as Gurney himself recognizes, he’s much better on the weird and threatening than on the sneaky intrusions of ordinary romantic beauty into trench life.

There are better things to treat though, and among them are sunsets such as the last, which would have coloured my thoughts had it not been for the greasiness of the duck-boards. Life is an aggravation unless the duck boards are dry. (There are fine opportunities in an Ode to a Duckboard.) There was also a double rainbow — a perfect thing of its kind. But rainbows always look as if a child had designed them in crayon, garish and too shapely.

That was a good save… ‘ware sentimentality!

The letter, however, continues on in an increasingly distracted, almost manic mode. I’ll skip to the end, and the official crossing-of-paths.

…Goodbye and best wishes for a quick recovery. ..

Good luck Ivor Gurney

PS …I hardly think of music at all, but stick to books. My friend Harvey who is now a lootehant in this battallion has just lent me his “Spirit of Man” ; and I am now browsing therein. Masefield is quite right, “Life is too wonderful to end”, and the better part of me is on fire adequately to praise it before I go. O please excuse the dirtiness of the M.S. but mud abounds here, and I always manage to find more than most people. And it is a horrid clayey muck that sticketh closer than a Flag seller…[3]

Gurney gathers himself in the end, and apologizes for the distractedness of the letter. He is writing, after all, from the front lines….

 

And after all that, a letter of a very different sort from a man of a different kidney. Wilfred Owen, too, has recently been elevated to officer-hood. But he has no combat experience, no passing-of-the-test from which to draw strength, and his class status is slightly uncertain too. As so often, he practices his posturing as he writes to his mother.

Tuesday [16 August 1916] [Mytchett Musketry Camp]

Dearest My Mother,

Just a scrap to thank for your letter just arrived tonight….  I have just scraped enough points to be a 1st Class Shot.
Most of the men are 2nd Class and more are 3rd…

We were, caught in Monsoonal Rains this afternoon, and my poor troops were wet to the bone, (But I had my Trench Coat.) It was the first time I had seen these men really cheerful. British troops are beyond my understanding. On a bright warm day they, are as dull and dogged as November…[4]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. I just realized who he reminds me of: the forensic accountant character in The Untouchables.
  2. The Letters does not give the date, but Hurd, The Ordeal of Ivor Gurney, 77, dates it to today.
  3. War Letters, 91-4.
  4. Collected Letters, 405.

Vera Brittain Weeps; Bimbo Tennant Takes Potshots; Francis Ledwidge Pines for Home

Diaries are good sources for conscientious historians, which is to say that–unless they are written with a self-conscious effort to control the story (in which case they are lousy personal chronicles)–they resist being straightforward, simply-shaped narratives.

Vera Brittain has been thinking onward and outward and upward; she has been picking up the pieces and preparing to rededicate herself. She has begun to find a way to manage her grief. But then a new day dawned.

Sunday March 12th

I woke up this morning with such a sense of Roland all about me. I was alone in the room, as Turner has gone off for a fortnight through being in quarantine. While not asleep but not yet properly awake I had such vivid memories of him, especially of the Sunday morning we stood in the trenches at Lowestoft and talked about callousness, & the afternoon when we sat very near together on camp-stools by the tennis lawn at Heather Cliff, & talked about a Hereafter, but found life itself too sweet to care much whether there was one or not–and then that evening hour when His head was on my & His arms around me–and then that last day, when the grief of the coming parting made us both almost irritable.

Oh! it is all so unfulfilled!

Everything came back so very vividly. And I wept as I lay in bed, & felt unutterably lonely.[1]

 

Bimbo Tennant is not one to ponder fulfillment, or its lack. At least not in his letters home. I have been giving him a hard time for various sins–wanton killing of tiny harmless creatures, peppy little anti-Semitic jokes, etc. But I should give credit where credit is due. Two days ago Bimbo described taking target practice not at sparrows but at actual money, bragging that “I hit a 3-franc note with my automatic at 25 yards this morning.” A nice variation on the theme of the carefree aristocrat abroad, that.

Today, a century back, he had an update for “Darling Moth.’

…All sorts of odd rumours are about, concerning leave re-starting, and the trenches we are going into. At present we look like going up to them in four days’ time.

Osbert is getting better and is returning to duty to-morrow. It is wonderful (touch http://www.acenturyback.com/wp-admin/post.php?post=8965&action=editwood) how I have avoided influenza this last month, D.V.

Do you think the war is going to be over soon? What does Sir Edward Grey think?

Well, whose opinion do you really want, Bimbo? ‘Moth, or the Foreign Secretary?

Nevertheless, the next bit is telling. What is the worst of war? Well, Bimbo has a fairly common answer, and it is well-put, as usual. The historian’s challenge, then, is to parse what is said and what can’t be said. We may trust him on discomfort–but on fear?

I am longing to be home more than ever before, and cannot imagine what the world will be like after the war, so happy shall I be to be rid of it all—all the discomfort which we all mind so much more than the danger—and the awful monotony of seeing the same people every day and talking about the same things to them. If Osbert weren’t here I don’t know how I should exist.

I can’t think of things to say in my letters nowadays, owing to semi-fossilization of the intellect, which only ten days’ leave will alleviate, and only the end of the war rectify. Please write to me soon and say the war will be over by July.

Ever your loving and devoted son,

Bimbo[2]

 

Finally, today, Francis Ledwidge, still abed in hospital in Egypt with “jaundice and divers other complaints.” He too is pining for home. Not so much a home of comforts and mothers and ministerial acquaintances, but the rural heart’s home of an Irish poet. Four days ago, he wrote wistfully to Lord Dunsany, from whom he had not heard in some time:

It is spring in Ireland. If you love the gods who govern the seasons don’t be anxious to leave Ireland now. I know how eager you are for the field, but it will soon be all over. The Turks are beaten, and the struggle at Verdun is Germany’s last great effort…

Longing for home, and too sanguine about his chances of seeing it for long. These predictions are wilder than Bimbo’s hopes for July.

Today, a century back, Ledwidge is very pleased to have heard from his lord and mentor:

Your letter of February 20th did me more good than all the dirty medicine I have been drinking for the past three months. So you liked the poem about the sheep? So do I, very much. Did you get the Arab poems? I like these also and the ones I now send, particularly The Cobbler.

I didn’t get your books yet. I am eagerly watching them. I like Matthew Arnold’s The Forsaken Merman and The Scholar Gypsy. But I love Keats. I think poor Keats reaches the top of beauty in Odes to a Grecian Urn, To a Nightingale and Autumn, as well as in several of his beautiful apostrophes in the poem Endymion. I like Keats best of all. I remember years ago praying to Keats for aid.

Ledwidge has need of aid still–he has been sick a long time, now, and far from home. And so his mood changes suddenly. This letter is unusual not so much in finding despair only a sentence away from beauty, but in its frank frustration with army medical care. Ledwidge is not interested in the stiff upper lip, or the stifled dread of mortality:

I am still a-bed. The doctor says he thinks there is an abscess corning on my liver. I will not undergo any operation no matter how I fare…  They send me to doctors who are murdering me. Damn them!  If they only knew all I want to do. They don’t care… Why won’t they send me home where I would get well?[3]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Chronicle of Youth, 321-2.
  2. Letters, 126-8.
  3. Curtayne, Francis Ledwidge, 145-6.

Isaac Rosenberg Pens a Grim Spring for 1916; Saki Trips Lightly From the Trenches; Edward Thomas on Monocles and Publications; Charles Moncrieff Knows His Poets

A literary day, today. We begin with a celebrated satirist playing straight and end with a sober new poem from Isaac Rosenberg–skip a little, then, if you grow weary of Edward Thomas‘s epistles.

We begin, today, with a letter from Saki to his sister. It is most definitely of a certain type:

March 11, 16.

. . . For the moment, in a spasm between trenches, we are in a small village where I have found excellent Burgundy, but we leave this oasis in a few hours. . . . We are having plenty of snow, but my blood must be in very good condition as I go out on night watches without any wrapping up and don’t feel cold. . . . Our line is so close to the Germans in some places that one can talk to them: one of them called out to me that the war would soon be over, so I said “in about 3 years’ time,” whereat there was a groan from him and his comrades.[1]

This is one way to write home about the trenches: keeping it light for prim maiden sisters. We have snow, but it’s harmless; Germans, likewise, and outwitted by our correspondent; we have a reference to night in no man’s land, but he doesn’t even need a muffler; and a bottle of Burgundy, which is, of course, excellent. Crank up the humor a bit and we might have Bertie Wooster writing to Aunt Agatha (which is almost the sort of thing that “Saki” managed in his pre-War day job).

There is no attempt to cross the experiential gulf: Munro doesn’t even condescend to notice it. We might compare this picture of life in the trenches to Hodgson’s recent sketch, or to its polar opposite, namely the letters that various boys write to Vera Brittain, who is fiercely determined to be spared neither terror nor horror.

 

Charles Scott Moncrieff, meanwhile, has been catching up on his reading.

Billets, 11th March.

. . . We are in billets for six days in a rather gloomy large village, solid stone houses, solider here in Artois
than they were in Picardy. I suppose its always been a richer country. . . .

I have two chilly little rooms, in what ought to be a comfortable farm. Three houses run together, with a fine stone front on to the street. They all have big stone gateways of an impressive appearance. Two others are in another farm, and the remaining three in a bleak room with a tiled floor and a serviceable-looking stove. In the morning my servant came in with a sort of chuckle and said, “We can’t get no place to cook, what shall we do?” So I got up and took Machin out, and found a shop where we bought 30 eggs, a chunk of ham, French jams, and all sorts of pleasant things, then pointed out the serviceable stove, cleared the recumbent officers off the floor, and finally got breakfast about mid-day.

After a description of his responsibilities in billets–sitting on a court martial, restfully enough–Moncrieff turns to his reading, always a favored subject of discussion.

I got Bridges’ Anthology[2] yesterday from Kate. It seems interesting, more a revelation of R. B.’s tastes than a representative collection. Browning he omits altogether for example, and he quotes Rupert Brooke and Julian Grenfell, and Lascelles Abercrombie; but not Walter de la Mare, or Ralph Hodgson’s Song of Honour, or various other indispensable sort of things. . . .[3]

 

We will have more on these developing tastes as they… develop. And speaking of taste, it is thank you note season for Edward Thomas, who has recently celebrated a birthday. First this one, written on the 9th:

My dear Eleanor,

…your parcel came yesterday and I simply couldn’t delay. Your ginger has completed to-day’s lunch at ‘The Bear’ for six of us—we are six instead of 5. As to the chocolate I couldn’t confine it to instructors. It was rather funny seeing the men all take one of the large ones, except Benson. The day has been as it were one grand sweet song—with dates to begin with at breakfast. I must be 39 or 40 by now, with this fresh birthday or birthdays. I have felt like it once or twice, but not on account of your parcel or your letter.

He is only thirty-eight, the silly. The promise of big changes amongst the cadets of the Artists’ Rifles now interferes with his plans to get home to Steep for a short leave–much of which he would have spent working on his poetry.

I was looking forward to quarrelling over my M.S.S. But I hear you have made a selection and I shall have to argue it out through Helen unless it is just my own…

And then there is the possible misunderstanding of the promised monocle. Is Farjeon unaware that Thomas is not, in fact, very happy about his first promotion? That, rather, he is chagrined to have been left single-striped rather than promoted to full corporal?

The monocle will be splendid. When is it coming? The only thing is I doubt if a lance-corporal can wear one except in the privacy of the hut. It will be a great success there…

Farjeon’s commentary helps to clear up this burning question: “the ‘monocle’… as I remember it, was a large chocolate disc wrapped in tinsel.”

But Thomas did get away for the weekend after all, and he made a great deal of progress in terms of editing his recent poetry. Farjeon, the crucial first reader and fair-copier, seems to have missed the editing and selecting after all. In a letter almost certainly written today, a century back, Thomas sends her a selection of poems and hopes to meet her in London once he gets his new (army) assignment. Interestingly, he once again emphasizes that the thing he now values most about army life is the comradeship.

Of course, if our fellowship were not going to be broken up I should in many ways like to stay—largely for the out of door work. But if we are split up I should prefer town. I don’t think there’s much chance. However, if I do get put in charge of the map work in one company (as I may) I shall perhaps be a sergeant all the sooner and wear a bayonet and get photographed…[4]

And today, a century back, Gordon Bottomley, too, got a selection of Thomas’s recent poems.

11 March 1916 Hut 15, Hare Hall Camp

My dear Gordon,

Here are 40 to select from. Most of those I remember your liking are here. I hope you will include ‘Old Man…’

What is happening to Form? I thought it was to be out in March: yet I haven’t had a final proof I was promised. Of course if it should be postponed indefinitely or dropped I would rescue ‘Lob’ & ‘Words’.

I can’t write a letter now. We are in a great state of uncertainty & change still…[5]

This businesslike letter reveals a more confident Edward Thomas. First of all, he sends out a large sheaf of poems to a poetic friend and simply asks him to choose.

Which he will, 18 of the 40 for a coming anthology. And Thomas even prods Bottomley to produce the intended periodical Form. This will come out about four months late–quite good by wartime poetic standards.

 

And finally, today, alas for the poor–for they are poorly documented. We talk little of Isaac Rosenberg here, as there are only a smattering of letters–few of them dated–discussing his travails since the misery-driven decision to enlist late last year. Recently, however, things have been looking up: a bullying officer departed, and a more sympathetic second-in-command succeeded in relieving Rosenberg of some of the harassment that had been his lot. It was not a coincidence that the new officer was also a Jew.

This lightening of the load had immediate effects. Rosenberg began writing again, and, at some point before today, a century back, he completed two poems, ‘Sleep,’ and ‘Spring 1916.’ It is the latter that we should look at today.

RosenbergI_I_226, 9/8/07, 3:02 pm, 8C, 5374x5147 (893+2207), 112%, IWMTESTREPRO2, 1/10 s, R79.0, G44.0, B54.0

Slow, rigid, is this masquerade
That passes as through a difficult air:
Heavily-heavily passes.
What has she fed on? Who her table laid
Through the three seasons? What forbidden fare
Ruined her as a mortal lass is?

I played with her two years ago,
Who might be now her own sister in stone;
So altered from her May mien,
When round the pink a necklace of warm snow
Laughed to her throat where my mouth’s touch had gone.
How is this, ruined Queen?

Who lured her vivid beauty so
To be that strained chill thing that moves
So ghastly midst her young brood
Of pregnant shoots that she for men did grow?
Where are the strong men who made these their loves?
Spring! God pity your mood!

This is the first thing I’ve read of Rosenberg’s–during the war, that is, in the war’s “real time“–that sounds like the work of a (the) mature poet. It’s lugubrious, but plausibly intentionally so. It’s heavy footed, but the formality is put to use; it’s old fashioned, but which fashion? There is something Gothic here from the young sort-of-Modernist, and not just in the “theme of a malignant power punishing the weak and innocent.”[6]

There is something of Keats here, too, but a Keats distilled not just through a cloudier post-Romantic alembic but with an eye on the future. I don’t know… perhaps I’m overdoing it. This may be ponderous, derivative. But to me it begins to sound authentic: Rosenberg writing with a poet’s eye, but controlling his instrument well.

Why shouldn’t spring dawn with brutal foreboding, in a chilly camp of a bantam battalion, bound for war? There will be plenty of time to rail against old men and what their follies will do to the “young brood” that struggles toward fruition this spring. It’s a canny move, a deep-eyed and far-sighted move, to step back and put the coming misery in a full natural context…

 

References and Footnotes

  1. The Square Egg, 91-2.
  2. I.e. The Spirit of Man.
  3. Memories and Letters, 117.
  4. Farjeon, Edward Thomas...190-1.
  5. Letters From Edward Thomas to Gordon Bottomley, 263.
  6. Moorcroft Wilson, Isaac Rosenberg, 291-3.

Greenmantle’s Hannay Gets the Goods to Constantinople; Edward Thomas Confined to Camp and John Bernard Adams on Leave; Bimbo Tennant on Shelling and Anxiety; Kate Luard Sees Another Boy Out of this Crooked World

It was the morning of the 16th, after Peter and I had been living like pigs on black bread and condemned tin stuff, that we came in sight of a blue sea on our right hand and knew we couldn’t be very far from the end.

It was jolly near the end in another sense. We stopped at a station and were stretching our legs on the platform when I saw a familiar figure approaching. It was Rasta, with half a dozen Turkish gendarmes.

More peril for Richard Hannay, our (fictional) man in Turkey. The veteran of Loos and amateur intelligence operative has, for convoluted reasons, traveled to Turkey via the heart of the Central Powers. Which has at least given him some practice in brazen chicanery: Hannay simply bluffs his way past an arrogant Turkish officer, savoring the irony that, to maintain his cover, he must now oversee the safe delivery of a load of explosives. (The choice of date, by the way, may be explained by Buchan’s desire to make it clear that these munitions reach Turkey only after the British withdrawal from Gallipoli, thus keeping Hannay’s severe loyalty to the mission from definitively involving the harming of British troops).

Keeping up the pose of being a German cargo-master, Hannay delivers the shells to a German gunner officer and, with his trusty Boer sidekick keeping silent by his side, is treated to lunch and then driven to Constantinople.

So it came about that at five minutes past three on the 16th day of January, with only the clothes we stood up in, Peter and I entered Constantinople.

I was in considerable spirits, for I had got the final lap successfully over, and I was looking forward madly to meeting my friends; but, all the same, the first sight was a mighty disappointment. I don’t quite know what I had expected—a sort of fairyland Eastern city, all white marble and blue water, and stately Turks in surplices, and veiled houris, and roses and nightingales, and some sort of string band discoursing sweet music. I had forgotten that winter is pretty much the same everywhere. It was a drizzling day, with a south-east wind blowing, and the streets were long troughs of mud. The first part I struck looked like a dingy colonial suburb—wooden houses and corrugated iron roofs, and endless dirty, sallow children. There was a cemetery, I remember, with Turks’ caps stuck at the head of each grave. Then we got into narrow steep streets which descended to a kind of big canal. I saw what I took to be mosques and minarets, and they were about as impressive as factory chimneys. By and by we crossed a bridge, and paid a penny for the privilege. If I had known it was the famous Golden Horn I would have looked at it with more interest, but I saw nothing save a lot of moth-eaten barges and some queer little boats like gondolas. Then we came into busier streets, where ramshackle cabs drawn by lean horses spluttered through the mud. I saw one old fellow who looked like my notion of a Turk, but most of the population had the appearance of London old-clothes men. All but the soldiers, Turk and German, who seemed well-set-up fellows.[1]

And just in time: tomorrow is the day appointed for the rendezvous with his fellow secret agents…

 

From our most adventurous fictional lark to one the poet making the heaviest weather of reality. Edward Thomas, writing today, a century back, to Robert Frost, rather lugubriously fills his friend in on the details of life in training camp:

Still at Hare Hall Camp
My dear Robert,

Again it is an immeasurable time since I heard from you & a little less since I wrote. There is little fresh to tell you. I think I told you we were transferred to a new Company which makes us appear on parade first thing in the morning with packs & rifles, & so we move for an hour & then take up our ordinary work. Also I am responsible for the 20 men in the hut, to call the roll, see that the meals are fetched & served & cleaned up, the hut kept clean, to organise & keep a fund for buying luxuries.

There is an interest here in faithful description–in lieu of a diary, Thomas would tell his friend, once in a while, of the texture of his daily life. He will not make a natural officer:

I got into trouble last week end through reporting a man present because I thought he would be in soon after I had to make the report. He arrived at 7 next morning & we both had two serious talks with officers. Probably my promotion will be delayed. I am now L/Cpl P.E. Thomas by the way. If the war lasts long enough I may be Sergeant. The work isn’t dull yet. We go over the same ground every week—the course lasts a week—but each time we learn & vary the course. We take a separate new lot of men each week & they are always different. New work is always turning up & putting us in new positions for a time. The worst of it is I get less leave & it is harder to get. I couldn’t see Mervyn yesterday on his birthday or take him to Coventry to begin school there…

The day, yes, but also the year. So many of our writers have remarked upon the pleasure to be had in physical activity amidst the natural world–it’s hard marching, but there is contentment in the outdoorsy aspect of soldiering. For Thomas it is rather the opposite. He has always walked or bicycled enormous distances, often rigging books around trips that he wants to take. While he will now persist, playing the naturalist and reporting to Frost on the English winter, his six months under arms have been rather more physically confining than his life as a writer.

The winter has been mild & wet since the November snow. Today was a typical day. John Freeman came down to see me & we watched out through the misty cold still weather, with thrushes singing everywhere & no soul about while we ate our lunch. Yesterday all I could do was to draw two panoramas of the neighboring country. We can’t go beyond the 2-mile radius unless we are on leave, nor enter a public house within the 2-mile radius, which is presumably to benefit the camp canteen. Half the men are away this week end, & the rest are out with friends, & I have had a lot of time to myself—which always tempts me to write & sometimes I do…

Time hurries on, and the letter dawdles. Thomas will often criticize himself for aimlessness, but rarely has he embodied it as here:

Of course most of the men are for junior to me in this corps. I am six months old, they are six weeks or little more. Most of our generation are officers now with various regiments, or else settled as non-commissioned officers like myself in this corps. We talk about High Beech, our former camp, & they look at [us] as part of ancient history. Beautiful those Autumn Days almost without rain seem now. Thus camp is perfectly arranged & equipped & we sleep in canvas beds, but we think we would rather be on the floor at High Beech. It is always raining here & the clay holds all the wet & the camp is on perfect flat. Still the country round is low wooded hills & no villas. That is the advantage of clay: you don’t get villas on it…

Such an endless variety of men & accents & names. There is one with a voice like Gibson. I want to know where he comes from. Business men, clerks, teachers, pianists, schoolboys, colonials, men who fought under Botha last year, all mixed up & made indistinguishable at first by the uniform. Until you know a new man fairly well you think of him simply as a soldier. I daresay I have been mistaken for one myself—[.] Well, I can keep step & set a step too, & though I dislike inflicting discipline I can submit to it pretty well & don’t ask questions so often as many do or complain of the unreasonableness of rules, of the war, of life & so on. Goodbye.

Yours ever

Edward Thomas[2]

 

From this picture of aged resignation on English clay we go to youthful enthusiasm in Flanders. Bim Tennant is holding a lively set of trenches:

Sunday, 16th January, 1916

Most darling Moth’,

We came out of trenches last night and were very glad to get back into good quarters as we had rather a trying 48 hours. The Boche shelled us from 10.30 a.m. to 11.45 a.m. on Friday, and though most of the shells went over our trench it was rather unpleasant…

Most, but not all. I tease Bimbo for his cheery ingenuousness, but he shares a sharp psychological insight, here:

We had one man wounded in Flank Post, which was garrisoned by a quarter of my company, and, considering the number of shells, this is quite a small casualty list. One shell burst short and landed right in my front line where I have marked it. It wounded 3 men, the sergeant has died since. We telephoned to the artillery for retaliation which they gave us at once. It makes it much less unpleasant if your own artillery keep at it, because then you do not hear the approach of the Boche shells, and are not consequently so much on the strain…

Things got slightly serious there for a moment. But Bim tacks, now, back toward his usual light chatter.

I hope you are keeping well yourself, and that Clare is also. I am longing to come home, I got a letter
from Osbert to-day. I shot a huge rat with my big revolver yesterday, but await anxiously the other pistol. I have read quite a lot of Keats. I like “ Lamia ” but was disappointed in “ St. Agnes’ Eve…”

Ever your loving Son,

Bimbo[3]

 

Can we manage one more disjointed but attractive piece of prose? John Bernard Adams is going on leave, and he makes it–conveniently, for us–a type-scene rather than a personalized story.

Leave “comes through” in the following manner. The lucky man receives an envelope from the orderly room, in the comer of which is written “Leave.” Inside is an “A” Form (Army Form C 2121) with this magic inscription: “Please note you will take charge of other ranks proceeding on leave to-morrow morning, 17th inst. They will parade outside orderly room at 7 A.M. sharp.” Then follow instructions as to where to meet the ‘bus. “Take charge!” If you blind-folded those fellows they would find their way somehow by the quickest route to Blighty! The officer is then an impossible person to live with. He is continually jumping about, upsetting everybody, getting sandwiches, and discussing England, looking at the paper to see “What’s on” in town, talking, being unnecessarily bright and cheery. He is particularly offensive in the eyes of the man just come back from leave. Still, it is his day; abide with him until he dears off! So they abode with me until the evening, and next morning Oliver and I started off in the darkness with our four followers. As we left the village it was just beginning to lighten a little, and we met the drums just turning out, cold and sleepy. As we sprang down the hill, leaving Montange behind us, faintly through the dawn we heard reveille rousing our unfortunate comrades to another Monday morning!

I very much like the bit about the officer about to go on leave suddenly grown insufferably cheery. Adams is a sympathetic writer–sympathetic with himself, here, the prose taking on the high spirits of the officer destined for home. It’s another matter entirely, of course, if leave is due and a nasty section of trench is being held. Fate can be intolerably cruel, turning and twisting a temporal irony of proximity, and for many men the severest test of their will must have been submitting themselves to the dangers of shell and bullet for an ordinary tour in trenches when leave was so close…

But there is none of this in Adams’ piece. Instead, he flashes forward to jolly old apres la guerre. This is, again, type scene as type scene: it’s a happy day and he revels in the shared nature of the happiness. Won’t we all remember that journey back home?

Then came the long, long journey that nobody minds really, though every one grumbles at it. At B—– an hour’s halt for omelettes and coffee and bread and jam, while the Y.M.C.A. stall supplied tea and buns innumerable. B—– will be a station known for all time to thousands. “Do you remember B—–?” we shall ask each other. “Oh! yes. Good omelettes one got there.” Then the port and the fussy R.T.O’s again. Why make a fuss, when everyone is magnetized towards the boat? Under the light of a blazing gas-jet squirting from a pendant ball, we crossed the gangway.

There were men of old time who fell on their native earth and kissed it, on returning after exile. We did not kiss the boards of Southampton pier-head, but we understood the spirit that inspired that action as we steamed quietly along the Solent over a gray and violet sea. There were mists that morning, and the Hampshire coast was gray and vague ; but steadily the engine throbbed, and we glided nearer and nearer, entered Southampton Water, and at last were near enough to see houses and fields and people. People. English women.

We disembarked. But what dull people to meet us! Officials and watermen who have seen hundreds of leave-boats arrive— every day in fact! The last people to be able to respond to your feelings. Still, what does it matter! There is the train, and an English First! Some one started to run for one, and in a moment we were all running! . . .

But you have met us on leave.[4]

Alas, no, but a fairly clear indication, there, of the author’s expected audience. The spirit of Adams’ recent pan-regimental army course continues to pervade his writing. This is a happy army–especially when it’s on leave.

 

A short, anonymous, twist of the knife for us, then. The erstwhile Nursing Sister, Kate Luard,[5] has just been home on leave herself, returning last week to a “very quiet” hospital with few new admissions. She will take up again her close-in observing of the troops: Lillers is also the sight of a “divisional rest” camp, and yesterday she witnessed the marching out of the Scottish Fifteenth Division “so hung round with packs, steel helmets, sacks and parcels and clothes for their extra comfort that I doubt if they’ll ever get there.” In their place, the 1st Division marched in “covered with mud, but not so worn out and trench-looking.”

But even a quiet period on the line produces steady casualties, and yesterday Luard also assisted at an operation on a “poor little boy officer, D.F., unconscious with his brains blown out… a terrible sight.” Today, a century back, “the boy with the head wound… has been peacefully dying all day; his hand closes less tightly over mine to-day, but his beautiful brown eyes look less inscrutable as he gets farther from this crooked world. His total silence and absolute stillness and unconsciousness have already given him the marble statue look.”[6]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Greenmantle, 178-9.
  2. Elected Friends, 116-8.
  3. Letters, 105-8.
  4. Nothing of Importance, 84-6 (105-7).
  5. By the way, I have just corrected a long-standing mistake, namely listing Luard here as "Kathleen" rather than "Katherine." Actually,  I'm hedging my bets and calling her "Kate," as her friends seem to have done. But my initial research into the anonymous Diary of a Nursing Sister turned up the name "Kathleen Luard." Having moved, recently, into her published letters--which usually refer to "Kate"--I completely neglected to notice that she is clearly Katherine, not Kathleen--and nor are  there two different writing nurses. These are the perils of anonymity--and slapdash, day-to-day research.
  6. Unknown Warriors, 36-7.

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.

Tolkien Among the Trees of Kortirion; Olaf Stapledon Proposes a Private Universe; A Poem of Lost Love from Roland Leighton; A Poem of a Lost World from Edward Thomas; Wilfred Owen’s Socks; Rowland Feilding’s Bad Knee

Apologies in advance–but today is one of those days where too much is written: four letters to lovers, three significant poems, two postcard missives, and a bike accident’s bad knee.

Throughout the autumn John Ronald Tolkien has been quietly training. He is now in Rugeley Camp, Staffordshire, but he has been able to take some short periods of leave in Warwick. This is Shakespeare country–or, now, Middle Earth. During the last few days Tolkien has written a poem which takes the natural beauty and history of Warwick and runs toward Elfland. “Kortirion Among the Trees,” as revised, begins

O fading town upon an inland hill,
Old shadows linger in thine ancient gate,
Thy robe is grey, thine old heart now is still;
Thy towers silent in the mist await
Their crumbling end, while through the storeyed elms
The Gliding Water leaves these inland realms,
And slips between long meadows to the Sea,
Still bearing downward over murmurous falls
One day and then another to the Sea;
And slowly thither many years have gone,
Since first the Elves here built Kortirion.

He is young, and preparing to go to a dismal foreign war, but here is a sensibility familiar to anyone who has read his mature writings.[1] He is not looking forward, but rather backward; not ahead, but off at an angle from the secular, mundane world; and he feels neither joy nor despair, but a sweet sadness for what has been, and always will be, lost:

Thou art the inmost province of the fading isle

Kortirion is, and isn’t, England. It will become, as his personal mythology develops, Tirion upon Tuná, the chief city of Valinor, the undying realm proper to the Elves, (almost) never to be glimpsed by mortal man. But for now, it would seem, the “Faery Realms” are not entirely removed–the world is not broken. And–to the speaker of the poem, at least–they still offer restoration, healing, contentment. For this relief and wonder, he would forswear all other adventure:

I would not seek the desert, or red palaces
Where reigns the sun, nor sail to magic isles,
Nor climb the hoary mountains’ stony terraces;
And tolling faintly over windy miles
To my heart calls no distant bell that rings
In crowded cities of the Earthly Kings.
For here is heartsease still, and deep content,
Though sadness haunt the Land of withered Elms
(Alalminore in the Faery Realms);
And making music still in sweet lament
The Elves here holy and immortal dwell,
And on the stones and trees there lies a spell.

It would seem that Tolkien has already drafted the poem, and mentioned it in a letter of the past few days to Edith. Here is today’s letter, camp monotony among enchanted dreams:

The usual kind of morning standing about.and freezing and then trotting to get warmer so as to freeze again. We ended up by an hour’s bomb-throwing with dummies. Lunch and a freezing afternoon. All the hot days of summer we doubled about at full speed and perspiration, and now we stand in icy groups being talked at! Tea and another scramble–I fought for a place at the stove and made a piece of toast on the end of a knife: what days!

I have written out a pencil copy of ‘Kortirion.’ I hope you won’t mind my sending it to the T.C.B.S. I want to send them something: I owe them all long letters. I will start on a careful ink copy for little you now and send it tomorrow night, as I don’t think I shall get more than one copy typed…

Fine, Ronald, but at a certain point a fellow has to choose between his friends and his beloved–between the fellowship and Luthien.

No on second thoughts I am sending you the pencil copy (which is very neat) and shall keep the T.C.B.S. waiting till I can make another.[2]

 

And in a truly remarkable near-crossing of paths, Wilfred Owen will be on guard duty at his camp tomorrow, and make toast on a bayonet!!!  Today, however, nothing worth the postage, except for the post-script.

Postcard [Postmark 26 November 1915]

Too downright tired to get off a decent letter to anybody… splendidly well! and happy (after 4.30 p.m.)

Your own W.E.O.

Socks fit perfectly…[3]

 

That was a little silly, but my mentioning-all-socks-letters policy is firm–and it’s Thanksgiving today, after all, over there.

A much better follow-up to Ronald’s letter to Edith is Olaf’s letter to Agnes. They have recently decided to make their engagement public, and Olaf Stapledon–a seriously sincere lover and a dreamer, like Tolkien–has been putting a lot of thought into the ring.

I am getting a simple ring made for you as a symbol. You are particular about jewelry, & share my distrust of it. But this is a symbol, & you will wear it, will you not? You may wear it out, or take it off & lose it, or pawn it and sell it, without incurring my displeasure (!), but the symbol must be given as usual. It is to have a single whole pearl. the gold being worked into slender leaves. I have been laboriously designing it, with the help of another ring as model. The pearl is a little symbol of what you are to me, a symbol in its perfect roundness, its purity & its softness. It is also a symbol of what our love is to be, a perfect complete sphere, in which the two halves are indistinguishable. The leaves are the foliage of Mother Earth, upon which the pearl is like a flower. Inside the ring, following father’s example, I am venturing on an inscription, a wee one. There will be this little sign αω, which I invented last night, α is the Greek alpha & ω, is omega. Both are small, not capitals, which are Α and Ω, the divine symbol. But αω, the small letters, stand for Agnes & Olaf, & joined together they form a sort of little universe, a microcosm, essentially the same & yet different from the Great God’s Universe. Also I think we will have in the ring the good English word ‘Yea,” which is the mighty everlasting yea of God to the world, and your blessed “yes” to me. These inscriptions will be very tiny, on the inside surface. I do hope you will like the ring. I am very fearful, since we have never talked on the subject.[4]

Like Tolkien, Stapledon has persisted in his young love for a young woman despite the opposition of family/guardian. Each is steadfast in an old-fashioned way, each has a tremendous imagination trained elsewhere (the stars, in Olaf’s case, rather than Elfland or the English past), and each will draw on the deep places of their religious beliefs as well as their extreme writerly creativity in creating other worlds. And this transmutation of a little Greek learning into a private symbol is very much something Tolkien would do. He too is prone to designing his own signs and monograms, but he will take it a bit further and design new script to carry them, new languages to secret the significance of the new holy names.

And I can’t resist pointing out that Stapledon’s “Yea” is one letter off not only from the forthcoming arch-Modern coda (“yes I will Yes.”) but also from “Ea,” the word of creation that called his world into being.

 

A busy day, today, but I wanted to include as well Rowland Feilding‘s last letter for some time, lest some loyal readers wonder where he has gotten to. Alas, must now endure recuperation from his ignominious bicycle crash knee injury:

November 26, 1915. Merville.

I have had to give it up, and am back at the Casualty Clearing Station, in bed, and am to be sent to England.[5]

Unfortunate–and lucky. It’s still a blighty one, and Feilding won’t be back until winter has come and gone.

 

But I have been withholding a sheaf of writing from our central young lovers. First we find that Roland Leighton is back on track as a conscientious correspondent and attentive lover:

France, 26 November 1915

Just a short letter before I go to bed. The Battalion is back in the trenches now and I am writing in the dugout that I share with the doctor. It is very comfortable (possessing among other things an easy chair, stove, an oil lamp, a table complete with tablecloth) and I am feeling pleasantly tired but not actually sleepy. Through the door I can see little mounds of snow that are the parapets of trenches, a short stretch of railway line, and a very brilliant full moon.

I wonder what you are doing. Asleep, I hope–or sitting in front of a fire in blue and white striped pyjamas? I should so like to see you in blue and white pyjamas.

You are always very correctly dressed when I find you; and usually somewhere near a railway station, n’est-ce pas? I once saw you in a dressing gown with your hair down your back playing an accompaniment for Edward in the Buxton drawing room. Do you remember?

Well, folks, we’re on the third letter of the day from a young men in his early twenties to his betrothed, and that’s about as erotically charged as it will get. Sex, at least for such well-brought-up and serious youths, is in the future. But youth–youth, now:

……I am often regretful that you should be at the Hospital after all. I picture you as getting up at the same too early hour every morning, to go out into a cold world and to a still colder and monotonous routine of fretful patients and sanguinary dressings and imperious sisters…….. and then late to bed, to begin all over again tomorrow. It all seems such a waste of Youth, such a desecration of all that is born for Poetry & Beauty. And if one does not even get a letter occasionally from someone who despite his shortcomings perhaps understands & sympathises it must make it all the worse……… until one may possibly wonder whether it would not have been better never to have met him at all or at any rate until afterwards. I sometimes wish for your sake that it had happened that way.[6]

Alack, the turn to the dark mood. There was no need–here is what Vera was writing on the very same day:

Friday November 26th

I almost enjoyed the actual work to-day. It was a lovely morning, bright and energy-inspiring, and all the time I thought to myself of an expression, “the top of the fullness of life,” which I believe someone first used about the trenches…  Stayed for supper at the hospital because it is such a cheerful meal…[7]

So, no, Roland–do not despair. She loves you, and can soldier on, as you do–better it would seem, in some ways. Soon she will receive his apology letter, and all manner of things will be well.

Except not, it would seem, in his mind. I must dutifully insist on treading carefully (for the hundredth time here, at least) when trying to plumb century-old thoughts. It’s not just the old mug’s game of diagnosing states of mind through written words, over-weighted as if they are pure truth and not one-time performances. It’s also the influence of our reading angle: the war! The trenches!

So who knows what is going on with Roland. He certainly seemed sincerely contrite–he surely regretted, that is, allowing (the war to influence) himself to express his anxiety and sadness through a provocative neglect of Vera. But they are far apart–leave around Christmas beckons, but they have not laid eyes on each other since the summer. And he has been keeping things from her (at least one very big thing–his conversion to Catholicism).

So today–exactly today–a century back, he is feeling tenderness and love, but also doubt. He could be killed at any time, he seems to say, and then would she be better for having known him?

But which comes first, the worry over the potential pain of the relationship, or the pressure of the war? Trick question, of course.

Sometime around now Roland wrote another poem which addresses these issues. It sounds very much of a piece with today’s letter:

Hedauville

The sunshine on the long white road
That ribboned down the hill,
The velvet clematis that clung
Around your window-sill
Are waiting for you still.

Again the shadowed pool shall break
In dimples at your feet,
And when the thrush sings in your wood,
Unknowing you may meet
Another stranger, sweet.

And if he is not quite so old
As the boy you used to know,
And less proud, too, and worthier,
You may not let him go–
(And daisies are truer than passion-flowers)

It will be better so.

This we will return to.

 

Finally, a maturer poet has regained some momentum. The first poem of Edward Thomas‘s late autumn return to verse had been There’s Nothing Like the Sun. At some point between then and today he had written “The Thrush–“everybody likes a good gloomy thrush, whether portending hope or implying inside information.[8] Today, a century back, it was “Liberty,” the third in this sequence of autumnal, explicitly Keatsian poems.

There is too much here to treat in passing–an answer to Hardy’s grim-yet-uplifting thrush, the quiet but unyielding presence of death in all three poems, a mood of month-counting and year-numbering that seems premature (it’s only November!) but never really is, for a confirmed melancholic and fine-sieved past-sifter. But “Liberty” is a doozy, and I give it here guiltily, knowing that it should be given isolation, contemplation, and commentary–it’s doing a little more with the moon than our young lovers, above.

The last light has gone out of the world, except
This moonlight lying on the grass like frost
Beyond the brink of the tall elm’s shadow.
It is as if everything else had slept
Many an age, unforgotten and lost
The men that were, the things done, long ago,
All I have thought; and but the moon and I
Live yet and here stand idle over the grave
Where all is buried. Both have liberty
To dream what we could do if we were free
To do some thing we had desired long,
The moon and I. There’s none less free than who
Does nothing and has nothing else to do,
Being free only for what is not to his mind,
And nothing is to his mind. If every hour
Like this one passing that I have spent among
The wiser others when I have forgot
To wonder whether I was free or not,
Were piled before me, and not lost behind,
And I could take and carry them away
I should be rich; or if I had the power
To wipe out every one and not again
Regret, I should be rich to be so poor.
And yet I still am half in love with pain,
With what is imperfect, with both tears and mirth,
With things that have an end, with life and earth,
And this moon that leaves me dark within the door.

Nor is that all. If the war lurks in the background of the clear-eyed, downhearted fatalism of this sequence, it is front and center in another poem which Thomas began today, but set aside. He will not finish “This is No Petty Case of Right or Wrong” for a month, but it could hardly be more different–in its subject matter, its address, its anger, its willingness to parse and conclude–than the three poems he has just written.[9]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. My rule/superstition about not revealing the lifespan of a young soldier-writer seems a bit fruitless in the case of someone as popular and latterly celebrated as Tolkien.
  2. Letters, 8; Chronology, 75-6.
  3. Collected Letters, 367.
  4. Talking Across the World, 115-16.
  5. War Letters to a Wife, 70.
  6. Letters From a Lost Generation, 189-90.
  7. Chronicle of Youth, 290.
  8. By which I mean to refer to both "Hedauville," above, and a plot point in The Hobbit.
  9. Hollis, Now All Roads, 257.